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MLB Opening Day 2016: NL West preview

Dollar bills were thrown all across this division. Will any of it make a difference?

No longer teammates.
No longer teammates.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Opening Day is just around the corner. In the interest of preparing you for it, the writers here have come up with a short preview of each team. For each team, we chose either the make-or-break story of that team, the thing that other teams would try to copy should ultimate victory occur, or the most important thing for that team to have a successful season. It could be some or all of the above. We then selected a single statistic that represented that story.

The Dodgers, with their ridiculous spending habits, remain at the top of the division. Despite the injuries and losing Zack Greinke, they are still the team to beat. On the other hand, the Giants and Diamondbacks threw a ton of money around to make improvements. The Dodgers certainly are not as good as they would be without all those injuries, so there's an opening. The Padres are kind of stuck, whereas the Rockies continue to drift along.

Dodgers

Make or break stat: # of starting pitchers used

2015 value: 16 (1st...or 30th, depending on your perspective)

All of the projections seem to love the Dodgers, with most forecasting the Boys in Blue as the second-best team in MLB. Besides that, and the fact that every team can point to a reason why they'll be successful should things fall their way, the Dodgers have something else in their favor – depth. And, wow, do they have a lot of it. Their lineup contains zero superstars, whereas their division rivals Arizona, San Francisco, and Colorado all have one (or more, in Arizona's case). Whether this approach is more beneficial than a stars-and-scrubs approach is still up for debate, but LA also has the most enviable bench depth in the MLB; a huge portion of their backups could start elsewhere.

The Dodgers' roster has still been susceptible to injuries, though, and the question of whether that's due to plain bad luck or the personnel on the team seems to be lean more and more toward the latter every season. The 2016 season hasn't even kicked off yet, and Los Angeles is already receiving a visit from the injury bug. Andre Ethier has to sit out at least 10 weeks with a fractured leg, while Yasiel Puig and Corey Seager are both nursing minor injuries. That doesn't include Justin Turner, Yasmani Grandal, or Enrique Hernandez, who are all returning from offseason surgery. And that's just the hitting side. Hyun Jin Ryu, Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy, and Frankie Montas will all spend significant time on the DL to start the season, and only Scott Kazmir knows what's going on with Scott Kazmir.

Rank Team Starting Pitchers used
1 Los Angeles Dodgers 16
T-2 Cincinnati Reds 14
T-2 Philadelphia Phillies 14
T-4 Miami Marlins 13
T-4 Houston Astros 13
T-4 Oakland Athletics 13
T-4 Arizona Diamondbacks 12
T-4 Boston Red Sox 12
T-4 Colorado Rockies 12
T-4 Detroit Tigers 12
T-4 Texas Rangers 12
T-4 Toronto Blue Jays 12
T-29 Baltimore Orioles 8
T-29 Pittsburgh Pirates 8

It'll probably be a good sign for the Dodgers if they rank much lower on this list a year from now. They don't have to be in the bottom ten, and they almost definitely won't be anyway. Andrew Friedman's style is to run his pitching rotation like he's trying a taste of every drink at a soda machine. The Dodgers' 2015 number is skewed because Friedman started guys like Yimi Garcia and Juan Nicasio for intended bullpen games. Still, though, if the Dodgers avoid having to start guys like Scott Baker and David Huff, which, yes they did last year, then their regular season record should reflect that. And hopefully, their rotation will be set and stable come playoff time, which was a factor in their undoing last October.

-Austin Yamada

Giants

Make or break stat: LOB%

2015 value: 74.5% (6th)

If there’s one thing the Giants are good at, it’s assembling a more-than-capable pitching staff to get through the season. There are very few weak links, whether it be the starting rotation or the bullpen. If there's another thing the Giants are good at, it's leaving opposing runners on base. They were 6th in the league in LOB%, stranding 74.5% of runners. Their BB/9 (2.7) and H/9 (8.4) in 2015 were below league average, but letting runners score wasn’t much of a worry for the Giants, even in one of their "down" years.

With additions like Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto to the staff, the Giants are well on their way to another shot at the postseason. They prioritize pitching and pitching depth—carrying 13 pitchers on their 25-man roster as they’ve done many times before—and when it’s not just about getting the outs, it’s about getting out of the inning relatively unscathed. Having a high LOB% is indicative of their ability to get out of even the smallest jams, and if they can do that right in 2016, there’s no telling how far they’ll be able to go.

