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October 31, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies

Offseason Plans, NL West

by Nate Silver

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This is the last of a six-part preview of the impending offseason. Once I hit the 'submit' button and send this article to Christina, my column output is likely to be sporadic over the next several weeks as I tend to BP2K8 and PECOTA. I'll still be pitching in on Unfiltered in the meantime, and we'll have plenty of coverage for you as the stove turns from lukewarm to white hot.

Part I: AL Central
Part II: NL Central
Part III: AL West
Part IV: NL East
Part V: AL East

---

Arizona Diamondbacks
2007 Record: 90-72, first place
2007 Attendance: 2.3 million, 12th in the NL
2007 Payroll: $52 million, 26th in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): RHPs Livan Hernandez and Bob Wickman, 1B-S Tony Clark
Key Free Agents (2008): 2B-S Orlando Hudson, LHP Randy Johnson, RHPs Juan Cruz and Brandon Lyon
Key-Long Term Commitments: RHP Brandon Webb, $6.0M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option; OF-R Eric Byrnes, $10M/year through 2010; LHP Doug Davis, $8.25M/year through 2009; 4C-L Chad Tracy, $4.25M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: OF-Rs Justin Upton and Carlos Quentin, INF-R Mark Reynolds, MI-S Alberto Callaspo, C-L Miguel Montero, RHPs Max Scherzer, Yusmeiro Petit, and Dustin Nippert, LHP Dana Eveland
Needs: 1. One, maybe two quality SP; 2. A big-impact bat
What They Should Do: Weak Buy. There are a couple of countervailing trends to consider. First, as we've been reminded many times, this was a club that allowed more runs than it scored--if you simulated the past season a million times, the 2007 Diamondbacks would usually have finished closer to .500 than to 90 wins. And the bullpen isn't quite as good as advertised, since you had a lot of guys who compiled great ERAs on the back of average peripherals. On the other hand, the core position player talent is remarkably young and played better down the stretch, and the D'backs will have several assets coming back into play that they couldn't showcase in October, including Hudson, Johnson, and Tracy. If they did literally nothing this winter, Arizona would most likely field an 85-win club in 2008.

That is, of course, right at the range where adding a little bit of talent can go a long way, since there are a tremendous number of National League teams in that same territory. There's an obvious place to upgrade in the starting pitching department; Webb, Davis, Micah Owings, and Johnson are a credible front four, but there's a big drop-off after that (plus, there's no guarantee that Johnson will pitch the entire season). One intriguing fit could be Greg Maddux, if the Padres do not pick up his option; he's still a groundball pitcher, and he could take advantage of Orlando Hudson's vacuum-like defense at second base. Otherwise, most of the alternatives require use of the trade market. Nick Piecoro mentions Cliff Lee, Ervin Santana, and Daniel Cabrera as possible alternatives. All of those make sense, particularly the latter two, and the Diamondbacks have some excess assets like Chad Tracy and Carlos Quentin to utilize.
What They Will Do: Weak Buy. I expect the Diamondbacks to adopt this philosophy, but it might he harder to get full value for pieces like Quentin than they recognize.

