NL West spring preview: Vets concern champ Giants, rebuilt Dodgers
NL West spring training preview (cont.)
This week, Cliff Corcoran will break down what to watch in each team's camp as part of SI.com's spring training preview. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2012. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in major league camp but has not yet debuted in the major leagues.
The Big Question: Was Tim Lincecum's 2012 season a fluke or a fall?
In 2012, Lincecum went from being one of the best starting pitchers in baseball to one of the worst, ranking dead last in adjusted ERA+ among the 121 major leaguers with at least 120 innings pitched after ranking 10th in the NL in that category the year before. Though he did re-emerge as a valuable weapon in a multi-inning relief role in the postseason, he was also hit hard in his lone postseason start, thus failing to quell concerns about a return to the rotation for 2013.
Looking at the elements of Lincecum's 2012 performance, his postseason relief dominance and robust regular-season strikeout rate (9.2 K/9) were encouraging, but his decreased velocity (his fastball was roughly two miles per hour slower on average during the regular season than the year before) and increased wildness (a career high 4.4 walks per nine innings and major league-leading 17 wild pitches) suggest underlying physical problems. Velocity and control are things that tend to show improvement over the course of the exhibition schedule as pitchers round into regular season shape. If those things don't happen for Lincecum this spring, the Giants have significant cause for concern.
The Big Battle: Leftfield
Because he wasn't a part of their postseason, it's easy to forget that Melky Cabrera hit .346/.390/.516 over 113 games as the Giants' leftfielder last year, a performance worth nearly five wins per Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR). This year, the candidates to replace that production are incumbent Gregor Blanco, 2010-11 centerfielder AndresTorres and 26-year-old rookie Roger Kieschnick, who hit .306/.376/.604 in 250 plate appearances for Triple-A Fresno last year.
Blanco and Torres are speed-and-defense options coming off comparably sub-par seasons at the plate in which they slugged around .340 and reached base at roughly a .330 clip. Kieschnick is a bat-first alternative but not one that fits comfortably into a platoon as both he and Blanco are lefties and switch-hitter Torres is historically stronger from the left side of the plate. Despite Kieschnick's strong showing in Fresno and the now-35-year-old Torres' five-win campaign in 2010, none is likely to sufficiently replace Cabrera's production. It's true that the Giants won more often in 2012 after Cabrera's drug suspension than before it, but they did so despite their downgrade in leftfield, not because of it, something they'll have to do again in 2013 given their current options at the position.
The Big Prospect: CF Gary Brown
A full season in Double-A last year revealed Brown's 2011 batting line to be something of the California League fluke many had suspected, but his aggregate minor league line of .302/.374/.444 is still something scouts think he can deliver at the major league level in combination with above-average defense in center field and speed on the bases. Last season called attention to some of the flaws in Brown's game -- for all his speed, he's a low-percentage basestealer, and his patience and power at the plate leave something to be desired -- but all the tools are there. Given the Giants' uncertainty in left field, a good first half in Triple-A could earn Brown, 24, a chance to make that position his at the major league level.
The Big Question: Can Carl Crawford return to his All-Star form?
In his final two season with the Rays in 2009 and '10, Carl Crawford hit .306/.360/.473 (125 OPS+), while averaging 155 games, 54 steals (at an 80 percent success rate), double digits in all three extra-base-hit categories and 5.7 bWAR per season, making the All-Star team both years, and adding a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and top-10 MVP finish in 2010. He then signed a $142 million contract with the Red Sox and in the In two seasons since then, he has played in a total of just 161 games and hit a mere .260/.292/.419 (89 OPS+) while failing to contribute a full half win above replacement level.
The primary reasons for the lefthanded Crawford's collapse were injuries to his left wrist and elbow, both of which required surgery, the latter prompting Tommy John surgery last August. That surgery came just days before the Dodgers acquired Crawford in a nine-player swap with the Red Sox that saw L.A. take on more than $250 million in financial commitments, including the $102.5 million Crawford is owed over the next five seasons. The Dodgers have bet big on Crawford, but is that bet likely to pay off?
Crawford started throwing in mid January and is expected to be on pace with the rest of the team's regulars in spring training and in leftfield on Opening Day. The time off did rest his legs, which are essential to his game as much of his value is tied up in defense and baseruning. Still, he was 27 and 28 in his final two seasons with the Rays but enters camp at 31 needing to prove both that his left wing is healthy and that his game, which is also highly dependent on his ability to hit for a solid average given his total lack of on-base skills, didn't atrophy last year, a season in which he started just 30 games.
The Big Battle: Starting rotation
If the Dodgers had their way, they'd open the season with a rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley and Korean lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu. However, that quintet leaves no room for Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang or Ted Lilly.
