Elegy for 2021: Recapping the NL West, Team by Team

After a one-year hiatus due to the oddity and non-celebratory feeling of a season truncated by a raging pandemic, we’re bringing back the Elegy series in a streamlined format for a 2021 wrap-up. Think of this as a quick winter preview for each team, discussing the questions that faced each team ahead of the year, how they were answered, and what’s next. Do you like or hate the new format? Let me know in the comments below. We’ve already tackled the AL and NL Central, as well as the AL East. Today, we’ll consider the NL West.

San Francisco Giants (107-55)

The Big Question
Could a low-key winter get the Giants on pace with the Dodgers and Padres? 2020 was the fourth consecutive losing season for San Francisco, and the division’s two best teams were extremely active in the offseason. It wasn’t the kind of doom and gloom it appeared to be for the Rockies and Diamondbacks, both of which ZiPS pegged for under 70 wins, but the Giants’ offseason seemed like it was geared more towards enjoyable respectability than elite status. The offense was solid in 2020 as new manager Gabe Kapler showed a real knack for using the expanded rosters to weaponize role-player talent, but it was also the oldest lineup in baseball. I was personally optimistic about the team’s reconstructed rotation, but there were a lot of moving parts to get the offense and pitching both clicking.

How It Went
Suffice it to say, it went really well, with the Giants outperforming ZiPS by more wins than any other team in the history of the projections. Outperforming projections by more than 30 wins is a rare feat, and the Giants did in the most difficult way, like climbing Mt. Everest in a pair of gym shorts and a tank top. Generally speaking, the teams that crush expectations have a lot of high-variance players, often extremely young talent with upside but an uncertain short-term outlook or guys with an injury history. But this wasn’t the case with the Giants; a bunch of 30-to-35-year-old veterans are the easiest type of player to project. Of the 20 teams that outperformed their ZiPS by the most wins (going back to 2005), the Giants were the only team that ZiPS had with tighter projection bands than the average team.

While there was one colossal breakout season from a young player (more below), San Francisco’s astounding 2021 season was built on shocking seasons from established veterans coupled with a solid bullpen built on a shoestring budget, a feat California teams all seem to have an odd affinity for managing. Brandon Crawford had his best season at age 34. Buster Posey and Evan Longoria thought it was 2012 or 2013. Darin Ruf, a journeyman role player who looked to be wrapping up his career in Korea, had a 143 OPS+.

Some people might diminish this Giants team because their season ended in the NLDS at the hands of their chief rivals. Pish posh. 2021 was a great year and one of the highlights for a franchise with many to choose from.

What’s Next?
As successful as 2021 was, the Giants have a lot of work ahead of them. Players who were worth 17-18 WAR for the team this season are headed to the open market, while several more of this year’s wins will disappear with the retirement of Posey. Joey Bart is the team’s likeliest source of in-system reinforcement for the start of 2022, but even a positive outlook there will likely compensate for maybe half of what Posey brought to the table. The offense was again the oldest in baseball in 2021, and isn’t getting much younger. And any good team would be hard-pressed to replace three of their best four starting pitchers in a single offseason.

That being said, the way the Giants are built, they have a lot of payroll to work with thanks to the front office’s successful thriftiness. The team could literally drop $120 million in 2022 payroll alone and still likely be well short of whatever luxury tax threshold ends up being in play. But even a willingness to spend doesn’t mean you actually can get everything you want in a scarce market. There are a finite number of excellent players available in free agency, and once they’re off the market, that’s it. The Giants are a smart team, but some regression, even if players like Crawford and Longoria match their 2021s, is likely.

Player Projection Spotlight: Logan Webb

ZiPS Projection – Logan Webb (Preliminary)
2022 9 5 0 3.30 27 26 141.7 128 52 12 40 151 127 3.4
2023 9 5 0 3.17 28 26 144.7 126 51 11 40 155 132 3.7
2024 9 5 0 3.14 27 25 140.7 120 49 11 38 153 134 3.6
2025 8 4 0 3.13 24 23 126.7 108 44 10 34 138 134 3.3
2026 8 4 0 3.10 23 22 122.0 103 42 10 33 135 136 3.2

Don’t be fooled by the relatively “low” projected WAR totals, which are more a product of conservatism around Webb’s innings rather than pessimism about his performance. There was a lot of good news in San Francisco in 2021, but Webb’s breakout may have been the best of it. ZiPS already liked him to be a league-average starter coming into the season, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it sees him as a borderline ace after the year he had. With a 2.72 FIP (ZiPS sees him as having a 2.80 zFIP based on his hit ball data), Webb’s 3.03 ERA might have actually been doing him an injustice this year. With the Giants needing to replace basically the rest of their rotation this winter, Webb’s breakout couldn’t have come at a better time.

