Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers are a volatile stock. They could end up as the same bunch of losers that lost 91 games last year. But they also have a whole lot of upside, with improvements to the roster and players returning from injury. They're not a very strong team, but then they don't have to be in the NL West.
There's a lot of hope riding on the Dodgers' starters, because their hopes for contention rest on their fragile arms. Brad Penny is yet to have a healthy year in L.A., but he hasn't been too bad when he has pitched (3.90 ERA last year, with 122 K in 175.1 IP). Derek Lowe wasn't brilliant last season, but he was reliably good (3.61 ERA, 55:146 BB:K ratio, 222 well-needed innings). After that comes the hope. Odalis Perez has had some very strong seasons in Dodger blue, but 2005 was a disaster of injuries and temper tantrums that saw him pitch barely more than 100 innings with a 4.56 ERA. When healthy, he's valuable, but how healthy is he?
The back end of the rotation was cobbled together by signing Brett Tomko and trading for Jae Seo. Tomko is a low-end innings-eater with good durability but poor quality. Seo is an above-average pitcher, but he's never thrown a lot of innings or spent a lot of time in the starting rotation. But he could turn out to be a steal.
We won't know how healthy Eric Gagne is until the season starts and he starts putting pressure on that high-quality right arm. It's likely that his days as an elite closer are over, but even an above-average performance would be a whole lot better than the closers they trotted out last year. The rest of the bullpen was lost in the shuffle, sacrificed for filling needs elsewhere. The Dodgers nabbed Danys Baez from Tampa Bay, a dependable if unspectacular reliever. After that is Yhency Brazoban (who struggled mightily last season) and the kids.
The Dodgers took some risks by signing a pair of veterans to short-term contracts to keep the team competitive in the short term while still leaving room for their rookies. Playing first base will be new for Nomar Garciaparra, but it will be less intense and easier on his body. The question is whether he can hit like a first baseman should; the standards are much higher for a first baseman when it comes to offense, and Nomar hasn't hit like that in years. It will be interested to see a) if he stays healthy, and b) if he can hit near the level that he used to. Third base will be manned by Bill Mueller, as reliable a guy as they come.
It would be premature to expect Jeff Kent to be as good as he was in 2005 (289/377/512), especially at age 38. But Kent will be helped by the acquisition of super-shortstop Rafael Furcal. Furcal's defense is deceiving; his relatively high number of errors make him seem like merely a decent shortstop; he is, in fact, an elite shortstop. He hits well for the position, steals a lot of bases, and should be a force at the top of the lineup. Signing him (at age 27!) was the best thing the Dodgers did this off-season.
Cross your fingers. J.D. Drew hits like an MVP when he's healthy. Which, unfortunately, is never. But even though he managed just 252 ABs last year, he still hit 286/412/520. That's not worth $11 million, but it would be if he could do it over 500 ABs.
The Dodgers signed a group of veterans to cover left and center field. Kenny Lofton is slated to start in center. Lofton is still quite valuable, but not on an everyday basis, meaning the Dodgers will need someone else to start in center. Jose Cruz, Jr. played quite well for the Dodgers last year, but that's no guarantee for 2006. He'll battle over left field with incumbent disappointment Jayson Werth.
There's a lot of masking tape and spit holding together this outfield, and a lot of the team's hopes rest thereupon.
This is another Achilles' heel. Dioner Navarro is the catching prospect the Dodgers got in the Randy Johnson fracas. Navarro, at age 22, isn't quite there yet, so the Dodgers may have to be patient. Sandy Alomar, Jr. will be the backup catcher. There's not much Sandy can do anymore, except stick around and tutor Navarro.
The bench looks packed at first glance, until you realize that there will be one or two platoons and probably some injuries. The Dodgers still have the first base platoon of Hee Seop Choi and Olmedo Saenz, which makes me wonder why they signed Garciaparra. There's nothing brilliant about what the two did last year, but it was adequate and cheap, meaning the Dodgers could have spent the Nomar money elsewhere. Ricky Ledee will likely share center with Lofton, and the Dodgers will have to do something with glove whiz Cesar Izturis once he comes back from the DL.
Paul DePodesta didn't do everything right in L.A., but he ended up as the scapegoat for a variety of things beyond his control, mainly a record number of injuries. The Dodgers have one of the strongest farm systems in baseball, so the basic mission for new GM Ned Colletti and manager Grady Little is simple: Just don't screw it up. And Little's track record in that regard is not promising.
Projected Finish: 1st place
San Diego Padres
The Padres expended a lot of effort and energy to retain the same roster that won 82 games in 2005. There's no reason to believe they're significantly better or worse this year.
