National League West:  Questions, answered?

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The 2013 campaign has rounded its Memorial Day curve, coming up on one-third of the way to the regular season finish. Samples are still small as these things go, but getting less so each day. This provides us with an opportunity to offer some tentative assessments of how things are shaping up in the National League West. Are events unfolding as expected, or are we being surprised?

We’ll approach it by examining one of the questions posed by each Hardball Times N.L. West-assigned writer back in spring training as part of our annual “Five Questions” series, and ponder what sort of answers are coming into view.

What should we expect from the Padres’ rotation?

So queried Glenn DuPaul back on the 20th of March. As Glenn observed:

In 2012, the Padres’ starting rotation was unquestionably bad. Their starters ranked second-last in the National League in adjusted ERA, 122, and last in adjusted fielding independent pitching (FIP), 121.

It is extremely difficult to be a successful major league team without good starting pitching. … the outlook is not too promising for the Padres’ starters and 2013 could look far too similar to the 2012 season.

So, we couldn’t realistically expect much from the Padres’ rotation. And thus far in 2013, they haven’t delivered much.

Southpaw Clayton Richard, the workhorse leading the unimposing 2012 San Diego staff with 33 starts and 219 innings, got thoroughly roughed up in six early-season outings before landing on the Disabled List with a nasty gastrointestinal bug. So far his year has been, um, you-know-what.

Righty Edinson Volquez probably presents the best stuff of any Padres starter, but he remains erratic, still laboring to rediscover effectiveness. Rookie Burch Smith, with just 34 minor league appearances under his belt, and none of them as high as Triple-A, was promoted and given three starts this month, but was pounded so mercilessly (four home runs, 16 hits, and 15 runs in seven-and-a-third loud innings) that he was sent right back down.

Thirty-three-year-old knockabout left-hander Eric Stults, who was surprisingly effective in a late-season opportunity as a San Diego starter last year, has been nothing more than mediocre so far in 2013.

The only bright spots in the rotation have been 26-year-old Andrew Cashner, an erstwhile reliever who’s performed solidly in seven starts since late April, and 34-year-old veteran Jason Marquis, who’s 6-2 with a 3.70 ERA, but an FIP of 5.75 and a spotty track record suggest the Padres can’t count on that.

Thus the Friars, who surprised with a 42-33 second half in 2012, have regressed to sluggish still-rebuilding mode in 2013. Last year’s hot streak was driven by a suddenly awakened San Diego offense, and the Padres are hitting well again. But through Sunday’s games, their mound staff was last in the league (by wide margins) in both FIP (4.54) and xFIP (4.39), as problematic starting pitching remains a major obstacle blocking their path to competitiveness.

The division’s other Southern California ball club came into 2013 with heightened expectations stimulated by a lavish payroll. Among the Dodgers’ several $20 million men is their left fielder, coming off miserable back-to-back injury-and-slump-ridden seasons in Boston. Vince Caramela asked,

How much can we expect from Carl Crawford?

Vince was less than enthusiastically optimistic:

With $105 million owed through the 2017 season, the acquisition of Crawford represents one of the biggest gambles the Dodgers made last season. Crawford will begin the season at the age of 31, a time of slight decline for speed players, so it would be naive for us to expect him to return 2009 and 2010 levels.

Yet so far that’s just pretty close to what Crawford has done. Making remarkable recoveries from both wrist and elbow (the latter “Tommy John,” in fact) surgeries, he’s been consistently productive with the bat, and looking quite a bit like his forceful old self on the bases and in the field. He’d generated 1.8 WAR through Sunday, a 6.1 pace that would in fact put him above his 2009 (5.6) performance, though still well below his career-best 2010 (7.4).

Very few other developments have been positive so far in Los Angeles, of course. Decimated by injuries and reeling into last place, the Dodger mood has been foul, with manager Don Mattingly widely considered a dead man walking, and Mattingly in turn publicly criticizing the effort of his players, in particular right fielder Andre Ethier. But so far at least, the vigorous bounce-back by Crawford has meant one less headache for Mattingly.

And despite all the many things that have gone dead wrong for the Dodgers in 2013, they aren’t buried yet. It isn’t all that difficult to imagine a scenario in which a couple of guys come back from injuries, and maybe a couple of guys—like Ethier or, say, center fielder Matt Kemp—hit something more like their normal stride, and L.A. claws its way back into it. And especially if that happens, Crawford’s turnaround season might turn out to be a big story.

Whither the Freak?

Yours truly pondered the 2013 outlook for the Dodgers’ traditional arch-rival, and focused a question on former ace Tim Lincecum:

The Giants won the 2012 division title despite a terrible season from Tim Lincecum. That’s a formulation highly unlikely to be repeated. In 2013, an outcome far more liable to play out is simply this: as goes the Freak, so will go the Giants.

To the extent that that bold assertion comes true, the Giants may have reason to worry. Because the Freak isn’t going so hot thus far in 2013.

The good news is that Lincecum’s peripheral stats yield a FIP of 3.78 and an xFIP of 3.29, both dramatically better than his ERA of 4.75. The bad news is that, you know, his ERA is 4.75, which resembles his disastrous 2012 mark of 5.18 a heck of a lot more than his 2.98 career ERA going into 2012.

