With the offseason fireworks likely over, a favorite emerges…or rather, stays in place
With the Bryce Harper sweepstakes officially over (in case you missed it, he signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies this past week), the National League West picture seems to be firmly in place for the upcoming 2019 season.
The biggest offseason winners were the San Diego Padres, for reasons we will get into shortly. But the division seems likely to fall into familiar hands for yet another season, while the rest of the teams scramble for position. From my perspective, two teams could potentially make the playoffs this season out of the NL West, and they are the same two as last year.
Without further ado…
Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected record: 95-67
The Los Angeles Dodgers are the most likely team to win the National League West in 2019, which would be their 7th straight division crown. They’ve been to two straight World Series and dropped them both, first to Houston and last year to Boston. With as much success as these Dodgers have had in the regular season (and World Series appearances are nothing to sneeze at either!), they haven’t been able to capture that elusive championship, their last coming in 1988.
The roster remains largely unchanged from last year, though there are two additions to speak of that should boost the Dodgers. The first is a true addition: A.J. Pollock signed a four-year deal with the club this offseason. He hit .257 last season in Arizona with 21 home runs and 65 RBI, and he should provide a solid bat in the middle of the lineup.
The second addition isn’t really an addition, but a re-welcoming. Corey Seager is working to be back by Opening Day for the Dodgers in 2019. Seager was the 2016 National League Rookie of the Year, as well as an All-Star in both 2016 and 2017. Last season, he played 26 games before requiring Tommy John surgery and missing the rest of the season. He also underwent hip surgery in 2018 while sidelined. Seager’s consistency and ability to make an impact on both sides of the ball should be a welcome sight for Dodgers fans when he is able to rejoin the team.
Another big name in Los Angeles is, of course, Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw complained of shoulder discomfort during spring training in February, and the Dodgers have been monitoring his progress closely since. His goal, like Seager’s, is to be ready by Opening Day, but all parties involved know the risks of rushing a pitcher back. If he can’t go, expect Walker Buehler to be the starter on Opening Day.
The bats in the Dodgers lineup are near the top of the league, including both Seager and Pollock. But Cody Bellinger brings power to the middle of the lineup as well. Bellinger hit 25 home runs and played in all 162 games last season; he hit 39 in 2017, and the Dodgers expect him to be closer to that number. Max Muncy had an outstanding 2018, hitting 35 home runs in 137 games. Joc Pederson added another 25 homers last season, and Justin Turner, though he missed considerable time in 2018, still hit .312 in 103 games.
The Dodgers pitching staff is also one of the best in baseball. They brought in reliever Joe Kelly in free agency from Boston, and he figures to be the setup man for Kenley Jansen, who had 38 saves last season. Along with Buehler and Kershaw, the Dodgers starting rotation includes Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, and Hyun-jin Riu. When healthy, those five combined to go 43-28 in 2019. Ross Stripling figures to get some starts, though he could become more of a long relief option out of the bullpen.
Los Angeles offloaded some big names from the payroll in December, when they dealt Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Kyle Farmer to the Cincinnati Reds for Homer Bailey, Jeter Downs, and Josiah Gray. That list of former Dodgers includes one of my personal least favorite players in baseball, which is a shame, because now I have to watch the Cubs play against him 19 times this year.
All things considered, a healthy Dodgers squad may not just be the favorite to win the NL West, but the National League Pennant again. It seems like the pieces are all in place, and 60% of the NL West is at least another season away from competing, so expect Los Angeles to reign supreme again and win their 7th straight division title.
Projected record: 90-72
The Colorado Rockies made the playoffs last season and challenged the Dodgers all season long in the division, which is about what I expect them to do this year as well.
The big offseason storyline for Colorado was the extension that Nolan Arenado signed in February. The eight-year, $260 million deal gives Arenado an average annual value of $32.5 million, which makes him the highest paid position player in Major League history. Arenado, a perennial MVP contender, has hit at least 37 home runs in each of the last four seasons, and he’s also driven in at least 130 runs in three of the last four seasons. Those kinds of numbers are impressive, but when you factor in that Arenado is a career .291 hitter, it makes him worth the mega bucks.
The Rockies lost DJ LeMahieu to free agency this offseason, but they did sign Daniel Murphy to replace him. Murphy hit .299 with the Nationals and Cubs last season, which matches his career batting average. Losing one of the top hitters in baseball isn’t easy to do, but it makes it easier when you sign another top hitter in baseball.
Charlie Blackmon and Trevor Story are the other two bats that will complement Arenado the most. Story hit 37 home runs in 2018 and batted .291. He cut down on his strikeouts last season, going from 191 in 2017 to 168 last year, but the Rockies still want to see that number continue to decline. Story has been better at laying off pitches out of the zone, but a power bat generally comes along with a bigger strikeout number, and when it’s all said and done, I think the Rockies can live with the tradeoff.
