The San Francisco Giants were able to eke out a much-needed win over Cincinnati last night to avoid a sweep, keeping their 2012 World Series chances on life support. San Francisco was able to use a familiar formula to get the win as they bled the Cincinnati offense dry while taking advantage of every opportunity and miscue available to gain a hard-fought 2-1 win in 10 innings. The Giant’s scratch-out-just-enough-to-win formula, known to their fans as “Torture”, has proven to be a highly successful way to win for this franchise in particular, and last nights game must have felt a little like 2010 for Giants fans. Only the Dodgers have won more games while scoring 2 or fewer runs than the Giants have over the past 3 seasons, and while it’s not a viable way to consistently win games, it’s nice to know you can get a win when the offense isn’t performing. Last night was no exception as San Francisco struck out 16 times total and mustered just 3 hits. Some other notes from last nights game:
The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.
The Cy Young award was created in 1956 by Commissioner Ford Frick and was initially handed out to only one pitcher, the best in all of baseball. Immediately after Mr. Frick retired in 1967, the rules were changed to give out two Cy Young Awards, one for the American League and one for the National League. Over the past 58 seasons, 16 illustrious pitchers have won the award multiple times, including one Tim Lincecum, who may be having the worst season ever for any pitcher on this list. I wanted to discover whether or not Lincecum’s struggles were historic for a pitcher who had a previous track record of dominance, and the conclusions are rather interesting. Let’s take a look at each of the multiple Cy Young winners, and their most difficult seasons, starting with Lincecum.
Note: I only looked at season’s that occurred once the pitcher had won at least 1 Cy Young. Many pitchers have to learn how to get hitters out during their first couple of seasons, and I only wanted to take a look at struggles after a pitcher had/has discovered they are indeed elite.
San Francisco Giants’ pitcher Tim Lincecum has been a downright lousy pitcher through 9 starts in 2012. His ERA stands at an unsightly 6.04 and he has given up more hits and walked more batters per 9 innings than at any other point in his career. On Sunday Lincecum couldn’t even get to the 5th inning against the Oakland A’s, the worst offense in the AL, allowing 4 runs on 5 hits and 3 walks. It gets even worse for Lincecum, because the A’s were also missing one of their few productive batters, Yoenis Cespedes, and they also could not use a designated hitter, as per their norm. So is this just a minor hiccup for the former 2-time NL Cy Young winner? Or, as the scouts have long predicted, is Lincecum’s small stature and unique delivery finally catching up to him as his arm slows down, allowing hitters to zone in on his pitches? And is any of this fixable, or is Lincecum no longer the ace of the past?
Lincecum is still currently 3rd in the National League in strikeout rate and 7th in the league in total k’s, but otherwise the rest of his numbers have fallen off. His command of the strike zone, which has been excellent throughout his career, has plummeted in 2012. He is walking a career high 4.7 hitters per 9 innings, even worse than his rookie campaign. That rate has him 2nd in the National League in total walks allowed, despite pitching only a modest 47.2 innings so far. Timmy is also allowing a career hit 9.6 hits per 9, meaning opposing offenses are getting plenty of scoring chances. Until either his hit or walk rate improves, Lincecum will struggle to work deep into ball games.
The diminutive ace’s velocity has also been down during the 2012 season after experiencing a slight drop a year ago. Its normal for pitchers to lose velocity as they age, and Lincecum is truly struggling without his usual plus fastball. His velocity this season has been a pedestrian 89.9 mph, down from the 92.3 he averaged in 2011. He also throws the pitch at an abnormally low rate, only 38% of the time, essentially making Timmy a junk baller, who relies on his changeup a bit too much. For comparison, during his Cy Young seasons, Lincecum used his fastball more than 55% of the time, even breaking 65% during his 2008 campaign. This is causing some major probems, because hitters are now batting .270 off Lincecum this year.
There is still some good news however. Lincecum’s breaking pitches are still baffling hitters as well. His slider is missing bats 20% of the times he throws the pitch, and batters whiff at his changeup at an elite 18% rate as well. Early in the season Lincecum was hesitant to throw his slider, even saying he was scrapping the pitch to help his arm during Spring Training, but with his struggles the pitch has slowly been brought back out and with great success. Advanced statistics like fielding independent pitching FIP still love Lincecum, ranking him well above league average, due to his high K/9 rate.
