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November 17, 2008

Hot Stove Preview

NL West

by Jay Jaffe

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What Do They Need? Though the Dodgers won just 84 games, they showed in the postseason that they were a better team than that once their injured players had healed up. They begin the offseason with no fewer than 13 free agents, including three starting pitchers (Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, and Greg Maddux), three starting infielders (second baseman Jeff Kent, shortstop Rafael Furcal, third baseman Casey Blake), and left fielder Manny Ramirez, whose arrival from Boston at the non-waivers trade deadline catalyzed the offense and turned him into a mega-celebrity the likes of which hasn't been seen in Dodger blue in decades. Despite the number of free agents, at most two rotation slots and two infield slots need covering, and while they have the resources to fill some needs from within, an offense that ranked eighth in the league in Equivalent Average and 13th in slugging percentage-one that hasn't seen a hitter surpass 20 home runs since 2005-could really use some muscle.

What Do They Have? They've got a lineup with five starters who will be 27 or younger in 2009, counting 23-year-old Blake DeWitt, a springtime surprise who began the year at third base amid a rash of injuries, and who was shifted to second once Kent was sidelined by knee surgery; where he'll play depends upon how the winter unfolds. They've also got a premier player development system offering multiple options for their infield (Chin-Lung Hu, Tony Abreu, and Ivan DeJesus Jr.) and their pitching staff (James McDonald, Scott Elbert), and, further down in the system, talent to deal if they're so inclined. Thanks to the handiwork of GM Ned Colletti, they also have two expensive, unproductive outfielders who want out of LA in Juan Pierre (owed $37.5 million through 2011) and Andruw Jones ($22 million for one year plus signing-bonus payments stretching into 2010), not that they'll find many takers.

What are they likely to do? They've already started playing hardball with Ramirez, withdrawing an initial offer of two guaranteed years and $45 million that wasn't going to get the job done anyway; headed towards his age-37 season and coming off a combined .332/.430/.601 line with 37 homers, he's seeking a six-year deal. If he's willing to go below four years, the sky's the limit on what the Dodgers might offer, and if he settles for four, they could bite the bullet and re-sign him. Beyond Manny, it's up in the air as to whom among their own free agents they'll pursue. Blake is a possibility, and Furcal may return if he's willing to re-up with a three-year deal, even though he was either absent or subpar for about half of his expiring contract; as the Cubs found out, the Dodgers are a different team when he's atop their lineup. More likely, they'll target a short-term deal for Orlando Cabrera. In the rotation, neither the injured Penny nor Lowe are likely to return, so the Dodgers will enter the high-stakes bidding for California native CC Sabathia-if the Yankees haven't already closed that deal-and they may pursue Randy Johnson, who just filed for free agency after reaching an impasse in negotiations with the Diamondbacks. Contrary to early off-season rumors, they're unlikely to deal Russell Martin or anyone else from their young nucleus to fill needs.

What Should They Do? The Dodgers likely can't afford both Sabathia and Ramirez, and given their current posture, they're not favorites to sign either. One alternative to the latter whose name has yet to surface is Adam Dunn, who's reached the 40-homer plateau for five straight years and just turned 29. Though he lacks Manny's charisma, even moving into the least hitter-friendly park of his career, he'd be an imposing middle-of-the-order presence, and he's hardly a major step down defensively. Beyond that, and assuming no Sabathia signing, a one-year deal with Johnson could make sense given his 2008 performance, and a fungible inning-eater to account for the youth of Clayton Kershaw (and possibly McDonald) is in order-perhaps someone like Randy Wolf or Jon Garland. As for the infield, between Hu, DeJesus, DeWitt, and Abreu, the Dodgers can probably cover two of their three infield vacancies, so they should focus on signing the best free agent they can for one position and letting the kids fight for the remaining spots.

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What Do They Need? The 2008 Diamondbacks burst out of the gate with a 20-8 record with an offense that scored 5.9 runs per game, but they were 14 games under .500 the rest of the way while averaging 4.1 runs per game and watching the Dodgers overtake them in early September. Their lineup, the youngest in the league last year, offers high-ceiling talents like Chris B. Young and Justin Upton, but low on-base percentages kept the team's EqA in the NL's bottom quartile. The losses of free agents Orlando Hudson and Adam Dunn only exacerbate that problem; ideally, disciplined hitters should fill those holes. They've also got a rotation vacancy to fill with Randy Johnson's departure, and the bullpen, which stands to lose Brandon Lyon and Juan Cruz, will need some patching.

What Do They Have? Even with Tony Clark leaving, the Snakes have more corner infielders-Conor Jackson, Mark Reynolds, and Chad Tracy-than they have corners, and Reynolds' subpar fielding at third base rules out a move to second to replace the slick-fielding Hudson. Though less powerful than your average first baseman, Jakson led the team in OBP, so trading him is less than ideal, particularly because he's only entering his first year of arbitration. Tracy is the most expensive ($5.75 million including a 2010 buyout) but coming off of a subpar performance and two injury-pocked years. If they choose to keep all three and push Jackson back out to left field, then outfielder Eric Byrnes-owed $22 million over the next two years-could be swapped for a second baseman signed to a similarly ill-advised contract, like Luis Castillo or Julio Lugo. Other trade candidates include catchers Chris Snyder (arbitration eligible) or Miguel Montero, and pitcher Doug Davis (owed $8.75 million in his walk year).

