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2013 MLB Preview: NL West

It's time to break down each division on the eve of Opening Day, starting with the home of the defending champs

Starting today and rolling straight through to Opening Day, Grantland will preview the six divisions for the 2013 season. We start with the National League West division, home of the defending World Series champs.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Angel Pagan (.270/.322/.403)
2B Marco Scutaro (.269/.320/.360)
3B Pablo Sandoval (.285/.343/.467)
C Buster Posey (.299/.377/.482)
RF Hunter Pence (.262/.320/.410)
1B Brandon Belt (.264/.361/.429)
LF Gregor Blanco (.227/.323/.326)
SS Brandon Crawford (.230/.294/.340)

No team made fewer changes this offseason than the Giants. We covered the pros and cons of that approach last week.

Leading the list of cons, an aging Scutaro is an extreme long shot to duplicate the huge .362/.385/.473 run he went on last year after coming over in a deadline trade. As strong as Blanco’s defense is in left field, a platoon of Blanco and Torres won’t come close to Melky Cabrera’s monster numbers before last year’s PED suspension. And while Crawford brings both elite defense at short and a tinge of offensive upside, he’ll still likely end up one of the least-productive everyday hitters in baseball.

Pros: There’s youth here, with Crawford (26), Posey (26 next week) and Brandon Belt (24) all at ages that often portend further improvement. Belt in particular has already flashed his on-base skills at the big-league level, and he could be poised to tap into some of the power that fueled his massive .343/.457/.596 career minor league line. “Defending World Series champs” probably counts as a pro, too.

ROTATION (Bill James projections: IP, FIP)
Matt Cain (226, 3.31)
Madison Bumgarner (203, 3.20)
Tim Lincecum (197, 3.34)
Ryan Vogelsong (185, 3.68)
Barry Zito (192, 4.33)

Here’s where continuity will work most in the Giants’ favor. Cain and Bumgarner have emerged as one of the best lefty-righty combinations in baseball, Vogelsong is now entering Year 3 of his remarkable resurrection as an above-average starter after half a decade away from the majors, and Zito is a perfectly viable fifth starter who happens to be paid like an ace, something the Giants learned to accept long ago.

The wild card is Lincecum. Multiple statistical gauges suggest he might’ve been the victim of bad luck last year, flashing a career-low strand rate of 67.8 percent (league average is in the low 70s), a career-high home run–per–fly ball rate of 14.6 percent, and a .309 batting average on balls in play that was 14 points above his career mark. On the other hand, Lincecum also set a career high for walk rate and generally seemed to struggle with location all year long, which could help explain some of those other stats: If you’re grooving low-90s fastballs down the middle, you’re going to get hit. He was virtually unhittable as a long reliever in the playoffs, but the vast majority of pitchers would fare better (and throw harder) if asked to throw 30 or 40 pitches per outing instead of 110 or 120.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT:
Belt breaks out, Lincecum has a bounceback season (even if he doesn’t quite regain his old Cy Young form), the perennially strong bullpen picks up where it left off last year, general manager Brian Sabean pulls off one of his patented trade deadline scores, and the Giants go for another deep playoff run. If Sandoval can shake his erratic track record and start to even approach something like this over 150-plus games, the Giants will be tough to beat.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG:
It’s tough to envision a truly lousy season, given the strength and depth of the pitching staff, a lineup that lacks pop but still features one of the five best position players in baseball coming off an MVP season and strong defense, and a management team able and willing to add as needed. But the star-laden Dodgers and retooled Diamondbacks could pose a challenge for the NL West crown.


