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Baseball Preview Part I: NL West

This is the first in a series of posts written by Asif Attarwala (find more of his writing at Uninformed Commentary) previewing the upcoming baseball season. I’ll be posting twice a week over the next three weeks going West to East across the divisions.

If you ignore the two teams based in Southern California (Dodgers and Padres) the NL West is one of the more intriguing divisions in baseball. Any one of the Rockies, Diamondbacks, or Giants is capable of winning the division and the runners-up should be contenders for Wild Card spots. In addition to its competitiveness, the West is home to some of the best young players in the game, including Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Justin Upton, Troy Tulowitzki, and Buster Posey. It’s also home to some of the worst managers in the league like Bruce Bochy and Jim Tracy. This mix can lead to quite a bit of exciting baseball as well as a lot of hand wringing and defensiveness from fans, which are all things I love. Here’s how I see the division breaking down with regards to order and projected records:

1. Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69):

The Diamondbacks were a surprise division winner last year and they did it largely on the strength of their rotation. None of the names–Ian Kennedy, Joe Saunders, Daniel Hudson, Josh Collmenter–inspire Cy Young dreams, but the Diamondbacks’ best pitching asset last year was health. Unlike other teams (*cough* Red Sox *cough*), Arizona relied on the same group of starters for most of the season with Hudson making 33 starts, Kennedy 33, Saunders 33, and Collmenter 24 (with 7 relief appearances). What’s more, all of them were good, posting sub-3.7 ERAs. Collmenter and Saunders are prime candidates for regression due to their unimpressive strikeout rates. However, the D-backs improved their pitching during the winter by acquiring Trevor Cahill from the As. Cahill’s coming off a bit of a down year, but he’s only 24 with three years of big league experience under his belt and he’ll be moving to the easier league. What’s more, Arizona has last year’s number three overall pick, Trevor Bauer as well as top prospect Tyler Skaggs ready to step in to rotation spots if necessary. Bauer may start the season as Arizona’s number 5 starter and could be the team’s best pitcher when it’s all said and done.

On the other side of the ball, the Diamondbacks are less impressive. They feature arguably the best young player in the game: Justin Upton, and a host of complementary players. Still, they look better on paper to start this year than they did in 2011. Miguel Montero remains one of the best catchers (and most underrated players in the league) and is entering his prime as a player. Shortstop Stephen Drew’s return from injury as well as a full season of Paul Goldschmidt at first base should provide a bit more offense from the infield. The outfield features Upton in right, Chris Young in center, and defensive whiz Gerardo Parra in left. Chase Field tends to inflate offensive numbers, but the D-backs are solid enough on defense that they don’t compound the problem.

The Diamondbacks won the NL West by eight games last season and they have to be strong favorites this year and in the near future. The farm system thins out a bit after Skaggs and Bauer, but there’s plenty of young talent at the major league level to envision a potential dynasty built around Upton and superb pitching.

2. San Francisco Giants (89-73):

Everyone knows the deal with this team–great pitching, no offense–but the Giants seem to compound their own problems through mismanagement. Their championship season in 2010 was predicated on great health as much as it was on their superb starting rotation. The pitching shouldn’t be a problem this year as Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, and prospect Eric Surkamp form a solid core and AT&T Park tends to suppress offense. Still, Vogelsong may be due for a big regression and Surkamp is a huge question mark. Carlos Beltran did his part for the Giants after they traded for him last summer, but the Giants had to give up potential future ace Zach Wheeler to get him, a move they may come to regret. It’s hard to imagine closer Brian Wilson having more trouble than he did last season, unless he’s headed into a Brad Lidge-style decline.

The Giants should be better on offense than they were in 2011 simply because of the return of Buster Posey. That said, how much better they are depends largely on manager Bruce Bochy’s willingness to play Brandon Belt. Belt has crushed minor league pitching (1.052 career OPS in 2 seasons), and can play first base as well as a corner outfield position. However, Bochy seems to have an inexplicable preference for the corpse of Aubrey Huff and Brett Pill (4 years older than Belt with a .773 career minor league OPS–for those not versed in stats: that’s not good). Every at-bat that Huff, Pill, or Melky Cabrera (yuck) take from Belt puts the Giants a step further from a division title. The only other offensive player on the team worth mentioning is third baseman Pablo Sandoval.

The Giants are a good team, but without some luck, an acquisition, or possibly a change in management they don’t look like contenders. The team’s front-office decisions since its 2010 title have been highly questionable. Paying a high price for Beltran and letting him walk when he indicated he wanted to stay in the Bay is only the tip of the iceberg. The Giants’ big acquisition before the 2011 season was signing Miguel Tejada to play shortstop when any person with eyes could tell he wasn’t up to the task. Not a playoff team.

3. Colorado Rockies (80-82):

Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and not much else. The Rockies have decent pitching, two transcendent players and a front office that makes a number of questionable moves. Colorado got a decent return for Ubaldo Jimenez, but lacks both upside and depth in the rotation. The only pitcher to get excited about is prospect Drew Pomeranz.

