NL West:  Questions and, answers?

As an overview of the season’s early weeks of action in the National League West division, how about we focus on some of the key questions that each team is seeking to answer?

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Here at THT we did our annual pre-season “Five Questions” assessments of these ball clubs toward the end of spring training. So now for each team, let’s choose one of those questions and find out what the answer appears to be as of early May.

Why don’t we start with the San Diego Padres, whose “Five Questions” article was written by Geoff Young. And let’s just go with Geoff’s first question, since it’s a doozy:

How do the Padres replace Adrian Gonzalez?

Geoff’s pithy reply to his own question summed it up pretty well: “They don’t.” But they have endeavored to try, by installing a left/right platoon of journeymen Brad Hawpe and Jorge Cantu.

Certainly, the Padres weren’t expecting great things from Hawpe/Cantu. But it was reasonable to expect the duo to provide acceptable placeholder performance until 21-year-old Anthony Rizzo, part of the package received from Boston in exchange for Gonzalez, ripens on the farm. However, in the season’s early weeks that surely hasn’t happened, as neither Hawpe nor Cantu has hit half a lick.

In trading Gonzalez as he did, San Diego General Manager Jed Hoyer was essentially punting on the 2011 season, admitting that his 2010 team’s almost-winning-it performance was a surprise even to him, and not reflective of where he saw them in the success cycle.

No one, including Padres management, expects the ball club to strongly contend this year. But if they spend the entire year getting the ghastly offensive output at first base that they’ve gotten so far, they’ll be helping to bury themselves in the basement, which isn’t what they bargained for, either.

Meanwhile, in the early going Rizzo has been tearing it up in Triple-A. Obviously, Hoyer doesn’t want to rush the youngster, but if the Hawpe/Cantu improvisation doesn’t start yielding better results soon, young Mr. Rizzo may be making his major league debut sooner than scheduled.

Now let’s go to Phoenix, and consider one of the questions posed by Jim McLennan:

Will the bullpen improve?

Like the Padres, the Arizona Diamondbacks have no expectations to field a winner in 2011. They’re just hoping to improve upon their dismal dead-last finishes of the past couple of years. And if that’s going to happen, their relief pitching simply has to be better, because the Arizona bullpen in 2010 was an advanced training seminar for arsonists.

GM Kevin Towers hasn’t expended a whole lot of resources to address it. He did sign mid-tier free agent J.J. Putz to serve as the new closer, but the rest of the ‘pen is a collection of no-names, a few of whom were among those tossing Molotov cocktails last year.

Nevertheless, in the early going the results have been good; not great, but good. Putz has been solid, and while small-sample-size caveats definitely apply, a couple of unheralded 25-year-old rookies, right-hander Joshua Collmenter and left-hander Joe Paterson, have been quite effective. David Hernandez, a 26-year-old working as a full-time reliever for his first time, is also doing well.

The D-backs starting rotation is, um, shaky, so this bullpen is in for a most challenging test over the course of the long season. But they’re off to a good start.

Okay, how about we motor over to Los Angeles, and consider the multi-million-dollar question asked by Greg Simons:

How will the ownership saga impact the team?

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any crazier with the McCourt divorce proceedings and all, it’s recently gotten even more surreal, as MLB has announced its intention to take over operation of the franchise against owner Frank McCourt’s wishes. As ownership sagas go, this is one you’d have to call “high maintenance.”

Normally. when media pundits surmise that the players on a team experiencing financial difficulties/ownership change will be distracted, and therefore perform less than their best, there’s good reason to be skeptical. One rather suspects that most players don’t pay all that much attention to the suits in the front office.

Normally.

But this ain’t normally. Financial difficulties? The reports we’re hearing is that McCourt has been struggling to manage the cash flow well enough to make payroll. One very strongly suspects that when there are issues around whether an ownership will be able to issue paychecks that don’t bounce, most players pay very close attention. One has a hard time imagining how this particular ownership saga could fail to distract the players from a pure on-the-field focus.

