Around the Bases Vol II: NL West Preview

Stiletto DVD coverThe NL West seems to be a wide-open division this upcoming season. The LA Dodgers, the Colorado Rockies, the Arizona Diamondbacks, or the San Francisco Giants, could all be viable contenders for the division title. The lone exception, the San Diego Padres, don’t appear to have much of a chance.

Last season, only the Dodgers and the D-Backs finished above .500. This season, it wouldn’t be a shock if the four above-mentioned teams all finished above .500.

Around the Bases takes a look at a couple of these teams for the 2009 season:

2008: 84-78 (NL West Division Winners)

Without question, the trade for Manny on July 31st propelled this team into the playoffs. His phenomenal play with them is well documented. From August 1st to the end of the season, Manny hit a ridiculous .396 (nearly .100 better than his previous few months with the Red Sox), with 17 HR and 53 RBI. Their team batting average BM was .253 (11th in NL). AM, the team average jumped to .279 (2nd in NL). For the entire season, they finished 5th in the NL (.264). Amazingly, they finished 13th in both RBI (659) and HR (137).

On the pitching side, the Dodgers finished 1st in the NL in ERA (3.68), and 2nd in BAA (.251). Their starters finished with at 3rd best 3.87 while their relievers finished a 2nd best 3.34.

In the upcoming season, the Dodgers are going to have a very tough time maintaining their pitching prowess. They lost starters Derek Lowe (14-11, 3.24), Brad Penny (6-9, 6.27), and Chan Ho Park (4-4, 3.40 in a mostly reliever role).

Penny’s season was hampered by a bum shoulder that kept him out of action for most of the year. In fact, he only made 7 appearances after May 30th, where he went 1-3 with an ERA of 8.03.

Their pitching staff also lost relievers Scott Proctor (2 Holds, 6.05 ERA) and Takashi Saito (18 saves, 2.49 ERA). The team did pick up set-up man Guillermo Mota (11 holds, 4.11 ERA) who is expected to see a lot of 7th innings, and starter Randy Wolf (12-12, 4.30), who will slip into the #4 slot.

The rest of the Dodgers pitching staff consists of club leader Chad Billingsly (16-10, 3.14), Hiroki Kurodo (9-10, 3.73), and Clayton Kershaw (5-5, 4.26). Jason Schmidt also returns to the line-up after missing nearly all of the ’07 season (went 1-5 in 6 games) and all of the ’08 season with a couple of shoulder surgeries. The last time Schmidt pitched was June 15th, 2007. The Dodgers hope that he is even half of what he was with the San Francisco Giants, when, from ’01 – ’06 he went 91-44. Jonathon Broxton (14 saves, 13 holds, 3.13), will move into the closer role.

The Dodgers also recently re-signed pitcher Jeff Weaver to a minor league contract. Weaver, who hasn’t pitched in the bigs since 2007 (7-13 for the Seattle Mariners), last pitched for the Dodgers in ’05 when he went 14-11.

The rest of the starters are essentially the same as last season. SS Rafael Furcal returns to the lineup after season ending back surgery in July, and that will give the offense a healthy boost. Prior to going on the DL, Furcal went 51-for-143 (.357) with 5 HR and 16 RBI and there’s no reason not to believe that he won’t be back in that form again.

One major change that the Dodgers will see is the absence of 2B Jeff Kent. Kent, the 2000 NL MVP, had his lowest batting average since ’07 (.280) and his lowest HR and RBI totals since ’06 (12 and 59, respectively), retired in January. That would have caused the movement of Blake DeWitt (9 HR, 52 RBI, .264) from 3B to 2B and will allow former bench player Casey Blake (10 HR, 23 RBI, .251 in 58 games) to have a full-time position at third. But, the Dodgers just picked up 3-time Gold Glove winner 2B Orlando Hudson from the free-agent pool. Last season, Hudson batted .305 with 8 HR and 31 RBI. Now, the movement of both DeWitt and Blake are up in the air.

Juan Pierre (1 HR, 28 RBI, .283), Matt Kemp (18 HR, 76 RBI, .290), and Andre Either (20 HR, 77 RBI, .305) all return to the Dodgers’ outfield.

