Season Preview: the Rockies and the National League West

Arizona Diamondbacks v Colorado Rockies

For the past couple of years, FanGraphs has published a “Positional Power Rankings” series prior to the start of the season. The series provides a really interesting glimpse into a team’s strengths and weaknesses at each position relative to the rest of the league. While the rankings are based on FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR) forecasts (derived from hybrid ZiPS and Steamer projections), they are also much more than adding up WAR. The reason is because the rankings take into account positional depth. So the ranking is not of a team’s expected starters, but a team’s status at a particular position. As Dave Cameron notes, the idea behind the series is to offer a season preview different than your standard division-by-division or team-by-team previews. But can’t we have the best of both worlds?

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In what follows, I take a look at the Rockies rankings relative to the rest of the National League West for the upcoming season. I think it will provide insight into the state of the 2014 season, as the Rockies play 76 games against the Dodgers, Padres, Giants, and Diamondbacks. Additionally, you’ll find yourself watching quite a bit of games against these teams, and it’s always more fun to know more about the competition. To make the comparison, I broke each position down into four tiers that differ position to position and tease out how the position for one team compares to the others. For example, only one WAR separates the tenth ranked catcher from the 26th. I cut-off one tier and began another once there was a separation of one WAR from the last team in the tier above. It’s not perfect, but I think it serves a purpose. In some cases, I had to either combine tiers or add another so that they call came out to four. For example, third base had six tiers, but the first and last ranked teams were alone due to excellence on the one hand and awfulness on the other. Combining to make four tiers made sense.

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FanGraphs Catcher Ranking:

SF: Rank: 1, tier 1

LA: Rank: 10, tier 3

SD: Rank: 11, tier 3

AZ: Rank: 14, tier, 3

CO: Rank: 21, tier 3

The Giants are not only stronger at catcher than the rest of the NL West, but the rest of baseball. Catcher relies on depth more than any other position, as starters generally begin about 70 of games. Still, this ranking is because Buster Posey is incredible. Posey is not only projected to put up a weighted On Base Average (wOBA—which weighs hits according to their run producing value, so a home run is more valuable than a triple, a triple more than a double, etc.; scaled to look like On Base Percentage) of .364, but he is also forecasted to play plus defense. Posey alone is projected to produce 5.1 WAR, while his backup, Hector Sanchez, is forecasted to be what he needs to be: competent.

While 11 spots in the rankings separate the rest of the NL West catching cores, they each find themselves in the same tier. Indeed, only a half win separates the Dodgers (ranked 10) and the Rockies (21). While little separates these four teams in terms of value, there is a distinction in how that value will likely be produced. A.J. Ellis is the Dodgers number one catcher, as he is projected to play as much at the position as Posey is for the Giants. Ellis’s profile makes him solidly average, which is not at all a bad thing at catcher. He’s projected to be a slightly below average hitter and an above average defender. His backup, Tim Federowicz, is suitable. The Padres strength at catcher is that they carry two players capable of assuming full time duties in Yasmani Grandal and Nick Hundley. They are better equipped to withstand injury at catcher. Hundley is the best back-up catcher in the NL West, and he is unsurprisingly slotted for the most playing time out of all the number twos.

The Diamondbacks are in the most precarious position at catcher. The projections expect a big bounce-back for starter Miguel Montero, who had an awful 2013 at the plate, producing runs 20 percent below league average. Montero does still bring above average defense with him, which boosts his overall value. Notably, he is slated for the most PAs of all of the NL West starting catchers, at 544. The Diamondbacks really need Montero to stay in the lineup and produce, as his backup is the 42 year old Henry Blanco, whose ceiling at this point is replacement level. And that brings us to the Rockies. Discounting Posey, Wilin Rosario is the best hitting starting catcher in the NL West, but he is also the worst defender. Not only that, but the Rockies lack depth at the position this year, as neither Michael McKenry nor Jordan Pacheco (both of whom will likely catch for the Rockies at some point this year) bring plus hitting or defense.

Summary: It’s the Giants and the rest, as San Francisco brings plus hitting, plus defense, and enough depth; the Dodgers should be solidly average in all aspects; the Padres have the best depth but don’t shine in other areas; the Diamondbacks have little depth and need to rely on a bounce-back from the incumbent starter; and the Rockies offer plus offense at the front end, but lack quality depth and plus defense all-around.

