Tuesday, April 5, 2011

2011 NL West Preview

The definition of "cleat chaser"

1) Los Angeles Dodgers
2) Colorado Rockies
3) San Francisco Giants
4) San Diego Padres
5) Arizona Diamondbacks


This may be the year we find out just how much a bad manager can impact a team. I will admit that we only have a few data points on Don Mattingly's managerial ability, but they have mostly been poor. I tend to think that managing a team is one of the easier jobs in sports, but it would be nice if he had at least SOME experience. Despite Donnie Baseball's lack of experience, I like this Dodger team, mainly for its rotation and bullpen. In a division with potentially no above average lineups (the D'Backs look the strongest), the team with the strongest pitching should take the title. The rotation should be really strong top to bottom, with Clayton Kershaw (see Player to Watch Under 25) a clear ace, Chad Billingsley a notch below, Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda as great middle of the rotation starters, and John Garland pitching in a big ballpark. The bullpen also looks like a strength if Jonathan Broxton can rebound. The weakness, like the rest of the NL West, is the lineup. Matt Kemp appears poised to return to stardom after regaining some focus. Andre Ethier, Juan Uribe and Marcus Thames will provide some much needed power. Rafael Furcal should continue to be an on-base machine at the top of the lineup. There is even some help in the pipeline in Dee Gordon and Jerry Sands. Now if only Frank and Jaime could work things out, all would be well in Dodger Town.

Despite their shockingly weak lineup, I think the Rockies will flirt with contention all year for a lot of the same reason that people think the Cardinals can hang: 2 top 10 offensive players, a dominating ace, a good rest of the rotation and (unlike St. Louis) a potentially dominating bullpen. The team has a few interesting pieces (Dexter Fowler, Ian Stewart, Chris Iannetta, Huston Street, Jhoulys Chacin, the bullpen), but this season all comes down to the health of Troy Tulowitzki and the sustainability of 2010 breakouts from Ubaldo Jimenez and Carlos Gonzalez. The last four seasons, Tulo has played in 155, 101, 151, and 122 games. Hopefully this is a pattern that means he's in for a 150+ season, because when he plays he is one of the 5 best players in baseball. People see his stat line and assume that he is a purely Coors Field creation, but I promise you he is not, despite the pro-Coors splits. Because we have been spoiled by A-Rod and Hanley the last decade, I think we forget how rare it is for a short stop, especially one who can defend, to hit 30 homers in a season. And if people are so quick to ding batters for their performance at Coors, where are they in singing the praises of Ubaldo Jimenez? Jimenez was third in the NL in ERA+ last year, show him some more love. Finally CarGo is the biggest Coors Field product since Dante Bichette. I think he will hit well this year, but will continue with his massive platoon split (1.161 Home OPS/.775 Road OPS) making it really hard for the Rockies to win on the road (31-50 last year). Ultimately the road woes will hold them out of the playoffs.

The defending champs will not repeat. The Giants benefited from a down year by the Rockies and Dodgers,  fluke seasons from Andres Torres and Aubrey Huff (who finished 14th and 17th respectively in WAR in all of baseball) and immaculate health from the top 4 in the rotation and then the late season call up of Madison Bumgarner (and of course the brilliant work of Buster Posey). These are all things that will not happen again. The Rockies and Dodgers figure to play a lot better this year. There is no way the rotation will hold up like it did last year (and their sixth starter is anyone's guess). Torres and Huff are journeymen and just can't play as well as they did last year. Their defense could be disastrous with Huff and Pat Burrell manning the corners and Miguel Tejada's wax figure firmly planted at short. In spite of that, this team will still be competitive. Posey is still here and he's brought fellow phenom Brandon Belt to his party. The rotation is possibly the best in baseball (non-Phillies division) while they are healthy and the bullpen was tremendous last year (although this is, again, another area where regression can be expected). Making repeat trips to the baseball playoffs is not the norm and even fewer teams repeat as champions. The Giants are not the late 90s Yankees. Have fun watching Posey, Belt and Lincecum and enjoy your mild summers.

