NL West Preview

Posted: 04/06/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

The NL West looks very familiar this year. The Dodgers are going to be very good, the Giants are a question mark, the Rockies and Diamondbacks could be feisty wild card contenders or finish slightly below .500, and there’s no hope for the Padres. In all likelihood, this will be LA’s fifth consecutive NL West title and their 11th winning season in the last 12 years (they won 80 games in the 2010). It’s been an era of sustained success that I don’t think has gotten enough attention, at least outside of Los Angeles. Sure, the Dodgers haven’t made the World Series since they won it in 1988, and they’re 4-10 in their last 14 playoff series. But for all the credit awarded to the Cardinals for remaining competitive no matter what, the Dodgers aren’t far behind when it comes to sustained regular season success. I don’t know if this is the year that the Dodgers finally break through in the playoffs, but one thing’s for sure: the NL West is LA’s world, and Phoenix, Denver, San Diego, and San Francisco are just living in it.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (96-66): Chicago might have the best rotation in baseball, but the Dodgers are certainly not far behind. It doesn’t hurt that they have the best pitcher of this generation by a mile. I don’t need to write much about Clayton Kershaw. Since the start of 2011, he’s 100-37 with a 2.06 ERA, a .91 WHIP, and a 1421:253 K:BB ratio. His ERA has been under 2.00 in three of the last four years, and it’s fair to say that he’s in the midst of one of the most dominant stretches of all-time. He finished fifth in Cy Young award voting last year despite throwing only 149 innings (he missed a third of the season due to injury). He’s got to be the odds-on favorite to win a fourth Cy Young. Having Kershaw atop a rotation makes who comes after him seem a little bit less important, but the Dodgers also have rotation depth. Kenta Maeda was very good in his rookie year, Hyun-Jin Ryu is healthy after missing two seasons (I don’t know how he’ll pitch, but if it’s anywhere near as well as he did before his injuries, he’ll be a great option), and Rich Hill’s career rebirth has continued for long enough to be considered legitimate (now 37, he has a 2.00 ERA over the last two seasons). Hill and Ryu are both injury-prone, but the Dodgers have plenty of spot starters they can turn to and have top prospect Julio Urias, who flashed tremendous upside with the Dodgers last season, waiting in the wings. The bullpen is also excellent and is led by Kenley Jansen, who’s been dominant for his entire career and posted a 1.83 ERA and a .67 WHIP last year while striking out 104 and walking 11 in 68.2 innings. LA lost setup man Joe Blanton, who was surprisingly good in a bullpen role, but replaced him with ex-Giant Sergio Romo, who fits in well as a righty killer in a bullpen with three lefties.

Not much has changed offense-wise, except that the Dodgers have found an everyday starter at second base in Logan Forsythe, who they traded for in January. The Forsythe acquisition was very Dodgersy — boring, under the radar, and very smart. Chase Utley was really bad as a starter last year, so the Dodgers just went and got a guy who’s in his prime and has added 6.8 WAR over the last two years. For the price of a good prospect (Jose De Leon), they upgraded massively at their weakest position to a guy who’s slashing .273/.347/.444 with 37 homers over the last two years. If Yasiel Puig plays like he did last September, the lineup has no holes. Corey Seager is the star shortstop, Justin Turner and Adrian Gonzalez are great pure hitters and solid defenders at the corner infield spots, Yasmani Grandal is a great defensive catcher with huge power, and Joc Pederson is a good centerfielder who added 3.6 WAR last year and is still getting better. Left field may look like a question mark, but the Dodgers have it covered. Andrew Toles came out of nowhere to post a .870 OPS down the stretch last year and go 8-for-22 in the playoffs, and the lefty is now leading off against right handed pitchers. This is a guy who’s always hit for a high average in his professional career, and I see little reason to believe he won’t do the same this season. He’ll platoon with Franklin Gutierrez, a lefty-killer who signed a $2.6 million contract this offseason. Gutierrez is another example of the Dodgers’ front office knowing what it’s doing. Whereas some rosters are kind of just mashed together with no apparent reasoning, the Dodgers’ roster fits together perfectly. That’s why they’re going to cruise to another division title — although Clayton Kershaw doesn’t hurt either.

2. San Francisco Giants (89-73): I was probably higher on the Giants last year than I should have been. After a super hot start, they finished the season “just” 87-75. I think a similar season is in store. Having Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto atop the rotation is definitely a good thing, although Cueto’s shown some signs of a little regression as he edges past his prime. The rest of the rotation is hit-or-miss. Matt Cain is nowhere near the pitcher he once was and seems like a candidate to be replaced early in the season. Jeff Samardzija shows signs of brilliance… and then gets lit up. Matt Moore, once a top prospect, still has good stuff but has never put it together. Rather than improving the rotation, the Giants seem to be banking on improvements from Moore and Cain (or Cain’s replacement). They’ve also bolstered their bullpen with the signing of Mark Melancon, who will be the closer. They still lack much in the way of reliable middle inning relievers, but Melancon should meaningfully improve the bullpen. It’s a solid pitching staff, but probably not one that will be any better than it was last season.

The offense, too, will hinge on whether returning members of the lineup can improve/return to form. Hunter Pence is still a good hitter but has now been sidelined by injuries for more than half of the last two seasons and turns 34 in a week. Buster Posey had his worst season since 2011 last year and may be on the decline. Joe Panik should return to form after having terrible luck last season, when he hit .239 after starting his career with consecutive .300 seasons. Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford are two key parts of the lineup and should continue to put up good numbers, but neither of them has top-end upside at the plate. The Giants finished 15th in offensive value last season, although their position players ended up third in WAR thanks to tremendous defense. I expect more of the same this year for what is a very similar team. The Giants had the run differential of a 90-win team but won 87 games. I’ll pencil them in for 89 victories.

