Thursday, August 16, 2007

State of the Baseball Union: NL West

The NL West has proven, thus far, to be a really exciting race. It's doubly exciting in that these are teams that are fairly young and setting up rivalries and races that should last for a while. The Giants aside, this is a pretty competitive division, and while I would give certain clubs the edge, you have to consider this a good example of competitive balance.

Arizona Diamondbacks (68-53)
My Prediction: 85-77
On Current Pace: 91-71

The Diamondbacks have, as of Wednesday's games, out-performed their Pythagorean prediction (58-63) by ten games. In terms of runs scored and allowed, they should be in 4th place, 1/2 game out of 5th (last). Instead, they've got a three game lead ahead of some darn good teams.

Will their luck continue to hold? It's impossible to say, but I wouldn't bet on them staying so lucky. That said, a team's Pythagorean record isn't everything, and even if it is, they just need to stay lucky for about 6 weeks and they're good.

The Diamondbacks have scored 516 runs so far this season. That ranks them 12th in the league and 3rd in their own division, despite playing in a favorable ballpark. What are the problems, and is there any hope that they can improve upon this rather poor showing?

The D-Backs' best hitter so far has been Eric Byrnes, who's been rewarded with what is, in my opinion, a ludicrous contract extension. Still, he's hitting 301/366/495 this year, and that's hard to argue with. After Byrnes, the top guy has been Orlando Hudson. Hudson is hitting 295/376/436, which is great for a second baseman, especially when you're packing a Gold Glove.

After that, the D-Backs have been hard-pressed to get any good production out of anyone, especially their big-time rookie prospects that I gushed over in my preseason predictions. Center fielder Chris Young is hitting 231/283/437, which is a big disappointment for someone who was supposed to be major-league ready this year. Catcher Miguel Montero wasn't supposed to be the next Joe Mauer, but he was expected to hit better than 241/306/394. Alberto Callaspo, middle infielder and utility man, has been wretched, hitting 206/257/254. One bit of sunshine: Justin Upton, recently called up to the bigs, has responded well so far (273/333/545 in 48 PAs), especially considering he's just 19.

But they're not the biggest disappointment. Even Carlos Quentin (208/297/343) isn't the biggest disappointment; he's dealt with some injury problems. No, the biggest clunker for Arizona this year has been shortstop Stephen Drew. Drew was expected to help anchor the order; he debuted in the majors last year and did quite well (316/357/517), with the team expecting even bigger things from him this year. Instead, he's hit 234/302/363 and proven a massive disappointment.

So offensively speaking, the thing that's kept Arizona contending isn't their squadron of rookies, it's the so-called "transitional players" such as Byrnes, Hudson, and more veteran players such as Chad Tracy and Conor Jackson. On the plus side, this means that there's huge room for improvement in the batting order; if even a couple of these guys start living up to the potential, it could shoot the D-Backs to the front of the NL West for good. I do think a couple of these guys will fight back in the remainder of the season; I just don't know if it will be enough to keep them on top of the division.

The D-Backs' pitching staff, which was supposed to be their weakness this year, is actally third in the league in team ERA. The star here is, of course, fellow Kentuckian Brandon Webb (2.77 ERA, 56:155 BB:K in 175.2 IP), but he's had some help. Doug Davis, acquired to fill out the back of the rotation, has actually done quite well for himself (3.92 ERA), although it should be said that his peripherals don't indicate that he'll be maintaining that for very long. Randy Johnson was doing well (3.81 ERA in 10 starts), but he's out for the season (at least). The D-Backs have gotten some innings-munching from Livan Hernandez (chairman of the board for LAIM, Inc.) and even Micah Owings has contributed. But it would be really swell for one of Arizona's pitching prospects to accelerate their development and help out now, at least if they want to stay in the race this year.

The bullpen has been quite good so far, thanks mainly to closer Jose Valverde (36 saves and counting), but he's gotten strong support from Brandon Lyon (2.78 ERA) and Tony Pena (the one who doesn't play shortstop for the Royals). Doug Slaten and Juan Cruz have been reliable as well, so the 'pen isn't the D-Backs weakness by any means.

