With the American League taken care of, we travel back out to the Pacific coast and look at who will contend in the NL West. The landscape in the West, home to the winner of two of the last three World Series, hasn't changed all that much -- well, except for the amped-up clone of the Steinbrenner Yankees that moved into Frank McCourt's old digs in Los Angeles last season. That's new. And we're about to see what their first full season at the helm will look like.
Again, the teams are ranked first through fifth, best to worst, on their lineup, fielding, rotation, and bullpen. When I talk about the position of a pitcher in his team's rotation, I am ignoring rotation guesstimates since those won't be fully set for another few days, and simply listing the ace as the pitcher of whom I think most highly, the number two as the guy I think is second-best, and so on.
First Place: The Los Angeles Dodgers
It took the Dodgers less than three months from the time their new ownership group relieved Frank McCourt of the burden of running the franchise into the ground to make the team respectable again in the eyes of both its fans and the rest of Major League Baseball, but now the team has to live up to the expectations generated by its front office's massive spending spree. Luckily, it looks pretty well primed to do so.
The team already had Matt Kemp, arguably the best centerfielder in baseball and a top-five player so long as last year's injury woes are an isolated incident; Andre Ethier, who even with his massive platoon split against lefties is a credible everyday player (so long as care is taken against lefty matchups late and close); and A.J. Ellis, who developed into something of a cult hero for Dodgers fans over the course of last season due to his elite on-base skills from the catcher position. In the short time between the sale and now, the team added Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, and Carl Crawford to the lineup, three guys with very good track records at the plate who suffered from down years in entirely dysfunctional clubhouses. The gamble would be that they could bounce back to their old selves; an expensive gamble, but a healthy Dodgers lineup getting career average numbers from Kemp, Gonzalez, Ramirez, Ethier, Crawford, and both Mark and A.J. Ellis could go a long way towards starting the dynasty the Dodgers' new ownership dreams of, especially given how the pitching across the rest of the West has backslid over the past year or so.
Fielding across the entire NL West is going to be difficult to predict -- none of the clubs are standouts in the field in either a good (Rangers, Angels) or bad (Tigers) way. Most of them have one or two good defensive players, one or two bad but not horrible fielders, and then everyone else is slightly above or below average across the rest of the diamond. For the Dodgers, their standout fielders are Crawford in left and Mark Ellis at second. Ellis has quietly been one of the better fielding 2B in baseball recently, passing both defensive metrics and the eye test with flying colors. Luis Cruz is only passable at shortstop but when Hanley Ramirez returns from the DL, he'll move back over to third, where he's great -- the question then being how well Hanley's going to play shortstop. Ramirez and the defensive questions surrounding him, both in terms of ability and the old effort questions that have plagued him since Miami, are the only glaring downside the club faces in the field. In the end, things might turn out the way that the Brett Gardner/Curtis Granderson situation will be resolved in New York, with the positional change abandoned and Cruz playing out the season at short. Adrian Gonzalez is a good defensive 1B for as far as that goes, and the less time Juan Uribe sees on the diamond the better off the Dodgers will be. Nick Punto, on the other hand, can at least step in and provide a reasonable facsimile of major league play across the infield, so he's good to have around as long as he's not called upon to start.
The franchise's cash infusion didn't just bolster the lineup. The Dodgers welcome Zack Greinke to the fold this season, giving them perhaps the best 1-2 combo in baseball with Greinke and Clayton Kershaw (assuming the recent drama with Greinke's elbow isn't more serious than it looks). After the top two, the Dodgers rotation has a lot of depth but little high-end talent, with the next-best arm being either Chad Billingsley or Josh Beckett, both guys who are looking to bounce back from disappointing seasons last year. Assuming they do, however, even an old, declining Josh Beckett can be an asset as a number four starter. The team's big signing out of South Korea, Hyun-Jin Ryu, will likely also start the season in the rotation, and Chris Capuano, Ted Lilly, and Aaron Harang are skulking about the swingman and long relief roles of the bullpen waiting either to step into the rotation due to injury or ineffectiveness, or get dealt to another club. It's a deep group right now, but since none of them can be optioned to the minors it might not be quite so deep once final roster decisions have to be made.
The bullpen's essentially defined by its closer, Brandon League: middle-of-the-road and definitely overpaid. Kenley Jansen is a nice setup man, but the bottom ranks of the pen are bloated (for the time being at least) by all those old starters that can't start or get sent down to the minors. Once -- if -- that logjam gets cleared up, the pen might be going places, but until then it's definitely the team's weakest unit.
