Monday, March 24, 2008

Division by Division Preview - NL West

Division by Division Preview

The real Opening Day is but a week away and I must admit I could not be more excited. Like most of my articles, I have been posting my Division Previews on The Bleacher Report. While I will continue to do so because the website provides an excellent outlet and resource to promote my writing, I have begun to grow tired explaining why I do not like player XYZ due to his terrible sabermetric measures. It also is tiring explaining to a fan my rationale for why I make the statements I do. That is, a fan of the Detroit Tigers does not want to hear that their team is not my favorite to win the World Series and consequently will disagree without any true logic or reason. Sadly, The Bleacher Report has turned into a website where fans can blog and complain about their teams without having an open mind.

But I digress; the National League West is the most wide open division in baseball. Aside from the San Francisco Giants, there is no clear cut winner in the division, nor does there appear to be one for the foreseeable future as each of the clubs own spectacular minor league systems-with the exception of the Giants of course.

National League West

1. Arizona Diamondbacks

Despite deserving to be the worst or second worst team in the division in 2007 the Diamondbacks, as you know, made it to the National League Championship Series. Although the measures are not entirely without flaws as they simply count total runs allowed and scored. Thus, a team loses 10-0 that is worse off then a team that loses 2-1. The thinking is that at the end of a 162 game season, the blowout loses and tight victories will even one another out. Hence, Pythagoras.

While not extraordinarily deep, the Diamondbacks have arguably the best rotation in the majors. With two legitimates National League aces whom are both young and durable, the Diamondbacks can match up with any team. Randy Johnson and Doug Davis are arguably the best 3rd and 4th starters in the National League although one has to wonder how many innings they can be depended on. Outside of that, I prefer Yusmeiro Petit, but feel as though Owings will be the one getting the ball every 5th day as the final arm in the rotation. The wild card is Max Scherzer whom should be called up at some point this season as either a dominant reliever or as a quality starter.

Josh Byrnes has got to be one of the most intelligent GMs in the Majors. He made an unpredictable and HUGE shakeup to his bullpen and came out no worse for the wear. Utilizing Valverde’s high save figures as trade bait was a stroke of pure genius and is one of many reasons why Byrnes is the best GM in baseball. The Diamondbacks have a nice bullpen that is strong at the top. Much of their Pythagorean problems of 2007 were related to having a weak set of mop up men, which is the same case today but who cares!

Offensively, the clubs in the National League West can only hope that the Diamondbacks suffer a plague of horrific injuries, otherwise, this team is going to be a powerhouse for years to come. That is because of youngsters such as Conor Jackson, Chris Young, Stephen Drew and Justin Upton whom should all begin to come into their own. Watch out, as this team is going to be something special.

Breakout Candidate: Stephen Drew – Drew was the darling of many fantasy owners entering the 2007 season as he was spectacular in his call up the previous season. I expect Drew to bounce back and build off of last year if he can avoid the bumps and bruises that slowed him at times last year.

Major Addition: Dan Haren – A high school writing teacher once told me to assume the reader knows nothing. I think I accomplished that here.

Major Subtraction: Tony Clark – Yes, I am going there. And no, I know what I am talking about here. Hear me out; in 2007 the Diamondbacks received around 30hr from their 1B “platoon”, if Conor Jackson reaches 25 this season that will be an impressive feat.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers

A reader may have a difficult time swallowing this prediction based on what I said about the Cubs and Astros. However, the Dodgers have a stable enough core of youngsters that even though they will rely on the veterans to contribute a great deal in order for them to succeed (and consequently win the National League Wild Card). This though, is not being entirely fair to the Dodgers as top to bottom they have a better roster then both the Cubs and the Astros.

The rotation is filled nicely with veterans and youth but does lack the ever important depth quality. With the injured Jason Schmidt and the overly talented yet highly untested Clayton Kershaw trying to prove that he is ready, the Dodgers are crossing their fingers nothing goes wrong in the first month or two of the season. Nevertheless, the Dodgers have an interesting story to follow within their rotation as I am certain Kershaw will be pushing the envelope.

As far as bullpens are concerned, the Dodgers have as good of a pen as it gets. With outstanding pitchers in every slot, the Dodgers have a surplus of strong, talented and young arms that they could potentially use for trade bait if need be. Jonathan Broxton is an exciting arm that more and more people are beginning to discover, but my personal favorite Yhency Brazoban-whom I once tabbed “Better than Gagne”-will be back at full strength this season and should make an impact for the Dodgers.