What can the Diamondbacks do to put some legitimacy to their win-loss record? The best thing they can do is to get some of their young talent playing like they're able to ("our phenoms ain't phenominating"). That's a tough thing to do, especially with a 6-week deadline, so there are no guarantees there. The D-Backs could try to pursue a waiver wire deal for a starter, but I don't think the team's going to mortgage the farm for 2007, and I totally agree with them there.

Arizona has a great group of young talent, and even though they're not doing well this year, they will soon. Keep in mind that this is a team that lost 111 games a couple years ago around the same time they doled out tens of millions to Russ Ortiz and were staggering under the burden of debt created by the previous administration. A strong second place finish isn't what the Diamondbacks want, but -- in the scheme of things -- it would have to be considered a victory.

San Diego Padres (64-55)
My Prediction: 84-78
On Current Pace: 87-75

The Padres are the team that has looked (and played) like the best team in the West. They've got the legitimacy that the Diamondbacks lack and none of the confusion and front office roster-stuffing that plagues the Dodgers. They've also got a pitching staff that is good . . . really good.

NL Runs Allowed/Game:
1. San Diego (3.84)

2. New York Mets (4.30)
3. Chicago Cubs (4.33)
4. L.A. Dodgers (4.35)
You get the idea. The Padres defense has helped -- their .706 DER is 3rd in the NL -- but their pitching really has been this good, ballpark or not. The Padres' ERA+ is 118, well ahead of the Mets, whose 105 mark is 2nd in the NL. To be fair, the ballpark is a factor -- the Padres' aren't as historically good as the raw numbers suggest -- but they're a far sight better than everyone else in the league, and that's what really matters.

Chris Young and his 1.93 ERA have been getting all of the attention -- and rightfully so. Young really was a steal from the Rangers and is pitching in a ballpark now that's much more suited to his talents. Young's BB:K ratio is good (46:125 in 130.2 IP) but he's only allowed four home runs -- four -- this season. As great as that number is, it's also probably a big fluke. Young allowed 28 last year under the same circumstances.

No, the real star of the Padres (and the best pitcher in the National League) is Jake Peavy. Peavy's 2.23 ERA isn't as pretty as Young's, but fundamentally he's the better pitcher. He's got more strikeouts (164) and more innings (157.2) and still with a better strikeout rate. He, too, has benefited from some good luck with homers -- allowing just 5 -- and yes, that's mainly a fluke, but Peavy's the real deal. Any way you slice it, however, the Padres have a deadly 1-2 punch of Young and Peavy.

And unlike most other teams, the Padres have a decent #3 and #4 to back them up. Their #3 is Greg Maddux, who needs no introduction. He's benefiting from Petco Park, no doubt; but he's freakin' Greg Maddux, and his ERA (4.00) is better than it looks (his RA is 4.06). The Padres have gotten some quality starts from Justin Germano as well, who's managed a 4.16 ERA in 17 starts despite not striking many out.

The Padres will also benefit from replacing David Wells (5.54 ERA) as the #5 starter, but as far as who will replace those innings, we don't know yet.

The bullpen has also been strong behind closer Trevor Hoffman. No one who's pitched any significant number of innings in the bullpen has an ERA over 4.00; and unknown Kevin Cameron actually has an 0.80 ERA (walks and all -- 27 in 45 IP). But then the Padres have traditionally been able to get good work from their bullpen without spending a lot of money.

The San Diego pitching staff isn't as good as Petco makes it look; and, as I've pointed out earlier, they've been the beneficiaries of some home run luck. But they are still, fundamentally, the best in the league, and that's a big point in their favor as we assess the different NL West contenders.

As for offense, the Padres have scored 515 runs (1 less than Arizona, but they've played more games), and that ranks them 13th in the NL. Park effects must be considered, but this is still (as usual) the Padres' weakness.

They don't have any real studs in the lineup, although guys like Adrian Gonzalez (265/338/475) and Brian Giles (294/385/418) have done well enough, considering. And Milton Bradley has been great since coming over from Oakland (360/461/627 in 89 PAs), although if you look up "volatile" in the dictionary, you'll find his mug shot. And after that, you've just got a lot of "maybes" and "almosts."

The middle infield has been a total disaster. Khalil Greene (238/275/451) still hasn't recovered the form that almost made him Rookie of the Year. And Marcus Giles (223/294/306), who looked such a steal from Atlanta, has made the Braves' front office look pretty good.

