Friday, March 27, 2009

NL West Preview

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Arizona Diamondbacks have all the makings of a good team. Unfortunately, they also have the question marks that keep them from looking like a great team. The D-back lineup is solid, with 20+ home run potential from 7 of the 8 positions. Big questions surround the ability of 2B import Felipe Lopez and center fielder (and long time prospect) Chris Young to get on base enough at the top of the lineup to yield RBI opportunities for the guys farther down. If Lopez struggles, look for displaced outfielder Eric Byrnes to reclaim the lead off spot and for Conor Jackson, Chad Tracy, Tony Clark and Mark Reynolds to rotate based on who's got the hot stick.

Arizona, like most teams in the offensively challenged NL west, has a better than average starting rotation. Returning 22 game winner, Brandon Webb is the reliable, dominant ace GMs dream of. For that matter, so is #2 Dan Haren. Doug Davis and Jon Garland aren't going to challenge for the NL Cy Young, but they should be effective (and reliable) enough to keep the D-backs in most games. Fireballing prospect Max Scherzer looks to make the transition from dominant reliever to #5 starter. If he's as good as a lot of people think he is, Arizona should have the most effective starting rotation in all of baseball.

Unfortunately, the Diamondback's mediocre bullpen will hold them back from being a truly elite team. Chad Qualls takes over as the closer, despite only 15 career saves. Tony Pena, Jon Rauch and Tom Gordon all have (or had, in Gordon's case) closers stuff, but have problems with consistency. And only having one left handed arm in Scott Schoeneweis should create situational problems for Arizona manager Bob Melvin late in games.

Projected record: 88-74

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies are not going to compete for an NL West title this year. Colorado's roster is filled with injury risks, unproven talent and players with diminishing skills, and even if everything pans out, I can't see the Rockies overthrowing the Diamondbacks or Dodgers at the top of the standings.

The Colorado lineup has question marks from top to bottom. Here's a few: "Can former part-timer Ryan Spilborghs be the table setter the Rockies need at the top of the lineup?", "Will Troy Tulowitzki regain the power stroke he had in 2007?", "Is Todd Helton finished?", "Will Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe be nearly as effective without Matt Holliday's bat in the lineup?", "Who the heck is Seth Smith?". So yeah, that's pretty much the entire lineup and it's really, really hard to see all those questions having happy answers for Rockies fans.

The pitching staff doesn't inspire much confidence either. The mediocre Aaron Cook draws the unfavorable draw of having to match up against Tim Lincecum, Brandon Webb, Jake Peavy and Chad Billingsley on a regular basis, so he can probably look forward to double digit loses in 2009. Ubaldo Jimenez is the future Rockies #1, but I'm not sure that he's going to be there this year. Jorge De La Rosa has a career ERA over 5.0 and Jason Marquis doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Lefty Greg Smith breezed through the minor leagues and showed a lot of promise as a rookie with Oakland in 2008, so Rockies fans shouldn't give up all hope (unless of course we are talking about the 2008 season, in which case, yes, it's appropriate to give up hope).

The Colorado bullpen looks to be the team's strong point, but, naturally, there are still questions. Huston Street can be dominant, but has issues staying healthy. Manny Corpas had a rough 2008, but has good stuff. The rest of the bullpen (Taylor Buchholz, Jason Grilli and Alan Embree) isn't going to make a huge difference.

Projected Record: 68-94

Los Angeles Dodgers

The returning NL West Champion Dodgers look to be the class of the division again this season. While they lost veteran starting pitchers Derek Lowe and Brad Penny to free agency, they have an offense that should be ready to step up and carry the load. And when you talk about the Dodgers lineup, things definitely start with Manny Ramirez. After coming over from Boston, the future Hall of Famer lead LA to the postseason by hitting nearly .400 and smashing 17 dingers in only 187 ABs. Manny's effects were most pronounced on lefty Andre Ethier, who hit a ridiculous .462 hitting behind Ramirez for the final month of the season. Expect Ethier and other Dodger youngsters, James Loney and Matt Kemp, to continue to mature and to continue to reap the benefits of hitting around Ramirez. The top of the LA lineup is pretty potent as well, with Rafael Furcal and Orlando Hudson expected to be in the 1-2 spots. Health is the key with these two, but if they are playing, I could see them each crossing the plate more than 100 times in 2009.