Second Place: The San Francisco Giants
Speaking of dynasties, the one that the Giants are looking to cement with a third World Series victory in four years this season would be one of the oddest in history -- fueled mostly by clutch playoff performances, veteran bats getting hot at the right time, and great starting pitching. That said, the Giants do have a pretty good lineup these days, with actual young hitters in their primes, including reigning National League MVP Buster Posey, slugging 3B Pablo Sandoval and emerging young 1B Brandon Belt. They'll also be giving lots of plate appearances to Hunter Pence, Angel Pagan, and Marco Scutaro, however, and as beloved as those particular veterans are in San Francisco at the moment, well, Aubrey Huff was pretty popular after 2010. Hitters in the twilight of their careers can crash pretty quickly, and while unlike Huff all three of those players will at least retain some measure of defensive value regardless of what they do at the plate, there's no real reason to think they'll improve on last year's performances over a full season. Pagan has the best shot, though he's shown some year-to-year inconsistency since becoming a regular. As it stands, their everyday lineup is probably a step or two behind the Dodgers, though Posey, Sandoval, and Belt are good enough -- and Pagan, Scutaro, and Pence won't be bad enough yet -- to make it fairly close.
The two guys on the Giants that have trouble holding their own at the plate, leftfielder Gregor Blanco and shortstop Brandon Crawford, make up for it by being extremely good at fielding their positions. Other than those two, the rest of the Giants are average to above-average across the board, with Sandoval working extremely hard to get himself to that level at the beginning of the season and backsliding as the year goes on. Posey's a good defensive catcher, but not a standout at the position. The only real defensive liability in the club's starting nine lies with Angel Pagan in center; Pagan's a high effort/high speed/bad instincts sort of guy who plays flashy but routinely takes bad routes and misjudges the ball off the bat. He's not terrible in center, though that'll change if he starts to slow down, but he's not a point in the defense's favor.
With the collapse of Tim Lincecum the Giants rotation isn't quite what it once was, but Matt Cain, Madison Bumgardner and Ryan Vogelsong are still a formidable top three. Lincecum's had an atrocious spring -- making any sort of lasting judgment based on camp stats is usually a mistake, but an ERA of almost 11 would get most other guys straight-up cut -- on the heels of by far his worst season as a pro, and it's looking more and more like his fastball is gone and never coming back. He's got one more year on his deal with the Giants before free agency; if he keeps this up, he could very likely find himself unable to get anything but a one-year deal to rebuild value or even, worst case scenario, a non-roster invitation. Meanwhile, Barry Zito will continue to cling to the fifth starting job until the team buys out his 2014 -- it's hard to see the team either picking up his $18 million club option or giving him the 200 innings he needs this year to see it vest.
The bullpen also lost its past figurehead, closer Brian Wilson, but it'll be fine without him. Sergio Romo's an elite late-inning reliever, and Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt, and Javier Lopez are great bridges to get to him. Lefty specialist Jose Mijares will be back for another year, notable only in that the Royals, currently in win-now mode, waived Mijares in the middle of last year after half a season of effective pitching. Word out of the organization was they didn't like his attitude. So far, that doesn't seem to be an issue on the Giants; he helped them win the Series last year, and unless something changes over the next few days he'll be back to help them try and repeat in 2013.
Third Place: The Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks had an interesting offseason, essentially purging their locker room to suit manager Kirk Gibson's tastes for what a major league player is. Gone from the lineup are Justin Upton, Chris Young, Stephen Drew; replacing them are Martin Prado, Cody Ross, and Cliff Pennington. It's a substantial sacrifice of upside -- Justin Upton stands a decent chance of being worth as much at the plate this year as Prado, Ross, and Pennington put together -- and while Prado is a solid, known quality at the dish, Ross's substantial Fenway power spike from last year should disappear, leaving him an average hitter with a susceptibility to good left-handed pitching. Pennington was never any great shakes to begin with at the plate, but last year was especially disappointing for him there. He makes up for his hitting on the field, however. Of the returning players, Jason Kubel is a decent bat, and 1B Paul Goldschmidt has tremendous power, though he's shown a pronounced weakness to right-handed pitching since he came up. Miguel Montero hits very well for a catcher, with a very good batter's eye, and Aaron Hill was the best second baseman in baseball at the plate not named "Robinson Cano" in 2012. He had a similar power spike with Toronto in 2009 and was completely unable to build on it the following season, but the Diamondbacks are hoping that's not the case this time around.
