Tuesday, June 24, 2008

NL West as we near the halfway point

[The first part of this blog was written two days ago. Instead of going through and changing all the stats I mention on account of two freakin' days, I'll just let you know ahead of time that the first part of this blog was written on Tuesday.]
So much can happen in two weeks.
  • Seattle GM Bill Bavasi finally got fired, after much lobbying to that effect in this space. Seattle also fired manager John McLaren in what will hopefully be the beginning of a housecleaning in that franchise. It's lucky that the Mariners play in Seattle, because rarely has a team with such a high payroll been so bad.
  • The Mets aren't nearly as bad off as the Mariners are, but you wouldn't know that to pick up a paper in the metropolis. The Mets' front office waffled like a tower of Jenga as the media forced them into firing Randolph. Blame the media for being so pugnacious, obnoxious, and ignorant (for a firing that didn't need to happen) and blame the upper levels of team ownership for refusing to take a firm stand to stave off attacks. Randolph was doomed the minute ownership showed that it wasn't ready to fully commit to him, and once the blood was in the water, the media sharks attacked and attacked until the team's already weak resolve was obliterated. It was a very bad showing for a team that isn't nearly as bad as everyone thinks it is, and a poor reflection of what life is like as a baseball figure in New York.
  • Toronto also fired its manager, if only to give J.P. Ricciardi more room to fight for his own job (which was in jeopardy before he embarrassed himself on the radio). People in Toronto have much more reason to gripe over Ricciardi's performance, which includes a spotty track record, a sometimes huffy public manner, and the failure to develop even the hint of an offense. This isn't a defense of John Gibbons per se; I think he should have been fired after getting into a physical altercation with a player last season. But firing the manager to save yourself rarely works.
  • And with that said, on to the NL West, where the Diamondbacks aren't really that good, the Padres aren't really that bad, and the Giants aren't really there.
As mentioned, the Diamondbacks have been settling back down to reality. They're now at 40-37 for the year, which is pretty dismal considering that just a few weeks ago they were right there with the Cubs on top of the world. But the team's performance has fallen. Brandon Webb is a good example; after winning his Opening Day start, he finished April at 6-0, with an ERA under 2.00. In May, he regressed back toward his normal level of quality pitching, going 4-2 with a 3.38 ERA. But so far in June, he's gone 1-2 with a 5.24 ERA. His seasonal mark is now 3.40, which is good, but belies the ups and downs within. Setting aside their recent troubles, though, how good are the Diamondbacks, and can they win their division?
Well, their pitching and defense have been quite good, even considering the present dry patch. They've allowed just 4.46 R/G, which ranks 5th in the NL. This is even better considering that the 'Backs play in one of the NL's top hitters' parks. Their ERA+ (which takes ballpark into account) is 113, which is 3rd in the league.
With Webb's recent struggles, he's now just the 2nd-best pitcher the 'Backs have had this year (which is still pretty darn good). The best has been Dan Haren, who's got a 3.26 ERA and a 10:84 BB:K ratio. He's allowed just 10 home runs, which is great for him -- a home run pitcher in a high-offense park -- although it also means he's probably been a bit lucky. But even allowing for some luck, Haren has been terrific, and he and Webb should continue to be one of the game's top 1-2 punches throughout the season.
But the 'Backs have had a heck of a time finding good starters to fill in the back of the rotation. Micah Owings' ERA is now 5.11, but the good news is that apart from some homers (11 in 88 IP), his peripherals suggest that the number should be lower. But still, he's been a more valuable hitter than pitcher so far this year (255/327/362, about average for a utility infielder, but great for a pitcher). Doug Davis has pitched well -- especially considering his season was interrupted by a bout of thyroid cancer -- but you can't take his 3.65 ERA at face value. Bottom-line, Davis is a back-of-the-line guy, especially if he keeps walking people like he has so far (25 in 44.1 IP). And while Randy Johnson has been healthy and on the mound, that's about the best you can say for him (5.09 ERA). To be fair, though Johnson seems to be going through the same bad luck as Owings; his peripherals (22:71 BB:K ratio, 9 HR allowed in 76 IP) look fine.
