Opening Day is upon us, as the Colorado Rockies face the Miami Marlins this evening. Before we collectively lose ourselves in a baseball vortex for the next six months, there’s time for one last preview to the season. Yesterday, I wrote about how the Colorado Rockies shape up against the rest of the National League West position-by-position, catcher through shortstop. I used FanGraphs Positional Power Rankings as a starting point, but then broke the rankings into four tiers to help us isolate where the strengths and weaknesses of each team lie relative to the rest of the division. Again, the rankings are based on projected Wins Above Replacement, according to a blend of ZiPS and Steamer forecasts. Let’s now take a look at the outfield spots, as well as the pitching staffs.
CO: Rank: 4, tier 1
LA: Rank: 10, tier 2
SD: Rank: 11, tier 2
AZ: Rank: 14, tier 3
SF: Rank: 28, tier 4
The top three teams for left field in the division share something: a history and fear of injury for the hopeful every day left fielder. Carlos Gonzalez of the Colorado Rockies, Carl Crawford of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Carlos Quentin of the San Diego Padres have all lost quite a bit of playing time due to injury. In 2010, both Gonzalez and Crawford topped 600 plate appearances, but since then not a single one has broken that threshold. The talent that each player brings is reason enough for the teams to be among the game’s best at the position, but the exceptional upside that Gonzalez offers separates him from the other two. In 2013, Gonzalez’s strikeout rate was the highest of his career (27 percent), but the trade-off was more power. His line drive rate remained consistent with career norms, but he enjoyed a career high fly ball rate and home run to fly ball ratio that looks to be sustainable. Add in speed and quality defense, he saved ten runs last year, according to Defensive Runs Saved, and Gonzalez is should be a top tier left fielder again in 2014. But, say it with me, will he stay healthy? That brings us to depth at the position. Heading into Spring Training, we were unsure who was going to back up Gonzalez in center left field—Drew Stubbs, Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, or Brandon Barnes? The answer turns out to be “all of them,” as they are all on the 25 man roster as of today. I’ll say more about this group in a minute, as they also compose the center field depth chart from top to bottom.
While Crawford and Quentin have experienced similarly frustrating injury histories, they don’t bring near the same overall value that Gonzalez does. In Los Angeles, Crawford hasn’t been an above average player since 2010, when he was MVP caliber. However, if he stays healthy he can provide something that every team could use somewhere: consistency and solid production. Dodger fans will be satisfied if he can match his projection of a two win season, which should come in pedestrian offense, marginally good speed, and above average defense. Behind Crawford on the depth chart is Andre Ethier—a player many teams would gladly start every day if they were willing to pay for him, and who might end up starting quite a bit if injuries continue to pile on the Dodger outfield. Padre fans might scoff at Rockies fans wishing Gonzalez could stay on the field, as Quentin hasn’t played in more than 86 games in a season since arriving in San Diego in 2012. When he plays, he’s excellent, as his weighted On Base Average (wOBA) the past two years were .378 and .372. Remember, wOBA is scaled to look like On Base Percentage, so those are All-Star seasons—the problem is that they were half-seasons. Chris Denorfia and Seth Smith compose the depth behind Quentin and they would make a pretty good platoon split. Denorfia’s a career .308 hitter against left-handers, and Rockies fans don’t need to be reminded that Seth Smith can only hit right handers. It’s a solid contingent plan, as long as one of the two aren’t covering another outfield injury (spoiler: they are). As it is, Quentin will be starting the season on the disabled list.
The Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Francisco Giants are at the bottom in the division. Mark Trumbo and Michael Morse, the respective starters, also share a few things. They both have power, they both strike out a lot, and neither should be allowed to play the outfield, but both will. As noted yesterday, both Arizona and San Francisco already have excellent first basemen, which will force Trumbo and Morse to left field. The situations are similar in another way. The primary backup in Arizona, Gerardo Parra, plays excellent defense, and is even pretty good at the plate. In San Francisco, Gregor Blanco will be the primary depth behind Morse. Blanco is glove first, but a guy with a career OPS under .700 must be.
Summary: high upside but injury histories characterize the Rockies, Dodgers, and Padres, but Carlos Gonzalez is the only superstar. Power and putrid defense at the front, but quality defense in terms of depth, characterize the Diamondbacks and the Giants; but the Diamondbacks power guy has more power, and their quality of defensive depth is higher.