I used to think that GM Dan O’Dowd was one of the best in the game. Recent seasons have forced me to reevaluate that stance, largely due to the mismanagement of several young players, most notably catcher Chris Ianetta. There’s also the fact that the Rockies have made Jim Tracy manager for life despite everyone’s agreeing that Tracy isn’t a particularly good manager.

The only reason I have the Rockies ranked this high and the only reason I think they might be capable of making some noise is the excellence of Tulowtizki. In 2009 the Rockies won a wild card spot due largely to the play of Tulo, Gonzalez, and Jimenez. If Pomeranz can do a decent enough Jimenez impression the Rockies could surprise some people. Just don’t count on it.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers (77-85):

The Dodgers’ ownership debacle is extra sad since there’s actually some potential here. If anything, the sooner the team gets a new owner, the sooner GM Ned Colletti can be fired and the sooner the Dodgers can try to maximize the returns on Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp’s primes. Colletti’s offseason strategy of buying up every mediocre, over-30 free agent on the market (Josh Bard, Chris Capuano, Todd Coffey, Mark Ellis) isn’t going to get the job done.

The Dodgers have a good rotation with Kershaw and Chad Billingsley, some offense with Kemp and Ethier, and were decent last year, but there’s really no upside here. Hiroki Kuroda (the team’s number 2 starter last year) left as a free agent and the Dodgers are a poor defensive team. What’s more, the ownership situation and Colletti’s continued incompetence preclude the chances of improving via acquisition.

5. San Diego Padres (73-89):

The Padres are clearly in rebuilding mode. Their only all-star caliber position players are the criminally underrated Chase Headley and Cameron Maybin, and they traded their best starter, Mat Latos, to Cincinnati in the offseason. The good news is that San Diego has the best farm system in the league, making up for a lack of super-star level talent with a glut of high-probability prospects on both sides of the ball. Barring a return to greatness from Edinson Volquez or Andrew Cashner proving he’s capable of starting the Padre’s rotation looks barren. That said, Petco Park is famous (or infamous depending on your perspective) for being the best pitcher’s park in the game so provided they can stay healthy, bouncebacks aren’t out of the question for both pitchers.

On offense the Padres should see some improvement as Carlos Quentin could add some power in left field and Yonder Alonso could solidify first base. The Padres should remain a good defensive team with Cameron Maybin covering enough ground in center to compensate for the stone footed Quentin and Headley playing an above average third base. Still, this team looks to be a year or two from making some noise.

Potential MVP: Justin Upton RF, AZ (2012 ZiPS Projection*: (Avg./OBP/OPS): .283/.366/.871 28 HR, 22 SB): There’s no shortage of MVP candidates in the division between Upton, Tulowitzki, Kemp, and Posey, but my gut says Upton, who turns 25 in August, is primed for a breakout season and I could easily see him outperforming even the high bar that ZiPS has set.

We could be headed for a golden age of rightfielders between Upton, Jay Bruce, Jason Heyward, Mike -er- Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout (probably a CF, but let’s include him for argument’s sake) and Upton could be the best of the bunch (Harper may have a higher ceiling, but Upton is a more proven commodity). ZiPs rates Tulowitzki as the best player in the division and that’s hard to argue with given positional value, but I’d give Upton the edge in an MVP discussion because he’s more likely to be on a playoff team.

Potential Cy Young: Tim Lincecum, SF (2012 ZiPS Projection: (ERA, K/9, BB/9, FIP) 2.92, 9.52, 3.17, 2.89) ZiPS likes Kershaw a little better and Lincecum is coming off a bit of a down year (for him), but I like “The Freak” to rebound. He’ll turn 28 in June, putting him squarely in his pitching prime and let’s not forget that this is a guy Pedro Martinez once compared favorably to himself.

Potential Rookie of the Year: Trevor Bauer, SP, AZ (no projections): As mentioned early, Bauer has the potential to start the season as Arizona’s fifth starter and finish it as the team’s ace. Bauer is known for his unorthodox workout routine (see this excellent piece from SI) and mechanical similarities to Lincecum, and he was arguably the best pitcher in college last year, outperforming his UCLA teammate and first overall pick Gerrit Cole. There’s not much left for Bauer to prove in the minors and given the success he’s had early in spring training the D-Backs would be wise to give him a rotation spot over either Joe Saunders or Josh Collmenter, who have limited upsides and appear due for regressions. Bauer’s potential impact as well as a dearth of impact rookies in the division make him the easy ROY front-runner in the NL West.

Conclusion: The NL West is an intriguing division with a number of young impact players. Still, none of these teams appear to be strong World Series contenders and all have easily identifiable holes. Arizona appears to be the clear front-runner for the next couple of seasons and San Diego could make some noise in a couple of years. San Francisco and Colorado appear stuck in neutral and who knows what’s going on with the Dodgers.

*- ZiPS is a probabilistic projection designed by Baseball Think Factory 


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