LOS ANGELES DODGERS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
LF Skip Schumaker (.259/.318/.329)
2B Mark Ellis (.251/.309/.347)
CF Matt Kemp (.291/.365/.533)
1B Adrian Gonzalez (.286/.358/.476)
RF Andre Ethier (.267/.345/.427)
3B Luis Cruz (.262/.287/.385)
C A.J. Ellis (.248/.358/.345)
SS Dee Gordon (.257/.300/.317)

This isn’t what the Dodgers had in mind when they built their $215 million roster. But Hanley Ramirez1 is headed for thumb surgery that’ll knock him out for at least two months. He joins Carl Crawford on the shelf, with the hoped-for starting left fielder still recovering from last summer’s Tommy John surgery. Their replacements don’t inspire much confidence. Schumaker brings a middle infielder’s bat to a premium offensive position, while Gordon is a prolific outmaker whose game would’ve fit better 40 years ago. Meanwhile, career minor leaguer Cruz is a huge regression candidate after an unlikely .297/.322/.431 effort last year. The middle of the order still figures to be one of the best in the league, and Ellis is a highly underrated source of on-base goodness. But until it returns to full strength, pitchers should be able to breeze through half the lineup.

ROTATION (Bill James projections: IP, FIP)
Clayton Kershaw (221, 2.67)
Josh Beckett (174, 3.62)
Chad Billingsley (122, 3.42)
Hyun-Jin Ryu (180, 4.38)
Chris Capuano (194, 3.97)

As little depth as the Dodgers have in position players, few teams can match the Dodgers’ number of starting pitching options. Losing someone like Zack Greinke and being able to plug in a potentially average or slightly above-average starter like Capuano, with capable veterans like Ted Lilly and Aaron Harang in reserve, is a luxury 27 other teams would kill to have. Having Beckett for a full season could help, too; he’s just a year removed from a four-win2 season.

Still, none of those guys are Greinke — if they were, there’d be a lot of $147 million contracts on this team. The circumstances surrounding Greinke’s elbow inflammation are dark and mysterious, which makes you wonder if his injury could prove to be more serious than one or two missed starts.

Expect some bullpen struggles, too. Brandon League’s a second-tier setup man getting paid like a reliable closer. There’s evidence to suggest that using your best relief pitcher in the eighth inning makes more sense than saving him for the ninth, so a healthy Kenley Jansen as your top setup guy is a good thing. That doesn’t mean Dodgers fans will rejoice when League puts up a bunch of 1/3 IP, 3 BB, 3 H, 4 ER lines this season.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT:
If I’m the rest of the National League, I’m petrified of the Dodgers in the playoffs. The injuries to Ramirez, Crawford, and Greinke could slash a few wins off the team’s regular-season win total. But if L.A. can sneak into the postseason with 87 or 88 wins, with all hands on deck, you’ve got a monster 1-2 combination in Kershaw and Greinke, one of the five best players in the league in Matt Kemp, speed, defense, left-handed power … just about everything you could want for a deep playoff run.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG:
They’re the Yankees of the National League, with a river of big names and dashed hopes. In which case they could literally become the Yankees, courting Robinson Cano to become their newest superstar.


ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Adam Eaton (.275/.359/.389)
3B Martin Prado (.293/.342/.434)
2B Aaron Hill (.271/.327/.444)
C Miguel Montero (.267/.356/.428)
1B Paul Goldschmidt (.259/.342/.467)
LF Jason Kubel (.260/.331/.485)
RF Cody Ross (.260/.324/.448)
SS Cliff Pennington (.258/.316/.380)

No quality team retooled as dramatically this offseason as the Diamondbacks. Arizona won 81 games last season, but with an expected record of 86-76 that was thwarted by a flukish 15-27 record in one-run games. The biggest disappointment was the team’s ugly .236/.305/.368 line from the seventh inning on that ranked 23rd in the majors last year.3 Management saw those results as a defect in ability more than a statistical aberration, which triggered the roster makeover. The Justin Upton trade looks iffy over the long haul, with Upton approaching an age where he could see a big breakout, while Prado enters his 30s at season’s end. In the short term, though, cashing in potential for present-day roster stability makes theoretical sense.

