Coming off of a year in which the division ranked as one of the weakest of the Wild Card Era, the NL West has been hit by hard economic times this winter to at least the same degree as the NL Central. As in that division, the result has been an exodus of talent via departing free agents and salary-conscious trades. Among the West’s five teams, only two have signed a free agent to a deal worth more than $10 million, and only one has signed an incoming free agent (i.e., one coming to a new team) to a contract worth $8 million or more.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting and somewhat surprising to note that despite this drain, PECOTA foresees the NL West as a stronger division than the NL Central, at least according to the combined win-loss records of the division’s teams via the projected standings. Both divisions have only two teams that project above .500, and while the Central’s top two are better than the West’s top tandem, the Central also has two teams forecast to approach 100 losses, while the West’s doormats may only approach 90.

According to the initial projections, which have not been adjusted to account for team defense, the West’s advantage appears to be based on run prevention:

Division     WPct.   RD   RS/G   RA/G
NL East      .515   151   4.97   4.79
NL West      .499    43   4.74   4.68
NL Central   .485   -79   4.86   4.94

The West projects better than the Central in part because of high-upside pitching talent, with six of the majors’ top 15 pitchers according to the PECOTA VORP projections: Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, Chad Billingsley, and Max Scherzer. The Central has just two among the top 15, Rich Harden and Roy Oswalt. The West has 13 pitchers projected for at least 20 VORP, the Central just eight-double the number per team, basically. Even given the fact that PECOTA underestimated the Central last year, the advantage seems clear.

As for the outside help, it bears repeating that what’s presented here is just one piece of the puzzle, with no attempt to account for longer-term concerns such as prospect trades or multi-year deals. This is just a rough guide to who’s new and who’s gone, and how much impact they’re expected to have on the division race this year. Teams are listed in order of 2008 finish; for each hitter, WARP and EqA are listed, while for each pitcher, the figures are WARP and EqERA.

Los Angeles Dodgers

IN: C Brad Ausmus (0.7, .235), SS Juan Castro (-0.5, .177), SP Shawn Estes (0.8, 5.40), SP Charlie Haeger (-0.4, 6.64), INF Mark Loretta (0.3, .249), RP Guillermo Mota (0.7, 4.88), SP Claudio Vargas (1.3, 5.00), SP Jeff Weaver (0.4, 5.76), SP Randy Wolf (2.4, 4.72)
OUT: C Gary Bennett (-0.1, .218), CF Andruw Jones (1.4, .267), SP Derek Lowe (4.2, 4.00), SP Brad Penny (1.8, 4.85), RP Scott Proctor (0.9, 4.56) LF Manny Ramirez (4.3, .316), RP Takashi Saito (2.7, 2.99)
NET: -9.5 WARP (-5.2 if Ramirez returns)

As you’d expect, the wealthiest team in the division has spent the most money this winter, primarily in the service of retaining their own. Presuming that the Dodgers will eventually strike an agreement with Ramirez, whose list of potential suitors has dwindled to LA and San Francisco, they’ll have given out three of the division’s four most lucrative contracts this winter. As it is, Rafael Furcal‘s $30 million deal and Casey Blake‘s $17.5 million deal rank first and third, respectively. Despite that spending, they’ve made some cuts that they otherwise might not have if they weren’t saving room for Manny, winding up with a net talent drain even if he does return. Lowe’s departure is the most significant, exposing a rotation that’s got plenty of health concerns, but while we’re on that subject, the losses of Penny and Saito may not be as painful as advertised, particularly since the latter’s elbow woes may be serious enough to merit Tommy John surgery. The most damaging blow, however, would be in losing Ramirez, whose return would improve the Dodgers’ eight-game deficit in the projected standings by three wins. And so long as we’re alluding to useless outfielders, the Rangers will take that projection from Jones, whose remaining $21 million the Dodgers figured out a way to eat on the installment plan. As for the players that the team has acquired, aside from solid fourth starer Wolf, they’re a singularly unimpressive lot, many of whom could be swapped out for Shawn Estes in Dodger Thoughts blogger Jon Weisman’s instant classic of a quip: “When I think of Estes, I think of a game show in which the category is ‘Pitchers I’ve been eager for the Dodgers to face in the 21st century.'”