Los Angeles Dodgers (106-56)

The Big Question
Could the Dodgers avoid the long-term problem that tends to afflict big-spending teams, the tendency for an expensive roster to become even more costly and inefficient over time as its best players approach the final years of their contracts? If blasting through the luxury tax threshold by more than $60 million can’t put away the Padres, just how far is this team willing to go, especially if the penalties start to be a drag on their productive farm system?

How It Went
The long-term question remains, but the Dodgers still managed to, depending on your point of view, have either a successful season or perhaps the most successful disappointing season in history. The team lost Dustin May, who appeared to be putting together a breakout season, to Tommy John surgery and still had to find someone to throw the innings after Trevor Bauer was credibly accused of sexual assualt. Los Angeles pulled their usual deadline rabbit out of a hat, acquiring Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. Their departure from the playoffs was disappointingly early, but the Dodgers at least got the satisfaction of getting to be the ones to end San Francisco’s season. By the end of the playoffs, with Clayton Kershaw already gone with elbow pain and Scherzer finally exhausted, the team’s rotation felt thinner than it has in years.

What’s Next?
The Dodgers may have to get used to the luxury tax penalty because they’re already projected to go past the $200 million mark unless they make some difficult non-tender decisions. Cody Bellinger is one of them, though I expect the Dodgers won’t go that far. Finding savings by non-tendering Trea Turner or Julio Urías is, of course, absolutely preposterous. But a rotation right now of Walker Buehler, Urías, Tony Gonsolin, and two of David Price, Mitch White, and Andre Jackson doesn’t appear likely.

I actually expect the Dodgers to try and reset the penalties for 2023 — again, depending on what the next CBA says — which means they may not try to re-sign or directly replace Corey Seager this winter. Trea Turner and Gavin Lux would play the middle infield, and the team would then figure out the long-term later. I suspect a move like re-signing Scherzer will be considered a much higher priority.

Player Projection Spotlight: Cody Bellinger

2021 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Cody Bellinger (Preliminary)
90% .278 .371 .570 460 82 128 28 8 30 107 68 14 149 5.4
80% .261 .353 .525 463 78 121 24 7 28 100 65 12 133 4.3
70% .254 .345 .500 464 77 118 23 5 27 96 64 11 125 3.8
60% .247 .338 .484 465 75 115 22 5 26 93 63 11 118 3.4
50% .242 .332 .466 466 75 113 21 4 25 89 62 10 112 3.0
40% .239 .326 .462 468 73 112 21 4 25 88 60 9 110 2.8
30% .230 .315 .436 470 71 108 20 4 23 85 58 9 100 2.2
20% .225 .308 .417 472 70 106 19 3 22 80 56 8 94 1.7
10% .215 .295 .392 475 66 102 18 3 20 74 53 7 83 1.0

That this projection almost feels optimistic is a testament to just how terrible a season Bellinger had. I can’t remember any serious MVP candidate having a drop-off this dramatic — spare me the Ed Delahanty joke — and it’s not like Bellinger’s 37. The disappearance of his power is especially perplexing as even power hitters in steep decline tend to retain the ability to hit the occasional big fly. That 90th percentile projection for 2022 is worse than his 50th percentile projection for 2022 was before the 2021 season! Despite all this negativity, I wouldn’t shovel dirt on Bellinger’s stardom quite yet; he was really good at this whole baseball thing not too long ago and my colleague Brendan Gawlowski pointed out some mechanical changes in the postseason that appeared to be paying early dividends.

San Diego Padres (79-83)

The Big Question
The Padres had a very active winter, aggressively adding yet more starting pitching to try to avoid some of the depth issues that arose in 2020. But would it be enough to catch the Dodgers, the one team in baseball that has shown a genuine willingness — at least for now — to spend limitlessly? After all, while San Diego’s pitching staff got some serious upgrades, the offense stayed largely the same as in 2020.

How It Went
In the end, the Padres barely caught the Colorado Rockies. It was one of the odder seasons for a team in recent history, basically the equivalent of a light-hearted holiday movie for its first two-thirds before quickly transforming into a bleak Kafkaesque landscape for the final act. I guess you could call it Home Alone if you let Lars von Trier take over the director’s chair once Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern invade the McAllister’s house.