Some of Timmy’s issues will also work themselves out. He’s stranding only 59% of all base runners, 16% below his career norm. Opposing hitters also have a .353 BABIP against Lincecum, which is about 60 points higher than the league average. He also has the advantage of pitching in the NL West, home of some of the biggest ballparks in the entire league.
As long as Lincecum stays healthy the rest of the season, he should be in line to receive 20-22 more starts. If he can do a better job of preventing base runners his 6.04 ERA will inevitably drop, and his performance will improve, making him a solid mid-rotation pitcher. The days of him blowing hitters away with a 95 mph fastball are long gone, and so are the days of him winning Cy Youngs. Matt Cain has already passed Lincecum in the Giants rotation and it isn’t long until Madison Bumgarner drops the former staff ace down to the #3 in the rotation.
- The Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers currently have the best record in all of baseball at 9-2. Don Mattingly is pushing all the right buttons, Dee Gordon has provided excitement, the clubhouse is loose, and every bounce is going right. (Did you see that triple play on Sunday???!??) Matt Kemp is mashing the ball, hitting .465/.500/.977 with 6 homers and 16 RBI. These are video game numbers and this is the kind of production the Dodgers envisioned when they extended his contract until 2019.Kemp also leads the NL in runs scored, runs created, total bases, and hits. Andre Ethier is also hitting well, with 4 homers and 17 RBI. The schedule has been home heavy, playing the short-handed Padres, and underwhelming Pirates, so LA’s hot start could be a mirage. The schedule gets tougher, as the Dodgers hit the road for 2 more after dropping the opener in Milwaukee, but they follow that series with another easy one against Houston. If Matt Kemp keeps hitting, and the pitching staff stays in the top half of the National League, the Dodgers are a legitimate contender.
- Justin Verlander. The Cy Young/MVP winner threw his 1st complete game of the year on Monday in a 3-2 win over the Royals. Verlander used an astounding 131 pitches to dispatch the Royals and his last 3 all clocked in at 100 mph. He dominated the Royals last night with a steady diet of fastballs offset by a fantastic changeup, which he was locating beautifully, throwing it for a strike 74% of the time. As you can see from the chart, JV got better as the game progressed, gaining velocity thus becoming more difficult to hit. Verlander has picked right back up from his torrid pace a season ago. He already leads the league in innings pitched, strikeouts, has allowed 0 homers, and has the lowest WHIP in baseball. All of the teams he was facing have offenses that will probably rank in the top half of baseball as well, so its not like he was piling up big numbers against banjo hitters either. Verlander has earned the right to be called the best pitcher in baseball, over other worthy contenders like Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Clayton Kershaw.
- Highlights from Around the League. Josh Reddick, the new right fielder in Oakland, has a rocket launcher for an arm. He’s already gunned down two different runners at 3rd and has 4 assists total. Impressive. Congrats are due to Jaime Moyer, who at 49 became the oldest pitcher ever to get a major league win, going 7 innings and only allowing 2 unearned runs in Colorado’s 5-3 win. Derek Jeter’s early season surge continued, as he picked up another 2 RBI last night out of the leadoff spot. He’s now hitting .367/.385/.633 with 3 homers, 9 RBI, and 18 hits total. He also has 2 leadoff home runs on the season. Josh Willingham is also off to an excellent start this season, hitting in all 11 games with 5 total home runs. He has been carrying Minnesota’s offense during the early season. Gio Gonzalez seems to be enjoying life in Washington, picking up his 1st win in a 1-0 victory over Houston. Gonzalez has struck out 21 batters in 17.2 innings over his first 3 starts, and has a 2.04 ERA.
- LA’s other team. The LA Angels easily have one of the most talented rosters in baseball. The rotation is stacked, with 2 aces and 2 other plus arms, the lineup is full of powerful bats, and they have young talent oozing through the minors. So what is wrong with the Angels so far? They are 4-7 and no one on the team looks to be comfortable. Albert Pujols is homerless so far, a streak that is 48 at-bats long and counting. The combination of Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter is keeping the powerful Mark Trumbo planted on the bench, because he is a liability at 3rd base. The #1 prospect in baseball Mike Trout is sitting in Triple-A because of the outfield problems. If the Angels really want to win, they need to plant Wells on the bench or trade Hunter, in order to free up playing time for the younger players. Or they should try and build a time machine to go back in time and undo the Vernon Wells-Mike Napoli swap. They butchered that trade about as badly as an franchise has in the past decade, losing a powerful catcher and taking on a bad contract in one foul swoop.
