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February 18, 2010

Division Preview

NL West

by Jay Jaffe

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The National League West is coming off a relatively strong year; its five teams collectively posted the league's top winning percentage (.519) of any of the three NL divisions. The Los Angeles Dodgers (who won the division), Colorado Rockies (who advanced to the playoffs as the wild card) and San Francisco Giants all won at least 88 games. As 2010 dawns, the division finds itself in relatively tight economic straits, with none of its teams making much of a splash in the winter free-agent market. That's really nothing new; these teams feature relatively strong player-development systems and a host of talented young players, which enabled them to do as well as they did with the lowest average payroll of any division at an average of $86 million. Depending upon how various personnel decisions shake out as the spring continues-including late signings-any of the top four teams might challenge for the title.

Colorado Rockies
Projected record: 88-74
Why They Might Win: Overcoming last year's 18-28 start, the Rockies went 74-42 after replacing manager Clint Hurdle with bench coach Jim Tracy. They return the nucleus of that team, including five starters-Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, Chris Iannetta, Ian Stewart, and Troy Tulowitzki-27 years old or under. Add to that a deep rotation where four of the five starters are projected to post ERAs below 4.40-thanks to their propensity for generating ground balls and avoiding homers, the secret to surviving at altitude. Fronting the staff is Ubaldo Jimenez, who forecasts to be one of the league's five most valuable pitchers with a 3.37 ERA.
Why They Might Not Win: After winning the pennant in 2007 with a similar cast (Matt Holliday being the most notable departure), the Rockies pancaked to a 74-88 record in 2008, and they extended that futility into May 2009. The development of those aforementioned young regulars at the major-league level has generally been erratic, as has the recent performance of 36-year-old Todd Helton. Furthermore, starters Jorge De La Rosa and Jeff Francis posted 5.00-ish ERAs in 2008, and could certainly do so again, particularly with the latter coming back after a year missed due to shoulder surgery.
Player Who Could Surprise: PECOTA believes in Iannetta's ability to rebound from a sub-par 2009 as he inherits the full-time catching responsibilities from the departed Yorvit Torrealba, forecasting a .255/.377/.473 line with 16 home runs.
Player Who Could Disappoint: PECOTA remains less than fully sold on Gonzalez, tabbing him for a .281/.336/.472 line with 15 homers despite last year's monster second half (.320/.384/.608).

Arizona Diamondbacks
Projected record: 84-78
Why They Might Win: Brandon Webb and Dan Haren went into last year as the division's best 1-2 rotation punch-and they could reclaim that distinction if Webb can return to form following a season lost to shoulder woes. Haren (3.14 ERA, 7.2 K/9) forecasts as the league's second-best pitcher after Tim Lincecum, and Webb (3.64 ERA) figures to be productive if not always available (125 innings). Youngsters Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds will provide plenty of power, while the return of Conor Jackson from Valley Fever and the signing of Adam LaRoche strengthens two positions where the offensive expectations are the greatest, but where last year's denizens combined to hit an unacceptable .247/.319/.399.
Why They Might Not Win: The Diamondbacks' young core has always been somewhat OBP-challenged. Neither Stephen Drew nor Chris Young has really panned out; the latter was sent back to Triple-A last August after skirting the Mendoza Line. They're also depending upon Edwin Jackson to pitch closer to his first-half 2009 form (2.52 ERA, 0.7 HR/9) than his second-half one (5.02 ERA, 1.7 HR/9), and for Ian Kennedy to overcome two largely lost years to prop up the back of the rotation.
Player Who Could Surprise: PECOTA is quite optimistic about incoming second baseman Kelly Johnson rebounding from a dismal 2009 with the Atlanta Braves, pegging him for a .283/.373/.469 line with 14 home runs.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Kennedy is forecast for a 4.59 ERA, with 1.2 HR/9. If he can't keep his walk rate in check, that will only get worse.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected record: 81-81
Why They Might Win: Fundamentally, this is the same team that stormed out of the gate last year, putting up the league's best run differential despite losing Manny Ramirez to a drug suspension for 50 games. Manny's vacation as well as sub-par years from Rafael Furcal, James Loney and Russell Martin were offset by major breakouts by Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier-and a career year from Casey Blake. Only at second base will the Dodgers have a new starter, and every year that Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley get under their belts is another year closer to their ascendance to being two of the league's top pitchers.
Why They Might Not Win: Owner Frank McCourt's divorce from wife and former team CEO Jamie McCourt appears to have affected the team's winter spending, and they find themselves depending upon Vicente Padilla to provide a career year along the lines of departed free agent Randy Wolf. Even more frighteningly, all five projected starting pitchers-Billingsley, Kershaw, Hiroki Kuroda, Padilla and James McDonald-grade out as red lights via Will Carroll's Team Health Reports, meaning each has at least a 50 percent chance of winding up on the disabled list. Furthermore, Loney and Martin have failed to advance after strong beginnings to their careers, and Ramirez-who hit just .255/.380/.448 after taking a fastball on the wrist in late July-may be finished as a dominant offensive force.
Player Who Could Surprise: Key for a team whose external resources appear to be limited, PECOTA is sanguine regarding the Dodgers' young fifth-starter options-but the forecast of rookie Scott Elbert's striking out 10.3 batters per nine innings is intriguing.
Player Who Could Disappoint: The system is particularly down on the 36-year-old Blake, foreseeing a .258/.339/.417 line with 17 homers.

