A Quick Look At The 2023 National League West
Friday, March 31 2023 @ 06:36 AM EDT
Contributed by: Eephus
It's that previewin' time of year again...
Normally I like to get these review babies out right before the regular season begins... but this particular year has been somewhat atypical schedule-wise. Could I cast a finger at the distracting excitement of the World Baseball Classic? Or, perhaps at a new-ish job that has required more of my available time than previous years? All are reasonable... but I'm just gonna roll with the "I was really sick for a week and it hurt too much to think! excuse". For the record: I do not reccomend.
Nevertheless, we shall jump into these season previews. Division by division as usual, with predictions at the end. Like the previous editions of these, I'll simply ask one major question of each team and attempt to concisely answer it (the key word, as always, is "attempt").
Lets begin on the other side of the Senior Circuit, as usual.
Los Angeles Dodgers (2022: 111-51, 1st, lost in NLDS)
Q: Is this the season all the lost talent finally knocks the Dodgers askew from the NL West perch?
A: It's a verified star squad that they've lost, without question. Over only the previous two off-seasons, fans of Dodger Blue have watched bonafide superstars Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Corey Seager depart via the free agency door... along with other productive parts like Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner and pitcher Tyler Anderson (to name a few).
What may be more concerning however is the overall health of the remaining Dodgers roster: young Gavin Lux, slated to take over shortstop from Trea Turner, has already been ruled out for the 2023 season because of a knee injury. Star ace Walker Buehler is nine months removed from Tommy John surgery and his availability in the second half of the 2023 season has yet to be determined. Even Tony Gonsolin, he who amazingly went 16-1 with a 2.14 ERA for the '22 Dodgers, is sidelined to start the season with a tricky ankle injury.
Normally in recent years, LA has shrugged off these misfortunes/departures by simply leaning on their strong development or (more so) throwing their considerable money around. This was not quite the case the previous winter: while additions on short-term deals like J.D. Martinez, Noah Syndergaard, outfielder David Peralta or infielder Miguel Rojas will certainly help their depleted depth (Rojas especially with Lux toast for the year), none of these players are the envy of the league the same way having a Freddie Freeman or a Mookie Betts is. Wonder if they're saving their long term financial commitments for a big, franchise transformative free agent who will be available next winter... one who checks every baseball box of being damn incredible at everything and maybe already plays very closeby...
Chances are beyond likely the 2023 Dodgers will be quite good still... it's just that this is the first time in a while there are Legitimate Questions(TM) about them.. Young fire-thrower Dustin May finally staying on the mound for an extended period would surely help immensely, as it would if prospect Ryan Pepiot hit the ground running and made it tougher to take away his rotation spot once Gonsolin returns.
San Diego Padres (89-73, 2nd, Lost in NLCS)
Q: After finally breaking through LA in the playoffs last year, can more offseason money spent buy them happiness with an even deeper run?
A: Investing in big bats seemed to work out for the Phillies at just the perfect moment in 2022, despite the wonky defensive consequences... and so the Padres appear to be following a similar formula. Manny Machado remains excellent on both sides of the ball at the third bag, but consider how the incoming Xander Bogaerts appears to be pushing Ha-Seung Kim (a terrific defender at short) to second base, which means Jake Cronenworth has to likewise shift over to first base.
It's a bizarre game of musical Padre chairs to make this all seemingly fit, but the trouble may very well be worth the insane danger this lineup could pose to unfortunate hurlers. The resume of new addition Bogaerts needs little clarification... Juan Soto is still the type of talent that can sleepwalk himself to a .400+ OBP... Machado has finished top three in MVP voting two of the past three seasons (and has a career 136 OPS+ as a Padre), Jake Cronenworth has been an above average hitter since arriving in the majors... meanwhile veterans like Nelson Cruz and Matt Carpenter are aboard to potentially lengthen this already deep lineup and replace the modest-to-underwhelming production from the departed Wil Myers, Jurickson Profar, Brandon Drury and Josh Bell.
Tatis Jr. is really the wildcard in all of this. If he can stay healthy for the entire season and pick up where he left off in 2021, well... this lineup suddenly goes from really good to probably the best in all of baseball. I mean... you'd probably have Xander Bogaerts batting sixth in that scenario. Insane stuff. The only hiccup imaginable, aside from the iffy starting pitching depth beyond Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell... is the potential adjustment period of these multiple stars adjusting to these new positions (Kim to 2B, Cronenworth to 1B, Tatis to the outfield etc). This doesn't look like the tightest defensive outfit out there either (especially on days with both Carpenter and Soto in the outfield), but as I suggested with my 2022 Phillies comparison... once the important games come along the plan might be just to stomp teams into submission by sheer offensive might. We shall see! It'll sure be fun to watch if it all comes together, that's for sure.
