LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 20: Starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw #22 and center fielder Matt Kemp #27 of the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate after Kershaw's complete game shoutout against the Detroit Tigers on June 20, 2011 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. The Dodgers won 4-0. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Yesterday, I was somewhat surprised by how sure many of the readers seemed to be about the AL East's status as the premier division in baseball. I mean, sure, the talent in that division is truly superb, but under this methodology couldn't some other division be at the top? We're focusing mainly on the elite talent within each division, and I'm wondering if sheer talent depth is where the AL East really differentiates itself from other divisions.
Clearly, a lot of people don't agree with that possibility, though. But I'm going to wait until we see how all of the teams stack up before really charging towards a conclusion. Here's an outline of the series posted yesterday, and our first installment on the NL East Dream Team can be found here. Let's get to the fun, though.
No. 1: Carlos Gonzalez, Left Field, Colorado
Almost took teammate Seth Smith over Gonzalez here, but the 25-year-old has been heating up lately after establishing himself as an elite player last season. Since the beginning of May, CarGo has a .313/.379/.533 line with 9 homers and 8 steals in 48 games.
No. 2: Justin Upton, Right Field, Arizona
Some people probably had Andre Ethier bouncing through their head for this spot, but it's Upton, and it's a no-brainer. After seeing his offensive development hit a roadblock last year, he's been back to mashing this season. Most of his improvement comes from improved contact skills, and he's firmly back on track to become one of the best players in baseball.
No. 3: Matt Kemp, Center Field, Los Angeles
With Upton, we're kind of waiting for him to have a season like the one that Kemp is having right now. The 26-year-old has been on fire since day one, as he leads the NL in homers, slugging percentage and wOBA so far this year. He's also back to providing quality value on the bases, as he's 18-for-21 on steal attempts, although his defense is still rough: his -18.7 UZR/150 is pretty much the only drag on his value right now.
No. 4: Troy Tulowitzki, Shortstop, Colorado
Considering that he's in the discussion for best player in the game, we probably don't need to go into too much depth as to why Tulowitzki is here. A truly unique player in that he's a legitimate impact bat that plays plus defense at shortstop, there may not be a single player in baseball that offers more value on a day-to-day basis.
No. 5: Pablo Sandoval, Third Base, San Francisco
I went back and forth between Sandoval and San Diego's Chase Headley, but I ultimately decided that Kung Fu Panda's offensive potential is too much to turn down. I can totally understand it if you'd prefer Headley's on-base and defensive skills, but Sandoval's turned out to be a pretty solid defender himself, and we all know what he's capable of offensively. This lineup could use someone with that kind of potential.
No. 6: Todd Helton, First Base, Colorado
It's kind of ridiculous how weak the first base talent is in this division. I mean, Helton is still proving to be quite the hitter at age-37; only Pujols, Fielder, Votto and Gaby Sanchez have hit better among NL first basemen so far. But even so, we're talking about a 37-year-old that's only played one full season in the preceding three years, and the other four teams can't find anything to top that? We'll see if San Diego's Anthony Rizzo can trump Helton by season's end. Oh, by the way, Helton's awfully close to being a legit Hall of Famer now, if you didn't notice.
No. 7: Chris Iannetta, Catcher, Colorado
We're excluding Buster Posey here because he's probably out for the season, but you could obviously put him here assuming that he's still a full-time catcher going forward. And if that's not the case, Iannetta isn't a bad alternative. You can get fixated with the ugly batting averages if you want, but few catchers in the game can provide walks and power like this one. He's third among MLB catchers in isolated power, behind Alex Avila and Mike Napoli, and he leads all MLB catchers in OBP.
