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Beyond the Box Score 2018 MLB previews: NL West

Three teams earned a postseason spot in 2017. Who will make the cut this year?

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Left to right: Clayton Kershaw (Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports), Paul Goldschmidt (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports), Brandon Crawford (John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports), Charlie Blackmon (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports), Wil Myers (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports).

Our long, winter nightmare is over. Baseball is back! To get ready for the 2018 MLB season, we at Beyond the Box Score are previewing all 30 teams, looking at the moves they’ve made since last year, the player (or players) who could make a big difference this year, and reflecting on their overall outlook. We’ll roll out previews for each division over the next two days (AL on Tuesday, NL on Wednesday). Enjoy, and welcome back!

Los Angeles Dodgers

2017 record: 104-58, first in NL West

PECOTA 2018 projection: 97-65, first in NL West

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 93-69, first in NL West

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: first in NL West (18/18)

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Angels at Los Angeles Dodgers
Man, it’s good to be back.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Let RHP Yu Darvish and RHP Brandon Morrow (Cubs) leave in free agency.
  • Traded RHP Trevor Oaks, IF Erick Mejia, and LHP Luis Avilan in a three-team deal with the Royals and White Sox, in exchange for LHP Scott Alexander and IF Jake Peter.
  • Traded 1B Adrian Gonzalez, LHP Scott Kazmir, RHP Brandon McCarthy, IF Charlie Culberson, and cash to the Braves in exchange for OF Matt Kemp.

Like most teams this year, the Dodgers slow-played the offseason. Perhaps in an effort to save a relatively trivial amount of money, they elected to cut salary to keep their payroll under the competitive balance tax threshold of $197 million and reset the applicable base tax rate. Current estimates have the payroll for tax purposes at somewhere between $182 million and $186 million, so the team’s resolve to stay below the threshold is likely to be tested by in-season acquisition opportunities.

The winter brought two significant subtractions from last year’s Dodger roster: Darvish and Morrow both signed lucrative free agent deals with the Chicago Cubs.

While his Los Angeles stint is likely to be remembered for a brutal World Series performance in which he tipped his pitches, Darvish remains an elite starting pitcher, and despite the current team-friendly climate, he did sign a relatively reasonable contact. For his part, Morrow resurrected his career with a stellar campaign as the Dodgers’ set-up man in 2017, including a dominant postseason performance and appearances in all seven World Series games.

In part to account for the loss of Morrow, the Dodgers moved to acquire Alexander from the Royals in a three-team deal. Alexander emerged as a strong late-inning option for Kansas City in 2017, when he posted a 2.48 ERA and an incredible 74 percent groundball rate in 69 innings. The lefty’s sinker-heavy repertoire (more than 90 percent usage last year) and fairly even platoon split make him a valuable addition to a bullpen stocked with purveyors of the high four-seamer.

In the deal, the Dodgers gave up Avilan, a useful veteran lefty who had used up his option years; Mejia, a Double-A infielder; and Oaks, a promising sinker-wielding pitching prospect who was probably the eighth or ninth guy in line for a start had he remained with the team. Peter, an intriguing infielder who appears to be major-league ready, went from the White Sox to the Dodgers in the swap, and after a strong performance in spring training looks like a potentially valuable depth option.

Prior to the Alexander deal, the Dodgers executed an unorthodox two-way salary dump with the Braves, sending Gonzalez, Kazmir, McCarthy, and Culberson to Atlanta for Kemp. Gonzalez was released and has since signed to be the Mets’ everyday first baseman; the Braves cut Kazmir last week. Though the total money on both sides of the trade was roughly even, the deal shaved about $23 million off this year’s Dodger payroll by moving nearly half of the commitment from this year to the last remaining season of Kemp’s contract in 2019.

