The Big Bad NL West Preview

The National League West might just be the most interesting division in baseball.

Actually, there are a bunch of interesting divisions in baseball, especially in spring training. But the NL West features four franchises with overhauled front offices (the Padres, Dodgers, Rockies, and D’Backs), the defending World Series champions (the Giants), two of the busiest teams this offseason (the Padres and Dodgers), and the on-paper best team in the major leagues (the Dodgers). There’s a lot to look forward to.

Below, I’ve provided a brief (hah!) preview for each team, with teams ordered by my Very Unscientific Predicted Standings algorithm. That’s VUPS, for short.

Los Angeles Dodgers

When last season ended for the Dodgers, it was another disappointing playoff exit for a team that hasn’t reached the World Series since the days of Kirk Gibson. In fact, last year marked the eighth time in 26 seasons where the Dodgers reached the playoffs yet failed to advance to the Series. That’s frustrating, sure, but even another early playoff failure left Dodgers fans with plenty to look forward to in 2015. The Dodgers still possessed one of the most talented rosters in the majors, two of the best young players in the game in Yasiel Puig and Clayton Kershaw, a top-heavy farm system with impact talent nearing major league maturity, and a seemingly endless supply of money to keep the machine churning.

Then, on October 14th, 2014, the Dodgers hired Andrew Friedman from the the Tampa Bay Rays and appointed him director of baseball operations. Friedman quickly hired long time Oakland A’s executive Farhan Zaidi as general manager, suddenly giving the Dodgers one of the best front offices in baseball. (Former GM Ned Colletti was exiled to a senior advisor role.) Lots of money plus lots of talent plus lots of front office smarts is the new formula for sustained success, or at least the Dodgers hope.

Friedman and Zaidi held close to their small-market roots in their first offseason in LA, resisting the temptation of high-priced free agent acquisitions. Instead, they used their new-found financial freedom in a different way — they used it to send players elsewhere. The Dodgers packaged $32 million along with Matt Kemp (and catcher Tim Federowicz) and got in return from the Padres an upgrade at catcher in Yasmani Grandal, and two pitching prospects named Zach Eflin (who they flipped to the Phillies in a package for Jimmy Rollins) and Joe Wieland.

The Dodgers also paid the remaining $10 million on Dan Haren‘s contract in a trade that sent the right hander along with Dee Gordon (and Miguel Rojas) to the Miami Marlins for Andrew Heaney, Enrique Hernandez, Chris Hatcher, and Austin Barnes. Then they promptly sent Heaney, a left-handed pitching prospect, to the Angels for second basemen Howie Kendrick, who has one year and $9.5 million left on his contract. It’s an interesting strategy for a big-market team — using financial resources to ease the burden of big contracts and make their own players look like better trade chips, ultimately netting a better return when those players are dealt. Grandal, Kendrick, and Rollins all plug major position player holes for LA, helping to mitigate the losses of Kemp and Hanley Ramirez, leaving the Dodgers with one of the best offenses in the game.

There’s still some vulnerabilities on this Dodgers team. The front-end of the rotation is the good kind of scary, thanks largely to Clayton Kershaw, but the back-end features Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson, a couple of prime injury candidates. Closer Kenley Jansen is already sidelined with a foot surgery that could keep him out of action until May, leaving an already shaky bullpen without its ace. Even when Jensen returns, the bullpen could remain a relative weakness, with Brandon League and JP Howell as likely late-inning options.

There probably isn’t an organization better set-up for long-term success than the Dodgers, who now have money and smarts, and an excellent starting core left behind from a previous regime that, in fairness, held its own. Part of that regime spread across the division in the aftermath of front office shake-ups — scouting extraordinaire Logan White went to the Padres while De Jon Watson moved east to Arizona — so there’s a chance that some of the Dodgers success in drafting and development dissipates. (Tampa Bay’s farm system wasn’t highly rated over the past few years either.) But the bigger question probably revolves around how the new front office handles a bigger checkbook. Neither Friedman nor Zaidi (nor Josh Byrnes, who was also hired by LA) have much experience in reeling in big free agents or negotiating mega contract extensions — heck, they probably don’t even have much experience in thinking about them.

They’re smart, so they should probably be fine, but you’ve gotta search for small things when trying to poke holes in what should become a perennial NL West power. Indeed, there may be enough small, seemingly indecipherable holes to spring a leak here or there, leaving an occasional division crown for the Padres or Giants. But 2015 should belong to the Dodgers.

San Diego Padres

AJ Preller’s grand strategy may still be hidden from our view — after all, he’s only been in charge of the Padres baseball operations department for a little over half a year — but so far it appears that he wants to turn around the Padres in a hurry. He’s made plenty of sacrifices so far to accomplish that goal, like parting with valuable pieces in Jesse Hahn, Yasmani Grandal, Trea Turner (eventually), Joe Ross, Rene Rivera, and more. He’s also sacrificed some future payroll flexibility by adding (and front-loading) the big contracts of Matt Kemp and James Shields.