Closer Brandon Lyon may not be this good (2.43 ERA), but he's not at all bad, either. He also proves the great value of trading away non-superstar closers before they become expensive; saves are much more fungible than people think, and even though Jose Valverde was a quality arm, he's expendable when you've got three or four more just like him (a lesson that Astros GM Ed Wade -- who traded for Valverde -- should have learned long ago).
The Arizona bullpen has been solid behind Lyon. They've gotten quality work out of Tony Pena and Chad Qualls, and decent work from the rest.
Pitching-wise, I'm probably being too pessimistic about the 'Backs. Brandon Webb will be fine, and the stats say that Micah Owings and Randy Johnson should (emphasis added) do better in the second half with their peripherals. And having Doug Davis as your 5th-best starter is a lot better than having him as your 3rd-best. The 'Backs don't seem to be panicking about their pitching staff, and neither should they. They've got the best staff in the division and one of the best in the league.

Offense was Arizona's big problem last year (even though it waited until the NLCS to rear its ugly head). This year, they're ranked 7th of 16 in runs scored. So considering their hitter-friendly home park, they're somewhere around average.
The trouble is that they should be better than average. Coming into this season, everyone expected another step forward for young outfield studs Chris Young and Justin Upton. Instead, both have suffered, and left fielder Eric Byrnes has gone from tolerable to terrible, thanks to injury. Young is hitting a bare 233/304/430, which is similar to but slightly worse than last year's performance (237/295/467), where he was surviving on raw power alone. Both scouts and statheads agree that Young should progress into an all-around hitter, and he is a fine defender. But for Arizona's chances in 2008, they might not have the luxury of waiting.
The same is true of right fielder Justin Upton, who's hitting (241/356/430). Upton got off to a terrific start, hitting 340/385/577 at the end of April. But his stroke was off a bit in May (216/367/409), and he's been a catastrophe in June (118/318/235). One hopes this is just part of the growing pains of a talented youngster who still looks like a future superstar. But as with Young, the Diamondbacks would love for the future to get here in time for the pennant race.
The top 4 Diamondbacks as ranked by VORP are their infield in order: 1B Conor Jackson, 2B Orlando Hudson, SS Stephen Drew, and 3B Mark Reynolds. Which would be great if their performance were sustainable, but that's doubtful.
Jackson is leading the team by hitting 310/400/491. But he's a career 286/370/450 hitter, and while he may be a late bloomer at 26, finally developing into the legitimately dangerous first baseman everyone hoped he would be, I wouldn't count on All-Star numbers all year long.
Second baseman Orlando Hudson (293/356/465) is the veteran of the group, so it's easier to believe that his hitting is for real. And his defense is still stellar enough to keep him in the lineup anyhow.
Shortstop Stephen Drew (268/306/472) could be placed in the same category as Young and Upton, that of struggling future superstar. But Drew has been around longer, and more people are starting to wonder if he'll ever be as good as he was "supposed" to be. It's also telling that his batting line, which is pretty pitiful except for some park-inflated power, shouldn't rank 3rd on any team fancying itself a pennant contender.
Third baseman Mark Reynolds (252/333/496) is a similar hitter to Young; raw power, hits fastballs well but not those curvy things (think Pedro Cerrano). Except he doesn't have Young's youth, raw athleticism, or projectability. Take away his power (thank you, Chase Field), and he's basically just your average third sacker. What you see with Reynolds is probably what you get, which isn't such a bad thing, I guess.
Within the offense there is simultaneously room for improvement (the outfield) and reason to doubt (the infield). If the two can just average themselves out for long enough, I think this team can pitch its way back to the postseason. Especially considering the rest of the teams in this division.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Let's start with the 2nd-place Dodgers. If the D-Backs have been mildly disappointing, the Dodgers have been majorly disappointing. They're at 35-40, 4 games back in a division that they stood a decent chance of winning coming into the season. They've still got a chance, but once Arizona gets its ship righted again, that chance becomes smaller.
The Dodgers are scoring 4.24 R/G, which is tie d for 12th in the NL. The silver lining, I guess, is that of the four teams at or below that number, three are NL West rivals (Colorado, San Francisco, and San Diego).
