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Assessing the Market: Part 3 - NL West

In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was known as the "Sick Man of Europe." The expansion that they had undergone in the 16th and 17th centuries was long past. Vienna was not going to fall to Ottoman rule, and things progressively declined for the Ottoman Turks.

In the 1800s, when balance of power diplomacy (raison d'etat, realpolitik, whatever you'd like to call it) was in full force, France and England desperately tried to support the Ottoman Turks from outright collapse. They feared Russia's expansionist tendencies and aided the Turks in their struggle against the Russians in the Crimean War.

I bring this up because the NL West is the Sick Man of Baseball. No team in the NL West is particularly strong, and the abysmal Rockies make the division a bit of a laughingstock. They rest at 93-127 against the rest of the league. Yes, 93-127, or a .423 winning percentage. (For context, the Mariners, at 34-46, have a .425 winning percentage).

When your division is that weak, it's very easy for anybody (save the Rockies) to think that there's a legitimate shot to take it. It looks so vulnerable, so easy to defeat the division-leading Padres and take it.

I think that there are a few underlying truths with this division:

  1. The Padres are, currently, the best team, but that could change.
  2. The injury to Barry Bonds effectively neutralizes the San Francisco threat.
  3. The Rockies are terrible and rebuilding.
  4. Arizona has overachieved, but they are still dangerous if their pitching continues to be solid.
  5. The Dodgers are probably the toughest competition about whom the Padres will need to be concerned.
The lines look pretty simple to me in the West. There are two teams, the Giants and Rockies, who should think about 2006 and beyond. The Padres need to be thinking about adding pieces for the stretch drive. And the Dodgers and Diamondbacks are in the middle and need to work with the market for their optimal strategy.

Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks were happy to see the end of June; they went 9-19 and are currently under .500 after an amazing run in the early going. Their success was seemingly inexplicable; the performance analysis types chalked it up to luck because they had a heavily negative run differential.

A 9-19 month, for a team that is still recovering from a 51-win season in 2004, has put everything back into perspective - it shouldn't be the Diamondbacks' year.

It's not quite that simple, though.

The D'Backs have 2 starters that I think are locked into the rotation - Brandon Webb and Javier Vasquez. The other 3, Halsey, Estes, and Ortiz, could stand to be upgraded. (With Vazquez, the 4.75 ERA obscures the very attractive 102/16 K/BB ratio).

John Sickels of MinorLeagueBall.com and the Prospect Handbook just reevaluated his Top 20 of the D'Backs, and there's a common thread to the D'Backs top minor leaguers - they're all hitters. Carlos Quentin, Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew, and Justin Upton are the hitters of the  future for the Diamondbacks, but none of their pitchers are particularly strong.

A major firesale from the D'Backs is not in order, but they do have a lot of flexibility with the hitters because of all their future talent.

The Chips: Conor Jackson, Tony Clark, Luis Gonzalez

The Verdict: Start gearing up for a run in 2006 and 2007. I mentioned Conor Jackson because I've seen his name in "rumors" frequently and in a Gammons column mentioning the Red Sox. It makes a good deal of sense to trade Jackson if solid young pitching can be acquired.

Luis Gonzalez shouldn't be traded unless they can get a lot for him, but with $11.5 million guaranteed to him next year and a mutual option for 2007, it might be wise to explore dealing the 37 year old via the "next playoff team" test.

Finally, Tony Clark has been very, very good this year with his .327/.359/.635 line, and someone in need of a first baseman might trade a mid-level prospect or two for him.

For the D'Backs, the name of the game at this point is pitching. They don't have enough at this point to make the playoffs, and they don't have it coming in the near future from the minors.

With all of this, I could see the D'Backs gearing up for a run at the playoffs by adding a top flight starting pitcher. They do have the chips to get one.

Colorado Rockies: The BTB Power 30's consensus "worst team in baseball" this year should be using this time in 2005 to figure out which of their young guys actually are worth keeping around as building blocks.

There's not much to talk about in terms of strategy at this point; they could use help anywhere.

The Chips: Preston Wilson, Jason Jennings, Joe Kennedy, Brian Fuentes, Todd Helton

The Verdict: Probably the league's most accepted trade chip is Preston Wilson, as everyone has agreed that he must be traded to someone for something.

I would leave NO man untouchable with the Rockies, not even Jeff Francis, and just field offers from anyone looking for anything. I don't know how logistically possible that is, but at this point, stockpiling talent has to be the goal. (I mention Francis because of the theory that Coors Field destroys every pitcher at some point. I don't agree, but hitting is much less volatile at Coors than pitching, and if the right deal came up...)

If we were dealing with success in waves, this would be the trough year for the Rockies, as opposed to the crest. It can't get much worse.

Los Angeles Dodgers: I think I mentioned it in a Power 30 a few weeks back that I was disappointed that Gagne was injured solely because I would have liked to see what DePodesta could have done with two "relief aces" like Gagne and Brazoban in the picture.