Colorado Rockies
2007 Record: 90-73, second place
2007 Attendance: 2.4 million, 11th in the NL
2007 Payroll: $54 million, 25th in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): C-R Yorvit Torrealba, 2B-S Kazuo Matsui, RHPs Josh Fogg, Rodrigo Lopez, Matt Herges, Jorge Julio, LHP Jeremy Affeldt, RHP LaTroy Hawkins (mutual option)
Key Free Agents (2008): LHP Brian Fuentes, RHP Aaron Cook (club option), INF-R Jamey Carroll (club option)
Key Long-Term Commitments: 1B-L Todd Helton, $17.2M/year through 2011, plus 2012 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: 3B/2B?-L Ian Stewart, LHP Franklin Morales, RHPs Ubaldo Jimenez, Juan Morillo, Jason Hirsh, Taylor Buchholz, and Alberto Arias, C-R Chris Iannetta, OF-L Seth Smith, 4C-R Jeff Baker
Needs: 1. #2 SP; 2. 2B; 3. Bullpen Depth to replace free agent departures; 4. C, possibly
What They Should Do: Weak Buy. There is no doubt that the Rockies' run to the World Series has massively increased the credibility of the franchise, and attendance should approach the three million mark next year at Coors Field. Still, if the Rockies want to create some long-term afterglow rather than become a footnote, they're going to need to improve the roster. The Rockies really only have a league-average offense relative to their park, and we saw in the World Series how the starting rotation can be exposed. And there are no fewer than four potential free agents in the bullpen. With the Diamondbacks on the rise, and the Dodgers likely to commit significant money to free agents, there is real danger that this team falls back below the .500 mark if it isn't fairly aggressive this winter.

One potential starting point would be trading Garrett Atkins for a starting pitcher, and allowing Ian Stewart to graduate to the position. This is not as much of a drop-off as you might think, considering that Stewart is a better glove, and the market for Atkins should be fairly robust given that several big-market suitors will come up short in the A-Rod derby. I also see no particular reason for the Rockies to break the bank for Torrealba, who had just a .235 EqA last season; I would rather give the job to Chris Iannetta, or pursue a higher-impact free agent alternative. And I would devote $10-$12 million to the bullpen, preferring to re-sign my own guys because I know that they're comfortable in Coors.
What They Will Do: Hold. Teams that overachieve expectations tend to keep everything in place, and in fact that's exactly what Charlie Monfort is saying--"We'll keep the same team intact" is the headline on this MLB.com article. This is likely to be one of the bigger misplays of the offseason.

San Diego Padres
2007 Record: 89-74, third place
2007 Attendance: 2.8 million, ninth in the NL
2007 Payroll: $58 million, 24th in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): CF-R Mike Cameron, OF-S Milton Bradley, 2B-R Marcus Giles, C-R Michael Barrett, RHP Doug Brocail, INF-S Geoff Blum, RHP Greg Maddux (mutual option), RHP Brett Tomko (club option), UT-L Rob Mackowiak (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008): RHP Trevor Hoffman, 3B-R Morgan Ensberg, RHP Jake Peavy (club option), RF-L Brian Giles (club option)
Key Long-Term Commitments: LHP Chris Young, $4.4M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option; 1B-L Adrian Gonzalez, $2.8M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: 3B-S Chase Headley, 2B-R Matt Antonelli, RHPs Tim Stauffer and Jack Cassel
Needs: 1. CF; 2. RF; 3. #4 starter; 4. 2B
What They Should Do: Strong Buy. There's been almost zero noise out of San Diego since the Padres turned a virtual lock on a playoff spot into an asterisk, and you wonder if Kevin Towers isn't a little bit shell-shocked. Although his Padres managed to build a contender without lavishing extravagant contracts on free agents, this was nevertheless a team designed to win in 2008, as contracts for three or four key regulars are all coming off the books. The flip side of Towers' restraint, however, is that there should now be some money left in the till to pursue free agents.

The Padres' infield is largely set. In the long run, the group is Headley, Khalil Greene, Antonelli, and Gonzalez. Kevin Kouzmanoff will hold Headley off for not more than one more season; after that the Padres will have to figure out whether Kouz hits enough to warrant a move to a corner outfield position. There's an outside chance that Antonelli could make the club out of spring training; otherwise, the Padres will be looking at a Tadahito Iguchi-type one-year fix. The pitching should continue to be an asset, though it's a little top-heavy--the Padres should accept Maddux' option and look to add a fourth starter, perhaps a flyball pitcher like Eric Milton who wouldn't work in most other parks.