Player to watch: Matt Kemp

There are plenty of interesting storylines heading into this season, from Clayton Kershaw’s age-30 season and potential opt-out to Cody Bellinger’s sophomore effort, Walker Buehler’s full-season debut, and Chris Taylor’s mission to prove last year’s breakout was no fluke. But for my money, the most fascinating Dodger storyline entering 2018 is the return of Kemp.

The Dodgers drafted Kemp out of high school in the sixth round way back in 2003, and he became a highly touted prospect before debuting in 2007. By 2011, Kemp had developed into one of the most fearsome hitters in the game, turning in an 8-WAR season that, controversially, left him second to Ryan Braun in the voting for NL MVP. Kemp signed an eight-year, $160 million deal after that year, but he was hobbled almost immediately by injuries and an aggressive defensive decline. Andrew Friedman moved him to San Diego for Yasmani Grandal (there were others involved, but let’s keep it simple) shortly after taking control of the Dodgers front office in 2014.

To be sure, the reacquisition of Kemp was motivated almost exclusively by financial considerations, and the Dodgers looked likely to offload or release him immediately following the trade. Since the Dodgers first traded him to the Padres, Kemp’s horrific defense has just about completely cancelled out his mostly above-average offensive performance — he’s accumulated a total of .6 fWAR in the last three years despite a wRC+ of 107.

Though this certainly isn’t the first time we have had a “best shape of his life” note regarding Kemp, he reportedly showed up 40+ pounds lighter this spring, and got off to a strong enough start in camp (hitting .423 with 4 HR in his first 10 games) to shore up a roster spot, although he ended the spring mired in a 4-for-31 funk. It remains to be seen whether — through some combination of better effort and conditioning as well as the Dodgers’ analytics-based positioning system — Kemp’s defense can improve enough to keep him in the lineup.

2018 outlook

After taking home their first pennant since 1988 and falling to the Astros in a thrilling/devastating seven-game World Series last year, the Dodgers enter the 2018 season with the same strong core in place, and the same championship aspirations.

Most projections have LA winning between 93 and 99 games this year, and that seems about right. Team leader Justin Turner fractured his left wrist in spring training and is likely to miss the first month of the season, but the Dodgers have more than enough depth to withstand that injury.

With the Giants’ combination of aggressive offseason moves and critical pitching injuries, the Rockies’ new uber-bullpen, the J.D. Martinez-less Diamondbacks, and an emerging young Padres team, it is really hard to tell what the rest of the NL West will look like. No matter how the 2-5 spots shake out, the Dodgers appear poised to claim the division crown for a sixth consecutive season.

Ross Drath

Arizona Diamondbacks

2017 record: 93-69, second in NL West

PECOTA 2018 projection: 87-75, second in NL West

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 79-83, third in NL West

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: second in NL West (13/18)

MLB: NL Wildcard-Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks
You don’t want to face this guy in the Wild Card game,
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason transactions:

  • Let OF J.D. Martinez (Red Sox), C Chris Iannetta (Rockies), RHP David Hernandez (Reds), and RHP Fernando Rodney (Twins) leave in free agency.
  • Traded RHP Curtis Taylor to the Rays in exchange for RHP Brad Boxberger.
  • Traded IF Brandon Drury and LHP Anthony Banda in a three-team deal with the Rays and Yankees, in exchange for RF Steven Souza and RHP Taylor Widener.
  • Signed OF Jarrod Dyson to a two-year, $7.5 million contract.
  • Signed C Alex Avila to a two-year, $8.25 million contract.

In a tight NL Wild Card race, the Diamondbacks went all-in last year, bringing in Martinez from the Tigers (for a surprisingly low price). He demolished during his half-season in the desert — with 29 home runs in just 57 games — then cashed in with a $110 million contract from Boston this offseason. Arizona won’t miss Martinez too much, though: The team brought in a pair of outfielders that should come close to his production.

Souza broke out last year in Tampa Bay, slashing .239/.351/.459 and racking up 3.7 fWAR; he’s under team control for three more years. Dyson is an elite baserunner and defender, and he holds his own against right-handed pitching (although he’s completely useless against lefties). The two of them will earn a combined $7.3 million this season, less than a third of Martinez’s salary with the Sox.

