Monday, March 28, 2011

2011 MLB Final Standings Predictions: NL WEST

SF Giants 87 - 75

Why is this team interesting?  After winning the World Series last year the Gnats Giants bring back pretty much the same team that they finished last season with.  So they should be a shoe-in to at least get back to the playoffs, right?  Not so fast.  This team has a lot of questions.

First, catcher Buster Posey.  Posey exploded on the scene last year posting nearly 4 WAR after his call up.  He hit for power, he hit for average, he got on base, he handled the pitching staff, so what's the problem?  No problem.  Buster Posey is awesome.  Gaze upon said awesomeness:
First base isn't so much a question as an opportunity.  The rejuvenated Aubrey Huff figures to start the season at first while Brandon Belt figures to start the season belting pitches around AAA stadiums.   Expect Belt to get the call in May or June and push Huff to the OF or go to the OF himself.

The player who figures to lose playing time upon Belt's arrival is also-rejuvenated Pat Burrell.  'The Bat' spent a miserable season plus in Tampa before getting picked up by the Giants where he turned back into the productive hitter that Philly Phans loved to loathe for most of the decade.

Also rejuvenated by the fresh bay air (or whatever) was CF Andres Torres.  Torres had 300 nondescript at bats with the Rangers and Tigers in the early part of the decade.  Once he joined the Giants he started playing at an All-Star level.

One Giant that wasn't rejuvenated last year was 3B Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval.  Sandoval had a huge 2009 but lost 60 points of batting average & on base percentage and 150 points of slugging in 2010.  Part of that was expected as Panda had a .350 BABIP in 2009, but part of it was just not hitting well.  We'll see what happens with him in 2011.

One Giant who hopes for a rejuvenation in 2011 is Miguel Tejada.  Tejada had his best seasons in the bay area with the A's but has shown definite decline with both the bat and glove in his time with the Orioles and Astros.  That the Giants' best Plan B at short is Mark DeRosa is worrisome (for Giants fans, as a Dodger fan I don't mind that situation at all).  Brandon Crawford is another outside possibility if Tejada falls completely apart.

Second baseman Freddy Sanchez and postseason-hero-Ssory-Doc round out the likely lineup members.  Both are non-stars who won't hurt you.

The rotation.  Giants fans will say that their rotation is every bit as good as the Phillies'.  They're wrong.  But it is a damn good rotation.  Tim Lincecum had a down year last year, adding a full run to his ERA and most of a run to his FIP.  He was still a 5 WAR pitcher.   Most expect a bounce back but there are some issues regarding his velocity.   Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez are quality #2 and #3 in the rotation but they don't match up well against Cliff Lee and Hamels/Oswalt.  They also have questions.  First, will Cain be able to outperform his peripherals again?  Second, will Sanchez be able to pitch out of all the jams that his walks get him in again?  Cain-maybe yes.  Sanchez-probably not.  Look for Sanchez' ERA to be closer to his 2009 4.24 than his 2010 3.07.  Madison Bumgarner might actually be better than either Cain or Sanchez.   Barry Zito continues to be the highest paid 5th starter in history.

Closer, and crazy man, Brian Wilson looks like he'll start the season on the DL, but Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez should be fine in his stead.

Colorado Rockies 86 - 76
Why is this team interesting?  Well, they've got the best player in the division in Troy Tulowitzki.  A plus fielding shortstop who posts a .350+ OBP and .500+ Slugging Percent.  Yeah.  That's something.  It'll also be interesting to see how Carlos Gonzalez follows up his breakout 2010.
2008 .278
2009 .378
2010 .416
That's the kind of progression that you want to see.  2011 should be off the charts, right?  Well, Car-Go's BABIP in 2010 was .384.  Expect that to come back to earth a little bit.  Still.  Gonzalez is a player.