What Are They Likely To Do? Having recently laid off 31 team employees and parted ways with the Big Unit over the matter of a few million dollars, the Diamondbacks are clearly feeling the economic pinch and won't be major players in the free-agent market. Dunn is done in Arizona, though re-signing late-season acquisition David Eckstein to play second remains an option. Furthermore, having traded multiple prospects for Dunn and Dan Haren in the past year, the Diamondbacks are loathe to deal from further down in the system, so any major moves will likely stem from trading proven commodities.

What Should They Do? Nothing helps a team's bottom line like winning, and with one of the game's best one-two punches in Brandon Webb and Haren, the Diamondbacks should be competitive in a division that remains winnable. They can expect the offense to improve via the development of their 27-and-under nucleus of Young, Upton, Jackson, Reynolds, and Stephen Drew, but that doesn't entirely solve the plate discipline problem, nor does it address their relative weakness versus righties (.249/.322/.406 with the 10th-best OPS in the league). Re-signing Dunn would address both shortcomings. As for second base, they should explore trading for the Braves' Kelly Johnson, who's arbitration eligible going into his age-27 season and the owner of a lifetime OBP of .356, but if the Braves don't trade Yunel Escobar to the Padres in a deal for Jake Peavy, Escobar might be worth targeting instead.

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What Do They Need? A year after storming to the NL pennant, the Rockies appeared poised for further competition in a relatively weak NL West but won just 74 games due to an abysmal 32-51 start. The current economic climate has them in the mode of paring payroll, and they've already taken a major step towards that end by trading Matt Holliday to Oakland for Huston Street, Carlos Gonzalez, and Greg Smith, an underwhelming package, but one not without some upside. Though their 2008 woes stem in part from the failures of a few youngsters and prospects (Troy Tulowitzki, Franklin Morales), their bench and farm system are capable of filling in most of the gaps they'll create via further trading, starting with players like Ian Stewart, Jeff Baker, and Ryan Spillborghs.

What Do They Have? Holliday is already gone, but the Rockies have many remaining players who could be moved; none are headline talents, but some have years of club control remaining which could appeal to a cost-conscious club. Third baseman Garrett Atkins is going on 29 and coming off two straight years of decline, with a $4.4 million salary due to increase via arbitration. Center fielder Willy Taveras, 27, led the league in stolen bases and is an excellent defender, but hit an anemic .251/.308/.296 last year; he's headed for arbitration as well. Catcher Yorvit Torrealba, 30, was supplanted by Chris Iannetta; he's unexceptional on either side of the dish, but signed through next year at $4 million including a 2010 buyout. Furthermore, there have been rumblings that both Street and Gonzalez could be flipped in further deals this winter.

What Are They Likely To Do? They'll move who they can; the Reds have expressed varying degrees of interest in Atkins, Taveras, and Torrealba, and the Angels and Twins may also pursue Atkins. Beyond that, they'll primarily rebuild from within while looking to buy low in the free-agent market; former Dodger Brad Penny, coming off of shoulder woes, is said to interest them given his track record at Coors Field (6-1 with a 3.92 ERA in 11 starts). They may explore retaining free-agent reliever Brian Fuentes via arbitration, but with Street, Manny Corpas, and Taylor Buchholz in the fold, they're more apt to be sellers than buyers in the closer market.

What Should They Do? Given that it took just 84 wins to capture the NL West this year, the Rockies shouldn't count themselves out of the 2009 race before it even begins. Obviously, cutting costs is the order of the day, but a bargain bat or starting pitcher (ground-baller Penny, if healthy, makes sense), coupled with a break or two on the home front-say, a rebound by Jeff Francis (4-10 with a 5.01 ERA), or a turnaround by pitching prospect Franklin Morales-could have them in the thick of a race again. Gonzalez has tools that may play particularly well in Coors Field, but flipping Street, who's got two years of club control and an inflated reputation as a Proven Closer, could bring a solid haul.

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What Do They Need? Having parted ways with Barry Bonds after 2007, the Giants are already one year down the path of rebuilding. On paper, their 2008 results were hardly distinguishable from the previous three years in that the Giants finished with 70-something wins for the fourth straight season (72 to be exact). It wasn't pretty, as the offense finished second to last in EqA and has holes galore, with shortstop-where outbound free agent Omar Vizquel and others combined to hit .228/.295/.281-the most glaring need.

