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7/11/2007 10:39:00 AM

NL West: Midseason Grades

By Jon Weisman

An afterthought for years running when it comes to postseason baseball, the NL West has pulled closer to its league rivals, if not ahead of them. Four of the five teams in the division are at .500 or better, and collectively the NL West is 105-81 against the NL Central and NL East.

San Diego quietly established itself as the best team in the NL in the first half of the 2007 season, leading the league in winning percentage and run differential. At the same time, the Padres are 15-15 over their past 30 games, so they aren't exactly running away with anything.

Los Angeles seems to have the greatest wherewithal to overtake the Padres, but the Dodgers' potpourri of strengths and weaknesses makes a post-All Star Break slump as likely as a surge. Arizona remains a contender, and Colorado -- yes, Colorado -- is only 5 1/2 games off the Padres' league-leading pace.

While the NL barely has any teams on pace to win 90 games, AL hopefuls should pay attention to the Padres. Facing the likes of Jake Peavy and Chris Young in the postseason could be death to anyone's World Series dreams.

San Diego Padres
Record: 49-38, 1st place
Runs Scored: 374 (11th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 298 (1st in NL)

What went wrong: The Padres have struggled offensively at a few positions, most notably thanks to the Giles brothers. Second baseman Marcus and right fielder Brian are well below league-average production for where they play, and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff took forever to get going. San Diego also hasn't been particularly lucky -- its record in one-run games of 15-18 has allowed division rivals to stay right on their heels.

What went right: Even accounting for the run-dampening effects of Petco Park, San Diego's pitching has been superb. The team's ERA+ of 130 (according to Baseball-Reference.com, with 100 being average) is tops in the league, and the Padres' are allowing only 3.69 runs per game on the road. Peavy came back from a subpar (for him) 2006 to become the league's leading Cy Young contender -- even while being outpaced in the ERA race by teammate Young (2.00). And the bullpen has allowed only 74 runs in 279 1/3 innings over 87 games (2.38 ERA).

What's next: New acquisition Milton Bradley will be given a chance to boost the offense while the Padres consider making a trade to solidify their playoff hopes. Expected to be a playoff contender, the Padres have more than met those goals -- yet some San Diego fans must be nagged that the Padres haven't stretched out their division lead even more.

Grade: A-

Los Angeles Dodgers
Record: 49-40, 2nd place
Runs Scored: 400 (8th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 366 (3rd in NL)

What went wrong: Three hefty contracts handed out over the offseason were busts: Jason Schmidt was lost for the season after throwing 25 2/3 innings, Juan Pierre has a .311 on-base percentage in center field and Nomar Garciaparra, a returning free agent, is a corner infielder with a 72 OPS+.

What went right: The team trails only the Padres in fewest runs allowed per game, thanks in large part to Brad Penny (183 ERA+). Russell Martin (125 OPS+) turned the sophomore jinx on its ear, becoming an All-Star catcher at 24. Luis Gonzalez (123 OPS+) showed that the offseason wasn't a total bust. And just when they needed them to, minor league callups James Loney and Matt Kemp (each with on-base percentages over .400 and slugging percentages over .500) had massive Junes.

What's next: The Dodgers return to action with three-fifths of the starting rotation (Schmidt, Randy Wolf and Hong-Chih Kuo) on the disabled list, as well as lingering offensive questions. The urge to make a trade will be fierce, though whether there is anyone worthwhile out there who can be acquired at a reasonable price is dubious. The Dodgers currently hold wild card position in the NL, but with their payroll and farm system, Los Angeles has to be disappointed not to be in first place (no disrespect to the Padres).

Grade: B

Arizona Diamondbacks
Record: 47-43, 3rd place
Runs Scored: 371 (12th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 401 (7th in NL)

What went wrong: Randy Johnson pitched well but without durability, logging 56 2/3 innings while making repeat visits to the DL. And promising 26-and-under players like catcher Chris Snyder, shortstop Stephen Drew and center fielder Chris Young have disappointed so far this year. The Diamondbacks watched local hero Gonzalez go to the Dodgers on a one-year contract in large part to make room in the starting lineup for outfielder Carlos Quentin, who then went 42-for-200 with a .299 on-base percentage and .350 slugging percentage.

What went right: Arizona arguably has the second-best pitching in the NL. The Diamondbacks are tied with the Dodgers with a 114 ERA+, and their bullpen is deeper than it's been in ages. In addition, infielders Orlando Hudson, Mark Reynolds and Chad Tracy and outfielder Eric Byrnes have been steady.

What's next: Despite losing 19 of their past 30 games, the Diamondbacks are only 2 ½ games out of the wild-card lead and 3 ½ games out of first place -- with lots of room for potential improvement from their younger position players. Perhaps the growing pains were worse than Arizona hoped for, but unless the starting rotation collapses like Johnson's aging body, don't count Arizona out.

