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March 27, 2014

Prospectus Preview

NL West 2014 Preseason Preview

by Russell A. Carleton and Daniel Rathman

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In the week leading up to Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus is conducting a division-by-division dialogue, asking and answering five questions about each team. Below, Russell A. Carleton and Daniel Rathman discuss the National League West.

Other preseason previews: NL East | AL East | NL Central | AL Central

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Team PECOTA Projections
Los Angeles

Record: 99-63
Team WARP: 46.6 (19.3 pitching, 27.3 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 734
Runs Allowed: 575
Team TAv: .270
Team FRAA: -8.3

1) If you were Don Mattingly, how would you handle the apparent glut of big names in the outfield?

Daniel Rathman: Tell Ned Colletti to trade someone—preferably Andre Ethier—especially with Joc Pederson knocking down the door.

Russell A. Carleton: First off, why does everyone see this as a GIANT PROBLEM? Let’s leave aside the fact that in a perfect world, the Dodgers would trade one of the four and get something of value back, even though three of the four have injury histories and overly huge contracts. The fourth one is Yasiel Puig, who is at once the most tradeable, the least tradeable, the most talented, and the least reliable. If the Dodgers want to trade one of them, they’ll probably have to eat some major contract or will get a mere token for their efforts. Maybe it’s better to have four good outfielders when it seems that three of them have trouble staying healthy (How’s Matt Kemp doing?). Even if all four are healthy at the same time, then the Dodgers have a crackerjack option for pinch hitting later in a game. Since the money’s already been spent, why not just enjoy the fact that while it’s not the most efficient use of resources, it might just be the best option available to the Dodgers at the moment?

Daniel: I think that’s a fair assessment—and since the Dodgers can afford it, it’s easy to say they might as well have the insurance. It’s entirely plausible that by the time Pederson is ready to get his feet wet in the majors, the glut might resolve itself.

Russell: Can Puig play second? That’s a halfway serious question. Speaking of which…

2) Will the Dodgers' plan to trot out Chone Figgins, Dee Gordon, and Alex Guerrero at second base backfire?

Daniel: If any other National League club had this apparent a hole on its roster, I might say that it ought to bring in a better option before Opening Day, but the Dodgers have enough of a cushion in the West to win the division even with replacement-level work at the keystone. Nonetheless, I think that declining Mark Ellis’ option for 2014 was a mistake.

Russell: Well, Guerrero has been politely asked to report to Triple-A. I couldn’t agree more about Ellis, especially considering the minimal investment that he got from the Cardinals (to play basically a backup/caddy role in case Kolten Wong doesn’t work out—sound familiar?) It’s going to get worse, because if they want to go out and upgrade, they’ll be battling the Rangers. Also, can we have a moment of silence for Chone Figgins? A few years ago, he was an uber-versatile guy with a good glove who hit for a good OBP and stole some bases. Now he’s… what the heck happened to him?

3) The Dodgers celebrated their 2013 NL West title in the Diamondbacks’ pool. This year, a mid-September road trip takes them to San Francisco, Colorado, and Chicago—and if PECOTA has its way, Don Mattingly’s bunch will clinch sometime during that swing. How will they celebrate this year?

Russell: Yasiel Puig will climb on top of “the Bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park!

Daniel: The Coke slide at AT&T Park comes into play, although it might be too far from the playing field to be accessible. Alternatively, Brian Wilson has another run-in with his former boss. The Dodgers, in my mind, are so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the NL West that the celebration will come on the front end of that trip.

4) The Associated Press reported that the Dodgers have taken the title of Baseball’s Biggest Payroll from the Yankees after a 15-year New York reign. Do the Dodgers have one more crazy move in them?

Russell: Well, if money is no issue, maybe the idea of doing something to cover that hole at second base isn’t such a crazy idea, especially because a guy like Stephen Drew is now probably desperate for anyone to show him some love. It would mean the loss of a first-round pick, but the Yankees have shown over the years that you can outspend the loss of first-round picks.

Daniel: I waited all offseason for the Dodgers to make their splash, expecting it to happen any day, until it didn’t. A trade for David Price. A Brinks truck for Masahiro Tanaka. A stealthy splurge on Robinson Cano, in whom they’d repeatedly denied interest. None of that happened, and at this point, I think Colletti can feel content that the roster he’s assembled is the most talented in the National League. He has the prospects and the money to pull off a blockbuster at the trade deadline (or in August), which decreases the need to do something he might regret in the coming days.

Russell: Oh, that’s decadent. Kershaw-Price-Greinke-Ryu in a playoff series. Again, speaking of which…

5) Can we get some love for Hyun-Jin Ryu over here?