If the Padres handle Jake Peavy with kid gloves, there's no reason he won't continue developing into one of the league's top pitchers. After him, though, it gets pretty thorny. They made a good deal with Texas, swapping Adam Eaton for the younger, cheaper, and more promising Chris Young. Young's 4.26 ERA in 2005 was decent for Texas, and he should enjoy the switch to Petco Park. He has good control, a good strikeout rate, and a good deal of upside. But he's not exactly what you want in a #2 starter.
And it's all downhill from there. Shawn Estes and Chan Ho Park are pitchers just barely hanging on, and Woody Williams is . . . actually, he's also a pitcher just barely hanging on. You've got three veterans at the end of the road clogging up the rotation (with Park taking home $15 million), and that's the biggest obstacle keeping the Padres from ontention.
The Padres have a promising bullpen. It's not quite as strong as the 2005 installment, especially considering that closer Trevor Hoffman is 38. But they've got Scott Linebrink, one of the league's best setup men in 2005, and some hope behind him.
With Phil Nevin long gone, Ryan Klesko will take up full-time occupancy at first base. This wasn't so bad back when Klesko was still hitting, but he's experienced a great slow-down in recent years (248/358/418 in '05) that's not just due to the ballpark. Klesko probably won't hit like a first baseman, and Vinny Castilla probably won't hit like a third baseman (352/319/403 in '05). And Castilla's defense is overrated.
This was the strength of the franchise over the past two years, but then GM Kevin Towers won the off-season Bonehead Award with a mind-boggling trade: he sent All-Star 2B Mark Loretta to Boston in exchange for backup catcher Doug Mirabelli. Never mind that 2B who can hit are much harder to find than backup catchers who can hit. Never mind that Loretta is one of the league's best second baseman, despite his age. Never mind that Mirabelli will get over $1 million for about 200 ABs, whereas Loretta will get barely $4 million for his 500. Loretta is a much, much more valuable player, a better value, and not much more expensive at all. What was Kevin Towers smoking?
Shortstop Khalil Greene may not be quite as great as we were led to believe (250/296/431 in an admittedly injury-plagued 2005 season), but he's still quite valuable. Second base will likely go to Mark Bellhorn (who plummeted in value last year) until prospect Josh Barfield is ready.
Anybody home? The Padres at least averted major catastrophe in the off-season by re-signing RF Brian Giles to a reasonable deal, especially considering that he was their best player in 2005 (301/423/483). Center field will be manned by Mike Cameron, a fine player in the past, but one who has seen his offensive and defensive quality dip in recent years. But he'll look like an All-Star next to left fielder Dave Roberts. Roberts is one of those rare players whose only talent is stealing bases, and yet he continues to find jobs on major league clubs that require him to hit. Worse still, some teams insist upon batting him leadoff, as the Padres likely will this year. Roberts' .340 career OBP is right around league average, so that's not too awful; but that's all Roberts does. He's a career 263/340/364 hitter. The only thing he does relatively well is get on base, and then not more than average. He steals a lot of bases, but isn't always efficient (23/35 in 2005, for a fair 66% success rate). Roberts is a fine guy to have around in certain situations (see the Red Sox, 2004), but not getting 500+ ABs at the top of the order.
The Padres let Ramon Hernandez go as a free agent, and will be replacing him with Mike Piazza and Doug Mirabelli. I remarked when the Padres signed him that Piazza still has some value left, but that the Padres chose perhaps the poorest circumstances to exploit that value. They stick him behind the plate, where he could generously be called "mediocre" defensively, limiting his offensive contribution and putting him at a greater risk of injury. All this in a ballpark where lots of Piazza's fly ball homers will become fly ball outs.
Not a lot here in terms of hitting, Geoff Blum's postseason heroics notwithstanding. There is some hope in Terrmel Sledge and some of the youngsters.
I haven't given GM Kevin Towers the benefit of the doubt here, but then his moves tend to defy good sense. He is capable of good trades (such as the Young-Eaton deal with Texas), but he's equally capable of head-scratchers like the Mark Loretta deal. If the Padres are continually struggling to get to the .500 plateau, the rest of the division will eventually pass them by.
Projected Finish: 2nd place
San Francisco Giants
Most of the hopes here rest on the health of ace Jason Schmidt. Schmidt was one of the league's top hurlers in 2003 and 2004, then battled through injuries to have a mediocre 2005. Have we seen the last of Schmidt's dominance? The Giants hope not.
The good news is that one of the Giants' young prospects finally came through. It was Noah Lowry that matured, mainly in the second half of 2005, finishing the season with a decent 3.78 ERA, but a promising 172 K in 204.2 IP. If Lowry continues to mature, he should be a fine complement to Schmidt.
The Giants signed Matt Morris as a #3 man. I recently heard Morris described as a "potential 20-game winner" and almost spit milk through my nose. After some early signs of brilliance, Morris has struggled to reach the league average the past two seasons. But a league-average guy who throws 200+ innings is a great improvement for the Giants, who had no such stability last year.