What Do They Have? For all of their offensive woes, the Giants have a strong rotation featuring Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, as well as Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez, both highly coveted by any GM with a pulse. The latter enjoyed a breakout year before a late-season fade saw his ERA balloon to 5.01 via bombings in his final two starts. Trading either is hardly imperative, but given prospects like Madison Bumgarner and Tim Alderson in the system, the right return could trigger a deal, perhaps involving a free Barry Zito with every purchase! On the offensive side, corner outfielder Randy Winn is coming off a .306/.363/.426 age-34 season with 25 steals. Heading into the final year of his deal, he'll make $8.25 million and has a limited no-trade clause; a contender who doesn't get their first or second choice on the free-agent market might find him viable. Perhaps the Giants' best trade chit, no-trade clause notwithstanding, is catcher Bengie Molina, a plus defender coming off a .292/.322/.445 campaign who's signed for just over $6 million in 2009. In a thin market for catching he could fetch a nice return for a team willing to grant an extension. Dealing Molina would make room for 22-year-old Pablo Sandoval, who hit .345/.357/.490 in a late-season stint with the big club after an impressive year in the minors.

What Are They Likely To Do? The Giants are thinking big, and intend to pursue CC Sabathia, an odd move given the $100-plus million remaining on Zito's contract; Sabathia's California roots could put this in play, but if a better, more financially flexible West Coast team like the Dodgers are interested, it's hard to see the Giants as a viable option. They've contacted the agents of Ramirez and Mark Teixeira; there's little likelihood on the latter front, but it's not difficult to envision veteran-minded GM Brian Sabean offering a big-money, long-term contract to Ramirez, who even three years down the road might conceivably be the team's best hitter. More realistically, they have a strong interest in Furcal that's believed to be mutual, and the same goes for relievers Bobby Howry and Joe Beimel. Given the return of Kevin Frandsen and the presence of Emmanuel Burriss, they probably won't pursue a second baseman.

What Should They Do? Pitching is not the Giants' problem, and their pursuit of Sabathia has as much chance of succeeding as your mutt Rover does of flagging down a passing Range Rover. This team needs hitters, particularly at the infield and outfield corners, since with the possible exception of Sandoval nobody on hand is likely to develop into an above-average bat at their position. Dealing from strength and possibly trading a pitcher like Sanchez to obtain a high-upside bat could be worth a gamble. Alternately, the addition of Ramirez, if they can afford him, would be an immediate, major upgrade of a weak offense, even if it creates problems down the road.

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What Do They Need? With owner John Moores in the midst of a divorce and the team reeling after a 99-loss season, and having acknowledged that at least at the upper level, their farm system lacks the firepower to compete with those of the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, the Padres are slashing payroll in a manner that's drawing comparison to the infamous 1993 fire sale that presaged Moores' acquisition of the club. They've parted ways with longtime closer Trevor Hoffman and are looking to trade Jake Peavy, with the Braves and Cubs as the leading suitors. Given Peavy's reputation and relatively affordable remaining contract (four years, $63 million), they need a return bearing more resemblance to the package that Baltimore received for Erik Bedard than the one Minnesota netted for Johan Santana. Likely headed for another cellar-dwelling season, at the very least they need to fill catcher, second base, and multiple rotation slots with viable short-term options from outside the organization.

What Do They Have? A lot depends on how close to the bone the Padres intend to cut it. Chase Headley, Adrian Gonzalez, and Chris Young figure to be untouchable given their ages and low costs; they can be cornerstones of the rebuilding effort. Kevin Kouzmanoff has his flaws, but is a cheap stopgap at the moment. Trade-wise, beyond Peavy, there's Brian Giles, who's coming off a stellar age-37 season and just had an affordable $9 million option picked up, and Khalil Greene, who's 29, coming off a wretched .213/.260/.339 season, and signed for $6.5 million next year, the Padres' third-highest salary. On the farm, massive 22-year-old power-hitting first baseman Kyle Blanks enjoyed a strong year in Double-A and might be the best trade piece they have given the presence of Gonzalez (signed at bargain rates through 2011) and 2008 first-rounder Allan Dykstra.

What Are They Likely To Do? To the frustration of the Braves and Cubs, both of whom were thought to be near deals for Peavy this week, they'll hang onto their ace until they're convinced they're getting the best deal possible. They could work with Peavy (who's got a limited no-trade clause) to expand the list of trading partners, with the Yankees and Red Sox among those poised to enter the fray, and the possibility (or pipe dream?) of a Philip Hughes or a Clay Buchholz anchoring a return package. On the free-agent market, they'll think short term, making moves along the lines of last winter's signings of Randy Wolf and Greg Maddux, players who can spend four months in Padre garb before being flipped to contenders at the deadline.

What Should They Do? The Padres look to be in rough shape now, but in Kevin Towers they have one of the game's best GMs, an astute, under-heralded executive who's turned rebuilding efforts into budget-minded contenders before. Recall that the 2002-2003 Padres lost 194 games, and then they won two division titles and nearly another wild card over the next four seasons. With well-regarded 2006 and 2007 drafts elevating the farm system from the second-worst to one in the upper half, they're on the right path, and so long as they navigate the Peavy and Giles situations through to their best possible returns, they'll further that effort.

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