But the big decisions are in the outfield, where there's neither much present-day talent nor much on the farm. From the following group, the Padres need to sign at least one and quite possibly two players: Barry Bonds, who could thrive in San Diego's low-key media environment; Kosuke Fukudome, who has already been linked with the Padres; Torii Hunter, who will require a lot of money but provides a lot of marginal gain in Petco's large outfield; Andruw Jones, who is closer to Hunter in reality than in perception; and Aaron Rowand, for whom the same is largely true.
What They Will Do: Weak Buy. The Padres' problems in the outfield coincide very well with what's available in the free agent market, and it's hard to run though this winter's scenarios without having at least one of those big talents ending up in San Diego.

Los Angeles Dodgers
2007 Record: 82-80, fourth place
2007 Attendance: 3.9 million, first in the NL
2007 Payroll: $108 million, sixth in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): LF-L Luis Gonzalez, LHP David Wells, RHP Rudy Seanez, 1B/3B-R Shea Hillenbrand, C-R Mike Lieberthal, 2B-R Jeff Kent (club option), LHP Randy Wolf (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008): SS-S Rafael Furcal, RHP Derek Lowe, INF-R Nomar Garciaparra, LHPs Joe Beimel and Mark Hendrickson, RHPs Brad Penny and Esteban Loaiza (club options)
Key Long-Term Commitments: RHP Jason Schmidt, $12M/year through 2009; CF-L Juan Pierre, $9.1M/year through 2011
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: OF-R Matt Kemp, 1B-L James Loney, 3B-R Andy LaRoche, SS-R Chin-Lung Hu, LHP Clayton Kershaw, RHP Jonathan Meloan, INF-S Tony Abreu
Needs: 1. SP depth; 2. CF
What They Should Do: Hold. Play. The. Kids. The Dodgers simply need to deploy their existing assets correctly, rather than seek help from elsewhere. To get a bit more specific about it, next year's lineup should look as follows:

SS Furcal
C  Martin
1B Loney
2B Kent
LF Kemp
RF Ethier
3B LaRoche
CF Pierre

That group would be significantly better than league average at two positions (catcher and second base), slightly better than average at three positions (shortstop, left field, and probably first base), about average in right field, and slightly below at center and third (though not for long in Andy LaRoche's case, especially with Nomar Garciaparra serving as his caddy). Overall, it's one of the better position player groups in the league. So then you take the money you're saving yourself on Luis Gonzalez and spend it on a mid-level starting pitcher, to round out a rotation with Penny, Lowe, Schmidt, and Chad Billingsley. Coupled with the great one-two punch in the bullpen, that is also an above-average group. That's it. You're done. You've spent next to nothing--and you still have a potential pennant winner on your hands. It looks like about an 88-win core that can creep into the 90s if the veterans stay healthy.
What They Will Do: Strong Buy. There is no bigger disconnect in baseball between the Dodgers' ability to develop talent and the front office's lack of appreciation for that talent. Matt Kemp is someone that they should be thrilled to have in their lineup for the next six years. Andy LaRoche's time is now. So is Chin-Lung Hu's, and the Dodgers should consider trading Rafael Furcal to make way for him.

Instead, all rumors are that Ned Colletti's compass is pointed in the opposite direction. What I envision happening is something like the following: Kemp or LaRoche are included in a deal for a premium starting pitcher. And then--guess what--you do have a hole at left or third, and you do need to work the free agent market to repair it. But it isn't a hole that existed before; it's one that you've created yourself. The behavior is literally almost pathological, a kind of Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome: Colletti seems determined to make the Dodgers sick so that he can make them well again. Playing the kids--these talented kids from your farm system that embody everything that used to be called the Dodger Way--well, that's just too darn obvious.

