Teddy Mitrosilis and I recently began our division-by-division breakdown on BlogTalkRadio, beginning with the National League West division. The series will continue on Monday (1:00, Eastern) with the National League Central.
Use the media player, to listen to hear our N.L. West discussion from last week:
To supplement our work via podcast, we are also going to put our work into writing as well. In this post, we take a close look at the N.L. West, and what to expect from each team in the division going forward in 2009.
Los Angeles Dodgers:
Division Rank: 1st
Runs: 700, 13th in N.L.
Runs Per Game: 4.32, 13th in N.L.
Batting Average: .264, 13th in N.L.
On-Base Percentage: .336, 6th in N.L.
Slugging Percentage: .399, 13th in N.L.
Runs Allowed: 648
Runs Allowed Per Game: 4.00
Team ERA: 3.68, 1st in N.L.
Team ERA+: 116
Opponents’ OPS: .691, 1st in N.L.
Team Defensive Efficiency: .691, 10th in N.L.
Well, by league rules, someone had to win the West division, by far the weakest in the majors in 2008. That team was the Los Angeles Dodgers, who captured the title with only 84 wins—enough to place them in fifth place in the American League East! The Dodgers then swept the circuit’s best team, the Chicago Cubs, in the Division Series, again showing why the playoffs are such a crapshoot. L.A eventually lost to the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies in a battle of the league’s most dominant bullpens in the National League Championship Series, but, considering how ugly things seemed at Chavez Ravine before July, it was quite an accomplishment that the club made it so far.
Los Angeles had a middling offense for much of ’08, at least until Manny Ramirez came over from the Boston Red Sox in a last-minute deal at the July 31 trade deadline. Ramirez single-handedly improved the offensive attack when he was acquired in the three-team blockbuster, posting a ridiculous 210 OPS+ in 187 at-bats. Overall, though, the Dodgers’ offense was nothing to write home about, ranking 13th on the circuit in runs and runs per game.
Rafael Furcal, who was re-signed to a controversial three-year contract this past week, carried L.A. on his back in April. Furcal hit .357/.448/.587 in the month, as the Dodgers got off to a strong start. The switch-hitting shortstop injured his back in May, though, and then spent most of the summer on the 60-day disabled list. The loss of Furcal—combined with the offensive struggles of disaster free agent signings Andruw Jones (34 OPS+ in 31 games) and Juan Pierre (73 OPS+)—was a primary reason for the offensive woes.
Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, James Loney and Russell Martin each provided key contributions, carrying the offense until the MannyWood frenzy took over Southern California. Ethier and Kemp, who received 1,131 at-bats between the pair, were finally given appropriate playing time and continued to develop as hitters. Ethier had a breakout performance that went under the radar on a national level, batting .305/.375/.510 with 20 home runs. Kemp, though he needs to refine his approach at the plate a bit (25.2% K rate, 153/46 K/BB), is a special talent who should hit for more power in the future. He finished with a line of .290/.340/.459 and 18 homers.
Martin was amazingly durable for a catcher, playing in 155 games. While there were concerns about his work behind the plate at times, he again provided outstanding offensive output at a defense-first position. He batted .280/.385/.396, drawing 90 walks against 80 strikeouts. The 25-year-old catcher did not hit for as much power as he did in 2007 (19 home runs, .469 SLG), but made strides on the plate discipline front. He also stole 18 bases in 24 chances.
Third baseman Casey Blake delivered some key hits when he came over at the deadline as well. Before Blake arrived, Los Angeles received practically nothing offensively out of the third base position, generally an area that teams rely on for production. Blake DeWitt had a nice little streak in the spring—when injuries to Nomar Garciaparra and Andy LaRoche, sent to Pittsburgh in the Ramirez trade, created a major hole. However, DeWitt, who had never faced pitching above the Double-A level before he made his debut, was not a capable fill-in when he came back down to earth. He received the majority of at-bats there before the All-Star break, but produced only a .670 OPS at the position. As a team—even with Blake (100 OPS+)—six players combined to hit .245/.321/.376, terrible production relative to league average at the hot corner.
DeWitt added value down the stretch, though, when he split time with veteran Jeff Kent at second base.
The Dodgers’ pitching staff posted the lowest ERA (3.68) in the National League, thanks in large part to one of the majors’ strongest relief corps.
Derek Lowe anchored the starting rotation, delivering a brilliant second-half performance. Lowe, who is still available on the free agent market but is likely headed back East, went 7-3 with a 2.38 ERA and 1.00 WHIP after the All-Star break. The veteran right-hander, using his excellent sinker to induce ground balls, ended up with a 131 ERA+ in 34 starts.
