MLB Divisional Previews: NL West

This is the fifth installment in our series of MLB Divisional previews.  Teams are broken down into categories (“Contenders”, “Rebuilding” and “Stuck in the Middle”).  At the bottom is my predicted finish for the division.  See my “primer” article for any questions or clarification.  As mentioned before, if you would like to see a full write-up on your favorite team, sound off in the comments and we’d be happy to oblige.

Ubaldo Jimenez: Can you believe this string brean can hit 100 mph?

Contenders

Colorado Rockies

Why they could win the division: Pitching depth

When you think about the Rockies’ franchise, you immediately think about Coors’ Field, all the homeruns hit there and all the big bats they’ve had.  It seems odd then to tab pitching as the main reason they might win the division.  But go through their major league roster and you will find plenty of solid starters (not to mention the bullpen).  Ubaldo Jimenez is the clear ace and finally broke through last year into the elite class of starters.  He’s got top-notch velocity and gets a ton of grounders, which is very important when playing in the thin air of Colorado.  Solid yet unspectacular arms like Aaron Cook and Jason Hammel will slot in somewhere behind him in this rotation, but it’s live arms like Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin and Felipe Paulino that have the potential to make this rotation special.  De La Rosa, 29, and Paulino, 27, are late bloomers with good stuff.  Chacin, only 23, is the jewel of the group though.  He’s got a good fastball, but his offspeed pitches are excellent.

Why they might not: Injuries

Quite simply, the team has a ton of players who could be described as “injury prone” to some degree.  SS Troy Toluwitzki, probably their best hitter, has missed 7, 61, 11 and 40 games the last four years respectively.  Cook only made 27 and 23 starts the last two years respectively and De La Rosa only made 20 starts last year as well.  RP Huston Street had arm problems last year and missed at least a third of the season.  I’m not even going to mention 1B Todd Helton and his creaky back.  This team needs to stay healthy.  God forbid Jimenez or one of their big hitters like Tulowitzki or RF Carlos Gonzalez goes down.  If two or even one of them does, this team could be in trouble.

On the way: C Wilin Rosario

There are a ton of good young catchers in the minors right now and Rosario is certainly one of them.  His approach at the plate still needs some work, but he hit 19 homers in only 270 at-bats last season in Double-A.  His glove is very strong as well.  Assuming he’s recovered from the knee injury he sustained, he should start the year in the upper minors.  The Rockies seem set on giving former top prospect Chris Ianetta one last shot to claim the starting catching job.  He better run with it, or Rosario could be up sooner rather than later.

Game on: SP Jhoulys Chacin

As you can tell from the section above on the pitching staff, I’m quite bullish on Chacin.  He made only 22 starts in the minors before making it to the majors, but you wouldn’t know it by how composed he was on the mound.  The fastball is good, sitting around 91 mph, but the curve and slider are electric.  His change is coming along as well, so it looks like he’s going to have a legitimate four pitch arsenal.  It’s all about control and command for this kid.  He averaged 4 BB/9 last season.  If he can get that into the mid to low 3’s, he’s going to be something special.

Game on: CF Dexter Fowler

I don’t like to double up on these, but in this case I couldn’t help myself.  I think a lot of people have given up on Fowler because he’s taken longer to develop than most expected.  But let’s not forget, this is a kid that skipped the Triple-A level completely on his way to the majors.  He predictably struggled and found himself at Triple-A last year, for the first time, for some fine tuning.  He’s got excellent tools and for as raw as he is, he’s actually shown a pretty good approach at the plate.  He’s got excellent speed and athleticism which should make him a plus defender in centerfield.  I don’t think he will ever develop the 20-25 homer power some expected, but a possible 15 homers with 30-35 steals and a .280/.380/.450 line is nothing to sneeze at.