LA: Rank: 8, tier 3
AZ: Rank: 13, tier 3
SD: Rank: 16, tier 3
SF: Rank: 19, tier 3
CO: Rank: 26, tier 4
Although four of the five teams find themselves in the third tier, the reason is because Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen broke the curve I so intrepidly imposed (there would be a vacant tier in between Trout and McCutchen, too). The seasonal outlook for these four teams—the Diamondbacks, the Dodgers, the Padres, and the Giants—is a mixed bag. For the Dodgers, injuries are again the theme. Matt Kemp will begin the season on the disabled list. Kemp will continue to be a question mark even upon his return. He actually played below replacement level last season before it was totally lost due to chronic hamstring and ankle injuries. Expect Ethier to man center field before Kemp’s return. In case of a serious emergency, we might see prospect Joc Pederson bring his combination of speed and power to Los Angeles. While the Dodgers might have the highest offensive potential of NL West teams, the Diamondbacks will trot out the best defensive center field corps. Gerardo Parra, Mark Trumbo’s back up, will likely split time with second year player A.J. Pollock, who brought average offense and superior defense last year. Neither Parra nor Pollock offer much with the bat, but they more than make up for it with defense at a critical position.
The Padres expected to start Cameron Maybin in center field, but a bicep injury will keep him out for at least two months. This will stretch the depth of the Padres outfield, but they have a very good replacement in Will Venable. Venable is a below average defender, particularly in center field, but he is a good hitter. Last year, Venable produced runs 22 percent better than league average, and finished up with a quality .342 wOBA. Before Maybin returns, Chris Denorfia and super-utility player Alexi Amarista will provide the depth. The Giants hope to see Angel Pagan play most of the time in center field. According to Defensive Runs Saved, he’s a below average defender, costing his team nine, six, and eight runs in the past three seasons; however, he’s a better hitter than the player behind him on the depth chart, Gregor Blanco. Like the Giants left field situation, Blanco adds defensive value, but not enough to mitigate his lack of offensive contribution. Blanco actually played more center field last year than Pagan did, due to the latter’s hamstring injury. Another injury and too much playing time for Blanco would hurt the Giants chances in 2014, as it did in 2013.
It makes sense that the Rockies are hanging around in the lowest center field tier. Even at the doorstep of Opening Day, there are questions. Corey Dickerson, Charlie Blackmon, Brandon Barnes, and Drew Stubbs have all made the team. But it’s unclear who will get the most playing time. On the one hand, the depth chart at FanGraphs lists Stubbs at the top, but they only project him for 280 PAs, with Barnes not far behind at 210, followed by Dickerson and Blackmon. On the other hand, Baseball Prospectus projects Dickerson to get 55 percent of the playing time in center field, good for about 400 PAs, followed by Stubbs and Barnes. We’ll find out the extremely short term once the lineup card is released for tonight’s game, but the season remains a question. Barnes and Stubbs are the best defenders, while Dickerson has the best bat. It remains to be seen whether or not he can play center not bad enough for it to hurt his overall value. I think Dickerson will get the most playing time because it would be the most valuable play for the season. He has annihilated pitching at every level he’s been at—his OPS at Triple A last year was a cool 1.046—so maybe the team thinks that it’s time he sink or swim with consistent at bats at the major league level. I think within the next couple of weeks Dickerson will be the everyday starter, Stubbs will play against left-handers, Barnes will be a bench player, and Blackmon will either play for the Sky Sox or a different team.
Summary: four teams with dissimilar situations but similar expected value cluster together, and still too many moving parts to pin down the Rockies. The Dodgers will field expensive-for-what-they contribute center fielders; the Diamondbacks have the best defense, top to bottom; the Padres will wait out an injury with quality depth, while the Giants hope to avoid injuries because of the lack of said quality depth. The Rockies, at the moment, are all depth.
