NL West Division 2018 Preview: Will There Be A Three Team Race For Second?
by 16 February 2018, 10:00 AM
The National League West will be a wild showdown in 2018 with four teams eyeing the postseason.
With Spring Training finally here, each club will begin to see their players take the field and assess what positions they may need to upgrade before the 2018 season starts. Although a record number of free agents still remain unsigned, many teams are focused on the players they currently have.
The National League West is looking to see a shift in their standings from last year. In 2017, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the NL Pennant and had the best record in all of baseball while the San Francisco Giants, expected to be playoff contenders, fell to the NL West basement and barely avoided losing 100 games.
However, 2018 promises to be a different story. Although the Dodgers made only minor adjustments, the Giants made two huge trades for established veterans Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen in an attempt to flip the script in 2018. Will those moves be enough to propel the Giants to a Wild Card spot? If the season started today, what is each team’s likely finish for the 2018 season?
Here are my thoughts and prediction for the upcoming 2018 season:
First Place Finish: Los Angeles Dodgers
Is this a real surprise to anyone? It honestly should not be one. The Los Angeles Dodgers are poised to compete for not only this year but also for the foreseeable future. After winning 104 games and being only one win away from a World Series title, the Dodgers have no pressing needs other than replacing their own departed free agents.
Assuming the Dodgers make no impact signings from now until Opening Day, their projected lineup will look something like this:
Strength: The lineup. The Dodgers have an offensive powerhouse lineup filled with many hitters who can clobber the ball on a nightly basis. Seager and Turner were banged up throughout 2017 and Bellinger was a rookie. Having Bellinger for a full season may see him improve on his great 2017 performance. As long as this team is healthy, they will have no problems scoring runs.
Weakness: The Dodgers do not have a glaring issue, but Joc Pederson will be one to watch at the beginning of the year. He was inconsistent in 2017 that resulted in him being demoted to Triple-A for a brief stint. If he struggles immediately, either Matt Kemp (assuming he is still on the team by Opening Day) or Andrew Toles could force Pederson out of the starting role.
Key Position Battle To Watch: Catcher. Austin Barnes came out of nowhere last season to bat an impressive .289 with a .406 OBP. Although Grandal still put up respectable numbers for a catcher (see above), the starting catcher job is no longer guaranteed to be his. Over the course of the year, Barnes had a better WAR (2.3) than Grandal (2.1), but he also had 220 fewer plate appearances. Whether Barnes’s numbers are sustainable remains questionable. I still expect Grandal to get the majority of starts behind the plate barring injury considering MLB Network ranked him the fourth best catcher, but both catchers’ performances in Spring Training may determine who will play more come regular season time.
Prediction: The Los Angeles Dodgers will once again win the division but are a team built to win the World Series. At minimum, I expect them to at least be in the NLCS, but this is a team that is set to compete for a championship.
Second Place Finish: Arizona Diamondbacks
Although free agent outfielder J.D. Martinez is currently in a standoff with the Boston Red Sox right now, chances are the D-backs will not be bringing him back for 2018, which is a shame considering his importance in the second half of the season. However, a look at their projected lineup suggests that with a dose of better health, this team does not need him.
Strength: Power hitting and offense. Without Martinez, this team is capable of scoring in bunches. Goldschmidt and Lamb can be counted on to hit over 25 homeruns and full seasons from Peralta and Tomas should help make up for the loss of Martinez. With Martinez last year, the Diamondbacks were 12th in the league with 220 homeruns. Without his 29 homeruns that he slugged with them, the Diamondbacks were 21st in the league. Last year, Tomas only hit 8 homeruns in an injury-plagued season. However, in 2016, when he was a full-time starter, Tomas clubbed 31 homeruns in 140 games. A full season of Tomas could potentially cover the difference in homeruns the team would have if they had Martinez. Arizona also had the 8th-best offense in 2017 in terms of runs scored and since their lineup is mostly intact, there is little reason to believe they will not be as good offensively without Martinez.
