NL West: a race at last (and for last)by Steve Treder
July 09, 2012
The National League West Division is perhaps not the very weakest in major league baseball in 2012, but if not, it’s close. But at least amid the slog through mediocrity, over the past couple of weeks an interesting race has emerged.
But before getting to that, let’s dwell for a bit in the depths of the pit. Between the two tail-enders “competing” for last place, one has done something unusual.
The Rockies rotation
It was on the 19th of June that Colorado manager Jim Tracy, fed up with disastrous performances by his team’s starting pitchers, announced that he would switch from the orthodox five-man rotation to a four-man cycle, implementing a 75-or-so-pitch limit on each outing.
While the intrinsic merits of such an arrangement are worthy of debate, what seems quite odd is the notion of suddenly adopting such an unprecedented tactic in midseason, reactively. “Experiments” such as this tend to be undertaken in a spring training, winter ball, or minor league environment, but Tracy clearly is willing to be less risk-averse than that.
In any case, so far they’ve stuck with it. And while the sample size remains tiny as yet, the results haven’t been encouraging, as the Rockies have continued to lose with regularity. But it’s worth noting that the starters working on three days’ rest haven’t done noticeably worse than before.
Whether it’s a good idea or not, the fact that the Rockies have been willing to give the four-man approach a try is a symptom of their desperation. No one expected Colorado to contend in 2012, but neither did many observers anticipate them to be this bad. They’re on pace to lose somewhere around 100 games, which would be the worst record of any Rockies’ ballclub in the 20-season history of the franchise. It’s shaping up as a Rocky Mountain low.
While the Colorado starting pitching has been genuinely terrible, that hasn’t been their only problem. Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki had been bothered by a groin injury all season, and in late June decided to undergo surgery that will sideline him for six-to-eight weeks. This has weakened the club both offensively and defensively.
Center fielder Dexter Fowler and outfielder-first baseman Tyler Colvin have hit well, but the track record of both provides ground for skepticism. Left fielder Carlos Gonzalez provides the only proven and still-productive Colorado bat.
The ballclub Colorado recently supplanted in last place looks like the sort that will continue to “contend” for the basement. San Diego’s Pythagorean record remains the worst in the division, and they enter the All-Star break in front of the Rockies by mere percentage points.
The Padres’ pitching hasn’t been bad—neither has it been good, but it hasn’t been bad. In Clayton Richard and Edinson Volquez, they’ve had two reliable starters, and particularly since closer Huston Street returned from the DL in early June, the bullpen has been solid. But the offensive lineup the Padres trot out there has been dismal.
They did finally get their team batting average above the .220s in June, but they remain last in the league in that category and don’t yet have a hitter in double figures in home runs. To be sure, Petco Park in San Diego is a pitcher-friendly environment, but this is no mere park illusion. The Padres are just a weak-hitting team.
The offense enjoyed a brief episode of vitalization at the end of May and beginning of June when Carlos Quentin finally made his San Diego debut following knee surgery and immediately hit up a storm. But he’s since slumped.
Just two years ago at this point, the Padres—featuring, of course, a certain Adrian Gonzalez—were flying along in first place, on the way to finishing a close second. It seems ages ago.
Underperforming in Arizona
The division’s defending champion Arizona Diamondbacks remain a distinct disappointment at the halfway point of 2012. After a dreadful 11-17 performance in May, the D-backs appeared to have gotten things figured out, winning 16 of their first 25 games in June. But they then proceeded to drop six in a row, including a three-game sweep at home at the hands of the lowly Padres, to fall back below .500.
What’s gone wrong for the team that was so good in 2011? The biggest setback has been the implosion of starting pitcher Daniel Hudson, a breakout star a year ago, being pummeled to the tune of a 7.35 ERA in nine 2012 starts before bowing out to undergo Tommy John surgery. But that’s been far from the only issue, as one need look no further than Ian Kennedy, Hudson’s co-ace of 2011, being quite hittable in 2012, surrendering 120 hits—including 12 home runs—in 108 innings.
Ryan Roberts, the utility man who surprised with a solid contribution as the regular third baseman last year, has become forgettable again this time around. Center fielder Chris Young has spent time on the DL with a shoulder injury, and recently found himself spending time on the bench as his batting average has nosedived toward the Mendoza Line. Right fielder Justin Upton, the dynamic all-around young star of 2011, has been little more than so-so in the first half of 2012.