The problem is what the Diamondbacks specifically did to remake the team. Their outfield defense in particular will be miserable with Kubel and Ross on the corners. Maybe Trevor Bauer turns into a star, maybe he doesn’t, but getting Didi Gregorius and parts for him felt like a desperation move, especially for a team that’s obviously entering win-now mode. The toughest thing a general manager can do after a disappointing season is stand pat, and, in this case, trust that the division-winning team of a year earlier could bounce back this season. But in selling low on young, talented, cost-controlled players, Arizona might not have made itself any better now, or in the future. Oddly, the 2013 D-backs could easily win a few more games than last year’s outfit through little more than some positive regression toward the mean.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Ian Kennedy (201, 3.81)
Trevor Cahill (200, 3.98)
Wade Miley (180, 3.65)
Brandon McCarthy (119, 3.56)
Patrick Corbin (177, 3.94)

If we’re going to credit the Dodgers for their starting pitching depth, we can’t ignore the Diamondbacks, who could go eight deep themselves with Tyler Skaggs and Randall Delgado standing by and Daniel Hudson poised to return from Tommy John surgery this summer. Skaggs stands above nearly any other prospect in the potential for a big contribution this year, given his combination of talent and opportunity (McCarthy’s a very good pitcher when healthy, but he’s a DL regular; Corbin is fine as a fill-in, but Skaggs has more upside). There’s no Kershaw-type Cy Young candidate here. But this is a very good rotation that’s even better than it looks by superficial stats, given the hitter-friendly environment of Chase Field.

Master bullpen tinkerer Kevin Towers has made changes there, too, adding eight figures’ worth of Heath Bell (yikes) and Rockies castoff Matt Reynolds in the hopes of catching lightning in a bottle the way he did with frontline setup man David Hernandez. We’re always watching the interplay of pitching and defense, and that could be a mixed bag: The double-play combination of Hill and Pennington will be one of baseball’s best, and Prado’s a big upgrade over stone-handed Chris Johnson. But Eaton will be a busy man this season, flying into the gaps to cover for Ross and especially the cement-footed Kubel.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT:
A combination of natural positive regression and big years for new guys Prado and McCarthy thrusts Arizona into the thick of a pennant race.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG:
Another decent-but-not-quite-good-enough season and subpar performances from the likes of Ross and Pennington leave Towers wondering if going conservative was the right play after all.


SAN DIEGO PADRES

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
SS Everth Cabrera (.240/.314/.317)
3B Logan Forsythe (.234/.326/.347)
1B Yonder Alonso (.263/.337/.402)
LF Carlos Quentin (.259/.355/.479)
RF Will Venable (.246/.317/.407)
2B Jedd Gyorko (.253/.312/.398)
CF Cameron Maybin (.246/.313/.375)
C Nick Hundley (.227/.291/.365)

Losing your best player (by 100 miles) for at least the first month of the season is a pretty lousy way to start. Given how thumb injuries often linger, Chase Headley’s spring injury could have even deeper implications, especially if the Padres were keen on selling high on their best player given his diminishing trade value the closer he gets to free agency.

There are reasons for curiosity, though, if not necessarily optimism. Gyorko has played his way (24 homers and a .328/.380/.588 in 92 games at Triple-A last year) into the starting second-base job, and he could provide significant pop for a lineup that badly needs it. The Friars have to hope for more from Maybin and Hundley, two up-the-middle players signed to team-friendly (at the time) long-term deals who haven’t produced as expected. Yasmani Grandal will bolster the lineup when he returns in late May from a PED suspension. Contributions from Grandal and Alonso would be most welcome given the dire state of the starting rotation sans Mat Latos.

More broadly, it’s a weird limbo time for the Padres. They own one of baseball’s top farm systems, but most of that talent’s in the low minors, much of it on the pitching side. Pulling a complete teardown the way Houston did is risky, and there’s value in maintaining credibility with fans even if contending is a long shot. But the temptation to trade a healthy Headley, maybe even Quentin in year one of an attractive three-year deal, might be too much to pass up … even if it drives season-ticket holders crazy.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Edinson Volquez (154, 4.12)
Clayton Richard (164, 4.29)
Jason Marquis (110, 4.69)
Eric Stults (116, 4.48)
Tyson Ross (108, 4.34)

Don’t let the Petco Park–enhanced numbers fool you: This could end up being the worst rotation in the game. Only two of the starting five have ever thrown 200 innings in a season, and both Marquis and Richard are essentially replacement-level starters. Ross and Stults have never so much as thrown 100 major league innings in a season. Things will hopefully get better later this year, with Cory Luebke and Joe Wieland expected back after Tommy John surgery, and Andrew Cashner — the fireballer who cost the Padres promising young first baseman Anthony Rizzo — due back … sometime. Throw in former Red Sox prospect Casey Kelly and the team’s pitching could at least improve a bit in the second half.