Offensively, the club is deep without one true star; yet! While most are tabbing Matt Kemp as the future of the organization, I have a feeling Andre Ethier will be the bigger star in 2008. That is not to knock Kemp, I think he will turn heads this season, but I am of the belief that this will be Ethier’s year. Another player to watch out for is James Loney, whom experts and scouts were concerned may not develop the needed power to be an everyday first basemen. If 2007 was a display of what Loney is capable of doing, watch out in 2008 as he is given a full workload.

Breakout Candidate: There are truly so many but I am going to take a shot at Andre Ethier – As a 25 year old Ethier began to breakout in 2007 however was limited in his at bats. He is currently having an outstanding Spring and will hopefully beat out Juan Pierre for the final starting outfielders spot.

Major Addition: Hiroki Kuroda – With a nice, not spectacular Japanese League career under his belt, Kuroda comes to North America with moderate expectations. He was one of the most sought after free agents this winter and is struggling to adjust to North American baseball in the Spring. I’m willing to give him a bit more time before declaring this a done deal and would like to think the Dodgers weren’t just throwing money around.

Major Subtraction: None that I can see. In fact, it appears as if the Dodgers added more thru what they lost.

3. San Diego Padres

One of the best run organizations in baseball, the Padres need to start making decisions with the future of the ball club in mind. Chase Headley should be starting the year in the outfield, Scott Hairston should be given ample at bats at some position on the field and Heath Bell needs to be given at least a handful of saves to see if he can be the closer of the future. All in all, the club needs to forget about the minor gains they will receive by throwing Giles and Edmonds out there and start to look to the future, the window in San Diego has, in my opinion, shut.

The rotation is as good as it gets featuring two legitimate aces in Peavy and Young. In addition to these two frontline starters are returnee Greg Maddux and my annual ‘tease of the year’ Randy Wolf. In addition to these four quality starters is the hope that this year will be the year that Mark Prior is able to come back healthy and be the pitcher everyone thought he was going to be. Worst case scenario is that the Padres are again boosted by playing at PETCO and boast one of the leagues top rotations.

Despite not having a terribly deep nor overpowering bullpen, the Padres seem to get by just fine. Bell and Hoffman are as good as it gets in the 8th/9th innings, and the rest of the bullpen is filled with quality complimentary arms. Like the rotation, the bullpen is aided by PETCO Park only needing to be great for 40 games or so when they are winning on the road.

Offensively this can be a nice youthful core. Between Bard, Gonzalez, Kouzmanoff, Greene and potentially Headley, they have a young core that in any other ball park would be feared while playing at home. Consider that this team slugged a fearsome .378 at PETCO in 2007 (good for second last in all of baseball) and .440 on the road (6th in the majors). Traditionally teams are supposed to hit worse on the road then at home, but when you are playing 81 games at PETCO, one can be excused for the giant discrepancy (without doing the calculations, it’s the largest in baseball!).

Breakout Candidate: Kevin Kouzmanoff – Simply put, what Kouz did in the second half of 2007 he is capable of doing for the entire season. He is a guy whom I would argue as one of the best pure hitters in all of baseball. I think his 2008 season will go a long way to backing my opinion of that.

Major Addition: Tadahito Iguchi – One of few hitters whom I think will not be incredibly hurt by hitting in PETCO given his line drive abilities. That said his biggest asset will be in the fact that he is filling one of the Padres biggest holes from a year ago.

Major Subtraction: Milton Bradley – I think Milton is one of the most underrated players in baseball. His fielding plus on base abilities are second to none in my opinion and he is a player who is essentially irreplaceable.

4. Colorado Rockies

While the Rockies hitting should remain the course from a year ago, it is doubtful they have the pitching and defensive success that allowed them to go on their late season tear. Additionally, consider what would have been had they simply lost one game down that stretch, or even a close one in April. Cutting it that close, despite their heroic march to the World Series does not sit well for me and is the reason I rank them at #4 for the division.

