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May 14, 1999

NL West Notebook

Looking for Reality in Arizona, and young pitchers' fates

by Dave Pease

Getting a Grip

As the first quarter of the season draws to a close, the biggest, baddest offense in the NL West belongs to the Arizona Diamondbacks. That's got to be one of the most surprising developments in baseball thus far, especially when you consider that Travis Lee and Tony Batista, arguably the best offensive players this team has, aren't hitting at all.

The Diamondbacks have scored 186 runs in their first 34 games, and they've been doing it with some impressive power numbers. The Snakes comfortably lead the NL with 52 home runs, and Jay Bell leads the league with 13. Outfielder Luis Gonzalez is riding a 25-game hitting streak, and third baseman Matt Williams' 1.051 OPS is his best start in years. Lee and Batista are both young and still developing, so when they come around, the rest of the West may have a five-headed monster on their hands.

Or maybe not.

                      AVG   OBP   SLG
Jay Bell, 1999       .304  .382  .659
1996-1998            .265  .349  .429

Matt Williams, 1999  .343  .373  .678
1996-1998            .275  .330  .477

Luis Gonzalez, 1999  .387  .462  .730
1996-1998            .265  .346  .431

Anything is possible, but I've still got my money on the established performance level. If all three of these players have transformed themselves from essentially league average at their positions to stars, the Diamondbacks have the rotation and defense to win the division. And if they do it with the ragtag bunch of hitters they have assembled, there shouldn't be much question that the aliens have a liking for this year's squad.

Diverging Fates

The Padres and Giants don't have a lot in common this year, but one thing they do have is youth at the back of their rotations. But it's striking how going with inexperienced pitchers has worked out so differently for these two teams thus far.

The Padres have, when they couldn't avoid it, been pitching Stan Spencer and Matt Clement in the four and five spots, respectively. Clement is the best pitching prospect on either team, but he hasn't shown it thus far in 1999. His ERA is a mediocre 4.75, but he's given up eight unearned runs in only 30 innings and the league is hitting .306 against him. The upside is that he hasn't been hit particularly hard and that his workload is being kept reasonable.

What can you say about a guy like Stan Spencer that's going to bother him? He's fought his way through numerous arm problems and surgeries and pitched well both in Las Vegas and with the Padres last year. He's been quite hittable thus far in 1999, and coupled with his tendency to give up the longball (eight bombs allowed in only 30 2/3 innings pitched) he hasn't given the team much of a chance to win the games he's started. Neither Clement or Spencer have logged a win yet in 1999, although pitching for an offensive team like the Padres isn't going to help them in that category.

Meanwhile, the Giants have been forced (through injury and attrition) to turn to Russ Ortiz, Joe Nathan, and Chris Brock, and they haven't suffered a bit for it. Ortiz has been a great story for the division leaders thus far. He's started seven times, has a SNPct. of .613, and has logged 42 strikeouts in 47 innings. Unfortunately, he's averaging more than 115 pitches per start, and nothing in his past performance indicates he's capable of pitching like this for long.

If there was one pitcher who looked like dead meat going into the 1999 season, his uniform probably had Chris Brock's name on it. Brock is a refugee from the Atlanta system. Now, not being able to stick in Atlanta, of all places, doesn't necessarily mean you're a bad pitcher, but Brock isn't an arm in the Freeman-Schmidt-Byrd mold. He didn't put up particularly good performances in his minor league career or in his major league cups of coffee with Atlanta and San Francisco.

So far, he's got a SnPct. of .473, so he's not hurting the team much, and has posted good peripherals (33:14 K/BB ratio), and our expectation that his starting career would evaporate looks about as good as anything we've written about Paul O'Neill's imminent demise.

Joe Nathan is the wild card of the group. He was called up to fill in for Mark Gardner on an emergency basis, and has pitched quite well thus far. Nathan, a converted shortstop, is a good prospect, but he's probably the pitcher in this bunch most likely to implode--he hasn't been keeping runners off base particularly well and is relatively inexperienced. With Gardner healthy again, he's been moved to the bullpen, which is probably the best place for him. Don't break your neck trying to pick him up in your fantasy league (see Keith Law's latest Rotisserie Turns for more on Nathan).

Dave Pease is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Dave's other articles. You can contact Dave by clicking here

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