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2014 NL West Preview

While the Dodgers look like the clear class of the division, every other team looks capable of finishing second … or last

Grantland’s 2014 MLB division preview series concludes with the NL West, where the Dodgers look to settle unfinished business, the Giants relish the arrival of an even-numbered year, the Diamondbacks try to weather losing their ace, the Padres hope for a rosterwide breakout, and the Rockies wait for two fireballers to make it to The Show.

Note: I’m ordering the teams by Vegas lines. If you want to know how I think they’ll finish, check back on Monday, March 31, for my season predictions.

For more, check out the AL EastAL CentralAL WestNL East, and NL Central division primers, the MLB Warning series, and all of Grantland’s 2014 season-preview goodness.

(Projected lineups and rotations via MLBDepthCharts.com.)

Los Angeles Dodgers

MattKempMadFace

Vegas line (via Sportsbook.com): 94.5 wins

Key additions: Mike Baxter, Chone Figgins, Dan Haren, Paul Maholm, Chris Perez, Justin Turner, Jamey Wright

Key losses: Ronald Belisario, Chris Capuano, Mark Ellis, Jerry Hairston Jr., Ricky Nolasco, Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker

Projected lineup (ZiPS/Steamer hybrid projections for AVG/OBP/SLG):
RF Yasiel Puig (.286/.354/.489)
LF Carl Crawford (.271/.315/.413)
SS Hanley Ramirez (.276/.342/.472)
1B Adrian Gonzalez (.287/.347/.468)
CF Andre Ethier (.266/.344/.417)
3B Juan Uribe (.240/.294/.384)
C A.J. Ellis (.242/.335/.361)
2B Dee Gordon (.249/.303/.314)

Note Matt Kemp’s absence from the above lineup. Kemp, the best player in the NL three years ago, has played in just 179 games the past two seasons, while battling a litany of injuries and recovering from the ensuing surgeries, and he’s on the disabled list to start this season. Manager Don Mattingly has said it’s “a possibility” Kemp could come off the DL when eligible on April 4, but even a healthy Kemp won’t be as good as he was in 2011.

There’s also the matter of where and when to play Kemp when he is healthy. Since the Dodgers have three other capable starting outfielders in Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford, and Andre Ethier, the most logical course of action would be a time-share, with Kemp playing against lefties and ensuring plenty of rest for his teammates. That would take some seriously clever maneuvering from Mattingly, though, and he hasn’t exactly shown elite roster-management skills during his tenure.

And then there are the off-field issues, which I rarely write about, but which are impossible to ignore here between Kemp putting his foot down on riding the pine and the ongoing Puig media fixation. The Dodgers are going to produce their share of overheated headlines in 2014. If only we could predict results based on chemistry as well as we can based on strikeout and home run rates.

Projected rotation (ZiPS/Steamer hybrid projections for IP, FIP):
Clayton Kershaw (215, 2.79)
Zack Greinke (201, 3.20)
Hyun-Jin Ryu (205, 3.74)
Dan Haren (153, 3.70)
Paul Maholm (39, 4.04)

Clayton Kershaw will miss his first start of the post-Australia regular season, and the Dodgers haven’t said when he’ll return. While the current diagnosis is a simple case of back inflammation, we’re talking about the best pitcher on earth and the key to the Dodgers’ World Series hopes, so it’s still a little scary. The good news is that L.A. has enough starting pitching depth to stem the tide if Kershaw needs only a week or two to heal.

There aren’t many better no. 2 starters than Zack Greinke, and while Puig Mania and Fernandez Fever overshadowed Hyun-Jin Ryu’s excellent debut season, the left-handed sophomore is a great option in the no. 3 hole. Give GM Ned Colletti credit for sweating the small stuff as well as the big stuff, as the Dodgers scooped up Dan Haren and Paul Maholm on one-year contracts to solidify the back of the rotation. And though Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley will start the season on the DL, their eventual return coupled with 22-year-old right-hander Zach Lee’s possible call-up has the Dodgers well positioned to deal with Kershaw’s absence … as long as it doesn’t last too long.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: The bullpen’s depth and strength should also be a big plus if the Dodgers don’t want to overexpose a youngster like Lee or a six-inning guy like Maholm. The bench, meanwhile, has been almost completely overhauled, but there’s some talent here, with Scott Van Slyke offering a potent bat in reserve and Justin Turner capable of replacing Nick Punto as the utility infielder. The Dodgers entered the season with a $233.4 million payroll; it would’ve been silly for them to break the bank for the stars and skimp on the supporting cast.