The outfield has been pretty disappointing. After Giles and Mike Cameron (who's been decent), the Padres have failed to come up with a halfway-decent left fielder. Jose Cruz, Jr. wasn't it (234/316/375), and Terrmel Sledge sure as hell wasn't it (212/311/372). That's one of the reasons they traded for Rob Mackowiak (who's been pretty dismal since coming over).

In the preseason, the Padres gambled when they traded away Josh Barfield for third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. The Padres won the gamble, if only by default; Barfield has been awful (243/271/325) whereas Kouzmanoff has just been bad (239/294/419), and his combination of power and little else didn't fill the hole. So the Padres picked up Morgan Ensberg (273/314/636 in just 35 PAs so far).

Behind the plate, the Padres may have erred by trading away Rob Bowen (who was hitting 268/371/349 before the trade) to Chicago for Michael Barrett (who has hit 231/238/288 since). It's hard to predict these things, but then Wrigley Field's much different than Petco (though surely not that different).

GM Kevin Towers has at least been proactive in addressing these problems; he hasn't let guys waste away in the lineup before acting, he's worked to give his manager options when holes open up. And while I don't agree with all of his moves, it's hard to blame him for this; the Padres are pretty much acting our their worst-case scenario at the plate. That does mean that there's room for improvement, but there's so much room for improvement that it's hard to be cheerful about the fact.

Are the Padres the favorites to win the NL West? They're close, but I don't think so. Their pitching staff is excellent and may still be able to carry the load, but it's not as good as it looks, and there's not a lot of offense to pick up the slack if the pitchers slow down. And unfortunately, with a lot of these guys, you just can't reasonably expect them to get a whole lot better than they are right now.

Colorado Rockies (62-57)
My Prediction: 78-84
On Current Pace: 84-78

Boy, if ever a franchise needed a feel-good year it was the Rockies. No, they're not as wretched as the Royals or Pirates, but they've been stuck in a 70-win neverland for many years now, though truth be told it was a hole they helped dig themselves. Regardless, it's always encouraging for a losing franchise to get a clean breath of fresh air from some fine young players.

The Rockies' 604 runs scored is 2nd in the NL to the Phillies. It's park-inflated yes, but it's no mirage. The Rockies have some long-term, impact players in Matt Holliday (338/399/583), and especially Troy Tulwoitzki (283/357/444). They're also getting some cheap young offense Brad Hawpe (289/387/540) and Ryan Spilborghs (331/383/580), and of course Todd Helton is still around (301/420/461), although his power isn't so much. And this isn't even considering guys like Jeff Baker, Chris Iannetta, and Ian Stewart, who have yet to make a real impact in the majors. The Rockies' offense is in good shape, and even if they don't reach the playoffs (which is indeed a long shot), they can at least celebrate 2007 as a breakthrough year for the franchise.

The Rockies are 9th in the league in runs allowed. They're 8th in team ERA and in ERA+. For most teams this would be mediocre. For the Rockies, it's another step on the road to respectability. And if the Rockies can field a respectable pitching staff with any sort of regularity, that's not just a victory; it's a miracle.

The Rockies haven't gotten a really good performance from any of their starting pitchers. Their two best have been Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook whose numbers are, relatively speaking, above-average but nothing to scream about. Josh Fogg has been surprisingly mediocre, and that's good news, but the Rockies have to be disappointed with Jason Hirsh, the prize of the Jason Jennings trade. Hirsh's 4.81 ERA isn't that bad for Coors, but it's not what they were hoping for when they looted the Astros' #1 pitching prospect. Fortunately, Hirsh has time to grow, as the Rockies aren't in any rush to contend this year.

It's the bullpen that has been their real strength, as they've gotten strong contributions from a number of unexpected people. If this is starting to sound like the 1995 Rockies team that won the Wild Card, it's not a coincidence. That team made the playoffs with a park-inflated slugger-oo team (I made up the word "slugger-oo") and a strong bullpen that somewhat made up for a dismal rotation. Maybe this is a formula that works in Colorado particularly.

As I said before, it's doubtful that the Rockies will outlast the competition in the NL West and make the playoffs this year. And it doesn't get much simpler in the future, as the other three contending teams will be back next year as competitive as ever. But for the Colorado franchise, which has been run so poorly for so many years, this sense of renewal has to be considered a victory in and of itself. 84 wins may not sound like reason for rejoicing, but in Colorado -- where they've never won more than 83 -- it's a reason to cheer.

