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2007 Predictions: NL West

I realized that I would never finish my preview columns if I wrote about each team individually, so I've covered the rest of the division here. I already picked the Diamondbacks to finish first in this post. Keep in mind that I think that the Padres,
Dodgers and Diamondbacks have nearly equal shots at taking the division.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Projected Finish: 2nd
2006 Record: 88-74
Starting Lineup (With ZIPS Projections)

SS Rafael Furcal .286/.356/.451
CF Juan Pierre .296/.341/.380
1B Nomar Garciaparra .288/.354/.469
2B Jeff Kent .272/.352/.473
LF Luis Gonzalez .248/.342/.412
3B Wilson Betemit .262/.328/.451
RF Andre Ethier .296/.366/.463
C Russell Martin .279/.359/.432

Starting Rotation

SP Derek Lowe 3.83
SP Jason Schmidt 3.94
SP Brad Penny 3.95
SP Randy Wolf 4.89
SP Brett Tomko 4.38

Notable Bench Players

1B Olmedo Saenz .268/.339/.483
1B/OF James Loney .297/.351/.454
C Mike Lieberthal .248/.315/.404

Notable Relievers

CL Takashi Saito 3.10
RP Jonathan Broxton 3.32

Potential Impact Players In The Minors

OF Matt Kemp .292/.342/.478
3B Andy LaRoche .274/.349/.443
RP Greg Miller 4.13
RP Jonathan Meloan (No Projection)
SP Hong-Chih Kuo 4.85

Every team needs some kind of luck to make it to the World Series. They might need to avoid multiple debilitating injuries, have a journeyman or two have a career year, or get some good years out of various middle relievers. The Dodgers, on the other hand need a very different type of luck if they hope to succeed. They need multiple players to get injured long enough for better hitters to take their place.

While it seems wrong to root for an injury, it's probably the only chance the Dodgers have to compete this season. It's very reasonable to argue that Matt Kemp, Andy La Roche and James Loney are the best hitters in the organization. While Kemp probably needs a few more months in Las Vegas to take Pedro Cerrano off of his comparables list, La Roche and Loney appear to be finished products that are, at the very least, as good as the players they are replacing.

If a lineup featuring Luis Gonzalez and Nomar Garciaparra somehow manages to stay healthy, we'll, I'm not too optimistic about the Dodgers chances. In short, the strategy of "get guys on base, sucks to home runs" isn't going to work nearly as well without it's best hitter J.D. Drew or Andre Ethier hitting .330 for four months.

Similar logic applies to the pitching staff. In the rotation, Hong-Chih Kuo or Chad Billingsley look to be stranded in the bullpen. Both are already better than Randy Wolf, who hasn't been good for four years, and both have significantly more upside. Kuo put up Johan Santana like numbers in September, while Billingsley's minor league track record shows how dangerous he can be if he finds control like so many young phenoms have. Having these two pitchers in the rotation would make the Dodgers a much better team. Fortunately, unlike the lineup, the rotation is still in very good condition with Jason Schmidt, Brad Penny and Derek Lowe leading the way, giving the Dodgers a very solid first second and third starter.

Speaking of the bullpen, the Dodgers would certainly benefit if Joe Beimel, Mark Hendrickson, and Elmer Dessens developed gigantism/got sentenced to several life sentences in prison. Relief pitching almost entirely comes down to upside, and while Dessens may qualify as a faceless middle reliever, the Dodgers would be a much better team with some combination of Chin Hui Tsao, Jonathan Meloan and Greg Miller in the bullpen. As it stands right now, the Dodgers have a solid bullpen with Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton, but could be so much better.

The Dodgers have the opportunity to be a very good team. If the fruits of the Dodgers immensely talented farm system take the majority of the at bats, they'll probably win the NL West. This team is currently built like a bizzaro version of the Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks have solid veterans backing up their more productive youngsters, while the Dodgers have given the veterans the starting jobs in the name of depth. Much like the Twins in 2006, the longer the Dodgers screw around with the weaker veteran options like Luis Gonzalez or Wilson Betemit, the less chance they have to win the division.