It’s all too clear that Lincecum just doesn’t deliver the high-end velocity he once did, and neither has he mastered the kind of command that would allow him to consistently get ahead in counts or to reliably hit corners. That means that the movement on his curve, change, and slider, while still nasty, are being asked to do a lot of heavy lifting. He isn’t a bad pitcher by any means, but it’s becoming more and more evident that 2012 wasn’t just an off-year in the ongoing career of an ace, but the turning point at which his days as an ace became a thing of the past.

This is particularly concerning to the 2013 Giants, because the depth of starting pitching which has been their foundational strength for the past several years has been conspicuously absent. Only Madison Bumgarner has been consistently effective. They’ll have a very hard time repeating as champs without a resurgence in the rotation, and it doesn’t look as though the Freak is capable of leading it.

Derek Ambrosino’s assignment this spring was to ponder the Colorado Rockies, who tumbled to last place in 2012 with a franchise-worst-ever 64-98 record. The defining feature of that rockslide was a pathetic starting staff, with which then-manager Jim Tracy experimented with a 75-pitch-per-outing limit along the way to such feeble results that “ace” Jeff Francis led the rotation with 24 starts, 113 innings, and six wins.

Thus a question posed by Derek was quite logically,

What to do about the pitching staff?

Incoming rookie manager Walt Weiss scrapped Tracy’s approach and has reinstated an orthodox five-man rotation. And the results so far have been highly encouraging.

Francis struggled in eight early-season starts before being DL’ed with a groin strain, and reclamation project Jon Garland hasn’t impressed. But everyone else has done all right.

Thirty-two-year-old southpaw Jorge de la Rosa has rebounded from two injury-plagued seasons to provide solid performance. And three young right-handers, Juan Nicasio (26 years old), Jhoulys Chacin (25) and Tyler Chatwood (23, recalled from the minors to replace Francis) have been steady as well. The result has been a starting staff that’s hardly imposing, but which has replaced the chaos of 2012 with calm solidity.

Anchored by a deep and excellent bullpen, the Colorado pitching staff has jumped all the way from tied-for-14th with a team ERA+ of 91 in 2012 to a second-best in the league mark of 121 through Sunday’s games. That, along with the return to health of superstar shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, explains why last year’s cellar-dwellers are right in the thick of the battle for first place so far in 2013. All it’s-still-early caveats acknowledged, these darn fine Rockies are the division’s most surprising development.

The NL West ball club presenting the most, well, interesting offseason was the Arizona Diamondbacks. As Jeff Moore wondered back in March:

How much is grit worth?

He elaborated:

The Arizona Diamondbacks haven’t gone so far as to create a sixth tool, but it has been clear this offseason that they are looking for players who embody the persona of their manager, noted hard-noser Kirk Gibson, and are ridding themselves of players who don’t fit this mentality.

Every team loves to have gritty players. … But unless those players also have talent, they wouldn’t really want a team full of them.

… I don’t know if the Diamondbacks are actually trying to build an entire team consisting of these kinds of players, but it sure seems that way. Nothing signified this more than their winter-long attempt to trade outfielder Justin Upton and their acquisition of Martin Prado in return, one of the game’s best gritty players.

But in their pursuit of players who fit the mentality of their manager, they forgot one thing—in addition to being quite gritty both in his playing and managing days, Gibson was also a really good baseball player. In fact, he was a star.

The D-backs had a star in Upton, but apparently he wasn’t their kind of player.

… This offseason the Diamondbacks moved Upton … with the only justification being philosophical.

The good news for Gibson (and general manager Kevin Towers) is that so far in 2013 the D-backs have improved upon their 81-81, third place 2012 finish to be battling the Giants and Rockies for first. The bad news is that it would amount to a stretch of mega-gritty intensity to conclude that their improvement has been because of the Upton-for-Prado swap rather than despite it.

Because through Sunday, all the 25-year-old Upton had done for his new team, the Atlanta Braves, was lay out a league-leading home run pace while compiling 2.1 WAR. Meanwhile Prado, the scrappy 29-year-old infield-outfield supersub, has struggled with the bat to such a degree that his WAR contribution has been negative, at -0.5.

It is, of course, impossible to know if in fact the overall strength of the Arizona performance in 2013 has been caused by an improvement in their collective emotional attitude, and if so to what extent. Just because we can’t measure something doesn’t mean it isn’t real and significant.

But within the realm of what we can measure, in this case the comparative statistical performance of Upton versus Prado, we see a stark deficit accruing to Arizona. Thus if indeed the team’s net 2013 improvement is a result of improved grit, then the answer to Jeff’s query is that grit is worth remarkably enormous quantities.

Now, I’m as sincere a proponent of the importance of chemistry and heart and, yes, grit, in athletic performance, especially in team sports, as you’re likely to encounter. But consider me highly skeptical that this particular Arizona Upton-for-Prado stratagem has been, or will prove to be, anything but an overreactive blunder.

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Comments

  1. Fenderbelly said...

    Nice summary, Steve. Despite the Giant’s success, this division is a race to the bottom.

    On a personal note- suck it, Dodgers.

  2. RoundHeadedKid said...

    The depth of the Snakes starting rotation will win the division, despite Towers’ best efforts to ruin the young, athletic team he inherited.

  3. Krog said...

    I had thought that the Rockies were the worst organization in baseball before the season started, so it’s shocking to me that they are doing so well. It’s amazing what a healthy Tulowitzki and not terrible rotation can do for a franchise.

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