Best-case scenario: Kershaw barely misses any time, Puig delivers more homers than headlines, and the Dodgers convert their spending into a World Series title.

Worst-case scenario: Kershaw’s injury proves more serious than expected, the Giants continue their recent trend of being world-beaters every other year, and the Dodgers have to fight to even make the playoffs.

Bold prediction: Ryu Hadoukens his way to a top-seven Cy Young finish.

San Francisco Giants

Vegas line: 86 wins

Key additions: Brandon Hicks, J.C. Gutierrez, Tim Hudson, David Huff, Michael Morse

Key losses: Chad Gaudin, Jose Mijares, Andres Torres, Barry Zito

Projected lineup:
CF Angel Pagan (.271/.324/.396)
RF Hunter Pence (.266/.324/.431)
1B Brandon Belt (.268/.352/.444)
C Buster Posey (.295/.371/.469)
3B Pablo Sandoval (.282/.341/.456)
LF Michael Morse (.253/.305/.419)
SS Brandon Crawford (.241/.305/.353)
2B Joaquin Arias (.254/.282/.344)

Long one of the heftiest players in the league, Pablo Sandoval lost a small child in weight this offseason and has shied away from contract extension talks entering his walk year. Dayn Perry found only a small contract-year effect when he studied the issue in Baseball Between the Numbers, but Sandoval seems like the kind of guy to put up monster totals before hitting the open market. Even if they ultimately fail to re-sign him, an offensive outburst from Sandoval would certainly help the Giants in 2014. San Francisco ranked a respectable 11th in park-adjusted offense last year, but could have used even more with the starting rotation struggling.

While Sandoval hit a playable .278/.341/.417 last season,1 his production was still considerably less than his huge 2009 and 2011 seasons and his explosion in the 2012 postseason. Sandoval could do enough in his age-27 season to earn a nine-figure contract next offseason, and given the numbers he’d have to put up to make that happen, it would certainly be a good thing for all parties.

Projected rotation:
Madison Bumgarner (204, 3.14)
Matt Cain (207, 3.66)
Tim Lincecum (186, 3.59)
Tim Hudson (170, 3.48)
Ryan Vogelsong (111, 4.17)

Matt Cain’s season was a tale of two halves, and it resulted in his first ERA in the 4s in seven seasons. Cain posted a 5.06 ERA before the All-Star break but a sparkling 2.36 mark after, and that split largely came down to two factors. The first was a brief hiccup in his career-long ability to allow home runs only on a small percentage of the fly balls he surrendered. Before the break, Cain allowed about 1.3 homers per nine innings; after the break, he lowered that mark to fewer than 0.9. The second factor was a huge shift in Cain’s strand rate, a stat governed by luck and bullpen support more than actual skill. In the first half, just 63.4 percent of the runners Cain put on base wound up stranded, while that mark increased to a sky-high 84.5 percent in the second half (the league average is in the low 70s). Given Cain’s long history of success, consistency, and health, it’s entirely possible his poor 2013 first half was a fluke, and that he’ll again be an elite pitcher this season.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Santiago Casilla’s 2.16 ERA last year was largely a mirage, as he struggled badly with command. If those issues continue, look for him to drop to a lower-leverage relief role and for his ERA to swell up this season. Meanwhile, Gregor Blanco will begin the year on the bench even though he’s easily a good enough all-around player to start for many teams, while Juan Perez will offer very good defense at multiple positions. The bullpen and bench will both get reinforcements once Jeremy Affeldt and Marco Scutaro2 come off the DL.

Best-case scenario: In the last two even-numbered years, the Giants won the World Series. While projecting them to match that is a stretch, there’s certainly enough talent here for a return to the playoffs.

Worst-case scenario: The even/odd year streak ends, and the Giants suffer another sub-.500 season.

Bold prediction: Brandon Belt makes his first All-Star team, but select members of the Bay Area media still complain about him constantly. (OK, that second part isn’t remotely bold.)

Arizona Diamondbacks

Vegas line: 78.5 wins

Key additions: Bronson Arroyo, Oliver Perez, Addison Reed, Mark Trumbo

Key losses: Heath Bell, Willie Bloomquist, Matt Davidson, Adam Eaton, Jason Kubel, Wil Nieves, Tyler Skaggs

Projected lineup:
CF A.J. Pollock (.268/.317/.389)
2B Aaron Hill (.271/.330/.436)
1B Paul Goldschmidt (.278/.369/.512)
3B Martin Prado (.286/.336/.427)
LF Mark Trumbo (.261/.315/.497)
C Miguel Montero (.251/.339/.398)
SS Chris Owings (.267/.296/.391)
RF Gerardo Parra (.272/.331/.406)

Mark Trumbo’s poor on-base percentage and generally limited skills beyond his power have long angered statheads, but GM Kevin Towers didn’t imagine the Diamondbacks’ need for thump in their lineup: They tied with the lowly Mets for 25th in home runs last year. Trumbo could be just one of several added sources of power this year, too: Aaron Hill cracked 26 homers in 2012 before missing nearly half of 2013; Miguel Montero should rediscover some pop now that he’s not battling a bad back; and Chris Owings brings more sock to the shortstop position than Didi Gregorius, though the two youngsters might end up sharing time.