Chad Billingsley was invaluable as well, striking out 201 in 200.2 innings pitched. Billingsley, who led the staff with 16 wins and finished as the team pitching triple crown leader in the traditional categories, posted a 135 ERA+. Hiroki Kuroda (144 ERA+) had a respectable debut in the United States, too, giving his team 183.3 solid innings of work. Left-handed phenom Clayton Kershaw also had some success. Kershaw, the top left-handed pitching prospect in baseball not named David Price, has the chance to quickly emerge as a star in this league, with lights-out stuff and strong make-up.
The bullpen was sensational, though, and is the biggest reason why L.A. was able to hold onto the division lead. Takashi Saito was again effective in a closer role when healthy, but the 37-year-old missed significant time due to injury. Saito, who was recently non-tendered a contract, picked up 18 saves while producing a 170 ERA+ and 11.49 K/9 rate in 47.0 innings before he was placed on the DL for good on July 19.
Despite the loss, the Dodgers’ bullpen did not miss a beat. The group, in fact, registered the second-lowest relievers’ ERA (3.34) on the circuit, trailing only Philadelphia. Joe Beimel (2.01 ERA, 210 ERA+), Jonathan Broxton (11.16 K/9, 1.17 WHIP in 67.0 innings), Chan Ho Park, Hong-Chih Kuo (11.16 K/9, 1.69 ERA, 199 ERA+) and Cory Wade (2.27 ERA, 187 ERA+ in 71.3 innings pitched) were all exceptional.
Although Joe Torre continued to abuse his favorite whipping boy, Scott Proctor, he did a decent job managing his relief staff—one of his biggest weaknesses as a manager during his days with the New York Yankees.
The Dodgers were slightly below average in the third leg of the run prevention equation, team defense. Having Kent—whose range continued to decline—in the lineup did not help matters on this front, but the group made strides as the season went on and the youngsters worked their way into the lineup. Overall, L.A. converted 69.1 percent of batted balls hit into play into outs, ranking 10th in the league, and second in the division, in team defensive efficiency.
Bringing Furcal back—when it seemed as if he was headed back to Atlanta or up the Interstate to Oakland—is huge. While there are legitimate concerns about his back, he is a fine shortstop, with a big arm, excellent on-base skills and surprising pop at an up-the-middle position. If he can stay healthy, this will be a great signing for Ned Colletti. Considering the internal candidates, L.A. would have been left with a major weakness at a premium position for a few years had he not returned. The Blake contract seems acceptable as well, despite the fact that they overpaid for his services at the trade deadline. The veteran infielder is likely to decline, but provides a short-term stopgap and improved production at third base; there are no internal prospects who he is blocking now that LaRoche is no longer in the organization.
Ramirez is a different story at this point. The market for his services has dried up—with the economy and surplus of available corner/DH bats who fit the bill driving the demand down—but he still could return to Los Angeles. The Dodgers are seemingly waiting for the market to come to them, an effective strategy. If they lose him, though, their offense will take a significant hit. The aforementioned young core should continue to improve, and, in the wide-open division, the Dodgers should be able to score enough runs to remain in contention, anyway. Playing .500 baseball is all they will need to do to realize this, a luxury that is not afforded to most teams outside of the division.
Pitching-wise, it is unlikely that they will be able to re-sign Lowe, who seems destined to land with the New York Mets. Park, an important piece to the bullpen, signed a contract with the Phillies as well, but the majority of arms are coming back.
Kershaw and James McDonald are likely to see enhanced roles in ’09, making it reasonably likely that the pitching staff will improve even with the loss of Lowe.
McDonald has a fastball that sits between 90-92, with an outstanding 12-to-6 hammer. In 26 minor league starts before making a brief appearance with the parent club, he posted a 3.26 ERA, striking out 141 in 141.0 innings pitched.
Middle infield prospect Ivan De Jesus Jr. is a name to keep an eye on as well, though he is still pretty far away. De Jesus Jr., whose father had a lengthy career as a shortstop in the majors, has an advanced approach at the plate and has shown excellent on-base skills throughout his minor league career. The 21-year-old native of Puerto Rico had another fine campaign at Double-A Jacksonville, batting .324/.419/.423/.843 OPS in the Southern League. Although he does not project to hit for much power, he profiles as an above-average offensive player at a premium position; he may end up at second base, though, and reports on his defense are mixed.
The Dodgers have some other nice prospects as well—Scott Elbert, Andrew Lambo and Ethan Martin.
Although the division is wide open, the Dodgers remain an early favorite to contend again.
Division Rank: 2nd
Runs: 720, 10th in N.L.