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FanGraphs First Base Ranking:

AZ: Rank: 3, tier 1

LA: Rank: 4, tier 2

SF: Rank: 9, tier 2

SD: Rank: 20, tier 4

CO: Rank: 24: tier 4

The Rockies find themselves at the bottom of the division in this ranking as well, although in this case there is more separation between teams. That doesn’t bode well for the Rockies in 2014 relative to their primary competition. Arizona is in the top tier because Paul Goldschmidt. Even better, Goldschmidt’s backup is Mark Trumbo. First base isn’t a taxing defensive position, so depth in most (but not all) cases is a measurement of how the team might overcome an injury. Trumbo is an ideal back-up in this case, not only because of his big bat, but also because Trumbo will be much less of a defensive liability at first base than he will be in the outfield.

Both the Dodgers and the Giants will field second-tier first baseman, but given the excellence of the first tier, it’s not a bad place to be. While Adrian Gonzalez’s power isn’t what it used to be, he’s still been good for a wOBA of .346, .346, and .407 in the last three years. That, in addition to his plus defense, places him and the Dodgers a step behind Goldschmidt and the Diamondbacks. As far as depth goes, the FanGraphs depth charts place Scott Van Slyke as the back-up first basemen—that is, an unexciting replacement for a day off, but not someone the Dodgers want to see starting six days a week. The Giants, like the Diamondbacks but unlike the Dodgers, will field a young starting first baseman who hasn’t peaked yet. While Brandon Belt does not flash the home run power teams like to see from their first baseman (he hit 17 last year), Belt is an excellent hitter. He slugged .481 in 2013, had an shiny OPS of .841, and he created runs 39 percent better than league average. The Giants are perhaps in the best position in the division regarding depth. Buster Posey’s bat is too valuable to keep out of the lineup, so he’ll likely take reps at first base for Belt’s scheduled days off, and possibly when the Giants face a tough lefty. Behind Posey is outfielder Michael Morse who, like Trumbo, allows the Giants to keep a bat with pop in the line-up while also improving outfield defense by subtraction. Enviable situations both.

Relative to the rest of the division, the Padres and Rockies are not in very good shape at first base. The Padres have question marks at the top and bottom of their first base depth chart. Yonder Alonso has simply not realized the promise he displayed in 2011, when he had an OPS of .943 and an awe inducing .411 wOBA for the Cincinnati Reds in over the course of 98 PAs. Yes, that is a small sample size, but it was not an egregious over-performance of his minor league numbers. Since then, he has floundered at the major league level, topping off with a .741 OPS and .323 wOBA in 2012. The Steamer/ZiPS projections think that 2011 was the anomaly, not 2012. Backing Alonso up is large human being but not very good baseballer Kyle Blanks—a sufficient back-up to a merely sufficient starter. That leaves the Rockies, who really have just as many question marks at the position as the Padres do. Aside from rationale and long-term ramifications of signing first baseman Justin Morneau (which Richard Bergstrom considered in these digital pages), the primary question about Morneau for 2014 is whether or not he is still good.  Morneau, 33, tops the depth chart, and behind him is 35 year old Michael Cuddyer. Morneau hasn’t been productive offensively since 2010, and really the most positive thing to say is that his ability to spray the ball to all parts of the field should play up at Coors Field. But I don’t see a marginal offensive boost at home (only against right-handers) as a reason for optimism. Morneau’s liability against lefties should give Cuddyer a bit of playing time at first base, and he does provide solid relief—in fact, Cuddyer is the only back-up first baseman in the division who might be a better option than the starter. And behind those two? I’ll let Eno Sarris, who wrote up the FanGraphs rankings, have the final word here: the Rockies could “find themselves turning to Ryan Wheeler’s poor plate discipline, Jordan Pacheco’s light stick, and probably a bottle of antacid.”

Summary: Degrees of excellence separate the top three teams in the division, while the bottom two are unified by different forms of uncertainty.