Russell: Hyun-Jin threw nearly 200 innings over 30 starts, with an ERA of 3.00. He mixes a healthy but not stellar strikeout rate (7.2 per 9 innings) with a high ground ball rate. It’s the Ubaldo Jimenez skill-set with fewer walks. And all he has to be is the third starter. Maybe my man-crush on him has to do with the fact that he’s over-qualified for the role that he’s in, rather than that he’s objectively a good pitcher (and he is objectively good). Maybe I’m just being a hipster by rooting only for third starters, because aces are so not organic.

Daniel: One way to appreciate what Ryu did last year is to look at the bar that he’s set for this year’s top pitching import, Tanaka. A 3.00 ERA validated by a 3.21 FIP, plus seven scoreless innings in Game Three of the NLCS (after a rough go in the Division Series)? Yes, please. That’s 2.4 WARP in the regular season and a very strong outing against a righty-loaded lineup in a key postseason game.

PECOTA projects Tanaka for 3.0 WARP over 180 innings this year. Ryu has set the bar high, and the difference in fanfare (and guaranteed money), in hindsight, seems quite unfair to the lefty.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Team PECOTA Projections
Record: 87-75
Team WARP: 35.1 (14.2 pitching, 20.9 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 676
Runs Allowed: 619
Team TAv: .262
Team FRAA: -7.0

1) Will the Tim Lincecum extension look like one of the worst overpays offseason, from a baseball perspective?

Daniel: It did then, it still does now—with the benefit of offseason hindsight—and chances are, it always will. PECOTA is actually still bullish about Lincecum, expecting him to bounce back to 2.2 WARP, which would recoup a good deal of what the Giants have invested in the right-hander. But with an AAV of $17.5 million over two years, even at that level of production, the Giants would need to sell a whole lot of specialized Lincecum gear to break even.

Russell: You mean that wasn’t a bad dream I was having? The Giants really did that? This is an episode of Candid Camera, right? I’m on TV? Where’s the camera? Hi, mom!

2) The Giants signed Michael Morse to provide right-handed power and an upgrade over Gregor Blanco in left field. PECOTA projects Morse for 1.4 WARP, a half-win more than Blanco's 0.9 WARP production in 2013. Will the Giants get the boost they were seeking?

Russell: Well, they’ll get the power upgrade that they wanted. It’ll just cost them 25 runs of defensive value. Blanco’s another one of those guys who’s assumed to be awful at the plate because he’s good at defense. Most certainly, he’s not a power threat, but he also carries a .340 OBP. I sometimes wonder whether there is an additional benefit to having a power guy in that he is more likely to hit a home run, meaning that the OBP of the leadoff hitter is more likely to translate into runs because he’ll be on second when Morse hits the big fly. Does it happen enough to make a difference?

Daniel: Nope. Which leads me to...

3) In recent years, whenever the Giants have been in the playoff mix, general manager Brian Sabean has acquired a player at the trade deadline or in a waiver trade. Whom will the Giants add this summer?

Daniel: I could see the Morse deal flopping so badly that the Giants will end up in the market for an outfielder again come July. They’ll acquire Josh Willingham from the Twins and hope that his legs hold up better than Morse’s down the stretch.

Russell: If the Astros really are playing prospect arbitrage with Dexter Fowler, hoping to flip him at the deadline for more than they gave up, maybe he works his way to the City by the Bay? The problem with the Giants and making trades is that they have a number of players who fall into the category of a 2-3 win guy who is “pretty good.” Trading for another “established veteran” (read: boring, league-average guy dressed up as “the answer”) would be a mostly lateral move, and trying to make a big splash wouldn’t represent enough of a marginal upgrade to make the cost in prospects worth it. And it’s not like they have the prospects to really go after David Price.

4) If Marco Scutaro turns into a Freddy Sanchez redux, how should the Giants handle the keystone?

Daniel: Hello, Manny Burriss and Eugenio Velez. Wait, what’s that? They’re not Giants anymore?

Well, I guess Joaquin Arias and Ehire Adrianza—who beat out Tony Abreu for the second backup infielder job after a strong spring—will have to do.

Russell: It seems to be a theme in MLB camps. Where have all the second basemen gone? I get that Scutaro is 38 this year and is already questionable for Opening Day, but he’s not exactly Freddy Sanchez. Scutaro still has a diminished version of the doubles + no strikeouts skill set that he’s always had. If he does fail for some reason, then I don’t see that Giants being able to go out and get someone other than a scrap heap special, so they might as well just suit up Arias and hope.