San Diego Padres
Projected Finish: 2nd
2006 Record: 88-74
Starting Lineup (With ZIPS Projections)

2B Marcus Giles .276/.456/.406
CF Mike Cameron .251/.334/446
RF Brian Giles .279/.386/.423
1B Adrian Gonzalez .289/.350/.475
3B Kevin Kouzmanoff .279/.334/.452
C Josh Bard .281/.356/.424
LF Termel Sledge .260/.339/.436
SS Khalil Greene .253/.324/.418

Starting Rotation

Jake Peavy 3.23
Chris Young 3.82
Greg Maddux 3.90
Clay Hensley 4.14
David Wells 4.76*

Notable Bench Players

1B/OF Russell Branyan .244/.340/.454
OF Paul McAnulty .280/.347/.435

Notable Relievers

CL Trevor Hoffman 2.38
RP Cla Meredith 3.06
RP Scott Linebrink 3.04

Potential Impact Players In The Minors

SP Mike Thompson 4.65
SP Cesar Carrillo 4.21

Here's what I wrote about the Padres last year:

When you combine a team that has no real upside to it with a farm system that was ranked 27th by Baseball America in 2005, you have a team that will be mired at the bottom of the division for years to come.

Whoops. The Padres managed to stay in contention mainly due to the work of Padres' G.M. Kevin Towers, who has been on fire for the last year and a half. Even moves that he made that looked terrible, such as Mark Lorretta for Doug Mirabelli have turned out well after some outside intervention, i.e. trading Mirabelli for Cla Meredith and Josh Bard and having them become elite players at their position. Moves that looked fairly even, such as Akinori Otsuka and Adam Eaton for Chris Young, Adrian Gonzalez and Termel Sledge have ended up remotely in their flavor. Combine that with a few surprising performances: Dave Roberts remains a productive left fielder, Mike Piazza has his best year since 2003, and you have the team that won the NL West.

While it's tempting to say that the Padres success was born out of dumb luck, I just can't do it. In the past year, I've come to learn that Kevin Towers understands his unique stadium, and the team is built to take advantage of it. In PETCO park, you can assume that almost any ball that is put into play is going to stay in play, so the Padres have stocked up on good defense, pitchers who can throw strikes and pitchers who allow fly balls. If you get a guy like Greg Maddux who can still pound the strike zone but has been hurt by the home run in recent years, he'll do exceptionally well in PETCO since the home runs won't occur and the Padres defense will scoop up all the balls in play.

Chris Young would have constantly been thinking outside the bun on any other team, with his league worst ground ball ratio, but at PETCO he was fine since those fly balls stayed in the park, and fly balls in play are turned into outs more often than ground balls. (Of course, Young was much better on the road last year, so what do I know.)

Towers continued his success this offseason. Aside from picking up Maddux, he picked up David Wells, another pitcher that qualifies as a "strike thrower". He also improved the teams offense in 2007 by trading for Indians third base prospect, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and not losing anything in the short term by grabbing Marcus Giles from free agency. All in all, the Padres have done nothing but improve on their team from 2006.

If the Padres manage to stay healthy for the entire year, they should take the NL West title, but how many teams manage to stay healthy for the entire year? Not many. The Padres biggest problem is that they have next to no answers if any player goes down for a significant period of time. The best player on the Padres bench is Russell Branyan, a great guy to have on the bench, but his batting average is so low that it prevents him from having a usable on base percentage, no matter how many walks he takes. Combine this with terrible defense, and you have a guy that you really don't want out there every day. After that, there's Todd Walker, whose glove is becoming increasingly unviable as a middle infielder, and he doesn't hit well enough to play the corners, Jose Cruz Jr. who can only hit right handed pitching and Oscar Robles whose main asset is being a better hitter than Cesar Izturis. If the Padres have to dip into their farm system, their best options appear to be sabermetric darlings Jack Cust and Bryan "why is this guy playing instead of Hee-Seop Choi" Myrow. While I think Cust still deserves a chance to make it as a major league player, especially after his .293/.467/.549 line last year in Portland, Myrow is now 30 and is slipping.

While I previously didn't put too much stock into what a team's plan B is, it seems like more often than not teams that looked good get derailed by injuries. If the Padres can stay healthy the whole year, they should win the division, but I don't think that's all that likely.

