2016 MLB PREVIEW: NL West

by Nicholas Cicale (@nickcicale)

Los Angeles Dodgers

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Heading into this season, I can say a lot of the same things I said this time last year about the Dodgers, but they carry different sentiments now. I think the upside for the team is similar, but it’s a lot less certain to happen.

When the Dodgers acquired Jimmy Rollins last offseason, he came as a sure-gloved shortstop with good pop, and looked like he would be a stabilizing force at the top of the lineup. Instead, he posted his worst statistical season, eventually losing playing time rookie-sensation Corey Seager. Seager comes into the majors boasting most of the same skills Rollins was touted for, but as a 21-year-old with 27 games of MLB experience, he’s anything but a sure thing, even if his upside seems endless.

Heading into 2015, there was a clear logjam of similar, yet productive, players in the outfield. In 2016, that logjam still exists, however Yasiel Puig isn’t being looked at as an MVP candidate after and injury-filled and unproductive seasons, and Joc Pederson looks more like an offensive liability than a superstar in the making after a putrid second half.

The Dodger’s rotation, however, is as strong as ever. They may have lost Zack Greinki to free agency, but they still have the best pitcher in baseball in Clayton Kershaw, and will replace Grenkie with a healthy Hyun-Jin Ryu, Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda. The fifth spot should go to Alex Wood.

As it was last year, the team’s biggest strength–aided by a seemingly endless payroll–is the unbelievable depth they’ve created in every facet aspect of the game. Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson will provide another experienced arm midseason. On the bench, they have a mix of seasoned veterans–Chase Utley as a utility infielder, AJ Ellis as catcher, Scott Van Slyke at first and a platoon outfielder, and Carl Crawford for speed and outfield depth. They also have youngster Kiki Hernandez, who proved to be a strong infielder and a competent defender in center field, while also surprising with his bat.

The Dodgers don’t look like the unstoppable force like they did going into last year, but with depth and talent, they’re almost a lock to at the very least make the playoffs, and still have the upside to dominate.

San Fransisco Giants

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Whether you believe or not in the 2016 Giants has a lot to do with whether or not you believe in the breakouts of Joe Panik, Matt Duffy and Brandon Crawford, which helped the team reach a healthy 84-78 record in 2015.  For the most part, I trust what I saw out of them.

In less than 200 games of big league experience, Panik has already proven he’s got everything a team would want in a second basemen, except for durability. In his first two seasons, he’s improved his average, on base percentage and slugging, developing into one of the most reliable bats in the game. A lot of his success has to do with his ability to draw walks and avoid strikeouts, resulting in his .378 OBP last season. He produced 4.2 WAR in only 100 games last year, so if his back issues dissipate in 2016, he could be regarded as one of the 10 bests position players in baseball.

A middle-infielder by trade, Duffy didn’t show as much promise as Panik initially when he was called up briefly in 2014. 2015 was a different story, however. Being shifted to third base was apparently all he needed to show off great defensive instincts, but the power, speed and improved plate discipline he showed as the season went on were the real surprises. I can’t imagine Duffy, who homered 12 total times in his two full-seasons in the low minors, shows the same power he did in 2015 again, but the speed, defense and OBP should stay.

Out of the three infielders, Crawford’s season looks most like an outlier. In his fourth full season in the bigs, he suddenly doubled his usual home run production, from 10 to 21, and hit more than 26 doubles (33 to be exact) for the first time in his career, without showing declines in any other area. He went from being a good-gloved shortstop with just about replacement level offensive production, to one of the best offensive shortstops in baseball.

If Crawford maintains his new-found ability to crush the ball, the Giant’s will have one of the most efficient and diverse offenses in baseball. The addition of Denard Span was one of the best moves of the offseason and gives them a legitimate weapon at leadoff position while taking a lot of the outfield burden off oft-injured Angle Pagan. Hunter Pence may have been injured for much of last season, but he had only missed 10 games total the four seasons prior, and when on the field he was as productive as always. A healthy Pence should still produce 20+ homers and double-digit steals.

And of-course, there’s Buster Posey, a perennial MVP candidate, an elite backstop, and the heart of the Giant’s lineup. His positive framing and fielding ratings make him a giant asset to the pitching staff, which added Johnny Cueto in the offseason.

Cueto–along with the team’s other big-ticket signing, Jeff Samardzija–is coming his worst statistical season since 2010, but the injuries that plagued him early in his career seem to be behind him. If 2015 was just a small bump in the road (his first half with the Reds was strong as ever, but his numbers suffered once he was traded to the Royals), he should returned to his former dominance thanks to the friendly confines of AT&T Park and Posey. The Giants have a history of taking pitchers who have looked like they lost something and reviving them (see Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson, Ryan Vogelsong) so Cueto’s got a good chance to produce, at least short term.

