Spring training preview: National League West
SI.com is breaking down what to watch for in each team's camp as part of our spring training preview by looking at the Big Question, Big Position Battle and Big Prospect for all 30 clubs. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2014. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in major league camp but has not yet debuted in the major leagues.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Big Question: Is the bullpen fixed?
Despite winning 94 games last year, the Dodgers took an early exit from the postseason in large part because manager Don Mattingly didn't trust his bullpen enough to pull Clayton Kershaw out of harm's way in time. That said, the unit's collective performance in the Division Series against the Cardinals (six runs allowed in 8 1/3 innings) illustrated amply why those trust issues existed. During the regular season, the bullpen's 3.80 ERA ranked 12th in the National League, their 3.8 walks per nine were 14th and they were in the bottom third of the league in both strikeout and home run rate as well.
The perpetual Brian Wilson sideshow is gone, as are Chris Perez and Jamey Wright — three pitchers who combined for a 4.41 ERA with 4.4 walks per nine, not that they were equally the problem. In their place are newcomers Joel Peralta, Chris Hatcher and Juan Nicasio, a trio with the potential to do better, though particularly with Peralta coming off a rough age-38 season (4.41 ERA, 1.3 HR/9), there are no guarantees. What's more, for the next 8-to-12 weeks, Los Angeles will be without Kenley Jansen, by far its best reliever, who is coming off a 44-save season with a 2.76 ERA and 13.9 strikeouts per nine. On Tuesday, he underwent surgery to remove a growth from his fifth metatarsal bone.
Unless a team whose payroll commitments are already at a record $265 million wants to add even more money by signing Rafael Soriano or Francisco Rodriguez, some combination of Peralta, Hatcher and holdovers Brandon League and J.P. Howell are the ones who will pick up the slack, with young fireballer Pedro Baez also in the mix. That's not the most imposing crew, so unless a non-roster invitee like Sergio Santos or David Aardsma makes the team — both of them have experience closing, albeit roughly half a decade ago, before the injury bug bit — don't be surprised if L.A. swings a deal for some additional help as Opening Day nears.
The Big Battle: Centerfield
Even with the trade of Matt Kemp to San Diego, the Dodgers have more outfielders than they know what to do with — Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Chris Heisey, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson and Scott Van Slyke — and no true centerfielder unless Pederson, a 23-year-old rookie with just 38 big league plate appearances, makes the team out of spring training. With a Crawford/Van Slyke platoon in leftfield, Pederson in center and Puig in right, that would leave Ethier as the odd man out, but he's 32 years old (33 on April 10), coming off his worst major league season (.249/.322/.370 for a 97 OPS+, 24 points below his career mark) and still owed $56 million, including a $2.5 million buyout of his 2018 option.
If the Dodgers are willing to swallow enough salary to trade him as they did Kemp, they can go forward with Pederson in center. Prior to his sluggish small-sample showing in L.A. (4-for-28, albeit with nine walks), he hit .303/.435/.582 with 33 homers and 30 steals — the Pacific Coast League's first 30/30 season in over 80 years — in 121 games. While his 149 strikeouts attest to the swing-and-miss in his game, he's got good bat speed, excellent pitch recognition and plate discipline, and power to all fields. Defensively, he has the speed and athleticism to handle the middle pasture, not to mention a strong arm.
If the team deems Pederson not ready for prime time — notably, he had some maturity issues last season, though the real issue may be keeping his approach at the plate from becoming too passive — they'll likely muddle through with either Ethier (-7 Defensive Runs Saved in 143 career games in centerfield) or Puig (0 DRS in 63 games) at the spot until they make room.
The Big Prospect: Julio Urias
It's impressive enough that Urias put up a 2.36 ERA with 11.2 strikeouts per nine in 87 2/3 innings in the hitter-friendly Cal League. The fact that he did it in his age-17 season, finally turning 18 on Aug. 12, is what's truly remarkable. This Mexican lefty is the real deal, placing in the top 10 in the Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN prospect lists.
Urias can reach the mid-90s with his fastball, and he's got two breaking balls and a changeup that with refinement could grade out somewhere between above-average and plus, giving him a legitimate four-pitch mix. He's got a clean delivery with a bit of deception thanks to his ability to hide the ball, not to mention a particularly advanced feel for pitching at his young age. The only real knock on him is his size (5'11", 160 pounds) and lack of physical projection — not to mention his youth, which mandates that the Dodgers bring him along slowly so as not to overtax his young arm. While he may be close to big-league ready, he's a few years away from handling a full starter's workload.
