Friday, February 18, 2011

Best in the NL West

If I had a nickel for each time Rob Neyer inspired me to write something, well, let’s just say I’d have quite a few nickels. Recently, he’s been publishing (in weblog form, silly) a series which aims to determine the very best players at each position through the conclusion of the decade. It’s ambitious. It’s also doomed to failure, unless he’s learned a thing or two since the last time he tried. Anyway, I’d like to do something similar, but pare it way, way back.

We will start by including only those players who play in the National League West and trim if further by aiming for the best players now, not necessarily worrying so much about their future. To do this, I’m simply looking up the Fan Projections from FanGraphs, grabbing each player’s projected Wins above Replacement (WAR), and completing the circle by commenting on each selection. The fans projections seem a decent place to start to find some impartial (if also biased) judges. Sound like fun? Too bad. One final note: I’m doing position players now with the hopes to do pitchers later – just don’t hold your breath.

After the jump, we start with the most important position on the diamond, the catcher. We’ll continue in order of positional scarcity – meaning the relative supply of “good” players at each position. There are fewer good hitters that can also be good defensive catchers than any other position. Next is shortstop, and so forth.

CSan Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey with a 5.3 WAR (second: Colorado’s Chris Iannetta at 3.6 WAR)

I have no alterations to make with this one in terms of ranking order. A 5.3 WAR is a pretty high expectation for Buster but he could meet that. I wouldn’t say it’s the most likely outcome, but it’s also not an outrageous goal. I think Posey has a chance to not only be the best catcher in the division but one of the top five catchers in baseball. Not only does he have tremendous ability offensively, but he should be an above average catcher defensively for at least a few seasons. He threw out 37% of attempted base stealers in 2010 and there’s reason to believe his cannon is worthy of a higher gunned down percentage. The Giants’ staff is notoriously poor at holding runners on. FanGraphs does not include a defensive contribution in their WAR calculation for catchers, so I think it’s safe to say he’ll be undervalued on their site.

Iannetta is a solid number two for our purposes. He's been somewhat perplexingly jerked around and tossed to Triple-A, stashed behind Yorvit Torrealba and Miguel Olivo for much of the last couple seasons. The Rockies seem motivated to finally give him the job he seemed to earn in 2008, but we'll see. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Miguel Montero of Arizona who also has a solid bat.

SSColorado Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki with a 6.6 WAR (second: Stephen Drew at 4.2 WAR)

This is the biggest slam dunk of the whole exercise, and that’s saying a lot because Drew is a good little shortstop. So no, my saying Tulo’s a given has nothing to do with Drew and everything to do with Tulowitzki. When I played junior college ball at De Anza, I had a friend named Javi who I played with that played with Tulo at Fremont high school. He said, “My buddy is absolutely legit and I guarantee he will go in the first round.” This was way back when Tulowitzki was destroying the NCAA for the Dirtbags – that’s the name for Long Beach State’s baseball team – and I had no idea who he was. Well, Tulowitzki went seventh overall in the 2005 amateur draft*. After signing a mega contract extension this offseason, Giants fans will have to suffer while their Bay Area native dazzles with his glove and smashes with his bat for years to come.

*Quick aside: ready for some frustration, Giants fans? Here goes. The Giants forfeited their first-round rights, a 22 overall pick, for the right to sign Armando Benitez. This one turned out well. We got a lifelong hatred for Benitez and Randy Messenger out of it! A few cherry-picked players available at 22 (where the Marlins picked): Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza and Colby Rasmus. Thank god the organizational philosophy has drastically changed since 2005.

Not shown: Tejada (who isn't really a shorstop anymore, anyway)

2BArizona Diamondbacks’ Kelly Johnson with a 3.7 WAR (second: San Diego’s Orlando Hudson at 2.4 WAR)

I have to admit, this position is pretty thin in the division. Johnson is a good player but I’m not sure he’ll repeat that 3.7 WAR from 2010. Heck, no one really even wanted him after his forgetful 2009 with the Braves. His WAR from last season was greatly helped by a torrid first couple of months and in a very live yard at that. The fact that the aging Orlando Hudson is coming in second tells the story: the division has a bunch of once-good players that are well past their prime. The Giants’ Freddy Sanchez is another prime example. The fans project him to produce a 2.0 WAR which also seems about right.