Samardzija, on the other hand, is going to take a lot more work to reclaim his reputation of an above-average starter. Known primarily as a strikeout pitcher–posting a career best 9.27 K/9 in 2012, his first season as a full-time starter–Samardzija’s K/9 has dropped noticeably each seasons to a pedestrian 6.89 in 2015. His 2015 ERA, FIP and HR/9 were also the highest they’ve been since before the 2012 season. Samardzija is as durable as they come, but with a volatile walk rate and a capped upside (he’s only had a FIP under 3.55 once), I think it’s likely he’ll be occupying the very bottom of the Giants rotation this season. All that said, he’s still a possible improvement compared to the guys they were trotting out last season and will eat up innings at the very least, so just looking at this season, the move helps.

I think this is a team that should very easily compete for the division title or a Wildcard birth this season. I don’t think they’ll have the best record in baseball or anything like that, but if they do make the playoffs, they have a lot going for them. Remember, it’s an even year (see World Series results from 2014, 2012 and 2010) and they have Madison Bumgarner to lead the way.

Arizona Diamondbacks

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The Diamondbacks shocked the baseball community when they jumped in at the last second to sign Zack Greinke to a massive six-year contract. Whether or not one agrees with the idea of giving a 32-year-old pitcher over $200 million is irrelevant when evaluating the team on the field this season. What’s more important is this: Greinke, coming off a season with the Dodgers where he posted an ERA of 1.66 in 32 starts, will be Arizona’s opening day starter.

Who was on the bump for the DBacks opening day 2015? Josh Collmenter. Does Grenkie make this team better right now? Absolutely.

However, with the moves the Giants made this offseason and the Dodgers recent history of success, both have a clearer path to win the division than Arizona, and with a stacked NL Central, a team is going to have to win at least 87 games to be a wildcard. Does the addition of Grenkie, along with the other moves they’ve made this offseason, make the Diamondbacks an instant playoff contender? That, I’m not so sure of.

Soon after signing Grenkie, they acquired Shelby Miller from Atlanta. Coming off his most productive season in the majors by almost any measure (6-17 record not included), Miller pretty clearly improves a rotation that ranked 23rd in ERA last season, but at the cost of Ender Inciarte (along with the first overall pick in 2015’s draft, Dansby Swanson).

Inciarte is a great defensive outfielder and an ideal lead off hitter, batting .304/.340/.421 and stealing 18 bags in 101 games at the head of the DBacks’ lineup. In 2015, the team actually ranked second in runs scored in the NL, behind only the Rockies; however, looking at their lineup you notice very quickly how much of that production came from their first three hitters. Inciarte, A.J. Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt scored 40 percent of the team’s 720 runs, while it took 47 other hitters to combine for the remainder. Removing Inciarte from the group really caps what Pollock and Goldshmidt can accomplish, and leaves Arizona extremely venerable. One injury to either guy can neuter the lineup entirely.

Arizona also quietly had one of the strongest defensive squads last season. With Inciarte out of the picture, Arizona is forced to use Yasmany Tomas in the outfield fulltime. Tomas was a below-average right fielder and doesn’t really have to tools to get better.

In an ill-advised attempt to replace Inciarte’s production in the leadoff stop, the team added Jean Segura and his .281 on-base percentage. Segura‘s replacement-level offense is a slight improvement to the production the team got from both of their middle infielders last season, but Chris Owings and Nick Ahmed provide a lot more with their glove than Segura. Looking just at WAR, Segura’s 0.6 over the last two seasons is less than Owings’ 1.1 and Ahmed’s 2.5, making the acquisition pretty questionable.

There is one thing one must remember when evaluating this team however; the majority of their roster is really young, or just hitting their prime, with a chance of improving with more experiance. Goldschmidt, Pollock, Peralta and Castillo are the eldest of their position players at 28 years of age. Then Tomas, Jake Lamb, Segura, and Ahmed are 25, with Owings 24. Behind Grenkie, the rotation’s most experienced arm is 27-year-old Ruby De La Rosa, with Corbin currently 26, Miller 25, and Robbie Ray 24. Archie Bradley, 23, and Zach Godley, 25, also looks to be in the mix this year.

I bring up the team’s age to say this: If the Diamondbacks don’t make the playoffs this season, there’s no reason to think they won’t be able to make a few tweaks and try again next year, or the year after that. Trading their top prospects the last few years might limit their overall future upside, but it has accelerated their timetable by opening a window to compete right now, a window that should stay open for a few seasons.

