With Prince Fielder and Edwin Jackson finally finding employers for the 2012 season, the free agent market is drying up, which is exciting for baseball fans, as it signals the proximity of spring training. In mere weeks, pitchers and catchers will be stretching in Florida and Arizona and fans of all ages will dream of their team sneaking into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season and knocking off three obviously superior teams to win the championship.
That means it’s time for Replacement Level’s baseball preview. Much like last year, my preview comes from a combination of cold, hard stats and gut feelings. I started by giving every team the number of wins their pythagorean record suggests they “earned” in 2011. Then I subtracted one win for every player WAR (per fangraphs) that left the major league roster. I took a stab at how many wins each team’s new additions will add this year, based not on last year’s WAR, but on their career trajectory and the player(s) they’re replacing.
Next comes the fluffy stuff. I made three more-or-less subjective adjustments to each team’s expected win total, based on (1) the age of its key contributors and whether they can expect to be healthier or less healthy in ’12, (2) expected gains from players I think underachieved last year and losses from players I think overachieved last year, and (3) regression at the extremes, based on the fact that most teams can’t sustain a 100-win or 100-loss pace.
I’ll give each division its own post, starting out west and working eastward. Today’s subject is the National League West, where the Diamondbacks won a surprising 94 games and ran away with the division in ’11.
Most Improved Team
This award can’t go to anyone but the Padres, but we need to be careful about how we use the word “improved”. The Padres won just 71 games last season with the run differential of a 79-win team, and they’re a young team, so without making any changes, they had a chance to finish at .500 in 2012. They did make changes, and while they may not have gotten better, they got even younger, which bodes well for the team’s future. They let go of three fifths of their starting rotation in Mat Latos, Aaron Harang, and Wade Leblanc, along with closer Heath Bell. Bell was easily replaced, as Huston Street will enjoy the vast pastures of Petco and a solid crew of relievers setting him up. Edinson Volquez and Andrew Cashner may not fill the void left by Latos and co., but if young players like Cameron Maybin, Kyle Blanks, and newcomer Yonder Alonso develop quickly, this team could contend in ’12. I see them winning about 80 games and challenging for second place.
Least Improved Team
The Giants held the division lead for most of the summer of ’11, but the injury bug and a surging Arizona team hit them hard. In the offseason, they locked up Tim Lincecum for two more years and… not much else. They traded Jonathan Sanchez, an expendable piece, for Melky Cabrera, a player coming off a career year and unlikely to continue his Kansas City success in a pitcher’s park with a big outfield. Angel Pagan may be an upgrade over Andres Torres, but Pagan and Cabrera can’t both play center and neither is likely to hit enough to play a corner spot, nor is any other Giant, now that Carlos Beltran is gone. The pitching will still be good, as Madison Bumgarner may contend for a Cy Young Award and we haven’t seen much of the regression so man of us expected from Lincecum and Matt Cain, but Ryan Vogelsong can’t possibly repeat his 2011, and this team can’t hit, even with a full year of Kung Fu Panda. They were outscored last year and probably will be again- I see 78 wins.
The Diamondbacks won in 2011 by putting very few bad players on the field. Justin Upton is a budding superstar, but most of the MVP talk surrounding him last year was driven backwards (his team won a lot, and he was their best player, so he must have been valuable). Miguel Montero is on the right trajectory, and Paul Goldschmidt could be the long-term answer at first base. Ian Kennedy may not have a sub-3.00 ERA again, but he’s good, and Daniel Hudson had a 3.28 FIP in ’11 and may be the team’s true ace. Throw in Trevor Cahill in the number three spot (he’s a groundball pitcher, so the park may not hurt him much), and this is another formidable team. The only place I see them regressing (aside from the fact that they won’t win 94 games again with an 89-win run differential) is in left field, where Gerardo Parra was a revelation in 2011, creating nine percent more runs than the average hitter while saving nine runs in the field (per fangraphs). Jason Kubel’s bat may relegate Parra to fourth outfielder status, which is a shame because Kubel is a butcher with the glove. Still, the D’backs will win about 90 games and may run away with the division again.
The Dodgers will regress some, with Aaron Harang replacing Hiroki Kuroda and Matt Kemp unlikely to repeat his historic 2011, but they’ll challenge the rest of the division for second place. Colorado will be in that pack as well, after adding a bunch of questionable players (Jeremy Guthrie, Marco Scutaro, Michael Cuddyer, Tyler Chatwood, and Guillermo Moscoso, who will not like Coors Field). I see the division finishing something like this:
1. Arizona, 90-72
2. San Diego, 80-82
3. Los Angeles, 79-83
4. San Francisco, 78-84
5. Colorado, 77-85