Projected rotation:
Brandon McCarthy (164, 3.85)
Wade Miley (198, 3.84)
Trevor Cahill (197, 4.03)
Bronson Arroyo (168, 4.43)
Randall Delgado (92, 4.64)

Patrick Corbin’s season-ending elbow injury could wind up being one of the most crushing blows for any possible playoff contender this year. Without last year’s breakout darling in the rotation, the D-backs suddenly need to lean heavily on Brandon McCarthy (who’s topped 135 innings in a season only once), Trevor Cahill (whose command has grown steadily worse over the past couple of years and who started his 2014 season with a rough outing against the Dodgers in Australia), and Bronson Arroyo (who’s still an innings-eater at age 37, but who’s getting by mostly on guile at this point).

It’s this simple: The Diamondbacks need Archie Bradley to have a big rookie year if they hope to compete for a playoff spot. The good news is that, as one of the best pitching prospects in the game, Bradley has the chops to deliver once he gets the call.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: This bench isn’t bad at all, with capable veteran Eric Chavez serving as the top bat, Cody Ross adding outfield depth once he comes off the DL, and three able-bodied shortstops (Owings, Gregorius, and Cliff Pennington) setting up trade possibilities if the Snakes want to acquire pitching help or anything else. The reports on J.J. Putz this spring are awful, but adding Addison Reed as the new closer and Oliver Perez as the top bullpen lefty should help.

Best-case scenario: Bradley wins NL Rookie of the Year, and a weak wild-card class allows the Diamondbacks to play on into October.

Worst-case scenario: This is a deceptively deep division, and Corbin’s injury makes last place a frighteningly real possibility.

Bold prediction: Trumbo leads the National League in homers.

San Diego Padres

Vegas line: 78.5 wins

Key additions: Joaquin Benoit, Donn Roach, Seth Smith, Alex Torres

Key losses: Anthony Bass, Brad Boxberger, Logan Forsythe, Luke Gregerson, Jesus Guzman, Mark Kotsay, Jason Marquis, Edinson Volquez

Projected lineup:
SS Everth Cabrera (.253/.323/.342)
CF Will Venable (.253/.312/.435)
3B Chase Headley (.255/.342/.408)
LF Carlos Quentin (.252/.341/.454)
1B Yonder Alonso (.273/.341/.408)
2B Jedd Gyorko (.258/.311/.431)
RF Seth Smith (.246/.322/.406)
C Nick Hundley (.227/.287/.369)

Had my 2014 breakouts column gone two players deeper, I would’ve included Jedd Gyorko and Yonder Alonso. Both infielders are in the age range in which many players take the next step, with Gyorko 25 years old and Alonso turning 27 on April 8. Gyorko has been a popular breakout pick3 coming off a season in which he cranked 23 homers in just 125 games, but while his power showed up in the big leagues, his solid batting eye didn’t, as he struck out nearly four times more often than he walked last year. If Gyorko can improve his pitch selection this year, though, the All-Star Game will beckon.

Alonso is considered a more pedestrian player and doesn’t project as a big power hitter even if everything breaks right. Still, he’s a high-contact hitter who’s shown the ability to spray line drives around the park, and he could bang out 50 doubles if he plays a full season; injuries and occasional slumps limited Alonso to just 97 games last year, but he roped 39 two-base hits in 155 games in 2012. Many have anointed the Padres as a hot sleeper team, and improved seasons by the right side of the infield would go a long way toward making good on that promise.