Likewise, while Hernandez and Rodney relocated to Cincinnati and Minneapolis, respectively, the Diamondbacks reeled in a solid relief arm in Boxberger. He’s had trouble staying healthy for a few years now, but in the 29 13 innings he pitched last season, Boxberger notched a 3.38 ERA and 3.43 FIP. He’s been named the team’s closer, and if he can stay off the DL, he’ll hang onto that role.

One of the key factors behind the Diamondbacks’ elite 2017 pitching staff (more on that in a moment) was quality receiving, as the team’s catchers combined to earn 13.6 framing runs. 8.4 of those came from Iannetta, who’s departed for Colorado; in his place comes Avila, who was worth -9.6 framing runs with the Tigers and Cubs. Avila’s a proven hitter, but if Torey Lovullo gives him the lion’s share of the time behind the plate, Arizona could be worse off for it.

Position to watch: The pitching staff

PECOTA thinks the Diamondbacks are an 87-win team; FanGraphs thinks they’re a 79-win team. That eight-W gap is the largest in the majors, and it’s all because of the pitching. Last season, Arizona was fourth in the majors with 4.07 runs allowed per game. PECOTA predicts that’ll hold steady at 4.08 (fourth in the projected rankings), while FanGraphs expects a spike to 4.61 (12th in the projected rankings). Which one should we believe?

The Diamondbacks had a dependable rotation in 2017, as five pitchers — Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Zack Godley, Patrick Corbin, and Taijuan Walker — combined to start 145 of their 162 games. Greinke dealt with a groin strain earlier this month, but he’s looked better since then, and the other four are fully healthy. Assuming no major injuries befall this group, it should continue chugging along.

The bullpen is a little iffier. Archie Bradley and Andrew Chafin broke out last year, but they had basically no track record of success before that, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they’ll sustain it for 2018. Boxberger, as noted, is an injury risk, and so is Randall Delgado, who’s starting the year on the DL. Relievers are notoriously fickle creatures, and with the rotation set, they’ll likely determine the fate of Arizona’s pitching staff this season.

2018 outlook

For as much attention as the Twins received for their 2016-17 turnaround, the Diamondbacks’ 180 was just as impressive, if not more so — they went from 69 wins and a fourth-place finish to 93 wins and a trip to the NLDS. The Dodgers are still the Dodgers, so it’ll be tough for anyone else to win the NL West, but Arizona has as good a chance as any team to grab a Wild Card spot.

We’ve talked about the pitching staff, which is one of the best in baseball. The position players can hold their own, too — Paul Goldschmidt crushes everything in his path, and A.J. Pollock is healthy (for now) and looking to return to MVP form in his walk year. Those two have been doing their thing for years, though; supporting characters like David Peralta and Jake Lamb were what made a big difference in 2017. Having a deep lineup to complement their rotation should help the Diamondbacks make some noise in the Senior Circuit again.

Ryan Romano

San Francisco Giants

2017 record: 64-98, fifth in NL West

PECOTA 2018 projection: 82-80, third in NL West

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 82-80, second in NL West

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: fourth in NL West (7/18)

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks
Yup, he opted in.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Traded RHP Kyle Crick, OF Bryan Reynolds, and $500,000 in international bonus pool money to the Pirates in exchange for OF Andrew McCutchen and cash.
  • Traded IF Christian Arroyo, OF Denard Span, RHP Stephen Woods, and LHP Matt Krook to the Rays in exchange for 3B Evan Longoria and cash.
  • Signed LHP Tony Watson to a two-year, $7 million contract.
  • Signed OF Austin Jackson to a two-year, $6 million contract.
  • Re-signed C Nick Hundley to a one-year, $2 million contract.