The easy way to do this is to say who's NOT to blame for the team's offensive woes: Rafael Furcal (336/448/597) isn't to blame, although an injury and simple gravity will bring him back to earth. Russell Martin (315/412/451) isn't to blame, as he's become one of the best all-around catchers in baseball. And even James Loney (310/368/469) isn't to blame. He's stats aren't so great for a first baseman, but they're not bad, and Loney is young yet, and besides, the Dodgers don't have anyone who could take his place.
Now let's talk about who is to blame: pretty much everbody else. It's hard to include Matt Kemp (290/333/450) on that list, but in his second big league season he was expected to progress more, and his potential is much higher than that batting line indicates.
Lineup Millstone #1 is Andruw Jones. Jones was hitting 165/273/231 before hitting the DL. I'm not sure as to the extent of his injury; I don't know if his injury was causing his slump (which started a year ago) or if it was just an excuse to get him on the DL and free roster space. But the Dodgers better hope they can figure him out, because he's their cash cow this year.
Lineup Millstone #2 is Chin-Ling Hu. With Furcal injured, Hu was called up to play shortstop (insert Abbott & Costello routine here). The team had a good reason to give him the job; he's an excellent defender. But there's a better reason to give the job to someone else: Hu is hitting 159/224/206, and that's not exactly out of line with his minor league numbers.
Lineup Millstone #3 is Juan Pierre. This was the totally predictable one. Pierre's hitting 284/337/328 which is absolutely unacceptable from a left fielder. With Jones out of the lineup they can play him in center, where his offense is only slightly repugnant. Meanwhile, Pierre's erstwhile replacement, Andre Ethier, is batting 277/340/424.
Credit also goes to Jeff Kent (255/294/416 and at the end of the line) and Blake DeWitt (268/335/391, and I hope you enjoyed it). The Dodgers' replacements have been, for the most part, inadequate, and the blame for that lies squarely with Ned Colletti. He was forced into using DeWitt at the start of the season, but with a healthy Andy Laroche, there's no reason to stick with him other than bizarre baseball loyalty. Colletti should have had a backup plan for the aging Kent from the beginning, but that hasn't worked out either. I think that Hu was supposed to be the backup to rest Kent, but with Hu stuck at shortstop, the Dodgers have employed such middle infielders Garciaparra (226/314/323) and Angel F'n Berroa (214/298/398) in an effort to fix their problems. What GM in his right mind thinks that acquiring Angel Berroa will solve any problems?

Well, can the Dodgers pitch their way to the playoffs, a la Arizona? Not likely. Their best starter so far has been young Chad Billingsley (3.64 ERA). Derek Lowe (3.90) and Hiroki Kuroda (4.04) have pitched well enough, but not a whole lot better than average, all told. And neither one is likely to surge in the second half, unless Kuroda can kick it up a notch. After them, there's not a lot of hope. The team did bring up rookie sensation Clayton Kershaw (out of desperation as much as anything), but he's looked wild and raw (18 BB, 26 K, and 3 HR in 29 IP) and may not be able to offer much help this season. And the team has gotten desperate in search of answers. So desperate, in fact, as to turn to Chan Ho Park. Park, reunited with the team that imported him, actually pitched well in relief and has gotten two starts as a result (2.83 ERA altogether). But unless Brad Penny can get it together (5.88 ERA in 85.2 IP, 36:47 BB:K ratio), this team will most likely face another October home alone with the remote control.
Colorado Rockies
Well, I look pretty darn foolish now, having predicted the Rockies to win the NL West in my preseason review. Simply put, I was fooled; I wasn't smart enough to recognize that the Rockies had too many young players exceed expectations last year for them to count much on 2008. And that's basically what's happened.
The Rockies are scoring 4.24 R/G, which ties them with the Dodgers for 12th in the league. Considering the difference in ballparks, and that's just dreadful. As I said before, the Rockies experienced a lot of good luck in 2007, and not only have they lost it in 2008, they've been given a generous dose of bad luck to boot. The sad truth is that other than Matt Holliday (325/405/519), Brad Hawpe (256/372/456) and Todd Helton (275/402/401), every other big contributor has struggled in 2008.
