The 30: How Has the Hot Stove Affected the NL West?

Ben Margot/AP

You hear it every winter: Winning hot stove season doesn’t mean a damn thing during the regular season. The Angels and Marlins looked formidable heading into the 2012 season after loading up on huge contracts for Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Jose Reyes, and Mark Buehrle. Then both teams missed the playoffs, the Fish sold off half the roster at year’s end, and the Halos didn’t crack the postseason until two years later.

For this year’s five NL West teams, though, the offseason told us a whole lot about what we’d see through the first month and a half of the season. We covered the Diamondbacks last week: They didn’t do much during hot stove time, and despite some internal improvement, they remain a sub-.500 club.

The other four are this week’s featured teams: The Rockies were about as quiet as any team in baseball over the winter, and their pitching, predictably, still stinks. The Padres made a flurry of moves to upgrade their offense with little regard to defense, and they’re scoring a lot more runs, but lousy glovework and surprisingly bad pitching have plagued their season. The Giants tried to replace Pablo Sandoval with Casey McGehee, and their punchless new third baseman has dragged down what’s been an otherwise resilient team. Meanwhile, the Dodgers aggressively rebuilt their bullpen and up-the-middle positions, and thanks to both the new guys and a few holdover stars, they’re flying high.

Time to go west. It’s Week 6 of The 30.

Best Destruction of a Baseball

The Marlins are a mess right now. Riding into the season after some aggressive offseason moves and with an intriguing young core already intact, it looked like they would certainly improve and maybe even challenge for a wild-card spot. Instead, they’re seven games under .500, they very nearly got no-hit Sunday, and management honored the occasion by canning yet another manager years before his contract was up.

The good news: The most explosive power hitter on the planet1 is theirs to keep for a long time. And Giancarlo Stanton’s dropping jaws almost daily.

In the first inning of Tuesday’s game in Los Angeles, Dodgers starter Mike Bolsinger tried to jam the Marlins slugger with an inside-corner cutter. Bolsinger missed his spot, and Stanton pulverized the pitch, sending the ball high and deep to left. With a terrifying exit velocity of 114 mph, it was destined for the bleachers the instant Stanton made contact.

Only, it wasn’t. Stanton walloped the ball with such force that it sailed beyond the stands, over the roof of the left-field pavilion, and clear out of the ballpark.

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Stanton’s 475-foot bomb was the fifth home run to fly out of Dodger Stadium; Mark McGwire, Mike Piazza, and Willie Stargell (twice) were the only other players to pull that off.

Now, the Marlins are probably going to get better as the year goes on, especially once Henderson Alvarez settles back into pitching every fifth day, Jose Fernandez returns to the rotation, and early slumpers like Christian Yelich pick up the pace.2 But whatever their record, they’ll be must-see viewing three to five times a game. Stanton is just too good to miss.

Silver Linings Playbook, Part 2

The Phillies ride a six-game winning streak out of the cellar.

30. Milwaukee Brewers (14-25 record, minus-55 run differential, no. 29 last week)
29. Colorado Rockies (13-22, minus-48, LW: 28)
28. Philadelphia Phillies (17-23, minus-53, LW: 30)
27. Texas Rangers (16-22, minus-20, LW: 27)
26. Oakland A’s (14-26, minus-4, LW: 24)
25. Cleveland Indians (14-23, minus-21, LW: 25)
24. Miami Marlins (16-23, minus-9, LW: 19)

April 15 was a joyous day in Denver, and not just for accountants and forward-thinking plant enthusiasts.

That night, the Rockies beat the Giants 4-2, the win completing an impressive three-game sweep over the defending World Series champs in AT&T Park. But what really stood out was the way the Rockies had pulled it off. In that series finale, second-year left-hander Tyler Matzek worked six efficient innings, surrendering just one run on five hits and one walk. All told, the Rockies allowed just three runs over the three games, and only one from their starting pitchers. At 7-2, they led the NL West by one game, thanks to that stingy pitching. Sure, it was only nine games. Sure, the Rockies had roared to hot starts before only to end the season in tire-fire fashion. But maybe, just maybe, this year would be different.

