The NL West might not be the best division in baseball, but it could have the most interesting assortment of teams. The Padres' pitching makes them the class of the division; Ned Colletti continues accumulating "name" veterans; there is a buzz in Arizona, where a young, potential-laden lineup has been paired with a solid veteran rotation; the Giants will be looking to set some kind of record for the oldest team to reach the postseason; and the Rockies will be hoping that they've finally found a winning formula that works equally well at home and on the road.
San Diego Padres
Projection: 1st, 88-74, division title 64 percent, wild card 7.2 percent
San Diego allowed just 679 runs in 2006, by far the fewest in the league (Houston's 719 was next best). We project that number to increase to 729 in 2007 (one more than the league best Cardinals). However, we see their runs scored increasing by an even greater margin, from 731 to 806. Rookie 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff (projected OPS .875) gets a lot of the credit for that, as does Russell Branyan, who we installed in LF in the team's manager profile, and who justified that decision by belting 30 homers. (The Padres may end up with a platoon of Branyan and Terrmel Sledge, which could be pretty potent too.)
It's the Padres' pitching that really shines. While we've projected the Padres to slip a bit in runs allowed in 2007, our methodology is inherently conservative, and they could easily do even better in 2007 than they did last year. Jake Peavy, Chris Young and Clay Hensley are back in the rotation, and Chan Ho Park and Woody Williams have been replaced by Greg Maddux and David Wells. Trevor Hoffman is still there, of course, as is Scott Linebrink, constant trade rumors notwithstanding.
No one doubts Peavy's ability, and he wasn't at his best for a good part of 2006. Young and Hensley should only get better with another year's experience. As for Maddux and Wells, what a fascinating addition. I can't wait to watch these guys in action this season.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Projection: 2nd, 81-81, division title 15 percent, wild card 11 percent
Imagine, if you will, Colin Clive (the actor who played Dr. Baron Frankenstein in the horror classic) in the role of GM Ned Colletti. He places his roster on a platform that he raises to the heavens, where lightning strikes it, again and again. He lowers it back down, and sees it move, ever so slightly (not much range, but sure hands), and cries, "It's alive! It's alive!"
OK, I know I'm reaching here. Then again, there's a bit of Karloff about Jason Schmidt, Luis Gonzalez, and Paul DePodesta holdover Brad Penny (though definitely not Juan Pierre). The funny thing is, I actually like this team, even though it has something of a parts-stitched-together quality about it, and even though our projection sees it regressing from last year's 88 wins to 81, with a drop of 52 in runs scored (from 820 to 769) as well as an increase of 34 in runs allowed (from 751 to 785).
The biggest hit to the offense was replacing the departed J.D. Drew with Luis Gonzalez. Pierre also projects to be a downgrade from what Lofton provided in 2006, and Garciaparra and Kent are at the stage in their careers where some decline can be expected.
On the pitching side, there is at least a reasonable prospect of players outperforming their projections in a way that could recapture those lost wins from 2006, with Jason Schmidt and Brad Penny (really more of a Jekyll and Hyde than a Frankenstein's monster, now that I think about it) having disappointed in our simulated seasons (though Gonzalez in LF and Pierre in CF won't be making it any easier for them).
Projection: 3rd, 79-83, division title 11 percent, wild card 4.2 percent
Gone are Johnny Estrada, Craig Counsell, Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green, half the Opening Day lineup from 2006. Taking their place are Miguel Montero, Stephen Drew, Chris Young and Carlos Quentin. With holdovers Conor Jackson, Chad Tracy, Orlando Hudson and Eric Byrnes, the Diamondbacks' lineup has been transformed from old, slow and boring, to young, fast and exciting seemingly overnight.
All that youth and electricity in the lineup is nicely complemented by a potentially dominant veteran rotation, led by 2006 NL Cy Young winner Brandon Webb. Behind Webb are Livan Hernandez, Doug Davis and, of course, the Big Unit, Randy Johnson.
Jose Valverde is a question mark closing, as are the rest of his supporting cast in the bullpen; Johnson, Hernandez and Davis all have to prove they've still got what it takes; and the lineup, while exciting, is largely young and unproven. If there's a consensus about this team, perhaps it's that they're a year away, but if a belief takes hold that this team is good enough to win in 2008, that could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy that propels them to success right now. They definitely will be exciting to watch if they get a sniff of contending.
San Francisco Giants
Projection: 4th, 78-84, division title 6 percent, wild card 4.4 percent
It's easy to get too caught up in the age thing. It's hardly a given that this lineup would be good enough to win the division, even if all the guys were in their primes. On the other hand, perhaps their age translates into the intangible asset, experience.
In the baseball classic of oral history, "The Glory of Their Times," Chief Meyers talks about the 1916 pennant-winning Brooklyn Robins, "a team of veterans. Nap Rucker, Jake Daubert, Colby Jack Coombs, Rube [Marquard], Zack Wheat, Hi Myers -- we'd all been around a long time. ... We won the pennant that year by just outsmarting the whole National League, that's all. It was an old crippled-up club, and you might say, figuratively, they had to wrap us up in bandages and carry us out to play the World Series. We were all through."
So, perhaps there is hope for the Giants in 2007, after all. (Incidentally, in 1916 Rucker was 31, Daubert 32, Coombs 33, Marquard 29, Wheat 28 and Myers 27. The Chief himself was the senior member of the team at age 35.)
Projection: 5th, 77-85, division title 4.5 percent, wild card 4.8 percent
The Rockies have the distinction, of sorts, of having the highest percentage of division titles and wild cards of any of the six teams we have projected to finish last in their division.
They've been patient, sticking with manager Clint Hurdle through five losing seasons, and building from within with players like 3B Garrett Atkins, outfielders Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe, and top prospects SS Troy Tulowitzki and C Chris Iannetta. Stung by trade talks, Todd Helton is desperate to rediscover his offensive prowess. And whether it's the pitchers, the baseballs, or some combination of the two, they've shown signs of finally mastering that strangest of all baseball venues, Coors Field, reducing their runs allowed from 923 in 2004, to 862 in 2005, to 812 in 2006 (their lowest total since 1995, their first season in Coors, in which they won the NL wild card).
They expect, and are expected by the powers that be, to start winning in 2007. Our projections, however, put them right back where they were in 2006, at the bottom of the division with 77 wins.