It was already known that Mike Clevinger would miss 2021, but he was joined early in the Tommy John club when Adrian Morejon went under the knife. Dinelson Lamet and Chris Paddack missed significant time with injuries, and Yu Darvish suffered some nagging ones that dragged him down late in the season. Even with Blake Snell bouncing back from a weak first half, by the end of the season, the Padres could barely count on their pitching staff after Snell and Joe Musgrove. It got bad enough that when the team was still trying to salvage a Wild Card spot, they were reduced to signing Jake Arrieta as a street free agent.

Adding insult to injury, the bullpen, which led the league in innings in both April and May as the team tried to be cautious with their starting pitching coming off a shortened season, tired and eventually collapsed as well. The offense fell to eighth in the NL in runs scored after drop-offs from Trent Grisham and Wil Myers, and Eric Hosmer went right back to his old groundball machine ways.

What’s Next?
The offseason’s already been a bloodbath in the front office and the coaching staff, and the Padres hired veteran manager Bob Melvin as their new manager. A.J. Preller returns, but he may be on his last chance if the team disappoints in 2021. The good news for Preller is that the team’s talent core remains quite strong. Most of the reasons we thought the team would be good in 2021 are unchanged in 2022, a luxury that clubs with underperforming seasons rarely have. The team does need to start making some tough decisions at first base and the outfield corners because all three rank as weaknesses right now. While the Giants will likely come back to earth somewhat, the Dodgers are likely to keep spending this offseason, even if more modestly. For San Diego, the biggest risk might be that the team blows up the things that did work to make change for change’s sake, a strategy with a poor track record of success.

Player Projection Spotlight: Fernando Tatis Jr.

2021 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Fernando Tatis Jr. (Preliminary)
90% .342 .430 .754 468 116 160 34 6 49 139 70 49 214 10.2
80% .318 .407 .690 471 110 150 30 5 45 128 67 41 191 8.6
70% .304 .392 .647 473 106 144 28 4 42 119 65 35 177 7.6
60% .295 .383 .620 474 103 140 26 4 40 115 64 32 167 6.9
50% .290 .375 .601 476 101 138 25 3 39 112 62 29 161 6.5
40% .283 .368 .572 477 99 135 24 3 36 107 61 27 151 5.8
30% .273 .357 .551 479 95 131 22 3 35 102 59 23 143 5.2
20% .260 .342 .511 481 93 125 21 2 32 95 57 21 129 4.3
10% .243 .322 .468 485 89 118 18 2 29 87 53 17 112 3.0

After the year San Diego had, I felt the fairest thing to do here was to give the fans a fun look at the best aspect of the team. The day when the Padres have to decide whether Tatis is an outfielder because of his shoulder is approaching, but he’s a star anywhere he plays. I’m kinda mad at the 90th-percentile projection, an absolutely nutty concoction, leaving him just short of the first 50/50 season in major league history. Sadly, it’s extremely unlikely; ZiPS still does not quite understand that the team is extremely unlikely, given his shoulder issues, to let Tatis run anywhere close to often enough to steal 50 bases.

Colorado Rockies (74-87)

The Big Question
How will this team score runs? The Rockies have been a franchise almost infamous for their complete inability to find secondary offensive talent while apparently not even realizing there’s a problem. Trading Nolan Arenado, a primary source of offense, for Austin Gomber, cash, and prospects who didn’t even make Colorado’s top 10, was unlikely to help this roster.

How It Went
The Rockies easily avoided the century mark in losses, thanks to what was generally a solid rotation. That’s been an organizational strength in recent years, as odd as it feels for a team in Denver to figure out starting pitching but not hitting baseballs, sort of like being able to ride a unicycle but not a tricycle. This was buoyed by a solid comeback season for Kyle Freeland and Gomber demonstrating he’s deserving of a job in a major league rotation.

The tally for the offense was much less encouraging. C.J. Cron was a terrific pickup for the team, hitting quite well after accounting for the fact that he played on Planet Coors. On the other hand, the outfield was thoroughly inadequate, with a combined wRC+ of 81, the ninth-worst performance in a full season since 2002.