A month later, we can safely say it has not been any different. Since the 7-2 start, the Rockies have gone just 6-20, the worst record in baseball over that stretch. And their pitching has been a raging disaster. Again.

Unsurprisingly, trade rumors have resurfaced, with Troy Tulowitzki again the focus. They’ve since been squelched, with first-year GM Jeff Bridich reminding people that neither a player nor his agent can cause a trade without the general manager actually pulling the trigger. Even shortstop-hungry Mets fans have lowered their swords for now.

But the trade talk won’t die down for long. Despite a relatively unchanged rotation that ranked last in the NL in park-adjusted ERA and park-adjusted FIP last season, the hope was that having Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and rising star Nolan Arenado healthy and in the lineup after an injury-ravaged 2014 would help the team tremendously. Yet even with all of those players on the field, the Rockies still can’t win. That’s largely because they still can’t pitch, even after adjusting for Coors: Rockies pitchers are tied for 24th in the majors in park-adjusted ERA and 29th once you strip the effects of defense and aberrant home run rates (plus home field) out of the picture.

This is the state of the Rockies starting rotation: Matzek, for whom the club had high hopes after a promising 2014 rookie season, walked 15 batters in the 12 innings that followed his April 15 gem in San Francisco and got sent to the minors. Free-agent pickup Kyle Kendrick looked great on Opening Day and has given up only three runs combined in his past two starts, but he surrendered 32 runs over 26 innings in the five starts in between. Eddie Butler, one of the highest-touted young arms in the system, has followed up his three-start 2014 MLB debut by posting one of the highest walk rates in baseball. Jordan Lyles has wiggled his way out of enough jams to post respectable numbers, but his 24 strikeouts and 19 walks in 43.2 innings don’t portend great things. As for staff ace Jorge de la Rosa, the one starting pitcher seemingly able to hack it in Colorado? He’s pitched a lot better than his 6.56 ERA would suggest, but he also just reaggravated a groin injury that had already sent him to the disabled list last month. Upgrading that motley crew would seem a worthy and necessary endeavor, and trading the combined $168 million of Tulo and CarGo would seem a great way to do it.

Except even with the pair healthy, Bridich would still be selling low if he pulled the trigger now. Tulowitzki has put up his worst offensive numbers since his debut MLB cameo in 2006, batting just .283/.290/.442. He’s struck out 29 times and walked just twice this year, further highlighting the gigantic gulf between his 2015 struggles and his Ruthian start to last season. And while Gonzalez’s name hasn’t come up as often as a trade candidate, Sunday’s 0-for-4 briefly dropped him below the Mendoza line. With the two biggest names on the marquee faring so terribly, the Rockies have found a way to keep their Swiss-cheese rotation company in the realms of ineptitude: They rank a miserable 28th in park-adjusted offense, too.

You can read about all kinds of fun trade scenarios, but for a cool, calculating GM like Bridich, the conditions will likely have to be perfect for any kind of blockbuster to happen. Tulowitzki will need to play better and also avoid the kind of major injuries that wiped out huge chunks of his 2012 and 2014 campaigns. Given the way recent history has gone at 20th and Blake, it’s hard not to wonder: If that window eventually opens, how long will it last?

The March of Mediocrity

The slumping Blue Jays tumble into this rapidly growing group of underachievers.

23. Arizona Diamondbacks (16-21, plus-5, LW: 22)
22. Atlanta Braves (18-19, minus-3, LW: 23)
21. Seattle Mariners (17-20, minus-12, LW: 21)
20. Cincinnati Reds (18-20, minus-18, LW: 20)
19. Chicago White Sox (18-17, minus-28, LW: 26)
18. Pittsburgh Pirates (18-20, plus-13, LW: 13)
17. Baltimore Orioles (16-19, plus-1, LW: 15)
16. Toronto Blue Jays (18-22, plus-14, LW: 9)
15. San Diego Padres (19-20, minus-15, LW: 10)
14. Tampa Bay Rays (21-18, plus-17, LW: 18)
13. Minnesota Twins (21-17, plus-2, LW: 16)

Sunday’s 10-5 loss to the Nats was a microcosm of San Diego’s season: A bunch of encouraging things happened, and then one of the team’s biggest weaknesses ultimately did them in.