San Diego Padres

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After one of the most exhilarating offseasons in recent memory–trading for Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton, while signing James Shields–the Padres went from 77 wins in 2014 to 74 in 2015. The individual pieces were all more intriguing than anything they had put on the field the past five years, but didn’t really fit well together, evident in their win total. Now, one year later, the Padres have traded away Kimbrel, lost Justin Upton in free agency, and are one of the most boring teams to write about.

Here are a few things to note, however:

  1. Melvin Upton finally came back from the dead with a resurgent season.
    Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 7.59.19 PM

    Upton’s slash since 2012

    Upton’s second half .342 OBP was the highest he’s had in a half-season since 2008, and despite all the struggles on the offensive end in recent years, he’s never lost his speed or defensive ability. Which takes us here…

  2. Wil Myers will play first base this year instead of being a liability in center, which should keep him healthier overall and improve the team’s overall defense.
  3. Matt Kemp, after another slow start, produced a great second half (.286/.339/.528) for the second year in a row. Kemp has all but guaranteed that each season will consist of a three-month run of disappointment, and a three-month run of almost MVP caliber play. If only he could do it from start to finish.
  4. James Shields, one of the most consistent starting pitchers in baseball, rewarded his new team with his weirdest seasons ever. His 1.47 HR/9 was the first time it had been above 1.o since 2010, and his 17.6 percent HR/FB rate was the highest of his career, as was his 4.45 FIP, which jumped up a full point compared to his four-year average. However, his 9.61 K/9 was the best of his career.
  5. It’s hard to know if Shield’s sudden tendency to give up the long ball after moving to one of the least homer-prone parks is a sign of declining skills, just bad luck, or was a sign of change at Petco overall.  Known primarily as a pitcher’s sanctuary, here is where Petco Park has ranked in park factors for home runs in each season since 2001, according to ESPN. (A rate higher than 1.0 favors hitters).
    Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 8.00.34 PM

    Petco Park Factors since 2001

    However, Petco Park may have become one of the most interesting stadiums to talk about. Known primarily as a pitcher’s sanctuary, here is where Petco Park has ranked in park factors for home runs in each season since 2001, according to ESPN. (A rate higher than 1.0 favors hitters).
    So, the question is, did Petco all of a sudden go rogue in 2015, transforming from a park that is parentally below average in giving up long balls to one of the most susceptible ones in the league just to spite Shields? Or was Shields maliciously out to single-handedly ruin Petco’s reputation? The world may never know.

 

 

 

Colorado Rockies

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It was a season to remember. Four games over .500 to start September, the Rockies won an unprecedented 21-22 games, including a one-game play in game and sweeping the NL playoffs on the way to the 2007 World Series. Their 91 wins were the most in a season for the young franchise, and led to their first playoff berth since 1995. The hottest team in the world, they had the makings of a team that could build on the newfound success, and a player in rookie Troy Tulowitzki that has a good shot at becoming a superstar.

Then came the Red Sox, who outscored the Rockies 29-10 in a four-game sweep for the championship. It was a shockingly abrupt way to end an otherwise storybook season, but nobody at the time could have predicted how the franchise would respond.

Or maybe–given the history of the team before that September, the unbelievably difficult environment Coors Field is to play and develop players in, and the heartbreaking loss–they could. Since the start of the 2007 World Series, Colorado has won 45% of their 1,300 games, made the playoffs only once (2009 again as a wildcard as a result of a one-game play in), and finished as one of the bottom two teams in their division five of eight times. As the world turns, pitchers trying to make a career for themselves in Coors Field have yet to find any salvation, while hitters thrive at home, but mostly suffer on the road.

2016 may be a new low point, however, as the team is officially “rebuilding,” instead of looking for little, patchwork ways to improve from incompetence to mediocrity. Last summer, Tulowitzki was traded for a handful of fringe minor league arms. Their most promising outfielder, Corey Dickerson, was traded at his lowest value, only netting a closer who missed a third of 2015 in return. If someone comes calling with a good offer, there goes Carlos Gonzalez in the summer. Different from many other rebuilds, however, the Rockies still have a very competent offense even without Tulo and Dickerson. The goal here is to stockpile as many young, power arms as possible in the hopes that one, or two can buck the Coors trend and put up solid numbers at home, and great numbers on the road.

The Rockies have also put together a very interesting bullpen. Led by Jake McGee, whom they acquired with Dickerson, Colorado also added two former closers to their arsenal, Chad Qualls and Jason Motte. They’ll also be getting Adam Ottavino back from injury at some point midseason, which will help make the bullpen that ranked 30th in the majors closer to league average.

Until the team can trot out a competent group of starting pitchers, they’ll stay at the bottom of the division.

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