Colorado Rockies
Projected Finish: 4th
2006 Record: 76-86
Starting Lineup (With ZIPS Projections)
CF Willy Taveras .304/.353/.383
2B Kaz Matsui .277/.330/.385
3B Garrett Atkins .317/.389/.521
LF Matt Holiday .324/.383/.570
1B Todd Helton .315/.432/.517
RF Brad Hawpe .283/.368/.493
SS Troy Tulowitzki .282/.351/.429
C Chris Ianetta .269/.358/.465

Starting Rotation

Aaron Cook 4.37
Jeff Francis 4.48
Byung-Hyun Kim 4.44
Rodrigo Lopez 4.92
Josh Fogg 5.49

Notable Bench Players

OF Jeff Baker .291/.342/.504

Notable Relievers

CL Brian Fuentes 3.80

Potential Impact Players In The Minors

SP Jason Hirsh 4.85
3B Ian Stewart .248/.314/.404
RP Ubaldo Jimenez 5.73
1B Joe Koshanky .270/.330/.478

The Rockies put together their best season in several years in 2006, and they look to expand on that in 2007. While the Rockies finally have a direction after years of avoiding rebuilding, the team does not yet have the personal yet in place to be considered a real threat in the division.

As usual, the Rockies problems come down to their pitching staff. While the staff isn't nearly as terrible as it was in its heyday, it still lacks any decent options outside of Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook. The Rockies pulled off an amazing trade this offseason, sending away one year of Jason Jennings for pitchers Jason Hirsh, Taylor Buchholz and centerfielder Willy Taveras. While Buchholz and Taveras are pretty much filler, Hirsh has a good chance of being better than Jennings this year. With this young pitcher in hand, what do the Rockies do? Trade for Rodrigo Lopez, whose problems in Baltimore stemmed almost entirely from surrendering the jack. Moving to Colorado probably won't help that problem in any way. They also aren't helping themselves trying to push Byung-Hyun Kim out of the rotation and off the team. Despite the fact that Kim is pretty much a punch line right now, he was actually decent last year (7.49 K/9, 2.11 K/BB, 1.04 HR/9). After talking to Rockies fans, he wasn't as good as his stats looked since he tend to trade off good starts with terrible ones, but I would still rather have a guy that has a hint of potential like Kim, instead of known uselessness like Josh Fogg.

With these decisions, the Rockies have inadvertently created a lot of rotation depth for themselves between Hirsh, Buchholz, and prospect Ubaldo Jimenez , the Rockies should have someone come up around June and make them not miss Josh Fogg in the least bit.

If the Rockies used a rotation that went Cook, Francis, Kim, Hirsh, Fogg/Buchholz/Lopez/Brian Lawrence they'd have a very good pitching staff considering the five guys the Rockies usually run out there. Instead, they have a rotation with two decent pitchers, and three guys who are pretty much guaranteed busts. With every other team in the division running out effective rotations, the Rockies are going to have to score far more runs than any other team in the division to have a shot.

Fortunately, Coors Field is the right offensive environment for this, and the Rockies are bringing a team that has improved a great deal on paper. Coming into last year, the Rockies lineup featured five guys that were pretty much automatic outs: Cory Sullivan, Luis Gonzalez, Danny Ardoin, Clint Barmes and the pitcher. This year, they've dropped that number down to three, Willy Taveras, Kaz Matsui, and the pitcher, and Taveras is perfectly capable of lucking his way into a .370 on base percentage. Outside of this they've added Chris Ianetta, who could have a Russell Martin like rookie season, and Troy Tulowitzski, one of the top prospects in baseball. If he hits his equivalent line from AA in 2006 (.271/.335/.438) he'll be a four or Combine this with quite possibly the three best hitters in the division: Todd Helton, Matt Holliday and Garrett Atkins, and you have an offense that can do a lot of damage.

Unfortunately for the Rockies, there are three solid teams in front of them, and they simply have too many glaring weakness to be considered a decent team. The starting rotation is well behind what the other teams in the West have, and their bullpen doesn't have any thing other than middle relievers after Brian Fuentes. Depth could also be an issue. While the Rockies have several guys that are nice bench players, they don't have many people that would be qualified to start on a major league team. Jeff Baker looks like a lefty masher, Jamey Carroll was amazing last year (.300/.377/.404) with a 126 rate2, but that was nowhere near his established levels of performance, and people rarely break out like that at age 32, Ryan Spiloborghs is nothing more than a fourth outfielder. With most of the Rockies young position players several years away, there's very little the Rockies can do in the event of an injury.