San Francisco Giants

Why they could win the division: Rotation

It doesn’t take a genius to look at the Giants’ roster and come up with this answer.  The Giants are absolutely loaded with good starting pitchers.  In fact, that might be underselling them.  They are loaded with great starting pitchers.  Tim Lincecum had trouble with his mechanics at times last year and took a small step back during the regular season.  But if you watched him at all in the playoffs, you know he’s still got plenty left.  I expect a return to his prior level or production this season.  Matt Cain still puts up sparkling numbers despite the lack of wins to go along with them.  His stuff is every bit as good as Lincecum’s at this point.  He’s very underrated.  Those two are phenomenal pitchers, but it was Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner that took this rotation from really good to great last season.  For Sanchez it was just a matter of harnessing his stuff.  Bumgarner on the other hand has lost some velocity (he now sits in the low 90’s), but has countered that with a very good curveball and changeup.  He showed amazing poise during the postseason last year, as he was barely old enough to drink any of the champagne being sprayed on him after the World Series win.  Throw in a rejuvenated Barry Zito to round out the rotation and you’ve got yourself maybe the best starting five in the league.

Why they might not: Lineup

It’s improving, but it’s still not where it needs to be.  C Buster Posey is an absolute stud, but if you are expecting the power to keep coming at the same rate it did last season, you are going to be disappointed.  Instead, expect improvements in his BB and K rates.  Unfortunately, other than Posey, there isn’t really a legitimate bat in the lineup.  1B Aubrey Huff and OF Andres Torres had big seasons last year, but Huff has alternated stellar seasons with disappointing ones his whole career and Torres is old (in baseball terms) and does not have the track record to back up that kind of production.  3B Pablo Sandoval has shown flashes, but he continues to struggle with his weight and his approach at the plate.  They really need someone to step up and provide credible protection for Posey.  And that guy could be…

On the way: 1B Brandon Belt

This guy came out of nowhere last year.  He was a fifth round pick in 2009 and most scouts thought his bat was too slow to translate to the majors and wood bats.  29 homeruns, 112 RBI and a .352 batting average later, he had certainly proven them wrong.  Belt put up those numbers across three levels last season, finishing up at Triple-A.  He’s got solid plate discipline and good athleticism for a man his size.  I don’t think he’ll break camp with the Giants, but he should certainly see the inside of AT&T Park at some point before the All-Star break, especially if the offense struggles.  He or Aubrey Huff could conceivably play a corner outfield spot, so there’s no worry in terms of position.

Don’t believe the hype: SP Madison Bumgarner

I know, I know, I went on and on about him above.  I really do like him.  But because of his pedigree and former velocity (he used to sit in the upper 90’s), I think people expect are expecting a Lincecum-esque year.  I’m not seeing that…  yet.  He should very capably hold down the fourth spot in the rotation, but I expect some bumps in the road along the way.  Take it easy folks, he’s going to be a good one.

Quantum Leap: SP Matt Cain

Like I said above, I think Cain may be every bit the pitcher Lincecum is at this point.  He’s an absolute horse on the mound, pitching at least 217 innings in each of the last three seasons.  His command continues to improve, and while his stuff isn’t as wicked as Lincecum’s, it’s not nearly as far off as many would have you believe.  One of these years he’s going to win 20 games and people are going to take notice.  This could be that year.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Why they could win the division: Rotation

The Dodgers made it into the “Contenders” category, but just barely.  This team is teetering and if the ownership situation doesn’t get sorted out soon, they could be headed south fast.  With that said, they still have enough on paper to contend in this division.  The rotation, while it’s not even close to the Giants’, is still quite solid.  I’ve been a Clayton Kershaw hater over the years, but he’s finally starting to pitch deeper into games, which is the one big step he needs to take to be a true “ace”.  Chad Billingsley continues to whittle down his walk rate little by little and he’s got the stuff to be a frontline guy.  Hiroki Kuroda and Ted Lilly are both still capable mid-rotation guys (assuming they are healthy) and John Garland should be a fine #5.  This isn’t the type of rotation that is going to mow guys down, but they will keep the Dodgers in a lot of games.