Capuano and Harang were both a tick above league average over a combined 64 starts for Los Angeles last year, and Lilly has a 115 ERA+ over the last six years and is thus far on pace in his rehab from labrum surgery to compete for rotation spot in camp. Billingsley, who spent the offseason rehabbing a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament and flexor tendon in his pitching elbow, and Ryu, who is unproven state-side, are the most likely of that initial quartet to yield to a challenger. If neither does, look for Capuano or Harang to be part of a late-March trade.
The Big Prospect: RF Yasiel Puig
The 22-year-old Puig defected from Cuba last May and signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Dodgers in late June, after which he raked in cups of coffee in hitter-friendly environments in Rookie ball and High-A (combined .354/.422/.634 in 95 plate appearances). He then struggled for Puerto Rico's Indios de Mayaguez in winter ball in an even smaller sample. Puig is a righthanded hitter with a powerful, athletic build that might prompt comparisons to countryman Yoenis Cespedes, but while he projects as a classic slugging rightfielder with a strong throwing arm, there are doubts about his speed and pure hitting ability. Getting to see him face even upper-minors-quality pitchers in major league camp could be informative.
The Big Question: Did GM Kevin Towers get enough in exchange for Justin Upton, Chris Young and Trevor Bauer?
When the Diamondbacks won the NL West in 2011, Upton and Young were their two most valuable regulars per bWAR, totalling 10.3 wins above replacement. In the amateur draft that June, the Diamondbacks made Bauer the third overall pick in the nation, then saw him arrive in camp a year ago as the ninth-best prospect in baseball per Baseball America and make his major league debut later that season. This offseason, Towers traded all three players (plus incumbent third baseman Chris Johnson) and received All-Star utility man Martin Prado, 23-year-old righty Randall Delgado, veteran set-up man Heath Bell, shortstop Cliff Pennington and an assortment of minor leaguers, none of whom rivalled Bauer's status as a prospect.
With rookie Adam Eaton ready to take over centerfield and Gerardo Parra around to back him up, Prado, a career .295/.345/.435 hitter capable of playing excellent defense at multiple positions, is a better fit for this team than Young, who was two months older. However, Bauer's future remains brighter (and, in terms of age and team control, one year longer) than that of Delgado, who projects as a mid-rotation starter at best. Free agent signess Cody Ross is an insufficient replacement for Upton, who was hampered by a thumb injury last year. Bell is 35 and will cost $10 million over the next two years. Pennington is yet another good-field, no-hit shortstop for a team that already had two of those.
It could be years before we can really answer to this question, but the absence of Upton, Young, and Bauer will be palpable in camp, and the pressure will be on the players expected to replace them.
The Big Battle: Fifth starter
Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley and Brandon McCarthy open camp with guaranteed rotation spots. That leaves sophomores Delgado, Patrick Corbin and top prospect Tyler Skaggs, a 21-year-old lefty with front-of-the-rotation potential, to battle over the fifth spot. (Third-year righty Josh Collmenter is a longshot alternative to that trio. )The runner-up will get McCarthy's spot once his pitching shoulder, which has sent him to the disabled list in each of the last four seasons, acts back up.
The Big Prospect: SS Chris Owings
Skaggs and Didi Gregorius made their major league debuts in 2012, and righty Archie Bradley, who was drafted four spots after Bauer in 2011, isn't on the team's official list of invitees to major league camp. That makes shortstop prospect Chris Owings the minor leaguer to watch in D-backs camp this spring.
The 21-year-old Owings was a first-supplemental-round pick in 2009 and split the 2012 season between High-A, where he raked, and Double-A, where he didn't. Owings has the tools to be a solid everyday shortstop in the majors, but his plate approach is dismal (6.6 strikeouts per walk in his minor league career with one walk every 23.6 plate appearances in 2012). If he can fix that one glaring hole in his game, he could render the acquisition of Gregorius in the Bauer deal moot (ironically making that trade even more painful for Arizona's fans), but that's easier said than done.
The Big Question: Can Jedd Gyorko handle second base?
Gyorko is a squat third baseman whose last name is pronounced "jerk-o." He's also a career .319/.385/.529 hitter in the minor leagues and coming off a season in which he hit .328/.380/.588 with 24 home runs in 408 plate appearances in Triple-A, so the Padres are determined to get him into their major league lineup. His bat is ready, but with Chase Headley coming off a near-MVP-quality season at third base, his position isn't.
With an eye toward this spring, the Padres had Gyorko play 47 games at second base last year in the hope he can push incumbent second baseman Logan Forsythe into a super-utility role this spring. Gyorko played second base up through high school and was actually a shortstop early in his collegiate career, but there remain some concerns about his ability to return to the middle infield now that he's filled out, and reports about his range are less than enthusiastic. Still, Gyorko need not be the second coming of Bill Mazeroski to bring value to the position, provided his bat translates from the hitting-friendly Pacific Coast League to pitcher-friendly Petco Park.
