Ten Questions about the NL West

Monday, March 23 2009 @ 01:51 AM EDT

Contributed by: Dave Rutt

Over the weekend, John Northey and I had a chance to sit down and talk about the NL West. After our ghostwriter had condensed the multi-day rambling into a manageable chunk and thrown out the words that don't exist, it sort of resembled English. So we translated it into several dead languages, back into English, and the result, which may or may not be an NL West Preview, is shown below.

John: Which Manny will show up? This is the #1 question in this division by a landslide.

Dave: BostonManny hit .299/.389/.529 with 20 homers in 100 games last year, while LAManny hit .396/.489/.743 with 17 homers in 53 games. I think you've gotta expect something in the middle this year - barring his 2007 season (in which he may or may not have been trying), Manny hasn't had an OPS lower than .953 since 1994. This year he's playing on a team he likes, presumably, and he's playing for a contract as well. It seems unlikely he'll bat almost .400, but an OPS bordering on quadruple digits is certainly possible.

John: Will Arizona - aka NL West Jays - find some offense (93 OPS+) to go with their pitching (115 ERA+)?

Dave: It seems like the young core of Arizona's offense - Chris B. Young, Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, Mark Reynolds, Justin Upton - has been around for years, and every year we wonder if they're going to finally collectively break out. To be honest, I'm not wondering that anymore. It's not unreasonable to expect improvement from some of those guys - Upton, in particular, is significantly younger than the others, so we can expect him to build on a solid first full season. After an off-year in 2007, Drew was much improved last year, and he could build on that in 2009. Jackson, Reynolds and Young, on the other hand, may have plateaued at levels of performance well below what many had hoped for them. Though Josh Byrnes is generally regarded as a fairly astute GM, Carlos Quentin seems to have been the wrong guy to trade.

Apart from the young'uns, the DBacks are mired in mediocrity: Felipe Lopez, Chad Tracy and Miguel Montero/Chris Snyder round out the starters. Apart from Upton, I don't see much improvement from this group.

John: Aaron Cook & Ubaldo Jimenez - a pair of home grown aces in Colorado or victims of the mile high city?

Dave: Cook and Jimenez formed a very good 1-2 last year for the Rockies, pitching over 400 innings of sub-4 ERA ball (in Coors Field no less). Cook is a sinkerballer who has solidified himself over the last three years as a consistently above average starter, and Jimenez is a 24 year old with great stuff who started to put it together last year. There are still holes in his game, though - notably, the 103 walks he issued last year. However, 2008 was a solid first full-year, and he should be able to build on it this year.

It's after Cook and Jimenez that things get dicey in Colorado. Jeff Francis is out for the year, so the rest of the rotation will be made up by the likes of Jorge De La Rosa, Greg Smith, Taylor Buchholz and Greg Reynolds.

John: Tim Lincecum - will his arm go bye-bye under the high stress?

Dave: Lincecum's total innings over the last three years: 157, 177.1, 227. Last year was a big jump, but not unreasonable. Lincecum's durability is seemingly always under scrutiny, because of his size and his delivery. I'm no expert on mechanics, but I've read expert opinions on both sides of the mechanics issue. As far as size goes, it's true that Lincecum is smaller than your average major league starter, but then again your average 5'10 160 pitcher doesn't throw 97. I can't say I'm terribly concerned about his workload.

John: Will SF find any more starters or is it Lincecum & Cain, pray for rain?

Dave: The Giants could actually have one of the better rotations in baseball next year. Jonathan Sanchez was mediocre last year with a 5.01 ERA in 158 innings, but he also struck out 157 batters and allowed slightly less than a hit per inning. If he can get his walk rate down, which his minor league numbers suggest he is capable of doing, he could be a #2 or 3 starter. The Giants also signed Randy Johnson this off-season, and at the ripe old age of 45, The Big Unit can still bring it. Last year he pitched 184 innings with a 3.91 ERA, while maintaining an almost 4:1 K/BB ratio. The Giants' 5th starter will also be their highest-paid starter, the 126 million dollar man, Barry Zito. Zito was awful last year, much worse than his 5.15 ERA would have you believe. If he's that bad again this year, odds are the ERA will balloon much higher. Unfortunately, the amount of money the Giants have invested in Zito probably means he's staying in the rotation.

John: Will SD have anyone other than Jake Peavy starting in 2009?

Dave: Yeah, Chris Young. Other than that, no. After the top two, the Padres' rotation options include: Cha Seung Baek (4.79 ERA in 141 IP last year), Josh Geer (4.54 in 166 AAA IP), Kevin Correia (6.05 in 110), and Wade LeBlanc (5.32 in 138 at AAA). Petco will hide some of the ugliness, but it still ain't gonna be pretty.

John: No Hoffman no problem in SD?

Dave: Heath Bell will close for the Padres, and should be fine. After Bell though, things thin out a bit. And with the the lack of depth in the San Diego rotation, the bullpen could be overworked, meaning the starters will have to go for longer, creating some sort of space-time vortex whose end result states that the Padres' pitching will be bad. Of course, Petco will ensure it doesn't look that bad. But it will be.

John: Dodgers replace one ex-Jay (Jeff Kent) with another (Orlando Hudson) - how will it work out?

Dave: The O-Dog should be a significant upgrade over Kent. Kent was an excellent hitter from 1998-2007, never putting up an OPS less than .860 in that span, but he dropped all the way down to .745 last year, with poor defense to boot. PECOTA projects Hudson at .290/.363/.431, about .50 points of OPS better than Kent's 2008 production, and as we all know, Orlando will provide a huge boost with the glove. Health is a minor concern - Hudson only played 107 games last year - but he averaged about 141 games/year from 2003-2007.

John: What young players can we expect to impact the division race?

Dave: Max Scherzer followed in the footsteps of Cole Hamels and Tim Lincecum by being labeled a "phenom" last season after putting up ridiculous minor league numbers. He'll be in the DBacks rotation this year, and they plan to increase his innings to about 170 assuming good health. Scherzer could be a huge boon to the back of Arizona's already very good rotation.

Scherzer's Dodger counterpart is Clayton Kershaw, a southpaw who made an impressive debut for a 20 year old last season. If he can continue to K a batter/inning and can get his walk rate down a bit, look out.

Colorado will need significant contributions from its untested youngsters if they hope to compete. Ryan Spilborghs is just a stopgap until Dexter Fowler is ready, and Franklin Morales is a once highly-touted prospect who has fallen to the wayside a bit.

John: What happens when you throw all this info into a blender?

Dave: Assuming it blends (better use a Blendtec), this discussion can lead us to some conclusions about the NL West in 2009. I see the Padres at the bottom of the division, and by quite a bit: they don't really have a rotation, a bullpen, or an offense. Need I say more? The Giants could have a great rotation, but it carries some risk, and the offense is no better than the squad that scored 640 runs last year. The Rockies have some valuable pieces, including an offense that scored the most runs in the division last year, but probably have too many holes to compete.

For me, it comes down to the DBacks and the Dodgers. The Snakes have an excellent rotation fronted by Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, and Max Scherzer could be a 3rd ace. But the offense will be the Diamondbacks' achilles heel, and for this reason I'm picking the Dodgers to win the division. They have a more balanced team, with a solid pitching staff, and an offense that is probably the best in the division.

Predicted final standings:
Dodgers: 90
Diamondbacks: 85
Rockies: 79
Giants: 74
Padres: 68