NL West Preview
Owing to the requirements of SEC rules which require publicly held corporations to disseminate to their shareholders materially adverse news, companies are notorious for issuing these negative press releases on Friday afternoons, after the stock market has closed. The thought is that the weekend news cycle may push the negative item to a less-publicized standing by the time Monday morning rolls around and the stock market reopens.
Need to issue an earnings warning because your quarterly results are going to fall short of previously-issued guidance? Use Friday to issue a 4:30pm EST press release. Need to announce the sudden resignation of your CEO so that he can ‘spend more time with his family’? No better time than Friday evening. Writing a preview piece for the upcoming baseball season that is relatively negative on the fortunes of your current hometown team – a team on which you are friends with some employees? Write it up Friday night for weekend dissemination in the middle of March Madness!
(Note to self: Send resume to Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Pryce’s PR division.)
Los Angeles Dodgers
More than any other division in baseball last year, the AL West was a tale of two seasons with very different outcomes. A look at the closing standings for 2013 shows the Dodgers atop the NL West by 11 games, the largest margin between first and second place in MLB’s six divisions. It would therefore, be quite logical to assume that the Dodgers breezed to a division title. However, that was hardly the case. On June 22, seventy-two games into the season and just 9 games away from the half-way point, the Dodgers took the field with a 30-42 record, 12 games under .500 and 9 ½ games out of first place. Los Angeles wasn’t just in last place, they had been there for 47 consecutive calendar days and it was a foregone conclusion that Manager Don Mattingly would be fired in short order.
The Dodgers won on June 22, they won on June 23, 24, 25 etc. and although their consecutive days in last place reached 56 days just one month later, on July 22, the Dodgers were in first place – a position they held for the next consecutive 69 days until the end of the season.
The call-up of Yasiel Puig from the minors in June, just prior to the Dodgers surge made it pretty easy for sportswriters to craft a narrative for the cause of the turnaround. At the exact same time, Hanely Ramirez came off the disabled list to play in about 80 of the last 90 games and as much as Puig electrified fans with his .319/.391/.534 batting line, Ramirez was even better at .345/.402/.638 and the press noticed, rightfully providing enough voting support to land Ramirez 8th in NL MVP voting, despite only playing half the season.
As easy of those narratives were to identify, Don Mattingly – at exactly the point his job was in serious jeopardy – corrected a major roster construction flaw he inherited from the front office. (Please note that Wendy Thurm covered the following thoroughly in the Dodgers essay in this year’s Baseball Prospectus.) Brandon League, a low-strikeout, above-average walk reliever, wholly unqualified to be a closer in today’s environment, had been given an insane 3 yr., $22.5mm contract before the 2013 season. Mattingly had his high-priced closer, and it meant the wrong arms were in the game at the wrong time. The Dodgers bullpen struggled early and on June 21, League, sporting a 5.33 ERA entered a game in the 7th inning – the first time all year he entered before the 9th inning. The next night – June 22 (see above) – Mattingly used Kenley Jansen to save a game, and the Dodgers never looked back.
As I mention, Ms. Thurm covered this in much more detail in her piece, but I wanted to restate the highlights here because bullpens success or failure can really mask the underlying skills of the rest of the team. It’s why the Mariners were a lot better last year than anyone realized, why you should be at least mildly suspicious of bullish Royals and Braves previews, and it’s why the Dodgers didn’t look like anyone’s candidate to win 42 out of 50 games even though the talent to do it was there all along.
The Dodgers enter 2014 with best bullpen in the division, the best lineup and the best starting pitching so, of course, they’re favored to win the division. There wasn’t much value in making that assessment last year (the Dodgers total wins market was 91) and at 94 wins this year (when they started the season in Australia) there’s even less value this year. I’ve got the Dodgers winning 91 games just like I did last year, but unlike last year, I don’t have them going to the World Series. I don’t think they have the best rotation in the league, nor the best lineup and they definitely don’t have the easiest schedule – but I’ll get to the team that does later this week.