Gonzalez and Tulowitzki combined for 12.4 of Colorado's 23.4 position player WAR last season.  Yeah, that's more than half.  I have them projected for similar performance again.  So, the Rockies lineup is a little top heavy.  There is upside to some of their other players though.  C Chris Ianetta is one of the biggest sources of optimism.  He's generally been productive with the bat, 99  career wRC+ and a career high wRC+ of 129 in 2008 (wRC+ relates a player's performance to the league average.  A wRC+ of 100 = league average.  Higher numbers are better than average).  But he has seen decreasing playing time since then.  Back as a starter, Ianetta could see a resurgence.  2B Jose Lopez had a miserable 2010 in Seattle.  Lopez' OBP dropped from .313 in 2008-2009 to .270 in 2010 while he Slugging dropped even more precipitously from .453 to .339.  The Rockies hope he'll rebound.  First baseman Todd Helton has a good year/bad year thing going on recently.

 He's 'due' for a good year in 2010.  The overall trend, though, is clear.   Ian Stewart, Dexter Fowler and Seth Smith are all young enough that they should be in the 'increase' portion of their careers.

To me, the most interesting thing about the Rockies is the pitching staff.  The Rocks finished 12th in the NL in ERA last year.  But ERA is a bad way to judge a pitcher's, or collection of pitchers', talents.  Despite the humidor, Coors Field still does a number on pitching.  And we can quantify that number as being about 15.  Fifteen percent more runs are scored at Coors field than in a neutral environment.  The stadium the Rockies play in make a huge difference (as does the humidor.  In the late 90's Coors field inflated run scoring by about 25 - 30%  The humidor basically halved the inflation).  Over the last 2 seasons the Rockies have been 21st in ERA but 2nd in fWAR.  They look to be very good again.

Ubaldo Jiminez caught people's attention last year as he was 15 - 1 with a 2.20 ERA going into the All Star break.   Most of us knew that he couldn't maintain that pace, but he's a very good pitcher.  He's followed by Jhoulys Chacin and Jason Hammel.  Chacin pitched very well in his first extended major league action.  He struck out over a batter per inning while getting a good number of ground balls.  The walk rate of 4/9 was high but if he can improve that (which him minor league numbers would suggest) he can be a very good pitcher in the league.  He know exactly what to expect from Jason Hammel as his last 2 seasons have been almost identical in everything except ERA.  Jorge de la Rosa was coming off back-to-back good years until injuries got him 2010 he could give the Rockies a 4th very good starter.  Aaron Cook and Felipe Paulino will battle for The 5th starter job will belong to Esmil Rogers.  Rogers threw mostly out of the pen last season and was generally effective with over 8 K's per 9 and an ok walk rate despite a poor ERA.  He made 8 starts and showed some signs of effectiveness.

The bullpen should be deep with closer Houston Street and Rafael Betancourt two very good arms up top.

Don't be at all surprised if he Rockies take the top spot in the NL West.

Los Angeles Dodgers 81 - 81
Why is this team interesting?  Because you are a lawyer and the McCourt debacle is interesting to you on multiple legal levels?

As a fan this McCOURT thing is as frustrating as any break up I've personally experienced.  The Dodgers are wasting the best years of Clayton Kershaw's, Chad Billingsley's and Matt Kemp's careers.  We should be exploiting our financial advantage in the NL West but instead we have Marcus Thames and JR Gibbons platooning in left field.

Enough bad news. Let's accentuate the positive.  The Dodgers should have an outstanding pitching staff this season.  Clayton Kershaw is one of the top starters in the National League.  He strikes out over a batter per inning and dropped a full walk off of his BB/9 last season.  And remember that Kershaw is just 23 this season-the same age that Tim Lincecum made his partial season debut for the Giants.

Chad Billingsley continues to put up 30 start, 190-200 inning sub 4.00 FIP seasons.  The strikeout rates have been declining but the overall results have been improving.  He's a steady  4.5 - 5.0 WAR a season pitcher.