The Rockies were directionless for a long time, but now it seems like they have a plan and they're sticking to it. While their flaws are too glaring to pick them anywhere but fourth place, they have the hitting and the defense to contend well into September if their pitching can hold up. For the first time in years, things are looking up for the Rockies.

San Francisco Giants
Projected Finish: 5th
2006 Record: 76-85
Starting Lineup (With ZIPS Projections)

Dave Roberts .280/.350/.386
Omar Vizquel .277/.340/.349
Randy Winn .275/.337/.413
Barry Bonds .269/.464/.539
Ray Durham .271/.348/.452
Rich Aurilla/Ryan Klesko
Pedro Feliz .251/.292/.410
Bengie Molina .281/.317/.411

Starting Rotation

Barry Zito 4.00
Matt Cain 4.01
Matt Morris 4.31
Noah Lowry 4.15
Russ Ortiz 6.17

Notable Bench Players

OF Todd Linden .252/.335/.431

Notable Relievers

CL Armando Benitez 3.72
RP Jonathan Sanchez 4.57

Potential Impact Players In The Minors

SP Tim Lincecum 5.34

Vodka and Mushu: The Brian Sabean story. A play in one part

The scene: Brian Sabean meets with his advisors to start the offseason.

Sabean: All right boys, we just finished below .500 for the second year in a row, lost most of our players to free agency, and we get constantly criticized for having an average age higher than the local chapter of the AARP. We need a new plan, a new direction, and we'll stay here all night if we have to.

Advisor one: Can we order Chinese food?

Sabean: Sure.

(Advisors quickly get to work)

Sabean: All right, think Sabes think. Think, think, think...take a drink!

A few hours later

Sabean: Wait, wait, wait. I got it! Let's bring back the exact same team we had last year.

Advisors: Yes sir, Mr. Sabean!

Advisor two: But wait, Moises Alou just signed with the Mets.

Sabean: God dammit! Okay, okay, I can improvise, that's why I was named executive of the year in 2003. Let's see it. Dave Roberts

(Old Scout's eye's light up)

Old Scout: I've heard of Dave Roberts!

Advisor three: But sir, we've got Fred Lewis in the minors. He might not be a huge prospect, but he could probably match Dave Roberts' production. He's 26 now so we should use him while we still can.

Old Scout: I've never heard of Fred Lewis.

Sabean: Your fired. Okay, we're almost done, we just need to handle the first base situation. How about...Rich Aurillia?

Old Scout: I've heard of Rich Aurilla!

Sabean: Great. He was amazing in 2001, and since he just turned 34 last year, he's peaking. Get a hold of his agent. Yep. I think this is season is going to turn out all right.

And scene

Due to the Giants rather strange off-season, they need seem to be banking on four things to make themselves competitive:

Matt Cain gets mentioned with Brandon Webb and Jake Peavy as the best starters in the division.

Tim Lincecum reaches the big leagues quickly and instantly establishes himself as a productive starter.

Barry Bonds survives an entire season.

The bullpen can't be as bad as it was last year, can it?

Other than that, it's hard to see what the Giants were thinking. Sure Randy Win will probably hit better than .262/.324/.396, but will Ray Durham hit .293/.360/.538 again? Probably not. Eliezer Alfonso had no real chance of being a productive major leaguer this year, but Bengie Molina won't do much better than the .266/.302/.465 line Alfonso put up last year. Yes, the Giants production at first base was abysmal in 2006, but Rich Aurilia is the answer? Even if he somehow repeated his .300/.349/.518 2006 he's still just an average first baseman. If he regresses back to even his 2005 numbers, he's a liability, let alone his numbers from Seattle that almost knocked him out of baseball.

Unless the Giants can get huge improvements out of their young starters, this is the exact same team they had last year, just a year older. The Giants finished 76-86 last year, and for some reason, they really, really wanted to do that again.