Spring training preview: National League West
Over the next few days, Cliff Corcoran, Jay Jaffe and Joe Lemire will break down what to watch in each team’s camp as part of SI.com’s spring training preview by looking at the Big Question, Big Position Battle and Big Prospect for all 30 clubs. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2013. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in major league camp but has not yet debuted in the major leagues.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Big Question: How soon will Matt Kemp be ready?
Since putting up an MVP-caliber season in 2011, Kemp has been to the disabled list on five separate occasions (not counting his exclusion from the playoff roster last fall) and undergone three surgeries, two on his right shoulder and one on his ankle. Three of those DL trips came after he had been back in action for less than two weeks, and the postseason shut down was announced just days before the start of the playoffs. All of that has raised questions about the Dodgers’ realistic expectations for him.
Kemp reportedly doesn’t know when he’ll debut this year, and manager Don Mattingly doesn’t think Kemp will be ready for the team’s Opening Day in Sydney, Australia on March 22. That makes it fair to wonder if he’ll be ready for their stateside opener on March 30. When Kemp is ready to return, there will be an interesting logjam in the outfield; sorting out playing time between Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford could be a headache for Mattingly if all four are healthy, but until they are — and last year, that period lasted for only a handful of innings — there’s little sense in fretting over what could happen.
The Big Battle: Second base
The most expensive free agent Los Angeles signed this winter was Cuban defector Alex Guerrero, who was inked to a four-year, $28 million deal. The Dodgers plan for the 27-year-old to be their starting second baseman, but Guerrero has to both transition to the position from shortstop and shake off the rust after sitting out last season and playing just 12 games in the Dominican Winter League due to a hamstring injury. Particularly given that he also has to make the transition to life in the United States, it’s entirely possible that he could start the season in the minors.
If that’s the case, L.A. will have to find a stopgap, and with backups Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker having departed via free agency, that means sifting through a handful of options, most of which appear dire. From an offensive standpoint, the best bet is Justin Turner, who hit .280/.319/.385 for the Mets last year and who has more experience at second than at any other position, though in 113 career games there, he’s 18 runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved. Also on the 40-man roster is (f)utilityman Justin Sellers, owner of a robust .199/.278/.301 career line at the big league level.
Candidates from beyond the 40-man roster include Dee Gordon, Chone Figgins, Brendan Harris and Miguel Rojas. Gordon muscled up this winter but still owns just a .256/.301/.312 big league line and has little experience at the keystone; his shoddy work at shortstop (-21 DRS in 160 games) already forced the Dodgers to try him elsewhere. Figgins didn’t play last year after hitting just .185/.249/.253 combined in 2011 and ’12 for Seattle. Harris hit .206/.252/.355 in 117 PA for the Angles last year, his first big league action since 2010. Rojas, the only one of this group with no major league experience, is a 24-yaer-old Venezuelan (25 later this month) who hit .233/.303/.307 as the shortstop for L.A.’s Double A affiliate last year. All of which is to say that if Guerrero isn’t ready, don’t be surprised if general manager Ned Colletti tries to upgrade during the spring.
The Big Prospect: Joc Pederson, outfielder
Lost in the outfield logjam is the fate of Pederson, who will be the top position prospect on display during camp. An 11th round 2010 draft pick out of Palo Alto High School, Pederson is a 21-year-old centerfielder (22 in April) who spent last year at Double A Chattanooga, where he hit .278/.381/.497 with 22 homers and 31 steals. He combines outstanding athleticism with a high baseball IQ and a reputation as a “grinder.” Though none of his five tools are elite, all are considered to be at least average, and his power is plus-plus. Defensively, he may have to move to a corner eventually, but he’s good enough for now in centerfield, and some feel that he has the arm for right.
Pederson ranked 41st among ESPN’s Top 100 prospects and 50th on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101. Barring multiple injuries or trades, he isn’t likely to see much time in the Dodgers’ outfield, but you can bet that other teams are eyeing him as a trade target.
The Big Question: How does Cody Ross fit into the outfield?
The Diamondbacks already figured to have a crowded outfield when general manager Kevin Towers inked Ross to a three-year, $26 million deal back in December 2012. He wound up cutting into Jason Kubel’s playing time to the point that the latter was designated for assignment in late August, forcing the team to eat some salary.
