Loaded Dodgers look ready to run away with NL West
MAR 03, 2014 11:17p ET
Watching Dodgers right-hander Josh Beckett snap off breaking balls on television Sunday, the thought hit me again:
Which National League West team can possibly beat these guys?
Yes, it's early in spring training, ridiculously early. But Beckett, coming off thoracic outlet surgery last July, looked something like his old self -- and he likely will open as no better than the Dodgers' fifth starter.
His primary competition, veteran lefty Paul Maholm, also threw two scoreless innings Sunday. And while lefty Clayton Kershaw is off to a slow start and righty Zack Greinke is suffering from an allergy to Australia in his right calf, neither pitcher qualifies as even remotely a concern.
Every year fans and media try to come up with "surprise" teams, and sure, one or more is possible in the NL West. But the Dodgers project to 98 wins according to Baseball Prospectus and 91 according to Fangraphs. No other major league club in either model projects to even 90. The Giants, pegged by both as the second-place team in the NL West, are at 87 according to Prospectus and 85 according to Fangraphs.
No projection system can account for injuries, the randomness of baseball or dysfunctional clubhouses. Even the most talented teams occasionally underachieve. Still, both Prospectus and Fangraphs rate the Dodgers' pitching as the best in the majors. So really, how much can go wrong, even if outfielder Yasiel Puig balloons up to 300 pounds, gets nightly tickets for driving 125 mph and winds up dating Rihanna, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus all at the same time?
The other NL West teams operate with virtually no margin for error, at least if they're thinking about winning the division title. Yet here we go -- the two potential surprise clubs, the Rockies and Padres, already face mildly troubling developments.
The Rockies recently shut down their top returning starter, righty Jhoulys Chacin. The Padres lost left-hander Cory Luebke to a second Tommy John surgery before spring training even began, and on Monday they learned that center fielder Cameron Maybin will be out 2 to 3 months with a torn biceps tendon.
Not good. But also not catastrophic.
Chacin is expected to resume throwing this week, and the Padres tried to build depth knowing that players such as Luebke and Maybin were coming off injuries. If anything, the Pads had a surplus of outfielders entering camp. The loss of Maybin will prevent them from matching up as well against left-handers, but his likely replacement, Will Venable, hit lefties well last season.
Still, the Pads' offseason hype seemingly was based on their newfound willingness to spend and relative upside of some of their returning players, including Maybin. That upside is not necessarily an illusion. Then again, the Jays were all excited about righty Josh Johnson a year ago at this time. And while reliever Joaquin Benoit and outfielder Seth Smith should be solid acquisitions for the Pads, they probably will not be difference-makers.
The Rockies actually might be more interesting, if shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez each can play 130 or more games in the same season for the first time -- and lefty Brett Anderson, the Rockies' version of Johnson, can stay upright enough to make an impact.
The other clubs in the division are wary of the Rox: "Scary if they stay healthy," said a rival NL West reliever. "Nobody likes to play them," said a rival NL West GM.
The Rockies are sitting on two of the game's top pitching prospects, Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray, and privately believe that their bullpen could develop into a strength. But as with the Padres, no one should view the Rox as a contender until they prove worthy.
The Giants and Diamondbacks are the Dodgers' most realistic challengers, and both clubs can concoct 90-win scenarios. If Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum rebound for the Giants, and Mike Morse proves a force in left field. . . . If left fielder Mark Trumbo makes the D-Backs' offense that much more formidable, and righty Archie Bradley arrives at midseason to become this year's Gerrit Cole . . .
Sounds great in theory.
In reality, the rest of the West probably is just playing for wild cards.
The Dodgers, after using nine starters in their first 23 games last season, built the depth of both their rotation and bullpen to almost absurd levels, as if competing in an arms race against themselves.
The signing of free-agent righty Dan Haren to a one-year, $10 million contract gave the Dodgers a replacement for the departed Ricky Nolasco and likely turned Beckett into a $15.75 million fifth starter. Maholm, the other alternative, could open in the bullpen.
Meanwhile, righty Chad Billingsley could return from Tommy John surgery by midseason, and righties Stephen Fife and Matt Magill likely will open at Triple-A. Among the prospects, righty Ross Stripling is getting his elbow examined, but righty Zach Lee and lefty Chris Reed could be ready to pitch in the majors this season.
That's 11 potential options, if you're counting.
The bullpen, meanwhile, is literally an embarrassment of riches. Six relievers will earn a combined $32.4 million in salary and pro-rated bonuses, and that figure doesn't include the pre-arb salaries of youngsters such as lefty Paco Rodriguez and righty Chris Withrow.
The Dodgers' biggest question right now is at second base, where Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero could prove a poor risk for $28 million over four years. Dee Gordon is a dubious alternative, but veterans Chone Figgins, Justin Turner and Miguel Rojas also are in the mix.
Chances are, the competition will extend into the regular season. But as deep as the Dodgers' lineup is, particularly with outfielder Matt Kemp recovering nicely from ankle and shoulder surgeries, will the outcome even matter?
If everyone loves an underdog, the rest of the NL West is eminently lovable. It's just difficult to see the Dodgers as beatable, that's all.