After a complete collapse in 2017, the Giants addressed their roster’s biggest holes. McCutchen and Longoria should drastically improve an offense that was anemic last year. They’re both former superstars who are on the decline, but they’re still high-floor types of players (don’t forget they’ll get to play half their games on the road, where they’ll be able to do more damage on offense) that should improve the position player side immensely.

On the pitching side of things, the Giants did add Watson for quite a bargain. After a down first half peripherals-wise, Watson had a major resurgence in the latter part of the season with the Dodgers, adding velocity and transforming into a ground-ball machine that ate up both lefties and righties alike. Watson continued his stellar performance into the postseason as well.

But the biggest improvement on the pitching side should come from the incumbents. Madison Bumgarner will hopefully stop falling off dirt bikes (although starting the season on the DL with a fractured finger isn’t going to help). Johnny Cueto should be better after opting back in, as should Mark Melancon, and Jeff Samardzija can hopefully get his ERA (4.42) to look more like his FIP (3.61). This team made the playoffs in 2016 with a pretty similar roster, so a rebound from last season’s disaster should be in order.

Position to watch: Center field

The Giants also added Jackson to the outfield mix this offseason. After three straight years of offensive ineptitude, Jackson bounced back in a big way in 2017, slashing .318/.387/.482 for the powerhouse Indians. But the jury is still out on his candidacy as a MLB-caliber starting center fielder. His once-stellar defense has taken multiple steps back (ridiculous home run robberies notwithstanding), while his bat may not be reliable over a full season facing same-handed pitchers.

That’s where Steven Duggar comes in. He’s the future in center field for the Giants, and that future may not be as far as it seems. He narrowly missed making the Opening Day roster, and he’ll ready himself in Triple-A for an in-season call-up, potentially as soon as Jackson falters.

This is a fluid situation, and Duggar may take over at some point in the season even if Jackson doesn’t stumble. Should the Giants not perform as a team, they may decide to give Duggar an extended look for developmental purposes anyway. On a roster where the other seven starting spots are pretty well locked down, center field is the only position that really has a suspenseful storyline.

2018 outlook

Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Since I have to write this before you can answer it, I’m going to start with the good news first.

The Giants are going to be a lot — and I mean a lot — better than they were in 2017. PECOTA has them winning 18 more games than last year, while Fangraphs has them improving by 17. Either way, they’re almost undoubtedly going to be the most improved team, record-wise, this season.

Part of that has to do with natural bouncebacks (Brandon Crawford), injury recoveries (Brandon Belt), or both (Melancon, Cueto, and Hunter Pence). But another large part has to do with their offseason moves, as explained earlier. The Giants should be in playoff contention, if not the division then at least for the wild card, all season.

Now comes the bad news. They improved dramatically, but they were starting from such a low point that it may not really matter. They’re almost definitely not going to unseat the Dodgers in the NL West, and they’re probably not better than the Diamondbacks, either. They will likely be jockeying with the Rockies for third and fourth place in the division.

That would be fine if the Giants were also on the upward trend in terms of a rebuild. However, they instead doubled down on contention in the offseason, shipping off promising youngsters such as Arroyo, Crick, and Reynolds for their shiny new additions. They’re the epitome of the treadmill theory that every team in the four major sports tries to avoid, continuously giving up valuable young assets to stay in the same middle-of-the-pack that they’ve been.

It isn’t all bad news in Giantland, because their on-field product should be significantly better than last season. But San Francisco will really have to hope that all of its pieces fall into place with aplomb; otherwise, it’ll be looking at the same bleak situation that has plagued the team since the Cubs eliminated them from the first round of the playoffs back in 2016.

Austin Yamada

Colorado Rockies

2017 record: 87-75, third in NL West

PECOTA 2018 projection: 78-84, fourth in NL West

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 77-85, fourth in NL West

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: third in NL West (8/18)

MLB: Spring Training-Milwaukee Brewers at Colorado Rockies
What’s Black and Gray and purple all over? (Don’t answer that.)
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Let C Jonathan Lucroy (Athletics), RHP Pat Neshek (Phillies), and RHP Tyler Chatwood (Cubs) leave in free agency.
  • Signed C Chris Iannetta to a two-year, $8.5 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Bryan Shaw to a three-year, $25 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Wade Davis to a three-year, $52 million contract.
  • Re-signed LHP Jake McGee to a three-year, $27 million contract.

