So far this winter there have been quite a few teams with major overhauls on their rosters while many teams stayed pretty much the same from 2006. Considering most of the wheelin’-and-a-dealin’ is over (with exception of a minor trade here or there), I think its safe to start figuring out how teams will fair in their divisions in 2007.
Every Friday between now and the start of the regular season I will be covering a different aspect of the upcoming year. The first six Fridays (bringing us right up to the start of spring training games) I will preview one division a week and give my views on how each team will fair. After all the divisions are covered, I will go over potential award winners, major storylines, and a wrap up of everything and who will make it to the fall classic.
Please don’t hesitate letting me know if you agree or disagree with any of my predictions via comments or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s topic: National League West
The National League West has become the most pitching dominant division in baseball. Not only did four out of the five teams upgrade their staffs, but two of them possess the top rotations in all of baseball. While offensively we don’t really know what to expect from most of the teams, this shouldn’t be too much of a concern as the rotations and bullpens of these teams will always keep the games close. So let’s see where everyone will land in the division. They are in order of how I think they will finish in the division.
1.) LOS ANGELES DODGERS
While every team in the NL West has question marks in their lineups, the Dodgers seem to have the fewest. They have an extremely speedy 1-2 punch at the top of their order with Juan Pierre, who came over from the Cubs, and Rafael Furcal, who combined for 95 stolen bases in 2006. With these two turned loose on the base paths, Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent should see a lot more fastballs. In his first season as a Dodger, Nomar showed that given the opportunity to play and be healthy, he can still rack up some impressive numbers. In 2006 the former shortstop hit .303, 20 HR, 93 RBI, and had an OPS of .872 and was a main contributor the Dodgers’ success.
The Dodgers do have some concerns regarding their lineup especially with the loss of JD Drew and his 20 HR/100 RBI season in 2006. They have brought in veteran and former Diamondback Luis Gonzalez. While Gonzo has lost some of his home run pop over the years, the left fielder still was able to collect 52 doubles last season. This will hopefully give Nomar and Kent a little protection in the lineup. Their other concerns are how sophomore Andre Ethier (who will move to right field where he is more comfortable with the arrival of Gonzalez) and third baseman Wilson Betemit will fair offensively. Betemit is especially the focus of some concern as they really don’t know which version of the player they will get after a tale of two halves in 2006. If he struggles, look for the Dodgers to bring up top prospect Andy LaRoche (.315/.410/.514 between AA and AAA in 2006) who I believe would make the transition to the majors nicely.
Where the Dodgers don’t have a lot of worry is their starting rotation which looks to possibly be the best in baseball. Jason Schmidt’s signing with the Dodgers couldn’t be a bigger deal. Not only did the Dodgers gain one of the best pitchers in the NL (from their arch rival no less), but they also acquired a true ace for their staff allowing Derek Lowe to slide down to where he should be as a number two guy. Last season Schmidt was only able to muster an 11-9 record due to poor run support from his team, but he did have a very strong 3.59 ERA with 180 strikeouts. With a fresh start and a team (who did have trouble scoring runs in stretches last season) that has a nice top of the order, I think it’s possible to see Schmidt return to his success of 2003 (17-5, 2.34 ERA) and 2004 (18-7, 3.20 ERA) and lead the Dodgers towards an NL West title.
Bottom Line: In a division that will probably come down to the last weeks of the season (again), the Dodgers seem to be the team that will end up separating themselves from the pack to end up winning the west. This looks to be a 92+ win team that will be very hard to beat considering what a strong rotation they have. If the hole in the middle of their lineup doesn’t come back to hurt them, they will not only be the team to beat in the West, but also in the National League.
2.) SAN DIEGO PADRES
While the rival Dodgers continue to get praised for their excellent pitching staff, the Padres decided they too would bolster the already stellar staff. With ace Jake Peavy and veteran David Wells returning, the Padres went out and acquired another arm to solidify them in the West. Future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux joins the Friars and looks to continue his great career. After a hot start in 2006, Maddux was happy to leave the wind tunnel in Wrigley for a pitcher’s paradise in Los Angeles. Now he has signed on to pitch in another pitcher’s park in San Diego. Like the Dodgers, this rotation will keep the team in games night in and night out, so its up to the offense to scrap together some runs which was a major problem for them last season.
Going into the winter meetings the Padres had to try to get some offensive help. They needed some help around Brian Giles and Adrian Gonzalez. Unfortunately they weren’t able to pull out a big name free agent, but were able to sign second baseman Marcus Giles and trade for third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. The Padres hope that the combination of the Giles brothers will help the top of the order and the potential bat of Kouzmanoff will payoff considering the traded away a bright spot of their lineup in Josh Barfield to obtain him. Kouzmanoff was second among all Minor League players with a .379 batting average last season and made history when in his very first Major League at bat hit a grand slam. The young third baseman’s power won’t be properly displayed at home with the enormous outfield, but he looks to be able to be a .300 or better hitter with power to the gaps. The Padres didn’t make a huge splash offensively, but hope that their lineup will still be able to put them over the top with such a strong group of starting pitching.