You’ve gotta give something to get something, though, and the reward for the future sacrifice is a competitive team now. The 2015 Padres should compete for, at the very least, one of the two NL Wild Card spots. And everything doesn’t have to break right for that to happen. Carlos Quentin doesn’t have to stay healthy. Alexi Amarista doesn’t have to turn into Ben Zobrist. Odrisamer Despaigne doesn’t have to develop into a reliable mid-rotation starter. The Padres are built to win in 2015, even if everything doesn’t go as planned.

Of course, the Padres still have plenty of question marks.  Is Matt Kemp still Matt Kemp? Can Andrew Cashner stay healthy? Can the defense, particularly the outfield defense, hold up its end of the bargain? What about the left side of the infield? There are plenty of legitimate concerns around the roster, but they’re mostly concerns that every team deals with — even the good ones.

This year’s team offers plenty of things last year’s didn’t. For one, there’s depth. Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, and Will Venable, an Opening Day-like outfield trio in each of the past few seasons, are all on the bench now (and strangely enough, all still on the roster). Rymer Liriano is stashed away in Triple-A. The rotation, thanks largely to the recent acquisition of James Shields, feels like it can withstand an injury. The bullpen looks as solid as ever. For two, there’s offense. Jedd Gyorko is no longer relied upon to be a middle-of-the-order bat. There’s Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Derek Norris … and then Jedd Gyorko. The offense looks pretty good.

The best news this offseason might be that we haven’t even seen Preller and Co. excel at what they were brought here to do, and that’s to build a sustainable winner. Preller has all kinds of experience in the international market, and other members of the front office like Logan White and Sam Geaney have expertise in various areas of drafting and development. The Padres should be good now, but they’re also built to succeed long-term, and, in theory, should be able to quickly replenish the farm system they abruptly tore apart. And they’ll need to, because, unless everything does break right (think: a World Series appearance), the Padres still aren’t ready to enter a significantly higher tax bracket.

Unlike in past year’s, however, the future isn’t the only thing to look forward to. Preller borrowed from it to put a contender on the field in 2015, and if things break as they should, the Padres might just find themselves playing postseason baseball for the first time since 2006.

San Francisco Giants

Winning the World Series can leave a team with a sense of complacency; a feeling that its roster is good enough for another World Series run the following year, even if, deep down, that team knows it probably needs to make various improvements to have a good shot to repeat. Winning three World Series in five years can leave a team with a sense of downright arrogance; a feeling that it can allow one of its best position players to leave via free agency, make no effort to replace him or significantly improve the roster in other areas, and still contend for a World Series the following year, even if its title team only won 88 games in the regular season.

The Giants let third basemen Pablo Sandoval sign with the Red Sox this offseason for five years and $95 million. That’s not an insignificant sum, and the Giants know Sandoval better than the Red Sox, but San Francisco didn’t even make a legitimate attempt to replace Sandoval’s production. Their projected 2015 starting third basemen is Casey McGehee, who, according to PECOTA at least, might be one of the worst starting position players in the division. McGehee, working on his fifth team in as many years, is probably slightly better than that, as the other projection systems like him a bit better. He still isn’t Pablo Sandoval, and the downgrade leaves an already ho-hum Giants lineup in worse shape.

The Giants also let left fielder Mike Morse walk after he hit .279/.336/.475 in 482 plate appearances last year, proving to be a smart signing on a one-year, $6 million deal. They replaced him with personal favorite (and polar opposite to Morse) Nori Aoki on a one-year, $4.7 million contract (plus a $5.5 million option/$.7 million buyout), another team-friendly deal. Other than that, the Giants largely stood pat, leaving them with a solid starting rotation, a decent bullpen, and a decent starting nine. That’s a combination that can get a team into the playoffs (ask the Giants), but it’s hard to argue that they haven’t gotten worse compared to last year’s roster. And, as we mentioned, they won 88 games in 2014. Further, Hunter Pence, currently the Giants second-best position player, was hit by a pitch early in spring training, leaving him with a broken arm and an extended stay on the disabled list.

This all sounds bad for the Giants, but maybe there’s a method to their madness. They could’ve resigned Sandoval at the market rate, they could’ve given Morse two years and $16 million like the Marlins did, or they could’ve opened up the vault and signed Jon Lester or James Shields or Yasmany Tomas or Yoan Moncada. Despite a payroll that may exceed $170 million in 2015, the Giants showed restraint after another unpredictable playoff run. There’s value in not always buying high and not always going “all-in,” even if you’re the defending champs. With Tim Lincecum and Tim Hudson off the books next offseason (that’s $30 million freed up), the Giants will have plenty of money to play with. For now, they’re content to take their chances and ride out 2015 with most of their core — Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Pence — in tact, a strategy that should leave them competitive now and better set to add via free agency later.

