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Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Broke-Ass Ouija Board Says...The Rockies Hang Their First NL West Flag

The Rockies have an NL Pennant (from 2007) and have been to the postseason three time ('95, '07, '09), but they are the embodiment of the Wild Card era, having come into existence only two year prior to its invention, and utilizing it for every one of their playoff bids.  This is the year that Colorado finally surges to the front of the NL West.

I've been putting off making my western division predictions for both leagues, as I there are a number of reasonable contenders in each of west coast division.  In fact, while participating in the Inside Pulse Sports "30 Teams in 30 Days" roundtables, I think I ended up predicting that four teams in the NL West would finish in third place in order to prevent myself from having to make a strong case for any one of them.

Since those roundtables, there have been a few significant developments.  First, Russell Martin went down with a groin pull.  It isn't expected to cost 'Trane more than a couple weeks of regular season play, but knowing Martin's intensity, you have to wonder whether he will be patient with the rehabilitation process.  Groin injuries can dog a player for much longer than they should if not allowed to fully heal.  A bounceback season from Martin is absolutely key for the Dodgers if they hope to make Joe Torre three-for-three in NL West title attempts.

Also, after early progress, Brandon Webb's rehabilitation has stalled.  It now appears certain that he will begin the season on the DL, with no clear timetable for this return.  With Webb and Dan Haren as co-Aces, followed by Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy, the D-Backs had a formidable rotation.  It looks much, much different with two gaping holes at the backend.

Most recently, the Rockies closer, Huston Street, has been diagnosed with a shoulder injury, which will almost certainly cost him a couple months, if not the whole season.  Franklin Morales is the early favorite to take over the closer role, but the Rockies also have two other pitchers with considerable closing experience, Rafael Betancourt and Manny Corpas.  There are also reports that the Rockies have been considering re-signing Joe Beimel or trading for Juan Cruz, although neither is likely to enter the competition for saves.

Giants camp hasn't been completely free of setbacks either.  Freddy Sanchez is unlikely to be ready for Opening Day and Mark DeRosa remains somewhat questionable.  Madison Bumgarner, the early favorite for the fifth spot in the rotation, showed a significant decline in velocity in his first couple outings, provoking worry.

All of this suggests, what probably should be assumed from the start, that with four very competitive teams, the NL West will be determined largely by health and depth.

The Rockies, despite the bad news regarding Street, demonstrate what sets them apart.  They have a strong back-up plan at almost every position.  Their rotation is set, assuming everybody stays healthy, with Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa, Jeff Francis, and Jason Hammel.  Strange as it may be to suggest such a thing, it may be one of the best pitching staff's in the National League.  That means players like Greg Smith, Jhoulys Chacin, and Esmil Rogers could be adapted to bullpen roles, or wait at AAA for an opportunity to start.

Chacin is paticularly intriguing.  He made a strong showing between AA and AAA in 2009, at the age of 21, going 9-8 with a 3.21 ERA and 1.24 WHIP.  His future is certainly in the rotation, but the Rockies might consider easing him into the majors through the bullpen, ala Neftali Feliz and Joba Chamberlain (or, the first and still finest exemplar of this philosophy, Johan Santana).  

The Rockies also have one of the more potent benches in the league, featuring Jason Giambi, Melvin Mora, Eric Young, Seth Smith, and Ryan Spillborghs.  All five could be everyday players on many teams.  Miguel Olivo and Chris Iannetta are a potent catching tandem, at least offensively.

The one area of concern on the Rockies depth chart is shortstop.  Troy Tulowitzki played 151 games last season and may be asked to play even more this year.  Losing him would lead to a massive downgrade both offensively and defensively, as Clint Barmes would probably rotate into his position, with Young taking over at second.  The Rockies need Tulo to emulate his Iron Man idols, Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter, at least for 2010.  The slick-fielding Hector Gomez may give them long-term insurance, but he hasn't yet played a game at AA.

I expect at least one more NL West franchise will make a serious run at the postseason in 2010.  The Dodgers certainly have the pedigree.  Joe Torre and Manny Ramirez are in the final year of their contracts.  It is a foregone conclusion that Manny's next stop will be as a DH in the American League.  He'll be looking to prove that he still deserves an eight-figure, multiyear deal.

Torre appears to like it in L.A., and would probably consider re-signing, but the Dodgers need to prove they are still soluble in the wake of the McCourts divorce if they intend to retain him.  In his first two seasons he became accustomed to trade deadline reinforcements like Manny, Casey Blake, Greg Maddux, Vicente Padilla, Ron Belliard, Jon Garland, and Jim Thome.  Ned Colletti's ability to fill the holes on the L.A. roster for the stretch run this year may be more limited.  If the Dodgers miss the postseason in 2010, Joe might take long looks at potential openings in Atlanta, Chicago (NL), and New York (NL).

It's a scary thought for their competitors, but the Giants rotation could be even better this year than it was last year, when they paced the NL in strikeouts, WHIP, batting average and OPS against, and complete games (they finished 2nd in ERA to the Dodgers).  Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are still in their mid-twenties. Barry Zito is showing renewed life after posting a 2.83 ERA in the second half of '09.  Jonathan Sanchez's upside was evident in his no-hitter last year.  He also pitched significantly better in the second half.  And, finally, they will be joined by some combination of strong prospects, including Bumgarner, Kevin Pucetas, and Henry Sosa.

Unfortunately, the rotation will probably once again be subjected to an inordinate number of 2-1 and 1-0 losses.  Brian Sabean continues to astound Giants fans with his acquisitions of mediocre hitters.  Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff provide modest upgrades, but are by no means realistic solutions to the Giants astounding offensive shortcomings.  It is very hard to predict, no matter how good the pitching, that a team this weak offensively and defensively will be able to triumph in a competitive division.  For the Giants to succeed, they will need career years from veterans like Huff, DeRosa, Sanchez, and Aaron Rowand.  As all of them are in their mid-thirties, I just don't think that's likely.

The Diamondbacks, like the Reds in the NL Central and the Rangers in the AL West, are an intriguing team because they have an enormous number of young players with bright futures.  Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds proved themselves on the path to superstardom in '09, but guys like Chris Young, Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero, Brandon Allen, and Ian Kennedy might not be terribly far behind.

In the end, however, their success may still be tied to what they can get from Brandon Webb.  In 2007, when Webb won 18 games and finished 2nd in Cy Young voting, the D-Backs scored 712 runs and won the division.  In 2008, with Webb up front winning 22 games and again running 2nd in Cy Young voting, the D-Backs scored 720 runs and just missed the postseason, finishing second to the Dodgers.  In 2009, the D-Backs also scored exactly 720 runs, but with no Webb they finished dead last, 25 games back.  If Webb returns sometime in April or May, and is at least 80% as good as he was from '05 until '08, the D-Backs have shot.  If he doesn't, no dice.  

Projected Standings:

Colorado Rockies 90-72
Los Angeles Dodgers 87-75
Arizona Diamondbacks 84-78
San Francisco Giants 78-84
San Diego Padres 66-96

M.V.P. Candidate: Pablo Sandoval, Giants
Cy Contender: Ubaldo Jimenez, Rockies (Lincecum's just too easy.)
Rookie of the Year: Jhoulys Chacin, Rockies

Breakout Candidates: Ian Kennedy (D-Backs); Kyle Blanks (Padres); James Loney (Dodgers); Everth Cabrera (Padres); Mat Latos (Padres); Sean Gallagher (Padres); Kevin Pucetas (Giants); Juan Gutierrez (D-Backs)

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