For what it’s worth, the Dodgers haven’t played very well so far in 2011. What many saw as a potentially contending team has wallowed under .500. The good news is that their centerpiece outfield stars, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, have both performed sensationally. The bad news is that almost no one else has hit well, and the pitching staff—expected to be the team’s anchor strength—hasn’t been good, with the bullpen in particular disarray.

It’s impossible to know, of course, to what degree the McCourt soap opera can be blamed for the ball club’s lackluster start. But one can conclude with complete confidence that it sure hasn’t helped.

All righty then, let’s turn our attention to the Dodgers’ arch-enemy, the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants. It was yours truly asking questions about them. Let’s consider this one:

Will that 37-year-old be able to handle shortstop?

In the off-season, the Giants signed ultra-veteran Miguel Tejada to take over as their primary shortstop, in what might be considered a signature Brian Sabean move. Many such moves undertaken by Sabean over the years have turned out quite satisfactorily.

And so might this one, as of course it is still early in 2011. But it’s clearly the case that so far, this move has turned out anything but satisfactorily. Tejada has neither fielded nor hit anything close to well. Currently he’s been shifted to third base while Pablo Sandoval is disabled with a broken hand, and utilityman Mike Fontenot has taken over at short. Thus far, Fontenot has played circles around Tejada.

Now, Fontenot is a first-rate utility infielder. He’s a fine guy to have available to come off your bench. But no one mistakes Fontenot for a long-term answer at shortstop—yet he’s played far better than the guy the Giants had been counting on as their starter. Thus, recently rumors have been abundant about the Giants possibly trading for Jose Reyes, who obviously would more than plug the hole at shortstop (at least for 2011), but the question is, at what cost?

The defending-champ Giants haven’t played poorly so far this season, but neither have they yet played very well. They’ve suffered a rash of injuries, and their offense has been paltry. But whatever else they might do over the rest of the long season, if Tejada doesn’t eventually get his game in gear, they’re going to have to do something about shortstop.

Finally, let’s take a look at the Colorado Rockies, who’ve held first place since just about the get-go. Among the questions Ben Pritchett asked was this one:

Is Ubaldo Jimenez a bona fide ace?

So far in 2011, he hasn’t been. He was dealt the setback of a cracked cuticle, and had to spend a couple of weeks on the DL as that healed, and in his four starts since, the 27-year-old Jimenez hasn’t yet delivered one that’s been particularly ace-like.

His most recent outing was his best, against the Giants last Friday night, allowing just two hits and one run over six innings (though these are the Giants, for whom that’s been pretty much the standard six innings of offensive output recently), but he also walked five and labored through a lot of deep counts, throwing 118 pitches. Through his first 26 innings of work this young season, Jimenez is carrying a bloated 5.88 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP.

Of course, Jimenez may yet sharpen up and re-command leadership of the Colorado staff. And the Rockies have been in first place despite his meager contribution. But even though they’ve led nearly the whole way, there is a sense of missed opportunity with these 2011 Rockies.

They jumped out to a great start as the Giants and Dodgers stumbled, but the Rockies have since stalled out as well, failing to seize the chance to mount a dramatic early-season lead. By losing both of their head-to-head series against the Giants so far, they’ve allowed San Francisco to get right back in it.

Colorado is the team many of us predicted to win the NL West this year. Their roster is rich in outstanding young talent, Jimenez among the most prominent. If this squad is to hold first place , that achievement will likely require its big boys, including not only Jimenez but also left fielder Carlos Gonzalez, who’s also off to a slow start, to step up and lead the way.

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Comments

  1. Obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Plus the Giants have played a vast majority of games on the road, even the best teams end up around .500 on the road, so that is a strong factor in why their start is not that stellar, plus that negative will get worse to June 3rd, plus they got swept at home by Braves, skewing results.

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