Arizona Diamondbacks

IN: C Luke Carlin (1.0, .251), SP Jon Garland (2.1, 4.92), RP Tom Gordon (0.3, 4.53), 2B Felipe Lopez (2.2, .267), RP Scott Schoeneweis (0.7, 4.73)
OUT: UT Chris Burke (0.3, .238), RP Juan Cruz (1.3, 4.27), 1B/OF Adam Dunn (3.8, .308), SS David Eckstein (0.8, .243), C/UT Robby Hammock (-0.1, .201), 2B Orlando Hudson (2.6, .267), SP Randy Johnson (3.5, 4.01), RP Wil Ledezma (0.6, 5.1), RP Brandon Lyon (1.7, 4.33), RP Conor Robertson (0.5, 5.51), OF Jeff Salazar (1.0, .276)
NET: -9.7 WARP

As noted before, the Diamondbacks have already made a conspicuous show of belt-tightening this winter by laying off 31 employees and foregoing the Big Unit, not to mention other relatively high-quality free agents like Dunn and Hudson. As such, they’ve lost the most talent of any team in this division, though PECOTA still gives them a generous cushion in the standings. That only partially mitigates the decision to bypass Johnson, who took $8 million from the Giants, in favor of Garland, whom the Snakes signed for $7.25 million. While Arizona was one of the league’s most efficient teams in terms of marginal dollars per marginal win last year, this is an obvious error, as they could have bought the extra 1.4 wins forecast for Johnson at about 20 percent of the going rate. Meanwhile, the decision to let Hudson depart in favor of Lopez is closer to a wash, though the five-run difference in defensive projections (+2 for Hudson, -3 for Lopez) may have a ripple effect once the defense is factored into the pitching projections.

Colorado Rockies

IN: RP Matt Belisle (1.1, 5.10), RP Alan Embree (0.7, 4.88), C Sal Fasano (0.0, .185), RP Randy Flores (0.3, 5.29), RP Josh Fogg (0.9, 5.31), CF Carlos Gonzalez (0.6, .242), SP Jason Marquis (1.5, 5.23), LF Matt Murton (0.7, .254), SP Greg Smith (2.0, 4.88), RP Huston Street (2.2, 3.68)
OUT: RP Brian Fuentes (3.1, 3.52), RP Matt Herges (0.5, 5.16) SP Livan Hernandez (0.7, 5.68), LF Matt Holliday (5.0, .311), C Adam Melhuse (-0.1, .194), CF Willy Taveras (1.3, .243), RP Luis Vizcaino (1.2, 4.22)
NET: -2.7 WARP

After a disappointing followup to their pennant-winning 2007 campaign, the Rockies not only went into cost-cutting mode, they traded their most valuable player for a package that doesn’t look all that hot, particularly with regards to Gonzalez, whose park-neutral projection is a wretched .247/.295/.410. As for Smith and Street, their WARP projections are fairly volatile. The former’s is based on being a starter and will likely be lower as a reliever, given that he’s apparently competing with Marquis and Franklin Morales for the fifth spot and has only his left-handedness going for him versus an extreme fly-ball tendency and ugly peripherals. As for Street, his forecast is based on 10 saves, and will go up or down depending upon whether he winds up closing or setting up for Manny Corpas. In all, this looks like more quantity than quality offsetting the loss of those two big-name players, since many of them are competing for the same roster spots.

San Francisco Giants

IN: RP Jeremy Affeldt (1.4, 4.32), RP Bob Howry (1.2, 4.22) SP Randy Johnson (3.5, 4.01), RP Justin Miller (0.8, 4.60), RP Luis Perdomo (0.5, 5.43),1B Josh Phelps (0.7, .255), SS Edgar Renteria (1.6, .260), INF Juan Uribe (0.7, .240)
OUT: RP Kevin Correia (1.0, 5.16) 2B Travis Denker (0.6, .245), RP Brad Hennessey (0.3, 5.90), SS Ivan Ochoa (1.0, .234), SS Omar Vizquel (0.1, .204), RP Tyler Walker (0.5, 5.10)
NET: +6.9 WARP