Los Angeles Dodgers (61-59)
My Prediction: 94-68
On Current Pace: 82-80

I don't know who I pissed off in the Dodgers organization. Because I've been making predictions for three years now, and in two of them (2005 and 2007), the Dodgers have embarassed me. In '05 I picked them to win the division and they crashed and burned. I picked them to win the division again this year, and while they haven't crashed and burned yet, they're spiralling downward and haven't yet found a heroic stewardess to take over the controls.

Maybe I'm making too much of the Dodgers' current struggles. After all, what's a bad few weeks? The Dodgers were on top of the division, and while they traded in what seemed like a sure thing for a 4th-place berth, they've got as much talent as anybody and are still perfectly capable of pulling this thing out. But you'll excuse me if I decline to issue any more sweeping "predictions" about them. You know . . . in case there's a curse.

The Dodgers are 10th in the NL in runs scored. Dodger Stadium is a pitcher's park, yes, but this is still a bad sign, considering the Dodgers plunked down big money to bring in free agent hitters (Luis Gonzalez, Juan Pierre, Nomar Garciaparra) to go with their impressive stable of rookie mashers.

Granted, I could argue that the Dodgers shouldn't have signed any of those three players to a deal, and I can certainly say that two of them have been disasters (Gonzo is doing fine). But they still have those young hitters, don't they? Yes, so long as they can connect the dots between the guy sitting on the bench and his name being written on the lineup card. I said before the season that you'd know the Dodgers were sunk if all their great hitting prospects ended up sitting on the bench playing Sudoko. And for the early part of the season, that was the case. But now, more out of necessity than insight, they're starting to play these guys, and I think it could be the difference between winning and losing the division.

I covered a lot of the Dodgers' personnel issues in my earlier "birthday baseball" blog, so I'll try to keep this brief. Suffice to say that there isn't a position on the baseball diamond that Nomar Garciaparra can play that wouldn't be better (and more cheaply) filled by someone the Dodgers already had. First base? Try James Loney (317/367/481 this season). Third base? Try Wilson Betemit (231/359/474 before being traded to the Yankees) or rookie Andy LaRoche (who's only gotten 55 at-bats despite clearly being ready for the majors). Second base? Jeff Kent, who's no glove wizard (tho neither is Nomar) but has hit 286/362/479. Shortstop? Even if we enter an alternate reality where Nomar's glove could play at that position, the Dodgers are already committed to Rafael Furcal (275/339/367, but at least with a great glove). But still the team ignored all the widely available evidence and signed Nomar, an expensive player they didn't need. Their reward? 280/326/363.

Good job, Ned.

What about the outfield? While anyone could do a better job than Juan Pierre (Andre Ethier has hit 300/364/470 this year, compared to Pierre's 288/324/341), who was going to play in Luis Gonzalez's spot? Well, I'll admit that it's hard to argue with Gonzo. His signing may not have been completely necessary, but he wasn't that expensive and he has hit quite well. I'd certainly rather see him in left field than Marlon Anderson or Brady Clark. And if Pierre were gone, the Dodgers would have a fine, good-hitting, cheap outfield of Gonzo/Ethier/Matt Kemp (321/359/506).

I can't argue with catcher; the Dodgers knew they had something special in Russell Martin (291/359/464) and stuck with it.

So really, all it boils down to is getting all the right players in the right spots. They've got all the pieces to the puzzle, they just can't seem to figure it out. But really -- how long does it take to solve a 9-piece puzzle when you've got all the pieces right there in front of you?

Pitching-wise, the Dodgers are fine; their 4.03 team ERA is 3rd in the NL. Brad Penny has gotten all the press as the ace -- and rightfully so -- but let's hear it for Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley, adding some good depth to the rotation! After that, it's been pretty ugly; Randy Wolf struggled and then got injured (not such a surprise) and Brett Tomko has been dreadful (ditto). The Dodgers were forced to call on Mark Hendrickson (who should have "DFA" stitched to the back of his shirt) as an emergency starter. It's hard to say who's going to pick up the slack as the #4 and #5 guys, with the injuries to Wolf and Jason Schmidt, as well as the general sucktitude of Tomko and Hendrickson.