San Francisco Giants
The Big Question: Can Tim Lincecum return to form?
The two-time Cy Young winner has now strung together three straight sub-replacement level seasons, pitching to a combined 4.76 ERA (73 ERA+) with inflated walk and homer rates (3.8 and 1.1 per nine, respectively). Last year, he was nearly dead on the mark with those numbers, though he totaled just 155 2/3 innings — with all of 1 2/3 in the postseason — thanks to his being pulled from the rotation in favor of Yusmeiro Petit in late August.
Well, forget any job battle here. Lincecum is making $18 million this year, and manager Bruce Bochy has already said that he’s in the rotation, with Petit and re-signed Ryan Vogelsong in the bullpen. Lincecum's long hair is back, but more importantly, the 30-year-old righty spent the offseason reworking his mechanics with the help of his father, who engineered his unorthodox delivery in the first place. Perhaps that can bring back some of the lost velocity on his fastball, which averaged 89.6 mph last year, down from a high of 94 back in 2008, his first Cy Young season. It might also restore his command, and help him keep the ball in the park, too.
Madison Bumgarner is coming of a monster 270-inning workload, Matt Cain is returning from surgeries to remove bone chips in his elbow and a bone spur in his ankle, and both Tim Hudson (who underwent bone spur surgery in his right ankle last month, too) and Jake Peavy are far from their rotation-heading days. The Giants certainly need the old Timmy to get his Freak on.
The Big Battle: Leftfield
The departure of Michael Morse via free agency left the world champions with a vacancy in leftfield, and rather than simply man it with Gregor Blanco — last seen serving as the team's centerfielder in the absence of Angel Pagan due to a bulging disc for the latter — the team signed Nori Aoki to a one-year, $4.7 million deal with an option for 2016, then gave Blanco a two-year, $7.5 million extension.
It's unclear how the pieces fit together here, as those two are similar players: lefties who offer some speed and on-base ability but little power. Blanco hit .260/.333/.374 with five home runs, 16 stolen bases and -3 DRS, Aoki hit .285/.349/.360 with one homer, 17 steals and -8 DRS. Blanco can play centerfield, no small concern in light of Pagan’s combined 167 games played over the last two seasons. Aoki has a modest reverse platoon split, with a career .776 OPS against lefties and .726 against righties, whereas Blanco is at .659 against lefties and .698 against righties. In a lineup that shed some punch in replacing Pablo Sandoval at third base with Casey McGehee, you'd think the Giants would have at least found a righty with some power with whom they could pair Aoki, but that’s not the case.
The Big Prospect: Kyle Crick
San Francisco's farm system has seen better days, and opinions as to the identity of its top prospect vary widely among the major prospect lists. Particularly with lefty Adalberto Mejia beginning the year with a 50-game suspension for a banned stimulant, catcher Andrew Susac having tasted the majors last year and younger arms like Tyler Beede and Keury Mejia not in the big league camp, the prospect to watch — as it was last year — is Crick, a 22-year-old 2011 first-round pick whose stock has dropped. He fell off the prospect lists of both BA and ESPN entirely after ranking 33rd and 69th, respectively, and dropped from 38th to 88th on that of BP.
A 6'4", 220-pound righty, Crick spent last year at Double A Richmond, where he pitched to a 3.80 ERA and offset his 11.1 strikeouts per nine with 6.1 walks; he burned through his pitch counts to the point of totaling just 90 1/3 innings in 22 starts and one relief appearance. Crick has the potential for a four-pitch mix with easy mid-90s velocity on his fastball, and his changeup, curve and slider all with the potential to be plus pitches, but his mechanics are inconsistent, and his command and control are below average. This is a pivotal year for Crick, who will likely begin the season at Triple A Sacramento. Either he'll need to sacrifice a bit of power to find the strike zone more regularly or he'll wind up as a late-inning reliever instead of a starter.
San Diego Padres
The Big Question: How does that outfield fit together?