-Jen Mac Ramos

Diamondbacks

Make or break stat: Starting pitcher IP

2015 value: 887.1 (29th)

The Diamondbacks’ bullpen saw a lot of action in 2015. They led the league in innings pitched (579.1), while their buddies in the starting rotation were second to last in innings pitched; the Rockies had them beat by nearly 30 innings. This is probably why the Diamondbacks were all in on getting Zack Greinke during the offseason. They can’t have a repeat of last year.

And while the bullpen did a nice job picking up the slack last season, in order for 2016 to be successful for the Diamondbacks, the projected starters, Greinke, Shelby Miller, Rubby De La Rosa, Patrick Corbin, and Robbie Ray need to do a better job of pitching further into games.

-Stacey Gotsulias

Padres

Make or break stat: ERA-FIP of starters

2015 value: 0.15 (19th)

The 2015 Padres failed to live up to the expectations their lively offseason placed upon them. That’s because the only pre-season promise that ended up being fulfilled was that the outfield would be a hot mess. Indeed, the 2015 Padres were a lesson in "you can’t predict baseball." James Shields allowed the most home runs in all of baseball despite calling Petco Park home. Rotation-mates Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross both posted FIPs better than their ERAs. Matt Kemp was healthy and played a full season, 154 games and 648 plate appearances, but he was not good, posting a wRC+ of 109 with bad defense. Melvin Upton Jr. matched Kemp’s hitting prowess, though in much less playing time. Bat-first catcher Derek Norris was not that good with the bat (98 wRC+), but defensive metrics seemed to like him. He was the second-most valuable position player after the departed Justin Upton. And Wil Myers couldn’t stay healthy (okay that one was somewhat predictable).

One path for the Padres to turn things around is to trust that some things will return to normal. If Shields suppresses home runs and Ross and Cashner’s ERAs start looking a bit more like their FIPs, the Padres will have a solid 1-2-3 in the rotation. While initial trust might be placed in Robbie Erlin and Colin Rea to fill out the rotation, those spots might be maximized if filled by post-prospect Drew Pomeranz and inexperienced Rule-5 draftee Luis Perdomo. In Jon Jay the team has an actual outfielder, which could prop up Myers’s bat by keeping him at first base and in the lineup. Maybe Norris’s defensive improvements stick around and his bat returns to form. And maybe Kemp plays another full season, but he also has a couple torrid stretches at the plate that we’ve seen from him before. Banking on this from Kemp would truly be betting on the improbable. But making that bet does appear to be the Padres’ thing.

-Eric Garcia McKinley

Rockies

Make or break stat: Team walk rate

2015 value: 6.4% (28th)

The Rockies have problems on offense; it’s not just pitching. In 2015, the Rockies finished tied with the Braves for the worst offense in the National League, according to wRC+. The team’s collective walk rate captures this long-term issue. Since 2012, the Rockies have had only two position players post seasons with a walk rate above 10 percent, and neither Troy Tulowitzki nor Dexter Fowler play in Denver anymore. If the Rockies can manage to take more walks, they can power up their home offense and take advantage of the regularly extreme BABIPs there, and maybe it can contribute to posting respectable offensive road numbers as well.

There are positive signs. Charlie Blackmon elevated his walk rate two percentage points from 2014 to 2015, which was the result of a self-conscious effort to be more patient at the plate. The Rockies have also brought on Mark Reynolds, who regularly posts walk rates above that elusive 10 percent mark, to play first base. If one or both of these players can help third baseman Nolan Arenado improve in this area of his game, he’d end up being one of the three or so best position players in the National League. It wouldn’t be enough to make the Rockies competitive in 2016, but it would be a hell of a good start for years beyond.

If the Rockies are somehow competitive in 2016, others might look to the Rockies' seemingly ahead of schedule combination of youth and depth-y veterans on the roster. The Rockies have one of the best farm systems in baseball, and some of those players are poised to contribute this year, namely Jon Gray, Jeff Hoffman, Trevor Story, Tom Murphy, and Carlos Estevez. Outfield prospects David Dahl and Raimel Tapia are unlikely to see the big leagues before September—unless new addition veterans Gerardo Parra, Mark Reynolds, Ryan Raburn, Jason Motte, and Jake McGee help keep the team afloat. The rotation anchor is still 34-year-old Jorge De La Rosa, but the next oldest rotation member is 26-year-old Chad Bettis. If the Rockies manage to compete, the lesson might be that rebuilding teams don’t need to wait for the youth to ripen before adding competent veterans to the fold.

-Eric Garcia McKinley