- Baseball’s Closer Problem. Tom Verducci wrote an in-depth article yesterday on SI.com detailing the issue. Closers are breaking down at higher rates than ever before, despite the advances in modern medicine, and teams are spending a combined $487 million last year on injured relievers. “Fifty percent of all starting pitchers will go on the DL every year, as well as 34 percent of all relievers, according to research by Stan Conte, director of medical services for the Los Angeles Dodgers. That bears repeating: half of all starting pitchers will break down this year. ‘When I did the research,’ Conte said, ‘I was so surprised I figured I must have done the math wrong.'” This is an astounding issue, especially with season-ending injuries already to Joakim Soria, Ryan Madsen, and Brian Wilson. And many teams that aren’t having injury issues with their closers are, instead, having performance issues. Jose Valverde has already blown 2 saves, Boston can’t find a closer, Heath Bell has blown a couple, and the list goes on. Teams need to think outside the box a little more with relief pitching, because the uber-defined roles and the one-inning or one-batter appearances are leading to injury, as well as poor performance.
- Struggles from Around the League. Albert Pujols’ base running has been abysmal so far. He’s the runner in the clip posted above, being gunned down at 3rd. This is already the 3rd time in the young season he has been thrown out being too aggressive on the base paths. Pujols doesn’t quite have the speed he possessed earlier in his career and the league knows it. Tim Lincecum had another iffy start against the Phillies on Monday giving up 4 runs in the 1st. He settled down nicely after that inning, throwing nearly all breaking balls and using his slider 30 times, allowing only 1 run. He had previously said he was scrapping the pitch, but it appears to be vital to his success, so he brought it back after the 1st and proceeded to look like the Timmy of old. If he continues to use the pitch, it will be interesting to see going forward if it has any negative effects on his arm, or if it was just a case of Lincecum being a little too cautious.
Stephen Strasburg claimed his first win of the year yesterday, a 4-0 victory over Johan Santana and the Mets. It was notable for him personally because for the 1st time in his young career the righty was allowed to exceed 100 pitches, throwing 108 with 63 going for strikes. Strasburg was superb over those 108 pitches, allowing only 2 hits and 3 walks while striking out 9 in 6 innings. The Nationals have won both of his starts so far, and the young right-hander has looked every bit like an ace.
Strasburg has compiled 13 innings, allowing 7 hits, 4 walks, and 1 earned run, while striking out 14. If he continues to dominate, Washington will pick up a lot of wins and stay competitive in what is shaping up to be a brutal division. Strasburg hasn’t fully hit his stride yet either. His location has been a bit spotty in both of his starts, and as he finds his rhythm as the season continues, the big ace should only get better. As you can see in this chart below, (provided from BrooksBaseball.net) Strasburg was a little erratic with his location against the Mets, and even so, he still only allowed 1 run. He’s going to dominate once he locates a bit better, so expect at least 3 games where he strikes out more than 10 batters.
The only problem is that the Nationals have already announced an innings limit on the ace, as they plan to end his season after 160 innings. Strasburg is now 19 months removed from Tommy John surgery and is still just 23-years-old, so Washington’s conservative plan isn’t a terrible one, but it may need to be altered.
Washington could consider skipping Strasburg in the rotation a couple of times over the next 2 months, thus reducing his work load going forward and keeping him available later in the season. This course of action could have some unintended consequences, such as getting away from a steady throwing routine as well as knocking Strasburg out of rhythm. Many pitchers like to take the ball every 5 days, while having 1 or 2 throw days in between, and some tend to struggle if given extended rest. Both Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia are on record with their disdain for extra rest, preferring to throw every 5 days.Another possible plan, if the Nationals are competitive down the stretch, would be to reevaluate the innings limit and up it by 20 or 30.
