Ranking the NL West's young cores...

A couple of seasons ago, I was cautiously optimistic that the Rockies could keep up with Arizona's highly thought of youth movement. I analyzed every move the Rockies made by highlighting how it might or might not allow us to compete with the D-backs. 2008 saw a shift in my focus, however, as the D-backs no longer appear to me to be the most dangerous threat in the division for the next three seasons. They will be a major nuisance, and competitive, but I'm no longer viewing them as the primary objective. I wonder if I'm right in seeing Los Angeles as the bearer of the title of most respected rival now, or if LA's 2008 success is just pushing my long term vision temporarily out of focus. So up for discussion is the youth of the division, who has the best, who needs to play some catch-up.

For each team I've listed the players 27 and under that I consider "core" players, players each team is counting on to play a part in their contention over the next two to three seasons and would be hesitant to part with unless offered an equally valuable young player at a position of need. I'm going to differentiate between an outer and inner core, the players in bold are the most important, and seem to be almost completely off limits for trades. For offensive players, where applicable, I've listed their Marcel projected wOBA for 2009, and for the pitchers their Marcel projected ERA. Some prospects won't have projections, simply because I don't do them myself and can't find them online. Young players that are successful in very small samples of experience tend to get overrated (or conversely, underrated if the opposite is true) by this simple projection tool, so before you think the Giants' Conor Gillaspie (.349 wOBA for 2009) is on his way to the Hall of Fame, just temper your expectations a bit.  For players like Blake DeWitt, Dexter Fowler and a few of the Giants like Gillaspie, I would trust other projection systems more.

 

Los Angeles:

  • C Russell Martin .356
  • 1B James Loney .355
  • 2B/3B Blake DeWitt .331 (ZiPS says .255/.312/.401)
  • SS Ivan DeJesus
  • LF/CF Matt Kemp .354
  • RF Andre Ethier .360
  • RHP Chad Billingsley 3.60
  • LHP Clayton Kershaw 4.14
  • RHP James McDonald
  • LHP Scott Elbert
  • RHP Jonathan Broxton 3.31
  • RHP Cory Wade 3.32

Arizona:

  • C/3B Miguel Montero .323
  • C Chris Snyder .340
  • 1B/LF Conor Jackson .359
  • 3B Mark Reynolds .346
  • SS Stephen Drew .339
  • CF Chris Young .336
  • RF Justin Upton .347
  • RHP Dan Haren 3.58
  • RHP Max Scherzer 3.84
  • RHP Yusmeiro Petit
  • RHP Daniel Schlereth
  • RHP Billy Buckner
  • RHP Tony Pena

Brandon Webb's rumored extension from Arizona has failed to materialize and the current implication is that the Diamondbacks will lose him after his current deal expires after the 2010 season if they don't trade him beforehand. It's another indication that their GM went all in for 2008-2010 after their NLCS appearance in 2007, and yet here we are going to be at the nadir of that period with the Snakes' offensive core still not developing the way it was supposed to. The starting pitching goes a long way to make up for that, and with a few breaks Arizona could win a playoff spot in either of the next two seasons. Still, that offense doesn't look nearly as tricky to get through as LA's anymore.

Colorado:

  • C Chris Iannetta .358
  • C Mike McKenry
  • 2B Chris Nelson
  • 2B/UT Eric Young Jr.
  • 3B Ian Stewart .346
  • SS Troy Tulowitzki .345
  • LF Seth Smith .344
  • CF/RF Carlos Gonzalez .306
  • CF Dexter Fowler .329
  • RHP Ubaldo Jimenez 3.96
  • LHP Jeff Francis
  • LHP Jorge De La Rosa
  • LHP Greg Smith 4.06 (I wouldn't trust this)
  • RHP Greg Reynolds
  • LHP Franklin Morales
  • RHP Manny Corpas 3.82
  • RHP Taylor Buchholz 3.81
  • RHP Huston Street 3.60

Don't read too much into the fact that I put more names for Colorado than I did the other two clubs, the Rockies have more near-ready MLB talent right now, but they also are more reliant on their internal talent stream than Los Angeles is, and while our front office seems to view certain bench positions as core parts (actions speak louder than words here), the other teams see them as mostly fungible. Competitively, the output of the players in bold are what's most important to the teams' chances over the next couple of seasons.

Before you despair that the Rockies are behind in projected wOBA compared to the Dodgers' central offensive four (Martin, Loney, Kemp and Ethier) keep in mind the relative value of the positions involved. Kemp's defensive abilities in center are already in a danger zone, so in effect, the Dodgers have Martin and three corners while the Rockies have three of their key four (Iannetta, Tulo, Stewart and Fowler) young players as true up the middle talents. Additionally, third base is typically considered the most important corner position defensively, so there is a little added benefit with Stewart there. Still, while the Rockies have a premium position and defensive advantage, they are using the help of their "old core", Todd Helton, Brad Hawpe and Ryan Spilborghs, to make up some offensive gap. If Los Angeles buys enough of an old core of their own this winter (it's doubtful, but certainly possible), Stewart and Tulo and Fowler may have to outproduce their projections to keep the Rox offense ahead.