Grade: B+

Colorado Rockies
Record: 44-44, 4th place
Runs Scored: 428 (3rd in NL)
Runs Allowed: 438 (11th in NL)

What went wrong: Honestly, if All-Star closer Brian Fuentes (now injured) hadn't blown four leads over an eight-game stretch at the end of June, the Rockies might be the talk of baseball. Instead, concerns over a spotty starting rotation have extended to a relief corps ...

What went right: ... that otherwise has performed quite well. Overall, though, it's the offense that has carried Colorado, particularly Matt Holliday (145 OPS+), Brad Hawpe (141) and Todd Helton (137). At 31, Mets castoff Kazuo Matsui (108), along with 22-year-old rookie shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (103), have also shone.

What's next: No one expects Colorado to make the playoffs, so the team can continue to operate in stealth mode, counting off days of the schedule while trying to stay within shouting distance. But can the Rockies find the starting pitching to get them over the hump? This is a team that is young at its core -- the 33-year-old Helton and Matsui are the only regulars over the age of 30, so there's no urgency for the team to win now -- just impatience arising from the 12 years that have passed since Colorado's only playoff appearance.

Grade: A

San Francisco Giants
Record: 38-48, 5th place
Runs Scored: 365 (15th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 362 (2nd in NL)

What went wrong: Though 10 games below .500, the Giants have actually outscored their opponents, so their biggest problem has been waste. Outside of Barry Bonds, the lineup is about as unthreatening as they come, with longtime defensive whiz Omar Vizquel (54 OPS+) having the most egregious numbers. Meanwhile, mega-free agent signee Barry Zito hasn't been terrible, just wildly inconsistent. In 18 games, he has nine quality starts, but has allowed more runs than innings pitched in five other appearances.

What went right: Starting pitchers Matt Cain, Noah Lowry and Matt Morris, all with an ERA+ of 120 or more, have mitigated Zito's ups and downs. Ryan Klesko has had a late-career renaissance, with an on-base percentage of .385 and slugging percentage of .477. But the fact remains that without Bonds and his league-leading 191 OPS+, this might be the worst team in the NL.

What's next: The Giants will watch Bonds' pursuit of 756 while trying to play spoiler in the NL West race, but their main goal should be to make sure that rookie Tim Lincecum (79 strikeouts in 72 innings) is healthy for the 2008 season. With the starting rotation as its foundation, San Francisco should start the rebuilding process ASAP.

Grade: C-

Labels:

posted by SI.com | View comments |  

Comments:

Posted: July 11, 2007 11:36 PM   by Jerald Brewer (JAB)
I hope that Bonds hits 8 HRs (or whatever) in his next game or at-bat to get this joyless pursuit over with so that we can stop wasting time over it and get back to real baseball.
Angel fans know what real baseball is.
Wouldn't it be AWESOME if the pitcher who serves up 756 grooves it and cops to to it? The stories that follow that would be more entertaining than Harry Potter and Harry Bosch.
Posted: July 12, 2007 12:41 AM   by Anonymous
Whats wrong with you? giving the dodgers a B and the Diamondbacks an A, when the dodgers have a better record and theyre clearly a better team????
Posted: July 12, 2007 9:01 AM   by Anonymous
The Dodgers have a lower grade because they have a lot more talent than the Diamandbacks, but their record is just decent, they are doing what they were expected to do. The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, have a young team and are performing well above expectations.
Posted: July 12, 2007 9:55 AM   by Anonymous
First and foremost the Padres will take the NL West and the NL. On another note eventhough I can't stand the Second(Squad Padres Team). the Giants get of of Bonds! All you Haters out there. Just let them play ball

Padre Fan
Posted: July 12, 2007 10:58 AM   by Anonymous
I hope Barry Bonds hits #756 in your home park, and celebrates by taking a dump on home plate.
The Dodgers' record is "just decent"?
The are basically tied (one percentage point behind) with the Mets for the third best record in the National League.
The Dodgers' record is "just decent"?
The are basically tied (one percentage point behind) with the Mets for the third best record in the National League.
Posted: July 12, 2007 12:55 PM   by Anonymous
Fire Brian Sabean. The guy has wasted the past 4 years of Bonds' career by not putting anyone in the lineup to compliment him and hoping a bunch of retreads and has-beens would have career years. 2002 was an anomaly. We've sucked since Robb Nen's shoulder unraveled, and Sabean is to blame.

Sign A-Rod this winter, damn the cost!

-Disgruntled Giants Fan
Posted: July 12, 2007 1:05 PM   by Anonymous
I think the Giants deserve a little more credit than C-. They're young pitchers are really doing well, and you yourself mentioned that they've outscored their opponents. I believe once Bonds is gone next year, the Giants will actually be better off, since that chunk of change they're paying him could be applied to 2-3 solid hitting starters, which is what they really need. Depth at hitting, not just one superstar that gets walked twice a game.
I didn't even give the Diamondbacks an A.
Posted: July 15, 2007 4:53 PM   by Anonymous
how can you think that the giants deserve even a c, who cares if they have some decent young pitching, they are 12 games under .500 and 11.5 games out of first.
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