Division Preview: NL West

We’re just a week from Opening Day, and while our Positional Power Rankings series is designed to give an overview of each team’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s still helpful to look at each team in the context of their division. So, today, I’m kicking off our divisional previews, and we’ll knock out each division — going west to east — over the rest of the week. Today, we’ll start with the NL West.

The Projected Standings

Team Wins Losses Division Wild Card World Series
Dodgers 91 71 73% 13% 13%
Padres 83 79 16% 24% 3%
Giants 80 82 8% 16% 1%
Diamondbacks 74 88 2% 4% 0%
Rockies 74 88 1% 3% 0%

Our forecasts suggest that there’s a clear favorite at the top, two teams in a pretty close fight for second, and two also-rans who are unlikely to make a serious push for the postseason. Let’s take a closer look at each team.

Los Angeles Dodgers

While the Dodgers starting line-up is very good — and their rotation could be excellent if they ever get their projected starting five to pitch on consecutive days — this is really a team that projects well because of their depth. Essentially every position on the diamond is covered by a useful redundancy, and at a few positions, their starting-caliber players go three or even four deep. No one in baseball is more immune to position player injuries (or down years) than the Dodgers.

Things aren’t quite the same in the rotation, though. Hyun-Jin Ryu is already having shoulder problems, which is a worrisome development given how his 2014 season ended. Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson are both significant health risks, and even Zack Greinke isn’t quite up to speed after starting camp late because of a seemingly minor elbow issue. If there’s a way for the Dodgers season to go wrong, this is it; they don’t have a lot of extra major league starters hanging around. If Ryu is out for any real length of time and one or two of the others end up on the DL as well, the Dodgers could be scrambling for pitching in a hurry.

Of course, their positional player depth — and apparently unlimited stockpile of money — means that they have the resources to acquire starting pitching in-season if need be, but there often aren’t very many useful arms available early in the season, and if things go off the rails health-wise in April, the Dodgers could end up finding themselves trying to dig out of an early hole. Especially with Kenley Jansen out for the first month of the year, a slow start is certainly possible, and the team should mostly just want to hang around with San Diego and San Francisco for the season’s first month.

If May rolls around and the Dodgers in first place, the rest of the division is in trouble. This team is only likely to get stronger as the year goes on, and they’re going to be hard to run down late in the year. If they can keep things afloat to start the year while waiting on Ryu and Jansen to recover, expect them to run away with the division. The best hope for everyone else is that the Dodgers talent-over-health bets all go terribly wrong, and the team ends up dramatically underperforming on the pitching side.

San Diego Padres

The Padres are probably 2015’s most interesting team, as they changed course in a dramatic way this winter. The team loaded up on right-handed power, and as a result, it’s a safe bet they won’t struggle to score runs as they did a year ago. The questions now relate to how well they’ll do everything else.

The outfield defense isn’t going to be good, not with Wil Myers moving back to center field and an aging Matt Kemp flanking him to one side, but the Padres do have an advantage of having a pitching staff that almost universally specializes in strikeouts, which may mitigate some of the team’s defensive issues. But like the Dodgers, there are some real injury concerns on the pitching staff, and the team probably shouldn’t count on getting 30 starts from anyone besides James Shields and Ian Kennedy. In fact, the Padres are in many ways the anti-Dodgers, with a frontline that could absolutely compete for the division but a very weak secondary group that could be exposed if pushed into action.

Even among the everyday players, there are needs for real upgrades, with essentially the entire infield consisting of below average big leaguers, and not many good options behind those already-weak starters. The roster is also somewhat strangely aligned, as the team’s biggest source of depth comes in the outfield, which is where their most prominent starters occupy all the everyday jobs, making job-shares basically impossible. Swapping an outfielder or two for a shortstop or a third baseman could be a deal worth making, but that’s been true for a while now, and yet Alexi Amarista and Will Middlebrooks still have starting jobs.

There’s absolutely contender upside here, especially if Matt Kemp and Justin Upton regress less than the projections expect. If you see those guys as legitimate stars, then this is probably one of the five best teams in the National League. If those guys are more above-average players, then there’s probably not enough else on the roster to keep up with the Dodgers. But the Wild Card race is wide open, and the Padres certainly have enough talent to be in the mix for one of those spots all year long. There’s a lot of downside here too, though, and if they don’t find an infield upgrade or two, this could end up being a roster that is let down by the weak links in the chain.