No. 8: Kelly Johnson, Second Base, Arizona
The third consecutive position that seems utterly underwhelming. The catcher's spot isn't as bad as you'd immediately think, partially because Iannetta is underrated and partially because catchers just aren't very good hitters in general. But this is just another spot where the NL West doesn't seem to have a premium talent (though Posey qualifies when healthy). Johnson isn't a bad player, and he's really been heating up lately, but he's also the best second baseman in the division and he has a sub-.300 OBP. Shout-outs to Orlando Hudson, Jamey Carroll and Freddy Sanchez, all of whom are defensible selections. I'm going with KJ, though.
No. 9: Clayton Kershaw, Starting Pitcher, Los Angeles
You know, maybe it's not a bad idea to let Kershaw hit: on the season, he's batting .294 with a .333 OBP, and he's 6-for-13 with a .500 OBP over his past five starts.
Catcher: Miguel Montero, Arizona
You already know part of the story: if Posey's healthy, then you'd see Iannetta here. But this division actually has three pretty damn good catchers, because most teams would kill to have a catcher that can hit like Montero. The 27-year-old doesn't have Iannetta's on-base skills, but he does have similar power, and he's a much better contact hitter, allowing for stronger batting averages. He's been the eighth-best offensive catcher in the game since the beginning of 2008.
Infielder: Stephen Drew, Arizona
Drew is clearly one of the best infielders in this division. He offers plus power for a shortstop, he's a good on-base guy, and he's developed into a very solid defensive shortstop after struggling in his first couple years with the Diamondbacks.
Infielder: Chase Headley, San Diego
Headley couldn't beat out Sandoval at third base, but he's good enough to land on the bench. Headley doesn't have the kind of power that you usually want from a corner infielder, but he's developed into quite the on-base guy, and his numbers are even better than they seem once Petco Park is accounted for. Toss in good defense at third base, and you have a very good all-around third baseman.
Outfielder: Seth Smith, Colorado
Smith doesn't get much pub, but he's quietly turned into one of the best corner outfielders in the game. An above-average defender, the 28-year-old also a .278/.351/.493 career hitter in 400 MLB games, reflecting his well-rounded game. It took him a while to land an everyday job in Colorado, but he shouldn't lose it for a while now.
Outfielder: Andre Ethier, Los Angeles
Ethier's BABIP is sure to go down from here, but he's also likely to hit for more power going forward, too. His overall value is limited by his poor defensive skills, but he's still playable out there, and he more than makes up for his defensive issues with a quality bat. He edged out Arizona's Chris Young here, but damn, it's close.
No. 1: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles
No. 2: Tim Lincecum, San Francisco
No. 3: Matt Cain, San Francisco
No. 4: Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado
No. 5: Dan Hudson, Arizona
We'll talk about the rotation as a whole. First things first, this was ridiculously difficult. The only two obvious locks were Kershaw and Lincecum; there was a huge group of guys that could've filled the final three spots. I had a very tough time leaving off the likes of Chad Billingsley, Mat Latos, Ian Kennedy, Jhoulys Chacin (sorry for forgetting him before) and Madison Bumgarner, but ultimately I decided that I would go with Cain, Jimenez and Hudson. In terms of 2011 performance, Cain, Hudson and Bumgarner are the top three after Kershaw and Lincecum, but I'm going with Jimenez over Bumgarner because of past performance and JImenez's recently strong play.
Middle: Sergio Romo, San Francisco
Middle: J.J. Putz, Arizona
Set-Up: Mike Adams, San Diego
Closer: Heath Bell, San Diego
You can tell that pitching is the strong suit in this division merely from reading this post. The bullpen is no different, particularly given San Diego's ridiculous track record of unearthing relief gems and Arizona's recent bullpen makeover. A few of these guys are obvious- Bell, Adams, Wilson, even Romo considering how he's pitched this year. It was tough to figure out who to take for the final three spots, but I opted with Luebke, Putz and Jansen. Jansen's ERA is brutal this year, but his stuff is so good that I expect him to bounce back, particularly considering his strong xFIP. Luke Gregerson likely would've taken his place, but the strikeout plummet does scare me a bit.