Ian Kennedy looked spectacular through the first four innings. Allowing no hits and one walk that was erased by a double play, he pitched to the minimum 12 batters over that span by locating his fastball and burying his changeup below Nationals hitters’ bats. Heading into the fifth inning, he’d struck out five straight batters.

Bryce Harper quickly broke that streak to start the fifth, lacing a triple into the right-field corner.3 After a Ryan Zimmerman infield hit and two popups, Kennedy stood just one out away from preserving the Padres’ 2-0 lead and escaping the inning with a Houdini act. With Stephen Strasburg on deck, the next at-bat against Danny Espinosa called for a cautious approach coupled with pinpoint command. Kennedy got ahead 0-1 with a curveball. The next pitch was a standard Kennedy four-seamer right around 90 mph, but the location was terrible — elevated and right down the middle — and Espinosa crushed it.

That three-run homer blew up Kennedy’s day. Though the veteran right-hander got out of the fifth with no more damage, he imploded in the sixth, walking the first three batters. The Padres bullpen threw gas on the fire, and the Nats tallied 10 runs in the game’s last five innings. 

As you might have expected, A.J. Preller’s wild ride has helped the offense improve from historically awful last year to respectable this season. Also as expected, the defense has been abysmal: Everyone and their cousin expected an outfield of Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and Wil Myers to be brutal at spacious Petco Park, and the three amigos have been as bad as advertised defensively, with Myers in particular looking woefully lost in center. As a result, the Padres rank second-to-last among National League clubs in Defensive Runs Saved.

With the Padres’ hitting and fielding roughly canceling each other out, you’d figure the difference-maker could be the team’s pitching. Adding James Shields to a rotation that included capable right-handers Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, and Kennedy seemed like a good bet to help push San Diego into playoff contention this year. And nabbing Craig Kimbrel at the start of the season only enhanced those high hopes. 

Instead, that pitching staff has let the team down, as the same lack of command that plagued Kennedy has infected his Friar friends. After Sunday’s meltdown, Padres pitchers are tied for the seventh-highest walk rate in baseball; Ross has been the biggest offender, leading the majors with 26 walks in 45.2 innings. The walks have been harmful enough, but yielding the second-highest home run rate in MLB despite playing in Petco Park? Although mild offseason dimension adjustments seem to have goosed the ballpark’s ability to generate homers, it’s still a head-scratcher.

The biggest culprits aren’t exactly scrubs, either. Shields leads the team with a whopping 12 homers allowed in 48.1 innings. Kennedy’s given up eight in just 29.1 innings. Even the normally unhittable Kimbrel has been shaky, allowing two long balls (as well as 15 hits and five walks) in 14.2 frames.4 Add it all up and you have a staff that’s allowed 10 or more runs six times this season, the highest mark for any team.

It’s not easy for a club with a leaky defense to be a playoff contender — just ask the disappointing, stone-gloved Indians how their first six weeks have gone. But given the talent that’s been added to the roster since the end of last season, the Padres might have enough to at least hang around the fringes of a playoff race. Still, if Pads pitchers keep missing spots, putting runners on, and allowing three-run bombs, those October dreams will get dashed in a hurry.

Movin’ on Up

The streaking Cubs and healthier Giants shoot up the ranks.

12. Boston Red Sox (18-20, minus-33, LW: 14)
11. San Francisco Giants (20-18, even, LW: 17)
10. Los Angeles Angels (19-19, plus-1, LW: 11)
9. New York Yankees (22-17, plus-15, LW: 5)
8. Chicago Cubs (21-16, even, LW: 12)
7. New York Mets (23-16, plus-28, LW: 6)
6. Washington Nationals (22-17, plus-25, LW: 8)

There are plenty of logical reasons why the Giants didn’t sign Pablo Sandoval to a long-term contract extension and instead watched him bolt for the Red Sox.