What’s not known at the time of this writing is whether or not Manny will accept the 2 year offer that the Dodgers have extended to him (although many expect that he ultimately will). Also, it appears that Nomar Garciaparra (8 HR, 28 RBI in 58 games) will not return.

Manager Joe Torre is not going to have it easy in 2009, at least not in the beginning of the season, with the pitching staff in somewhat disarray, and the unknown situation with Manny. If his hitters stay on track, and his bullpen holds up, there is no reason why this team won’t finish first in the division for the 2nd straight season.

2008: 70-92 (4th Place, 12 GB)

It is a strong possibility that the SF Giants could have one of the biggest turnarounds in the National League this season. Overall, they’ve had a very good off-season, even if they don’t win the Manny Ramirez Pool. Like the Dodgers, they have an offer on the table. Of course, picking him up would give them the power production they need to come out of the cellar in the HR dept. Their 2008 total HR (94) was the lowest in all of baseball, as was their 606 RBI.

They really didn’t lose anyone of note, unless you count future Hall of Famer Omar Visquel, who played only a minor role on last year’s team (266 AB, 1 HR, 23 RBI, .222).

But, the team gained a lot, starting with the best lefthanded pitcher since Steve Carlton, or maybe ever, Randy Johnson. Last season, after a two year hiatus with the NY Yankees, Johnson pitched his 2nd consecutive season with the Diamondbacks. His record was a un-Johnsonlike 11-10, with a 3.91 ERA. This was his worst record in a decade, (1998, 9-10), in years that he pitched a minimum of 20 games. Despite being plagued by severe back problems the past several years, Johnson is still one of the most dominating pitchers in the game.

The Giants’ rotation also features last season’s NL Cy Young winner, Tim Lincecum who, last season, was ranked 2nd in the NL in both wins (18), and ERA (2.62). His 265 strikeouts were the most in baseball since new teammate Randy Johnson in ’04 (290).

Matt Cain (8-14, 3.76) and Barry Zito (10-17, 5.15) fill in at the 3 and 4 starters. The 5th starter is still somewhat up in the air. It will likely go to Jonathon Sanchez (9-12, 5.01), although if Noah Lowery shows that he’s back from elbow surgery, it could be a contest. Both Cain and Zito have pretty much set themselves up as below average pitchers who never met their potential. Cain’s ’07 record was eerily similar to last year (7-16, 3.65), while Zito hasn’t had a decent season since ’06, his last year in Oakland (16-10, 3.83).

Closing again this season for the Giants will be Brian Wilson (not the Beach Boys guy). Last year, Wilson had all 41 (T-4th in ML) of the team’s saves with 6 blown saves. The team also added relief pitchers Jeremy Affeldt (1-1, 3.33) and Bob Howry (7-5, 5.35) to shore up their staff.

Like last season, the outfield will consist of the very capable trio of LF Fred Lewis (9 HR, 40 RBI, .282), CF Aaron Rowand (13 HR, 70 RBI, .271), and RF Randy Winn (10 HR, 64 RBI, .306). One of the biggest problems with Lewis is that he strikes out nearly as many times as he gets a hit (132 hits, 124 SO). Winn, on the other hand, led the team in average (.306), hits (183), runs (84), and stolen bases (25).

To be honest, there’s not a hell of a lot to say about the Giants’ projected infield. With the exception of veteran newcomer Edgar Renteria (10 HR, 55 RBI, .270) at shortstop, the rest of the infield is a relatively unknown commodity.

Combined, 3B Pablo Sandoval, 1B Travis Ishikawa, and 2B Eugenio Velez (16 doubles, 15 SB) played a grand total of 162 games last season. Most of those games were played by Velez (98). And, they only have appeared in 188 games total in their “careers”.

Velez may not even be the starting second baseman this season. It’s really a 3-way race between Velez, Emmanual Burris (.357 OBP, 13 SB), and Kevin Frandsen. Burris and Frandsen don’t have much playing time between them either. Last season, Burris appeared in 95 games (41 at 2B), while Frandsen played in one.

Behind the plate is the always steady Benji Molina (16 HR, 95 RBI, .292), of the infamous Crouching Molina Brothers.

The potential for this team is there. They may not take the division, but they certainly can improve their overall standings considerably. Much will depend on how good Cain and Zito can throw, and how the unknown infield is going to perform.