Runs Per Game: 4.44, 10th in N.L.
Batting Average: .251, 14th in N.L.
On-Base Percentage: .327, 8th in N.L.
Slugging Percentage: .415, 8th in N.L.
Runs Allowed: 763
Runs Allowed Per Game: 4.36
Team ERA: 3.98, 5th in N.L.
Team ERA+: 115
Opponents’ OPS: .716, 3rd in N.L.
Team Defensive Efficiency: .686, 12th in N.L.
Arizona got off to an excellent start, going 20-8 while building a five-game lead at the end of April. The Diamondbacks saw their early lock on the division fade quickly, however, with some rough stretches throughout the summer, going back and forth with the Dodgers in the standings for the division lead. In the end, the D’Backs’ offensive woes—a common theme within the division—prevented the club from holding on, despite the acquisition of slugger Adam Dunn for a final push towards the playoffs.
The Diamondbacks batted .251/.327/.415 with a 93 OPS+ as a team, scoring 821 runs. Headed into spring training, management prepared to sink or swim with a strong core of talented, though inexperienced, position players that led them to the postseason a season earlier, in addition to an excellent starting rotation that improved with the addition of All-Star right-hander Dan Haren.
Well, the growing pains continued for those young position players. Not a single Arizona regular finished with an OPS above .850, in fact, as the club paced the league in strikeouts.
Shortstop Stephen Drew was an exception, as he emerged as one of the top offensive middle infielders in the league. Drew belted 21 homers while posting a .502 slugging percentage and 110 OPS+. He still lacks the advanced approach that his older brother, J.D., is famous for, and struck out in 18.7 percent of his plate appearances while drawing only 41 walks.
Potential future All-Stars Justin Upton and Chris Young, on the other hand, seemed overmatched at times. Upton, a rare five-tool talent, produced a line of .250/.353/.463 with 15 home runs and a 107 OPS+. He struck out in 34.0 percent of his plate appearances, though, to finish with 121 Ks in 108 games. Considering his age, 21, his stat line was impressive, but he has a lot of room for improvement in his strike zone judgment.
Making consistent contact was even more of an issue with Young, who struck out 165 times and finished with a terrible line of .248/.315/.443. Although the speedy center fielder hit 22 home runs and drove in 85, his season was a major disappointment overall (91 OPS+). His strike zone awareness is a major concern, which he will need to improve upon if he wishes to ever reach an elite status.
Mark Reynolds was the biggest culprit on the strikeout front. Reynolds, who led the team with 28 homers and 97 RBIs and ended up with a .458 slugging percentage, ranked among league leaders with 204 strikeouts. The former University of Virginia star, not surprisingly given all of the outs made via the punchout, batted only .239 with a .320 OBP. He simply strikes out a ton, and does not apologize for it.
Orlando Hudson and Connor Jackson provided bright spots. Hudson, a free agent who appears to have played his final game wearing a home uni in the Desert, batted .305/.367/.450 in 407 at-bats before sustaining a season-ending injury in the middle of August. The loss of Hudson, a two-time Gold Glove winner who is one of the premier defenders at the position, was a major blow on both sides of the ball that significantly affected the D’Backs’ chances.
Jackson produced a 110 OPS+ for the second consecutive time, hitting .300/.376/.446 with 12 home runs and 75 RBIs. The former first-round pick is quietly emerging as a consistent offensive performer.
Dunn, who was not offered arbitration, provided a decent boost down the stretch. The left-handed hitting bopper posted a 127 OPS+ in 44 games, but hurt the team defensively and added another high strikeout bat to the lineup. Considering how things turned out—Dunn cost them Micah Owings and two prospects—it seems like a poor choice in hindsight, now that the organization will not receive compensation picks when the free agent signs with another team.
Also worth mentioning, Eric Byrnes missed a lot of time with injury and was ineffective when healthy. The decision to lock up Byrnes, the so-called “heart and soul” of the team when Arizona somehow managed to reach the playoffs despite finishing with a negative run differential in 2007, seems absolutely foolish in hindsight. Looking ahead, it was clear that there would be a surplus of corner outfielders available on the market this offseason, and the same amount of money could have been used to bring in a player along the lines of Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell or even Dunn for 2010 and beyond. In addition, there were several more cost-effective internal options who were never given a real chance at the major league level (Carlos Quentin, anyone?), which makes it even more puzzling.
Brandon Webb continued to get it done, going 22-7 with a 3.30 ERA, 139 ERA+ and 1.20 WHIP in 34 starts. If not for a few rough outings at inopportune times down the stretch, Webb may have added another Cy Young Award to his resume; he finished second in the voting, ahead of Johan Santana. The sinkerballer has become a model of consistency, though, and is one of the majors’ elite starters.
