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February 12, 2008

Spring Training Preview

NL West

by Joe Sheehan

The home to the senior circuit's surprise pennant-winning Rockies and the equally surprising division-champion Diamondbacks, those feats guarantee those teams nothing, because this is a division that goes four deep in terms of teams contending for the division title.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Where: Tucson, Arizona (Cactus League)
2007 record: 90-72 (1st, NL West)
New guys: Billy Buckner, Chris Burke, Emiliano Fruto, Juan Gutierrez, Dan Haren, Chad Qualls
Gone guys: Alberto Callaspo, Tony Clark, Livan Hernandez, Carlos Quentin, Jose Valverde, Bob Wickman
Wow, he's still here? Chad Tracy has been rendered into trade bait by Mark Reynolds, although there's some speculation that Tracy could play first base, with Conor Jackson being the one dangled instead. In any case, one of these three will not be happy with his playing time. Tracy is the oldest and most likely to go.
Winter grade: A-
Josh Byrnes added the missing piece by trading for a top-tier starting pitcher in Haren, dealing many pieces from a deep system while not giving up the very best of it. Shuffling Valverde out at his likely peak was aggressive, the kind of year-too-early move that Branch Rickey would admire.
NRI to watch: Tim Raines Jr. is no longer a prospect, but as a minor league veteran, he's become a good candidate to be a useful fourth outfielder, with an excellent stolen-base percentage (55-for-64 in 2006 and '07) and enough OBP and defense to be more than worth a roster spot. He'd be an excellent fit backing up the Diamondbacks' righty-heavy outfield.
Job battle to track: Bob Melvin anointed Brandon Lyon as his closer heading into camp, as much to spike a potential controversy as anything else. In the long term, it's Juan Cruz who has the power stuff to fit best in the role. Tony Pena and Chad Qualls may also make bids if and when Lyon falters.
One move to make: This is a deep and stable roster that could feature one of the best benches in the game. Trading Tracy should be a priority if and only if using him, Reynolds, and Jackson in a rotation will cause non-performance problems in the clubhouse. Having the lefty bat as an option in a Mike Lamb role would be a significant bonus. If Raines isn't the answer, acquiring a left-handed fourth outfielder-Johnny Damon would actually be a pretty good fit-in-season would help.

The Diamondbacks won the West last season on the strength of a deep bullpen and good fortune. The talent level of the team is much better now, however, as young players like Stephen Drew, Chris B. Young, and Conor Jackson develop, and are joined by Haren, who represents about a four-win improvement over the starters he's replaced. The D'backs won't have a walk, but they should be the favorite in a close race. If Randy Johnson can make even 20 starts, they'll be playing in October.

Colorado Rockies

Where: Tucson, Arizona (Cactus League)
2007 record: 90-73 (2nd, NL West)
New guys: Jose Capellan, Josh Towers, Luis Vizcaino, Kip Wells
Gone guys: Jeremy Affeldt, Jamey Carroll, Josh Fogg, LaTroy Hawkins, Jorge Julio, Rodrigo Lopez, Kazuo Matsui
Wow, he's still here? Yorvit Torrealba, playoff hero, had all but signed a deal to catch for the Mets when the Mets changed their minds. The Rockies subsequently re-signed him to a two-year deal.
Winter grade: C
It could be lower, but in fairness, there wasn't much for them to do. Other than fill the second-base hole vacated by Matsui-for which the external candidates were unimpressive-Dan O'Dowd didn't have much in the way of transaction options. It does raise eyebrows, however, when a team is this passive in the wake of a successful season. Then again, the Red Sox did even less this winter.
NRI to watch: Casey Weathers, the Rockies' first pick in the '07 draft, was the closer at Vanderbilt a year ago and could have that job in Denver by the end of the season. With a high-90s fastball and great slider, he has the dominant stuff that no one in the current Rockies' bullpen possesses. At the least, he'll be a key mid-season addition.
Job battle to track: Everybody but Eric Young Sr. is taking a run at the second-base job. The team did sign Marcus Giles to a minor league deal, although he sits behind glove man Jayson Nix on the depth chart. Omar Quintanilla, Clint Barmes, and perhaps even Ian Stewart could get some time at second this spring.
One move to make: When Mark Redman and Kip Wells are the fallback positions, it's hard to suggest that a team send its best live arm to the minors. In the big picture, though, both the Rockies and Franklin Morales would benefit by the lefty spending a few months at Triple-A. He's still raw, and needs work on both his mechanics and his secondary pitches.

The Rockies appeared to rest of their laurels after a historic run to the World Series last fall. Actually, they just enjoyed the fruits of a roster consisting primarily of players under their control. With the exception of second base, the key contributors to last year's success all return, and while you can expect some fallback from Matt Holliday and perhaps Brad Hawpe, there's also the potential for improvement behind the plate-where Chris Iannetta should play more-and in center field, where a healthy Willy Taveras would be an asset. The key again will be how the defense, one of the two best in baseball last year, holds up behind a staff that puts it in play. At the least, the Rockies will again be in the wild-card mix.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Where: Vero Beach, Florida (Grapefruit League)
2007 record: 82-80 (4th, NL West)
New guys: Gary Bennett, Andruw Jones, Hiroki Kuroda
Gone guys: Luis Gonzalez, Mike Lieberthal, Mark Hendrickson, Ramon Martinez (NRI), Olmedo Saenz, David Wells, Randy Wolf
Wow, he's still here? Esteban Loaiza was lousy (8.34 ERA in five starts) after being acquired at the waiver-trade deadline in August. However, his contract runs another year, so he'll be at the back end of the rotation.
Winter grade: B
The Jones signing was an excellent case of buying low, and Kuroda's contract is a good gamble given the price of MLB free agent starting pitchers. Better still, the Dodgers avoided making another bad trade, retaining all of their young talent.
NRI to watch: Not that the Dodgers need another outfielder, but John-Ford Griffin is in camp. The one-time first-round pick is now a 28-year-old with no upside. However, and take this with a grain of salt, he has a career line of .304/.370/.696 in 27 plate appearances. Aren't you just a little curious?
Job battle to track: There are four outfielders for three spots, and it's excruciatingly clear to anyone familiar with baseball who ranks fourth among them. However, the likelihood that the Dodgers relegate Juan Pierre to a bench role is nil. Every PA he takes from Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier is a mistake.
One move to make: Trading Pierre for whatever he'll bring back, even if it means eating $10-15 million. Pierre would actually be a decent extra outfielder; it's just not likely that the Dodgers would do that, or that he would be all that happy in the role. Having Pierre around just increases the chance that he'll take time away from better players. There are people who don't like it when we say players aren't good, and saying this about a known nice guy like Pierre tends to fire up the opponents of performance analysis. Playing him regularly on a corner is just baseball malpractice, however, and the Dodgers have to avoid that temptation.

