Monday, January 16, 2012
NL West showdown: Position rankings
By David Schoenfield
Matt Kemp, Chris Young and Cameron Maybin are three guys who can run 'em down in CF.
By popular demand, we're back with more position rankings for 2012. Last week we tackled the NL East. This week, we'll give the NL West a shot. Remember, this is what I call back-of-the-napkin rankings. Quick and fun, but feel free to debate, argue and protest.
Until Posey shows he's healed from his devastating injury, Montero has to be considered the clear No. 1. And it's not like he's undeserving: He made his first All-Star appearance last season and has enough bat to hit cleanup on a division-winning team; he also threw out a league-leading 40 percent of base stealers and probably should have won the Gold Glove. Hundley put up an impressive .288/.347/.477 line in San Diego that gave him a higher OPS+ than Montero, but he did that in a part-time role.
You can slice and dice these five guys anyway you want. I like Goldschmidt's power potential, and he showed improvement in plate discipline in the minors (drawing 82 walks in 103 games in Double-A in 2011). He held his own in the majors, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him hit 30 home runs. I'll rate Alonso over Helton primarily because of Helton's health concerns. Loney at least plays every day (he's missed just 10 games in the past four seasons), but I'm not sure that's a good thing for the Dodgers. Huff has now been terrible two years out of three. I wonder whether we'll end up seeing a lot of Brandon Belt here.
Sandoval became one of the best players in the league in 2011, as he hit for average and power and played surprisingly well at third. His conditioning always will be a concern, of course, but if he can put up the numbers he did last season over 155 games instead of 117, he could be a sleeper MVP candidate. Headley hit just four home runs in 381 at-bats in 2011, but his on-base ability (.374) still made him a more productive hitter than Roberts, who hit 19 home runs but with a .341 OBP. If those two changed parks, you'd see a big difference in each player's stat line. The Dodgers have Uribe, Hairston and Adam Kennedy fighting for playing time at third base, which isn't exactly like Ron Cey pushing Steve Garvey over to first base. Blake is a placeholder until prospect stud Nolan Arenado is ready, which could be as soon as midseason.
Umm, let's just say we're starting to see why Clayton Kershaw won the NL Cy Young Award. Not a lot of offense in this division. I do love the excitement Gordon brings to the field, but he's going to have to learn to draw a few walks to make him a valuable offensive player. Man cannot leave on speed alone. The Giants appear willing to give Crawford a chance, but he can't hit, so will have to be a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop to hold on to the job.
It's possible that Gonzalez will end up in right with Michael Cuddyer in left because Gonzalez has the stronger arm, but we'll line it up this way for now. I actually like the Quentin acquisition for the Padres, as they were obviously desperate for somebody who could launch a few over the wall. We'll see how Quentin's power numbers translate from The Cell (one of the best home run parks in the majors) to Petco (the worst home run park in the majors). The Kubel signing was a strange one by Arizona, as he's a defensive liability and Parra was coming off an impressive season. Cabrera had a career year for the Royals (.305/.339/.470, 18 home runs, 44 doubles), but I'm having trouble getting over the five previous seasons of mediocrity.
Kemp should have been the NL MVP after his monster season, leading the NL in home runs, RBIs and runs scored while hitting .324 and stealing 40 bases. According to Baseball-Reference WAR, it was the best season by a major league outfielder not named Bonds since Sammy Sosa in 2001, and the best by an outfielder not named Bonds or Sosa since Rickey Henderson scored a similar 10.0 WAR in 1990. Young and Maybin are both gifted center fielders with some holes in their swings, but Young drew 80 walks to Maybin's 44 and had a 61-41 edge in extra-base hits. We keep waiting for Fowler to have a breakthrough season, but he'll now be 26 with three seasons under his belt. He's not a bad player, but I think we can cross star potential off his résumé.
Wait ... Ethier won a Gold Glove? How did that happen? Ethier had the 30-game hitting streak early last season but then tried to play through a knee injury before finally shutting down in early September. His power numbers took a big hit from previous years, but he should bounce back. Just don't take that Gold Glove seriously; he's not a great right fielder and probably not even a good one. But neither is Cuddyer or Belt. I still believe in Belt and wouldn't be surprised to see him produce a .270/.370/.470 line. If he moves to first base, Nate Schierholtz is a capable right fielder coming off his best season. Venable is a platoon player who can actually hit a little, not that anybody puts up big numbers in Petco.