Among the suffering are:
Yorvit Torrealba ('07: 255/323/376; '08: 244/281/378)
Troy Tulowitzki ('07: 291/359/479; '08: 168/228/256)
Willy Taveras ('07: 320/367/382; '08: 247/300/305)
Tulowitzki, at least, has an injury to blame for his drop in performance. The only guys on the roster who are doing better than '07 are Clint Barmes (343/376/582) and Ryan Spilborghs (299/409/472). Barmes is almost entirely an illusion, and he'll have to hit for longer than 39 games to impress me. Spilborghs is a decent hitter, but he too is due to drop back to earth.
So the Colorado offense is pretty bad and isn't likely to get much better this year. And even if they do, it's probably too late. They're seven games back of a team that's in the middle of a major slump.

The story with the Rockie pitching is even more tragic. Here's what happened to the superb staff that pitched them into the Series last year:
Jeff Francis: '07: 4.22 ERA, 63:165 BB:K ratio in 215.1 IP; '08: 5.22 ERA, 35:62 BB:K ratio in 89.2 IP
Ubaldo Jimenez: '07: 4.28 ERA, 37:68 BB:K in 82 IP; '08: 4.52 ERA, 48:71 in 89.2 IP
Franklin Morales: '07: 3.43 ERA, 14:26 in 39.2 IP; '08: 6.39 ERA, 17:9 in 25.1 IP
Manny Corpas: '07: 2.08 ERA, 20:58 in 78 IP; '08: 6.03 ERA, 17:21 in 37.1 IP
The only Rockie pitchers matching last year's performance are Aaron Cook and reliever (now closer again) Brian Fuentes. Francis has enough of a track record that you can expect his 5.22 ERA to improve, but it's hard to say what Jimenez, Morales, and Corpas will do. Even if they are still good young talents, the odds that even two of the three can turn it around in time are slim to none.

The Rockies had a great run last year. Now it's somebody else's turn. They've got enough talent on their roster and in their system that they can afford to wait 'til next year.
[This begins the blog proper, written after Wednesday's games.]
San Francisco Giants
In the day and half that has passed since I began this entry, the Giants have moved ahead of the Rockies and into third place with a 33-44 record. This is the high water mark for this team, especially if they start trading away spare parts (as they should).
The Giants are scoring 4.12 R/G, 14th in the NL. This is actually something of an accomplishment. I expected the Giants to be the worst offensive team in the league. That they aren't is nothing short of a miracle.
Most of the young players the Giants have tried out have failed; the team's farm system is barren of hitting prospects at the upper levels. The exception, though, is Fred Lewis (286/364/466). That's not great for a left fielder, but Lewis can play all outfield positions (though he doesn't play them all well. Lewis is 27, and he would have gotten a chance earlier if the Giants hadn't blocked him with the likes of Dave Roberts and Randy Winn. With Roberts and Barry Bonds gone, Lewis has proven that he can be as good an outfielder as guys making 20 times his salary. If you're a franchise going downhill, it's worth giving the Fred Lewises of the world a fighting chance. If they fail, so be it. If they succeed, then they'll give you good work at low prices, or serve as a trade chit. The only other youngster who's really worked out is 24-year-old first baseman Travis Bowker (273/315/454). But those aren't good numbers, especially for a first baseman, and Bowker's not a real breakout candidate. Still, you take your breaks where you can get them.
In general, though, the best-hitting Giants have been the veterans. Which isn't a compliment to the veterans, but more of a statement about the team's farm system. Free agent Aaron Rowand (302/366/468) got off to a terrific start, but has cooled off a bit since then. Rowand's a good defender, and that's a fine batting line for a center fielder. But he's only going to get worse as his (expensive) contract goes on, and he's also not going to hit .302 for a whole lot longer. He's basically a good center fielder who's about to turn into a fair (but expensive) center fielder.
Randy Winn is already well down the path of deteriorating skills, but he's actually done well for himself this year (307/370/449) and even in recent years, while he's been decent at best, he's one of the few Giants who can be relied upon not to suck. I heard a rumor recently that the Braves might be interested in him. That would be great for the Giants; they don't have anything to play for in the near future, Winn is expensive and aging, and the Braves have a lot of good young players. We'll see if that happens.
I really thought Bengie Molina was washed up a couple of years ago after his difficult stint with the Blue Jays. But he hit well last year, and is doing a good job (311/336/450). Granted, Molina's mobility about equal to that of your average desk lamp, but even if he's just a lump of stone, he's a lump that can still hit.