Haren made a nice transition to the N.L. as well. He struck out 206 in 216.0 innings pitched, finishing at 16-8 with a 3.33 ERA, 138 ERA+ and 1.13 WHIP.
The pair proved to be among the most effective 1-2 combos in the game, practically keeping Arizona in contention on their own by providing 442.7 excellent innings.
Despite a misleading 11-10 record, future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson was surprisingly strong, also. Johnson, who offered to take a pay cut to come back and pitch on a one-year deal, continued to miss bats, striking out 173 in 184.0 innings pitched. The left-handed veteran put up a solid 117 ERA+ in 30 starts while serving as a valuable middle-of-the-rotation piece and staying healthy.
Doug Davis and Owings rounded out the rotation. Davis was fairly solid (107 ERA+) for a number four, but Owings (77 ERA+) seemed to be more valuable as a hitter than for his work on the mound. Traded to the Reds, the former two-way star at Tulane will be easy to replace in the rotation going forward.
The Arizona bullpen finished sixth in the N.L. with a 4.09 ERA. Juan Cruz, one of the better relievers left on the market, anchored the pen. Cruz was dominant at times, striking out 71 in 51.2 innings pitched. The right-handed flamethrower (average fastball velocity: 94.3 MPH) posted a 2.61 ERA in 57 appearances.
Brandon Lyon, Tony Pena and Chad Qualls saw the majority of innings out of the pen, though. Lyon, the anointed closer, was a major disappointment. While he racked up a team-leading 26 saves, his peripheral numbers were all concerning: 4.70 ERA, 98 ERA+, 6.67 K/9 (poor for a closer).
Qualls soon unseated his teammate and took over ninth-inning duties, a role in which he had some success. The 30-year-old right-hander posted a 2.81 ERA and 164 ERA+ and 1.07 WHIP while picking up nine saves and 22 holds in a team-high 77 appearances. Primarily relying on a fastball that averaged out at 92.6 MPH and a slider, he struck out 8.67 per nine innings.
Arizona had a below-average team defense, though. The club ranked 20th in the majors—12th in the N.L.—with a .686 team defensive efficiency rating. Hudson is a premier defender at second base, and the absence of his athleticism and range at the keystone was evident over the final five weeks. Connor Jackson (+12 in the Dewan rankings), Upton and Young (+23) formed a capable defensive outfield as well, but Reynolds was far below average at third base and there were a few other holes.
It does not take a large stretch of the imagination to predict a breakout from one, if not all, of the young talented position players mentioned. With that said, it seems likely that the offense is going to improve considerably in ’09.
The D’Backs also recently added former first-round pick Felipe Lopez, who will take over for Hudson at second base. Lopez was cut by the Washington Nationals after batting .234/.305/.314 with only two home runs in 325 at-bats. The switch-hitting middle infielder was then picked up by the St. Louis Cardinals on August 6, and proceeded to produce a 156 OPS+ in 155 at-bats with his new team. Signed at $3.5-million for one year, this low-risk signing has the chance to turn out really well for the D’Backs, though the club is downgrading at the position either way.
On the pitching front, the losses of Cruz, if he is not resigned, and Johnson will hurt. However, the organization has internal reinforcements, highlighted by top prospect Max Scherzer. Scherzer has a solid three-pitch arsenal—fastball (avg. velocity: 94.2 MPH), slider (84.4 MPH) and improving change-up—and has shown a real ability to miss bats throughout his professional career. Fans got to see him in brief bursts so far, but he could really break out.
Yusemiro Petit is another rotation candidate who could surprise.
Arizona, despite having financial issues that forced them to cut a large chunk of their front office staff, should again be competitive in ’09.
Division Rank: 3rd
Runs: 747, 8th in N.L.
Runs Per Game: 4.61, 8th in N.L.
Batting Average: .263, 6th in N.L.
On-Base Percentage: .336, 5th in N.L.
Slugging Percentage: .415, 7th in N.L.
Runs Allowed: 876
Runs Allowed Per Game: 5.07
Team ERA: 4.77, 15th in N.L.
Team ERA+: 96
Opponents’ OPS: .775, 13th in N.L.
Team Defensive Efficiency: .678, 14th in N.L.
Following an improbable surge to the World Series, expectations were high for the Rockies entering spring training. Injuries and a major regression on the run prevention front, however, kept Colorado from carrying over its success into ’09.