Weaknesses: Outfield and Offensive Catcher. Yasmany Tomas has not yet shown that he is deserving of full-time duties in right field despite his power potential. I expect GM Mike Hazen to consider trading one of their middle infielders (Drury, Chris Owings, or Nick Ahmed) for an outfielder who can compete with Tomas for playing time or at least platoon with him. Jeff Mathis also leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to offensive production despite his decent defense. It would not be a surprise to see the D-backs sign an offensive-minded catcher like Jonathan Lucroy if they can get him for cheap.
Key Position Battle To Watch: Bench Utility Player. Assuming that the D-backs bring aboard another catcher and outfielder to compete with Mathis and Tomas respectively, it could lead the Diamondbacks to have to readjust their projected bench. Chris Owings, Daniel Descalso, and Nick Ahmed are all potential bench options for the D-backs, but it is still possible that all of them will not be on the Opening Day Roster. Owings and Descalso can potentially serve in the infield and outfield while Ahmed is a defensive-minded shortstop that makes the infield defense significantly better. It will be curious to see if the D-backs are forced to make a tough decision near the end of March.
Prediction: With the National League looking to be formidable, the Diamondbacks are not a surefire bet to once again claim a Wild Card spot. With the Rockies not going anywhere and the Giants improving, not to mention improved potential Wild Card Contenders like the Mets, Brewers, and Cardinals, the D-backs will not have an easy path to returning to the postseason. However, if they stay healthy and their injured players (Yasmany Tomas, AJ Pollock) of 2017 come back to have great years in 2018, there is no reason to think the Diamondbacks cannot replicate their 2017 success.
Third Place Finish: Colorado Rockies
The Colorado Rockies return a similar lineup to their 2017 one. Although Carlos Gonzalez and Mark Reynolds are free agents, the Rockies are counting on Ian Desmond to stay healthy while Ryan McMahon continues to improve. Despite his struggles in 2017 when he was called up to the majors, he dominated in Triple-A Albuquerque, slashing a .374/.411/.612 batting line while displaying power that would translate well at high-altitude Coors Field.
Assuming the Rockies do not sign anyone else and give McMahon the keys to the full-time first base job, their lineup is projected to look something like this:
Strength: Talent. The Rockies have several All-Stars and Golden Glove winners in their prime, particularly Arenado, Blackmon, and LeMahieu. Even though they lost Mark Reynolds, who had a very good 2017, and Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies still have more than enough offensive firepower coupled with a young rotation that the club is hoping continues to improve as a unit. The Rockies finished 17th in the league last year in ERA, which is middle-of-the-pack, but an improvement from 2016 when they were 28th in the league. They are expecting their young rotation, comprised of Jon Gray, Chad Betts, Tyler Anderson, German Marquez, and Kyle Freeland, to continue to improve.
Weaknesses: Outfield and First Base. There are still numerous questions at these positions. Can Ian Desmond stay healthy? Can Ryan McMahon be the hitter he was in Triple-A? If the Rockies do not make any more moves between now and Opening Day, manager Bud Black will be relying on two players significantly improving.
Key Position Battle To Watch: Bench Utility Player. Bud Black may get creative with the lineups over the course of Spring Training. The Rockies have numerous bench options (David Dahl, Pat Valaika, and Raimel Tapia), but none of them have separated themselves enough from the pack to warrant significant playing time. If Dahl has a great Spring Training and McMahon has a poor Spring, then maybe Dahl becomes the starting left fielder and Desmond goes to first base. How these young utility players perform in Spring Training will determine what the Opening Day lineup for the Rockies will be.
Prediction: The Rockies, instead of focusing on upgrading their lineup, focused on their bullpen, adding Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw. These two pitchers alone should help fortify a bullpen that needed improvement from 2017. However, the Rockies are in a tough situation when it comes to the postseason race. They will certainly be in the Wild Card race—they are too talented to fall off the cliff—but the competition will be stiffer than usual and they will not be able to afford a have a mediocre August like they did last year. 87 wins may not be good enough for a Wild Card spot this year.
Fourth Place Finish: San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants had three goals in the offseason: they needed a third baseman, a corner outfielder, and a center fielder or leadoff hitter. In acquiring Austin Jackson via free agency and Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen via trades, the Giants accomplished their three main goals. The question is whether these three additions will be enough for them to return to the postseason.
The Giants will have a veteran squad in 2018 as their projected lineup shows below.