The strength of the Diamondbacks' defense lies up the middle. When Adam Eaton is healthy, middle infielders Pennington and Hill and Eaton in center will be the best in the division; however, problems emerge in the corners. Jason Kubel in left should be DHing in the American League somewhere. Cody Ross in right is merely adequate. Martin Prado is the third baseman, a position he hasn't ever played regularly -- he spent about 40 games there a year when he was with the Braves, spelling Chipper Jones, while the majority of his time was spent at second base or, more recently, in left field. It'll be interesting to see how he handles it. Goldschmidt is average at first base, and while Miguel Montero's intangibles are reputedly off the charts, he's a solid but not spectacular defensive catcher behind the plate. Shortstop Didi Gregorius, who the Diamondbacks traded for this offseason and whose defense they compared to a young Derek Jeter (this was apparently a compliment?) may or may not eventually stick at the major league level this year; he's currently out with a UCL sprain.
While the Diamondbacks don't have a blow-you-away ace on the staff -- the closest they come is Ian Kennedy, who struggled last year after a breakout 2011 campaign -- they have very nice depth, along with a pair of good young arms getting ready to come up in Archie Bradley and Tyler Skaggs. They'd be even deeper if the team hadn't decided to trade away Trevor Bauer, but he wasn't one of Kirk Gibson's guys so he's the top pitching prospect in Cleveland now instead. Trevor Cahill and Wade Miley probably aren't as good as the numbers they put up last year, but they should still turn in decent results this season, and with Brandon McCarthy and the impending return of Daniel Hudson from the disabled list, it's entirely possible the Diamondbacks could have good-not-great pitching from every slot in their rotation -- and if you do that, you have one of the better rotations in baseball. It's how the Baltimore Orioles made it through last year, though the circumstances behind their 2012 success shouldn't ever be seen as prescriptive. As it stands, the highs of the Dodgers and Giants rotations are too high for me to favor Arizona over either of them, but it's not a bad group of young talent at all.
I almost want to dock the Diamondbacks a spot just for actively acquiring Heath Bell after his disastrous 2012, but Bell's just one pitcher, and setup man David Hernandez and closer J.J. Putz are better late options than anyone else has in the West outside of San Francisco. Hernandez was particularly impressive last season, striking out 98 batters in 68 innings, and Putz has been back to his old self ever since that disastrous 2009 with the Mets. The rest of the guys in the pen -- Tony Sipp, Brad Ziegler, Matt Reynolds -- get the job done well enough, though in Reynolds' case one has to hope he's purged his memories of Colorado clear out of his system. Josh Collmenter, he of the distinctive over-the-top delivery, looks to be the longman out of the pen, which is good news for the starting rotation.
Fourth Place: The San Diego Padres
The Padres are in the middle of a short-term rebuild, having dealt Mat Latos away last year to the Reds for prospects and in all likelihood looking to deal 3B Chase Headley this year as well, assuming Headley comes back well from his hand injury. That said I don't actually think they'll finish in last, as most rebuilding teams would, in part because they've already gotten their hands on a lot of the talent they need to claw their way back up to respectability -- and the other team they'll be fighting for last already has a pretty good head start.
The lineup is the strength of the club, despite being the worst in the division, but it has no real standout hitters besides Headley and left fielder Carlos Quentin -- yet. The Padres are hoping that Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal, both of whom came over from the Reds in the Latos deal, can put together solid sophomore campaigns in the San Diego organization; Grandal's chances of doing so are going to be hurt a bit by the 50-game suspension he'll be serving at the beginning of the year for failing a drug test for PEDs. Jedd Gyorko (pronounced "Jerko") looks to have the second base job wrapped up after a fine spring, relegating Logan Forsythe to a utility role. Will Venable and Chris Denorfia should be a fairly effective right field platoon so long as manager Bud Black employs them properly, but it's unlikely they'll combine for much better than league average hitting. Cameron Maybin is still looking to put everything together and is running out of time to do so, and Everth Cabrera is a utility player waiting to happen.
In the field, the Padres are fairly solid up the middle. Maybin is a good centerfielder and Cabrera can handle his position adequately, but Gyorko might be bouncing between second and third for the duration of Chase Headley's thumb injury. The Padres originally developed him as a third baseman thinking that Headley would move off the position to the outfield corner, and when Headley stuck at third, transitioned Gyorko to second. Reports about his play there have been good; the thinking is that when Gyorko is at third, the second baseman will be either Forsythe or another utility man, Alexi Amarista. In the outfield corners, Carlos Quentin is a statue in left and it's likely only a matter of time before he hurts himself out there again; in right, Will Venable is very good defensively but Chris Denorfia is, well, not so much. Nick Hundley is very good behind the plate, where he'll start the season full time due to Grandal's suspension, and Grandal is an offense-first catcher, which is a nice way of saying he's got a lot of work to do before a manager trusts him to play there every day.