LA: Rank: 1, tier 1
SF: Rank: 12, tier 2
AZ: Rank: 15, tier 2
SD: Rank: 19, tier 3
CO: Rank: 28, tier 4
Right field has a bit more distribution, as there is a team in every tier. The Dodgers, finally, have an outfield position where Andre Ethier is only expected to play a little bit (not that that’s a bad thing). The reason is Puig. As a Rockies fan, I dutifully dislike the rest of the teams in the division, some more than others. But I simply cannot bring myself to dislike Yasiel Puig. In fact, one of the things I’m looking forward to most this season is catching late Dodger home games on MLB.tv so I can hear Vin Scully talk about Puig, and watch Puig be Puig. And what Puig is, is an excellent (and exciting) baseball player on offense and defense. He’ll regress a bit from his .398 wOBA and .925 OPS, largely because of an unsustainably high BABIP of .383. But he’ll still provide value on offense even after his regression. Add to that his solid defense and cannon for an arm, and you have a player anchoring the best right field in all of baseball. The Giants are a step below, but they are probably closer to the Dodgers than they are to the team Diamondbacks behind them. A lot of teams would love to have Hunter Pence atop their right field depth charts. While Gregor Blanco is slated as the primary back-up once again, it’s less relevant here. Pence has been a model of durability, playing no fewer than 154 games since 2008. Last year was his best season, as he created runs 33 percent above league average and played slightly below average defense. The ZiPS/Steamer projection expects some regression, primarily in the power department. Pence’s fly ball rate was a career high 36 percent in 2013, while his home run to fly ball ratio remained consistent. The Giants should feel very good about their right field.
This is becoming a trend: the Diamondbacks will benefit from Gerardo Parra’s glove in right field, although he is not slated to be the everyday player there. The difference in this case is that Cody Ross will start the season on the disabled list. Being able to slot Parra in while waiting for Ross to come back demonstrates the value of quality depth. In fact, this might be another case where the backup is better than the starter, although Ross, even at 33, provides more value with his bat than Parra does. The Padres face a difficult situation in right field. Their hopeful opening day right and center fielders (Quentin and Maybin) will start the season on the DL. This has forced their hopeful everyday right fielder, Venable, to center. The Denorfia/Smith platoon that can cover for Quentin in left field while he is out is now stretched because one of the two now has to play right field as well. The playing time beneficiary of all of this is Kyle Blanks, but too many plate appearances and time in the field for someone best suited to be a backup will hurt the Padres early in the season.
You may be wondering how the Rockies can be nearly dead last in all of baseball for the position where the National League batting champion, Michael Cuddyer, is expected to play the most games. First, remember that this ranking only recognizes the expected playing time Cuddyer will have in right field, so the value he contributes at first base is discounted. Second, as Richard Bergstrom noted, Cuddyer’s .383 BABIP is unlikely to be repeated. It is well above his career average, and it wasn’t a product of hitting more line drives (the type of batted ball most likely to be a hit). Additionally, the defensive metrics that contribute to WAR think that his outfield defense is terrible. I’m inclined to agree with them, as he doesn’t pass my “eye test.” It’s one of the reasons why I think (and wrote) that Cuddyer is a better fit in left field for the Rockies. There is solid defensive depth behind him, as Cuddyer should play first base against left-handed pitchers. In that case, we’re likely to see Stubbs in right field.
Summary: Puig and Pence give the Dodgers and Diamondbacks the clear edge. The Diamondbacks and Padres deal with outfield injuries, but the former is better equipped to withstand the hit. Glove-first depth isn’t enough to compensate for regression and defensive liability at the top of the Rockies right field depth chart.
LA: Rank: 8, tier 2
CO: Rank: 9, tier 2
SF: Rank: 14, tier 3
AZ: Rank: 24, tier 4
SD: Rank: 26, tier 4
This is where things start to get weird, but tantalizingly so. The Giants are slotted in between two teams in the second tier of pitching staffs, the Dodgers and the Rockies, and two teams below, the Diamondbacks and the Padres. One thing to remember is that these rankings consider depth, which is extremely important when it comes to pitching. For instance, the ranking considers ten pitchers for both the Dodgers and Rockies, and there’s a reasonable chance that they will all start games this year. That the Dodgers occupy an upper echelon of pitching staffs should surprise nobody. Best pitcher on earth Clayton Kershaw leads the way for the Dodgers. Notably, he will be starting the season on the disabled list. While I don’t mourn the fact that Kershaw on the DL makes the Dodgers somewhat less competitive in the short term, as a baseball I want Kershaw back and healthy as soon as possible. Baseball is better when the best play, and Kershaw is a once in a generation pitcher. Even without Kershaw, the Dodgers have the best rotation in the NL West. If we were to break down the Dodgers rotation into tiers, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu would compose tier number two; however, they would be first tier pitchers on any other NL West staff. Dan Haren and Paul Maholm are at the back end, but Maholm will probably become a swingman once Josh Beckett is able to slot back into the rotation. In the event of more injury woes, Zach Lee and Matt Magill, both of whom project to be serviceable back of the rotation starters. In sum, the Dodgers have the elite staff in the division because of a transcendent pitcher at the top, a number two and a three that would be number ones elsewhere, and a coterie of solid veterans and young talent at the back end.