Ross’ 2013 performance at the plate was nothing spectacular; he hit .278/.331/.413 with eight homers in 351 PA for a 104 OPS+, though he somehow managed to be 20 runs above average in 83 games afield according to DRS. Unfortunately, he suffered a fracture and dislocation of his right hip while running out a groundball on Aug. 11, requiring surgery and ending his season. His recovery is making good progress; he’s been cleared to partake in all spring training activities, and he could even be ready for the team’s trip to Australia.
Assuming he’s fully available, it remains to be seen how manager Kirk Gibson will fit the 33-year-old righty into the outfield. Gold Glove and Fielding Bible Award winner Gerardo Parra — the only lefty of the bunch — has the tools necessary to play centerfield but spent most of last year in rightfield, where per DRS, his defense was an off-the-charts 36 runs above average. Former first-round pick A.J. Pollock stepped into the centerfield breach when Adam Eaton needed elbow surgery and played well enough that the team sold low on Eaton, dealing him to the White Sox in the December trade that brought back Mark Trumbo, who figures to start in leftfield. While not on the scale of the Dodgers’ situation, Gibson may have a juggling act ahead.
The Big Battle: Shortstop
Didi Gregorius became the apple of Towers’ eye during the 2012 Arizona Fall League, so much so that he became the focal point of the team’s return in the three-way trade last offseason that sent former first-round pick Trevor Bauer to Cleveland. Not much of a hitter in the minors, Gregorius made the deal look like a steal when he was called up in mid-April and bolted to a hot start (.319/.374/.521 through May). The league caught up to him, though, as he hit just .218/.311/.298 the rest of the way. A lefty swinger, he was particularly flummoxed by southpaws (.200/.267/.245 in 120 PA).
In September, Gregorius lost playing time to Chris Owings, a 2009 supplemental first round pick who tore up the Pacific Coast League (.330/.359/.482 with 12 homers and 20 steals) en route to MVP honors before making a strong 20-game showing with Arizona. The 22-year-old righty comes into the season ranked 28th on Baseball Prospectus’ prospect list and 72nd on ESPN’s. Despite an overly aggressive approach at the plate that led to a 99/22 strikeout-to-walk ratio (an improvement on his previous two years, believe it or not), his speed, line drive swing and gap power should make Owings a solid contributor on offense as well as an above-average defender. He doesn’t have anything left to prove in the minors, but either he or Gregorius could wind up there depending upon who wins the job.
The Big Prospect: Archie Bradley
The seventh pick of the 2011 draft, Bradley is a 6-foot-4, 225 pound righty who is considered by many to be the top pitching prospect in the minors. His 92-98 mph heavy fastball and power curve are both considered 70-grade (near-elite) pitches, and his changeup has the potential to be a plus as well. Bradley, 21, dominated at High A and Double A in 2013, so much so that he was promoted after just five starts at the former; he finished with a 1.84 ERA and 9.6 strikeouts per nine in 152 innings.
The only knock on him is below-average command borne from an inconsistent delivery; he has walked 4.7 per nine in his professional career and was at 4.3 at Double A. With the recent signing of Bronson Arroyo, the Diamondbacks already appear to have a rotation surplus (Patrick Corbin, Brandon McCarthy, Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill and Randall Delgado being the other five). So while it once appeared as through Bradley had a shot at breaking camp with the big club, the likelihood now is that he’ll probably spend around half the season in the minors.
San Francisco Giants
The Big Question: Can Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain rebound?
You know the Tim Lincecum Story well. After winning back-to-back Cy Young awards in 2008 and ’09, he began to decline, and though he was still a very good pitcher in 2010 and ’11, he was knocked around for a 5.18 ERA in 2012 and for a 4.37 mark in ’13. His velocity is down, his walk and homer rates are up, and he’s delivered a quality start just 43 percent of the time over the past two seasons.
Faced with the prospect of parting with him via free agency, the Giants instead showed a considerable mix of loyalty and optimism by re-signing Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million extension before he could even test the market. He can still miss bats (8.8 per nine last year), but considering that he’s been a whopping 2.3 wins below replacement level over the last two years, he’ll need a big turnaround to justify even that short-term deal.
As for Cain, a year after signing a six-year, $127.5 million extension, he put up the worst season of his major league career — his first subpar one, really — in terms of home run rate (1.1 per nine), ERA+ (83, on a 4.00 mark) and WAR (0.5). In 2012, the Giants showed that they could win a world championship without consistent contributions from Lincecum (though his postseason work out of the bullpen was revelatory), but if they’re to have any hope of retaking the division from the Dodgers, they’ll need Cain to return to form.