Promising prospect Matt Cain should get a slot in the rotation, and could make an impact this season a la Lowry. After that, it will likely be Brad Hennessey, who's not likely to make an impact.
This is also pretty ugly. Closer Benitez returns after missing most of 2005 due to injury. Benitez is anything but reliable, but it's possible the Giants could catch one of his good years (like 2004 with Florida). Anything's better than last year, when Tyler Walker filled in as closer and didn't fare too well. He's back, along with Rip Van Fassero and troubled lefty Steve Kline (acquired from Baltimore). The Giants signed Tim Worrell on what can only be seen as a nostalgia trip; Worrell doesn't have much left. I guess GM Brian Sabean just can't have enough old players.
Lance Niekro will likely be given the starting job at first. Niekro doesn't project to be much of a hitter, apart from his power (12 HR and a sub-.300 OBP in '05). The same could be said for 3B Pedro Feliz, who's a fair-to-below-average player, a simple fact that the Giants simply cannot grasp.
I incorrectly predicted that Omar Vizquel was done last year. He still has some glove left, and hit decently for the position (271/341/350). But Vizquel turns 39 in April, and the clock is ticking on any shortstop who's pushing 40. Second base will be manned by Ray Durham. The Giants have wisely resigned themselves to accepting Durham for what he is; above-average offensively, passable defensively, and rarely healthy for an entire season. All told, though, you could do a lot worse here.
Another milk-spitting moment occurred when someone suggested that the Giants have Randy Winn and Steve Finley split time in center field. Winn is young, 31, still strong defensively and a fine hitter (305/359/496 in '05). Finley is old, 41, injury-prone, and just plain awful (222/271/374 in '05). Who in the blue hell wants to see Steve Finley out there? When a 41 year old performs this badly, it's probably not a temporary slump; it's the sign of a finished career. Winn should get all the time he needs to produce at the top of the lineup.
Right fielder Moises Alou is a lot like Vizquel. He had a good 2005 (321/400/518), but is so old (40 in July) that a sudden decline in quality is imminent. Sabean knew exactly what he was doing when he signed all these geezers to long-term contracts, and now he's paying the price. And most of these guys have got a couple more years on their deals.
Oh yeah, and there's some guy named Bonds in left. All other stuff aside, this is why Barry Bonds isn't going to save the Giants this year:
1) He will only play at most 100-120 games
2) He's tied Terry Funk in the race for Most Knee Surgeries in a Calendar Year
3) He's turning 42 in July, as I said, an age when performances drop suddenly and dramatically
4) He might not have all the same "juices" that drove him to his past successes
5) The media will be hounding him as he chases home run records, constantly questioning him about any and all allegations
6) Everyone hates him and won't be shy about letting him know it.
So when Joe Morgan says he thinks Bonds can still be an impact player, I disagree. It's possible, and I'm sure he'll be good, but I've got 6 reasons why he won't be adding any 10-15 wins to the Giants' totals.
I just keep repeating myself; Mike Matheny had a good 2005 (242/295/406 with good defense), but he too is getting quite old (35, which is 40 in catcher years), and 2005 was also a bit of a career year for him. With all these players doing so well in 2005 and most of them due to decline this year, perhaps dramatically, how is it we think the Giants are the favorites in the West?
The Giants signed Mark Sweeney, who is a versatile pinch hitter with some pop. They also signed Jose Vizcaino, who is just versatile.
Sabean thinks that old players win, and 2005 is just the start of the Proving Him Wrong tour, which should continue this year. It's a blessing for him that the rest of the division sucks so bad that the Giants can still be called contenders. There's going to be some fallout in San Francisco once the Post-Bonds era begins, Felipe Alou likely being shown the door. Sabean should follow, but in the funny world of baseball, Sabean actually has one of the best reputations among general managers. Ahh, baseball.
Projected Finish: 3rd place
It's tough to call the Diamondbacks the fourth-best team in the division. To be fair, the top four teams in the NL West are so close together that's it's often difficult to draw the line between them. But the D-Backs are still just one year removed from 111 losses, and while GM Josh Byrnes has them back on the right track, that will likely come one or two years from now, when all their prospects have matured.
Brandon Webb, Master of the Ground Ball, is one of the most underrated pitchers out there. He's probably one of the top 10 pitchers in the league, and is still just 26. Miguel Batista has been roughly thrust around from the starting rotation to the bullpen in recent years. And while his time in Toronto as the closer was rough, his last stint as a starter (which came with the D-Backs a couple trades ago) was rather good. Russ Ortiz isn't such a bad pitcher, although he sure as hell was last year (6.89 ERA, 65:46 BB:K ratio). He should be reliably average, although he's getting paid above-average money. Orlando Hernandez and Claudio Vargas aren't anyone's first choice for the starting rotation, but could conceivably have some good pitching left to give.