Worst Offensive Outfields Since 2002
Team wRC+
2011 Seattle Mariners 69.8
2019 Miami Marlins 73.8
2015 Cincinnati Reds 75.7
2014 Cincinnati Reds 76.4
2012 Houston Astros 76.5
2003 Oakland Athletics 80.2
2005 Chicago Cubs 80.5
2004 Kansas City Royals 80.9
2021 Colorado Rockies 81.1
2016 Philadelphia Phillies 81.3
2018 Chicago White Sox 81.5
2013 Houston Astros 81.7
2019 Chicago White Sox 82.0
2007 Arizona Diamondbacks 82.9
2003 Detroit Tigers 83.0
2021 Kansas City Royals 83.1
2017 San Francisco Giants 83.2
20088 Atlanta Braves 83.4
2019 San Francisco Giants 83.8
2019 Kansas City Royals 84.0

The infield was somewhat better, but not enough to compensate. Brendan Rodgers had a solid season and seems to have gotten over that career threshold that would result in the Rockies benching him for a random utility infielder every time he has a bad week. Ryan McMahon was adequate, if not particularly exciting, and appears to have firmed up his roster spot as well. Trevor Story, meanwhile, had a down year by his standards and was unhappy with the team; it looks like no serious attempt will be made to retain his services.

What’s Next?
The biggest risk for the Rockies remains that they think they’re better than they are. The offensive outlook is still bleak, especially since team officials have given little public indication that they even notice anything’s wrong. A brutal 110-loss season might have resulted in some real soul searching from ownership about the organization’s direction. After winning 74 games, the team already apparently believes that everything will just work out in the next couple of years. While the team is trying to rebuild a decimated analytics staff after basically chasing the old one off, it won’t do any good unless the decision-makers prove they have the ability to use that staff to better effect than the Jeff Bridich regime did.

Player Projection Spotlight: C.J. Cron

2021 ZiPS Projection Percentiles – C.J. Cron (Preliminary)
90% .314 .406 .646 452 76 142 35 2 37 113 60 2 157 4.5
80% .303 .391 .607 456 75 138 32 1 35 108 56 1 144 3.8
70% .295 .383 .591 457 73 135 31 1 34 105 55 1 138 3.5
60% .290 .378 .576 458 71 133 30 1 33 101 54 1 133 3.2
50% .283 .368 .557 460 70 130 28 1 32 98 52 1 126 2.7
40% .275 .359 .530 462 68 127 26 1 30 94 50 1 118 2.2
30% .269 .351 .515 464 66 125 25 1 29 91 48 0 112 1.9
20% .262 .343 .488 465 64 122 24 0 27 86 47 0 104 1.4
10% .248 .328 .450 467 61 116 22 0 24 79 45 0 92 0.6

Hold onto your butts, but the Colorado Rockies made an excellent move in signing Cron to a one-year deal before 2021 and issued a smart follow-up when they inked him to a two-year, $14.5 million extension. Cron’s not a superstar, but the, the Rockies aren’t paying him to be. I’m of the belief that the pendulum has swung too far and baseball is largely too skeptical of ordinary first basemen. Teams like the Brewers, Red Sox, and Padres, contenders all, could have used Cron’s adequate services at a reasonable price this year. The Rockies’ problems are too deep for Cron to fix single-battedly, but at least he’s not one of them.

Arizona Diamondbacks (52-110)

The Big Question
What are the Diamondbacks good at? While there was a real case to be made coming into 2021 that Arizona had a better overall roster than the Rockies, the latter had a significant strength (the starting rotation). In contrast, the Snakes simply looked middling-to-blarrggh just about everywhere. That’s not to say the team didn’t have some real highlights in Ketel Marte or Zac Gallen, but the lineup was one of the oldest in 2020, and both the rotation and bullpen looked wafer-thin.

How It Went
Arizona set the league’s record for longest losing streak at home at 24. Given how the season went, they might as well have worked remotely. The team’s offense was carried mainly by Marte’s excellent season, who also spent time on the injured list, and one of the lineup’s few solid performers, Eduardo Escobar, who finished the year in Milwaukee. The rotation actually held together surprisingly well — at least when it was healthy — with the team getting roughly league-average performances from Madison Bumgarner, Luke Weaver, and Merrill Kelly. Gallen’s year was a letdown after his 2019 and ’20 performances, and once you got past the team’s desired starts, it got ugly fast. I won’t talk about the bullpen because I know many of you are reading this at work, and I don’t want our site to get filtered out for offensive content.