The Big Battle: Leftfield
Gregor Blanco has spent the past two seasons as a more-or-less everyday player, starting in leftfield when he wasn’t filling in at the other two pastures. Though devoid of power, his speed and defense have allowed him to become a modestly valuable player; in 2013, he hit .265/.341/.350 (a 102 OPS+ in the team’s run-parched environment) and was 10 runs above average afield en route to 2.5 WAR.
Seeking more pop for a team that ranked second-to-last in the league in home runs, general manager Brian Sabean went out and signed free agent Mike Morse to a one-year, $6 million deal. The going-on-32-year-old righty was an offensive force for the Nationals from 2010-12, but is coming off an injury-plagued season in which he hit just .215/.270/.381 with 13 homers in 337 plate appearances and was a whopping 16 runs below average defensively for Seattle and Baltimore. Manager Bruce Bochy has a readymade platoon at his disposal, though it appears that the current plan is for Morse to get most of the starts and for Blanco to come off the bench. We’ll see how long that plan lasts.
The Big Prospect: Kyle Crick
He’s at least a couple years away from joining the rotation, but San Francisco’s 2011 first-round pick will be in the big league camp this spring. Crick spent 2013 at High A San Jose, but an oblique strain limited him to just 14 starts and 68 2/3 innings. He dominated the hitter-friendly league, with a 1.57 ERA, 12.5 strikeouts per nine and a grand total of one homer allowed, then went on to an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League.
With a power-pitcher build (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), Crick offers a 92-97 mph fastball as well as a diversity of opinion about the rest of the package. Some consider his hard slider to be his better offspeed pitch, but others see his curve as being the breaking ball with better potential, and his changeup as his better secondary pitch right now. Meanwhile, inconsistencies in his delivery lead some to believe he’ll wind up as a late-inning reliever instead of a starter. The 21-year-old is likely to start the year at Double A, meaning he’ll have time to figure it out.
San Diego Padres
The Big Question: How healthy is Josh Johnson?
A key piece of the blockbuster trade between the Marlins and Blue Jays, Johnson was a major bust in Toronto. Triceps inflammation and a forearm strain limited him to 16 starts and 81 innings, and while he struck out more than a batter per frame, he couldn’t keep the ball in the park. His home run rate of 1.7 per nine was nearly triple his previous career rate (0.6), and he finished with a 6.20 ERA. That performance turned whatever temptation the Blue Jays had to retain Johnson or at least make a qualifying offer into a moot point, and he wound up signing a one-year, $8 million deal with San Diego. The contract includes a $1.25 million bonus for reaching 26 starts, and a $4 million club option for 2014 if he makes six or fewer.
If he’s healthy, Johnson is capable of being one of the league’s best pitchers; from 2006-12, he put up a 3.14 ERA (134 ERA+) with 8.2 strikeouts per nine, earning All-Star honors twice and leading the league in ERA in 2010. However, Tommy John surgery, ulnar neuritis and shoulder inflammation limited him to an average of 20 starts per year in that span, with three seasons of 14 or fewer, and just two with at least 30. If he’s healthy, he’s a front-of-the-rotation type who could help the Padres climb above .500 for the first time since 2010; if not, their season could be a whole lot less interesting.
The Big Battle: Centerfield
Two years ago, just shy of his 24th birthday, the Padres signed Cameron Maybin — who was coming off a 4.5-WAR season — to a five-year, $25 million extension. His performance slipped somewhat in 2012; he hit .243/.306/.349 but with solid defense was still worth 2.9 WAR. His 2013 season was a lost one due to knee and wrist injuries that limited him to 14 games; the latter required surgery to remove loose bodies and repair torn cartilage.
Maybin is still owed $21 million through 2016, but it’s unclear how he’ll fit into this lineup. Lefty-swinging Will Venable enjoyed a breakout 2013, establishing both that he could man centerfield regularly (he made 52 starts there) and hit lefties, so he’s an everyday player now. Meanwhile, righty Chris Denorfia and lefty Seth Smith — acquired from Oakland in exchange for Luke Gregerson — have the makings of a productive platoon for rightfield. Of course, all of this presupposes Carlos Quentin will be regularly available in leftfield, hardly a guarantee when it comes to a guy who has played just 168 games over the past two years and an average of 104 for the past seven.