If the Dodgers feel like they have to have a 94-win club instead of an 88-win club--and there's no reason they should feel that way after drawing almost four million fans last year--there are still a couple ways they could accomplish this. For instance, beat Curt Schilling's second-best offer by 30 percent, which probably means something like $18 million. By definition, you're overpaying, but the magnitude of the mistake is much, much smaller than trading Kershaw and Kemp for one year of Johan Santana, or signing Alex Rodriguez and permanently burying either LaRoche or Hu. Or, beat Torii Hunter's second-best offer by 10 percent, and see if you can't get someone else to eat most of Juan Pierre's contract. Of course, all of this speculation may be premature; the Dodgers haven't done anything yet this winter but replace Grady Little with Joe Torre, which surely has to be considered an upgrade. But based on their past performance, they're not a club to which I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

San Francisco Giants
2007 Record: 71-91, fifth place
2007 Attendance: 3.2 million, fifth in the NL
2007 Payroll: $90 million, 12th in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): LF-L Barry Bonds, SS-S Omar Vizquel, 3B-R Pedro Feliz, 1B-L Ryan Klesko, RHP Russ Ortiz
Key Free Agents (2008): 2B-S Ray Durham, INF-R Rich Aurilia
Key Long-Term Commitments: LHP Barry Zito, $18.2M/year through 2013, plus 2014 club option; OF-S Randy Winn, $8.1M/year through 2009; OF-L Dave Roberts, $6.5M/year through 2009; C-R Bengie Molina, $6M/year through 2009; LHP Noah Lowry, $3.4M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option; RHP Matt Cain, $2.5M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: OF-L Nate Schierholtz, LHP Jonathan Sanchez, 2B-R Kevin Frandsen
Needs: Everything except starting pitching and maybe right field
What They Should Do: Hold. Take the Fresno Grizzlies, spot them a league-average starting rotation, and what do you get? The 2008 San Francisco Giants. We've talked about teams that face difficult situations, like the Orioles, Rangers, and Pirates. The Giants are in more trouble than any of those clubs. Way more trouble. From the major leagues on down to the rookie levels, the Giants have by far less talent than any other organization. Making matters worse, they have almost no tradable assets, but they do have the horrible contract that they gave to Barry Zito a year ago. Considering that the Giants were 71-91 last year, and that they're subtracting Barry Bonds from that total plus essentially their entire infield, they're starting out at no better than a 60-win baseline.

To get back into playoff contention would require five, maybe six significant free agent signings--say a first baseman, shortstop, third baseman, left fielder, and closer--which would probably take payroll somewhere northward of $120 million. The problem with that approach is not just that it's expensive, but that it requires tremendous coordination to pull off; if you sign three of your six free agent targets, and get outbid on the others, then you're stuck shelling out $90-$100 million for what's going to be a losing baseball club. There are two approaches I can see making sense here. The first is to go with an old-school, Whitey Herzog speed-and-defense approach, which could work well in a big field like AT&T Park. The Giants allowed 720 runs last year with a +7 FRAA; if you can somehow turn that +7 into a +70, then you're talking about allowing barely more than four runs a game, at which point an offense that plays around one-run strategies could scratch and claw out a few victories. It wouldn't be a winning approach, mind you, but it would be interesting, and it would give the team an identity while aiding the development of the young pitchers. This is my preferred strategy.

The second approach is to sign Alex Rodriguez. This would not be done with the expectation of having a playoff club in 2008, nor probably in 2009. Rather, it would be done to give the fans something to chew on while you do a deep rebuild on the rest of the roster. We know that the fans have been very supportive in San Francisco--the Giants turned out more than 3.2 million fans last year in spite of having their third consecutive losing season. But throughout that period, the Giants at least looked like they were trying; it's very dangerous to look like you're abandoning hope-and-faith, especially when the kids left on the roster can't play. The reason I prefer signing A-Rod for $30 million/year to three middling free agents at $10 million/year is because it doesn't involve as much opportunity cost; you don't tie up other positions where you might develop a prospect, or get lucky and have something go right for you.
What They Will Do: Weak Buy. It's going to be hard for Brian Sabean to come to grips with the reality of his situation after losing the band-aid of Barry Bonds.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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