San Francisco Giants
Projected record: 81-81
Why They Might Win: One reason: pitching. The Giants boast a rotation fronted by reigning two-time NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. Two other starters, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez, broke out with career-best showings last year, and even their ridiculously expensive third starter, Barry Zito, posted his lowest ERA since 2006.
Why They Might Not Win: One reason: hitting. Even with the work GM Brian Sabean has done to the offense, it's probably not enough. None of their incoming regulars-first baseman Aubrey Huff, second baseman Freddy Sanchez, and left fielder Mark DeRosa-projects to be even major-league average at their position; DeRosa is the lineup's only regular besides third baseman Pablo Sandoval who's even projected to post a .350 OBP.
Player Who Could Surprise: PECOTA really likes Jonathan Sanchez's chances of holding onto the gains he made in the second half of 2009, forecasting a 3.91 ERA and 9.4 K/9.
Player Who Could Disappoint: It'll certainly be a disappointment if 23-year-old Buster Posey, who at one point appeared on track to be the team's Opening Day catcher, is sent back to the minors or forced to surrender significant time to Bengie Molina.

San Diego Padres
Projected record: 72-90
Why They Might Win: Forced into cutting costs and rebuilding following the divorce of former owner John Moores, the Padres finished a relatively respectable 75-87 last year despite receiving just 13 starts from ace Jake Peavy prior to his being injured and then traded. Incoming GM Jed Hoyer has thus far held onto star slugger Adrian Gonzalez, found a lineup spot for power-hitting 275-pound behemoth Kyle Blanks, returned Chase Headley to his natural position at the hot corner, and made some smart deals to accumulate a full menu of outfield options, so the team's offense should at least be adequate.
Why They Might Not Win: The trade of Peavy leaves the Padres without a true front-line starting pitcher, and while Mat Latos may someday fill those shoes, he's 22 and has just 50.2 big-league innings under his belt. Chris Young has made just 32 starts over the past two years and has yet to top 180 innings in a season, so he's not that guy, either. Furthermore, guys like Jon Garland, Kevin Correia, and Clayton Richard are innings-eaters-not aces-and it's too early to tell if former 2003 first-round bust Tim Stauffer can replicate his second-half 2009 form. None of the starters forecast to have ERAs below 4.20, with Young, Garland and Correia all above 4.50-hardly impressive given the advantages of pitching in Petco Park half the time.
Player Who Could Surprise: The raw projections of Blanks (.262/.345/.463) don't look terribly impressive, but hitting 24 homers in his first full major-league season while playing his home games at Petco Park would be significant.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Young is forecast for a 4.88 ERA and just 113 innings.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

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