Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Predicting the NL West

I conclude my 2012 season preview (about one week into the 2012 season...) with the National League West, where pitching is king. But could the division's one offensive-minded team surprise everyone? Predictions, away!

1. Arizona Diamondbacks (88-74; 3rd playoff seed)
I get the sense that people doubt the Diamondbacks' remarkable 2011 improvement was for real. I don't see how it couldn't be, though, for it was built on an extremely solid foundation. Blowing up the 2010 team's poisonous bullpen, noted bullpen architect and GM Kevin Towers fixed what had been his team's biggest weakness with the additions of relief aces like JJ Putz and Brad Ziegler. Moreover, two of the team's most talented prospects, Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, both realized their potential last year in the starting rotation; it would be more surprising if they regressed this year, considering the promise that was held for them when they were minor leaguers. Sure, their ERAs might rise a couple dozen points—that's only natural—but they're fundamentally still anchors to a rotation that now also includes Trevor Cahill for insurance.

And how can you not like the lineup, centered as it is on Triple Crown threat Justin Upton? Young pillars Miguel Montero, Ryan Roberts, and Chris Young give the middle of the order even more pop. Just as the pitchers have insurance, though, the Arizona offense will benefit from a full year of Aaron Hill, Stephen Drew, and Paul Goldschmidt. One prediction, though: Gerardo Parra will find his way back into the starting nine.

I am forecasting a modest reduction in wins for the DBacks, but that has more to do with the fact that their run differential wasn't so extreme last year anyway. Perhaps more to the point, it would take a miracle for any other NL West team to win 88.

2. Colorado Rockies (85-77)
The Rockies are my pick for 2012's surprise team. The more I look at this roster, the more upside I see, and it all starts with the Colorado lineup. It is, in my opinion, the best in the National League; indeed, it tied for the second-most runs scored in 2011. Excepting a questionable third-base situation, no expected starter had an OBP below .341 last year, while the meat of the order (Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos González, and Michael Cuddyer) all has 30-home-run power. At the top of the order are tablesetters, Dexter Fowler and Marco Scutaro, who actually get on base (imagine that!), and soon to be patching that hole at third base is minor-league slugger Nolan Arenado. In a division light on hitting and heavy on dominant pitching, there's something tempting about thinking that the advantage goes to the one team that breaks that mold.

No one questions the offensive punch, but there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Colorado pitching staff. Nevertheless, I just have a feeling about Colorado's rotation. Jhoulys Chacín is the leader of the staff, with a remarkable 142 ERA+ in 2010 and 124 last year. Juan Nicasio, who infamously broke his neck on a comebacker but is amazingly returning to the rotation this year, was also above average in 2011 and displayed a K/BB ratio (3.22) that implied he'll be even better. And Drew Pomeranz, who came from Cleveland in the Ubaldo Jiménez trade, is one of the most dynamic young arms in the game—I expect him to be dominant over a full season.

Rounding out the rotation will be Jeremy Guthrie and Jamie Moyer, who are easy to make fun of but both of whom I happen to believe in. Moyer earned his rotation spot on merit and guile, and if he could do it at 47, why not 49? Guthrie, meanwhile, has done OK in the AL East for the past couple of seasons and will be no worse of an innings sponge for the Rockies. Finally, ex-ace Jorge De La Rosa returns from surgery in June and could replace a starter who struggles. The talent and depth here is undeniable.

I'm not quite ready to say that the Rockies rotation will form a five-man army that takes the NL West by storm. But it should step up to bring this top-notch offensive team into contention—and the potential is there for much, much more. If things break right, Colorado could run away with the division title.

3. San Francisco Giants (84-78)
That is more than I can say for the Giants, who appear to have hit a ceiling with their two-way low-score strategy. San Francisco can take solace in the fact that they will be an improved ball club in 2012. But wait, they won 86 games last year—how is 84 an improvement? Well, as any Giants fan will tell you, they didn't play like an 86-win team last year—in fact, their Pythagorean record was only 80-82, as they scored even fewer runs than the paltry total they gave up. Bluntly put, the Giants must score more if they hope to even achieve a winning record.