Daniel: I was comparing Scutaro to Sanchez from a staying-on-the-field standpoint, but it’s certainly not hard to see skill erosion from a middle infielder at his age. In either case, the Giants are faced with the prospect of extended playing time for Arias, which could make a difference in a tight senior-circuit wild card picture.

5) Jean Machi, fart joke punchline or middle relief revelation?

Russell: I have to admit, I had no idea who Jean Machi was before last season. He did get a little lucky stranding runners (78 percent LOB rate) and restricting his HR/FB rate (only five percent), but the guy averaged nearly a strikeout per inning and had a ground ball rate above 50 percent. It’s only a 93 mph fastball, but it’s world class gas.

Daniel: Machi was particularly outstanding during the second half, when he fanned 27 in 25 ⅓ innings, allowed only 16 hits (0 homers), and issued only four unintentional walks. His splitter was dynamite last year, and unless that changes, the only person thinking the former might be Jose Mijares.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Team PECOTA Projections
Record: 82-80
Team WARP: 30.7 (10.6 pitching, 20.1 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 649
Runs Allowed: 642
Team TAv: .259
Team FRAA: -2.8

1) Will Josh Johnson (one-year, $8 million deal) earn more than $1 million per big-league start in 2014?

Daniel: I hope not, but missing the first month of the season with a strained forearm won’t help his cause. Johnson missed 50 days with a forearm strain last summer, which limited him to 16 starts. I think he’ll put in another half-season’s worth of work this year but is likely to leave those who thought he’d be one of the offseason’s best bargains wanting a lot more.

Russell: An injured starting pitcher is much more likely to sustain another injury. Johnson’s had a boatload of injuries to deal with, and this time (like last time) the word forearm was involved. The latest ailment is a flexor tendon issue, but the arm bone is connected to the hand bone. I’m guessing, but it seems that he will come back some time in May, when he will spend the rest of the season as a major risk to break down at any moment. As to surviving two months, sure, I’ll take the over. Why not?

2) Can Will Venable produce another 20/20 season?

Daniel: Just about every one of my fantasy teams sure hopes so. And Mike Gianella’s do, too.

Russell: It’s hard to bet on anyone hitting 20 HR at Petco. One key ratio to look for is the ratio of doubles to HR, and Venable has always been a guy who seems to have them equal out. But that’s hard to maintain. If he hits them a little short, then they bounce off the wall for a double. Not a bad result, but for you fantasy players out there who are counting on him for 20 HR, you might have to hope that he increases his extra-base-hit total in general.

3) Which team's uniform will Chase Headley be wearing on August 1?

Daniel: The Yankees seem like the most obvious choice, so I’ll take them.

Russell: I say that he’ll be wearing the camouflage uniform of the San Diego Padres. Headley is going to be a free agent after this year, so if things go really, really badly for the Padres this year, he could certainly end up in pinstripes, but according to PECOTA, the Padres are actually projected to be the second wild card (albeit with 82 wins). The beauty (or ugly, depending on your preference) of the second wild card is that it gives even more teams the illusion of relevance, and trading Headley would be waving a white flag.

Daniel: I wrote the question thinking he might not be traded, then answered it assuming he would be. I certainly would not rule out the idea of Headley staying in San Diego, because the Padres should be on the periphery of the playoff race. Josh Byrnes and co. might, in fact, turn out to be deadline buyers.

4) Has Everth Cabrera finally found enough OBP to make him into an offensive presence?

Russell: Fantasy owners love Cabrera because of his SB totals, but in 2013, his OBP jumped by 30 points. With a better chance to get on base, he could also steal more of them. His improvement wasn’t a BABIP mirage. In fact, Cabrera’s big revelation is that he just struck out a lot less often in 2013. We know that changes in strikeout rates tend to reflect changes in underlying talent levels in fairly short order, so if Cabrera can hold on to whatever strategy he was using last year, he seems to have arrived.

Daniel: I completely agree. And he can pick it at shortstop. If the OBP breakout is legitimate, the Padres basically have a Michael Bourn-type player at an equally or more important defensive position. He’s well on his way to becoming one of the most notable assets obtained through the Rule Five Draft.

5) Eric Stults! Eric Stults? Eric Stults. Eric Stults…

Russell: Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich. I suppose Eric Stults is a testament to the idea that a) someone has to start the game and b) if you don’t know what else to do, throw a strike. In Petco, it’s not a bad idea. What strikes me is that Petco is supposed to be a magnet for pitchers who are trying to re-create their careers, and a place where a pitcher would do well to go in general. How on earth did Eric Stults lead the Padres in innings pitched last year?