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FanGraphs Second Base Ranking:

SD: Rank: 7, tier 2

AZ: Rank: 9, tier 2

SF: Rank: 18, tier 3

CO: Rank: 21, tier 3

LA: Rank: 26, tier 4

The Padres and Diamondbacks lead divisional keystoners as second tier second-baseman. Jedd Gyorko hit 23 home runs in 2013, with an unimpressive-outside-of-Petco OPS of .743 and a .325 wOBA. Expect Gyorko to play a lot, and expect him to provide quite a bit of value for the Padres in 2014. Backing up Gyorko is the serviceable utility man Alexi Amarista. He won’t play a whole lot, but when it does, he will be unspectacular. At the other end of the aging curve is the Diamondbacks, who expect 32 year old Aaron Hill to be their everyday second baseman. Hill has had an unpredictable career that is quintessentially non-linear. As a result, the projections settle on saying that Hill is not quite as good as his 2007, 2009, and 2012 seasons, but that he’s better than his sometimes injury riddled and not very good 2008, 2010, and 2011 campaigns. Former everyday shortstop for the Oakland A’s Cliff Pennington will assume backup duties. While he won’t hit for much, his glove makes him an acceptable option.

The Giants and the Rockies inhabit the third tier in the rankings. The everyday second baseman for the Giants and Rockies are both projected to accrue fewer than 500 plate appearances; for comparison, Jedd Gyorko and Aaron Hill are both forecasted to have over 600. Depth is more important near the bottom of the rankings because the starters won’t produce as much value. Our old friend Marco Scutaro is slated to play most of the time at second base for the Giants. But Scutaro is expected to begin the 2014 season on the disabled list with back pain. If that sounds like the bodily complaint of an old person, remember that Scutaro is 38—that’s geriatric in baseball years. In his stead, expect to see either Joaquin Arias or Ehire Adrianza keep second base at a solid replacement level en route to Scutaro’s return. The Rockies value is expected appear in a different manner. DJ LaMahieu will start the season as the everyday second baseman, but I would expect Charlie Culberson and the recently optioned Josh Rutledge to get quite a bit of playing time—possibly more than LaMahieu. LaMahieu’s value is in his glove, but in the end he might not provide enough plus defense to justify sending him to the plate 450 times this year. Interestingly, LaMahieu, Culberson, and Rutledge would probably be the best backup second baseman on any team in the NL West, yet if any of the three were on another NL West team ahead of them in these rankings, they wouldn’t be considered starters.

The Dodgers might be the best team in all of baseball—Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projection system forecasts them for an astounding 99 wins. Yet, at second base, they are not only the weakest in the NL West, but one of the weakest in all of baseball. Although in a lower tier, the Dodgers are not that much worse off than the Giants and the Rockies in terms of expected positional WAR. However, the bulk of their expected value comes from Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero. Given that what we know about him as a baseball player comes from tape from his time in Cuba and Spring Training games, he is a big question mark. The Dodgers have to really hope that he turns into a quality starter, as the contingent behind him—Dee Gordon and, believe it or not, Chone Figgins—is less than serviceable.

Summary: the divisional strength at the position resides in San Diego and Arizona; divisional age occupies San Francisco; the average-average duo populates Colorado; and a very large question mark and one too many Chone Figginses call Los Angeles home.

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FanGraphs Third Base Ranking:

SF: Rank: 5, tier 2

SD: Rank: 9, tier 2

CO: Rank: 10, tier 2

AZ: Rank: 12, tier 2

LA: Rank: 17, tier 3

At third base, four of the five NL West squads are bunched together in terms of projected value, with less than one WAR separating the fifth ranked Giants from the twelfth ranked Diamondbacks. There are some similarities and differences among this group of four. First, the four starters—Pablo Sandoval, Chase Headley, Nolan Arenado, and Martin Prado—are all expected to produce more than three WAR. Which translates to good seasons all around. Another similarity is that there is a lack of quality depth behind each. The aforementioned utility men Joaquin Arias and Alexi Amarista are slated behind Sandoval and Headley, respectively. In Colorado and Arizona, truer third baseman—Ryan Wheeler and Eric Chavez—compose the stable of emergency third baseman. The salient point is that each of these teams is really counting on full quality seasons from their starters.

That brings us to the differences among these four players. While Headley and Prado are not old, at 30 and 31, their best seasons are likely behind them. They are very unlikely to reproduce their 2012 seasons, when Headley was worth over seven wins and Prado over five. Headley is the better hitter and fielder of the two, though he is coming off of a lingering finger injury that didn’t seriously impede playing time in 2013, but it did hurt his performance. Sandoval has also had trouble staying on the field, although he is the best hitting third baseman in the division. Arenado is the youngest of the group, and he is the best defender by quite a bit. He’s also projected to improve offensively, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he exceeds his projected .330 wOBA. The Rockies could top this list next year on the strength of Arenado’s offensive and defensive production.