The Rockies decided to spend their offseason focusing on their bullpen. Davis will assume Greg Holland’s mantle as closer, hoping that he doesn’t experience a second-half fade similar to Holland’s. Shaw fills the role of reliable right-handed setup man, which was vacated by 2017 midseason acquisition Neshek. In his second year in Denver, McGee fully recovered from a bothersome knee to post a 3.61 ERA and 2.93 FIP, convincing the club to bring him back.

Normally, it isn’t a great idea to spend a lot of money on a bullpen, much less break records in doing so, as the Rockies did with Davis’ contract. However, the team has a cornucopia of young cost-controlled starting pitching in the majors, and a groundswell of hitting prospects hungrily casting their gaze north out of Albuquerque. So, though the situation looks real good for 2019, spending on the bullpen makes some sense in lieu of pocketing the cash.

Catcher was another Colorado black hole until Lucroy arrived at the 2017 trade deadline. His departure will be negated by ex-Rockies catcher Iannetta. No matter which defensive metric is your cup of tea, his numbers are more like a box of chocolates — you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. On the other side of the ball, Iannetta should provide power and walks as the Rockies new/old starting catcher.

Positions to watch: The corners

The key to the Rockies success in 2018 will involve their corner slots — first and third base, and left and right field. In 2017, Colorado had good first-half contributions from outfielder Gerardo Parra and first baseman Mark Reynolds. Reynolds, as of this writing, is still on the market, and Parra proved in the second half that BABIP is a thing. Still, their performances offset disappointing seasons from first baseman/outfielder Ian Desmond and right fielder Carlos Gonzalez.

The Rockies are paying for the privilege of letting Desmond and Gonzalez (and to an extent, Parra) block young, potentially more productive corner players such as David Dahl, Ryan McMahon and Raimel Tapia. In 2017, Colorado was 21st in the majors in home runs despite Coors Field, and the outfield — aside from Charlie Blackmon — was a major culprit.

For the Rockies to have a successful 2018, Gonzalez — who is a notoriously slow starter — needs to begin hitting before August. Ian Desmond needs to show off some of that versatility by starting to hit, period. Parra needs to show more than the .452 slugging percentage that he posted in 2017. If those three don’t come to the plate in 2018, the Rockies will likely return to their losing ways, which won’t entice the fourth corner, Nolan Arenado, to sign an extension.

2018 outlook

Coming off their first winning season since 2010 and their first playoff appearance since 2009, the Rockies are looking for a repeat of competitive baseball using largely the same cast of players (along with that turbo-charged bullpen).

There’s a decent chance the Rockies starting pitching gets better if Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson log full, healthy seasons and the rest of the cast matures some. On offense, there’s potential upside from Trevor Story, who had a second half OPS of .834 to go with improved defense. If Gonzalez and Desmond return to competence, Colorado could be OK in 2018.

On the other hand, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks are still strong, while the Giants and Padres have gotten stronger since last year. So the Rockies need to find a better solution for their offense than hoping for three straight career years from Blackmon and Arenado. With Blackmon, Parra and Gold Glove spray hitter DJ LeMahieu scheduled for free agency after 2018, this may be the last run for this particular cast of characters.

As it stands right now, they’re probably not the high-70s-win team that some systems are projecting — unless the bottom falls out of that pricey bullpen — but it’s hard to see them as a high-80s-win team either. I’d call it at 84 wins without nearly as much drama for a Wild Card slot in 2018; I’ll be much higher on them in 2019 when the old guard clears out.

