In a season of great divisional and wild-card races, last year's NL West scramble may have been the best of the bunch. The Dodgers, Padres, and Diamondbacks all spent at least six weeks in first place, and by the end, just one full game separated the top three teams in the standings after the Rockies beat the Padres in a Game 163 playoff to decide the wild-card. The West looks similarly wild this year, as Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projection system forecasts the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Rockies to finish with 87, 87, and 82 wins, respectively, the tightest three-team cluster in any division. As with last year, the outcome may well rest on the shoulders of young, homegrown talent. The Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Rockies have earned reputations as three of the game's top player development machines, offering a pipeline of top prospects to combat the ever-rising cost of signing free agents - especially important for the small-market Rockies and Diamondbacks. All three are poised to augment their lineups and pitching staffs with even more prized prospects as the year goes on.I've remarked before about the prescience of Goldstein's ranking of the Rockies' org, but left on the cutting room floor was Tulowitzki's role in helping the Rox lead the NL in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. I had plenty to say about the D-backs and Dodgers, of course, particularly with regards to the latter's new skipper:
Hardly anyone predicted the Rockies could win the NL pennant last year, and nobody foresaw their season-ending 14–1 dash. However, BP prospect guru Kevin Goldstein ranked the Rockies' minor-league system the game's second-best at the outset of the season, noting their ability to provide instant help in the form of 22-year-old shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who hit .291 AVG/.359 OBP/.479 SLG with 24 home runs while anchoring the league's best defense. The system also produced a pair of hard-throwing hurlers -— 23-year-old right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez and 21-year-old lefty Franklin Morales -- who patched a rotation wracked by injuries in time for their amazing stretch run. Meanwhile, 24-year-old Manny Corpas, a second-year reliever, took over the closer role from Brian Fuentes by midyear, saving 19 games after July 6.
Strong player development is hardly a new thing for the Rockies; it's arguably the only area in which the team (once notorious for a $172 million binge on free-agent busts Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle) has ever excelled. Their 2008 Opening Day lineup featured seven homegrown players, including five-time All-Star Todd Helton, 2007 MVP runner-up Matt Holliday, and former first-round draft picks Tulowitzki (2006), Jeff Francis (2002), and Jayson Nix (2001). Three days later, with Chris Iannetta behind the plate, and Ryan Spilborghs in center field, they featured an all-homegrown nine. Nix, 25, is a late-arriving, good-field/no-hit rookie; PECOTA forecasts him for a .245/.300/.379 showing but defense at second base that's nine runs above average. Iannetta, also 25, was expected to win the starting catcher job last year, but a .158 AVG in April coupled with a solid performance from Yorvit Torrealba consigned him to the backup backstop role. Still, Iannetta forecasts as the better hitter, and he may yet claim the job.
Even more tantalizing [than third base prospect Andy LaRoche] is 20-year-old southpaw Clayton Kershaw, a blue-chip pitching prospect. Despite less than 25 innings above A-ball under his belt, he spent most of March in the big-league camp and drew raves for his poise and his arsenal. Though sent to Double-A to start the season, he's poised for a midsummer promotion, either as the fifth starter or -- of particular interest given new manager Joe Torre's experience last year -- in a Joba Chamberlain-esque setup role.Given the Sun's space constraints, I didn't even have room to tackle the Padres, whom PECOTA forecast for a paltry 78 wins on the heels of their agonizing near-miss last year. As noted in my essay for Baseball Prospectus 2008, the Pads are at a real disadvantage against those divisional talent factories. They ranked 24th in Opening Day payroll last year, with the Rockies 25th and the Diamondbacks 26th; furthermore, Forbes.com's 2007 estimates show them second-to-last in Operating Income. Their farm system has improved in a year's time; Goldstein ranked them 29th in 2007, but they've risen all the way to 12th thanks to strong seasons from Matt Antonelli and Chase Headley and a stockpiling of free-agent compensation picks. Still, Antonelli's a year away and Headley, farmed out to begin this year, figures to help only so much once he arrives. PECOTA has him at .231/.316/.388 due to a shaky track record; an equivalent translation of his searing season in Double-A is .255/.356/.474, but he'd have to surpass his 90th percentile projection to reach that.
It's Torre who may draw the most scrutiny of any newcomer in the division. As the Yankee skipper, he often drew criticism for preferring marginal veterans over untested prospects, but his latter-day ability to integrate Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Phil Hughes, and Chamberlain into the mix mitigated that somewhat. Already he's drawn fire for juggling Kemp with expensive, unproductive Juan Pierre in the outfield, and if Garciaparra and LaRoche are ever healthy at the same time, all eyes will fall on that choice, too. Given a slim margin for error, nothing less than a playoff spot may ride on Torre's willingness to choose youth over experience.
Ding-dong, Juan Pierre's consecutive game streak is dead at 434, but the early returns on Joe Torre's ability to manage the crowded outfield are less encouraging. Thus far, Andre Ethier's started nine times, Andruw Jones eight, Pierre and Matt Kemp five apiece, and the four outfielders are hitting a barren .204/.241/.301. On a more positive note, Rafael Furcal looks like the 2006 model as opposed to the 2007 one, and Jeff Kent has been solid despite missing most of spring training.That's not very encouraging so far, particularly when it appeared towards the end of spring training that Torre had let go of the idea that Pierre would be a regular. It does appear I missed one significant choice, via this article: when Torre sat Jones on Wednesday, Kemp started in center field -- where he played just 17 innings last year -- instead of Pierre, with Torre again kicking the latter in the head: "I'd much rather have someone with the confidence and aggressiveness that [Kemp] has... I'd rather have his arm in center field." Thunk.
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