National’s GM Mike Rizzo has already said that neither of these would be an option “There’s not going to be a whole lot of tinkering going on. We’re going to run him out there until his innings are done … He’s a young pitcher that’s still learning how to pitch in the big leagues. I think it’s unfair to get him ramped up in spring training and start the season on a regular rotation and then shut him down or skip him. We’re just going to make him comfortable.” This could come back to hunt the Nationals, who appear to be a franchise who could contend for a playoff spot this season. It will also be interesting to see if Rizzo sticks to his word, if say, Washington is up 4 games in the NL East with a month to go when Strasburg, in the midst of a phenomenal season at that point, hits the innings limit wall. This story line will be an interesting one to watch play out.
-Tim Lincecum has been roughed up so far during the 2012 season, throwing only 7 innings while being rocked for 11 runs. The Freak had his worst start of his career last night in Colorado, lasting only 2.1, giving up 6 runs on 8 hits and 2 walks, striking out 3. He announced before the season that he was scrapping his slider, which has held true, as he has not thrown a single one. Throughout the course of his career he has thrown the pitch about 11% of the time (courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net). Lincecum claims that he doesn’t want to use it because it damages his arm, which is more than reasonable, but it may hurt his chances of success. He has been compensating by throwing his change-up and absurd 33% of the time. Timmy has always had one of the best change-ups in baseball, but the pitch loses its effectiveness if thrown more than its usual 19% of the time. Lincecum’s velocity has also been a bit down, which is normal for most pitchers in April, and his location has also been poor. If his velocity bumps up a mile or two per hour, and his normally stellar location return, everything will be all right in San Francisco.
-Amazing comeback by the Rays yesterday to get to Justin Verlander in the 9th inning, after being dominated by him all game long. Verlander is now 0-1, despite pitching 8+ innings in both of his starts, and is not having as good of fortune in the win column as he did in 2011. There is no quit in Tampa Bay, which is a feather in the cap to their manager Joe Maddon, for always getting his players to believe.
-Equilibrium has returned somewhat in the AL East, after the Yankees completed their sweep over the Orioles with a 6-4 extra innings win last night. Nick Swisher hit the game-winning 2-run homer in the 10th to give both teams identical 3-3 records. Elsewhere in the East, Toronto took the series from Boston, leaving the Red Sox at a miserable 1-5 to start the season. The Red Sox have played a tough schedule so far, and its not getting any easier any time soon. Boston’s next 3 series, all at Fenway: 4 against Tampa, 2 against Texas, and 3 against New York.
-Finally, Cincinnati managed to avoid the sweep to the red-hot St. Louis Cardinals, winning 4-3 behind Joey Votto’s 4-hit day. I will be in St. Louis this weekend to catch the Cardinals home opener against the Cubs with a most excellent friend, Patrick, and will have a post about it over the weekend.
The National League West has been baseball wildest division over the past 5 seasons, with all 5 franchises making a playoff appearance. It’s the home to some of the biggest ballparks in baseball, and some of the lowest scoring teams in the league. 2012 will probably be no different so don’t be surprised if any of the 5 take the division crown.
The Diamondbacks were the turnaround team of 2011, winning 29 more games than in 2010, and completing the worst-to-first turnaround. They were able to push Milwaukee to 5 games in the Divisional playoff round before bowing out, and Arizona has the look of a contender again in 2012.
The Diamondbacks were easily the most balanced team in the NL West a year ago, finishing 10th in offense and 11th in run prevention in baseball. Arizona should once again be a balanced contender, with many of its players beginning to enter their primes.
The offense acquired a fresh face going into 2012, picking up Jason Kubel in the offseason. Kubel has been a fairly productive player throughout his 7 year career, with an average of .271/.335/.459 and 22 homers per year. A full year of 2011 USA Today Minor League Player of the Year Paul Goldschmidt should help as well. Goldschmidt is a classic 3-outcome player, with big power, big strikeouts, and a solid batting eye for drawing walks.
Those two will be joining franchise building block Justin Upton in the middle of the lineup. Upton is a true 5-tool talent, who possesses superb outfield range, a strong-arm, can steal bases, hits for power as well as average, and can even draw a walk. He hit .289/.369/.529 a year ago, and won a Silver Slugger for his 31 homers.
Another solid piece is centerfielder Chris Young, a 28-year-old, who hits for solid power, can steal 20+ bases, and is an excellent defensive centerfielder who could easily win a Gold Glove. Catcher Miguel Montero is also 28 and a better than average offensive player for his position. He posted a 121 OPS+ a year ago while hitting 18 dingers.