The Rockies scored more runs than any team in the division, but their home hitting environment, Coors Field, was a large reason why. Although scoring has been down in the thin air in Denver in recent past, it is no secret that Colorado is a completely different offensive team on the road. The trend continued again this season, as the Rockies put up 5.07 runs per game at home, one of the highest totals on the circuit. The RPG number dropped down to 4.05 on the road, though.
Colorado scored 412 runs in the friendly confines of Coors Field overall, third-highest home total in the game, as the offense combined to hit .278/.350/.454 with 92 home runs and an .804 OPS. On the road, they ranked 12th in the league with 336 runs scored, with a line of .249/.322/.377 and .699 OPS. Not surprisingly, the Rockies were a much better team at home (43-38) than on the road (31-50).
Chris Iannetta quietly put together one of the finest offensive seasons for a catcher to help lead the offensive attack, batting .264/.390/.498 with 18 homers and 65 RBIs in 333 at-bats. Iannetta’s breakout was not simply the product of his surroundings, either, as he posted a higher OPS on the road (.897, in 161 at-bats) than at home (.893). The North Carolina product has the chance to turn into one of the premier offensive catchers in the majors if he can build upon his success going forward, joining the likes of Brian McCann and Geovany Soto.
Matt Holliday, recently traded to Oakland, was again a key offensive performer as well, and his production will be sorely missed. Holliday, the runner-up for M.V.P. in ’07, hit 25 homers and produced a 140 OPS+. While his numbers have certainly been inflated by ballpark factors, he has been a productive hitter on the road as well.
Brad Hawpe (123 OPS+) was the only other full-time regular who finished with an OPS+ above 100. Hawpe, who belted 25 home runs, finished 11th in the league with a .381 on-base percentage while slugging .498. Like Iannetta, he was surprisingly consistent on the road, also, with only a 30-point drop (his BA and OBP were higher, though his slugging dropped) off in his OPS away from Denver.
Garret Atkins took a step backwards, though. Atkins, currently being shopped to open up a spot for third base prospect Ian Stewart, produced a disappointing .328 OBP in 611 at-bats, striking out 100 times against 40 walks. While he led the team with 99 RBIs and finished third with 21 home runs, his OPS+ of 97 was below league average.
Stewart, meanwhile, needs a chance to play on a regular basis. The former first-rounder hit .259/.349/.455 with 10 home runs and 41 RBIs in a brief 81-game sample, knocking on the door. Even if Atkins is not dealt, though, expect him to play a major role going forward, anyway.
Colorado had a tough time catching the ball and keeping runners off base. A 4.70 team ERA placed them at 14th in the league, as opponents batted .271/.348/.421 against the Rockies’ pitching staff. In addition, the team defense was horrible—especially when defensive stud Troy Tulowitzki was not out at shortstop due to injury.
The starting rotation was perhaps the biggest crutch, having posted a 5.14 ERA as a group. Aaron Cook led the staff with 16 wins, but he struck out only 96 in 211.1 innings pitched (4.09 K/9). Cook was one of two starters to finish with a sub-4.00 ERA, with a 3.96 mark, thanks to his ability to avoid surrendering home runs and walks; he finished with rates of 2.44 BB/9 and .55 HR/9.
Ubaldo Jimenez ended up just under the 4.00 mark as well. Jimenez, however, was maddeningly inconsistent and walked 103 hitters, second in the league, in 198.2 innings pitched. The flamethrowing right-hander—he led the majors in average fastball velocity, at 94.9—missed bats to the tune of 172 Ks in 198.2 innings, but he needs to improve on a command front.
The biggest disappointment was the down performance from southpaw Jeff Francis, who posted a 4-10 record, 5.01 ERA, .822 opponents’ OPS and 1.48 WHIP in 24 starts. Francis, who missed more than a month between July and August, seemed to be affected by throwing a career-high 215.1 innings pitched—and then some more in the postseason—when he won 17 games in 34 starts in ’07.
The Rockies were forced to give spot starts to the over-the-hill trio of Livan Hernandez, Mark Redman and Kip Wells. As far as pitching depth (or lack thereof) goes, let us leave it at that.
The relief corps was not quite as bad. Brian Fuentes regained his closer role and flourished in a walk year, striking out 11.78 per nine innings while posting a 2.73 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. Fuentes, the premier free agent reliever available on the market, will be tough to replace. Taylor Buccholz and Jason Grilli were also effective, important pieces to the bullpen, though one-time closer Manny Corpas struggled with consistency and control.
The Rockies are likely to improve in 2009, even with the losses of Fuentes and Holliday. The club will add left-hander Greg Smith into the starting pitching mix, though, as a fly ball pitcher, his new ballpark will not make things any easier on him. Carlos Gonzalez, a top outfield prospect, was also acquired. Gonzalez has numerous physical tools and power potential, but he will need to refine his approach and improve upon his poor career on-base percentage.