What’s Next?
The team requires serious upgrades at first base, the outfielder corners, and designated hitter if the NL adopts it. The starting pitching could be adequate, but the lack of depth is troubling, and if the team is going to be even vaguely competitive in 2022, they’re likely going to need to find four or five real arms in relief. I guess the only good news (if you can call it that), is that the roster looks like that of an uninteresting 70-win team instead of an uninteresting 52-win one. The D-backs aren’t likely to be able to fix the offense in free agency, so they’re going to have to get very serious about letting their minor league talent have every chance to push out the legacy players. Daulton Varsho‘s done enough that he probably should have dibs on a lot of playing time, and the team has to look longer at Seth Beer at this point. The team shouldn’t delay assessing Alek Thomas for too long, and as good as Nick Ahmed’s glove is, Arizona needs to let Geraldo Perdomo push him off as soon as possible, despite Ahmed’s multi-year contract. The outfield may be sorted out in a few years, with Corbin Carroll and Kristian Robinson on the way, though we’ll have to see how Carroll’s shoulder heals.

All-in-all, despite the large differences in 2021 performance, I’d much rather be running Arizona than Colorado.

Player Projection Spotlight: Zac Gallen

ZiPS Projection – Zac Gallen (Preliminary)
2022 8 6 0 3.91 26 26 140.3 124 61 20 51 161 117 2.8
2023 8 6 0 3.94 26 26 139.3 124 61 20 51 160 117 2.7
2024 8 6 0 3.92 25 25 133.0 118 58 20 48 154 117 2.6
2025 7 5 0 3.92 23 23 124.0 110 54 18 45 143 117 2.5

ZiPS gives Gallen an unusually stable projection. Gallen was a ZiPS favorite well before the Diamondbacks acquired him for Jazz Chisholm Jr., and a weak, injury-filled season isn’t causing a messy breakup. It does merit a hint of caution, however; while a better 2022 is projected, the drop in Gallen’s swinging strike rate, mostly from his changeup being less of a swing-and-miss pitch lately, suggests a strikeout drop-off is possible.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

I’ll actually give props to the Rockies for not blowing it up, as rebuilds are boring and really bad for fan interest and the game as a whole. If they sign a couple of bats this offseason they’ll be an entertaining team moving forward.

2 years ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

One thing I’ll say about the Rockies is that although they do a ton of things that make no sense, you can’t accuse them of giving up. Given that they have zero interesting trade pieces except for Marquez (who has more value to them than other teams anyway), I’d go after some athletic outfielders who didn’t get a QO and put the ball in play a lot. I wouldn’t be interested in shopping at the top end of the market with Starling Marte, but Avisail Garcia, if he doesn’t get a QO, would be at the top of my list. Eddie Rosario would probably be next. Maybe bring back Kevin Pillar for another round. Unlike most mediocre teams, there’s no competitive team on the horizon and no obvious way to get there, so why not make the best of it?

I’d probably do this even if I got a top-notch offer for Marquez.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I want them to go get one of Conforto or Castellanos, a middle IF who can play good defense, and another catcher. The rotation is solid enough and there’s a couple of bullpen arms with potential to be something. The Rockies never tank and I commend them for that.

2 years ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

Unless you like tragedy, you do not want them to put Conforto or Castellanos in that outfield. It would be an epic disaster. They probably want to see what they have in Hampson and Rodgers in the middle infield too. If they are going to bring in a middle infielder, it’d probably be a backup to both spots.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I’ve been watching Charlie Blackmon in right field for three years now, I know all about tragedy. At least Castellanos and Conforto would be a legitimate offensive upgrade. Rodgers should be the SS, and Hampson is nothing more than a bench utility guy. I’d actually like it if they moved McMahon to 2B (where he’s just as excellent as he is at 3B) and gave Colton Welker full-time PAs at third base. That would mean a Welker-Rodgers-McMahon-Cron IF, which sounds very solid to me. The outfield needs to be rebuilt almost in its entirety, but there are a couple of useful pieces in Joe (who can at worst platoon vs LHP) and Hilliard (who can play all three spots and has power). Then there’s the catcher spot. Get me a LHH catcher to platoon with Elías Díaz and I’m cool.

2 years ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

A rebuild in any traditional sense is silly for the Rockies. They had one of the better home records in baseball this year (48-33) and that’s not particularly uncommon for them. I think they have made the decision to do well at home even if it comes at the expense of having too many weaknesses on the road to make the playoffs or show up well in projections/statistics (which bluntly suck at dealing with the outlier issues the Rockies have).