First-year general manager A.J. Preller's flurry of trades brought star power to the Petco Park outfield in the form of Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton but the unit lacks a natural centerfielder. Amid his injuries, Kemp played himself off the position, compiling a dreadful -31 DRS in 216 games at the spot over the last three seasons (we won't even talk about his -37 DRS in 2010). Upton hasn't played center since '07, when he was at High A and Double A. Myers has a total of 53 major league innings there, not to mention -10 DRS in 155 total outfield games in his major league career; he did play 100 games in center in the minors, 87 of them back in '12, so he's the middle man by default.
Meanwhile, Preller still has Rymer Liriano, Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin and Will Venable on the roster. Liriano can be returned to the minors given that he's not yet 24 and has just 121 PA with a .555 OPS, but the other three are owed a combined $19.25 million for 2015, with a minimum of another $9.1 million beyond. Quentin is dead weight, owed $8 million after having played just 218 games over the last three seasons due to his frequent trips to the DL. He played in 50 games in '14 with a .177/.284/.315 line in 155 PA, and he has less than zero defensive value, so the line to take him off San Diego's hands must stretch to Baja.
More useful given their experience in centerfield are Venable and Maybin, either of whom the team could start by moving Myers to first base (where he has just four innings of professional experience) and off-loading punchless but inexpensive ($1.65 million) incumbent Yonder Alonso. After a 22-homer and 126 OPS+ breakout in 2013, Venable slumped to eight homers with a 79 OPS+ (.224/.288/.325), though he did play a credible centerfield (-2 DRS in 76 games) and is six runs above average per 1,200 innings there; he'll make $4.25 million this year.
Maybin, a natural centerfielder, is coming off quite a one-two punch: Limited to only 14 big league games by wrist and knee injuries in '13, he then missed five weeks due to a torn biceps tendon and served a 25-game suspension for a banned stimulant in '14. He hit just .235/.290/.331 for an 81 OPS+ in 272 PA, but for his career, he's seven runs above average per 1,200 innings via DRS, which is to say that his defense could be necessary glue for the outfield. Owed $7 million for '15, $8 million for '16 and either $9 million or a $1 million buyout for '17, he's a pricey backup if they can't find room.
One way or another, Preller will have to sort all of that out during the spring. Expect one of the game's busiest GMs to stay active as Opening Day approaches.
The Big Battle: Third base
Back in July, the interim regime between Josh Byrnes and Preller traded free-agent-to-be Chase Headley to the Yankees in a deal that brought back pitching prospect Rafael De Paula and switch-hitting infielder Yangervis Solarte. A 26-year-old–bat-first prospect, Solarte had taken advantage of the available playing time in the New York infield and hit .299/.369/.466 with six homers through the end of May. Alas, the league soon caught up to him. He was sent back to Triple A before being traded to the Padres, and he finished the year at .260/.336/.369, with a 103 OPS+ but -9 DRS (only -3 of which came in his 111 games at third base).
Any of those lines looks better than that of 26-year-old Will Middlebrooks, who had been moving steadily backward since a strong 2012 rookie season with the Red Sox (.288/.325/.509) thanks to his inability to comprehend the existence of the strike zone, as his career K/BB ratio of 5.0 attests. Last year, he hit just .191/.256/.265 with two homers in 234 PA, missing roughly three months due to a calf strain and a broken right index finger. The Padres acquired him in December in a straight-up deal for catcher Ryan Hanigan, who had arrived in the Myers trade. A righty swinger, both he and Solarte are stronger against lefties, so a platoon appears unlikely, though the latter's nominal versatility presents a scenario with Middlebrooks starting and Solarte seeing time at second base and perhaps even shortstop as well as third.
The Big Prospect: Austin Hedges
The catching corps of Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal was one of the team's strong points last year, but Preller traded both in December (as well as Hanigan) and came back with a tandem of Derek Norris and Tim Federowicz. Hedges, a 2011 second-round pick, hit .225/.268/.321 with six homers in 457 PA last year in his age-21 season at Double A San Antonio, a rough showing even given the age-to-level match as one of the youngest players in the Texas League.
There is good news: Scouts and prospect hounds believe Hedges has got the building blocks for an adequate offensive profile with some mechanical fixes. The Baseball Prospectus team, which ranked him 23rd among its Top 101, noted that he "has displayed the solid strike zone command you would expect from an advanced backstop, as well as the balance and swing path to produce solid contact across the quadrants." ESPN's Keith Law, who placed Hedges 74th, believes that if he can get away from his dead-pull tendency to use the whole field, a 15-18 homer plateau is possible.
