NL West: a shift in the balance of power

Since our last visit, the National League West Division has encountered dramatic changes aplenty.

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Rock(y) bottom

Consider this dreary trend: in the month of May, 2012, the Colorado Rockies achieved a Pythagorean record of 13-15 but underperformed against it to yield an actual won-lost performance of 10-18. In June, their run differential declined and their Pythag mark was 10-17, and they slightly underperformed against that by slogging in at 9-18. And in July, the Rockies’ Pythagorean record sagged all the way to 7-17, a run differential so dismal that they couldn’t manage to underperform it, putting up an actual record of 7-17 for the month.

It seemed to be a team playing down to its misfortune, as though saying, “You might not think we’re really this bad, so we’ll prove to you that we are.”

At any rate, it adds up to a three-month span of 26-53 baseball, otherwise known as a season-wrecker. It scarcely matters how well the Rockies might do the rest of the way: 2012 has proven to be an irretrievable disaster for them.

Long since deciding he has nothing to lose, manager Jim Tracy has stuck with the four-man, 75-pitch-limit starting rotation approach he adopted in late June. He hasn’t stuck with the same four men, however, instead taking the opportunity to try out various youngsters (plus one veteran rehab project in Jeff Francis) in the role while dedicating the extra arm to the vast and heavily-worked (and, in truth, not bad) Colorado bullpen.

The starters haven’t exactly blossomed under this schedule, with a second-half aggregate ERA of 6.52 compared to a first-half mark of 6.11 (yes, you read those numbers correctly), but, hey, at least it’s a learning experience for everyone.

A sliver of hope amid the Rocky Mountain gloom is that star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, sidelined with a groin injury since June, has been progressing well in his rehabilitation and should rejoin the lineup in early September.

Padres discover a pulse

An interesting thing happened to the 2012 San Diego Padres along the way to their second straight losing season. In the month of July, they suddenly rediscovered a capacity to score a run here and there.

Granted, the San Diego July scoring rate of 4.7 runs per game wasn’t evoking comparisons to the 1927 Yankees, but consider that rate in contrast to what came before: 3.9 runs per game in June, 3.3 in May, and 3.1 in April.

Finding themselves in possession of an offense at last, the Padres put together a 15-11 month in July for their first winning month (that involved more than three games) since August of 2010. The key lineup change in July was the installation at first-string catcher of 23-year-old hot-hitting rookie Yasmani Grandal (who was subsequently sidelined with an oblique injury, returning last Friday).

It would be naïve to conclude that these Padres have suddenly turned a big corner. The entire season remains a much larger sample than any single month, and on the basis of the entire season, the 2012 San Diego roster still contains more holes than highlights. But the first winning month in nearly two years is a pretty big deal.

It may not be naïve to suggest that with third baseman Chase Headley, left fielder Carlos Quentin, and Grandal in place on a sustained basis in the 3-4-5 slots in the order, the Padres have at last stopped the offensive bleeding they’ve suffered since trading away slugger Adrian Gonzalez. This ball club may not be healthy, but its condition apparently has stabilized.

The Arizona enigma

There may not be anything more complicated to read into it than a bit of bad luck, but if the division race was based on Pythagorean record, the Arizona Diamondbacks would be in first place at 66-55, a half-game ahead of the Dodgers, and two games ahead of the Giants.

However, they don’t configure the standings that way, and based on actual record, the D-backs remain in third, 4.5 games back, certainly not out of the race but not intimately in it, either. Such has been the posture of the division’s defending champion nearly all season.

A sense of frustration has so pervaded the Arizona atmosphere that as the July 31 trade deadline approached, the ball club apparently was seriously contemplating dealing away Justin Upton, their 24-year-old right fielder who was fourth in National League MVP balloting last year.