Blackmon, who boasts one of the best hair/beard combos in professional sports, also hit .291 last season while contributing 29 dingers. An All-Star each of the last two seasons, Blackmon has established himself at the top of the Rockies lineup as one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball.
The Rockies pitching staff has potential to be their best in franchise history, led by Kyle Freeland. He went 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA last season and is looking to cement himself as the top starter in Rockies history over the next few years. German Marquez (14-11, 3.77 ERA), Jon Gray (12-9, 5.12), and Tyler Anderson (7-9, 4.55) give the Rockies four strong starters at the top of their rotation. Marquez also won the Silver Slugger Award for pitchers in the National League in 2018.
In the bullpen, Seung-hwan Oh made 73 appearances between Toronto and Colorado in 2018, striking out 79 batters and posting a 2.63 ERA. But the big name out of the bullpen will again be Wade Davis (another former Cub), who saved 43 games for the Rockies last year. If the starters can consistently make quality starts, the bullpen is good enough to get the game into the hands of Wade Davis in the 9th.
One thing to watch between now and Opening Day is the status of Carlos Gonzalez. Gonzalez has been a steady bat for Colorado in each of the last 10 seasons, though his power numbers dropped in 2018. He is currently a free agent, but has not ruled out a return to Colorado. If the Rockies are able to re-sign Gonzalez, I think his numbers are good enough to be a help, not a hindrance, as the Rockies seek a playoff spot again in 2019.
San Diego Padres
Projected record: 79-83
The Padres are so close to competing in the National League West, but I believe they are one year away from being at the top of the division. And when it comes, they could stay atop the West for several seasons.
Signing Manny Machado to a 10-year, $300 million contract this offseason was obviously a huge step forward for the Padres. Though Machado has been criticized for his lack of hustle and effort from time to time, he’s still one of the top young talents in baseball, and the Padres clearly believe he’s worth a big chunk of the payroll.
That said, the Padres are still a couple of key (young) pieces away from being #1. The coolest thing about the Padres (from my perspective) is that their Low-A affiliate is the minor league team in the city where I live. Because of that, I get to watch a lot of the Padres top young prospects in action for the Fort Wayne Tincaps throughout each season. In fact, 24 of their top 30 prospects are currently in or have played for Fort Wayne. It’s been really cool to see some of those players make the show, and that should continue.
The consensus across a lot of different sites and organizations (including Major League Baseball, Bleacher Report, and ESPN) has the Padres with the best farm system in baseball. The amount of talent coming through the pipeline should make the Padres one of the top teams for years to come.
The biggest name currently in the minors right now is Fernando Tatis Jr. Tatis, ranked the #1 prospect by ESPN’s Keith Law (and #2 by MLB Pipeline), should make his big league debut early during the 2019 season, and even when he arrives, San Diego will still have a top 3 (and maybe STILL #1) system in baseball. I remember watching Tatis with the Tincaps in 2017 as he hit 21 home runs in low-A ball and knowing he’d be a big leaguer someday. That day is nearly here, and along with Machado, the left side of the Padres infield seems like it will be set for a long time.
The second-ranked prospect in the system is Mackenzie Gore, a left-handed starter who spent all of 2018 with the Tincaps. The 20-year-old has at least another season before he’ll be a Padre, but his accuracy and control make him the top pitching prospect for San Diego.
So what about the current big league roster?
Well, the pitching staff is less than stellar. Joey Lucchesi was arguably the best pitcher for the Padres last season, and he went 8-9 with a 4.08 ERA. Clayton Richard and Tyson Ross were probably the next best pitchers in 2018, but those two are now with Toronto and Detroit, respectively. Luis Perdomo should be the #2 starter, but he struggled mightily last season, going 1-6 with a 7.05 ERA.
On the other side of things, the Padres have more young outfielders than they have positions for them to play. There are five guys age 27 or younger that could (and probably should) make the roster: Hunter Renfroe, Franchy Cordero, Travis Jankowski, Franmil Reyes, and Manuel Margot. Renfroe, who has hit 26 home runs in each of the last two seasons, should have a starting spot on Opening Day, as well as Franmil Reyes, who hit 16 home runs in just 87 games last season. Both guys are listed as right fielders, but it shouldn’t be a problem for Reyes to switch to left. I think those two give the Padres the best chance to win now.
As for center field, time will tell. That list doesn’t include Wil Myers, who is 28 years old this season. Myers split time between the outfield and third base last year, as well as two games at first base. However, Eric Hosmer is likely to play the most at first base, and with Machado at third, Myers will have to fight for some time in the outfield. If healthy, he’s easily the third outfield starter, but Myers battled injuries last year and played in just 83 games.
