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NL West: Simply The Best?
You'll forgive some folks in Los Angeles if they're still a little gunshy about the Dodgers, the winningest team in the National League so far at 13-6. Two years ago, their team, just like this one, was 13-6 and leading the National League West, only to finish the year in disastrous 71-91, Jim Tracy- and Paul DePodesta-firing fashion.
The common assumption is that the 2007 Dodgers can suffer no similar collapse because they are deeper. Luis Gonzalez and Nomar Garciaparra have been producing, but many fans root for players like Matt Kemp and James Loney to rise from understudy status (see below). Meanwhile, strong Aprils by Mark Hendrickson and Brett Tomko have shown that the Dodgers can handle an injury to a starting pitcher (Jason Schmidt) before even asking promising youngsters like Chad Billingsley and the rehabilitating Hong-Chih Kuo to move into the rotation.
When Russell Martin hit a walkoff grand slam in the bottom of the 10th inning Saturday, an inning after the Dodgers scored the tying run on a walk, wild pitch, error and passed ball, you sensed that the opening scene of the "How They Reached October" highlights package was in the can.
But when Juan Pierre dropped a fly ball to center field Sunday, allowing the Pittsburgh Pirates to score their third run on their way to a 7-5 victory in Los Angeles, the rewrite team had its say.
In a twist on the old Garry Maddox proverb, two-thirds of the earth is covered by water -- and Gonzalez and Pierre have gone swimming. No one expected much defensively from the 39-year-old Gonzalez or the throwing arm of Pierre, but the startling revelations for those who haven't watched Pierre closely before are the bad reads he has been getting on fly balls. Expected to be the glue of the Dodgers outfield, Pierre has been almost as toxic as the adhesive on George Costanza's wedding invitations. The infield has been strong defensively, but anything past them has had opposing hitters thinking double right out of the box.
The Dodgers are also struggling offensively at third base, waiting for Wilson Betemit's hits to fall (he's 5 for 40 so far, though he has walked 10 times to nearly match Pierre in on-base percentage, .288 to .302). And as welcome as the strong starts by Tomko (2.65 ERA) and Hendrickson (1.62) have been, their long, nondescript careers offer no promise they can maintain those levels.
On the other hand ...
Here is a team that has won 68 percent of its games while getting a 7.36 ERA from Schmidt, a 6.52 ERA from Billingsley, zero innings from Kuo and sizzling minor leaguer Jonathan Meloan (0.96 ERA,14 strikeouts and no walks in 9 1/3 innings with AA Jacksonville) , a .438 OPS from Betemit, a .426 OPS from Rafael Furcal, and six major-league hits combined from highly anticipated prospects Kemp, Loney and Andy LaRoche. In other words, there's a cushion.
Most common misunderstandingsThe Dodgers were my top story this week, but I could easily have chosen the San Francisco Giants, who have won five straight and seven of eight, allowing only 2.5 runs per game in the process. With a 2-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday, San Francisco moved into third place in the NL West at 9-8, three games back of Los Angeles. Swept by the Dodgers in the first week of the season, the Giants come to Los Angeles for a three-game series beginning Tuesday, looking to postpone revelation of their fluke status and show that starting pitching (1.08 ERA over the past seven days and Barry Bonds (1.270 OPS!) will be enough to keep them in the race for a little while.
In the meantime, I asked five dedicated NL West bloggers to pass along the most common misunderstanding about their teams. Here's what they said, leading with the Giants and then working our way clockwise geographically:
San Francisco Giants
Grant Brisbee, McCovey Chronicles: "I've been racking my brain trying to think of some great answer to this one, and I can't. Everyone pretty much has the Giants pegged. They're old and brittle. They don't have enough power. The bullpen's an anthropomorphic jug of kerosene. That was the consensus opinion before the season, and it's holding up. One area where the team doesn't get much respect, though, is the young pitching. Matt Cain looks as good this season as he did in the last half of '06, Tim Lincecum is striking out 27.5 hitters per nine innings in AAA, and Noah Lowry is a fine bottom-of-the-rotation guy who is locked up for the next few years. And while the Barry Zito contract is obscene, he should still be a good-not-great pitcher for a couple of years, at least. The pundits who are quick to bury the team in the same crypt as the '98 Orioles might want to wait and see what the young rotation can do. It's easier to build a young lineup than it is a young rotation."
Mark T.R. Donohue, Bad Altitude: For my part, I would rather people have misconceptions about the Rockies than simply not think about them at all, which is more common. I miss the days when there was an incredibly simple answer to this question, which was the old, "They need to find some gimmick strategy to win at altitude." Run-scoring trends at Coors Field have changed so erratically the last few seasons that no one is really sure whether the humidor is belatedly kicking in, the division is going through a protracted power shortage, or maybe the Rockies pitchers are a little better. Maybe it's not as inside-baseball as some other things that are underappreciated about the team, but I think the biggest misconception about the team is that they can't win, period, because they're the Rockies, and it's not really worth examining the talent they've so far assembled and the pieces they still need to find because they're just never going anywhere.