I love Chacin, but this is a tough field. Some folks are a down a bit on Lincecum, whose strikeout rate has dropped from 10.5 in 2008 to a career-low 9.1 in 2011. Meanwhile, his walk rate spiked up to its highest rate since his rookie season. Still, that K rate was fifth-best in the NL, and he finished fifth in the NL in ERA. Lincecum's average fastball velocity actually increased from 2010 (when he suddenly lost it for a month in August), so I'm not too worried. He's such a unique pitcher that any sort of traditional analysis might not apply to him. Kennedy finished fourth in the Cy Young vote after going 21-4, 2.88, and there was nothing fluky about his season. He pounds the strike zone with a fastball that isn't overpowering. He isn't afraid to throw it up in the strike zone, and with Young, Parra and Upton behind him in the outfield, he thrived. Chacin needs to cut his walk rate (he led the NL with 87 walks) to leap to star status.
Don't skip over Luebke too quickly: He had an unheralded season pitching out of the bullpen, then made 17 starts. He struck out 154 in 139.2 innings, and his K rate was the same while starting as it was in relief. He also posted a 2.55 ERA on the road, so I don't see any Petco illusions going on here. Billingsley had a disappointing season, as his ERA shot up to 4.21 and his WHIP to 1.45. He still struggles against lefties (.382 OBP allowed) and even if he bounces back, I like the other three better. The Rockies are counting on Jorge De La Rosa to return from Tommy John surgery in late May or June, but for now, Hammel slots in as the No. 2.
Bumgarner could be a sleeper Cy Young candidate this season if he takes another step forward. He had an outstanding 4.15 strikeout/walk ratio, 10th-best among major league starters, and he got better as the season went along, posting a 2.52 ERA in the second half. Oh, and he's just 22.
White, one of the arms acquired in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal, is a power righty, but I'm skeptical after his dismal late-season showing in 2011 (12 home runs in 36.1 innings with Colorado). I'm more optimistic about Pomeranz, the lefty acquired in that trade. Vogelsong and Collmenter were two of the biggest surprises of the 2011 season; we'll see whether they can repeat. I'll be cautious and rank Capuano No. 1. He had a 4.55 ERA with the Mets but excellent peripheral numbers. Volquez was good back in 2008. That's starting to seem like a long time ago.
Bauer, the third overall pick in the 2011 draft, has the most potential of anyone on this list. He has the polish to break camp with the D-backs and provide solid numbers at the back of the rotation. Nicasio is trying to return after the scary injury last season when he was struck in the neck by a line drive and broke his C1 vertebra, which required doctors putting in a metal plate to stabilize the neck. His career was obviously in jeopardy, but he was recently cleared to throw to hitters. Let's root for his return.
These guys are all pretty good, so no insult intended. The interesting situation is if the Dodgers hand over the closer job to the dominating Kenley Jansen. His K rate of 16.1 whiffs per nine innings was the highest in major league history for a pitcher with at least 50 innings. He held batters to a .159 average. If he replaces Guerra, I think he has to move to No. 1 on this list.
To be honest, there isn't a big difference between these 'pens. The Giants would appear to have the most depth, although they do lose Ramon Ramirez after his trade to the Mets. That merely moves up the awesome Sergio Romo into the primary setup role. This is a guy who had 70 strikeouts and just five walks, yet was used as a ROOGY with just 48 innings in 65 games. The Dodgers have a nice 1-2 with Jansen and Guerrier, but might lack depth. The Padres have some young power arms in Cashner, Frieri, Bass and Brad Brach that give them intriguing depth and potential.
Kirk Gibson got the most of his club in 2011, and there's no reason not to expect the same attitude and effort in 2012. The D-backs have depth in guys like Parra and Willie Bloomquist, plus a young arm in Bauer who could be a huge lift. The Giants will get Posey back, and while their offense doesn't appear great, guys like Cabrera, Pagan and an improved Belt could provide big upgrades over 2011. I get the feeling those Arizona-San Francisco games will be a little more heated this year. The Padres will have no expectations, which I think can be a good thing, and I like the moves they've made. The Rockies could have a mess of a rotation; you never how those young arms will develop. The Dodgers? Kemp, Kershaw and a lot of overpaid veterans doesn't seem like the best of mixes.
The final tally (Five points for first, four for second, etc.)
I thought the rankings would end up more closely grouped together, especially since the NL West has been the toughest division to predict in recent years. Just a year ago, for example, a lot of analysts were high on the Rockies. A year later, they have Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and a whole bunch of question marks. Arizona rates as the favorite largely based on the belief that it has no outstanding weaknesses, but by no means would I suggest they are the heavy favorite over the Giants. And there's part of me that wouldn't be surprised to see the Padres make a big improvement from 2011. One thing is certain: It's going to be another wild West race.