San Francisco Giants (81-81, 3rd)
Q: Which is the real version of the Giants? The .500ish also-ran of 2022 or the 107 win squad of 2021?
A: I think somewhere in the middle, although I'd lean much closer to the .500 side than the 107 win one (I mean... 107 wins don't happen every week ya know). The 2022 Giants were exactly a .500 team, and wouldn't you know it: in the National League they finished 7th in ERA (3.85) and 7th in runs scored. The biggest reasons for this result of 26(!) fewer victories appear plainly to be the free agent loss of Kevin Gausman (hehehe), the retirement of the great Buster Posey, Anthony DeScalfani going from 167 terrific innings to 19 very bad ones, Brandon Belt's wonky knee, shortstop Brandon Crawford trading his career season with his career worst OPS (.652) and their various platoons not being quite as effective as they had been in 2021.
So how does 2023 project for the McCovey Coves? As has been their style recently, most of their off-season additions have been of the reclamation project variety... a strategy which has really worked with pitchers like Gausman, Carlos Rodon, Alex Cobb and Alex Wood (sorta). Lefty Sean Manaea is their next assignment, but they've also added a more steady presence in Ross Stripling (SF is a great park for Strip's particular skills) and a potential bounceback reliever in Taylor Rogers (whose twin brother Tyler also pitches for the Giants... that won't be confusing at all... nope).
As for hitters, they famously almost nabbed Carlos Correa (a popular club it seems), but the 'actually signed' big adds are a pair of outfielders impossible to forecast considering their recent histories: Mitch Haniger and Michael Conforto. Conforto hasn't played in over a year (and was pretty "meh" in his last season in Queens), while ankle problems limited Haniger to just 57 games for Seattle in 2022 (and an oblique injury has limited him this spring as well).
Hmmmm. This is a tricky team to set expectations for. The pitching (the bullpen in particular) gives them a pretty strong floor, and if Haniger and Conforto can add some punch to this lineup (and/or the 36 year old Crawford has one more great season in him)... this is a squad you can easily imagine in the hunt for a wild card spot. They do need to catch lightning with some of those bats though (as they did with Joc Pederson in 2022, whom will have to do it again) because if not... this is a very underwhelming attack. They've got plenty of average-ish hitters but not a whole lot of thump. A wildcard of a team that likes to bet on wildcards.
Arizona Diamondbacks (74-88, 4th)
Q: Are the Snakes finally, somehow... interesting again?
A: In the past few years, I've liked to poke fun at the obscurity in which the Diamondbacks and Rockies have been playing under. My game of "Guess the Actual Player Name!" was especially fun, and even featured future Blue Jays in Raimel Tapia and Daulton Varsho (hopefully the latter works out way better than the former).
Well... don't look now but... well, actually do look now! There might be quite a few reasons to keep your peepers on Arizona baseball again. While I'm far from even calling them close to a .500 team (that starting pitching depth... woof), this is a squad with a bunch of interesting names (and not even ones I had to make up!). The top of the rotation is actually quite strong, with a pair of aces in Merrill Kelly (one of only five NL pitchers to surpass 200 innings) and Zac Gallen (a top 5 finisher in NL Cy Young voting). Problem is, after that you get the withered husk of Madison Bumgarner (15-29, 4.98 as a DBack), the unpredictable Zach Davies, and then... who knows.
Besides, the position player side is more intriguing anyhow. First off, boy this team has a lot of toolsy outfielders, eh? Alek Thomas, Corbin Carroll, Jake McCarthy... they've even taken a flyer on former top Mariners prospect Kyle Lewis. Throw in Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and one wonders: where the heck are all these guys gonna play?
Well... they're gonna have to hit first for it to be any kind of good problem. McCarthy is coming off a strong rookie season (a 118 OPS+) but Alek Thomas is not (a .619 OPS in 411 PAs) and while still very young (he'll turn 23 in late April) his initial lack of power has to be at least a minor concern. Likewise with Corbin Carroll, a dynamite prospect with only 104 big league at-bats (he slashed .260/.330/.500, but still). Actually... on second thought he's probably the one here nobody should be worried about.
