Saturday, March 26, 2011

2011 MLB Season Preview Part 1: NL West

Over the next week I'll be posting my preview for the 2011 baseball season, covering each of the six divisions.

The format will be the same as last year. For each team I've included their projected 2011 record as predicted by Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system. The system determines playing time for all players on each team, derives Runs Scored and Runs Allowed totals from their 2011 forecasts, and extrapolates that into wins and losses (take a look at it here). We'll be using the PECOTA record as a baseline and then I will offer my take on each team's chances and how it will all stack up. Please feel free to agree, disagree, hurl obscenities at me, whatever. Let's talk baseball. 

NL West
Last year the San Diego Padres surprised everyone by sitting up in first place for most of the season before the rival Giants made a late charge and toppled them during the regular season's final series. San Francisco carried that momentum all through an exciting playoff run culminating in the franchise's first World Series since they moved from New York in 1958. They'll try to defend their division title this year against a strong collective that features a number of young, burgeoning superstars like Mat Latos, Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Upton, and more. There's plenty of talent in this division, especially pitching-wise. The top four teams all boast potent pitching staffs and so it should be an exciting year in this competitive division once again.

1. Giants
PECOTA:  91-71
My take: Under

An elite pitching staff and patchwork offense carried this team all the way to a championship last year. Can they get back to the playoffs?

All the important pitchers return this year and they'll even get to have Madison Bumgarner in the rotation right from the get-go this time. The bullpen of bearded bombasts returns mostly intact as well. Collectively, this was the best run prevention unit in baseball last year (barely nudging past the Padres with a 3.36 team ERA) and I think we'll see more of the same. Their top four starters (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Bumgarner) might only be eclipsed by the quartet assembled in Philadelphia and this group is so young that they could even improve upon last year's performance.

Panda is expected to pick it up this year
The big question mark is, once again, can their offense produce? With such stifling run prevention, the lineup doesn't have to reach all that high. They just have to outscore the opponent. Having Buster Posey for a full season will certainly make a big difference and the same goes for their other add-ons from last year, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell. Aubrey Huff is due for a regression after blasting his way to a career year last season at age 33 but, even if he slips, the team has their best prospect, Brandon Belt, waiting to pounce on an opening. Pablo Sandoval stunk last year but PECOTA projects him to have a nice bounceback season with a .299/.346/.465 batting average/on-base/slugging percentage. New shortstop Miguel Tejada was rejuvenated after escaping the dreary Baltimore atmosphere last season and, though he's not a very good fielder nowadays, he can still hit a little.

So, can this offense outscore its opponents? I think they can. But I don't think this team will win 90 games this year. It's a very tough division once again and, while I think they'll finish ahead of the pack, I see them battling it out with a young Rockies team all year. My prediction is 87 wins and another playoff run.

2. Rockies
PECOTA: 84-78
My take: Over

Just like the other top teams in this division, the Rockies are a team with a deep pitching staff and an unspectacular overall lineup. They do feature two young sluggers in Troy Tulowitzki (26 years old) and Carlos Gonzalez (25) who are only just now coming upon their peak years. These two are arguably the best hitters in the whole division. But the bats around them have been weak. Last year, none of the other regular hitters managed an OPS+ better than the league average and the only addition they made in the offseason was to bring in second baseman Jose Lopez, a free-swinging out-machine (career .297 OBP) though he can hit some homers and should enjoy playing in Coors Field.

Observe the stirrups
The strength of this team is the pitching staff and theirs is deep enough to match up with anyone in the division. The euphoniously named Ubaldo Jimenez has been improving his strikeout rate and ERA in each year of his career thus far and he'll only be 27 this year. He's a good bet to be one of the best pitchers in the NL this year. I'm excited about 23-year-old Jhoulys Chacin (another cool name) getting a chance to pitch in the rotation for a full season and the rest of the rotation is solid with Jason Hammel, Jorge de la Rosa, and Aaron Cook all capable of at least average production. The pen is deep and they've added a couple of flame-throwers in Matt Lindstrom and Felipe Paulino.

Though the lineup relies heavily on two players for run production, the Rockies can reasonably expect to see bounceback seasons from Dexter Fowler, Ian Stewart, and Seth Smith all of whom are still young. Not surprisingly, PECOTA has each of them tabbed for pretty strong seasons (a combined line of .275/.353/.465) and if they come through then this might actually turn into the best offense in the division. I think the Rox will be in the mix all year and I have them finishing in a tie with the Giants at 87 wins.

3. Padres
PECOTA: 80-82
My take: Over

The time is now for Chase Headley
I had a bunch to say about the Padres in a post the other day, the gist of it was that they've done a pretty good job patching up the gaping hole left by the Adrian Gonzalez trade. The lineup doesn't have anyone who's really imposing at all but they don't really have any major weakness either. Everyone in the lineup, with the possible exception of Cameron Maybin, can hit. And Maybin is so young that he just might still turn into a good player. Ryan Ludwick was horrible after coming to San Diego at the deadline last year but if he can hit closer to his normal established performance it'll be a huge boost.