Daniel: My favorite Eric Stults nugget: He struck out 12 Mariners on May 29. He did not strike out more than six batters in a game the rest of the season—and he got to six only once. Kelly Shoppach picked up a hat trick in that May 29 game. Stults failed to strike out more than three batters in seven of his June-through-September starts.

That May 29 game really happened. He threw 28 changeups, and the Mariners swung through 12 of them. Eric Stults!

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 78-84
Team WARP: 30.4 (9.7 pitching, 20.7 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 662
Runs Allowed: 689
Team TAv: .257
Team FRAA: 24.6

1) Can Archie Bradley quickly become the frontline starter the Diamondbacks spent the offseason looking for?

Russell: OK, I get it. He’s the best pitching prospect who has yet to pop his cherry. Before we anoint him, though, consider that among rookie pitchers age 24 and under, even the really super good ones tend to be 2.5 to 3 win pitchers. That’s a wonderful pitcher to have, but please, people… some perspective! Bradley, by definition, has yet to do anything in the majors, and despite the loss of Patrick Corbin, he probably won’t break camp with the big club. The most seductive thing in the world is potential—or shall we call it by its other name, hype—but the game of baseball is littered with guys who committed the high crime of taking a few years to reach their full potential.

Daniel: Yep, the trouble for me is the word “quickly.” I think Bradley will one day front an impressive Diamondbacks rotation that also includes 2013 first-rounder Braden Shipley, but if Kevin Towers felt that his club needed to import a potential ace for this year, he should have done better than Bronson Arroyo.

2) How many GIF-worthy moments will Mark Trumbo produce in the field this season?

Russell: To infinity and beyond! But the more important question is what value he’ll provide. What’s interesting is that in 2012, when he played left field for the Angels in 66 games, he was rated as pretty close to average. Part of that is just low expectations for left fielders in general. Part of that is the fact that outfield defense has sooooo much noise in it that a single-season measure isn’t a good measure of true talent, and that bad defenders can have “good” seasons on paper just by chance.

Daniel: The Trumbo trade, from the Diamondbacks’ perspective, was one of my least favorite of the offseason, and PECOTA seems to agree with that, pegging the slugger for 2.5 WARP and the departed Adam Eaton for 2.1 WARP. I think we’ll get 8-10 LOL-worthy Trumbo GIFs before the end of the regular season, with each one serving as a reminder that while Arizona gained another right-handed power hitter, it coughed up a more well-rounded player (plus Tyler Skaggs) whose overall value might not be far off from Trumbo’s.

3) Didi Gregorius or Chris Owings?

Russell: What I find strange is this idea that there’s this “Gregorius’s defense vs. Owings’s offense” narrative building, which casts Gregorius as Paul Janish. Gregorius had a decent offensive season last year, posting an above-league average OBP, albeit with limited power. That’s not Cal Ripken, but it’s not a horrible shortstop, especially given that he has such a nice glove. There’s nothing wrong with Owings, and having too many of something is a nice problem to have. This seems to me to be a question that doesn’t have a right answer, or a wrong one. In the first two games in Australia, Owings hit seventh in the game he started, and Gregorius hit eighth, so we’re not pulling a middle-of-the-order hitter out.

Daniel: A good problem to have, indeed. Given that there are several teams who could see a substantial upgrade at shortstop by acquiring either Gregorius or Owings, the answer to this question might be “the one who is less valued by other clubs.” If the injury to Corbin leaves the Diamondbacks one pitcher short, it’s hard to imagine a more attractive trade chip than a big-league-ready shortstop. But beggars can’t be choosers, so depending on how desperate Arizona is to acquire another proven rotation arm later this year, another GM might resolve this glut.

Russell: Poor Stephen Drew. A team looking to resolve its shortstop problem now has to compete against Owings/Gregorius.

4) Who will hit a home run first this year, Tony Campana or a Diamondbacks pitcher?

Daniel: I’m taking the pitching field, even though they combined for only one last year and none in 2012. Campana’s last (and only) big-league big fly came at the expense of Mike Leake on June 5, 2011.

Russell: Better question: Who will have more 2014 plate appearances, Tony Campana or the pitcher on the Diamondbacks who has the most plate appearances? Last year, both Patrick Corbin (73) and Wade Miley (69) heard their walk-up music more than Campana (54).

5) Is Martin Prado the five-ish win player of 2012 or the three-ish win player of 2013?

Russell: What I noticed is that when Prado was a five-win player in 2012, it came in part because of fielding value gained from playing in the outfield. As I mentioned above, outfield defensive value can’t be trusted to repeat from year to year, which makes me think that there’s some phantom value in there. His defense at third (and at second) rate a bit above average, so he’s not awful on defense. We just need to be careful of what we consider him to be.