Anyhow, Kyle Lewis is quite a flyer: the AL Rookie of the Year in the shortened 2020 season various leg injuries dimmed Lewis' value helium to the point that the Mariners were willing to part with him for a 28 year old backup catcher who hit .176 last season. He's only played 54 games over the last two full seasons and so by the sounds of it the DBacks plan to use him mostly as a DH (he wasn't even initially a lock to make the team, but a strong spring forced his way onto the Opening Day roster).
Oh, and the DBacks have this catching prospect they traded Varsho for... Gabe something. An injury to Carson Kelly has thrust Moreno into the starting catcher role right off the bat for Arizona, so we can all watch from afar and see how this shakes out without delay. But also, who cares. Beyond wishing Gabriel and Lourdes well there, of course.
I don't see the Diamondbacks making a whole lot of noise in 2023, unless Carroll and Moreno emerge as instant super-duper stars and they find a couple more starting pitchers off a tree somewhere. But at the very least they have become a team to watch in the upcoming years. Which is a whole lot more than I can say for this next and final NL West squad.
Colorado Rockies (68-94, 5th)
Q: Is there a single reason to care. Even a little bit.
A: The Rockies will pay the Cardinals 16 million this year to have Nolan freaking Arenado play for the Redbirds, with an additional 15 million off to St. Louis over 2024-26. I think that answers the question.
Referring to a sports franchise as a "joke" is far too common a barb thrown about by sports fandom. I've probably used the term in my frustration with the Raptors this season, who are actually a .500 team as I write this! It's an insult almost always born from an emotional state of mind, a temporary anger that disguises a deep passion for a beloved team, or gloating over a vanquished foe after a lackluster display.
The Colorado Rockies, however, don't provoke any kind of emotion. They seem to merely exist and are content to do so. Even their occasional big free agent splashes confound us outsiders: signing Ian Desmond, a good not star hitter for a shortstop or centerfielder, with the intent to play him at first base. They threw the most money at Kris Bryant, a very very good major league hitter reaching the tail end of his prime... and haven't made a single other big financial commitment or transaction to compliment him and make this team more of a factor. Even the rare superstars they develop, an Arenado or a Troy Tulowitzki, get shipped out rather unceremoniously (in Arenado's case the return was pathetic, in Tulo's case they famously told him they wouldn't trade him and then did so almost immediately).
Calling them a "joke" though would still be unfairly cruel. They have a gorgeous ballpark, a fanbase that still comes out in the multiple millions despite the terribleness of the team... both of those things would be the envy of a far better run organization like the Tampa Bay Rays, for instance. No, the Rockies are simply an unserious franchise. There isn't a long term plan or strategy or maybe even desire to break through the tough National League West... this is a franchise pleased as a summer gin punch to sit back, open the turnstiles and let a summer of baseball play out regardless of its grotesque quality. It's almost cute in its obtuse nonchalance... almost... but then of course I'm not a Rockies fan.
The top is a tough one to predict, since I think it'll actually be quite close. I'll explain below, but first here goes:
SD - 96-66
LAD - 95-67
ARI - 76-86
COL - 57-105
The Dodgers have won 9 of the past 10 NL West division titles (The Giants juuuust nudged ahead of them in 2021) and I think this year San Diego slips just a sliver ahead of LA as well. The Padres have improved, will have a generational hitter for what one assumes will be an entire season, meanwhile the Dodgers have injury questions and aren't as insanely strong up the middle as they've been in recent years. I do think it'll be a heck of a race though and by picking the Padres by a single game, I'm hedging my bets Los Angeles can still find a way to pull it off.
My Giants pick is a bit ambitious and biased (hey, my Reds are gonna be garbage again... I need a good NL team to root for) but I objectively don't think anybody should sleep on them. Their bullpen has a legitimate chance to be dynamite, Logan Webb is a young ace a lot of people seem to overlook, and if they can get good innings from some of the the likes of Cobb, DeScalfani, Stripling or Wood... you've really got something. Not sure I'm particularly optimistic about the offense, which is why I feel my 90 win prediction is a bit high. As for Arizona, I think they'll take a step forward but one that won't be as reflective in their W-L record. They can only improve that so much if the Padres and Giants are that much better. And Colorado will stink... that's not a prediction that's reality.
All right! Next time we jump into the National League Central.... hooray.