There's even better news than that, however: Hedges is a defensive stud, an excellent pure receiver with a plus-plus arm (38-percent caught-stealing rate last year) and off-the-charts pitch-framing ability. BP recently introduced a new framing methodology that draws on minor league pitch-by-pitch data, estimating that he was 37 runs above average in that department, by far the best in the minors. Take the quantitative precision with a grain of salt; qualitatively, it suggests he'd be among the majors' best framers upon arriving, with 2016 his likely ETA.
The 30-year-old Tulowitzki and 29-year-old Gonzalez are the team's two highest-paid players, accounting for $36 million of the team's current $93.6 million in payroll commitments for the coming season, and when healthy, they're the Rockies' two best as well. Alas, staying healthy has been a seemingly never-ending problem for the pair, who combined to play just 161 games last year due to the former's torn left hip labrum and the latter's left index finger and left knee woes, all of which required surgery. Over the last five seasons, they've averaged just 106 and 117 games, respectively, with just three seasons of at least 130 games between them: CarGo in 2010 and '12, Tulo in '11.
Any hope Colorado has of breaking its streak of four straight sub-.500 seasons in fourth or fifth place in the NL West depends on the two players being healthy, as does any hope the team has of getting full value for either in trade so as to accelerate its rebuilding process. Tulowitzki is owed $118 million including his 2021 buyout, Gonzalez $53 million through '17. The Rockies' farm system is generally considered in the upper third of the game, with young, high-upside talent on the way. Whether they choose to build around the pair or not, the franchise's fate will be improved considerably if they can stay on the field and productive.
The Big Battle: Catcher
Last winter, the Rockies toyed with the idea of moving Wilin Rosario off of full-time catching, putting his bat — which had produced a 107 OPS+ with 41 homers and a .282/.314/.507 line over the previous two seasons — in the lineup more often at first base or rightfield. That minimized the impact of his defensive woes behind the plate, which include some of the game's worst pitch-framing. The team's mixed success in the free-agent market that winter, missing out on Carlos Ruiz but landing Justin Morneau, led them to scrap that plan at least temporarily. With the flu and problems with both wrists cutting into his playing time and production, Rosario slumped to .267/.305/.435 (93 OPS+) with 13 homers in his age-25 season, and he was eight runs below average according to DRS, leading the league in passed balls for the third straight year, though his framing improved to 1.4 runs below average.
With the signing of Nick Hundley to a two-year deal, Colorado appears to be revisiting the plan. A light hitter —.243/.273/.358 for a 73 OPS+ last year, but a 91 OPS+ for his career — Hundley is a better defender and pitch framer by about 10 runs per year according to BP's framing and blocking metrics. The Rockies already have a bat-first backup on hand in Michael McKenry (.315/.398/.512 in 192 PA last year), so they're free to explore moving Rosario, either to a multi-position role or another team.
The Big Prospect: Jon Gray
A year ago in this space, we touted a pair of top pitching prospects who were on the fast track to help the Rockies. But as so often happens to pitching prospects, things didn't go as planned for them in 2014. Eddie Butler, a supplemental first-round pick in '12, made his major league debut on June 6 and then went straight to the DL for six weeks due to rotator cuff inflammation; he made just two more starts for the big club, both in September. Gray, the No. 3 pick of the '13 draft out of the University of Oklahoma, was the Double A Texas League's third-youngest starter, but he scuffled during his first full professional season, posting a 3.91 ERA with 8.2 strikeouts per nine in 124 1/3 innings.
A 6'4", 235-pound behemoth, Gray was known for hitting triple digits with his fastball in college, but he was down to 89-94 with the occasional 96 during the longer season, and his slider was merely above average instead of being a true plus, with his changeup, a potential plus pitch, lagging a bit behind. It was hardly a lost season, as he worked on sinking the ball and initiating weak contact so as to improve his efficiency, but either he's going to have to improve his command or restore a bit of velocity to reach the true ace ceiling that many believe is his calling.
The Big Question: How will Yasmany Tomas handle the transition to the majors?