Ray Durham hasn't been too bad (290/382/396), but he's been injured (of course) and just can't go on for much longer. The drop in slugging is worrisome. Jose Castillo (262/316/419) has actually done a decent job of replacing Pedro Feliz at third base. But considering Feliz, that's not saying much.
So the Giants have gotten some good work from some surprising sources, even if there is a bit of luck involved (like with Rich Aurilia's .289 batting average). But they've gotten absolutely dreadful production from one position, and it cannot escape notice.
The Giants planned to start the year with Omar Vizquel at short. Vizquel hit (246/305/316) last year and is a shell of his former self. But his semi-stardom, along with a chance to break the record for games played at shortstop, gave the team enough reasons to bring him back. That plus the fact that they had no one to replace him.
Well, Vizquel has been even worse this year (167/252/194) in what must surely be his last as a major leaguer. He's also been injured and has missed a chunk of time. Remember what I said about the Giants not having a replacement for Vizquel? At the beginning of the season, with Vizquel out, the team went with Brian Bocock at shortstop. At the age of 22 last year, Bocock hit a respectable 292/354/379 in 39 games with the Giants' Class-A affiliate. He was promoted to their High-A affiliate, where he hit the skids, batting 220/293/328 in 87 games. But Bocock is a fine defender; and he's probably a better hitter than those High-A stats suggest. But there is no defensible reason why the Giants should lift Bocock, coming off of a bad season in High-A directly into the major leagues. Even great hitters don't jump two levels in one season. Under the circumstances, Bocock's performance in the majors (143/258/156 in 93 PAs) could have been a lot worse. He's since been demoted to Triple-A, where -- surprise -- he still isn't good enough. What kind of major league franchise willingly goes into a season with a depth chart at shortstop that reads: (Omar Vizquel, Brian Bocock)? I guess the Ball Girl would fill in if Bocock got injured. Sheesh.
But while the predictions for the Giant offense were always bad, a lot of people felt that they would find some relief in the performance of their young pitching staff, especially young aces Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. Instead, the Giants rank 9th in the league in runs allowed per game, at 4.70. But considering their poor defense, maybe we can give them the benefit of the doubt and say that the pitching staff has been about average.
Lincecum has proven himself and thensome so far in 2008: in 102.2 IP, he sports a 2.54 ERA and a 40:103 BB:K ratio. He's also allowed a mere 5 homers. Now those walks should hurt him eventually, and I doubt he'll be able to keep the ball in the park that well for a full season. But even if his ERA creeps up to 3.00 or so, this is a definite success story for the franchise, as Lincecum is only going to get better. He's the best young pitcher the franchise has produced since . . . since . . . Shawn Estes? Mike Krukow? You might have to go back to the 1970's to find a Giant pitcher as good and as young as Lincecum. The Giants were pumping out future stars like clockwork from their farm system in the 70's, but only a handful actually found success with the team. In fact, the ratio of wins to good players produced might be the lowest of any franchise in modern history. But that's a historical column for another day . . .
Cain has been less successful. Cain's ERA is 4.31. But, when you look at his peripherals, they're not a lot different than Linecum's. Cain has allowed more homers (12 in 100.1 IP). But his BB:K ratio of 42:93 is only slightly worse than that of his teammate. My opinion is that Lincecum has been ERA-lucky and Cain has been ERA-unlucky. There's no reason to stop looking at them as future stars, and I guess the good news is that they get to experience their ups and downs out of the pressure of a pennant race.
Jonathan Sanchez, the distant #3 pitching prospect on the team, got off to a fine start this year, rivalling even the Big Two. Sanchez's ERA was 3.98 through 95 IP, and his BB:K ratio (46:96) was right in line with his staff-mates. There were some medical concerns about Sanchez that sidelined him previously, but I haven't been able to locate the specifics, and anyways, he's still pitching quite well. With Lincecum/Cain/Sanchez as a 1-2-3, the Giants are doing pretty darn well from themselves, pitching-wise.