I love second basemen and I’m hoping the Giants find themselves one, somewhere. I’ve been drooling over Chase Utley, Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia for some time. Is it Charlie Culberson who is steeping in the minors? Maybe, but maybe not: he’s a butcher with the glove, so I’ve read. Conor Gillaspie still has some promise for the Giants but he’s been at third mostly, a position where he’s done his best Brooks Conrad impression. Also, despite great plate discipline he really hasn’t hit for much power. Actually, he hasn’t hit much at all. Time well tell.

3BSan Diego Padres’ Chase Headley with 3.4 WAR (second: San Francisco’s Pablo Sandoval at 3.0 WAR)

This one actually shocked me in that Headley was roaming the outfields of Petco in 2008 and 2009 and not doing a very good job of it. Truth be told, he was actually terrible out there. At first glance, I made the assumption that his defense was a fluke and thus his 3.4 WAR projection by the fans for 2011 was crazy. Well, I was wrong – this should only further the truth that assumptions are the mother of all f-ups. Headley posted a 4.6 WAR in 2010 despite having a below average bat by way of his playing brilliant defense. The Fielding Bible agreed as he found himself behind only Evan Longoria, Ryan Zimmerman and Adrian Beltre (by just 8 votes) for best defensive player at the hot corner in 2010.

I’ll give Headley the nod for now, with the right to bump him if or when Panda starts bashing balls around the ballpark from both sides. Miguel Tejada just offered to workout with Pablo in the mornings throughout spring training. Does that excite me? Yes, I think he could learn a lot from another Hispanic mentor that’s been in incredible shape throughout his career. Sandoval easily has the potential to be a four win player if he hits like he did in 2009, even if just an average fielder at the hot corner.

CFSan Francisco Giants’ Andres Torres with a 4.0 WAR (second: Chris Young at 3.4 WAR)

Most interesting about this is probably the fact that Matt Kemp is not even in the top two. Few people would have predicted that after his 2009 breakout season. Here’s the problem though, he didn’t hit in 2010 and his Gold Glove in 2009 wasn’t exactly earned in the way us sabermetric writers prefer – that is, by actually playing well defensively. He’s also a candidate to Hollywood himself out of … well Hollywood. Ned Colletti called him out early in 2010 and didn’t exactly get the results you might hope for. He still has tremendous upside as an offensive player but needs to move to a corner outfield spot. The Dodgers have outfield problems, at least defensively.

Torres deserves a lot of credit for his 2010 and stands to hold a great deal of his value assuming his legs stay healthy. The beauty of Torres is that he is an outstanding center fielder. He has superb range which actually makes people miss how brilliant he is – he simply makes it look easy getting to balls that a hitter might say he has no business getting to. That’s the type of frustration you want your outfielders dealing out to opposing players.

Offensively, whether or not his 2010 was a fluke remains to be seen. He’s shown an excellent ability to draw walks - which is desired in a hitter and especially in the leadoff spot - in the last two seasons. That's favorable so long as you understand he’s going to strike out a lot too. Also, he has excellent extra base power that’s only helped by his speed: a single turns to a double, a double to a triple. And if you groove a pitch, he’s liable to dump it into the water.

Obviously, Young has a better long-term outlook at the position. But, as I said, we’re dealing with the Right Now. Torres gets the nod.

LFColorado Rockies’ Carlos Gonzalez with a 5.0 WAR (second: San Francisco’s Cody Ross at 2.0 WAR)

Here’s another no-brainer. Had Gonzalez stayed in center, he’d have taken that spot easily. But the Rockies like Dexter Fowler out there for his defense, smartly. Gonzalez won the batting title in 2010 and should continue to be a really nice young hitter. He’s not the defensive player people have made him out to be, but he should be more than adequate in left field. He’s got all kinds of pop and speed and should continue to hit for a high average with good home run and extra base power.

His one real weakness: well, there’s actually two. First, he had horrendous home and away splits in 2010. If those remain this coming season, it’ll be a problem. If they become less pronounced, it’ll be a good sign for Colorado. The other is that his late discipline is just crummy. He really likes to swing the bat, regardless of where the ball is pitched. In that, he’s a lot like Sandoval. Anyway, Colorado is a great park for posting high batting averages on balls in play (BABiP). But an “unlucky” season could really derail on-base percentage considering it ultimately is reliant on a high average.

Coming in second is Cody Ross all the way down at 2.0 WAR. Ross will probably actually play right while one of Mark DeRosa, Pat Burrell, Aubrey Huff or Brandon Belt will take over left.