In November, the Diamondbacks signed Tomas, a 24-year-old Cuban defector, to a six-year, $68.5 million deal, making him the only other player besides Paul Goldschmidt who Arizona has signed beyond 2016. Playing for Industriales in Cuba's Serie Nacional, Tomas' stats had been trending downward, from .301/.333/.580 in 2011-12 to .289/.364/.538 in 2012-13 to .290/.346/.450 in 2013-14, his last season before defecting. Few doubt that Tomas’ mechanically sound swing will produce power, perhaps as much as 25-30 homers in Arizona’s hitter-friendly environment. But while he's 6'2", 230 pounds, he has less lean muscle mass than, say, countrymen Puig — one scout drew a comparison to Marlon Byrd as far as physique — and is also a below-average runner.
Initially projected as a corner outfielder — a position where the Diamondbacks have no shortage — Tomas has spent the winter working at third base, where he does have some experience, and the early reports are encouraging. New GM Dave Stewart voiced optimism about the move, though he also provided an out, saying, "What we don't want to do is have his hitting suffer because he's so concentrated on being a third baseman… if we feel in any way that his offense is going to lack because he's so focused on playing third base, then that's not a good decision for us organizationally." It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in the Cactus League.
The Big Battle: Rotation
With the trade of Wade Miley to the Red Sox, the Diamondbacks enter the spring with only two starting rotation spots claimed: those of holdover Josh Collmenter and newcomer Jeremy Hellickson. Given the organization's slew of Tommy John victims, Arizona plans to take it slow with Patrick Corbin, who underwent surgery last March 25; he's on a 15-month recovery schedule instead of a 12-month one, which would put him back in the majors sometime in June. Bronson Arroyo, who underwent the surgery in mid-July, may not be back until late season.
That leaves a hat full of names for new manager Chip Hale to sort through, though it's fair to suggest that Chase Anderson (21 starts with a 4.01 ERA and 8.3 strikeouts per nine) and Vidal Nuno (14 starts with a 3.76 ERA and 7.4 K/9 after being acquired from the Yankees) may have a leg up, at least to start the year. Trevor Cahill, who's coming off a 5.61 ERA in 17 starts and 15 relief appearances, is the expensive millstone, owed $12 million for this year and almost certain to have next year's team option bought out.
The rest of the group includes two-time TJ surgery survivor Daniel Hudson, whose 2 2/3 innings at the major league level last year were his first in over 26 months; former Los Angeles-to-Boston righties Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, both of whom could be running out of chances to show they belong in a rotation rather than a bullpen due to command and/or stamina issues; lefty Robbie Ray, who was tarred for an 8.16 ERA in 28 2/3 innings with Detroit; ex-Brave Randall Delgado, who has been roughed up for a 4.50 ERA in 23 starts and 44 relief appearances since coming over in the Justin Upton trade before the 2013 season; prospect Archie Bradley, who's coming off a lost season (more on him below); and pitch-to-contact lefty Andrew Chafin, who made three starts for the D-backs last year. Maybe they could get a few turns from new special assistant Randy Johnson, who at 51 years old can probably still bring it.
The Big Prospect: Braden Shipley
In Shipley, Bradley and Aaron Blair, the Diamondbacks have what Law called "the best collection of high-end starting pitching prospects of any club," though there is no consensus as to which of the three is the best. Bradley, who was profiled in this space last year and was expected to contribute at the major league level at some point in 2014, endured a rough season marred by an early flexor strain. Thus, we'll focus instead on Shipley, who turns 23 on Feb. 22 and who ranked between 19th (ESPN) and 39th (MLB.com) on the major prospect lists. A first-round pick out of Nevada-Reno in '13, the 6'3", 190-pound righty is a converted position player with just three years on the mound under his belt. He split his '14 season between Low A, High A and Double A, putting up a 3.86 ERA with 9.1 strikeouts per nine in 126 innings.
Shipley's best pitch is a curve with impressive depth, and he also has a plus changeup as well as a 92-95 mph fastball, though evaluators worry that the last of those lacks plane or movement, making him homer prone. He's a bit stiff mechanically, occasionally losing his release point and decreasing his effectiveness; the BP prospect team summarized his current state as "high-end arsenal with mid-level execution," though the consensus is that Shipley is capable of becoming a second or third starter. With just four starts at Double A under his belt, he's likely to return to that level this season and build toward a 2016 debut in Arizona.