Hiroki Kuroda comes back for a 4th season in LA.  His first 3 seasons have been very consistent minus a few injuries in 2009.  Look at these ERA's, FIP's and xFIP's
2008 3.73 3.59 3.93
2009 3.76 3.68 3.66
2010 3.39 3.25 3.59
We should have a good idea of what to expect out of Kuroda in 2011.

Ted Lilly signed a 3-year deal after coming over in a trade last season.  Lilly has battled through some injuries the previous 2 seasons but he should provide value this year, the next 2 are a bit worrisome.

5th starter Jon Garland will miss a bit of time at the beginning of the season.  He'll be expected to come back an put up his normal 4.50 FIP over the rest of the season.  Tim Redding or John Ely will make a few starts in his place.   Vicente Padilla, also starting on the DL, also has a chance to start, or relieve.

The bullpen will feature Jon Broxton trying to right the ship after a horrific end to 2010.  Broxton's FIP by month:
APR 1.30
MAY 1.95
JUNE 2.32
JULY 4.35
AUG 4.16
SEPT 7.16

If he struggles the Dodgers will have Hong-Chih Kuo to step in as closer.  As Kuo hasn't been a closer casual fans might not know about him and his pieced together elbow, but Kuo is an outstanding pitcher.  Kuo strikes out about 10.5 per 9 innings while walking about 3.5 with a FIP below 3.00.  Left-handed batters can forget it when they face him.  Last season 11 out of 69 lefty batters reached base against Kuo while 28 struck out.

Catcher turned reliever Kenley Jansen may get a shot as closer as well.  Jansen only has a season and a few months of experience as a pitcher but in 27 innings last year Jansen 41 batters while posting a .67 ERA and 1.82 FIP.

Moving on to the next team...


Do we?  Do I have to?  Fine, I'll discuss the lineup as well.

As good as the pitching staff is, the lineup is ... less good.

CF Matt Kemp looks to rebound from his Rihanna distracted poor 2009.  Kemp looked to be poised for stardom in 2009 but it didn't happen.  Gains that he had made in defense, base running and plate discipline disappeared.  As did his ability to hit fastballs.

Andre Either is a steady performer with the bat posting these wOBA's the last 3 years: .383, .370, .367.  He sucks struggles to hit lefties though, his wOBA against left-handed pitchers is below .300 during the same time.

Left field is a mess (as I've discussed before).  Marcus Thames, JR Gibbons (or Xavier Paul please) and Tony Gwynn jr all bring there unique talents to the fold.   Thames bashes left-handed pitching.  Jr left-handed...and was good in 2005.  Tony Gwynn jr is a plus defender but hit .204 last year.  Xavier Paul plays a little defense and should hit better than Gwynn (and maybe Gibbons, and maybe Thames as well-at least vs righties).

The best player in the infield is shortstop Rafael Furcal.  When healthy Furcal is a plus defender who gets on base, has some pop and steals bases.  Furcal's games played the last 4 seasons: 138, 36, 150, 97.

Furcal's double play partner, maybe, is Juan Uribe.  Uribe comes over from the Giants.  Uribe has some pop, .200 ISO the last 2 seasons, but doesn't get on base much, .310 OBP.  He grades as an average to above average fielder all over the infield, which might come in handy since:
A) Furcal will likely miss some time
B) Casey Blake is going to start the season on the DL.  Casey Blake cost the Dodgers catcher Carlos Santana in 2008.  He played well after the trade enticing GM Nick Coletti into signing him to a 3 year deal after the season.  Blake performed very well in the first year of the contract but had his problems last year leading many to speculate that he has out lived his usefulness as a regular.  I think this demise is a little overblown.  Regard Blake's wOBA by month in 2011
APR .353
MAY .364
JUNE .299
JULY .244
AUG .350
SEPT .283
Blake looked terrible in June and July, no question, but he got back on track in August.  September was down again, but this is my team, and I'm an optimist.