The rest of the offense is hit-or-miss, especially with shortstop Stephen Drew still out with an ankle injury from 2011. The below average Willie Bloomquist is penciled in to start at short on Opening Day, and Arizona has to hope Drew can get back quickly. He is a much greater offensive threat in addition to being much more skilled with the glove.
The pitching staff, particularly the bullpen took a huge step forward a year ago and was the key to Arizona’s turnaround. Ian Kennedy won 21 games and was one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball, posting a near elite 5.5 WAR. His strikeout rate for his career sits at around 8 per 9 innings, and Kennedy was able to cut his walks down by 15 from 2010, despite throwing 28 more innings. Kennedy was more aggressive pitching to hitters in 2011, and his approach paid off with a top-5 Cy Young finish. If his walk rate stays down he is a Cy candidate again in 2012.
In acquiring Trevor Cahill from Oakland, Arizona has given itself a fantastic chance at having a top-8 pitching staff in baseball. Cahill should benefit moving to the National League West, where most of the worst offenses in baseball reside. He is a sinkerball pitcher, who has generated grounders on 56% of ball put in play over the past 2 seasons. That is the 5th highest rate in baseball, and should help when pitching against the weak offenses of San Francisco and San Diego.
Daniel Hudson, Josh Collmenter, and Joe Saunders are all coming off of solid seasons as well. Arizona also has a potential top-of-the-rotation ace coming up through the minors in Trevor Bauer. Bauer has an unorthodox release, but is a fireball throwing pitcher who can pile up the strikeouts.
The bullpen, with closer JJ Putz, should be solid once again. Arizona was had the lowest bullpen ERA in the National League a year after finishing with a team bullpen ERA over 6.00. As long as they rank in the top-8 in baseball again Arizona will be fine.
The Diamondbacks have built a deep young team, much in the way the Texas Rangers have. They have capitalized on their good fortune through the draft, and have made savvy trades acquiring young talent, like Ian Kennedy and Trevor Cahill. Arizona will be tough to beat once again in 2012.
San Francisco Giants
The 2010 champs had a rough go of it in 2011, failing to make the playoffs. The big reason was the complete lack of offense. After putting together a league average offense in 2010 the wheels fell off the wagon in 2011, as the Giants finished 2nd to last in baseball in scoring. The pitching has finished in the top-2 in baseball the past 2 seasons and will probably finish near the top of baseball in 2012, so the Giants will only go as far as their offense can take them.
A big reason for the collapse of the offense in 2011 was the leg injury to Buster Posey. Posey was hurt when he improperly blocked the plate and left himself vulnerable to being hit. Scott Downs, the Marlins runner on the play, did nothing wrong, and had Posey taken proper positioning, by staying on his feet as catchers are taught, he would not have been injured. If Posey can rebound and hit near the .305/.357./.505 mark it would go a long way to helping the offense. A full year out of Pablo Sandoval would help as well. Sandoval mashed the ball when he was healthy in 2011, hitting for an elite 153 OPS+ and 23 homers.
The outfield will be different in 2012 as well, with the additions of Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan. Cabrera had a career year in 2011, posting 4.2 WAR in for Kansas City. If he can put up about 3 wins of value San Fran will have a more useful outfielder than anyone else from 2011. If Pagan can hit better than Andres Torres abysmal .221 the Giants will see even more improvement. If the offense can finish around league average in runs scored San Francisco could play deep into October again. If they finish in the bottom-5, expect another year of .500 baseball, because the pitching staff will keep the team afloat.
Led by Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner, the Giants boast a truly fearsome 1-2-3 punch. Lincecum has led the National League in strikeouts 3 times in his 5-year career, baffling hitters with an array of sublime change-ups, curveballs, and fastballs. Despite his size, Timmy is a workhorse, having thrown at least 210 innings 4 years running. Cain, who just inked the biggest deal ever for a right-handed pitcher, is also a superb talent. He’s dependable (200+ innings in 5 straight seasons), keeps batters off the basepaths (WHIP under 1.1 two straight years), and strikes out more than 7 batters per 9. His lousy career record should be ignored, because he receives less run support than any other pitcher in the league.
