Wednesday, April 3, 2013

2013 Predictions: NL West

And lastly, we move on to the division of the reigning World Series champions. But the Giants find themselves being challenged this season by a Dodgers team that spent big this offseason, as well as the retooled Diamondbacks. I know that this is a little late for the start of the season, but most teams are only 1/81 of the way through the season-these still count as predictions.

San Francisco Giants
Record Last Season: 94-68
Key Additions/Retentions: Andres Torres, Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro
Key Losses: Melky Cabrera
Anything Else: Tim Lincecum had a strange down year
Full seasons of Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence
Pablo Sandoval only played in 108 games

All World Series champs need some luck to win, no matter who they are-14 of the last 19 (skipping over the 1993 Blue Jays due to the strike) lost more games the next season, averaging a net loss of over 5 and a half wins

Expecting a team to repeat as World Series winner is usually a good way to be disappointed. Looking at it now, it might even be a bad sign for the Giants’ chances to even repeat as division winners. Is there anything that could counter regression that may come?

I’m not totally sure. They’re losing their second best hitter from 2012 in Melky Cabrera (149 weighted Runs Created+, second to only MVP Buster Posey). Even if he only got in 113 games, he was still important to their run, contributing 4.4 Wins Above Replacement. Taking his place will be last year’s big trade acquisition Hunter Pence, who is turning 30 later this month and coming off his worst hitting season ever (.253/.319/.425, 102 wRC+). Maybe he’ll get some of that value back, but he is also moving to one of the worst hitting parks in the league. It could be a 2-win loss.

The rotation is a little thin, too. Matt Cain is an ace, I like Madison Bumgarner going into his age-23 season, and Ryan Vogelsong is a solid middle-of-the-rotation arm. But Tim Lincecum has had velocity issues, Barry Zito is not a great option, and there really isn’t another option if someone gets hurt. The lineup is the same way-Posey and Sandoval (if he can play a full season) are good, Scutaro, Pagan, Pence, and Brandon Belt aren’t bad (although the first three are 36, 31, and 30, so a decline is a little more likely), and Brandon Crawford and Gregor Blanco are both playable only for defense. A defense so dependent on two players is dangerous.

Overall, I think the Giants are fairly safe, though. A core of Posey, Sandoval, Bumgarner, and Cain should be solid. I don’t I expect them to win as many games, but most of that is just from seeing what happens to World Series winners the year after. They should be close at least to 2012. Whether it’ll be enough to hold the division is the bigger question.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Record Last Season: 86-76
Key Additions/Retentions: Skip Schumaker, JP Howell, Zack Greinke, Hyun Jin Ryu, Brandon League
Key Losses: Shane Victorino, Randy Choate, Joe Blanton
Anything Else: Hanley Ramirez, one of last year’s midseason acquisitions, is hurt to start the year
Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett are in town for a full season, and Carl Crawford will come back from the DL at some point in the season
Matt Kemp missed 50+ games last season
The Giants and Dodgers were closer than you might think.

This is the biggest question of the NL West-did the Dodgers improve enough to catch the Giants? As in the NL Central, I have to start by noting that the difference between the two top teams last year wasn’t as great as it appeared. While the Giants won the division by 8 games, the two were separated in their predicted (Pythagorean) won-loss by 2 games. Pythagorean record is based on a team’s runs scored and allowed, and is generally a better predictor of how a team will do going forward than actual won-loss record, so the Dodgers probably have to make up less ground than it appears.

And they’ve definitely tried to make up ground. It’s hard to see how the Dodgers won’t be better this season. I would take a 1-2 of (now-25 year old) Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke over (younger) Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. Even if Billingsley is hurt to start the year, the Dodgers have enough depth, between Ted Lilly, Josh Beckett, Chris Capuano, and Aaron Harang, all of whom were useful last year, as well as new South Korean import Hyun-jin Ryu. You have to figure bringing in Greinke is at least a 2-3 win upgrade.

And then, there are the replacements that they made last season, finally in place for a full year. Adrian Gonzalez doesn’t even have to be great like he was in 2011 to beat James Loney (last year: 75 wRC+, -0.3 WAR), although the potential is there. Same with left field-Carl Crawford may not ever reach his Tampa Bay levels of production, but left field was pretty close to a net nothing last year, between Shane Victorino, Bobby Abreu, Tony Gwynn Jr., Juan Rivera et al. Just being a normal 2-win player would be an improvement. Even with Hanley Ramirez injured, I like a left side of the infield with Ramirez and Luis Cruz (with Nick Punto in reserve) a more than I like one with Cruz and Dee Gordon (with Juan Uribe backing them up), even if the former has questions. Really, it’s kind of shocking that the Dodgers had so many holes in the line-up last year, let alone that they kept in the race despite that.

And this isn’t even going into their secret weapons: a hopefully healthy Matt Kemp and, just in case, Yasiel Puig in the minors. Either one could be a huge swing in Los Angeles’ favor.