Depth was something the 2013 Rockies seriously lacked. Jeff Sullivan recently argued that the five man rotation is really a myth because it is quite rare for a team to use only five, or even six, starters for an entire season. In 2013, the Rockies had three full time starters, a fourth who pitched two thirds of the season, and a revolving door at the back-end. You can expect a full timer to start 30-32 games. Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge de la Rosa, and Juan Nicasio passed this threshold, while Tyler Chatwood started 20 games due to a late start and some minor injuries. But the team also gave 50 starts to the collective of Jeff Francis, Jon Garland, Chad Bettis, Roy Oswalt, Jeff Manship, Drew Pomeranz, and Colin McHugh. It would be lovely if the Rockies could play the entire season getting effective starts from only de la Rosa, Chacin, Chatwood, Nicasio, and Brett Anderson, the rotation’s new addition. Realistically, that won’t happen. Chacin is starting the season on the disabled list and will be out until May, so the team’s depth will already be tested. I like this year’s collection much better than last years. The depth chart has Franklin Morales (who will fill in for Chacin), Jordan Lyles, and Christian Friedrich as the most likely to be called on when an injury takes place. Not an ideal group, but serviceable in short spurts. I just hope that when the injuries do take place, they are of the short term variety. Of course, not far behind the immediate depth are those two prospects you’ve heard about, Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray. The Rockies are rightly ranked as a second tier pitching staff.
Giants pitching has long terrorized the Rockies—even Barry Zito. But the landscape has changed, as the Giants are projected to be in the middle of the pack in 2014. The team has a group of four that the team hopes will start a full load of games this year: Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Tim Hudson. Bumgarner is an unquestionable ace. If Kershaw misses a significant amount of time this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bumgarner wins the Cy Young. Matt Cain had his worst season last year, mostly due to the disappearance of his preternatural ability to prevent home runs. Though, most projection systems see it as a fluke and expect him to bounce back. The same cannot be said of Lincecum; the best case scenario for him is that he doesn’t pitch his way out of the rotation, although the amount of money he is being paid might militate against that possibility. Hudson is returning from a season ending injury, but because it had to do with his ankle and not his elbow or shoulder, he can still be effective, even at 38 years old. In the rotating fifth spot, the Giants will hope that Ryan Vogelsong can return to his form from 2011-2012, but in the likely event that those seasons will remain comfortably in the past, they have decent but limited depth behind him in the form of Edwin Escobar and Yusmeiro Petit.
The Diamondbacks and the Padres find themselves on near the bottom. The Diamondbacks were placing a lot of hope on their one legitimate frontline starter, Patrick Corbin. Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, he’s out for the year with Tommy John surgery. Missing Corbin will hurt, but this exercise demonstrates that a team’s success doesn’t rely as much on its component parts as we sometimes believe. The team will now rely on a hopeful four of Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill, Bronson Arroyo, and Brandon McCarthy. Mediocre production is expected all around. Additionally, the entire baseball world expects a McCarthy injury at some point. In that case, the fringe fifth starter, Randall Delgado, will nominally be the team’s fourth starter, and that same baseball world will wonder whether or not top pitching prospect Archie Bradley will get the call. Bradley has the maturity and ability to be successful right away, but the depth behind him is thoroughly unimpressive, so there is not a lot of room for error if the Diamondbacks expect to compete for a playoff spot. Speaking of injury problems in the rotation, the Padres currently employ Josh Johnson, who will unsurprisingly begin the season on the DL. Still, the Padres have a group that can turn into an effective starting rotation. Their top four, sans Johnson, are Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross, and Eric Stults. As Dave Cameron noted in the write-up of the Padres rotation, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if each of the four outperformed his projection, which ranges from 1.2 to 2.2 WAR. Matt Wisler and Burch Smith provide quality depth, as they both might be rotation stalwarts rather than injury depth before long.
