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A Closer Look at the N.L. West

The National League West is a division that could easily see two playoff teams.  The Dodgers are off to a great start, but outside of Colorado, each of the remaining three teams are no more than 3.5 games back of first place.  Here is a look at the N.L. West standings as of May 13th, 2007 (all scheduled games completed):

The Dodgers are off to a very good start and have one of the best run differentials in the National League.  What are a couple of things we should keep an eye out for over the next few of months?

*Will Brad Penny win the National League Cy Young Award?

Here are a few of Penny's pitching statistics so far this season corresponding with his rank among major league pitchers:

VORP:  21.4 runs (2nd)

SNLVAR:  4.9 (1st)

ERA+:  279 (1st)

Penny has been the ace of what has been a very strong Dodger rotation thus far into the year:  Los Angeles is currently first in the N.L. in SNLVAR at 4.6.  Penny has been a bit lucky as evident of his LOB% of 85.2 (which ranks third in the N.L.), but he hasn't given up a single dinger all season and after his gem against Florida, he clearly established himself as a 2007 Cy Young contender.

*Is Andy LaRoche up for good?

The Dodgers promoted one of their finest prospects to the major league level a week ago in Andy LaRoche.  LaRoche was struggling in the PCL before his callup (.235/.309/.367), but he's off to a hot start in the majors hitting .333/.536/.389 in his first 18 big league at-bats.  Many Dodger fans are excited about LaRoche's future with the club and even though Wilson Betemit is ready to return to the big league lineup, it will be tough to send LaRoche down if he starts hitting for more power. Hitting for power wasn't much of a problem for LaRoche during his minor league career either (.221 career MiLB ISOP).

What about the second place Padres who also have a strong run differential?

*Will Jake Peavy pitch his fifth consecutive double-digit strikeout game?

Over his last four starts, here are Peavy's strikeout totals:  10, 10, 10, 16.  Not only must this be awesome for Padres fans, but it's also awesome for me seeing as Peavy is the ace of my fantasy team. Peavy is scheduled to pitch Wednesday against the Reds, a team who has struck out 255 times this season (5th highest total in the National League).

*How good is their bullpen?

Last Wednesday, I took a look at strongest bullpens in the major leagues; the Padres being the top team on the list with a major league leading 4.664 team WXRL.  Four days later and the same is true, the Padres still lead the majors in WXRL, this time at 4.296.  For a team that doesn't feature a high run-producing offense, the Padres are going to play many close games.  The bullpen could be the team's most important aspect during the stretch run.

How about the third place San Francisco Giants?

*When and where will Barry Bonds break Hank Aaron's Record?

Clay Davenport of Baseball Prospectus dove into this question a few days earlier.  The verdict:

Again, though, the peak likelihood corresponds to the six-game road trip to Boston and Milwaukee from June 15-20.

While no one is sure as to exactly when Bonds will hit the historic home run, one thing is for sure: Anyone doubting Bonds before the season started looks dead wrong.  Bonds is currently hitting a ridiculous .307/.512/.727 and his VORP of 22.5 runs is currently third best in the majors.

*How good will Tim Lincecum be this season?

Watching Tim Linceum's first start of his major league career a couple of weeks ago on Sunday Night Baseball was one of my most exciting moments of the 2007 season.  While Lincecum was roughed up in his first start, he sure looked good against the Rockies in his second.  While Lincecum had only 31.2 innings of pro ball under his belt before the 2007 season began, PECOTA projected a 3.21 ERA from him in 70 major league innings.  Given his early callup, he should amass his projected workload, but he fulfills his projected earned run average, he is a solid pick to win the N.L. Rookie of the Year Award.

What about the Diamondbacks, who are arguably baseball's most exciting young team?

*Will the young guns gel together and produce?

The D'Backs currently have five first or second year players who are hitting well below their projected level performances.  Here is a look at their actual performances thus far into the season corresponding with their PECOTA projected performances:

Chris Young:  .258/.304/.476  6.1 VORP, .283/.363/.541  33.4 VORP

Conor Jackson:  .226/.365/.274 -2.1 VORP, .294/.380/.486  23.1 VORP

Stephen Drew:  .237/.311/.321  -1.4 VORP, .287/.349/.504  36.5 VORP

Miguel Montero:  .245/.300/.377  0.4 VORP,  .268/.333/.461  11.2 VORP

Carlos Quentin:  .195/.295/.299  -3.6 VORP,  .285/.377/.486  18.5 VORP

Cleary the young Diamondback starts have struggled, combining for a VORP mark of -0.6 runs.  It is too early however to give up on this sort of talent.  Even if they don't fulfill their projected level of performance, they are better each better than this.

*Will Scott Hairston be dealt?

Hairston was a deep sleeper to start the season.  Last season he hit .323/.407/.591 in the PCL as a 26 year-old.  Nothing looks spectacular until you see his major league equivalent statistics for that season:  .288/.365/.530 and a VORP of 27.1 runs.  

Hairston is now part of the Diamondback bench, but he could make it as a regular for a lot of teams given his versatility and PECOTA projection (.275/.343/.501, VORP of 11.4 runs in 314 PA's).  He could also fetch the D'Backs a nice player in return if enough teams start calling.  

Lastly, let's take a look at the last place Colorado Rockies:

*Is Todd Helton the new Mark Grace?

During his tenure in Colorado, Todd Helton has been the face of the franchise.  At one time an MVP candidate, Helton currently ranks first in Rockies history in on-base percentage (.432), hits (1748), total bases (3099), doubles (423), home runs (290) and walks (894).

Over the last five seasons however, Helton has seen his power numbers take massive dips as he now plays in his age 34 season.  Helton is starting to look more and more like Mark Grace (his 13th most comparable player), a first baseman who will get on base, play steady defense, but isn't going to win any more home run titles.  Given the fact Helton is owed $68.9M from 2008-2011 alone, it looks more and more unlikely he will ever play for a team other than the Rockies in the immediate future.

*Will Franklin Morales see the Major Leagues this season?

The Rockies top pitching prospect, that being left-hander Franklin Morales, is currently pitching well at AA Tulsa (27.0 IP, 23 K, 3.67 ERA) and my best guess is that he will see a promotion to AAA this season if he continues to pitch well.  

I'm doubtful to believe we will see Morales in the majors this season, but for a guy who compares to Scott Kazmir and Francisco Liriano, you never know.  Keep an eye on this guy.  Minor League Ball's John Sickels believes Morales is one of the most underappreciated arms in baseball and he probably isn't alone there.

Final Thoughts

It's going to be a fun year out in the N.L. West.  Baseball Prospectus' Postseason Odds Report show their isn't a clear cut winner, but give the Dodgers and Padres the best odds of making the postseason among the five divisional teams at 47% and 35% respectively.  It's still early, but with more than 20% of the season already in the books, I think the Dodgers will come out on top.  I like Arizona however, especially if their young guns start producing.