Their best hope to that end, of course, is the return of a healthy Buster Posey, who could create up to 100 runs by himself. The Giants also traded for Melky Cabrera to help set the table, but I believe that he'll revert to his career averages after a stunningly good year last year (.305/.339/.470, with 102 runs scored). However, I am optimistic (though cautiously so) about Aubrey Huff, who has come back from the dead twice before (in 2008 and 2010). I have a suspicion that the even-year trend will continue. San Franciscans better hope it does, too, because Giants management seems hell-bent on not giving fellow first baseman Brandon Belt, who could be a major offensive contributor and a potential solution to their woes, a chance, regardless of Huff's contribution.

The pitching, of course, you expect to be dominant every year. However, with the trade of Jonathan Sánchez, there are potential depth issues. As much as you have to love his story, it strikes me as improbable that Ryan Vogelsong will be able to replicate his 2011 success after four years out of the majors. Meanwhile, Barry Zito (2011 ERA: 5.87) is about as terrible as a fifth starter can be, and there is no one waiting in the pipeline to serve as reinforcements.

Expect the pitching to slack off a little but the offense to improve—marginally. The return of Posey, and possibly of Huff, will provide a four-game bump or so from that should-have-been 2011 record of 80-82. But no team can reach the playoffs with an offense this bad.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers (74-88)
The Dodgers have one of the best position players in the game, one of the best pitchers in the game, and little else.

The lineup, in a word, will be bad. Even Matt Kemp probably can't be counted on to repeat his MVP-caliber performance; his 10.0 rWAR was unprecedented since Barry Bonds. Others might point to Andre Ethier and James Loney making up for any lost production from Kemp, but those two are way overrated. Ethier hit only 11 home runs in 2011, representing a multi-year decline in that category, while James Loney is average at a position where more is demanded. Similarly, Dee Gordon has been the topic of much conversation this spring, but he'll never steal a base if he can't get on (his .325 OBP in 2011 was propped up by a .304 batting average, which benefited from a .345 BABIP). And I just feel sorry for a team that donates a lineup slot to Juan Uribe.

In fairness, the rotation has a chance to be half-decent. I believed strongly at this time last year that Chad Billingsley would return to his 2008 form, but he actually regressed; I'm not going to be as easily convinced this time around. That said, Ted Lilly and Aaron Harang kept their ERAs under 4 last year while playing the priceless role of innings eater, and Chris Capuano is someone I'll keep my eye on—he had a 3.17 K/BB ratio in 2011. Still, apart from 33 Clayton Kershaw starts, it's a coin flip whether the rotation gives you a win or spots you a loss. In my coin flip, they're coming up tails.

5. San Diego Padres (72-90)
Just as the Dodgers will be worse than many people are expecting, I think the Padres could be better—pushing the Dodgers for fourth place. (But notice that it's still a bit of a stretch to actually pick them for fourth.) Especially compared to the atrocious Los Angeles lineup, there's some interesting offensive potential for the Padres. Looking at their projected starters, my eye goes immediately to Yonder Alonso, who mashed major-league pitching in two September callups with the Reds the past two years; San Diego and I both expect big things from him. The Padres also traded for Carlos Quentin and locked up Cameron Maybin, who will provide the requisite power and speed, respectively. Of course, the problem is that PETCO Park will always swallow up a respectable percentage of the Friars' offense as tribute.

On the other hand, that also contributes to San Diego's perennial flirtation with the team ERA crown. This year, as in all others, the Padres will go as far as their starting pitching takes them. Like many, I am a believer in Cory Luebke as the team's ace in waiting—can't ignore 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings. The rest of the rotation looks good on the surface thanks to PETCO-deflated ERAs but could probably use some work. Dustin Moseley doesn't have the peripheral stats to be a reliable starter, while Tim Stauffer (3.73) and Clayton Richard (3.88) were actually below average according to ERA+. However, for the same reasons, I don't think the loss of Mat Latos will hurt much, and I have a good feeling about his replacement, Edinson Vólquez, for whom PETCO could be a confidence-booster coming from Great American Ballpark. The real source of hope for Padres fans, though, is that electric arms Andrew Cashner and Casey Kelly will be inserted into that rotation at some point in the middle of the season. If they live up to what they're capable of, they'll be the reason I pick the Padres for first in this space in 2015.

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