91-71 – First in NL West
690 Runs Scored 604 Runs Allowed
If you could take two players from one lineup in the NL West to build a team around, who would you choose? Buster Posey, turning a peak-age 27 this week and a catcher to boot, is probably the most valuable piece you could start a team with, but who on the Giants are you going to pair him with? The Diamondbacks have Paul Goldschmidt but he plays first base where power is still prevalent throughout the league and while he’s still young, at this point he’s still a poor-man’s Ryan Howard. (That’s right, I said it. Look at Howard’s age 25- and 26-year seasons, to see the comps the 26 year-old Goldschmidt is facing this year.) You might take Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez on the Dodgers and if you’re guaranteed to get the 2013 Ramirez that’s a defendable choice, but Ramirez only played 86 games last year and the 2011 and 2012 Ramirez was a merely league-average shortstop.
Why not start with the best shortstop in the league and pair him with a speedy, .300 hitting outfielder with considerable power? That’s what the Rockies have in Troy Tulowitzki, truly the most underrated superstar in baseball and Carlos Gonzalez, a very underappreciated outfielder (outside fantasy circles), both of whom are still under 30.
In addition, to that rock-solid core the Rockies have two proven veterans in Michael Cuddyer (who quietly had a fabulous year last year – a late blooming sabermetric-favorite if there ever was one) and new this year, former MVP Justin Morneau. Morneau still needs to demonstrate he’s recovered from career-halting side effects of a concussion but he’ll be replacing the meager 2013 contributions of the retired Todd Helton. Helton may be revered, justifiably, in Denver, but between his and Jordan Pacheco’s 700 at-bats at first base, the Rockies had the second-least productive first basemen in the majors – the most important hitting position in baseball. (The Brewers were worse.) If Morneau had just a league-average year, the run production increase with be quite notable.
Nolan Arenado learned on-the-job as a 21 year-old third baseman and looks poised to be the Rockies next breakout star – if he can beat 25 year-old catcher Wilin Rosario to that distinction. The Rockies only have one lineup hole, DJ LeMahieu at second base, and as a result should return to their perch as the highest-scoring team in the National League and possibly all of baseball. That would represent a huge uptick as they finished 77 runs behind the Cardinals and 147 behind the Red Sox, respectively, for that distinction last year.
A great offense is nothing unusual for Colorado but the real reason I think they will finish second in the division and threaten for the Wild Card is that the addition of Brett Anderson to the rotation gives the Rockies a fairly adequate starting five. The defense, an enormously important factor in Coors Field, improved last year thanks to the addition of youngsters and I’m projecting another leap in competence in 2014.
There is zero chatter about the Rockies this spring that I can discern and I love that for the value that may lie in their total wins market. Colorado opened at 75 ½ in Las Vegas, and while it hasn’t moved there, it is listed at 76 ½ at most off-shore books I’ve seen. In either of those cases, I enthusiastically support the over.
82-80 – Second in NL West
767 Runs Scored 761 Runs Allowed
San Francisco Giants
If the Dodgers were one side of the ‘tale-of-two-seasons’ coin, there had to be someone residing on the other side, and in this case it was the Giants. The 2012 World Champions got their title defense off to a fine start in 2013, sitting atop the NL West by a couple of games after the first quarter of the season. The Giants started 23-15, looking exactly like the team that had the perfect combination of pitching, defense, and high-contact offense that had captured two World Series flags in the last three seasons. Then, they embarked on a six-game road trip in Toronto and Colorado and it all fell apart. The Giants went 1-5 in those games giving up 52 runs in the process. Sure, any pitching staff can hit a rough patch and there’s no reason to draw conclusions, but in this case it wasn’t the pitching that sent up the red flags. The Giants defense looked horrendous during that trip and it turned out to be a worrisome omen. The defense only got worse as the season went on and what was a top-tier unit from 2010-2012 fell to bottom-quadrant by the end of 2013.