The rotation returns intact from what the club had down the stretch and into the playoffs. With youth on its side there is reason for optimism. However, similar to the Padres home hitting woes, the Rockies must suffer with hitting at Coors Field, which despite managements best efforts, is still a hitters park. Neither Francis nor Cook displaces fear in opponents despite each having their own special qualities (Francis’ hook and Cook’s “bowling ball fastball”). Outside of those two starters is a litany of high ceiling youngsters and never been journey men. Kip Wells is a guy to watch out for, as the once solid Pirate tries to resurrect his career in Colorado.

Interestingly the Rockies bullpen was a strong point in 2007 as they placed 12th in all of baseball with an ERA under 4 for the first time that can be researched. The bullpen is quite deep overall, featuring two capable closers in Corpas and Fuentes. Watch out for a big trade this season involving Fuentes that should help stockpile the Rockies with major league ready starters.

Offensively this team is boosted from Coors Field. However, when one considers that this club goes from being far and away the most powerful team at home (+.073 over the next closest opponent in 2007) to a middle of the road team away (-.144 compared to home slugging) I can see why the Rockies may be hesitant to lock up Holiday long term. That said, for 81 games the Rockies are still a wrecking ball of destruction.

Breakout Candidate: Willy Taveras – 33 steals in only 97 games, the highest ISO of the hitter’s career, 26 years old. Keep these numbers in mind as they will all be factors as to why I feel Taveras will breakout in 2008. Additionally, Phil Garner called Taveras ‘the most talented hitter he has ever been around’ claiming that he expected a power outbreak from him in the near future.

Major Addition: None – This team decided not to make any major moves this off season allowing last years NL champs to take another swing at things. I’m not impressed.

Major Subtraction: Kaz Matsui – I recognize it was a bad signing for the Astros but this was a tough loss for the Rockies. There does not seem to be an obvious nor quality choice to replace Kaz and unless Marcus Giles steps up, this is going to be a long and painful season up the middle for the Rocks.

5. San Francisco Giants

This is an embarrassing assembly of talent and a terrible job at managing the organization. I understood the Zito signing at the time and at this point the club simply needs to swallow its pride and take that hit. But to have the farm system this club has combined with brining in Aaron Rowand is simply an embarrassment. This team should be booted out of the division for not representing an understanding of how to rebuild.

The rotation is solid with Cain and Lincecum. Unfortunately, by the time these two are truly in their prime, SBC Park will be a ghost town and the Giants won’t be able to afford to keep either player around for the future. The other youngster (Noah Lowry) is hurt and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was shut down for the year. That leaves the door open for Jonathan Sanchez whom had an incredible minor league career; watch out for this kid as PECOTA projects him to be close to a strikeout an inning.

For a contender this would be a bad bullpen. In fact, it would be one that probably made a contender into a pretender, like the Tigers. For the Giants, this will be exactly what it should be, a bridge to the next game. Brian Wilson has closers stuff and should succeed when called upon, but to target him as a guy with more then 25 saves would be to make a mistake.

I simply cannot believe that an organization would go into a season with Rowand and Molina as the heart of their order. From a Fantasy perspective I like Molina, but that is simply because of the opportunity he is being handed. There is no way he truly deserves that. The club is also continuing to give old as dirt veterans Omar Vizquel and Ray Durham starting jobs. I can understand Vizquel as he may be able to put some butts in the seats because of his glove, but Durham should hardly be a major leaguer at this point in his career. With Velez having a terrific Spring, what would it hurt to give him full time at bats at second base?

Breakout Candidate: Jonathan Sanchez – Honestly, I don’t think anyone is capable of breaking out this year. Considering it does not matter how well any one player plays, they will be overshadowed by the pathetic performance of their teammates. Sanchez is a player who will be given the opportunity to shine and should take the ball and run with it-hopefully out of town.

Major Addition: NONE! This team should have stood pat with what it had, cut their loses and wait for the contracts of Roberts, Winn, Vizquel and Durham to expire and completely rebuilt. Instead, the club brought Aaron Rowand aboard in hopes of who knows. The only bright spot about Rowand is that he will be a nice clubhouse presence once this team is ready to contend, an expensive one, but a nice one.

Major Subtraction: I am actually going to say NONE! There isn’t a player that could have left this team that would have hurt their chances at competing in 2008 or in the future. Letting go of Bonds and Feliz was the right thing to do, unfortunately the club didn’t realize this in June or July of last year.

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