Francis should rebound, Iannetta and Stewart could emerge as All-Stars and having a healthy Todd Helton (83 games) and Tulowitzki (who regressed during an injury-plagued sophomore campaign, batting .263/.332/.401, in 377 at-bats) in the lineup will only help matters. Tulowitzki, in particular, seems destined to become a star, combining top-five defense at the shortstop position with outstanding offensive production. The Long Beach state product will need to refine his approach a bit to do so, though, and this is a real possibility as he receives more at-bats at the highest level.
In addition to the young talent at the major league level—the reason for their rise to the playoffs in ’07—there is help coming. Dexter Fowler, who played for the Olympic team, is a five-tool talent who is close to making an impact in the majors.
San Fransisco Giants:
Division Rank: 4th
Runs: 640, 15th in N.L.
Runs Per Game: 3.95, 15th in N.L.
Batting Average: .262, 8th in N.L.
On-Base Percentage: .321, 13th in N.L.
Slugging Percentage: .382, 15th in N.L.
Runs Allowed: 743
Runs Allowed Per Game: 5.07
Team ERA: 4.77, 15th in N.L.
Team ERA+: 100
Opponents’ OPS: .745, 9th in N.L.
Team Defensive Efficiency: .685, 13th in N.L.
The San Fransisco Giants exceeded pre-season expectations in ’08. Unfortunately, the bar was set pretty low, as PECOTA predicted the Giants to finish in last place in the division with a 68-94 record. San Fransisco—thanks to a Cy Young performance from Tim Lincecum—surpassed that total by four wins, going 72-90 to take fourth place in the lowly West.
In the first year without Barry Bonds hitting in the middle of the lineup, the Giants struggled mightily to score runs. Not a single regular was able to produce an Equivalent Average—“a measure of total offensive value per out, with connections for league offensive level, home park and team pitching,” based on the same scale as batting average—above .300. Only four hitters who received more than 400 plate appearances, in fact, were able to top the .260 EqA mark, which is league average.
With that said, it was not surprising that the Giants ranked 15th out 16 teams on the circuit with 640 runs scored. The offense combined to hit .262/.321/.382 with an anemic .703 OPS.
Bengie Molina—yes, Bengie Molina!—led the team with 16 home runs and 95 RBIs. Molina, known for his defense, compounded the offensive problems by drawing only 19 walks, however, and finished with a 98 OPS+. It could have been one of the least impressive 95-RBI performances in baseball history.
Center fielder Aaron Rowand, who was signed to a five-year, $60-million contract last offseason, ended up second on the club with 13 jacks. Rowand, however, was not the same hitter outside of Citizens Bank Park, as he produced a below-average 94 OPS+ while striking out 126 times against 44 walks. Many analysts criticized the contract that he received last winter, predicting that the 31-year-old would turn into a fourth outfielder (production wise, not based off of playing time) before the end of the deal. Making it more puzzling, it was foolish for a non-contending team like San Francisco to waste financial resources that would have been better spent addressing other, more pressing areas. No one predicted that he would plummet to that level so soon, though, as his offensive value declined while he lost a step in the outfield. Add another poor decision—a sunk cost on the books—to the Brian Sabean files.
Fred Lewis and Randy Winn, two of the only minimal bright spots on the Bay, added some value, especially defensively. Lewis posted a line of .282/.351/.440 in 468 at-bats. Winn led the team in hits, doubles, total bases and walks, hitting a team-best .306 with a .363 OBP and .426 slugging percentage.
There were not too many bright other offensive highlights, though, as a poorly constructed offensive attack consisting of over-the-hill veterans—honestly, with names like Rich Aurilia, Ray Durham, Dave Roberts and Omar Vizquel, it was as if the Giants were playing in 1999—and non-prospects sucked up way too many at-bats. Vizquel, no longer the same defender at shortstop, was practically a guaranteed out, batting only .222/.283/.267 with a 45 OPS+ in 266 at-bats. No, that is not a typo.
Luckily, the Giants had Lincecum, who somehow managed to win 18 games. The flamethrowing right-hander struck out a league-leading 265 in 227.0 innings pitched (10.51 K/9) while posting a 2.62 ERA and 167 ERA+ in 34 starts. The 24-year-old continued to prove his doubters wrong while establishing himself as a top-five starting pitcher in the majors. Sabean should be thankful that he did not end up trading his young gun to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for outfielder Alex Rios, a popular rumor last December. Even the man who gave Barry Zito $126-million and dealt away Joe Nathan and Fransisco Liriano for a few months of A.J. Piersynski would not have been able to survive that, given how Rios regressed as the former University of Washington standout continued to impress.