San Francisco:

  • C Pablo Sandoval .355
  • Buster Posey
  • 1B Travis Ishikawa .339
  • 1B John Bowker .325 (I know, not really what I had in mind, but let's humor Giants fans, here)
  • SS Emmanuel Burriss .334
  • 3B Conor Gillaspie .349
  • OF Nate Schierholz
  • RHP Tim Lincecum 3.25
  • RHP Matt Cain 3.69
  • LHP Jonathan Sanchez
  • LHP Alex Hinshaw
  • RHP Sergio Romo 3.43

Basically the Giants will have to combine considerable good luck on their part over the next two seasons with bad luck from the other three teams to be competitive. Reading McCovey Chronicles since we traded Matt Holliday tells me that many Giants fans are operating under the delusion that they will have a better team than the Rockies next season by default, which is typical of their myopic style. If you want to make some money during the recession, I would strongly suggest befriending as many gambling addicted Giants fans as possible. I'm keeping a close eye on their farm system, however. Come 2011, when Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner and others start making up a real core for the team, the story will be different and they could well be the Rockies primary competition.

Now let's look at the average 2009 ages of the above players in bold, because I think this is an important point to highlight:

ARI:

Hitters (5): 24.8 (.3454)

Pitchers (2): 25

LAD:

Hitters (4): 25.5 (.3563)

Pitchers (2): 22.5

Colorado:

Hitters (4): 24.25 (.3445)

Pitchers (2): 25

The picture that I'm seeing emerging is that the Dodgers are nearing their offensive peak, and might not have much room for further improvement from their core after this season. Arizona's last real chance for an upside on offense is resting almost entirely on Justin Upton's shoulders (without Upton, AZ's other central four average 25.75 y.o.). Their potential offensive peak now seems lower than Colorado's and they are certainly lagging LA, despite most of their young core players being in the same relative age range as the Dodgers. While Arizona has the best rotation currently, Los Angeles has moved to the front in pitching potential (of the three real contenders, I should say, I'd probably take Cain/Lincecum over Billingsley/Kershaw). The Rockies really need quality output from Jorge De La Rosa right now, and either Franklin Morales or Jhoulys Chacin in coming seasons to keep the gap from getting too far out of range for their offense to make up.

Either the Rockies (Chris Nelson, Carlos Gonzalez) or Dodgers (Blake DeWitt, Ivan DeJesus) could benefit from breakout performances from young position players currently projected to be outside their central cores, the Diamondbacks don't really have players that are as capable of this. On the pitching prospect front, the D-backs and Rockies have more potential for players capable of shifting the balance of power in Jarrod Parker and Chacin, while the Dodgers and Rockies have control-challenged but potential-filled LHP's in Scott Elbert and Morales who could conceivably do the same.

If everything I'm seeing is true, there is some reason to think that Arizona might start breaking their team up after the 2009 season if they fail to perform again. Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero, Doug Slaten and Tony Pena will all be arbitration eligible for the first time, Conor Jackson his second, and Chad Qualls and Chris Snyder their third. That is a firestorm of significant raises to deal with all at once, and even though Doug Davis, Jon Rauch and Chad Tracy will be having contracts coming off the books, the D-backs will unlikely be able to maintain this team without a bump in payroll.

The Rockies will have a similar challenge with Chris Iannetta, Jeff Baker, Ryan Spilborghs and Taylor Buchholz among their first time arbitration eligible players a year from now, Clint Barmes, Jorge De La Rosa and Huston Street are already in that career stage and would be in line for further arbitration level raises if they remain with the club. Luis Vizcaino and Yorvit Torrealba have contracts that expire after the 2009 season for the Rockies.

The Rockies are already rumored to be shopping Street, I would think it in the team's best interest to consider doing the same with Baker and/or Barmes starting with the July deadline if Nelson or Young are performing adequately enough to project as viable replacements at second. This would cut out some of the anticipated burden on payroll without as dramatic an impact on the talent level of the team as say losing Iannetta or Spilborghs. The D-backs have been shopping either of their catchers, I would look for their efforts to deal one of them to become more urgent as the next year progresses. Josh Byrnes has no loyalty to relievers, Qualls, Slaten and Pena seem expendable to help keep CoJack and Drew, but at this point I'm wondering if it might not be in AZ's best interest to trade one of those latter two for a better chance at a talent upgrade given the lower projected ceiling I'm seeing for them right now.

Los Angeles has a bit more freedom currently, but hefty outlays to free agents this winter could bind Frank McCourt's hands sooner than a lot of people seem to think. Despite a couple of stupid big contracts to center fielders, he's not exactly a free spender, and seems genuinely concerned about the bottom line in LA (the Dodgers got the Red Sox to pick up Manny's 2008 salary, remember). Ethier and Martin are already in arbitration, Kemp, Loney and Billingsley enter next season, so the Dodgers will be facing some crucial decisions of their own if they aren't careful with their money, even if they have considerably more of it than the Rockies and D-backs.

I think right now, because of that financial flexibility, I have to say that Los Angeles still has a bit of an advantage over the Rockies and D-backs for the 2009-2011 period, but the Rockies talent could help them catch up in the overlapping three seasons that start in 2010 or 2011. For both the Rockies and Diamondbacks, the monetary gains of another deep playoff run in the next two seasons could be the difference between staying genuinely competitive with the Dodgers or just bouncing beneath them and hoping to catch a break.

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