To be sure, Upton, playing through nagging injuries, has presented a distinctly disappointing performance in 2012, with his power numbers well below par. But the notion of giving up on a player this young, with this much talent, midseason in a division race that’s anything but settled, is baffling. Still, the D-backs ultimately decided to hang on to Upton, and manager Kirk Gibson publicly (if belatedly) came to his young star’s defense.

Though a hot spurt along the lines of a 10-out-of-12 or 15-out-of-20 has eluded these Rattlers all season long, such an achievement is certainly within their capability, and if it happens, they will be intimately nestled within the thick of this race. A return to top form from Upton obviously would facilitate it, but the Arizona roster is good enough to contend even without that. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt, left fielder Jason Kubel, and catcher Miguel Montero provide meaningful middle-of-the-order thump, and most significantly, the unheralded Diamondback pitching staff is deep and strong.

The Snakes remain dangerously coiled within striking distance. And, of course, the Arizona and Los Angeles chances became suddenly and significantly improved with the bombshell that exploded in northern California last week.

So much for those “Melk-man” costumes

The 50-game PED suspension leveled against the 2012 All-Star Game MVP cannot be assessed as anything other than a devastating blow to the San Francisco Giants. Left fielder Melky Cabrera had been delivering a marvelous all-around performance, and there’s simply no way the Giants can plausibly replace that contribution.

Even though the Giants took two of three in San Diego in their first Melky-less series, they lost their precarious possession of first place while doing it, and thus have to all too well understand the severity of their challenge.

Yet as huge as the loss of Cabrera is, the Giants have other big-time weapons at their disposal. Remember the starting catcher in the All-Star Game, presenting a splendid (for a catcher) offensive line of .289/.362/.458? All Buster Posey has done in 33 games since is hit .424/.497/.746 and place himself on the short list of NL MVP candidates. And with Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong in the starting rotation, this team is quite losing-streak resistant.

While former ace Tim Lincecum has hardly regained top form, his ERA since the All-Star break has been a refreshingly respectable 3.30. While newly-acquired right fielder Hunter Pence spent most of July and August mired in a slump, the notoriously streaky power hitter may be poised to heat up again, and though even a hot Pence wouldn’t fully replace Cabrera, such a presence would serve to mitigate Melky’s absence.

Speaking of streaky, how about sophomore first baseman Brandon Belt? His May line: .203/.338/.313. Then June: .296/.400/.563. Then July: .186/.266/.214 (with 30 strikeouts in 70 at-bats!). But then, August so far: .412/.483/.549. On crazy balance he’s been pretty good, and if the Baby Giraffe can convert his doubles power into some home run production, the Giants’ offense should remain more than adequate to win behind the kind of pitching they can feature.

The slippery momentum in L.A.

The 2012 Los Angeles Dodgers’ season has been a wild roller coaster ride of its own, careening from soaring streaks to injury-fueled funks. At various points so far they’ve won nine of 12, 11 of 13, and nine of 10, and also lost seven of nine, seven of eight, and 11 of 12.

But in recent weeks this Dodger ball club has again taken on its formidable aspect. In mid-July, star outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier returned to the lineup from DL stints, and toward the end of the month, clever deadline deals added two more much-needed bats in shortstop-third baseman Hanley Ramirez and outfielder Shane Victorino at little short-term cost.

Thus, the Dodgers entered August as a contender to be feared, and their performance in the month thus far has not disappointed at 11-6, placing them, as of now, on top of the see-saw battle for the division’s top spot. Ramirez in particular has been tremendous, emerging from his Floridian doldrums to drive in 27 runs in his first 24 LA games. There remain a couple of problems, namely infield depth and offensive production from first base, but this lineup core resting on a superb pitching foundation is a combination that’s tough to beat.

Still, neither the Dodgers nor anyone else has gained any late-season separation. Here we are in late August, and the NL West race remains an utter toss-up. The three-game showdown between the Dodgers and Giants commencing this evening in Chavez Ravine should be a really good one, as in their two prior meetings, each of these contenders has swept the other as a visitor.

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