Matt Cain (AP)
Lincecum’s rotation mate, fellow 24-year-old righty Matt Cain, was also effective. Cain, despite an 8-14 record, posted a 3.76 ERA and 116 ERA+, striking out 186 in 227.0 innings pitched. Looking to the future, he seems like a real All-Star candidate. The emerging star has a four-pitch arsenal, with a fastball that averages out at 92.4, a slider that sits in the mid-80s, a slow curve ball that hovers between 75-76 MPH and an improving change piece that is about, on average, six miles per hour slower than his heater.
Jonathan Sanchez is another guy to keep an eye on. Sanchez missed bats to the tune of a 8.94 K/9 rate, but struggled with his consistency. If he can improve his command, though, the 26-year-old left-hander could turn into a valuable middle-of-the-rotation starter to supplement the dangerous Cain/Lincecum duo.
Things only got worse in year two of the Zito debacle, however. Although he is no longer the highest-paid pitcher in baseball with the recent CC Sabathia deal, it is safe to say the quirky southpaw is overpaid. He gained a bit of velocity back on his fastball in the second half, but the former Cy Young winner posted a 5.15 ERA and 85 ERA+ on the way to a 17-loss campaign. Opponents batted .270/.350/.412 against him, the kind of offensive production that the Giants’ lineup was in desperate need of.
If not for a 6-5 record and 4.52 ERA after the All-Star break, Zito would have ended up with an even more disappointing stat line. As it is, the $14.5 million dollar paycheck that he received seems like charity, with five more long seasons ahead, barring an unlikely occurrence in which he can shed the bust label, before his salary comes off the books.
The Giants’ relief corps was not exactly stellar, either. The bullpen posted a 4.45 ERA, which was good for 14th in the N.L.
Brian Wilson, who represented San Francisco at the All-Star game, picked up 41 saves as the closer. Wilson, however, is proof that closers are made, not born. He produced rates of 9.67 K/9 and 4.04 BB/9 while blowing six saves and posting a fairly high 4.62 ERA and below-average 95 ERA+ and 1.44 WHIP in 62.1 innings pitched. He has a mid-90s heater, but his secondary offerings leave a lot to be desired.
Tyler Walker was fairly mediocre as well, but Alex Hinshaw (10.66 K/9) and Keiichi Yabu logged some impressive innings.
Making what Lincecum was able to accomplish all the more impressive—in addition to the lack of run support—the Giants’ team defense was poor, also. The defense, in fact, converted only 68.5 percent of batted balls hit into play into outs, coming in near the bottom, at 13, in team defensive efficiency. The outfield defense was fairly solid, but there were considerable holes in the infield, especially with the loss of all-field, no-hit third baseman Pedro Feliz to free agency.
The Giants have the chance to improve on the run prevention front, assuming that Cain and Lincecum (expect a slight regression) will continue to be effective. If the combo should falter, though, any slim chances that San Francisco has of competing could fade by the All-Star break. Sanchez could be huge, depending on whether or not he can work out his control issues. Zito will have to surprise as well.
Sabean has actually made a few moves that should improve the bullpen, though. While he has been responsible for his fair share of mistakes—the Zito deal makes me ashamed to share the same alma mater—he has surprisingly made two acceptable decisions this offseason already.
Sabean signed one of the best relievers available, Jeremy Affeldt, at a relatively low cost. Affeldt, seemingly looking for financial security, decided to sign right away, given the apparent surplus of quality high-impact relief arms on the market. He agreed to a two-year deal, worth $8-million. Unlike the Zito debacle, this agreement is great for the Giants for two reasons: its length and undervalued price.
Affeldt quietly put together an impressive campaign for the Cincinnati Reds in 2008. The 29-year-old left-hander posted a 3.33 ERA in 74 appearances, mostly pitching in hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark. His peripherals were even more impressive, as he produced rates of 9.19 K/9, 2.87 BB/9 and 3.1 K/BB in 78.1 innings pitched. He provides a potential capable replacement to Wilson, but will likely add even more value pitching in high-leverage situations in the seventh and eighth innings. In addition, Affeldt, as a Type B free agent, will not cost San Francisco a draft pick.
The Giants also committed $18.5-mil to shortstop Edgar Renteria, essentially ending the days of Vizquel taking up innings at the position in the Bay area. Renteria did not receive an arbitration offer from the Detroit Tigers following a dismal return to the American League. He posted a weak line of .270/.317/.382 as his OPS dropped from .860 to .699 in a two-year span. His arm strength and range also continued to decline, leaving the Tigers with little return on their investment as Jair Jurrjens emerged as a capable major league starter for the Atlanta Braves.