Why they might not: Lineup holes

C, 2B, 3B and LF all look like holes offensively.  I’m not sure whether Juan Uribe will play 3B or 2B, but they paid for his playoff numbers and are going to be disappointed when they find out he’s still the same flailing offensive black-hole he’s always been.  The Casey Blake trade might be one of the worst in recent memory (they gave the Indians C Carlos Santana for him).  He’s pretty much done at this point, but they might be forced into giving him extensive time at third again.  They would be wise to give Xavier Paul a shot in left (or center if they move Matt Kemp to a corner like they should).  He’s got speed and on-base ability and at 26, he’s running out of time.  C Dioner Navarro is being counted on for a lot of at-bats and they better hope he produces better than he did in Tampa last season.

Quantum Leap: SP Clayton Kershaw

Like I said above, I’m putting my eternal bias against Kershaw aside here.  Here’s the deal, the kid was rushed to the majors in 2008 at the age of 20.  Since he was so young, the Dodgers used the “kid gloves” on him for two years, basically not letting him pitch past the 6th inning.  Kershaw didn’t help himself either, amassing high pitch counts early in games due to lots of walks.  But last season, he seemed to turn a corner.  He finally hit the 200 inning mark (204 to be exact) and he brought the walk rate down a bit.  His stuff has never been in question with his fastball sitting around 93 mph and accompanied by a great slider.  He had a great curve coming up as well, but he had some trouble controlling it last year.  If he can continue to keep the walk rate coming down and manage to pitch to contact just a bit more, he’s a legit ace.

If Clayton Kershaw can keep cutting the walks, he’s got Cy Young potential.

Quantum Leap: RF Andre Ethier

I’ve been expecting a lot from this guy since he finished strong in ’08.  He’s got the skills to hit .300 routinely with 30 home runs, but for some reason it hasn’t quite clicked yet.  I think he finally got used to not having Manny Ramirez in the lineup last year and, despite an injury, ended up with some pretty solid numbers.  If he can continue to bring the BB and K rates a little closer together (and stay healthy), we could see something really special here.

Slipping: CF Matt Kemp

Everything about Kemp just screams regression.  His defense, which was very good in ’09, was terrible last year.  He literally went from winning a gold glove to being the worst centerfielder in the league.  His SB success rate went into the tank and his terrible .249 batting average wasn’t bad luck (.295 BABIP).  He strikes out a lot (28% in ’10) and does not walk enough (about 8%).  There’s really not much to like here other than the power (28 homeruns last year).  If he continues to struggle in center, the Dodgers need to move him to LF.  If he can simply be better on the bases, his power speed combo should at least make him an asset instead of a liability.

Rebuilding

San Diego Padres

What’s to like: Arms

There are a lot of good ones, both in the rotation and in the bullpen, which was the best in the league last year.  Mat Latos had an excellent season and Clayton Richard and Corey Luebke look like they have the stuff and makeup to be mid-rotation guys.  I’m not crazy about the Aaron Harang signing, but he should look much better in PETCO Park than the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati (which is a launching pad).  The bullpen, namely CL Heath Bell and set-up men Luke Gregerson and Mike Adams, was excellent.  Unfortunately, most of those guys aren’t going to be around when the Padres finally reload, so GM Jed Hoyer would be wise to flip some of them for prospects at the deadline.

Not so much: Bats

While PETCO really helps the Pads’ pitchers, it stomps on the hearts (and stat lines) of their hitters.  1B Kyle Blanks and 3B Chase Headley were both top prospects, but have struggled to get on track at the major league level.  Both will need to take a step forward this season.  SS Everth Cabrera had a nice rookie season, jumping straight from Single-A, but he took a step back last season and has a lot of work to do.  They got centerfielder, and former top prospect, Cameron Maybin from the Marlins in the offseason on the cheap.  He hasn’t been able to put it all together, but he oozes tools and he’s still only 23.  Unfortunately most of the impact bats in the minors are still at least a year away.

On the way: SP Simon Castro

He probably still needs a little more seasoning at Triple-A, but if he pitches well there, he could be up at some point this season.  For a power pitcher, he has actually had very good control the last two years.  His K rate dipped last season, but I expect that to stabilize.  He’ll be 23 in April and though he might not be a legit ace, he’s got the stuff to be a #2 if everything goes right.