The Giants only won 76 games and while they really had the underlying results of a 79-win team, it’s hard to see where a lot of improvement will come from in 2014, especially as I now project the defensive decline to continue. Further, when only 76 wins result is the result at the same that two of your players have career years, it’s problematic. While I certainly believe there are bigger things ahead for Brandon Belt, I’m just as sure a decade from now, it’s as likely 2013 turned out to be a career year for Hunter Pence as it was for Macklemore. A full season from Angel Pagan will help on the margin, but it’s more ‘wishcasting’ than forecasting to think the newly signed, 32 year-old Michael Morse, lugging a 25% strikeout rate in a park that punishes three-outcome players, is going to return to his pre-2013 form, as opposed to the worst outfielder in the majors, on a rate basis, that he was last year. (-1.6 WAR in just 337 plate appearances.)
There is some good news on the other side of the ledger. When it comes to year-over-year changes in the starting pitching, there is plenty of room for improvement. Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong tossed 231 innings of 5.60+ ERA baseball – a truly dreadful result considering the run-suppressing environment in which they toil half the time. Zito is gone, but with gratitude, not mocking from a fan base that will never forget his 2012 post-season heroics. The Giants will assuredly get better production from their new rotation member, Zito’s former A’s teammate, Tim Hudson. The Vogelsong problem, however, is unresolved. His skill-based peripherals have declined the last two years and even if management has him on a short leash, it doesn’t appear there are a lot of in-house options in 2014 that would result in playoff-inducing improvement.
Tired of a downbeat forecast, Giants fans? Let me go on record with Madison Bumgarner as my 2014 NL Cy Young Award pick.
With a 7-year old daughter showing interest in baseball cards this spring, Little League fields filled with a rotating cast of kids on Saturdays in the City, and the knowledge of knowing how much more fun a baseball season is when the local team has October aspirations, I’m disappointed to say I don’t see the Giants being in the post-season mix. I can’t see them scoring more runs than last year and while there will be some improvement in the starting pitching, for there to be a lot of improvement, the defense must arrest a troubling trend that surfaced one-quarter of the way through the season.
San Francisco’s total wins market opened at 85 ½ (and is quoted at 86 ½ some places). It’s with disappointment I make them a fairly strong “under” call for the season.
81-81 – Third in NL West
637 Runs Scored 640 Runs Allowed
San Diego Padres
The Padres have been a winning “over” pick two years in a row in these pages. The oddsmakers have caught on this year however, as a market which sat at 73 ½ and 74 respectively, the last two years has been set at 78 ½ this year. As of now, it’s a “pass” in 2014, as the Padres have a roster that still projects having trouble scoring more runs than they give up.
That puts them roughly in the same boat as their three other division mates chasing the Dodgers. The Rockies are the most attractive “over” play due to expectations (as reflected in their wins market) and the Giants are an “under” play for the opposite reason, but the Padres are the team with the most upside. There is so much exciting under-30 talent on this team, that I can see a clear path to 90 wins that isn’t very far-fetched. The problem at the moment is injuries. Cory Luebke has been lost for the season, and Josh Johnson, Cameron Maybin, and Yasmani Grandal are all in danger of missing chunks of playing time in April.
Those injuries, inconsistent play from some-time All Stars, Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin, as well as other young players make it impossible to place a high probability on a post-season outcome. But make no mistake about it, if I had to place a bet on which of the four teams outside of Los Angeles would win the most games the next three years, my bet would be on the Padres.
80-82 – Fourth in NL West
627 Runs Scored 633 Runs Allowed
The Diamondbacks, an 81-81 team for each of the last two years, took steps to improve their lineup in the offseason adding Mark Trumbo and his annual 30 home runs. The problem for Arizona is that any additional runs Trumbo will provide (and frankly, the additional home runs will be offset by a low batting average and a terrible glove) are certainly lost with the news that staff ace Patrick Corbin is likely lost for the year.
77-85 – Fifth in NL West
679 Runs Scored 713 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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