Machado should be interesting enough to watch, but much like the Blue Jays and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., keep an eye on the Padres when Fernando Tatis Jr. makes his debut this season.
San Francisco Giants
Projected record: 70-92
Can the Giants make one more magical run to the World Series and send Bruce Bochy, a three-time champion, out on top?
The San Francisco Giants, who won three World Series titles from 2010-2014, have a lot of the same pieces from those rosters on the squad today.
The problem is that a lot of those guys are past their primes. Here’s a list of the main contributors on offense, with their age as of Opening Day: Buster Posey (32), Evan Longoria (33), Brandon Crawford (32), Pablo Sandoval (32), Brandon Belt (30), Joe Panik (28). All six of those guys are good baseball players, and I think Posey and Longoria are future Hall of Famers. But when the core of your offense has an average age of 31, that’s a problem in baseball.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying 30 is ancient. I’m coming up on it myself. But there’s no question that baseball, along with most other sports, is a young man’s game, and the Giants aren’t getting any younger.
Their top three starting pitchers – Madison Bumgarner (29), Jeff Samardzija (34), and Johnny Cueto (33) – aren’t the youngest guys on the team either. (Though to be honest, finding out just now that Bumgarner is only 29 was a bit surprising. I feel like he’s been around for 15 years.) The Giants signed Drew Pomeranz from the World Series champion Boston Red Sox this offseason, but he’s 30 as well.
The Giants could easily get good production out of all of those players I listed above, but it remains to be seen whether or not they can produce at a high level for 162 games. Historically, it seems like a good number of players begin to break down around 30-32 years old and deal with injuries more frequently, so the Giants are a prime candidate to have a lot of guys spend time on the Injured List this season.
While they’d love to send Bochy (another future Hall of Famer) out on top, it just isn’t going to happen. The only real shot they had at a winning season just signed with the Phillies for $330 million.
Projected record: 65-97
Whereas the Giants kept their key group of players together, trying to make one last run at a title, the Diamondbacks have fully gone into rebuild mode. Trading Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals and letting A.J. Pollock go in free agency were just about the final shoes to drop for Arizona in this process.
It’s hard to say what the offense will look like this season, which should be the bulk of their struggles. Jake Lamb and David Peralta, though good, aren’t exactly the types that you build a team around. If they get off to good starts in 2019, they could be traded for more prospects by the end of July.
Speaking of prospects, the Diamondbacks’ farm system currently ranks in the middle of the pack, though they do have some players ready to be called up to the show. One of them, Carson Kelly, came over from St. Louis in the Goldschmidt trade. Kelly couldn’t break into the Cardinals lineup behind Yadier Molina, one of the best catchers in the game, but he’s been consistent in Triple-A for Memphis. Though Alex Avila is likely to start behind the plate on Opening Day, don’t be surprised if Kelly usurps that role by midseason.
The Diamondbacks signed Wilmer Flores to a one-year deal this offseason. The 27-year-old, who is a lifetime .262 hitter, should fill in at second base at the beginning of the year, but could move to first if Jake Lamb is traded. With a one-year deal, though, Flores could end up being dealt himself.
The rotation is where the Diamondbacks have the most trade bait. While Luke Weaver was also a part of the Goldschmidt trade, the top three arms on the depth chart are likely to be traded (or at least, attempted to be traded) this season.
Zack Greinke enters his fourth season with the D-backs. He went 15-11 last year with a 3.21 ERA, but the biggest problem for Arizona is that he’s owed $105 million over the next three years. That’s A LOT of money to pay a 35-year-old pitcher, even one who has been one of the best in baseball. Greinke is owed $35 million this season, and it seems like if the Diamondbacks want to give him up to the right buyer for good prospects, they might have to eat some of that salary along the way.
Zack Godley (15-11, 4.74 ERA) and Robbie Ray (6-2, 3.93) are also among the trade bait in Arizona. For any contenders looking to add another starting arm to the rotation, you can do a lot worse than Godley and Ray. Ray should be the first to go, since he’s a free agent after this season. Godley could become eligible for arbitration by the end of the year, and he’s currently only making $507K, so Arizona may try to hang on to him.
Since the World Series title in 2001, the Diamondbacks have only made it past the Divisional Round once – in 2007 – and have only made the playoffs four times. They won’t add to those numbers this year, but much like the Padres, they’re filling up the pipeline with talent to compete in the coming years, though they are a bit behind San Diego.
Don’t bet on Arizona to win anything this year, and I wouldn’t buy a jersey of any current player this season. Wait until the chips fall, save your money, and cash in in a couple of seasons. Sorry, Diamondbacks fans, but 2019 is likely to be a long season for you.