Projected rotation:
Andrew Cashner (198, 3.50)
Ian Kennedy (203, 3.94)
Tyson Ross (168, 3.85)
Eric Stults (168, 4.01)
Robbie Erlin (67, 4.22)

Andrew Cashner has garnered more preseason buzz, but Tyson Ross is also worth watching. The 26-year-old right-hander fanned 119 batters while ceding just 44 walks and eight home runs over 125 innings pitched last year, good for a tidy 3.17 ERA. Ross did split time between the rotation and bullpen, and pitchers tend to perform better when they’re able to rear back and fire as hard as they can over 15 pitches than when they have to conserve their strength over seven innings. Ross, however, actually pitched best as a starter last year, fanning more than a batter an inning and holding opposing hitters to a microscopic .210/.291/.309 line. He posted the fourth-highest ground ball rate of any NL pitcher with as many innings pitched, operating almost exclusively as a sinker-slider pitcher. While Ross has sizable righty-lefty splits (left-handed hitters batted .252/.337/.372 against him last year, while righties hit .198/.266/.282), he’s also got the starter’s kit for becoming a front-line pitcher.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: The pen wasn’t particularly good last year, as Huston Street suddenly turned into a home run–dispensing machine and other high-leverage relievers also struggled. The Friars threw real money and talent at the problem, though, wooing excellent setup man Joaquin Benoit on a two-year, $15.5 million deal and trading a package of young talent to the Rays for electric left-hander Alex Torres, among others. If you’re wondering how much a deep and talented bullpen might matter to a resource-limited team that lacks stars, go look at what the A’s have done over the past two seasons.

Best-case scenario: The youngsters break out, and the Padres earn a second-place finish and a wild-card berth.

Worst-case scenario: It’s fair to say any of the teams after the Dodgers could finish second, and it’s also fair to say any of them could finish last.

Bold prediction: Ross and Cashner produce an aggregate ERA below 3.

Colorado Rockies

Vegas line: 76.5 wins

Key additions: Brett Anderson, Brandon Barnes, LaTroy Hawkins, Tommy Kahnle, Justin Morneau, Franklin Morales, Drew Stubbs

Key losses: Edgmer Escalona, Dexter Fowler, Jeff Francis, Jon Garland, Todd Helton, Jonathan Herrera, Josh Outman, Yorvit Torrealba

Projected lineup:
CF Corey Dickerson (.272/.319/.470)
RF Michael Cuddyer (.288/.347/.482)
LF Carlos Gonzalez (.289/.356/.530)
SS Troy Tulowitzki (.298/.372/.524)
1B Justin Morneau (.280/.345/.468)
C Wilin Rosario (.272/.305/.481)
3B Nolan Arenado (.283/.320/.441)
2B DJ LeMahieu (.291/.326/.384)

By the end of this season, we might be talking about the trio of stars in Colorado, with Nolan Arenado taking his place alongside Tulo and CarGo as a franchise player. He might already be the best defensive third baseman in the NL, as his above highlight reel proves.

His bat could come quickly, too. While he admittedly played in some offense-friendly environments in the minor leagues, Arenado maintained strong contact rates throughout his time on the farm and ranked eighth among starting MLB third basemen in that department last season. He’s got a 20-homer season under his belt from Class A ball, he’s three weeks shy of his 23rd birthday and thus still getting stronger, and he plays in a ballpark that’ll turn a few deep fly balls into homers. In short, he’s a potential star on a team that’s had a terrible time developing many.

Projected rotation:
Jorge De La Rosa (198, 4.35)
Brett Anderson (140, 3.63)
Tyler Chatwood (112, 4.19)
Juan Nicasio (174, 4.21)
Franklin Morales (85, 4.49)

The Rockies showed their faith in Brett Anderson’s upside by acquiring the lefty from Oakland, which is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, he doesn’t exactly offer cheap team control, since he’s owed $8 million this year and $12 million on a 2015 club option.4 Second and more important, his high for innings pitched over the past four seasons is just 112⅓, as he’s sustained a number of injuries. Still, Anderson is just 26 years old, he owns multiple out pitches, and the immense potential he showed in 2009 hasn’t gone away. If the Rockies can get 30 starts out of Anderson and get Jhoulys Chacin off the DL soon, this will become an intriguing starting five.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Don’t let the pen’s high ERA from last season fool you: ERA is a generally misleading stat for relievers, and in this case, Coors Field’s run-heavy environment inflated that number. Matt Belisle and Rex Brothers form a terrific righty-lefty combo that will generate a lot of big outs this year in support of newly acquired veteran closer LaTroy Hawkins.

Best-case scenario: The Rockies have two of the most explosive pitching prospects in the game in Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler, and both could bring their mid-to-high 90s fastballs to the big leagues in the near future. Keep Tulo and CarGo healthy, get that Arenado breakout, and call up these two pitchers, and the Rockies could deliver 85-plus wins.

Worst-case scenario: Last place, again.

Bold prediction: When it’s all said and done, the Rockies will boast their best starting rotation in franchise history.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Preview, NL West, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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