The D-Backs traded off some of their bullpen arms and will be going with whichever closer looks best after Spring Training. Early money is on Jose Valverde, who's had some ups and downs, but is a fairly young pitcher who strikes out a lot of batters. It's probably not necessary to spend the money on veterans like Jason Grimsley and Terry Mulholland, but they are spare arms in a bullpen that could use a few.
1B belongs to uber-prospect Conor Jackson. In 2005 at AAA, Jackson hit 354/457/533, indicating that he's really ready for the majors. With Troy Glaus (and his contract) traded away, Chad Tracy will move back over to third base. It looked like Tracy might not be all that he was cracked up to be, but his 2005 resurgence (308/359/553) is more than adequate for a third baseman.
The D-Backs went for defense up the middle, trading for second baseman Orlando Hudson from Toronto. Hudson is no kind of hitter (270/328/418 career), but is the best second baseman in baseball, a fact which the Arizona pitching staff will love (especially GB-happy Webb). Craig Counsell keeps producing (256/350/375 in '05), despite his advancing age (35).
As strong as the infield is, the Arizona outfield is a bit more old and unreliable. Left Fielder Luis Gonzalez can still mash (271/366/459 in '05), but he's so brittle that he could go at any moment. RF Shawn Green isn't an elite hitter anymore, and he's not worth his salary, but he's still productive (286/355/477 in '05). Center field will like go to the overrated Eric Byrnes for the time being, with Luis Terrero in reserve.
The D-Backs may have overpaid in acquiring Atlanta catcher Johnny Estrada, but Arizona catchers have been abysmal at the plate in recent years. Estrada isn't the hitter many think he is (273/326/393 career), but if nothing else he's a quality defender.
The D-Backs re-signed the best bench player in all of baseball last year, Tony Clark (304/366/636 with 30 HR in 349 ABs). But considering that Clark is 33, and coming off a 2004 where he hit 221/297/458, I think we can chalk this one up to a career year of epic proportions. The good news is that a lot of the D-Backs' prospects are going to be major-league ready, and as they push their way into the starting lineup, the offense will become that much stronger and more competitive.
New GM Josh Byrnes didn't make any sort of big "splash" in the off-season. But considering that the D-Backs have a wealth of young talent on their way to the majors, that's probably the best thing he could have done. He's made some small moves to make the team competitive in the short run, while keeping the door open for the prospects. If he can get some more pitching support, this clever GM could easily build a perennial contender in a division that's wide open. It just probably won't happen in 2006.
Projected Finish: 4th place
What a depressing bunch. Can someone put them out of their misery?
I wish there was some good news here. Top prospect Jeff Francis had a, shall we say, rude awakening in his debut season (5.68 ERA, 70:128 BB:K ratio). Stalwart Jason Jennings isn't any better than he was two years ago. In fact he's much worse (5.02 ERA in '05), and he's only getting older (he turns 28 in July). Aaron Cook has pitched well in limited duty for Colorado, but that doesn't really mean anything. The best hope might be sinkerballer Byung-Hyun Kim, who had a surprisingly decent 2005 with Colorado (4.86 ERA, only 17 HR allowed in 148 IP with 115 K).
Brian Fuentes had a break-out season as the Rockies' closer in 2005 (2.91 ERA, 31/34 in saves, 91 K in 74.1 IP), but any optimism around a Rockie pitcher must be very tempered with reality. The Rockies signed Jose Mesa. I guess they just had some extra money sitting around and didn't want to go to the trouble of throwing it in the trash can.
Todd Helton is the rock on the Rockies; he still produces, year-in and year-out, is a strong defender, and is an fine hitter even considering his home ballpark. His 320/445/534 line in 2005 came after a "slow start."
Some have shown excitement about third baseman Garret Atkins. But here's the real story of Garret Atkins:
2005 at Coors Field: 339/395/508
2005 Away from Coors Field: 238/301/347
Shortstop Clint Barmes got off to a great start in 2005, but must prove that he's more than just a Coors Field optical illusion. Second baseman Luis Gonzalez is mainly just a spare glove.
Matt Holliday has gotten the reputation of being a good hitter, and even finagled a spot on the USA's WBC roster. But let's try the Atkins tool on him:
2005 at Coors Field: 357/409/593
2005 away from Coors Field: 256/313/416
Not bad, but he's no kind of star.
CF Cory Sullivan and RF Brad Hawpe are no more or less promising than Holliday.
The Rockies will likely go with veteran Yorvit Torrealba, because they have no money, and so they might as well just use him. Danny Ardoin showed some promise in 2005.
The guys that don't make the starting lineup. And that's about it.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. And by that I mean innovation; not another Mike Hampton or Denny Neagle debacle.
Projected Finish: 5th place