Luckily, the Dodgers have a pretty sweet bullpen to fall back on. Takashi Saito has proven to be anything but a one-year wonder, and Jonathan Broxton has been equally nasty. Scott Proctor has pitched well since coming over from the Yankees, but L.A. hasn't really been able to fill in the blanks behind Saito and Broxton. Luckily, those two are so good that it shouldn't matter.

So the Dodgers have a good (and if things work out, a very good) pitching staff and a lineup that just needs to be reshuffled to move from below-average to above-. In normal circumstances, I'd predict that the Dodgers would right the ship and win the division (or at least the Wild Card).

But considering how my Dodger predictions have been coming out lately, I'm going to ride the fence on this one, and don't mind if I do.

San Francisco Giants (50-70)
My Prediction: 73-89
On Current Pace: 68-94

I still, still cannot believe that Giants GM Brian Sabean recently got a contract extension. I thought that, at this point, even Sabean was like, "Okay, sorry guys, I'll be gone next year and then you can, you know, start cleaning my s*** up."

It's almost like owner Peter Magowan was the only one not in on the joke. You know how that is? There's some kind of hidden joke or clever turn of phrase, and everybody gets it and starts laughing . . . except this one guy, who either looks around blankly or just starts laughing in a big, fake way to disguise the fact that he doesn't have a clue. That's Magowan to me, and the sad part is that the joke's on him. Sabean's fine; he's getting a good salary for a couple more years and I think the Giants are really at the "nowhere to go but up" point. The real victims here will be Magowan and the fans, and we'll see who catches on last.

I mean, the Giants do have Barry Bonds (280/495/589). But after that? YIKES. According to VORP, the best position player on the Giants after Bonds has been . . . Ryan Klesko (268/358/430), who has hit well, but he's a defensively challenged guy anyway, and if that's the second-best guy in your whole lineup, you're up a creek. Dave Roberts and Bengie Molina have been basically stinking up the joint. But they're positively golden compared to Pedro Feliz (255/294/423), a sort of walking monument to Sabean's blunders, or Rich Aurilia (253/299/373), Ray Durham (226/303/356), or Omar Vizquel (248/302/305), all of whom have gotten a significant amount of playing time. Like I've said before, the merely bad isn't nearly as offensive as the obvious and totally predictable bad.

Lucky for the Giants, they're pitching is actually all right. This is invariably what people stress when they talk about the future of the Giants, so they can avoid talking about what a Sahara-like desolate wasteland the lineup will be without Barry Bonds. They've got two young studs in Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, as well as Noah Lowry (who isn't as good, but is a lot better than people think). They've also got Barry Zito, who is obscenely expensive (his contract alone -- and his 5.13 ERA -- should be reason enough to fire Sabean). To be fair though, they did get rid of Matt Morris (thank you, Pirates). And Jonathan Sanchez should be a fine pitcher, especially if he's at the back of the rotation.
Their bullpen is a work in progress, but then that's true of a lot of people, isn't it? They unloaded the Benitez contract (one small step for man, one Giant leap for mankind) and have gotten some good work out of Hennessey, Messenger, Correia, and Chulk this year. That's not a murderer's row of relievers, but it's a start, and it's nice to see that the Giants are shying away from some of the expensive mistakes they've made in the past . . . we hope.

So, with Barry Bonds the Giants are next-to-last in the league in scoring. Without him . . . look out Nationals, for falling objects. The Giants desperately need to get some source of sustainable production in that bare lineup, but it's going to take quite a while. They've got a good pitching staff to support them, but they've also got some terrible contracts (Zito's especially) weighing them down. Several of those contracts will expire soon, but then who's to say Sabean won't run out and sign more (he's made that mistake before).

I know I've talked about this before, but Brian Sabean has a reputation in some circles as an excellent general manager that I'm at a loss to explain. I know that there's a lot of inside baseball that I'm not privy to, and I willingly accept that a lot of a general manager's duties and responsibilities are beyond the scope of this blogger. But ultimately, it comes down to wins and losses. And while Sabean may try and take credit for them, the credit goes first and foremost to Barry Bonds because without Bonds, Sabean would have lost his job years ago and the Giants would have degenerated to Royals-like levels. I mean, come on -- does the Chief of Police in Metropolis really get to take credit for defeating Lex Luthor and Brainiac?

More to come, as I move to the American League and keep adding to my list of unknown and underrated players . . .

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