Bottom Line: Again, very much like the Dodgers regarding their question marks offensively and very strong pitching staff. I do think they will eventually fall short of LA because their lineup will hit long stretches where they will struggle to score runs. A lot is riding on the bat of Kouzmanoff, the Giles brothers, and Mike Cameron staying healthy. If the Padres are unable to win the division, look for them to be in strong contention for the NL Wild Card.
3.) ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
The Diamondbacks enter the 2007 as the wild card in the division. The reason for that is we really don’t know what to expect from them. Their starting lineup is filled with young players and their rotation looks to be very strong. One thing the D-Backs knew they wanted was to bring their former pitcher Randy Johnson back so that he could retire as one of them. While Johnson did have a rough 2006 in New York posting an ERA of 5.00 and late season back problems, Arizona hopes he is able to rekindle his success he had during his last stint in the desert. There is some debate on whether or not he will be ready on opening day, but what is certain is that 2006 NL Cy Young winner Brandon Webb (16-8, 3.10 ERA) will be back as the team’s ace. These two will put together a very solid rotation for the D-Backs in 2007.
While they know they will have a dependable rotation (barring any injury problems for Johnson), what they don’t know is what to expect from their young lineup. Corner infielders Chad Tracy (.281/20 HR/80 RBI) and Conor Jackson (.291/15 HR/79 RBI) will continue to mature in the middle of their lineup after another year in the big leagues. Where the D-Backs really hope to get a boost from is their two top prospects that will join the opening day lineup. Outfielder Chris B. Young and shortstop Stephen Drew are the keys to this team’s success. The 23 year old Young has the inside track to be the Diamondbacks’ opening day center fielder and leadoff hitter. His lethal combination of power and speed should give him a shot at being a 20 homer, 30 stolen base guy right away which would go along way in the rebuilding in Arizona. Drew also has high expectations as a solid hitter who should be able to provide some pop. He’s had a lot of success in Arizona’s minor league system and should fit in nicely on their major league roster this upcoming season. If these two can live up to their potential, the Diamondbacks should be able to make some noise in their division race and Wild Card race. If nothing else they will make large strides towards the future of this team.
Bottom Line: For the D-Backs to make any attempts at competing this season they are going to need their starting rotation to stay healthy and for their young position players to adapt to the major league pitching. This may be more difficult considering they will be facing some difficult pitchers in their own division for the majority of the season, but I think if they stay confident they will learn quickly. I think they will toy with the idea of contending for the division and Wild Card spots during the summer, but will eventually fade away. 2008 and 2009 look to be very interesting for this ball club.
4.) SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
There are a lot of question marks for the Giants in 2007. They have put together a pretty solid rotation lead by the enormous (and ridiculous) contract signing of Barry Zito and budding youngster Matt Cain. While this rotation looks to be pretty dependable, it isn’t as strong as the Dodgers, Padres, or Diamondbacks. They, like many of their division rivals, also have a pitchers park which always helps a rotation.
Another problem that the Giants face is an uncertain and elderly everyday lineup. With 10 of their starters and bench players over the age of 32 (many of them much, much older than that), the Giants face the possibility of nagging injuries as the season wears on. Another big problem they face is that of Barry Bonds. As someone who is their only real offensive threat (if the Giants uphold the contract), the possibility of him missing time again this season due to injury or even due to the steroid controversy, becomes more and more real. The day to day grind of playing in the field has worn down the man who if he isn’t in this lineup decreases the Giants chances of competing.
Bottom Line: I just don’t see how the Giants make a serious run at the division. Unless they get stellar pitching from their rotation and aren’t haunted my injuries, this team looks to finish near the middle to bottom of the pack. They need to look younger as they gear up towards 2008.
5.) COLORADO ROCKIES
The Colorado Rockies have an interesting situation. While they have a very inexperienced and unproven starting rotation, they do have a nice base of young players on the offensive side of things. While they are nothing like the mashers they had years ago, they have built up a good group of hitters. Two such players emerged last season at the corner outfield spots. Right fielder Brad Hawpe (.293/.383/.515 and 22 HR/84 RBI) and left fielder Matt Holliday (.326/.387/.586 and 34 HR/114 RBI) both exploded onto the scene last season and gave hopes to the Colorado faithful. They along with long time Rockies star Todd Helton (who had a down year by his standards) have built up quite a special middle of the order. The Rockies hope to have similar success from them this season (if not more after another year of experience under their belts) along with top prospect Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop.
Of course the thin air of Coors Field always hurts pitchers, but this group of youngsters may find the learning curve in Colorado difficult with their collective inexperience. It’s not easy to pitch in Colorado when you are a veteran let alone a player at the start of his career. While the Rockies don’t hope to have to slug it out with teams to pick up victories, it may come down to that in the end.
Bottom Line: As nice as the middle of this order can be, the idea of the Rockies competing in the NL West this season is pretty slim. Unless their rotation catches everyone by surprise and can compete with the other staffs in this division, the Rockies look like another team that is geared up at a bright future.