Their 4th starter, Barry Zito, was supposed to provide veteran stability. Instead, he's been worse than even I could have predicted, posting a 6.32 ERA and being demoted to the bullpen for a short while. When the richest pitcher in history is demoted to the bullpen on a club as bad as the Giants -- there are problems. Granted, everybody but Brian Sabean knew that the Zito contract was a laughably bad idea. But I at least expected a couple years of decent work before he started to degenerate. This makes me think that there must be something wrong with Zito, either in terms of health or mechanics. Zito was never as good as people thought he was, and he was getting even worse than that in recent years. But it's hard to believe that his career would just nosedive like this without a reason.

The bullpen hasn't been too bad, all things considered, but it seems that for the past few years, everybody they name as closer suddenly starts pitching worse than he used to. That's never good.
Realistically, the Giants have a great core of young pitching talent and absolutely nothing else of significant value in the majors. The silver lining here is that they have, after many years of terrible drafting, managed to get some people excited about the prospects they have in the low minors. But, as the Bocock Incident illustrates, help is still a long time in coming, especially for the offense.
This creates a quandary. Do you try to win now, while Cain & Lincecum are still incredibly cheap? Or do you wait and try to rebuild around them, hoping that you can cobble together a decent lineup before they leave for free agency or start earning 10 figures in arbitration? Brian Sabean's M.O. has been the former; except that it's failed for several years running, and now there's no Barry Bonds to distract attention from his roster mismanagement.
But it seems like Sabean is finally getting the idea that the Giants are too far gone to fix with a few free agents. They simply can't buy their way out of this problem. So their only choice is to get the fans excited about their young pitchers, trade away all their useless parts for some building blocks, and try to contend within 3-4 years. It will be tough, but it's the right thing to do. Let's hope that ownership and upper management don't jump the gun and drop another Barry Zito on us before the rebuilding plans come to fruition.
San Diego Padres
For the past few years, the Padres have survived on a tenuous balance of good young pitching, patchy veteran hitting, and a solid mix of old and young. But without a lot of good prospects coming out of the system, the team is already falling behind the Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Rockies. And now that their veterans are reaching the end of their rope, they're left to depend on a small core of useful players. And when one of them goes down (like Jake Peavy), the team cannot sustain the loss.
The Padres are 15th in the NL in runs scored (3.72 R/G). Their ballpark isn't to blame; taking it into account only narrows the gap between them and team #14 (the Giants).
Even going into the season, the San Diego offense was a work in progress. The only player who could really be counted on was Adrian Gonzalez (296/367/557), a very underrated player. They were putting a lot of faith in aging right fielder Brian Giles, alleged third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, and streaky shortstop Khalil Greene.
Their luck hasn't paid off at all; after Gonzalez, the only really useful hitter on the team has been Giles (296/399/436). Kouzmanoff has struggled (263/311/419) and short-term solution Tadahito Iguchi, a free agent second baseman, is hitting a bare 259/324/343. Greene is starting to look more and more like an overmatched hitter at the plate (232/280/354) and stopgaps such as Jim Edmonds, Michael Barrett, Scott Hairston, Paul McAnulty, and Tony Clark have been basically useless.
Has the vaunted Padre pitching at least lived up to the hype? They're allowing 4.60 R/G, 7th in the NL, but when you take ballpark into account, their ERA + of 94 is 12th in the NL. Jake Peavy has been Jake Peavy, and Greg Maddux is actually looking better than he did last year. After that? Not so much. Chris Young, formerly the strong #2 behind Peavy, has struggled with injuries, posting a 4.50 ERA. Cheap pick-up Randy Wolf has given the team a good return on its money, managing a 4.09 ERA, but that's not as good as it sounds in Petco. And while the bullpen as a whole hasn't been too bad, former stalwarts Trevor Hoffman (4.85 ERA), Cla Meredith (4.58 ERA) and Joe Thatcher (7.40 ERA) have been plenty bad.
The Padres haven't had the most raw talent in their division since 1998. But they've won two division titles since then, mainly because they had a disparate team, assembled at the last minute, that managed to somehow outperform their seemingly more-talented adversaries. But as the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Rockies start to see great success coming from within the farm system, the Padres' short-term outlook seems dim.
I'll be back soon with my look at the American League, as we prepare for the All-Star Break, and try to determine just how tall a tale one baseball player can tell.

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