Surprisingly enough, the Giants have been one of the winter’s biggest spenders, not to mention the sole NL West team to add more talent than they’ve shed this winter. Renteria’s two-year, $18.5 million deal is the largest given to an incoming player by any NL West club, while the $8 million deals to Johnson and Affeldt are the second- and third-largest in that class. The addition of the former represents a considerable swing relative to the division’s top two teams, both of whom also pursued the Big Unit and could have easily afforded him given what they spent on more half-baked solutions. The latter, along with Howry and Miller, should help fortify a bullpen that ranked last in the league in WXRL. Phelps, as Joe Sheehan noted, ranks as one of the more interesting NRIs around, an obvious fit for a first-base platoon with Travis Ishikawa if the Giants don’t come up with a better idea. Meanwhile, not a single player that the team lost projects to be worth more than a single win this year. That doesn’t mean the Giants will be good, mind you, but in this division they may not have to be in order to be competitive.

San Diego Padres

IN: C Henry Blanco (0.4, .216), RP Chris Britton (0.7, 4.26), 2B Chris Burke (0.3, .238), RP Kevin Correia (1.0, 5.16), 2B Travis Denker (0.6, .245), SS David Eckstein (0.8, .243), OF Cliff Floyd (1.1, .274), Mark Worrell (0.9, 4.76)
OUT: RF Chip Ambres (0.5, .246), C Josh Bard (1.0, .253), C Michael Barrett (0.7, .252), RP Matt Bush (-0.2, 6.4), C Luke Carlin (1.0, .251), SP Shawn Estes (0.8, 5.40), SS Khalil Greene (1.7, .262), RP Charlie Haeger (-0.4, 6.64), RP Clay Hensley (0.6, 5.59) RP Trevor Hoffman (2.2, 3.65), RP Jae Kuk Ryu (0.8, 5.18)
NET: -2.9 WARP

Up for sale due to the divorce proceedings of owner John Moores and thus saddled with a mandate to cut costs, the Padres have had a singularly ugly winter, one that’s only partly reflected in that bottom line. Between an acrimonious parting of the ways with all-time saves leader Hoffman, an awkward and as yet unfulfilled attempt to trade Peavy, the release of 2004 overall number-one pick Matt Bush, and the trade of 2002 first-rounder Greene-the only Padres first-round pick of the past 14 years to accrue any major league value-the Pads have generated enough bad publicity to get them through two or three winters of discontent. They haven’t signed any player to a contract worth even $1 million, haven’t added a single player worth more than Floyd’s 1.1 win, and their most intriguing off-season acquisition might be an overweight reliever who threw only 23 innings in the majors last year. The Pads maintain a core of high-upside hitters, but beyond them, Peavy, Chris Young, and Heath Bell, it’s a pretty bleak landscape here for the moment, and you can’t blame the Pads for not trying too hard to break the bank rounding up witnesses to this show.

In all, the division’s exodus can’t quite match that of the Central’s, particularly given the likelihood of Ramirez’s return to one team or another in this division. Still, the math isn’t pretty. The West may be better off than last year, but if it is, it will likely be due to the advances of the division’s core of young players in Arizona, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, rather than any free agent or trade.

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Jay: In the Rockies section, you wrote \"As for Smith and Street..\". Any self-respecting baseball fan would have to refer to them as \"Street and Smith\".
oh snap, consider that an opportunity missed. My first-ever baseball preview guide was the S&S 1980 edition with Brian Downing on the cover. I think I still have that in my childhood bedroom.
PECOTA projects a 24 year-old with 7 career ML starts to be one of the top 15 pitchers in the NL by VORP. I\'ll be very interested to see how that plays out.
The only real issue is his role - if he gets moved to the bullpen full time he won\'t have that high a VORP, but otherwise, he\'s got a ton going for him that PECOTA loves. #11 pick of the 2006 draft who showed occasional dominance and struck out more than 10 batters per nine as a rookie, with a better than 3/1 K/BB ratio and a 151 ERA+, great fastball/slider combo.
Not NL, but \"majors\'\", Count me among the skeptical as well.
People were skeptical about Lincecum as well.