The bullpen has been excellent in San Francisco for the past 3 seasons. Brian Wilson, for all his craziness, is a plus pitcher at the back of the bullpen. He had a bit of an off-year in 2011, posting an ERA north of 3.00, but has lights out stuff, having twice struck out more than 10 batters per 9. The rest of the bullpen is deep with solid arms Sergio Romo and Jeremy Affeldt.
The pitching is once again going to be solid. Lincecum-Cain-Bumgarner are as good as any trio in the game. If the offense can scratch out enough 3-2 wins, San Francisco will head back to the playoffs. If the Giants can get sneak in they are dangerous, because no one will have a better chance to shut your offense down.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers haven’t even played a game yet in 2012 and the season is already a success, because Frank McCourt finally sold the team, and to Magic Johnson’s group. On the field, it will probably be another .500 season at best, because the team just doesn’t have enough talent, outside of Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. Despite having the Cy Young winner on the roster, LA still finished with the 5th worst staff in baseball, and on offense things weren’t much better. Even with a near 40-40 season out of Matt Kemp the Dodgers were still a middling offensive team, and things don’t look much better for 2012.
The good news is that Matt Kemp was signed through 2019 during the offseason, and immediately began talking about the possibility of a 50-50 season. Kemp has struggled some in the spring, striking out 20 times already, but he should be fine come Opening Day. Last year he was worth a league high 9.0 offensive WAR, the best in baseball. He finished with a 171 OPS+, also leading the league. A repeat performance in 2012 would probably guarantee him the MVP but still may not make the Dodgers competitive.
Andre Ethier is the one of the few Dodgers with All-Star potential, and is a career .291/.364/.479 hitter. He won his first Gold Glove last year, showing improvement in his defense, but the rest of his game suffered. Ethier’s power disappeared, as he hit 11 homers for his lowest total since his rookie season.
Dee Gordon is the only other player of note, and he appears to have a bright future at short. Gordon is a hard-working speedster who stole 24 bases in just over 50 games. He could be a 60-steal threat, which would lead the National League and could provide a good spark at the top of the Dodger offense. Gordon is still very raw at age 23, so there will be growing pains particularly on defense, but he has lots of talent.
The pitching staff has to improve this season if the Dodgers want to have any chance to compete. Kershaw is the ace and won the pitching Triple Crown in 2011, leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts to gather up his first Cy Young. He’s only 24 still and has the potential to dominate the National League for the next decade. The Dodgers are going to need to develop pitching around Kershaw, because nothing else currently stands out.
Chad Billingsley has shown some potential earlier in his career, but he has seen his strikeout rate drop in each of the past 3 seasons after posting a career high 9.0 in 2008. He had a rough 2011, due to a high batting average on balls in play, so he could be a nice candidate for a bounce back season, especially if his K rate returns. The rest of the rotation is abysmal and will probably prohibit the Dodgers from winning enough games to make the playoffs. Ted Lily is league average and on the downside of his career, and Aaron Harang has not done much in his many opportunities in Cincinnati.
The bullpen doesn’t look to be strong either, outside of Casey Jansen, who is an elite strikeout pitcher. The rest of the ‘pen is young and unproven, so some potential for surprise or disappointment is there.
The Dodgers just don’t look to be deep enough to really compete in a strong National League. Unless another player like James Loney makes a jump similar to the one Kemp made, LA is not going to make much noise.
The Rockies entered 2011 with expectations to compete with the playoffs and outside of the first month of the season, they were a disappointment. The team has decided to surround their young talented core of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez with plenty of aging veterans in 2012. Jamie Moyer, Todd Helton, Marco Scutaro, and Michael Cuddyer were all acquired by the Rockies. This type of thinking flies in the face of other turnaround teams like Arizona and Tampa, who used youth to get an advantage. It will be interesting to see if this experiment works, or if Colorado struggles to win 75 games again.
Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is easily the best player in baseball at his position. He has won two straight Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers, and the statistics back it up. He’s the only shortstop to hit 25+ homers and put up a 130+ OPS+ in the last 3 seasons. He is also a stellar defensive shortstop, despite his size. He has a strong arm, turns the double play with vigor, and has plenty of range. If Colorado competes for a playoff spot, Tulowitzki will have an MVP-type campaign.
Carlos Gomez is also a player with MVP aspirations. He finished 3rd in the MVP voting in 2010 posting a monster .336/.376/.598 slash with 34 homers and 117 RBIs. Last year he was still an excellent outfielder, posting a 126 OPS+ while increasing his walks. If he puts it all together, the Rockies middle-of-the-order will be tough to deal with.