Most eyes will be on the future, though. Max Fried, Joe Ross, and several other pitching prospects are working their way up through the system, and even with the high attrition rates of young arms, you have to figure at least a few members of this very deep stable will help someday. Until then, members of the Padres bullpen might want to apply for double hazard pay; given how few innings the rotation will supply, they’re probably going to be very busy.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT:
Headley at 100 percent plus Luebke and Cashner in the Opening Day rotation and you might’ve conjured some “How did this happen?” headlines with the Padres contending at Memorial Day. Now, you look for hope that the kids keep growing up with Gyorko, Alonso, and Grandal developing into quality major leaguers, and a stacked Fort Wayne rotation offering hope from the farm.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG:
It’s very likely to be a losing season one way or another in San Diego. What the Padres don’t want is for fan interest to erode after three consecutive seasons of 2 million–plus attendance.


COLORADO ROCKIES

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Dexter Fowler (.272/.365/.456)
2B Josh Rutledge (.280/.318/.445)
LF Carlos Gonzalez (.297/.363/.531)
SS Troy Tulowitzki (.294/.365/.535)
RF Michael Cuddyer (.284/.342/.499)
1B Todd Helton (.264/.359/.426)
C Wilin Rosario (.263/.303/.470)
3B Chris Nelson (.269/.313/.427)

They’ll hit, and not just because of Coors Field. Rutledge and Rosario are swing-at-anything hitters with power who’ll benefit from their home park, certainly. Tyler Colvin will provide plenty of sock as he eases into the first-base job with Helton near the end. But Tulowitzki and Gonzalez are legitimate stars, Fowler quietly posted one of baseball’s biggest breakouts last year, and Cuddyer is functional as a starting corner outfielder. An added boost could be on the way if Nolan Arenado can shake off a rough 2012 season and start to establish the form that made him a top prospect; Nelson is just a placeholder, and the third-base job is there for the taking.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Jhoulys Chacin (136, 4.39)
Jorge De La Rosa (71, 4.67)
Juan Nicasio (90, 3.81)
Jeff Francis (143, 4.65)
Drew Pomeranz (134, 4.52)

Last year’s pitching performance was an unmitigated disaster, even by Rockies standards. But while the big four-man rotation experiment got most of the blame, the Rockies rotation was simply overwhelmed by injuries: The top two starters in this year’s rotation threw a combined 80 innings last season. Still, the Ubaldo Jimenez trade is looking more and more like a lose-lose proposition, with Alex White delivering nothing of value and Pomeranz barely hanging on as a fifth starter.

Whatever becomes of this crop of pitchers, the broader issue will be the continued quest to solve the riddle of mile-high pitching. The successful Rockies teams of the ’90s were fueled not only by the Blake Street Bombers, but also by some effective pitching, including some solid bullpens. Are slop-throwing sinker-slider specialists like 1995 Steve Reed the key to keeping scores under 8-7? If so, hurry up with that cloning technology already.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT:
A .500 or better season, with a powerful lineup backed by comeback seasons for Chacin and De La Rosa. Honestly, when a season goes so horrendously wrong the way 2012 did for the Rockies, you almost have to play the it-can’t-get-any-worse regression card.

IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG:
They’ve just unfurled a 20th-anniversary banner on Blake Street, and the Rockies are still searching for answers. De facto new GM Bill Geivett has a strong player-development reputation, and graduating quality pitching prospects to the majors is the most important thing the team can do if it hopes to gain a foothold in a top-heavy NL West. No top starting pitcher is signing with Colorado short of a Mike Hampton–esque outrageous nine-figure offer,4 so a few of these Chacin/Nicasio types need to start working out sometime soon. Until then, this will be an occasionally entertaining but fatally flawed team to watch.

Filed Under: Jonah Keri, MLB, People, Sports

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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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