For these reasons, many analysts were skeptical of the signing at first. Looking closer, it seems like a smart choice. Considering the market for shortstops and the short length, the cost is not all that substantial. Renteria, who was out of shape for most of ’08, is also likely to rebound a bit offensively. He is moving into a hitters’ park and back into the National League, where he has been a five-time All-Star. The defensive drop off has been pretty significant—the advanced metrics are definitely not his friend—but he should settle into a middle-of-the-pack overall player at the position, providing a short-term upgrade over any other internal options without setting the franchise back in the future.
It is unlikely that San Francisco will contend next season—though there are some prospects on the way, including Nate Schierholtz, who should play a role in ’09. In the N.L. West, though, anything is possible.
San Diego Padres:
Division Rank: 5th
Runs: 637, 16th in N.L.
Runs Per Game: 3.93, 16th in N.L.
Batting Average: .250, 15th in N.L.
On-Base Percentage: .317, 16th in N.L.
Slugging Percentage: .390, 14th in N.L.
Runs Allowed: 764
Runs Allowed Per Game: 5.07
Team ERA: 4.72, 10th in N.L.
Team ERA+: 87
Opponents’ OPS: .741, 8th in N.L.
Team Defensive Efficiency: .696, 5th in N.L.
Not a lot went right for the San Diego Padres in ’08. From ownership—divorce, financial issues—to a poor product on the field, it is safe to say that it was a down year. How the franchise, which is now officially up for sale, handled the Trevor Hoffman situation to off-field incidents with Brian Giles and Khalil Greene, it was almost a surreal nightmare. The Moore family can only hope that Goldman Sachs will find a buyer relatively quickly.
Unfortunately, things are not expected to get better anytime soon.
It is not a secret. Petco Park is a tough place to hit, and has been suppressing power production since its inception. Despite the ballpark, Giles (.314 EqA) and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (.309 EqA) put up nice offensive seasons, as did a few others.
Gonzalez, who also won a Gold Glove, batted .279/.361/.510 with 36 homers and 119 RBIs. The former first-round pick also scored a team-best 103 runs scored while ranking first on the club with a 138 OPS+.
Giles ranked sixth in the circuit with a .398 OBP, eighth in hitting (.306) and 10th in walks (87). A patient hitter with an excellent approach, he produced an excellent 136 OPS+. Recent domestic abuse accusations have shed a negative light on him as a person, though, and the allegations could become a distraction.
Outside of Gonzalez, the rest of the infield struggled offensively. Greene, Kevin Kouzmanoff (99 OPS+) and Tadihito Iguchi (65 OPS+) all were below-average performers at their respective positions.
Greene had a disastrous—and, boy, do I mean disastrous—campaign. He batted only .213/.260/.339, with a 100-to-22 K/BB ratio while his defensive output also regressed to league average levels. To make matters worse, his self-inflicted injury led to one of the strangest union suits in history. He took out his frustrations for his offensive struggles—a likely response for a major league hitter with a sub-.600 OPS—by bashing his left hand against a storage chest in the Padres’ clubhouse on July 30. The unfortunate incident ended up breaking his hand, costing him the final two months.
Peavy was again solid (2.60 ERA, 1.18 WHIP) but, after the trade negotiations this winter, it will be interesting to see what happens if he returns to San Diego. The right-hander is still likely to get dealt at some point, as the Padres look to cut costs anyway possible. He was the only pitcher to win more than seven games, though.
Chris Young was hurt, but is likely to rebound. Most of the rest of the group—Greg Maddux, Randy Wolf—are gone, though, and the Padres’ 09 pitching staff could consist of Young and four bodies.
Hoffman, the all-time saves leader, is not coming back, either. A franchise icon, he was disappointed that Kevin Towers would not meet with him to discuss a potential contract, following his decision to reject their initial offer. A closer is not a luxury that a non-contending team like the Padres can really afford, but the way in which the situation was dealt with left a bad impression with an already agitated fan base. The baseball decision was wise, how they went about portraying their decision was not.
The Padres have some young talent developing—will Matt Antonelli emerge?—but the club is a long way from playing meaningful games, even in their division. That extra-innings one-game playoff with the Rockies seems like forever ago at this point. Kevin Towers is a smart general manager, and his right-hand man, Paul DePodesta, has a brilliant baseball mind as well. Which makes the situation all the more surprising.
The N.L. Central piece will run after the radio show on Monday, with the N.L. East in the on-deck circle.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.