Last year I thought Chase Headley would finally break out and have a big year at the plate but he finished with a measly .266 True Average (a stat that looks like batting average but encompasses every aspect of a hitter's performance). There's more pressure on him to produce now and he's entering his prime so I'm optimistic once again. Petco Park saps offensive numbers to a ridiculous degree but I don't think it's crazy to suggest he can put up a .280/.350/.415 line this year. That doesn't look spectacular but, for his home park it's pretty good and it would represent a big jump in performance for Headley.

The rotation just might be better than last year as they've plugged their only gaping holes. Mat Latos was a beast in his first year and finished in the top 10 of the Cy Young voting. Watching all of his games last year, it seemed his only real problem was immaturity. If he missed a couple pitches or gave up some hits, he'd put on a whole big fuss for everybody to see. He'll only be 23 this year but it would be very surprising if he's still pulling that shit on the mound again after an offseason to reflect on it. I expect him to have another big year.

The amazing San Diego bullpen (something of a Padre tradition, really) is back in full force and should continue to dominate. Even if the team trades closer Heath Bell, they've got at least two other guys who can step in and close games with Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson. This is a team that wins entirely on pitching & defense (with or without Adrian). The pitching is back and the defense has actually been improved with a new double-play duo and the fleet-footed Maybin in center. It wouldn't surprise me if the Padres are in the race for the division title again this year but I expect them to finish a couple games over .500.

4. Dodgers
PECOTA: 87-75
My take: Under

This organization is a Metsian mess. Let's talk about the positives first: they can pitch. Ned Colleti has assembled a very solid rotation with the young aces Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley backed up by a trio of Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly, and Jon Garland. In a league with stacked rotations (the Giants, Phillies, Brewers, Rockies, Marlins) this group can go up against any of them. Don Mattingly gets his first shot at managing and should be able to better connect with the team's young players than senior citizen Joe Torre did.

Now, the bad news. Manny Ramirez is gone and his replacement looks to be Jay freakin' Gibbons, a washed up veteran who was out of professional baseball for a couple years until the Dodgers gave him a job. Matt Kemp was once supposed to be a superstar but he played like he didn't give a shit about anything last year, looking pathetic on the basepaths and generally lolly-gagging all over the field. Things can't really get much worse for him this year and a new, younger manager ought to be able to motivate him better. Andre Ethier is an all-around good hitter when healthy and the same goes for Rafael Furcal but after that, nobody else can hit. James Loney is a perennial disappointment, Casey Blake is 37 and he collapsed last year, and they've plugged the second base hole with Juan Uribe, a fun portly player with some power but not somebody you can really rely on. They also gave a bunch of money to Rod Barajas to be their starting catcher and, like Uribe, Barajas can hit the ball out of the park but makes far too many outs as his pathetic .284 career OBP attests to.

The pen has some good arms but their big closer fell off a cliff last season. PECOTA has an extremely optimistic projection for this team but I'll definitely take the under. I don't think they'll reach .500 this year although I do wish the best for Mattingly.

5. Diamondbacks
PECOTA: 75-87
My take: Even

Well, they definitely won't be nearly as bad as last season's 65-97 stinker. As discussed in this year's Baseball Prospectus annual, they might have finished a lot closer to .500 had it not been for one the absolute worst bullpens in baseball history last year. In general manager Kevin Towers, the D'backs brought in the perfect guy to fix that. If there's anything he's known for, it's putting together a strong bullpen on the cheap. Towers made a couple of quiet moves, bringing in J.J. Putz to close and a few other relievers with some potential and this definitely looks like an improved team. The rotation is young and lacking a true ace but overall it's a pretty solid group. Daniel Hudson looked great in 11 starts (70/16 K/BB and a 1.69 ERA) after being acquired from the White Sox last year and he's only 24. Who knows, maybe he'll become a star.

Their lineup might do some damage. Chris Young finally put together a nice season, fulfilling the high expectations we've had for him right when people started giving up hope. He drew a bunch of walks and just barely missed a 30/30 season (he had 27 homers and 28 steals). Miguel Montero is one of the best young catchers in the league, Kelly Johnson and Stephen Drew can both hit, and while Justin Upton saw his power slip last year, the kid is entering his fourth full season and he's only 23. Don't count him out yet. They picked up Russell Branyan to split first base time with Brandon Allen and both of those guys have prodigious power.

This team certainly won't come close to losing 100 games again this year. They'll keep things competitive in this fun, talent-laden NL West division but look for them to finish under .500.

(Photo credits: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images; David Zalubowski/Denver Post; Icon SM)

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