3. Colorado Rockies (80-82): Coors Field is where pitchers go to die, so it’s understandable that the Rockies have a hard time attracting high-end starters to Colorado. It’s a shame, though, because with a solid rotation this team would probably make the playoffs. I have a hard time believing that a Rockies team with two rookies (both of whom were solid but not elite prospects) in the rotation is going to do a better job preventing runs than recent Colorado teams have. I do like Jon Gray, who pitched a lot better than his 4.61 ERA indicated last season and has good enough stuff to largely negate the Coors factor (he had a 4.30 home ERA, which is solid). And Tyler Chatwood is a solid starter for the Rockies, and solid for the Rockies is equivalent to good for anyone else. But with regression likely coming from Chatwood and Tyler Anderson and (many) blowups coming from the two rookie starters, I fear that the rotation isn’t going to be able to hold up.

The Rockies have a lot of talented hitters, although it’s always tough to know how much of that is the Coors factor. Charlie Blackmon, who had a .933 OPS last year, is probably a product of Coors (he has a .900 career OPS at home and .724 on the road). But in D.J. LeMahieu, Nolan Arenado, and Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies have three great hitters who are legitimate studs both at home and on the road. LeMahieu has quietly blossomed into one of the best second basemen in baseball. Last year, he slashed .348/.416/.495. Gonzalez has always been a great hitter and has remained healthy for consecutive seasons. And Arenado has consecutive top-10 MVP finishes, is just 26-years old, and has slashed .292/.344/.571 since the start of 2015 while posting consecutive 40+ homer seasons. Throw in power hitters Trevor Story and Mark Reynolds lower down in the lineup and you have a scary offense, especially at home. Sure, there are still some holes, but this team is going to score enough runs to win a lot more games than they probably should given their rotation. The Rockies have doubled down on their bats, but that’s more out of necessity than anything else. I really think playing in the high altitude has been a disadvantage for the Rockies because it’s barred them from being able to acquire anything resembling an ace and has killed many promising young pitching careers. But at least Rockies fans will get to see another exciting team.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (76-86): When your big free agent signing posts a 4.37 ERA, you know you’re probably going to struggle. And struggle the Diamondbacks did last year, going 69-93 and giving up the most runs in baseball. It’s not quite Coors Field, but Zack Greinke will tell you that Chase Field is also very hitter-friendly. Greinke didn’t pitch well last season, but neither did the rest of the rotation; Arizona starters ended up with a 5.19 ERA. They tried to improve the rotation by dealing away breakout star Jean Segura for potential future stud Taijuan Walker (who posted a 4.22 ERA for the Mariners last season). And if Greinke has a bounce-back year (he should) and the Diamondbacks can get something out of a healthy Patrick Corbin, Arizona will have a shot at being drastically improved. I have them winning seven more games than they did last season, so I guess I’m optimistic. But the pitching staff will still likely be well below-average. The Diamondbacks are opening the season with four new relievers after their bullpen finished 26th in WAR and 27th in ERA last season. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of confidence in Fernando Rodney as the closer or Tom Wilhelmsen has the top setup man. To make matters worse, Brad Ziegler, the team’s only good reliever last season, is now gone. Even if Greinke, Walker, and Co. pitch reasonable well, the bullpen’s going to blow a lot of leads.

The biggest reason for confidence is an offense that impressed me last season and now gets stud centerfielder A.J. Pollock back from injury. Pollock, David Peralta, Jake Lamb, and Yasmany Tomas makes for a good supporting cast around superstar first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Some questions can be asked of the middle infield, but Ketel Marte, another piece of the Segura trade, should help fill the hole left by Segura, who I think is likely to regress anyway. With better health and better pitching, the Diamondbacks should improve. But this was a team that went 69-93 last season, and it’s tough to predict an improvement of more than seven wins for a team that lost Jean Segura and still has (at most) only three reliable starters and a shaky pen.

5. San Diego Padres (60-102): FiveThirtyEight recently rated every rotation in baseball with their pitcher score metric. Now, I don’t know how accurate this pitcher score metric is, but the ratings make sense. The Cubs are first, the Dodgers are second, and the Red Sox are third. Coming in dead last? The Padres, and it isn’t remotely close. That’s what happens when your best starter (TBD) is probably a #5 starter on the average team. Now, it’d be one thing if the rotation were young and had upside. But Jhoulys Chacin, Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill, and Jered Weaver are all between 29 and 34 and have proven time after time that they’re fringe starters. The fifth starter, Luis Perdomo, is only 24, but before last year he had never been above A-ball (where his ERA was 4.60). Last year, he was selected in the Rule 5 draft and started 20 games for the Padres, appearing in 35 altogether. The results were predictable: 5.71 ERA, 1.59 WHIP. The Padres lost Tyson Ross, who was easily their best starter, to free agency months after trading Drew Pomeranz, who was then their best starter, to the Red Sox. They have a lot of talented arms in their farm system, but all of them are at least a few years away. This rotation is going to be bad for a while.

The offense won’t be much better. The three guys to watch are Wil Myers (the team’s best hitter and, after he signed a $83 million extension this offseason, their building block), Manuel Margot (a top prospect), and Hunter Renfroe (another intriguing prospect). Erick Aybar is their lone starter older than 29, and Myers is their only hitter who will scare opposing pitchers. It’s going to be a long couple of seasons in San Diego.

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Comments
  1. quadrangular says:

    Go, Giants!

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