Yet even without Hudson, the Diamondbacks would seem still capable of putting together a run and becoming a factor in the division race over the second half. The Arizona bullpen remains deep and talented. Right-hander Trevor Cahill and sophomore lefty Wade Miley have been strong starters, and 21-year-old phenom Trevor Bauer has blazed through the minors so impressively that Arizona has decided to find out if he’s ready for The Show.
Thirty-year-old journeyman second baseman Aaron Hill has been outstanding so far this year. Sophomore first baseman Paul Goldschmidt has heated up after a slow start and may be emerging as a slugging star. This season has been frustrating for the Diamondbacks to this point, but it would be premature to write them off 2012 just yet. Taking three out of four from the Dodgers to close out the first half, capped off by Bauer delivering six shutout innings for his first big league win, might prove to be a turning point.
From mid-May to late June, the San Francisco Giants went 29-16, climaxing in a franchise-record four consecutive shutouts, and landing in first place. But since then they’ve failed to achieve back-to-back victories and slipped back into second, wrapping up the first half with a listless 1-5 road swing through the sweltering Eastern time zone.
That outstanding starting pitching has been the foundation of San Francisco success is to the surprise of no one. What is startling is the fact that the 2012 Giants have maneuvered themselves into contention while receiving what can only be described as a horrendous performance from erstwhile ace Tim Lincecum.
“What’s wrong with Timmy?” has been the perplexing question facing the franchise this year. No clear answer is apparent, but whatever the reason, The Freak has never before encountered anything approaching the struggle he’s gone through over this first half. The Giants have steadfastly stuck with him, not sitting Lincecum down for as much as a single turn. But given that we’ve arrived at the All-Star break, the team is 4-14 in Lincecum's starts, and his ERA sits at a hideous 6.42, it seems they’ll have to reconsider that approach. Something’s got to give.
Lincecum’s misery has marred what would otherwise be a glittering 2012 Giants pitching staff. Matt Cain has emerged from Lincecum’s shadow as an elite ace, his June 13th perfect game merely the highlight of a brilliant season overall. Thirty-four-year-old Ryan Vogelsong has proven that his 2011 breakthrough was no fluke. Twenty-two-year-old Madison Bumgarner continues to develop as one of the best young starters in the game. And Barry Zito has bounced back from an injury-ruined 2011 to perform again as what would be a first-rate No. 5 starter, if only Lincecum would allow Zito to fill that role.
In the Giants’ bullpen, right-hander Sergio Romo continues his amazing run. Since the beginning of 2011, Romo has worked 73 innings and allowed just 40 hits and 10 unintentional walks while striking out 100, and his ERA has been 1.23.
The San Francisco offense has been up and down. The great news is that left fielder Melky Cabrera is proving to have arrived as a superb all-around performer at the age of 27. With catcher Buster Posey and third baseman Pablo Sandoval again healthy, the middle of the Giants’ order has been quite productive.
But the lineup overall doesn’t hit many home runs or draw many walks, and that’s not a good combination. A key player going forward likely will be sophomore first baseman Brandon Belt, who does draw walks. If The Baby Giraffe begins delivering the long ball with some regularity—and there's good reason to believe he can—this ballclub may prove tough to beat in the second half, even if Lincecum doesn’t come around.
Hanging on in L.A.
Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers have cooled off following their scorching early-season pace. Initially, they forestalled a tailspin when superstar center fielder Matt Kemp got hurt, but when the slump hit, it was a doozie. Their offense went into full hibernation in the second half of June. The low point was being shut out in five out of six games while getting knocked out of first place.
The Dodgers have subsequently regained the division lead, but it remains the case that only once since June 15 have they scored more than five runs in a game. With right fielder Andre Ethier recently landing on the DL as well, the Los Angeles “attack” has been remarkably feeble.
The good news is that Kemp is due to return following the All-Star break, and the Dodgers hope his recovery won’t be as short-lived as it was in late May. They need him very badly.
The Los Angeles pitching staff has been outstanding, including a surprisingly excellent contribution from 33-year-old journeyman starter Chris Capuano.
But even if Kemp returns as good as new, the Dodgers will need to continue to depend heavily upon their pitchers. Their lineup remains riddled with holes, none more glaring than the crater at first base, where incumbent James Loney—who’s never developed as the hitter it seemed he would—has been completely unproductive. The Dodgers attempted, but failed, to acquire Carlos Lee to fill that void, and it seems clear that they’ll need to import at least one new bat if they expect to hold the division lead all the way to the end.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.