It isn’t a foolproof strategy, of course, and eventually the Giants run of winning the World Series in even years is going to end. But maybe their on-again, off-again success pattern has more to do with clever strategy than the aligning of stars.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies finally replaced long time GM Dan O’Dowd with Tim Bridich in October, shaking up a front office that had just four winning seasons out of 15 with O’Dowd at the helm. Bridich is an inside hire, having been with the Rockies for 10 years, working recently as senior director of player development and previously as senior director of baseball operations.

Bridich took the anti-Preller approach to first-year team building, barely making any moves that registered on the AP newswire. His biggest offseason move, I suppose, was signing starting pitcher Kyle Kendrick to a one-year, $5.5 million deal. Kendrick hasn’t posted an ERA+ better than 80 since 2012, and he struggles with strikeouts — that’s not a good mix for Coors Field.

While we’re talking about pitching, that appears to be, perhaps not surprisingly, the Rockies major weakness. The rotation is without a true ace and has, according to PECOTA, three pitchers projected below replacement level in 2015 (one of them’s Kendrick). And there’s little depth after the top five. All you need to know about the bullpen is that the Rockies are still parading LaTroy Hawkins — 42-year-old LaTroy Hawkins — as their closer. Fun fact about Hawkins: after pitching the first nine years of his career in Minnesota, he’s pitched for eight different teams since. Solid career, but probably not cut out for closer duties in 2015.

The Rockies offense is better. Their offense last year was a tick above average, and it only got 656 plate appearances out of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez combined. A healthy Tulowitzki is probably Mike Trout‘s biggest immediate threat as baseball’s best player — then again, a healthy Tulowitzki may not exist. Gonzalez’s return should help bolster an outfield that, thanks to Corey Dickerson, Drew Stubbs, and Charlie Blackmon, fared well enough without him. First basemen Justin Morneau‘s enjoying a late-career resurgence in Colorado, and third basemen Nolan Arenado looks like a developing star at third, though his game’s mostly glove-centric at this point.

A solid core of Tulo, Gonzalez, and Arenado give Bridich three pieces to build around, but until he figures out how to put together a decent rotation in Coors Field, the Rockies will likely be relegated toward the back-end of the division.

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks new front office shook things up early this offseason, surprisingly winning the Yasmany Tomas sweepstakes at six years, $68 million. That’s an affordable price for the upside Tomas offers, especially given the string of recent success stories out of Cuba, but Tomas is more work-in-progress than finished product. Most of the projection systems peg his offense around league average, maybe a few notches above, and the defense could be an issue. He’s currently auditioning for the D’backs third base job, but there’s a decent chance he ends up in the outfield. He might not be good in either position, but he does add another threat to a decent Arizona offense. And he’s only 24.

First basemen Paul Goldschmidt might be the most underrated player in the division, and he’s joined in the lineup by Tomas, Mark Trumbo, and Jake Lamb. There are some holes offensively, though, particularly at catcher where some combination of Tuffy Gosewisch, Oscar Hernandez, Gerald Laird, Jordan Pacheco, and Peter O’Brien will likely hit like you’d expect that combination to hit.

Like the Rockies, however, the pitching is a bigger concern than the offense. The D’Backs actually traded their innings pitched leader from a year ago in Wade Miley to the Red Sox for right-handed pitchers Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, and infielder Raymel Flores. It’s a nifty trade in that all three of those pitchers probably aren’t much better than replacement level, but De La Rosa and Webster are younger, cheaper, and possess higher upside than Miley. Still, the deal didn’t do much to shore up a rotation that also contains Jeremy Hellickson, Josh Collmenter, and Trevor Cahill. The bullpen’s okay, I guess.

The D’backs also signed Cuban right hander Yoan Lopez to an $8.27 million bonus, a deal that nets them a projectable 21-year-old pitcher but also put them well past their international amateur signing bonus pool. The D’backs will pay a near 100 percent fine on Lopez’s bonus, plus they’ll be ineligible to sign any international amateurs for more than $300,000 for the next two years. Lopez could help in the somewhat near future, and he adds more depth to an already solid farm system, which Baseball Prospectus ranked seventh in the majors in February.

The future might not look so bad in Arizona, but a largely untested front office still has a lot of work to do to turn the D’backs into consistent NL West contenders.

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  • john virissimo

    Good read, enjoyed very much.

  • randplaty

    good analysis. So you’re not buying the “Preller revamped the Padres with sacrificing the future” line eh?

    • Thanks.

      And I guess not to the extent of some. Just giving up Grandal and Hahn is pretty significant, I think, and that’s before you get into all of the mid-tier prospects they surrendered. I still really like Grandal; think he’s going to have a big year.