The Dodgers two primary weaknesses are second base and third base. The Dodgers are projected to be the weakest NL West team in 2014, despite being the best in 2013. The reason is that no projection system—computerized or human—expects Juan Uribe to have the season he did last year, when he produced runs 16 percent above league average and was nearly as good as Nolan Arenado at defense. He did it all at age 34, too. Uribe is likely to come back down to earth in his age 35 season, especially on offense. Additionally, the lurking specter of Chone Figgins stands behind Uribe, representing the team’s lack of positional depth.

Summary: The Giants, Padres, Rockies, and Diamondbacks are clustered at the top of the rankings. Not a lot separates them at the moment, but an offensive break-out from Arenado, coupled with age and injury from his counterparts, might result in the team leading the division in value in 2014. The Dodgers are a tier below at a position where they still have to worry about fielding a Figgins.

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FanGraphs Shortstop Ranking:

CO: Rank: 1, tier 1

LA: Rank: 3, tier 1

SD: Rank: 15, tier 3

SF: Rank: 16, tier 3

AZ: Rank: 23, tier 3

I settled on breaking down the rankings into four tiers. As I noted in the introduction, I had to combine some tiers in my initial classification, or else there would be a few tiers with a single team. I am pleased to write that this was one such tier; but I am displeased to admit that that combining two tiers forced me to the Dodgers alongside the Rockies atop the rankings. Such is the life of the ranker of rankings. On the strength of Troy Tulowitzki, the Rockies are expected to produce over a win more than second place, and nearly two wins more than Dodger shortstops in third place, who rank highly based on their similarly fantastic but injury prone starter, Hanley Ramirez. Don’t be surprised if Ramirez out-performs his projected output of nearly four WAR (derived mostly from offense). However, you also shouldn’t be surprised if Tulowitzki outdoes his expected WAR of five and a half wins. In fact, I anticipate it, and it’s one of the reasons he’s my pick for National League Most Valuable Player. As far as depth goes for these top two teams, Tulowitzki has whoever isn’t the starting second baseman behind him, and possibly the actual starting second baseman. For once, the Dodgers can avoid the Figgins fallacy in terms of depth, as recent Cuban defector Erisbel Arruebarrena can fill in. As opposed to Alexander Guerrero, who has to show that he can hit major league pitching before getting the call to The Show, Arruebarrena can live off of what is supposed to be a superlative glove.

While the Padres, Giants, and Diamondbacks are gathered in the third tier of shortstops, their situations are entirely different. The Padres and Giants have hopeful stalwarts that are good at one thing at the position and utility infielders as depth. The situation for the Giants is preferabler. Brandon Crawford’s distinction is his defense, which is obviously important at shortstop (for evidence of his excellence, click here). I would choose Crawford over Everth Cabrera, who separates himself from other shortstops by his speed, which is more valuable in fantasy baseball than it is in reality baseball. The Diamondbacks currently carry two shortstops who could be legitimate starters, but who don’t provide enough value to elevate the team beyond the third tier in 2014. It’s unclear whether Didi Gregorious or Chris Owings will get more starts at shortstop; it’s also unclear whether or not one of them will be traded. What is clear, as Russell Carelton observes (subscription required), is that these two players can be distinguished as follows: Gregorious is a little better with the glove and not terrible with the bat, while Owings is a little better with the bat and not terrible with the glove.

Summary: Tulowitzki and Ramirez are not only the premier shortstops in terms of total value (Andrelton Simmons mocks their defense), but two of the premier players in all of baseball. The Diamondbacks have two shortstops who are not really bad at anything but not great at anything, while the Padres and Giants field shortstops who are each outstanding in one area of the game.

Stay tuned for part two tomorrow, when I’ll address the outfield and each teams pitching corps.

As always, quibbles belong in the comments–don’t let them fester.

 

About Eric Garcia McKinley

I grew up in Colorado and have been a Rockies fan from the very beginning. I've previously written about the Rockies for Rox Pile. You can follow me on Twitter @garcia_mckinley.
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