San Francisco

The .500ish projection feels a bit light for the defending champs, but we do need to remember that the Giants only won 88 games a year ago; they weren’t one of baseball’s very best teams until October. Replacing Pablo Sandoval with Casey McGehee is a downgrade; even if the Giants may very well be right about the wisdom of signing Kung Fu Panda long-term, it will come at a short-term cost. Toss in Hunter Pence‘s injury, and this line-up looks particularly weak at the moment, as Nori Aoki’s projected .316 wOBA will be the third highest forecast of the Opening Day starters.

This team is going to have to win with run prevention, and that may very well come down to how close Matt Cain can get back to being the Matt Cain of old instead of just an old Matt Cain. If he gets back to prior levels, this rotation could be very good, but that’s certainly far from a guarantee. The team is betting on on veterans like Cain and Jake Peavy to stem off decline and continue to pitch at a high level, which is a bit of a high-risk proposition. They have enough rotation depth that the pitching staff is unlikely to fall apart, but the mediocre offense is going to need substantial contributions from the mound in order to keep up with Los Angeles and San Diego; Ryan Vogelsong is probably not good enough to make up for an offense that may struggle to score runs.

The roster is also somewhat hard to easily upgrade, as there aren’t any glaring holes anywhere that could be improved by simply importing a warm body who provides a little bit of value. The Giants already have decent role players in place at most positions, but beyond Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, there aren’t a lot of high-end performers in place. The Giants have historically done very well at getting strong seasons from surprising sources, and they’ll likely need to hit on a few of those once again if they’re going to get back to October this year.

Arizona Diamondbacks

I will fully admit that I don’t really get what the Diamondbacks are doing. They’re seemingly trying to get younger while also still trying to win, but I don’t see a contender here, nor do I love the collection of young talent they’ve stockpiled. The rotation looks particularly poor from my vantage point, a collection of bad-command guys who throw hard mixed in with guys who throw the ball down the middle and hope it doesn’t get crushed.

Paul Goldschmidt is one of the game’s best players and one of the most valuable assets in the sport. But the drop-off from their franchise player to the supporting cast is steeper than you’ll find with any other franchise, and it’s hard for me to even imagine how many players would have to have career years for the Diamondbacks to make a playoff run this year.

The Phillies will likely keep them from being the worst team in the National League this year, but at least Philadelphia is now paying the cost for previously borrowing from their future to build rosters that won on a regular basis. This Arizona team doesn’t look particularly good to me now, I don’t see an obvious path to improvement going forward, and their fans don’t even have recent successes to hang their hats on.

Things will eventually get better in the desert. I’m just not sure when that will be or how long that will take.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies are the Padres if all the Padres starting pitchers got hurt at once. At the top end of the roster, there are some very good pieces, with Troy Tulowitzki remaining one of the game’s very best players when he’s on the field. But once you get past Tulo, Nolan Arenado, Carlos Gonzalez, and Corey Dickerson, the rest of this roster is just not very good. And that’s why everyone is simply sitting around waiting for the Rockies to trade their star players.

This should probably be the year they do that. Tulowitzki is now 30 years old; the longer they hold him, the less valuable he gets. The team has not really committed to a full rebuild yet, but once it becomes clear that they aren’t contending in 2015 — and given that Kyle Kendrick is their Opening Day starter, that shouldn’t take long — then it’s going to be time to put Tulo on the block and really start making moves for the future. They’ve got a few trade pieces that are going to be in high demand, so if new GM Jeff Bridich can swing a couple of good trades, this rebuild might not take more than a few years. But it needs to start this year. There just isn’t enough talent here to make a serious run unless everything goes right at once, and even then, the risk of the annual Tulowitzki injury could undo a miracle run at any moment.

Let the stars prove they are healthy, then sell. It’s not going to be the most fun thing to watch in the second half, but it’s the right plan for the Rockies.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

I’m not saying middlebrooks will be a star or close to that, but I suspect Amarista will have a considerably worse season. And no I’m not considering the spring stats. I think padres will have a new starting SS by August.