The Big Battle: Starting rotation
San Diego's rotation is wide open heading into camp. Edinson Volquez and Clayton Richard are the only two pitchers with guaranteed rotation spots. Jason Marquis' multi-million-dollar contract would seem to put him in the lead for a third, but the Padres don't have a single starting pitcher signed to a multi-year deal,.The group battling for the final three spots includes 25-year-old righty Anthony Bass, journeyman lefty Eric Stults, newly-acquired righty Tyson Ross, prospects Casey Kelly and Robbie Erlin and non-roster invitees Freddy Garcia and Tim Stauffer, the last of whom is a couple of weeks behind the rest due to late-August elbow surgery.
That's not a particularly inspiring bunch. The 33-year-old Stults was the only one of the pitchers above to have a major league ERA+ at or above league average in 2012, only Volquez and Richard threw more than 110 innings on the season and Erlin hasn't pitched above Double-A. Still, Kelly and Erlin are considered part of San Diego's long-term rotation plans, and Garcia could benefit from the favorable change in league and ballpark after experiencing a nice spike in his strikeout rate with the Yankees last year.
The Padres also hope to have Cory Luebke, Joe Wieland and Andrew Cashner back from injury (Tommy John surgery for the first two, a lacerated thumb tendon for the last) in the second-half of the season. Given that those three are also in the team's long-term plans, their impending return could make the coaching staff even more likely to play the hot hand coming out of camp, knowing that three strong months from Volquez, Marquis or Garcia could make them trade bait come July.
The Big Prospect: RF Rymer Liriano
Padres fans should be able to watch Gyorko in the major leagues all season, so the prospect to watch in camp is the 21-year-old Liriano, a five-tool talent who has already cracked Double-A. Liriano has yet to really fulfill his potential at the plate, particularly in the power department, and has been slow to adjust following in-season promotions. That makes a 2013 debut unlikely, but it's often said that the jump to Double-A is the hardest to make (prior to the majors, of course), and if he can make that adjustment this season, he could be in the mix for the Padres' outfield in 2014.
The Big Question: What's next for Project 5183?
Named after the elevation in feet of Coors Field, Project 5183 is Rockiesgeneral manager Dan O'Dowd's pet name for out-of-the-box solutions to building a pitching staff in Denver's thin air. Last June, that meant a shift to a four-man rotation with each starter limited to 75 pitchers and followed by pre-determined "piggyback" relievers, also pitching in rotation. O'Dowd is working with an expanded pitching-coach hierarchy this season, topped by former pitching coach Mark Wiley in the newly-created front-office position of "director of pitching operations." The bullpen coach position, manned by former roving pitching instructor Bo McLaughlin, has been upgraded, at least in name, to "assistant pitching coach."
If they can settle on a plan, O'Dowd, Wiley, McLaughlin and returning pitching coach Jim Wright are unlikely to get much pushback from rookie manager Walt Weiss. Early indications are that the Rockies will go with a conventional five-man rotation, but given the relative strength of their rotation and bullpen, a quick hook for the starters and a rotation of piggyback middle relievers may still be in play.
The Big Battle: First base
His recent DUI arrest aside, Todd Helton will enter camp as Colorado's starting first baseman, but as he mercifully enters the final year of the contract he initially signed back in March of 2001 (and which was inexplicably extended three years ago), the Rockies need to be realistic about how much they can expect from the 39-year-old coming off hip and knee surgeries. Helton has averaged 109 games per season over the last five years, was healthy enough to make just 283 plate appearances in 2012.
Tyler Colvin, Eric Young Jr. and Jordan Pacheco -- who should cede third base back to Chris Nelson -- are all ticketed for reserve roles but played well enough last year to earn significant playing time in the coming season. Colvin and Pacheco can both play first base, and often did in Helton's absence last year. The righthanded Pacheco and switch-hitting Young, the latter by pushing Michael Cuddyer to first base, can relieve the lefthanded Helton against southpaws if he continues his struggles against them from a year ago. Colvin will likely relieve Cuddyer against some righthanded pitching. Pacheco will try to pick up some extra playing time as a third-string catcher, but the best opportunity for playing time for those three is in relief of Helton, and they'll be jockeying for that playing time in camp.
The Big Prospect: 3B Nolan Arenado
A year ago, Colorado's hole at third base had many longing for Arenado to rise through the system and claim the job. That talk quickly died down when Nelson seized the hot corner for the big club and Arenado, much like Giants prospect Gary Brown, struggled to replicate his strong 2011 performance in the hitting-friendly California League after making the jump to Double-A. Still, Arenado will open the coming season in Triple-A and could get that chatter going again by out-performing Nelson in the first half. Arenado won't be 22 until mid April, so there's no rush.