Frequently a world-beater in the playoffs, Sandoval was roughly a two-to-three-win player — a good, not great, performer — over the past three regular seasons. Although the 28-year-old was relatively young by first-time free-agent standards, there were concerns about how his heavier frame might age over the next few years. According to Giants assistant GM Bobby Evans, the team was willing to overlook those issues while offering him a four-year, $85 million extension with a vesting option.5

Ultimately, Sandoval, whose 2015 numbers look nearly identical to the ones he put up over the past three years, is a replaceable player. For San Francisco, the problem isn’t his departure, but rather who the team actually brought in to be his replacement.

After spending the 2013 season in Japan, Casey McGehee returned to the majors in 2014 on a one-year deal with the Marlins. He looked great early last season, even drawing some All-Star consideration. But McGehee batted just .243/.310/.310 in the second half and finished with just four homers in 616 at-bats, in addition to hitting into a league-leading 31 double plays. He also played below-average defense and, according to one advanced metric, ranked as the worst baserunner in baseball. Still, his was a nice redemption story, and no team could’ve been faulted for trying him as a utility infielder.

Instead, he’s been the (more or less) everyday third baseman in San Francisco this year — and the results have been ugly. McGehee’s batting just .202/.255/.293, the seventh-worst line for any NL player with 100 plate appearances. And even those raw numbers don’t tell the full story. McGehee once again ranks as the worst baserunner in the majors. The bigger problem, though, is McGehee’s double-play mania: He’s already rapped into 12, again leading MLB and sucking the life out of what seems like should be a pretty good offense.

According to wRC+, which takes raw offensive output (batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average, for the most part) and adjusts for park factors, only the high-flying Dodgers have been better than the Giants this year. And yet, the Giants rank 12th among NL teams in runs scored, with just 3.8 per game.

Part of that discrepancy comes from the Giants hitting into more double plays than any other NL team, with McGehee alone responsible for more than one-third of those twin killings. According to Cluster Luck, San Francisco has squandered nearly 26 runs on offense by lousy hit sequencing alone. Normally we’d chalk most of that up to luck, but hitting into so many double plays has doused a bunch of would-be rallies. And as the biggest double-play offender, McGehee has caused his team to squander multiple scoring opportunities that the average team wouldn’t.

Internally, the best option to replace McGehee is probably Matt Duffy, the utility infielder who’s batting a healthy .304/.341/.392, albeit thanks to an inflated .377 batting average on balls in play. But the better move would be to scour the trade market, targeting third basemen on non-contending teams looking to flip a veteran for a prospect.

Here’s one unsolicited piece of advice for GM Brian Sabean: Give the Rangers a call and see what they’d want for Adrian Beltre. Racked by injuries, Texas is nearing the point where it’ll be playing for little more than draft position. As a 36-year-old making $16 million this year, with an $18 million option next season that’s voided if the Hall of Fame–worthy third baseman doesn’t reach 600 plate appearances in 2015, Beltre would become a prime trade candidate. Although he’s started slowly this season (.258/.293/.426), he’s still a very good defender and is just one year removed from a six-win campaign. He would be a major upgrade over McGehee, Duffy, or anyone else the Giants can trot out right now, and he probably wouldn’t cost more than a couple of B-level prospects, given his age, salary, and contract status.

For a flawed but still playoff-capable team looking for a lift, few other realistic scenarios would immediately improve the Giants as much as finding a way to bring Beltre to the Bay.

Artful Dodgers

The best of the NL West are breathing down the Royals’ necks.

5. Houston Astros (25-14, plus-22, LW: 7)
4. St. Louis Cardinals (25-13, plus-44, LW: 4)
3. Detroit Tigers (23-16, plus-19, LW: 3)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (24-13, plus-58, LW: 2)
1. Kansas City Royals (24-14, plus-55, LW: 1)

I’ve already written my love note to Joc Pederson, Three True Outcomes Overlord. Replacing Matt Kemp with Pederson was one of the best decisions made by any team over the winter. With the discrepancy between their salaries and the players the Dodgers got back in the Kemp trade, the whole swap looks like a stroke of genius.

