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Thursday Rockpile: Baseball Analysts NL West SWOT; plus, are FA's the new inefficiency?

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Patrick Sullivan did a SWOT analysis of the NL West the other day, but in many respects he's continuing with the old memo. Under weaknesses for Arizona he writes:

A lineup that was supposed to all rise up as one and become Major League standouts in 2008 decided to put it off a year. Stephen DrewChris YoungConor Jackson and Justin Upton - potential superstars all - did not hit the way the D-Backs needed them to in 2008 in order for them to repeat as division champs. Until a couple of them step up and show they can anchor a championship caliber offense, the offense will remain a weak spot.

With the exception of Young (who if it wasn't for a certain team in Denver would have batted .233/.292/.374) Arizona's weakness on offense in 2008 had little to do with the players mentioned, and a lot more to do with the supporting cast. On most, non-Rockies playing days, the Snakes have four good parts to their lineup -Drew, Jackson, Upton and Snyder- and four not so good parts. What's more, as I was mentioning a couple of weeks ago, the days of potential superstardom for any of these four except for Upton have pretty much passed by. Drew could still be a star (sans super) or a standout if things continue to go well for him in 2009, Jackson and Young (the latter once his defense is taken into account) are decent contender worthy starters, but the days of projecting the Snakes with a championship caliber offense are gone.

Sullivan's points about the Rockies are accurate (notably our weakness on D) with the exception of this one:

ThreatsCarlos Gonzalez replacing Matt Holliday could kill this offense, and I am afraid that Todd Helton will not be posting another 144 OPS+ season.

Helton's not going to post another 144 OPS+ season, that part is true, but does not necessarily imply a threat. The Rockies should not need that much offense from first this season. The real threat would be that Helton posts another 100 OPS+ season in just 83 games as he did in 2008, which is indeed a danger. The real inaccuracy, however, is one that you may see more of from pundits unfamiliar with the team's intentions. The error springs from the fact that the Rockies starting left fielder Holliday was traded to Oakland in a package that included the A's outfielder Gonzalez, so therefore it's assumed that the Rockies intent is to fill Holliday's slot with CarGon.  

Of course, the Rockies haven't quite settled on who will be in left so I guess technically that the slight slight chance that they wind up choosing Gonzalez remains a threat. The best dreamworld scenario for Rockies fans is that Dexter Fowler shows up as an undeniable force in Spring and wins the center field position outright, pushing Spilborghs to left, Stewart to third and the front office to trade Garrett Atkins. The more likely scenario is that Spilborghs starts in center and either Ian Stewart or Seth Smith in left, but neither option is the offense killer that Gonzalez is projected to be.

Give Sullivan credit though, at least he actually looked at the Rockies and identified most of the major issues rather than just labeling the team "an afterthought" in a cheap and lazy way to fill up column space and collect a paycheck.

Even as they signed Rafael Furcal, the Dodgers did little to dispel my belief that the team has some money issues that need to be resolved and that they are ultimately going to come up short when it comes to recreating last season's division winner. Furcal's three year $30 million deal is backloaded to the point that a full fifty percent of its value is in the 2011 season, with just $6.5 million due in 2008. Furcal really wanted to play for LA, so he was willing be flexible in that way to work things out, but to expect other free agents -particularly Manny Ramirez and agent Scott Boras- to be similarly generous might be asking for a bit much. 

Charlie at Bucs Dugout has some interesting thoughts and a spirited, intelligent conversation going in the comments in response to a Dejan Kovacevic Q & A. Specifically the Q whether the Pirates should be following Billy Beane's lead this winter and trading prospects and stocking up on free agents because they'll never be cheaper, or hording prospects to build for the future. It's brought up because Beane traded for Holliday and the assumption becomes that Beane's playing smart while the Pirates in trading away Jason Bay (and by unwritten implication the Rockies) are not in sticking with the build your own success model. 

My own thoughts on the matter say that it depends on a bunch of factors; such as where along the success cycle your team is, what the current status of the farm is, how valuable your current personnel are and how far away they are from FA, who your competition is, etc.., that will make as many different answers to this question as there are teams in the league. I can say that several teams have not answered this question correctly. The Pirates do not have the surplus of talent that the A's do to pull off a trade like that. The Rockies really don't either, right now. If you click on the link to John Sickels' list of our prospects a couple of posts down, you'll see that while there's talent in the system, it's largely unproven and therefore less valuable outside of two players. I hope and expect by next winter this will change, but in the meantime, Rockies and Pirates fans have to understand that they don't have the goods in the minor leagues at the moment.

Neil Huntington (who came from the same John Hart/Cleveland GM lineage as Dan O'Dowd,) has decided that the Pirates are too far from being competitive with the Cubs and Brewers with their current core, which despite coming into their primes are close to the bottom of that division, and that the team lacks enough minor league depth to challenge that status quo. So the important parts of Huntington's talent acquisition seem to be trying to augment a second core group around Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata that should start to peak about five seasons from now. That's why I think Bryan Morris may have been the most important component of the Jason Bay trade for the Pirates, even if everybody was focusing on the MLB parts Craig Hanson and Andy LaRoche. This is what similar to what O'Dowd did with the Rockies in 2003/2004. Likewise, when the Rockies traded Holliday for Gonzalez, et al, they weren't trading for 2009 and extending the success of the 2007 core (which was the primary goal of the rumored St Louis trade) but instead trading for an important piece (two if you count Greg Smith) to augment a second core that's forming around Tulo, Jimenez and Ian Stewart. Beane's plan in trading for Holliday, on the other hand, seems to be using a surplus to give one last chance to Eric Chavez, Jack Cust, Justin Duscherer and that group to compete before handing the reins over to Oakland's next generation in what they hope will be a seamless transition. Holliday could still possibly be kept as a mentor/stable veteran presence but it seems that there will be considerable personnel movement for Oakland before 2010.