Summary: the Dodgers are the best even without Kershaw, while the Rockies have marginally good depth but very promising youth. The Giants have a cadre of past aces and a present one, but have more question marks behind them all. The Diamondbacks will miss their ace, but even healthy he would pitch once every five days, and the Padres have a staff that can catapult them a tier or two forward before the end of the season.
CO: Rank: 3, tier 1
AZ: Rank: 9, tier 2
LA: Rank: 12, tier 3
SD: Rank: 25, tier 4
SF: Rank: 27, tier 4
These rankings are an oddity. I understand that FanGraphs is fulfilling a demand of completeness, but given the volatility of bullpens and the small samples built in to them, these rankings are less insightful than the others. Not only that, but WAR isn’t a particularly good metric to evaluate a bullpen. It’s an accumulative stat, so a bullpen that throws more innings will be likely to accrue more WAR, and thus be projected to do so again. One way for a bullpen to toss a lot of innings is to be behind a poor rotation. For example, in 2013, the rankings based on WAR forecasted the Rockies to be the second best bullpen in all of baseball. The primary reason was that the 2012 four man rotation experiment caused the projected innings pitched for returnees to be higher, leading to a higher projected WAR. Additionally, as Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus recently suggested (subscription), a context based statistic such as Win Probability Added (WPA) is a better tool to evaluate relief pitchers because almost the entirety of their value comes from pitching in high leverage situations. This is something that WPA takes into account, but WAR doesn’t. So I won’t go in depth here—in any case, you might be ready to stop reading about baseball and go watch it by now.
Closing is a role, not a skill, so we’re less concerned with who the closer is for each team and more with the way the best arms will be deployed. For the Rockies, look for LaTroy Hawkins and Rex Brothers to share ninth inning duties, which means that one or the other should be used to to shutdown an opponent in close games. I would expect Wilton Lopez and Matt Belisle to bounceback; Boone Logan will be charged with getting tough left-handers out. By the end of the year, don’t be surprised if Chad Bettis is the best reliever for the team. In Arizona, the Diamondbacks paid a lot to get Addison Reed, which means that you’ll see him in the ninth inning. Submariner Brad Ziegler, lefty Oliver Perez, and former closer J.J. Putz form the core behind Reed. The Diamondbacks were again bitten by the injury snake, as set-up man David Hernandez is out for the year with Tommy John surgery. As expected, the Dodgers have the most expensive bullpen. Kenley Jansen should be an elite ninth inning reliever. Don’t expect the group of former closers behind Jansen–Brian Wilson, Brandon League, Chris Perez–to form an intimidating committee of pitchers. Of the three, I think Perez will prove most effective, along with lefty specialist J.P. Howell and fireballer Paco Rodriguez. In San Diego, Huston Street and Joaquin Benoit form a nice one-two-punch. Recently acquired lefty Alex Torres and stalwarts Nick Vincent, and Dale Thayer should get work paving the way to Street and Benoit. The Giants are not as strong in the bullpen as in years past. But again, because we’re talking about bullpens they might be the best in the division by the end of the year. When Sergio Romo pitches, it will be the ninth inning. The core behind Romo is composed of Santiago Casilla, Jean Machi, Heath Hembree, and left-handers Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez
Summary: I would expect the bullpens for the Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers to be the top three in the division at the end of 2014, although not necessarily in that order. But because bullpens are capricious, don’t be surprised if either the Padres or the Giants finish the season as productive as the top three teams.
In some ways, this positional preview of the NL West tells one thing that we already know: the Dodgers are going to be a hard team to beat. I would be very surprised if the Dodgers finished anywhere other than first place this year. At best, I’ve shown you that the four other teams in the division can reasonably finish anywhere from second to fifth place. Read charitably, that means the Rockies can finish behind the Dodgers, and possibly challenge for a Wild Card. While I think that the Rockies will play meaningful baseball in September this year, I picked them to win 80 games and finish behind the Dodgers and the Giants. If you choose to read this preview less kindly, it demonstrates that the Rockies are elite at two positions (SS and LF), are above average in another (3B), own more mediocrity at every other position, but also possess quite possibly the best rotation in franchise history—but one that still might not be good enough.
You’re welcome, Rockies fans, I might have found a new way to be pessimistic about the 2014 season. But who has time for that? It’s Opening Day. Enjoy it.