The Padres can't hit and the D'Backs can't pitch. Combine the two and the team still may be middle of the road. Each team has a stud youngster who they can build around. Mat "Don't Call Me Matt" Latos was absolutely dominant in his first full season and only seems to be moderately aided by Petco as he struck out 9.21 per 9 and walked 2.44 per 9. Health and workload will be questions this year, but Latos looks set to be the anchor of what could be a real good staff if guys like Casey Kelly, Simon Castro and Corey Luebke pan out. I will also be watching closely for a Cameorn Maybin breakout. Over in Phoenix, Justin Upton looks to rebound from his somewhat disappointing 2010 (although it's almost laughable to say a 3.1 WAR season from a 23 year old is disappointing). This kid is still on track to become a super duper star and I would expect numbers similar to those he posted two years ago, which could mean 30 HR and 20 steals, numbers that, before Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds showed up, used to be rare. We should all take a minute to appreciate his talent. Oh, and if Willie Bloomquist batting leadoff is any indication of the type of manager Kirk Gibson will be, we may need to coax the boys at Fire Joe Morgan out of retirement.

Player to Watch Under 25:

Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers, 23 years old

Player A through age 22: 363 IP, 20-21, 4.21 ERA, 98 ERA+, 7.8 K/9, 5.3 BB/9, 7.8 H/9
Player B through age 22: 483 IP, 26-23, 3.17 ERA, 125 ERA+, 9.3 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, 7.2 H/9

Player B of course is Clayton Kershaw. Player A? How about the best left hander in Dodgers (and maybe MLB) history, Sandy Koufax? Now I'm not putting together a Scott Boras player packet, but I find it incredible that Kershaw has been this dominant at such a young age and yet he still feels like he flies under the  radar. How a 6'3'' lefty who strikes out over a batter per inning with a 93 MPH fastball and posts consecutive seasons of sub 3.00 ERA flies under the radar is beyond my comprehension. But I guess you have to date Rihanna or be married to a Kardashian to get noticed in LA.

While doing a little research on Kershaw, it seems like the Dodgers have been awash in stud lefties over their illustrious history. Nap Rucker, Johnny Podres, Koufax, Claude Osteen, Tommy John, Fernandomania, Odalis Perez (just kidding) and now Kershaw. I don't know if this is a lot, a little, or somewhere in between, but it just seemed notable to me. Anyway, Kershaw is already one of the top pitchers in baseball and figures to improve as his secondary pitches develop. While the Freak (Tim Lincecum, who didn't even throw a big league inning until he was 23) can be much more exciting to watch, his counterpart to the south is quickly becoming his equal on the mound, setting up for a tasty rivalry reminiscent of Koufax and Jaun Marichal.

Honorable mention: Justin Upton, Daniel Hudson, Jhoulys Chacin, Dexter Fowler, Carlos Gonzalez, Cameron Maybin

10th Man:
They actually got this one right

All Star Ty Wigginton, Util IF/OF, Rockies (I am contractually obligated to point out that this man is a former All Star)

You'll notice that not once have I selected a relief pitcher as my 10th Man. This is because over 55-70 innings, a reliever is 1) too difficult to predict and 2) not impactful enough to warrant consideration as someone who I feel is likely to alter a pennant race.

All Star Ty Wigginton is currently listed on the Rockies depth chart as a backup at LF, RF, 1B, 2B and 3B. Aside from CarGo, none of the starters at the other positions figure to be world beaters this year. All Star Ty Wigginton does not figure to beat the world either (especially with is poor infield defense), but he does offer some positives to this surprisingly weak hitting Rockies lineup.

Since 2006, All Star Ty Wigginton has belted 20+ homers in every season but 2009 and as recently as 2008 he put up a 128 OPS+ (ironically this is not his All Star year). These seasons mostly occurred in hitter's parks, but as he is playing in the best hitter's park this year we can expect another 20+ homers with enough plate appearances. While his infield D is pretty bad, there is something to be said for a guy you can run out at 5 different positions, especially one who has the bat to play anywhere. Most interestingly, with Bruce Bochy's veteran loving ass managing the NL All Star team this year, there is a chance we could see the worst 2 time All Star since Scott Cooper! If All Star Ty Wigginton gets over 400 at bats, I think he could positively impact the Rockies, who have the pitching, defense and top end talent to sneak into the playoffs with a couple strong seasons from some veteran role players like All Star Ty Wigginton.

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