But he has 183.4 GRIT.

Daniel: It’s worth noting that this alternation of All-Star-level and merely good performance from Prado actually goes back to 2010-11, when he followed up a great campaign with a solid but considerably less impressive one. He’ll hit around a dozen homers and bat between .280 and .300, while offering quality defensive versatility (as opposed to Mark Trumbo’s multi-position skills), something most players with that offensive skill set don’t bring to the table. That’s a valuable player, one easily worth the $10 million AAV on Prado’s four-year contract, but it’s not a perennial All-Star.

Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Record: 77-85
Team WARP: 28.3 (9.2 pitching, 19.1 non-pitching)
Runs Scored: 726
Runs Allowed: 769
Team TAv: .259
Team FRAA: -5.3

1) Michael Cuddyer: .277 career hitter; .331 hitter in 2013. Which one shows up this year?

Russell: Michael Cuddyer’s BABIP last year was .382. I hate to blame everything on BABIP, but it fits here. Everything else in his peripherals last year lined up with his recent career averages. Last year was a fluke.

Daniel: PECOTA certainly agrees, projecting Cuddyer to bat exactly .277 this year. The only material improvement that Cuddyer made last year was to stop popping the ball up: 10.3 percent of his career balls in play have been infield flies, but only 1.7 percent of those he hit in 2013 fit into that category. We’ll need to see him do it again to regard that as anything more than a blip.

2) Is there any reason for me to tune MLB.TV over to the Rockies in 2014?

Russell: It’s strange, because there are individual players who are worth watching. Troy Tulowitzki is a legitimate superstar (yet strangely, he gets almost no press as such). Nolan Arenado had a defensive year at third base that was only slightly behind Manny Machado’s. But why get emotionally invested in the Rockies if you aren’t already? The pitching is still awful, and the team will probably hover around mediocre.

Daniel: Wilin Rosario’s defensive misadventures. He’s led the league in passed balls for two straight years and is well below average in the framing department.

3) Who will come away with the lion’s share of the playing time in center field?

Daniel: When the Rockies traded Dexter Fowler to the Astros, I thought it was with an eye toward moving Carlos Gonzalez to center. But that wasn’t the case—and now I wonder if the front office had an adequate plan in place to replace Fowler, for whom the Rockies only got Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes.

I think this ends up being a timeshare between Corey Dickerson and Drew Stubbs, with the latter’s defense preventing Dickerson from earning the full long end of the platoon stick. I also think that Fowler might get the last laugh about a trade he blasted a couple of days ago.

Russell: Well, they gave up Josh Outman to get Drew Stubbs. For what it’s worth, Stubbs has always rated as an awful hitter but a fantastic defender in center field. (It’s something of a testament to Michael Bourn that Stubbs spent most of his time in right field last summer.) I’m also still puzzling over the Fowler trade, which seems to have stemmed from concerns about his effort level and intensity. Fowler was never a fantastic fielder, but he could get on base.

4) Can Justin Morneau revive his career in Coors after the concussion?

Russell: When the Rox signed Morneau, I noted that he’d been playable at the major-league level even after the concussion, but he’s not going to go back to being the MVP he was a few years ago. Whether that’s just age or the effects of the concussion, I don’t know. The thing about concussions is that concussions mean brain damage. It seems that Morneau is past his, and I genuinely hope that he is, but concussions can be very tricky.

Daniel: Assuming that the thin air won’t magically turn back the aging clock on Morneau, what we’re asking here is whether Coors Field can bring the pop back to his bat. Morneau’s home run distribution last year was interesting: He hit eight from April through July, nine in August, and then none in September, which he spent with the Pirates. A healthy Morneau playing half his games in Coors probably eclipses 20 homers—a mark he hasn’t reached since 2009. But if the question is whether he’ll become a better player, ceteris paribus, than he has been the last couple of years, I think the answer is no.

5) Is it too much to expect Jonathan Gray to come up and work his magic this year, a year or two ahead of schedule?

Russell: I get that he’s the great hope for the Rockies in the future, but before you start dreaming of a Gray Christmas, consider that he has 24 innings of experience at high-A, the highest level he’s attained. Yes, it’s been done with young pitchers before, and sometimes they come up and do fun things, like Jose Fernandez did last year. Just remember that a guy like Fernandez is the exception rather than the rule.

Daniel: I’m optimistic. I remember watching Gray pitch a game for Oklahoma on ESPN last spring and thinking his fastball and slider could carve up a major-league lineup right away. The odds are that there will be rough edges to smooth out, but Gray should become the monster starter the Rockies have been looking for in short order.

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here
Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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