Strength: Catcher. Buster Posey is by far the best catcher in baseball and one of the best all-around players currently playing. He has the ability to hit with consistency and power as his career averages of a .308 batting average and 20 homeruns show.
Weaknesses: Fragile Players and Getting On Base. The Giants caught the injury bug last year in a big way. The loss of Brandon Belt was especially problematic for a team that struggled to score runs. Madison Bumgarner could only do so much. For this team to be successful, all of their veteran players need to stay healthy and show no signs of decline, which could be potentially too much to ask. Their on-base percentage is also a concern after posting the worst (.309) in all of baseball in 2017. Their new acquisitions may lessen the problem, but it is still a concern with this team.
Key Position Battle To Watch: None. The San Francisco Giants seem pretty set with their starting lineup. However, it would be interesting to see if the Giants consider bringing in another veteran (Eduardo Nunez reunion maybe?) to play a super utility role in order to keep their aging veterans fresh and provide them with rest opportunities throughout the season. As for Pablo Sandoval, he will become a bench possibility since he has no chance at starting at third base with Longoria in town. He will most likely only play for rest or injury reasons.
Prediction: The Giants fully expect to contend in 2018 with their new additions. Their aggressive approach to the offseason is admirable, but in the process they have also gutted their farm system and took on significant salary. The question remains whether their plan to contend works. It is an even year, and the Giants have had success in past even years (they won the 2010, 2012, and 2014 World Series). The Giants very well could jump to second place in the NL West and earn a Wild Card spot. But don’t count on it. Much more likely is that the Giants aging core has been maxed out (similar to the Kansas City Royals last year), shows signs of decline, and will settle at around the .500 mark for 2018.
Last Place Finish: San Diego Padres
The San Diego Padres are a fun team to watch, but it still will not result in wins in 2018. They had a relatively eventful offseason thus far. They fulfilled a major need by trading for Freddy Galvis and also brought back Chase Headley to replace the traded Ryan Schimpf. Yangervis Solarte and his low OBP are gone and replaced with a young Carlos Asuaje, who could potentially develop into a solid second baseman.
The Padres’ lineup returns many of the young players they had on the team last year. Assuming the team does not sign Eric Hosmer, their lineup is full of youth.
Strength: Power hitting. Who would have thought? The Padres hit 189 homeruns in 2017, which was a club record. They return many of the hitters who made that possible, including Myers, Renfore, and Hedges. New acquisitions Freddy Galvis and Chase Headley will be sure to contribute offensively as well. This is a team that, despite playing at beautiful spacious Petco Park, scores runs in bunches as long as their power-hitting abilities do not drop off, which is extremely unlikely.
Weaknesses: Getting On Base. Like the San Francisco Giants, the Padres are absolutely awful at getting on base and have been for the past few years. The problem is that many of their young players who are talented (mainly Manuel Margot, Wil Myers, Austin Hedges, and Hunter Renfroe) have poor plate discipline and do not get on base. Manager Andy Green and new hitting coach Matt Stairs is hoping that a few adjustments at the plate and another year of developing will generate collective improvement in this department. The Padres offense is one-dimensional, relying on homeruns to generate offense. For this team to make major strides in 2018, getting runners in scoring position and stringing together consecutive hits will be a strong step in the right direction.
Key Position Battle To Watch: Left Field. Jose Pirela is expected by most to be the Opening Day starter in left field, but I decided to go with Matt Szczur, the Villanova alum who is strong defensively at all three outfield positions and demonstrated last year that he can get on base at a much better rate than his teammates. Although Margot and Renfroe seem to be locked into center and right field respectively, left field is certainly a position that is up for grabs in Spring Training.
Prediction: The Padres have no chance in 2018 at postseason play, but they are playing for the future. Their record may not reflect it this year due to the overall improvement of the other clubs in their division, but this is a team that is merely looking for signs of improvement. With the best farm system in baseball, the Padres are well-stocked to make the playoffs in 2020. However, this year, the team will be in the basement in the NL West and potentially only better than the Miami Marlins in the National League.
(All statistics and information came from ESPN.com, Baseball-Reference.com, or FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise noted.)
Edited by Brian Kang.
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