The Big Prospect: Austin Hedges, catcher
A second-round pick in 2011 out of high school, Hedges is considered by some to be the top defensive catcher in the minors. He has excellent receiving skills, a powerful, accurate arm, proper footwork, a quick release and strong game management skills — the whole package. Offensively, he’s still a work in progress, with good bat speed and above-average contact skills, but thus far his power has been confined to batting practice instead of games. While Keith Law (who ranked him 33rd on ESPN’s Top 100 Prospects list) sees Hedges as a potential 20-25 homer hitter, he hit just four in 341 PA at High A and Double A last year while batting a cumulative .260/.333/.390. Those numbers came in his age-20 season, so he’s still got a couple years to develop.
The Big Question: Can Justin Morneau be an everyday player?
Without a doubt, the biggest change for the Rockies will be at first base, where the team signed Morneau to a two-year, $12.5 million deal to replace the retired Todd Helton. Post-concussion syndrome and a slew of other injuries have prevented the going-on-33-year-old lefty from approaching his previous level of work; in 2013, he hit just .259/.323/.411 with 17 homers for the Twins and Pirates, failing to homer in 117 regular and postseason plate appearances with the latter.
Morneau was once able to hold his own against lefties, but since his mid-2010 concussion, he’s hit just .206/.246/.274 with five homers in 457 plate appearances against southpaws, an unacceptable showing. It’s possible that moving to a new organization with a new hitting coach (Blake Doyle) could help him recover some of his lost punch, but the Rockies do have the pieces for some platoon alternatives. They could shift either rightfielder Michael Cuddyer or catcher Wilin Rosario to first base against lefthanders, with righties Stubbs (.274/.349/.448 career against lefties) filling in for the former or Jordan Pacheco for the latter.
The Big Battle: Leftfield
With the trade of Dexter Fowler to the Astros, the plan is for Carlos Gonzalez to take over regular centerfield duty, with Corey Dickerson, Charlie Blackmon and Stubbs competing for the job in leftfield and possibly serving as a leadoff hitter. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given that Stubbs is virtually unplayable against righties at any spot in the lineup (.226/.296/.356 career), but if he’s not serving as part of a multi-position platoon with Morneau, he could take the short half of the load from either of the two lefty-swinging options.
The 27-year-old Blackmon hit a sizzling .309/.336/.467 in 258 PA for the Rockies last year, but his 49/7 strikeout to walk ratio suggests his lack of command of the strike zone will be exploited given more exposure. The 24-year-old Dickerson (25 in May) hit .263/.316/.459 with five homers in 213 PA as a rookie; he owns a more leadoff-appropriate .379 on-base percentage from his four seasons in the minors, but that’s more a function of batting average (.321) than unintentional walk rate (7.5 percent).
The Big Prospect: Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler
The future of Colorado’s rotation will be fully on display this spring as it shows off a pair of righties in Gray and Butler. ESPN’s Law ranked the former 12th and the latter 17th, while Baseball Prospectus had them18th and 26th, respectively. The number three overall pick out of the University of Oklahoma, Gray is a 6-foot-4, 255-pound beast with a fastball that can touch 100 mph and which he can command it to all four quadrants. His wipeout slider is another weapon, and his changeup is a potential plus. Gray tore through Rookie and High A last year, whiffing 12.3 per nine while walking 1.3 in 37 1/3 innings, during which he didn’t allow a homer. He’s a potential ace who needs to correct some minor delivery issues; he should start the year in High A but could move quickly up the ladder.
As for Butler, a 2012 supplementary first-round pick out of Radford University, he’s coming off a breakout season in which he dominated three levels with a 1.80 ERA and 8.6 strikeouts per nine in 149 2/3 innings; he started the year at Low A and finished at Double A. The 22-year-old righty (23 in March) throws a 93-98 mph fastball with tremendous sink, leading to high groundball rates, and his slider and changeup are both plus pitches that draw raves from talent evaluators as well. His unorthodox delivery limits the degree of his deception, giving hitters a longer-than-normal look at the ball, and his command needs work. If it all comes together, he’s a second or third starter. If not, he has closer potential. Developmentally, he’s probably ahead of Gray at this point, though the Rockies’ depth has cut into any chance he has of breaking camp as one of the starting five.