Don’t believe the hype: SP Mat Latos

I really like him, there’s no debating that.  But there is no way he can sustain the numbers he put up last season.  He clearly tired a bit down the stretch and a regression in his luck (BABIP) will raise his WHIP to a higher level.  More base runners mean more runs and a higher ERA.  He’s going to be very good, but I’m guessing there are going to be some bumps in the road.  I’m thinking something like a 3.50 ERA this year with a K per inning, which would be very solid.  But with the innings jump last year (he basically doubled his innings from the previous year), a much larger regression is possible.

Game on: SP Clayton Richard

Somewhere between Triple-A and the majors Richard went from a junkballer throwing in the high 80’s to a lefty with solid velocity throwing in the low 90’s.  That is no small increase.  He’s also got some decent off-speed offerings and he’s got great mound presence.  The groundball rate is good and he’s still only 27.  If the K rate creeps up a bit, he’s going to take off.  He’s not an ace, but he’s going to be a very solid mid-rotation guy for a lot of years. 

Clayton Richard was the forgotten man in the Jake Peavy trade.

Arizona Diamondbacks

What to like: Trading vets

The Diamondbacks are going to struggle this year, but they are moving in the right direction.  After blindly trading young arms Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth for SP Edwin Jackson and SP Ian Kennedy (who actually turned out to be a gem) last offseason, the D-Backs finally wised up and realized they were nowhere near contention.  Accordingly, they made a few very nice moves to rid themselves of veterans and acquire more young players.  They flipped Jackson to the White Sox at the deadline for SP Daniel Hudson and minor league starter David Holmberg.  Hudson finished brilliantly, showing the control and stuff that made him a terror in the minors, and should be a key rotation cog moving forward.  Then, this offseason, they flipped 3B (and K-machine) Mark Reynolds to Baltimore for pitchers David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio.  Both are live young arms with good stuff.  If they can milk good first halves out of vets like SS Stephen Drew, 2B Kelly Johnson and CF Chris Young, they would be smart to flip them for younger players as well.

Not so much: The Farm System

A system that was once overflowing with talent is now almost totally barren.  Trades and graduations have left this system with very little talent en route to the majors.  Many of the guys haven’t totally panned out (Drew, Young, former D-Back Connor Jackson, 1B Brandon Allen) and the guys that have panned out did so for other teams (Rockies’ RF Carlos Gonzalez, A’s SP Brett Anderson, White Sox’ RF Carlos Quentin).  Their only true blue chipper, SP Jarrod Parker, missed all of last season with Tommy John surgery.

Game on: P David Hernandez

Acquired in the Mark Reynolds deal, Hernandez has always had excellent stuff.  It was only after being moved to relief last year that things seemed to finally click for him.  He’s got a power arsenal, sitting in the mid 90’s with his fastball and mixing in a solid curve.  Assuming they keep him in the pen, he should be a top set-up man this season and a potential closer down the road.

Quantum Leap: SP Ian Kennedy

I just knew this guy was going to have solid year last season.  He was a classic “change of scenery” guy.  He’s had the reputation of being a “control guy”, but that’s not really accurate.  Because of his fastball velocity, scouts have been underselling his stuff for years.  He’s got a very solid curve and change and his 7.79 K/9 last season was very respectable.  His control was actually the area of his game that he needs to refine a bit (3.25 BB/9).  If he can bring that down a bit further, there could be a very good season in the works.

Predicted Finish

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

Next up: AL West

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5 Responses to MLB Divisional Previews: NL West

  1. Actually, I think the Dodgers will have a better finish then most expect, they have the young talent, much like the Nationals, its building process, but with Cali. teams, anything can happen!

    -Check out my blog guys, I only have one divisional preview up so far: http://jacobsports.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/poor-poor-toronto/

    My next one up will probably be the NL Central, albeit I can only hope it will be as well written as the DC Sports Dudes’ article!

  2. Ross says:

    The Dodgers certainly have talent, but it will take a few injuries to the Rockies and/or Giants to put them any higher than third in this division.

  3. Ross says:

    Yeah, I had an NL Central preview up about a week ago. Go through our archives and you’ll see it.

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