The San Diego rotation features Jason Marquis as a third starter, which is to say that the rotation is extremely uncompelling and could explode at any time. Edinson Volquez, another former Red, is the staff "ace;" when Volquez is on, he's a very good, live arm, but the problem is that once he's off his game things snowball out of control, and one of the things that seems to throw him off his game the most is … the first inning. Not a very good quality in a starting pitcher. The Padres are hoping, as the Reds did before them, that this will be the year he finally finds his consistency. Clayton Richard, the number two man, came over from the White Sox a few years back in the Jake Peavy deal and has been mildly worse than average since then, once one considers the pitcher-friendly confines of Petco Park. He's a fine pitcher for the back of a rotation; not the front of it. The Padres were hoping that top pitching prospect Casey Kelly would be able to come up and bump one of Tyson Ross or Eric Stults out of the rotation soon enough, but Kelly will undergo Tommy John surgery this April and is lost until most likely the middle of next year.
The Padres bullpen bears a lot of similarity to the Arizona pen -- great in the late innings with closer Huston Street and setup man Luke Gregerson, iffy from then on, except with a far steeper dropoff than the Diamondback staff. Most of the Padres' middle relief options -- Brad Brach, Joe Thatcher, Dale Thayer, Tom Layne -- are retreads from last year, and none of them were particularly great at getting guys out then, either.
Fifth Place: The Colorado Rockies
Then there's the Rockies. The lineup in Colorado is not what it once was. Todd Helton's well on the decline, but he still gets on base at a decent clip, while Troy Tulowitzki is still one of the premier players in the game both at the plate and in the field. Carlos Gonzalez's issues away from Coors Field are well known, but luckily for him, he still plays half his games at Coors, and he does a lot there with his bat to help his team. Michael Cuddyer's not what he used to be at the plate -- he'd need to get on base closer to a .340 clip for that to be the case -- and the Rockies' new second baseman, Josh Rutledge, needs to show he can adjust to major league quality pitching; he scorched the ball for the first part of his call-up last year, but fell off towards the tail end of the season. Dexter Fowler and Wilin Rosario were gems at the plate last year for the Rockies, Coors-heavy though their hitting was. The team as a whole had an OPS swing of 200 points between its home and away performances, which is one of the many Coors-related idiosyncrasies the team's management has to contend with.
The Rockies have some fielding issues as well. Tulowitzki and Rutledge are great up the middle, provided Tulowitzki stays healthy this year. Rutledge is a converted shortstop that has the instincts, pivot ability and quick-twitch necessary to play second very well. After that, well, Chris Nelson's a third baseman because the Rockies have nowhere else to put him; Todd Helton and Michael Cuddyer are statues in the field at this point in their careers; Wilin Rosario isn't Jesus Montero behind the plate but his defense is nothing to brag about, and Dexter Fowler is another speed guy with questionable instincts in center. At least Carlos Gonzalez has handled left field well since his transition out of center, as well he should considering it's left field.
That's not the real problem with the Rockies, though. The real problem with the Rockies is symbiotic with where they play and their entire identity as a team. The best pitcher on staff is Jhoulys Chacin, who pitched all of 69 big-league innings last year but has the most potential of anyone currently in the Rockies system. Behind him are Jorge de la Rosa and Juan Nicasio. All three of these pitchers have spent substantial amounts of time on the disabled list the past few years, and it's questionable how much they'll really be able to contribute before something else lands them right back there. And behind them? Jeff Francis and Jon Garland, two guys with their best years far behind them being thrown out like meat to hungry dogs. In a stadium at a reasonable altitude, with a guaranteed bill of clean health, it's a better rotation than what the Twins and Astros will be running out there every day this year -- but in the real world, they're pitching in Coors Field and are one injury away from Chris Volstad getting starts.
The bullpen's the bright spot of the club. Rafael Betancourt is an effective late relief option with tenure, and Matt Belisle and Wilton Lopez are both effective set up options. Why the Rockies thought they needed to acquire Lopez from Houston is another question entirely, but now that he's in Colorado he should do them proud. I want Rex Brothers to succeed because of his name, and if he cuts down his walks he might do just that. Edgmer Escalona, Adam Ottavino, and the aforementioned Chris Volstad do little to engender confidence, however, and I worry that with a rotation as questionable as the one the Rockies will break camp with how long it will take before even the bright spots in this bullpen burn themselves out.
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The NL West shares a lot in common with the AL West. Both divisions look like they're shaping up to be three-team races pretty early in the affair, with two clear favorites and one team very close behind them, and while on paper I don't think any of the NL West teams look like clear World Series contenders the way I think the Angels do, well, one of them has won the thing two of the last three years. That has to count for something.