However, the monumental gulf between the Dodgers’ best-in-baseball offense and everyone else’s goes well beyond the Kemp-for-Pederson change.6 Farhan Zaidi, Andrew Friedman & Co. have built the deepest roster in baseball, one that’s shaken off multiple injuries and seen bench jockeys perform like superstars this season.

The Dodgers’ most unsettled position has been the outfield, where the rookie who couldn’t crack the lineup last year has become this season’s only reliable mainstay. Yasiel Puig hit the DL on April 25 with a hamstring injury, and Carl Crawford joined him three days later, thanks to an oblique problem. But a former All-Star, a luxury prospect, and a 28-year-old no-name have combined to more than just pick up the slack.

While Andre Ethier is a two-time All-Star, he also seemed to fall off a cliff last year, hitting just .249/.322/.370 and playing subpar defense, reaffirming what a terrible idea it was to give him an $85 million contract extension three years ago. It’s still ludicrous to pay Ethier that much money, but at least they’re now getting a temporarily decent return on their fourth-outfielder investment: Ethier’s hitting for more power than ever before, walking more than ever before, and striking out less than he has in years — all of which adds up to an impressive .316/.416/.558 line.

Ethier may have briefly captured some of his old form, but before this season, Alex Guerrero was known primarily for two things: He’d signed a four-year, $28 million contract before ever playing a major league game, and he’d had part of his ear bitten off by former teammate Miguel Olivo. Groomed as a middle infielder but projected as below average anywhere on the diamond, he was considered a defensive enigma, albeit a promising hitter. In 2015, Guerrero hasn’t played a single inning at short or second, instead splitting his time between third base and being another entry in the Dodgers’ long list of Puig and Crawford replacements. He’s responded to the bump in playing time by crushing the ball, launching six home runs in 63 at-bats, while batting .317 and slugging .698.

Then there’s Scott Van Slyke. A 14th-round pick in the 2005 draft, Van Slyke didn’t crack the majors until seven years later, when he debuted for Los Angeles at the relatively advanced age of 25. Even then, he was known more for being former All-Star Andy Van Slyke’s kid than for any major potential in the big leagues. But in 2013, he started hitting in a part-time role, delivering a .240/.342/.465 line, which he followed up with a fantastic .297/.386/.524 effort in 2014. Still yet to register more than 250 plate appearances in a season, Van Slyke fared best against left-handed pitchers, batting .315 with eight homers and 10 doubles in 108 at-bats against southpaws last year. With injuries felling Puig and Crawford, the Dodgers haven’t had the luxury of saving Van Slyke for tough lefties — 70 percent of his plate appearances this year have come against right-handers — but that hasn’t been a problem. Van Slyke has risen to the occasion as a near-everyday starter, batting .308/.356/.492. And when faced with high-pressure situations against righties, he’s delivered in a big way.

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We can marvel at Adrian Gonzalez’s Ted Williams impression, Pederson’s coming-of-age, and big contributions from new additions like Yasmani Grandal and Howie Kendrick. We can tip our caps to Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and nod approvingly at the Dodgers’ rebuilt, no-name, highly effective bullpen. But guys like Ethier, Guerrero, and Van Slyke — along with slugging infielder Justin Turner (.294/.392/.588) and even Dee Gordon trade throw-in Enrique Hernandez (.296/.345/.519) — have all played vital roles in keeping the Dodgers atop the NL West.

Sure, it’s much easier to build roster depth when you’re trotting out a $273 million Opening Day payroll. But even if carrying an $85 million reserve outfielder or a $28 million import without a position might seem unsavory for fans of poorer teams, the facts remain the same: On a roster loaded with stars, the super-subs have turned a good Dodgers team into a great one.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Stats, MLB Power Rankings, Baseball, NL West, Miami Marlins, Giancarlo Stanton, MLB Hot Stove, MLB Offseason, Colorado Rockies, Troy Tulowitzki, Jeff Bridich, San Diego Padres, Ian Kennedy, James Shields, San Francisco Giants, Pablo Sandoval, Casey McGehee, Los Angeles Dodgers, Alex Guerrero, Andre Ethier, 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 New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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