Arizona Diamondbacks
Record Last Season: 81-81
Key Additions/Retentions: Eric Chavez, Brandon McCarthy, Martin Prado, Cliff Pennington, Heath Bell, Cody Ross, prospects
Key Losses: Matt Albers, Trevor Bauer, Bryan Shaw, Chris Young, Chris Johnson, Justin Upton
Anything Else: Hyped prospect Adam Eaton is injured to start the season, as is fellow outfielder Cody Ross
They also lose half a season from Joe Saunders in the rotation
Aaron Hill broke out at the age of 30 last year, following two bad seasons
Their expected won-loss record was right there with the Dodgers’

The Diamondbacks had a busy but confusing winter, giving up on a lot of talent in the form of Young, Upton, and Bauer. Young and Upton, even if they were disappointing in 2012, had a better chance to improve the team than bringing in Cody Ross and hanging on to Jason Kubel did. Losing Eaton leaves them with Gerardo Parra as more or less the only one in the outfield that I might expect to be an improvement over an spot from last year.

The infield is better. Cliff Pennington (65 wRC+, 1.0 WAR) really isn’t an improvement over what the team had at shortstop last year. Martin Prado is better than anyone who played third last year, although it’s fair to wonder how he’ll do after being a left fielder the last two years (and a second baseman the two before that). It’s a little like the Dodgers’ situation, though, in that showing up would be an improvement, and Prado will probably be even better. Aaron Hill had a career year after being not so good; I expect him to be good again, but I’m a little doubtful of another 131 wRC+, 5.4 WAR season. Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Montero are solid.

The rotation should be good. They don’t have a clear ace, but Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley, Dan Hudson, and Wade Miley are all above average. Hudson is hurt to start the year, but they have a number of pitching prospects to fill in. And overall, a strong rotation can make up for a lot of other faults. As confusing and counterproductive as their strategy has seemed over the past year, they should at least be in contention this year, although I’m not sure they’re quite at the same level as the Giants and Dodgers. Maybe if they still had Justin Upton, who I expect to have a good year, I would be more optimistic.

San Diego Padres
Record Last Season: 76-86
Key Additions/Retentions: Jason Marquis
Key Losses: None
Anything Else: Catcher Yasmani Grandal misses the first 50 games of the season on a drug suspension
Cameron Maybin had a down year after his breakout 2011
Carlos Quentin only played 86 games, but was great in that time
Prospect Jedd Gyorko is making his debut
Chase Headley will probably be out for half of April or more
Logan Forsythe had a good 90 game debut last year, although there may not be room for all of him, Headley, and Gyorko
The Padres have a cavalcade of hyped pitching prospects...coming off the DL midseason, so maybe temper your expectations

There aren’t many teams that I’m going into the year saying they they won’t compete. By my count, there’s the Twins, the Mariners, the Astros, the Mets, the Marlins, the Cubs, the Padres, and the Rockies. However, of those eight teams, the Padres (and maybe Mets) have the most potential to shock everyone and pull off an 2012 O’s/A’s-type run. Both have some good spots in their rosters, and they have hesitant cause for upside thanks to youth-if everything goes right, they could have several players step up their game at the right time.

The biggest problem with the Padres is that a lot of their upside is on the Disabled List. Young pitchers Andrew Cashner, Casey Kelly, Joe Wieland, and Cory Luebke are all on the disabled list to start the year. If all of them come back, and if it’s early enough in the season, and if they can all step in to the rotation right away, there’s a lot of talent on the roster. Obviously, you’d have Cashner (26), Leubke (28), Kelly (23), and Wieland (23). But on the offensive side, there’s also Maybin (26), Yonder Alonso (26), Logan Forsythe (26), Yasmani Grandal (24), Gyorko (24), and last year’s MVP candidate Chase Headley (29). All of those players have either been good in the majors in the past or come with high enough praise to provide decent expectations. Add in Carlos Quentin, who has hit well since coming over from Chicago (146 wRC+ last year) and you have a good reason to be excited.

The downside is that, until those pitchers get back, the rotation is pretty hopeless. Edinson Volquez started Opening Day, and Jason Marquis is the number four starter after the Twins released him mid-2012. Unless they can get more competent fill-ins until their prospects are back, they’ll lose any chance of being even a dark horse contender.

Colorado Rockies
Record Last Season: 64-98
Key Additions/Retentions: Wilton Lopez, I guess?
Key Losses: Prospects (to get Wilton Lopez)
Anything Else: Troy Tulowitzki missed most of last season to injury
The Rockies also lost their top three starters (Jorge de la Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, Juan Nicasio) to injuries

I’m not sure how bad the Rockies will be. I’m positive they will finish last; the bigger question is how many games will they lose? I’m tempted to put them on the same level as the Marlins, Astros, and Twins, but to be fair, they did lose Troy Tulowitzki and their three (arguably) best pitchers. That still probably won’t pull them too far above 70 wins. Maybe Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki help out a lot more, to the tune of 7-8 wins, and maybe the three starters prove to be solid. Even in that best case scenario, that gets them to about 76-78 wins. With a .500 record being the upside, it’s probably fair for the Rockies to take a year to retool or rebuild.

Final Predictions:
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies

I think this will be a competitive three-team race, but in the end, I expect the recently retooled Dodgers to come out on top. There are just too many easy improvements for them to make to shorten the gap between them and the Giants. I mean, going from getting nothing at first base, shortstop, and left field to Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, and Carl Crawford is good, and even better if at least one of those three plays up to their past peaks. Plus, I suppose I’m buying in to a Giants post-victory decline; in a division this tight, even a two or three game slide could cost them dearly. Even then, it’ll be close. It might not live up to the three team battle royal in their American League neighbors, but it should still be compelling.

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