Saturday, December 10, 2005

NL West Offseason

San Diego Padres
Key losses: Mark Loretta, Ramon Hernandez, Pedro Astacio, Joe Randa, Mark Sweeney, Rudy Seanez, Chris Hammond, Robert Fick
Needs: 2B, starting pitching, maybe C and relief help
The Padres won 83 games last year and have struggled a lot this offseason just to end up pretty much back where they started. The good news is, I guess, that nobody in the NL West looks significantly better. The Padres are, at this point, rough favorites to repeat in my view.
The big losses are Loretta (who is basically irreplaceable). I haven't a clue why he was traded, as I said before. His 2006 salary was $3 million. He was traded for backup catcher Doug Mirabelli, who will make $1.6 million. So in order to save a paltry $1.4 million, the Padres traded away one of the best second baseman in the league, knowing that there are no good second basemen readily available (with Grudzielanek out of their price range), and certainly not available for $3 million. Loretta earned 15 Win Shares last year in just 404 ABs. Mirabelli earned 5 WS. In 2004, Loretta earned 33 Win Shares, good enough for 8th in the entire NL. Mirabelli earned 7 WS. Whatthehell?
The Padres also re-signed Trevor Hoffman, which is good for the newspapers, but leaves them with a 38-year-old closer who threw 57.2 innings last year. If the Padres do repeat as NL West Champions in 2006, it will likely be by default.

Arizona Diamondbacks
Key losses: Royce Clayton, Shawn Estes, Quinton McCracken
Needs: Starting pitcher, maybe SS or CF and relief help
The Diamondbacks are at least returning most of their squad from 2005, when they won 77 games and finished 2nd. The bad news is that their Pythagorean W-L record shows just 66 wins, making them the luckiest team in all of baseball last year and, incidentally, the worst team in the NL. There's no reason to think that the Pythagorean record is incorrect, which means that the D-Backs are headed for what the statisticians might call a "correction" in 2006.
But can they improve this essentially 66-win team? They traded for Johnny Estrada to catch, which doesn't do much for the offense, but at least fills what was a gaping hole last season with a capable defender. The D-Backs offense is full of aging hitters (Luis Gonzalez, Shawn Green, Troy Glaus, Tony Clark) who just can't be counted on for significant production. The pitching staff is little better, with Brandon Webb the only really good news. If Javier Vazquez gets traded (as he has requested), the D-Backs may be able to get back some pitching help, or a CF/SS solution. But even then, they're still one of the worst teams in the league, and I'll be surprised if they finish as high as 3rd.

San Francisco Giants
Key losses: J.T. Snow, Brett Tomko, Scott Eyre, Marquis Grissom, Kirk Rueter
Needs: 2 or 3 starters, an infield bat, and a couple wheelchairs
Last year, Giants GM Brian Sabean took a strong dose of fukitol and signed a lot of old players to long-term deals, hoping to make the team contenders. You can infer from my tone what I feel about such a strategy, which ultimately resulted in a 75-87 record. Now he's stuck with a fleet of old players, some of which are still good, but most of whom can be expected to get worse from here on out. As good as Moises Alou (39 years old), Omar Vizquel (39 in April), Mike Matheny (35) and Ray Durham (34) were in 2005, it's likely that at least 3 of 4 will be worse in 2006, perhaps significantly so (especially on defense). And if the team lost 87 games with these guys playing well, imagine what 2006 will be like.
Is it possible the Giants can recoup these losses in other ways? Barry Bonds should be back. But don't expect an MVP, for 4 big reasons: 1) Bonds is coming off extensive surgery, which should take a chunk out of his productivity, 2) Bonds is 41 (turns 42 in July) and is beyond due for a drop in quality, 3) Bonds will play at most 120, but more likely less than that given his injury history, and 4) there may be some chemical substances absent from his bloodstream. Put all that together, and you get a guy who is on the outside simply a good player -- just maybe a very good player. What you don't have is someone who can boost his team by 20 wins just by showing up.
There's also the fact that the Giants' pitching staff sucks. Armando Benitez (33) is the closer, an already inconsistent performer coming off injuries. Their ace, Jason Schmidt, is coming off a poor year (4.40 ERA, 85 BB in 172 IP) where he was plagued by injuries. The only other even moderately average pitcher the Giants have is Noah Lowry, who pitched pretty well in 2005 (3.78 ERA, 172 K in 204.2 IP). But the cupboard is completely bare after that, and I'm not even sure the Giants have 5 pitchers to stick in the rotation. There has been talk about signing a free agent pitcher (such as Matt Morris). That would help, but it still wouldn't put the team over the top. The only hope for the Giants is that the rest of the division sucks like it did last year and they can stumble off with the division title.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Key Losses: Jeff Weaver, Elmer Dessens, Giovanni Carrara, Jose Valentin
Needs: 3B, OF, C, 1 or 2 starters
The Dodgers actually stand the best chance of dethroning the Padres. As bad as they were last year (91 losses), they were ravaged by injuries. If they can add to the potent roster they already possess, they could be considered favorites in the West. But they'll have to get through the trials and tribulations of a new GM and brand new manager in Grady Little (known to Red Sox fans as Grady F'n Little).
The Dodgers (should) have J.D. Drew, Eric Gagne, Brad Penny, and Odalis Perez returning from injuries. This alone will be a big boost to their pitching staff and give them a potent cleanup hitter in Drew. Whether all 4 really will be healthy all season is certainly questionable (Drew especially), but having these 4 return from injuries that all be erased them from the 2005 roster gives the Dodgers an automatic boost. The signing of Rafael Furcal gives them a solid defender at shortstop who can actually hit and run as well (sorry, Cesar Izturis). Jeff Kent is still a potent bat, and the platoon of Hee Seop Choi and Olmedo Saenz at first may not be great, but it's cheap and fairly effective. The Dodgers will probably be trading Milton Bradley, which (depending on what they get in return) could leave them with 3 big holes in the lineup (catcher, 3B, and CF). They have some free agents to pursue and could certainly use someone else to support the solid if unexceptional starting rotation of Derek Lowe, Penny, and Perez. If they can solve these problems (and keep everybody healthy), I would go so far as to call the Dodgers the favorites in the NL West, despite the presence of Grady Little in the dugout.

Colorado Rockies
Key losses: Byung-Hyun Kim, Dan Miceli, Dustan Mohr, Todd Greene, Jamey Wrightt
Needs: 2B, corner outfielder, C, starting pitching
The Rockies really have nothing to lose. They have some promising youngsters (Clint Barmes, Matt Holliday, Garret Atkins), but they don't look so promising outside of Coors. I don't expect to see the Rockies pursue major free agents, so look for them to sign stopgaps and look for prospects.
The Rockies need pitching. This might be the most blatantly obvious thing I've ever said before. Rookie Jeff Francis didn't take to well to Coors Field (5.68 ERA), and he's really the only great hope they've got. Byung-Hyun Kim would be a nice, risky free agent signee, since he did pitch well last season (4.86, good for Colorado).
There's nothing to see here, move on.

My next project is to take a look at a short history of expansion and expansion franchises. As we look at what it takes to put a team together and win, it's instrucutive to look at the teams that started from scratch over the past 45 years, and how they handled the problems. We can look at the winners and losers, who did what right and who just blew it. Keep your eyes open for it. I'll post soon.

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