If the Dodgers are to stumble in 2009, it's probably going to be because of their pitching staff. The starting rotation is lead by Chad Billingsley, a former first round pick who blossomed into a full fledged ace in 2008. If Billingsley cuts down on his walks and gets a few more runs of support, 2009 could be a 20 win season for him. Another former first round pick, 21 year old left-hander Clayton Kershaw, is being asked to take the number 2 spot in the rotation after an up and down first big league season. Expect more growing pains from Kershaw, but he should become more consistent. Hiroki Kuroda and Randy Wolf are adequate end of the rotation starters and Joe Torre is definitely counting on them to take the ball every fifth day.

The LA bullpen also has a few holes. Jonathan Broxton takes over the closer's role and should rack up a bunch of saves if the rest of the bullpen can get to the ninth. Hong-Chih Kuo had an incredible 2008, posting an ERA of 2.14, but it's tough to see Kuo matching those numbers in 2009, since he had a career ERA over 4.0 prior to 2008. Journeyman Guillermo Mota is past his prime, while Eric Stults and James McDonald have only 101 combined innings between them. Dodger fans should probably stock up on the Pepto now, because they are going to have some dicey 7th and 8th innings.

Projected Record: 92-70

San Diego Padres

The Padres are probably the worst team in baseball. Yep, no sugar coating that. Their offense is made up of cast-offs (Jody Gerut, David Eckstein and Brian Giles, and, yes, those guys are expected to hit 1-2-3 for San Diego) and prospects that haven't panned out yet (Kevin Kouzmanoff and Chase Headley). Adrian Gonzalez is one of the best young hitters in baseball, but he just doesn't have enough help carrying the Padres weak lineup.

The San Diego starting rotation is top heavy. Ace Jake Peavy will turn 28 this year and is one of the most dominant starters in the big leagues. Chris Young was banged up in 2008, but his 2007 numbers are those of an elite starter. While Peavy and Young are a great start, unfortunately for the Padres, most MLB teams usually use a five man rotation. Cha Seung Baek is borderline awful, Shawn Hill was so bad and inconsistent that the Nationals chose not to keep him around and, yes, that's only four players. Kevin Correia may get a spot in the rotation, but who cares.

I could break down the bullpen, but it would really be a waste of everybody's time. Who cares how good or bad the Padres bullpen is when they only have two reliable starters and no offense? This team is on the fast track to 100 losses.

Projected Record: 60-102

San Francisco Giants

We here at Joe and Joe Sports pride ourselves in being impartial and fair, but,... aww hell, who am I kidding... TIM LINCECUM, TIM LINCECUM, TIM LINCECUM!!!!! Whew, now that I've got that out of my system, let's move on.

The Giants rotation, led by the aforementioned and 2008 Cy Young Award winning Lincecum, is unquestionably the strength of the 2009 squad. Lincecum is one of the elite young arms in the game and the scary part is that his 2008 splits indicate that he may have gotten even better as the year progressed (a tidy 1.07 WHIP after the All-Star break). 45 year old Randy Johnson slides into the number 2 spot in the rotation and, if he can give 20-25 starts, should give the Giants a great righty-lefty attack at the top of the rotation. The chronically unlucky Matt Cain (15-30 in the last 2 years despite an ERA around 3.7) and revived corpse of Barry Zito (seriously, his 2008 post All-Star break numbers were serviceable, maybe not for somebody making $20 mil a season, but serviceable nonetheless) give the Giants one of the deepest rotations in baseball. Youngster Jonathan Sanchez will give the Giants an all-or-nothing effort from the number five spot in the rotation.

However, the Giants lineup just isn't good enough for me to project them into the National League West pennant race. It's tough to get excited about guys with very little upside, like Randy Winn, Aaron Rowand and Bengie Molina. These guys play hard and contribute, but it's hard to see them being much better than they were for the Giants in 2008 and that team lost 90 games. Fred Lewis and Pablo Sandoval give San Francisco fans hope for the future, but these two guys are probably a year or two away from the type of production the Giants need from them to be division contenders.

The bullpen looks like it could be a nice compliment to a solid starting rotation. Brian Wilson is the closer and, despite less than desire-able 2008 numbers, he was able to slam the door 41 out of 46 times, a ratio I have to imagine most MLB managers would accept. Former elite middle reliever Bobby Howry will be a big addition to the Giants bullpen if he still has anything left. Second year players Sergio Romo and Alex Hinshaw both look promising and could become the righty/lefty combo the Giants need.

Projected Record: 78-84

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