Richard Bergstrom

San Diego Padres

2017 record: 71-91, fourth in NL West

PECOTA 2018 projection: 73-89, fifth in NL West

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 72-90, fifth in NL West

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: fifth in NL West (15/18)

San Diego’s $144 million man.
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Signed 1B Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million contract.
  • Traded OF Jabari Blash to the Yankees in exchange for 3B Chase Headley, RHP Bryan Mitchell, and $500,000 in cash considerations.
  • Traded RHP Enyel de los Santos to the Phillies in exchange for IF Freddy Galvis.
  • Signed LHP Brad Hand to a three-year, $19.75 million extension.
  • Signed RHP Craig Stammen to a two-year, $4.5 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Kazuhisa Makita to a two-year, $4 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Jordan Lyles to a one-year, $1 million contract.

The Eric Hosmer debate has almost become a meme at this point. No matter where you stand in terms of your evaluation of his talent, the larger issue is that his performance peak will occur before the Padres’ window of contention, and from that point, he’ll continue to get worse as the team continues to get better.

With all of that being said, I tend to believe that sabermetrics — particularly in evaluating his defense — has gotten it wrong here. He’s a quality player, and he quite possibly becomes the best player on the Padres’ roster immediately. I’m not the first on the internet to point out the similarities between this deal and the Nationals’ signing of Jayson Werth, who declined throughout the life of the contract yet was still valuable enough at the end to contribute to the Nats’ contending efforts.

The rest of the Padres’ offseason moves were low-key in comparison to the Hosmer deal. None of them were especially groundbreaking or ingenious, but they were the right type of moves that a rebuilding team should be making. Acquiring Galvis as a one-year placeholder for Fernando Tatis Jr. makes sense, as does using extra payroll space to absorb the Headley contract, which allowed them to acquire the services of the promising Mitchell.

Lastly, San Diego continued to sign low-risk free agent relievers, following the trend of previous years. The Padres have typically let these pitchers thrive in the first half before selling them off at the deadline for young assets, thus conjuring value out of nowhere. Lyles looks like an especially interesting buy-low — he has five legitimate pitches in his repertoire, and he’s only 27. Should any of these pitchers fail to perform, it was a low-cost, short-commitment gambit anyway.

Player to watch: Franchy Cordero

Do you know who Cordero is? If not, you will soon. At 23, he can pretty much do any and everything that you possibly want to see when you watch baseball. He has an elite, and arguably unprecedented, combination of power and speed, backed up by Statcast’s exit velocity and sprint speed metrics.

Here’s one measure of Cordero’s success: He legged out a mind-boggling 21 triples last season between the minors and the majors, in just 123 games. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, let me put it this way — no big-leaguer besides Curtis Granderson has hit more triples than that in a single season since World War II. His blistering speed also helps him steal bases and cover ground in the outfield.

That doesn’t mean he’s without his flaws, however. He doesn’t walk much, and he struck out a preposterous 44.4 percent of the time in his 30-game debut last season. He also went down on strikes over 28 percent of the time in the minors, and even with his elite batted ball authority, he’ll have to cut down on those Ks to have sustained success at the plate at the MLB level.

Cordero looked like a good bet to open the year with a starting outfield spot for the big club, but groin tightness has put cold water on those plans for now. San Diego doesn’t have much to lose this season, so as soon as he returns, look for him to be one of the most exciting players that baseball has to offer.

2018 Outlook:

This year probably isn’t going to be fun again for Padres fans. However, it will also probably be the last not-fun year they’ll have for a while. In 2018, San Diego is clearly the worst team in the division, but the club has the future to look forward to. 2018 will mean all of the Padres’ prized prospects will take one step closer toward the majors.

By 2019, the exciting double-play duo of Tatis Jr. and Luis Urias should be MLB-ready, as should pitching prospect Cal Quantrill. There will be growing pains, like with Manny Margot and Hunter Renfroe this past season, but with those come actual growth. 2018 should be a little more fun than 2017, and every season after that should be better than the last.

Austin Yamada