Friday, February 22, 2008

Snakes On a Train to Glory: NL West Preview

Next up on the list of 2008 MLB previews: Yankee Mike's thoughts on the NL West. It doesn't sound like the weakest division in the junior league will offer anything new this year, but watch out for those Diamondbacks...

San Francisco Giants – AARP All-Stars

The Giants are going to be pretty bad; I think pretty much everyone in the modern world will agree with this. However, normally when you have a bad team you look for a few bright spots. Let’s go down the checklist for the Bond-less Giants:

  1. Good young position players who might make an impact: well, the Giants’ current infield (Aurilla, Vizguel, and Durham, plus a third baseman to be named later) is a combined 112 years old (no, that isn’t a typo), and the projected outfield of Aaron Rowand, Randy Winn and Dave Roberts has an average age of 33 – and they’re all signed through 2009.

  2. No really terrible contracts while we rebuild: Well, Barry Zito is making $126 million; Rowand got $60 mil for 5 years; and Randy Winn, Dave Roberts, and Bengie Molina are all signed through 2009. Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what Brian Sabean was thinking, although it’s possible he thought he gets a discount if he has players eligible for social security…
The only real bright spots on this team are Matt Cain, and Tim Linceum, two very talented young starters who have the potential to be excellent. However, unless they each win 30 games, the Giants are pretty much guaranteed to finish last in the division.

Los Angeles Dodgers – Youth Movement…Please?

Look at that lineup of stars: Rafael Furcal, Nomar, Jeff Kent, Andruw Jones and Juan Pierre, with Jason Schmidt and Derek Lowe starting; that’s the makings of a solid team, right? Wait, you mean it’s no longer 2000?

This team might be in trouble.

Sarcasm aside, the Dodgers do have some serious talent coming. Matt Kemp (OF), James Loney (1B), Andy LaRoche (3B), and Russell Martin (C), plus pitchers Clayton Kershaw (best pitching prospect in the minors) and Chad Billingsley could all be big time players. However, the Dodgers went out and hired Joe Torre, who – though he’ll do a great job with the LA media and inspire player love – is very loyal to veterans and tends to not play rookies, which is what the Dodgers really need him to do.

The Dodgers are banking on a shaky likelihood of an Andruw Jones resurgence and the even shakier durability of Nomar, Kent, and Jason Schmidt, but probably have enough talent to win somewhere in the neighborhood of 75-80 games. If the youth gets to play, toss in some exciting upside and maybe some development for future season.

Colorado Rockies – Legit Threat or a Fluke Run

The Rockies’ insane run at the end of last season was sparked by a mixed group of veterans and kids throwing their brains out. The question is: was that success a flash in the pan, or are they solid ML starters? Francis at the top is good enough to get by with, and Cook will eat innings, but the Rockies need their younger starters to give enough quality innings to be successful. The success of their staff is dependant on what Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Hirsh and Franklin Morales contribute. Jimenez held opponents to a .228 batting average in 15 starts, while Morales threw 8 solid outings down the stretch (3.43 ERA, 1.22 WHIP .241 BA against), and somehow I doubt those sets of numbers will be repeated for an entire season.. Hirsch didn’t last 20 starts, and Cook checked out in August, which really makes me concerned about the Rockies starters.

The bullpen, however looks pretty good. Hopefully, they will pull a video game move and use Manny Corpas closing and keep Fuentes setting up (The Rockies started clicking when they stopped blowing leads last year right when Fuentes got hurt). Luiz Vizcaino will benefit being back in the NL and should help stabilize the back of the bullpen, but if you’re a Rockies fan, make sure to take the time to enjoy that hanging slider flying 700 feet the other way in the mountain air or the walk of a hitter in a big spot. After watching Vizcaino for a year, both events are coming: you have been warned.

Offensively, I really like this team. Troy Tulowitzki can flat out play, even if you ca’nt pronounce or spell his last name, and Hawpe and Holliday (who will be in the MVP debate again in 2008, and a Free Agent soon after, thanks to Scott Boras) are legit middle of the order bats. Helton can still hit, Atkins can hit and if Taveras can get on base he is a nightmare of the basepath. That is a seriously deep lineup, especially for the NL, if they find any kind of pitching beyond Francis the Rockies will a force to reckon with this year. With that said, I expect the pitching to regress and the Rockies to be at most an 85 win team.

San Diego Padres – A Tale of Two Teams

The Padres have an outstanding pitching staff. Peavy (consistent Cy Young candidate) and Young at the top are a legit 1-2 combo. Maddux just keeps finding ways to win 12-15 games (he’s a machine). The combination of Randy Wolf, PETCO Park, and the national league should toss up some decent numbers, and Mark Prior for $1.5 million could be the year’s biggest steal if he gives the Padres anything in second half of the season. Hoffman is a great regular season closer, and they somehow manage to find success in their bullpen, regardless of who they toss in there. If you put a good offense behind that staff, the Padres would compete in the NL.

The offense is the problem, though: Apparently the Padres management forgot you need to actually score runs to win baseball games. Personally, I love their management strategy: Let’s take 2 guys with diminishing power (Jim Edmonds and Brian Giles at ages 36 and 37) put them in the best pitcher’s park in the NL, and ask them to be middle of order power threats. Seriously, how is this good idea? Khalil Green may or may not be a 30 HR a year guy, and Adrian Gonzalez is a legit bat at first base, but with minimal power in the outfield, the Padres would need a big bat at third, which means that Kevin Kouzmanoff will have to a giant year for the team to compete offensively. Everything is going to have to click for the Padres to score enough runs to win. Given their pitching, I am thinking around a .500 season for the Padres, with the possibility of putting up 88-89 wins for the third straight year if the offense hits enough.

Arizona Diamond Backs – Younger Brothers Strike Back

Arizona has two things going for them they’re very young and very good. Getting Haren from Oakland makes them scary, with probably the best 1-2 pitching punch in the baseball: Brandon Webb is a stud, and Haren had a 3.09 ERA in the AL. Doug Davis drops back to third in the rotation, and if the D-Backs get anything but sneers from Randy Johnson, they have a legit 1-4 in the rotation, with the added bonus of Robin’s latest man crush, Micah Owings. The biggest question mark is in the bullpen; the Diamonsbacks have Chad Qualls and a bunch of young arms, and are hoping 2 or 3 step up and become effective. I’m guessing Juan Cruz starts the season closing.

The youth and talent movement continues in the offense. Connor Jackson is a legit bat at first, Stephen Drew has struck a blow for younger brothers everywhere by becoming better than his older brother (Sorry JD, that 1 homerun doesn’t make you good) – and 27 year old Chad Tracy at third base is one year removed from a 20 HR, 80 RBI season. If he gets hurt, Arizona has Mark Reynolds, who hit .280 (.350 OBP) last year with 17 HRs and 60 RBIs; a fine option off the bench.

In the outfield, Byrnes stole 50 bases last year (yes, I was shocked, too) and while he’ll probably regress some, he’s still a productive player. Chris Young hit 32 bombs last year, and with a bit of strike zone control (.295 was his OBP, not his average) becomes a legit power threat. Last, but not least, there’s the most talented guy on the roster, 20-year-old Justin Upton. Unlike his brother BJ, he can play defense, and he’ll be this team’s best player by 2011. Overall, the Diamondback won 90 games last year, and added Dan Haren. I have no qualms about naming them my pick in the west, and my pick to represent the NL in the World Series.