Speaking of optimism, first baseman James Loney.  Big things were expected from Loney after he hit 15 home runs and batted .331 in 96 games as a rookie.  He's never come close to that kind of power again.  Loney will be 27 this season, the age when many players fully develop their power.  The rational me knows that Loney's power won't come.  The Dodger fan me, hopes that it will.

The catching situation is saddening interesting.  Long time catcher Russell Martin is a Yankee after refusing an offer from the Dodgers.  LA boy Rod Barajas will be the every day catcher.  He hammered the ball for a .388 wOBA in 72 trips to the plate for LA last year.  His recent season wOBAs: .310, .282, .307, .324,. 306.  We know what Barajas is, and it's not that good.  Backing him up will be former Dodger Dioner Navarro, coming off a horrible year in Tampa and AAA farmhand AJ Ellis.

One last point to make about the Dodgers.  The OF defense is going to be terrible.  To quote Dave Cameron of FanGraphs, "the Dodgers have compiled the worst outfield defense in baseball, with a corner outfielder in center, a first baseman in right field, and a couple of DHs sharing time in left."
With a starting staff that gives up a lot of flyballs this is going to be significant.

San Diego Padres 76 - 86
Why is this team interesting?  The Padres led the NL West for most of 2010, finally falling 2 games short of the eventual World Series champion Giants.  They traded away their best player, and only real source of offense, Adrian Gonzalez.

But the Padres didn't rely on offense to win last season, it was the pitching that did it and the pitching staff is mostly unchanged.

The big name on the staff is Matt Latos.  Latos was phenomenal in his first full year; striking out over 1 per inning and walking less than 2.5 per game.  In all, he pitched 184 innings with an ERA of 2.92 and FIP of 3.00.  He appears to have struggled down the stretch, here are his monthly ERA's:
APR 6.20
MAY 1.54
JUNE 2.37
JULY 1.04
AUG 1.69
SEPT 5.66
Danger!  But here are his monthly FIPs
APR 5.88
MAY 2.57
JUNE 2.98
JULY 3.16
AUG 2.02
SEPT 2.65
That looks a lot less worrisome.  There is reason to worry though.  Latos has a bum right shoulder and Tim Stauffer has been named the opening day starter.  Stauffer is young but is more of a back of the rotation starter than staff ace.  If Latos can't be the staff ace this year then Clayton Richard or Aaron Harang will be.  Richard was acquired in the Peavey deal and has gone 19 - 11 3.83 ERA in 266 innings while Peavey has gone 10 - 6 4.11 ERA in 127 innings for the White Sox.  Aaron Harang was an excellent starter for the Reds between 2005 and 2007.  Then, he started giving up bucketfulls of home runs.  Look for a bounce back from Harang.  The park factor for home runs in Cincinnati is about 125.  The park factor for home runs in San Diego is about 90.  PETCO won't help his declining strikeout rate though.  Lefty Wade LeBlanc will likely be the 5th starter.   Prospects Cory Lubke and Simon Castro could figure in to the rotation as well.

It is hard to overstate just how much the Padre's offense will miss Adrian Gonzalez.  Gonzalez produced 38 batting runs above average last year.  Chris Denorfia had the second most with...6.4.  The Padres produced -24 batting runs in total.

The Padres have brough in some new players.  Brad Hawpe and, possibly, Jorge Cantu will get first crack at replacing Gonzalez.  Hawpe was a good hitter for the Rockies prior to last year.  If that doesn't work out the large and strong Kyle Blanks will be recovered from surgery.  Anthony Rizzo, acquired in the Gonzalez deal is the long-term hope at first.  The well-traveled and underrated Orlando Hudson will replace David Eckstein at second.  Cameron Maybin will be the everyday centerfielder in place of Tony Gwynn jr.  Maybin still has a lot of unrealized potential both with the bat and glove.  The aforementioned Denorfia lurks if Maybin falters again.  Jason Bartlett will be the new shortstop.  He replaces Miguel Tejada who replaced Evereth Cabrera in 2010.