Whether you're a stathead, scout-type, or anyone in between, DePodesta is an interesting character to watch. His trade at the deadline last year was so controversial that it inspired both violent reactions of hatred and euphoric cries against team chemistry and intangibles.

So far, the Dodgers are winning that deal, and they did make the playoffs last year (albeit in spite of the deal).

We'll go back to the "Sick Man" theme for the NL West, briefly: the Dodgers, at 38-43, are 6.5 games out. Losing Milton Bradley hurt a great deal, but this isn't a new trend. The Dodgers started out the season with a 12-2 record. Since then, they've played 26-41 baseball, which is a .388 winning percentage.

Recent news has put the nail in the coffin for the Dodgers this year, though: JD Drew is out six to eight weeks with a broken left wrist. Odalis Perez's injury hasn't helped. Jeff Weaver has struggled. The pitching, as a whole, has been very subpar, which is unusual for the Dodgers, at least over the past few years.

The Chips: Jayson Werth? Cesar Izturis? Olmedo Saenz?

The Verdict: The statheads cried for the misfortune of DePodesta's former boss, but it's July 4 and Beane's A's, who were ravaged by injuries early on, are somehow 40-41 at the midpoint, and the Dodgers are two games behind them.

The strength of the Dodger farm system is a major asset for this team, but you don't know which way they're going to head with it.

I think that the best thing to do would be to look to buy pieces for another run at it in 2006 and not be afraid to deal from the farm to get it. They don't really have too many major league pieces that are going to be coveted at the deadline, but the farm is strong.

DePodesta has proven that he isn't afraid of taking chances, so I will watch with interest. But it just isn't the same as 2004.

San Diego Padres: The buyers.

The Padres are legitimately a pretty good team, and that fact is obscured by the fact that they've been very inconsistent this year and that they play in a weak division.

I was curious about how well that everyone had played in games outside of their division, so I made an NL standings page for games against other NL divisions:

Phillies: 19-9 (.679)
Padres: 18-9 (.667)
Nationals: 22-12 (.647)
Braves: 14-11 (.560)
Mets: 15-12 (.556)
Marlins: 12-11 (.522)
Cubs: 16-16 (.500)
Pirates: 15-15 (.500)
Cardinals: 15-16 (.484)
Dodgers: 11-14 (.440)
Astros: 12-16 (.429)
Reds: 12-17 (.414)
Giants: 9-13 (.409)
Brewers: 11-17 (.393)
Diamondbacks: 9-14 (.391)
Rockies: 14-22 (.389)

This list shows us two things:

  1. The NL East is the best division in the NL, with 5 of the top 6 in the standings against the other divisions.
  2. The Padres can play with the rest of the NL.
The Padres could use another bat (preferably a corner infielder), and another starting pitcher, especially with Adam Eaton's recent injury to his finger. If you look at the Padres rotation, they have 5 pitchers who have made 10 or more starts and have an ERA lower than 5, but considering how much of a pitcher's park that Petco is, that's not good enough.

The Chips: Josh Barfield, George Kottaras, Freddy Guzman, A Bullpen Arm

The Verdict: The Padres have their "talent surplus" in the bullpen right now. It would make sense for them to trade a guy like Rudy Seanez to a bullpen-needy team for a bat or an arm.

Their minor league system is fairly weak, making any substantial addition relatively difficult. Trading one of the prospects with a relief arm could be a pretty good package for the right team, but I don't think that the Pads can make a huge splash.

The Padres are the clear favorites in the West and, barring a collapse, should make the playoffs for the first team since 1998.

San Francisco Giants: How do you tear it down with a guy like Bonds waiting for another shot?

I assume that a question similar to this one has been the driving force behind a lot of the Giants' more recent moves.

The Giants are 10 back in the division right now and 12 under .500 and need to start looking ahead.

The thing with the Giants, though, is assuming that Bonds come back as something resembling the legend that he was before the injury, the Giants don't need an exceptional supporting cast to surround him. They really haven't had one over the last few years, either.

The Chips: Ray Durham, Moises Alou

The Verdict: They can't tear it down all at once, but it's certainly time to start looking ahead. Durham is probably the most logical guy to trade; he's getting older and is no longer the player he was in his prime. I put Alou on there as well just to have more than one guy, but I don't see them trading Alou.

The Giants might just hold steady and try for one last shot in '06.

I visualize the Giants, in the latter scenario, as a strong man standing behind a dam on the verge of breaking, just trying to hold it up. As he keeps standing back there, the wall of water gets stronger and bigger and more powerful, and it's only a matter of time before the whole thing blows apart and it has to be reconstructed from scratch without anything left of the old dam, which was carried down the river by the water.

It's a pessimistic picture, but I could see the Giants being much like the Rockies in 2008.