Jim McLennan, AZ Snakepit: I guess it's that the pitching rotation does not just consist of Brandon Webb, plus a bunch of has-beens and never will-bes. In Webb, Randy Johnson, Doug Davis and Livan Hernandez, we've got four men who were Opening Day starters on their teams last year, and even with Johnson out thus far, our starters have, to date, a cumulative ERA (approximately) the same as the much-more feted Dodgers staff. The walks being allowed by Davis do concern me, but in general, this is a rotation that will keep us in games, and save the bullpen from the punishment they endured in 2006. And at the back end, we have good prospects like Micah Owings, Dustin Nippert and Edgar Gonzalez; odds are they'll see their share of action, simply though normal wear and tear, but I'm not worried about depth as far as starters go. Now, relief pitching, that would be a horse of an entirely different color...
San Diego Padres
Geoff Young, Ducksnorts: Probably the biggest misconception is that this is an old team. The highest-profile players -- Trevor Hoffman, Greg Maddux, David Wells -- are way up there in years, but the Padres have a solid nucleus of young, affordable talent that should help them remain competitive now and into the future. Jake Peavy appears to be rebounding from a subpar (by his standards) 2006 and is on a long-term deal, while Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young have just signed extensions of their own. Cla Meredith, who dominated last season and who has made Bonds look terrible at the plate twice in the early going, turns 24 in June. Even guys like Khalil Greene, Clay Hensley and Kevin Kouzmanoff are potential contributors who aren't old. The Padres don't have a lot of high-ceiling guys like, say, the Diamondbacks, and the farm system still needs retooling, but there's more going on here than a lot of people might realize.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Andrew Grant, True Blue L.A.: While people do recognize that the Dodgers' lineup lacks power, they tend to brush that off by saying that the Dodgers lacked power last year, and they had no trouble scoring runs. This is a situation where correlation doesn't equal causation. This offseason, the Dodgers lost J.D. Drew, who led the Dodgers in most offensive categories in 2006, and a surprisingly effective Kenny Lofton, who contributed a .360 on base percentage in 522 plate appearances. They were replaced by Gonzalez, who has declined for the last five years and is moving from one of the most hitter friendly parks in baseball to Dodger Stadium, and Pierre, who hasn't exceeded a .330 on base percentage since 2004. Also, this team was incredibly clutch in 2006. With runners in scoring position, the Dodgers' team OPS went increased by 43 points. If this regresses back to normal, the Dodgers could be in big trouble. However, this weakness could be mitigated if the Dodgers do their best to get prospects Kemp, LaRoche and Loney into the starting nine. These three are arguably the best hitters in the Dodgers organization and would provide a huge boost to a below-average offense.
Jon Weisman is an SI.com columnist and founder of Dodger Thoughts.
Labels: NL West
posted by SI.com | View comments |
Dodger bloggers obsessed with/griping about Pierre, yawn. Totally oblivious to the fact that he is NOT the key to our season. Seriously. 0.330 or 0.350 OBP wont matter much- over the year that’s what 12 more times he gets on? Say 4 runs…. Over the year, 1 or maybe 2 more wins. Maybe. Maybe zero more wins depending on when those runs come in….
He will do what he does, be an ok top of the order guy, score lots of runs, play ok defense, bug the heck out of pitchers..... etc... the keys are the Schmidt/Penny/Wolf health and effectiveness, the Kemp/Billingsly/LaRoche development and more clutch hitting from Nomar, Kemp, Marin etc.... but hey- Pierre's an easy target for blog fodder and there’s no risk in being a talking head so fire away!
The Giants aren't that old. Sure, Bonds is 42 (and ripping the cover off the ball), and Omar Vizquel is an ageless 39. Everyone else is 35-36ish and still productive. Aurilia had a great year last year. The team has 5 outfielders who are above-average hitters (if you include OF/1B Klesko in that group) and the signing of Molina to play C after the unfortunate Mike Matheny situation last year was a brilliant move. Yeah, Sabean misses as often as he hits (Moises Alou? Armando Benitez? A.J. Pierzynski for Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano?!?!), but the starting pitching assessment is right on. Barry Zito is a 126-million dollar #2 starter. Matt Cain is a flat out stud, and I wouldn't trade him straight up for anybody except maybe Santana. Lincecum should be up by July 1 and can start or relieve with his nasty stuff. Cain-Lincecum could be the best 1-2 in the league by 2008 or 2009...
Yeah, the Giants don't have a young position player stud like Chris Young or or Matt Holliday or Khalil Greene that you can pencil into the 5 spot for the next 10 years, but lineups can be reloaded. Pitching wins out, especially in what may be the worst division in baseball (though NL Central's pretty putrid too).
Giants (bullpen will hold up, Lincecum could conceivably close or set up a la F-Rod in 2002)
Padres (solid but not much past Peavy in the rotation, and the offense doesn't scare many people beyond Adrian Gonzalez)
Dbacks (maybe the most talent)
Dodgers (injuries and Pierre getting 600+ AB will bury them)
Rockies (perpetually rebuilding. I would say they're the Atlanta Hawks of baseball, but the Hawks used to make the playoffs way back when.)
"The Giants aren't that old. Sure, Bonds is 42 (and ripping the cover off the ball), and Omar Vizquel is an ageless 39. Everyone else is 35-36ish and still productive."
They are not that old huh? Just because thay are productive, does not mean they're not old. This is probably (would bet on it) the oldest team in baseball... The avg age of the starting position players is 35yrs old. Stock up that minor league system and get ready for the dreaded "rebuilding" years. Ask a Pirate fan about that sometime... It could take a while.
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