Newish to the team is RF Ryan Ludwick who came over from St Louis in a trade last season.  Ludwick had a slugging percentage of about .450 with the Cards.  He didn't find PETCO to his liking tough, slugging just .120 after the trade.  That almost has to improve.

That leaves only three real holdovers from last season. Third baseman Chase Headley is the Padres' best current home-grown player.  He's not a huge bat at third but he's got a good glove and will steal some bases.  Will Venable and Nick Hundley are also home-grown players who will be expected to play a lot for the Padres.  They likely won't do too much more than just play though.  Neither projects to be much more than an average player at their position.

Finally, the relievers.  The Padres are well known for their ability to 'cobble' together a plus bullpen out of what appears to be spare parts.  They traded away 2 key members of the bullpen (Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica) to acquire Maybin.  They are still left with closer Heath Bell, Luke Gregerson, Joe Thatcher and Mike Adams.  All of the above strike out more than a batter per inning and provide for a deep and talented pen.  Chad Qualls comes to San Diego as well.  If the Padres move Bell at the deadline they will still be well equipped in the pen.

Arizona Diamondbacks 76 - 86
Why is this team interesting?  This team has a lot of young talent.  First is OF Chris Young.  Young stepped his game up last year putting up a career high OBP (.341) while cutting his strikeout rate from over 30% to under 25%.  He's joined in the OF by Justin Upton.  Upton has a career .350 OBP plus power, speed and strong defense.  He's the real deal.

On the pitching side of things, starter Daniel Hudson looked  very good last year with a K/BB ratio of 3.11.  He gives up a lot of flyballs so the .76 hr/9 is likely to increase, but he's still primed for a quality season.  He's joined by Ian Kennedy who impressed in his first full season.  Kennedy showed an ok strikeout rate (7.79) and decent walk rate.

Brandon Allen and Juan Miranda will get playing time in the outfield and at first base.  Both are first base types who gave good, but not great, power.  Allen draws a lot of walks, but strikes out a bit while Miranda makes more contact.

The DBacks also have a couple of middle infielders who swing above average bats for the position.  Kelly Johnson had a 6 WAR season in Arizona after being released by the Braves.  Johnson put up a .377 wOBA last year a year after a .306 season in Atlanta.  Steven Drew doubled his career WAR with 5.1 last season.  No guarantee that these two guys will match those numbers in 2011 but they both came back from poor years, which bodes well for Arizona.

Russ Branyan will compete with Miranda and Allen for at bats at first.  Branyan draws walks, strikes out, hits home runs, and hurts his back.

Aside from Hudson and Kennedy the DBacks' rotation is iffy.  Joe Saunders came over in the trade for Dan Haren.  GM Kevin Towers lauded Saunders' ability to 'win' after the trade.  Saunders was 9 - 17 last year and 3 - 7 in Arizona.  He doesn't get strikeouts (5.14/9 career) and isn't great at limiting walks (2.88 BB/9).  Armando Galaraga also joins the rotation.  That imperfect game is all that most people know about Galaraga.  That should say something.  His K's (5.7) and walks (3.52) are a lot like Saunders'.  He also gives up more flyballs.  Both of them are basically 2 WAR pitchers.  Barry Enright has also made the rotation.  Enright hasn't shown much ability to strike batters out (4.49 last year) and also gives up a lot of flyballs.  I don't know if he's going to be long for the rotation.

The bullpen killed the DBacks last year.  Combined they had a 5.74 ERA, 5.09 FIP, and -2.1 WAR last year; last in all 3 categories buy quite a bit.  The Cubs' 4.72 ERA was 2nd worst.  The Red Sox' 4.62 FIP was 2nd worst.  And the Mariners' -.4 WAR was 2nd worst.  Arizona has added JJ Putz, which should help.  He replaces closer Chad Qualls and his 8.37 ERA but Putz is 34 and oft-injured.

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