Ned Colletti has squandered a fair amount of Logan White's work in his time as the Dodgers' GM, but he avoided doing so this winter. Thanks to that, he heads into the spring with his best team, and with the best chance of having that team play. There remains the need to push Pierre and Nomar Garciaparra into supporting roles, the latter so that OBP machine Andy LaRoche can take over at third base. The "right" Dodger lineup can win 94 games and the division. How Joe Torre apportions playing time in a situation not dissimilar to the 1996 Yankees will determine whether the Dodgers fulfill their potential.

San Diego Padres

Where: Peoria, Arizona (Cactus League)
2007 record: 89-74 (3rd, NL West)
New guys: Tony Clark, Jim Edmonds, Enrique Gonzalez, Tadahito Iguchi, Mark Prior, Luis Rodriguez, Randy Wolf
Gone guys: Geoff Blum, Milton Bradley, Doug Brocail, Mike Cameron, Marcus Giles, Terrmel Sledge, Brett Tomko
Wow, he's still here? Michael Barrett, in a bit of a surprise, accepted arbitration rather than continue to test a limited market for his services off a terrible season. He'll share the catching duties with Josh Bard.
Winter grade: C
They didn't do a whole lot to address the aging of the roster, and with the Diamondbacks and Dodgers having passed them in terms of talent on hand, it may be time for the Pads to blow off a year. Adding Jim Edmonds for David Freese, a B- prospect, is a good trade in a vacuum, but doing it so that Edmonds can play center field in a yard with 400-foot power alleys is misguided. Edmonds needs to be on a corner, and the Pads can't do that, so this likely ends with a 350 AB season for the former MVP candidate.
NRI to watch: Chip Ambres has never been able to grab a major league job, getting just one shot at one, with the Royals in 2005. He's in camp with the Padres, and has enough on-base ability, power and defense to push himself into left-field mix.
Job battle to track: Third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff's big second half bought him some time. However, his poor glove and undisciplined approach at the plate are likely to give way very soon to the doubles and walks of Chase Headley.
One move to make: This Padres team starts far enough behind the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, as well as the Brewers and Phillies, that projecting it for a playoff berth is hard. With that in mind, Kevin Towers would be well served to deal off Edmonds, Brian Giles, and whatever other non-core pieces will bring back value. The division is not going to get any easier, but the '09 Padres will almost certainly be better equipped to challenge for its title.

As with the Cardinals in the Central, the Padres have been the best team in the West for a period of years. That time has drawn to a close, as the combination of an aging roster, some poor drafting, and better competition leave them as a .500 team in a division that requires .570 baseball to win, maybe more. With one of the best front offices in the game, the Padres should be able to keep the down cycle to a minimum, although they will have to address a persistent weakness in drafting and developing talent.

San Francisco Giants

Where: Scottsdale, Arizona (Cactus League)
2007 record: 71-91 (5th, NL West)
New guys: Aaron Rowand
Gone guys: Scott Atchison, Barry Bonds, Pedro Feliz, Russ Ortiz
Wow, he's still here? Man, remember when Merkin Valdez was the next big thing? He missed all of 2007 with Tommy John surgery, and comes to camp as a 26-year-old with two major league appearances.
Winter grade: F
They took a 71-91 team and replaced its best position player with a guy coming off a career year who's had two above-average seasons in his life. For $60 million. Good luck with that.
NRI to watch: They signed Scott Williamson the other day. Williamson hasn't been able to keep his arm attached to his body for more than about 20 pitches, but when healthy, he's generally missed bats and been tough on righties. It's a fairly weak group of NRIs. Then again, it's a fairly weak crop of RIs, too.
Job battle to track: Fred Lewis versus a whole bunch of guys he's better than for playing time on the outfield corners. Lewis is more or less what Randy Winn was back when Winn was good, yet has struggled to impress the Giants, who seem to always find a Rajai Davis or a Dan Ortmeier or Nate Schierholtz to block him. Maybe this is the year.
One move to make: Release half the roster. And the general manager. Brian Sabean is just the wrong guy for the kind of things the Giants need to do right now. They need to start completely from scratch, lose badly for a few years, and come out on the other side in 2011 or so. Sabean is better at running a contender, something he did for years during the Bonds Era.

We're about to find out if all those people were coming to Pac Bell Park because it was so pretty there, or if it was the Giants as a team, or if maybe it was the left fielder. The Giants haven't started a year without Bonds since 1992. They went 72-90 that season, which seems a pretty good guess as to their record in 2008. Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, two of the most exciting pitchers in baseball, are all that separates this team from much uglier embarrassment.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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