Perhaps the most fun left field in the division is the Dodgers’ screwy iteration: Jay Gibbons and Marcus Thames. Let me know how that one turns out. Maybe they’ll rededicate Mannywood to Geriatric Platoonwood.

RFArizona Diamondbacks’ Justin Upton with a 4.8 WAR (second: Andre Ethier at 2.8 WAR)

This one goes pretty easily to an extremely talented player in Upton. The D’backs considered moving him for prospects but were smart not to when they weren’t offered a huge package in return. Upton can play the position defensively and has huge offensive upside. He’s fast and has tremendous power. His 2010 was a down season but I expect he’ll put it together again like he did in 2009 this coming season. I think around a five win season is what the D’backs are hoping for and what many people expect from a player of his talent.

I really like Ethier the hitter, but he just isn’t a quality outfielder. He probably belongs at first for now but the Dodgers have a quality defender there already in James Loney. The only problem is he can’t hit, not like a first baseman, anyway. Figures.

1BSan Francisco Giants’ Aubrey Huff with a 2.3 WAR (second: San Diego’s Brad Hawpe at 1.6 WAR)

I was a bit surprised to see this until I ran over the competition, which is slim. The D’backs will go with a player that was previously in the Yankees’ minor league system in Juan Miranda, though they did just pick up Russell Branyan in a minor league deal who should take the spot, if healthy. That’s a big if. That said, he’s got a great deal of power and really crushes right-handed pitching. I really liked that pick up for them.

Huff takes the top spot with a way-down-from-last-season 2.3 WAR campaign, as predicted of course. This probably isn’t a long shot, a couple reasons. I’m certain the fans aren’t sold on his solid defense from a year ago given his career track record. Also, he’s no spring chicken and coming off of a career year in which he wore down during the second half and postseason. Will he continue to be a good player? Probably, or a decent one at least. But we should also consider that he might end up in left field when Belt gets past Sabean’s self-imposed Super Two* deadline.

*There are reasons to believe Belt will be held at Triple-A for reasons other than his abilities as a player. Basically, the reasons would be financial. He played with fire last season by holding back Posey for so long and there was greater reason to do so given the importance of the catching position and his Bochy’s reluctance to hand over his stellar pitching staff to a rookie. That reluctance shouldn’t be as severe given Belt can play great defense at first and the position isn’t all that demanding. Further, Belt provides a similar flexibility that Posey did – he played a lot of first when he came up – in that many believe he’s athletic enough to handle lefty. In any case, he’s coming this season and the only real question is when.

You need look no further than Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Freddie Freeman, Joey Votto, Ike Davis and Ryan Howard to see how lean the West is at the position, and that’s after Adrian Gonzalez (phew!) and Adam Dunn departed the NL.

DH – There’s no DH in the National League – Condolences to Kemp and Ethier who are butchers at their respective positions. (Yes, I’ll take any chance to pick on the Dodgers.)

I had no idea how massive this post would end up being, but there it is.

It’s pretty good news for Giants fans as they take top honors at three of eight positions while taking second in two others – though I’ll admit the Ross in left field one is debunked. Given the Giants’ superior pitching (in both the ‘pen and rotation), I feel confident that they must be favorites in the division. That being said, the Rockies have a couple of great players in Tulo and Gonzalez as well as several other solid ones (Seth Smith, Ian Stewart and Fowler). They also have a pretty quality pitching staff. For this reason, they have to be the most likely team to upset the Giants. The Dodgers probably aren’t too far behind.

Still, the Giants have the edge. There are, however, ways the locomotive can clearly come off the tracks with a couple of wrong turns. In no particular order: if Panda turns in another dismal season, a starter goes down given their horrific rotational depth, if Huff melts into the aged player we all thought he was when Sabean originally signed him, if Tejada is a disaster at short and at the plate, if Belt fails to add to an offense that still is particularly sparse outside of Posey, or if Torres falls apart returning the job to – breathe, Giants fans – Aaron Rowand. There are others, but these come to mind immediately.

∞ Special thanks for FanGraphs for the WAR graph and stats herein

Rory Paap began writing about baseball on this blog at the end of 2009, where he primarily covers the San Francisco Giants. Feel free to send Rory comments via email or twitter.


  1. I don't think that ethier and Kemp are that bad in the field. I did see each of them butcher a play or two last year, but I also saw each of them make some really nice plays.