Outside of CarGo and Tulo the Rockies are ancient. There next best hitter is probably either Michael Cuddyer (career .272/.343/.794) or Todd Helton, who is now 38 and in his 16th season. Helton was still able to hit over .300 in 2011, but his power is almost gone.
The pitching staff doesn’t look too pretty either, and the big news out of Spring Training is that 49-year-old Jaime Moyer will be the #2 starter. It will be Moyer’s 25th season in the big leagues, and he will probably throw around 150 innings with a 4.50-5.00 ERA. The Rockies will need youngsters Drew Pomeranz and Jhoulys Chacin to step up if they want to be competitive. Pomeranz was the best prospect received in the Ubaldo Jiminez trade and looks to have the makings of a solid top-to-middle of the rotation starter.
The Rockies are probably not going to compete for much in 2012, but in the wild NL West anything is possible. If the young pitching comes along quicker than expected, imagining the Rockies winning the division doesn’t seem so difficult. If Jaime Moyer is the #2 starter all year though, things will get a little bit rough.
San Diego Padres
The San Diego Padres have undergone some massive changes in the past 2 seasons, trading their best players, Adrian Gonzalez and Mat Latos, for prospects. The team is rebuilding on the fly and will have one of the younger rosters in baseball in 2012. The offense needs to improve if the Padres want to avoid the cellar again because they were 3rd worst in baseball in 2011. The pitching was solid last year, but it is difficult to tell if they are talented or just a product of PetCo Park, the toughest on hitters in the majors.
Edinson Volquez was one part of the Latos trade, and has been named the Opening Day starter. Volquez has not been a very productive pitcher since his breakout year in 2008, never once posting an ERA beneath 4.20. He has battled plenty of injury, but it is risky to have a pitcher with this poor of a track record and a walk rate over 5 per 9 to begin the season as the de-facto ace.
Cory Luebke is probably the best pitcher on the staff, and was a surprise a year ago, beginning in the bullpen before finishing the year by making 17 starts. His Ks per 9 was an elite 9.9 in over 139.2 innings last year, and if he can post a similar rate in 200 innings he has the makings of an ace. He also put up a very stellar WHIP, at 1.067. Some decline is expected with an increase in workload, but Luebke has the potential to be a good #2 starter.
The offense is very, very young outside of the double play combo of Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett. Both players are solid on defense, which is a plus in spacious PetCo, but aren’t much with the bat. Carlos Quentin was also traded for to provide some middle of the order pop, but he is already injured and has an extensive history of injury problems.
1st baseman Yonder Alonso was the real prize in the Latos trade. His bat has been rated very highly by scouts, but his glove work is considered subpar even for a 1st baseman. If he can hit around .280-.300 he is a solid Rookie of the Year candidate. He hit .330 in 98 plate appearances for Cincinnati last year, but was blocked at 1st by Joey Votto.
Cameron Maybin also showed why he was a highly rated minor leaguer a year ago, with a solid season. He stole 40 bases and showed an ability to get on base at an average rate, which is key for a speedy player. Maybin has the ability to hit .250 with his legs alone, so if he can just add .050 points with his bat he could be a .300 hitter.
The Padres could be a sneaky team out in the NL West. If no other team seizes control of the division and the Padres see big years out of some young players, they could surprise and steal the division. It will take good years from Volquez, Luebke, the bullpen, improvement on offense, and a healthy Carlos Quentin, but it is certainly possible.
San Francisco Giants
San Diego Padres
Los Angeles Dodgers
National League West MVP: Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks
National League West Cy Young: Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
I like the Diamondbacks to repeat as division champions. Arizona has a very balanced, young, and talented team. I just don’t think that San Francisco is going to score enough to steal the division, and I think that Barry Zito and the mystery 5th starter will be a problem. I don’t think that San Diego has quite enough to make noise, although it wouldn’t surprise me to see them win the division with something around 86-87 games if Arizona or San Francisco disappoints. I think Colorado will have to score a ton of runs to make up for a complete lack of pitching, and while the Moyer experience will be fun it won’t produce a lot of wins. Los Angeles is looking forward to the offseason when the new ownership can make some moves on the free agent market.