Andre Ethier

ZiPS Projections: the NL West hitters

Now that the start of the season is within view (some teams pitchers and catchers have already reported!!!) I thought it would be nice to take a little bit of time and take a look at how the teams in the NL West compare to each other.

The ZiPS projections for the Giants came out last week and instead of taking a team-specific glance at how the Giants look (short story: pretty danged well), I wanted to take a look at how the projections see the Giants compared to the rest of the NL West. If you are interested in taking a look at things on a more detailed level, I recommend checking out McCovey Chronicles’ writeup on the topic.

First up is the graph showing the OPS+ for each projected starter at each position for each team.

all on radar graph

The first thing that really jumps out is that Buster Posey is pretty amazing. He is head and shoulders better than all of the other catchers in the division and is actually projected to be the best overall hitter in the division by OPS+.

The second thing this helps illustrate is that the Giants’ hitters actually fair pretty well compared to their peers. The Giants have the projected best hitters at catcher and third base, they rank second at first base, they rank third at second base, left field, center field and right field, and last only at shortstop. Overall, they have the highest average rank among the teams in the NL West.

Next, lets dig in a little more on each position.

Catcher

Catchers

First, the not so surprising news — Buster Posey is awesome and we should all be happy that he plays for the Giants.

A.J. Ellis and Miguel Montero are both coming back from down years, but are still projected to be solid hitters and both certainly have the potential to outperform their projections. Wilin Rosario has put together a couple of nice seasons but ZiPS still isn’t sold on his offensive production. Rounding things out is Nick Hundley, who should be a decent and serviceable catcher. The overall depth at catcher in the NL West is very good, with one superstar, a pair of above average catchers and a pair that are solid major league regulars.

First base

first base

Leading the way among first basemen is Paul Goldschmidt, who has blossomed into an excellent hitter and a prototypical slugging first baseman.

Brandon Belt holds his own with the second best OPS+ mark, which expects production somewhere between last year and his 2012 season. What makes me more optimistic is that he has finally seemed to have earned Bruce Bochy’s trust. Belt should be getting the vast majority of the playing time at first base this season, which should hopefully help him crack the 600-PA barrier and rack up some more impressive counting stats.

Filling out the rest of the division is Adrian Gonzalez — who isn’t nearly the same hitter he used to be since turning 30 with his power numbers falling off quite a bit. He’s still a good hitter, just no longer an MVP-type hitter. Yonder Alonso is a former top prospect who has failed to live up to the considerable hype surrounding him but still has the potential for more growth. Coming in last is Justin Morneau, who is not a great a hitter any more and was never a great fielder to begin with, making his acquisition by the Rockies all the more questionable.

Second base

second base

The NL West second basemen are all pretty much bunched together without much separating the top four, with only DJ LeMahieu’s OPS+ not around 100.

Aaron Hill comes out with the distinction of the top projection, beating out Jedd Gyorko. Hill’s projection seems a bit low after watching him rebound from his struggles at the end of his time in Toronto to return to being one of the better offensive second basemen in baseball. Gyorko was a nice surprise for the Padres last season, making the move from third base in the minors to second base in the majors. He was a bit inconsistent, but still showed excellent power for an up-the-middle player. If he can gain a bit more consistency and keep the strikeouts under control he could very well be the top second baseman in the division (as long as he isn’t moved to third if the Padres trade Chase Headley).

The ageless wonder Marco Scutaro is third on the list, with another year of solid but unspectacular production expected.

The last two second basemen, Alexander Guerrero and LeMahieu, are both question marks for the Dodgers and Rockies with neither having the starting position set in stone. Guerrero is the latest Cuban to sign with the Dodgers and it might be asking a bit much to ask him to step straight into the starting role without any U.S. minor league experience. As for LeMahieu, he will have competition from Josh Rutledge, who started last season as the team’s Opening Day starter before heading back to the minors.

Shortstop

short stop

Shortstop in the NL West is a two way race between Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez, this year ZiPS gives the edge to Ramirez but it would be hard to go wrong with either. Ramirez exploded last season as one of the best hitters in baseball after a couple down years and regaining his position as one of the best players in baseball. Tulowitzki had another great year but again was limited by injuries and will be interesting to see if he can finally break the 150 game barrier for the first time since 2009.

The other three shortstops are all bunched together with OPS+  between 87 and 92 and bring more to the table more than just their hitting.

One of the amazing things, at least to me, is how far Brandon Crawford has grown since he debuted in 2011 and won the starting job in 2012. His 2011 ZiPS projection was just a 68 OPS+ and it didn’t improve much more going into 2012 at 70 OPS+. The fact that he is slowly working his way towards a projection of 90 OPS+ is amazing and with his defense has made him a very important part of the Giants.

Third base

Third base

Pablo Sandoval leads the way among the third basemen in ZiPS projection, followed closely behind by Chase Headley. Both are heading into their walk years and playing for big contracts. Sandoval has had injuries the last three years that have limited his playing time and the Giants have not been satisfied with his conditioning. Hopefully he has that all under control and can live up to or surpass the preseason expectations.

Headley is a bit unheralded playing in San Diego but over the last few seasons has been just a notch below the most elite third basemen in the game. ZiPS thinks that he should be good to maintain the same above average offense that should make him a coveted free agent next year. Just a bit below him is Martin Prado. With his solid average offense and defense, he isn’t an exciting player but he should be a dependable cog for the Diamondbacks. Nolan Arenado was the Rockies’ top prospect last year and after starting the season in Triple-A was promoted and held onto the starting job. He showed good defense but struggled a bit offensively; the Rockies will hope that his sophomore season will bring an improvement at the plate.

Rounding things out is former Giant Juan Uribe, who after two dismal seasons in L.A. where he barely had an OBP higher than his weight found some magic with a bounce-back season. ZiPS is splitting the difference between where he was when he was a shell of his former self and what he did last year. In a team that is filled with talent and high-priced signings, Uribe and second baseman Guerrero are the only big question marks for the Dodgers heading into next season.

Left field

left field

For a corner spot that is supposed to produce a bunch of offense, this group of left fielders is not all that strong. Carlos Quentin and Mark Trumbo both fit the mold, but ZiPS is not optimistic about the other projected starters.

Quentin is projected to be the third best hitter in the division and has comfortable lead as the best hitter among NL West left fielders. The big question for Quentin is can he stay healthy — the last two seasons have seen significant time lost to knee injuries. When he has been on the field he has produced and ZiPS expects him to again if he is able to stay away from the operating room.

Trumbo is new to the division, arriving from the Angels while former top prospects Adam Eaton and Tyler Skaggs were sent away. Trumbo has big power and could certainly put up some eye-popping home run numbers in the desert … all of this comes at the cost of poor defense and a ton of strikeouts.

Next in the pecking order is Michael Morse. ZiPS is not super optimistic about what he can do for the Giants; with his poor defense his value he is not much more than a replacement level player. For the Giants’ sake hopefully Morse is able to regain the magic that made him a productive player in 2011, or they are quick to move on if the experiment fails.

For the Dodgers, Carl Crawford is the nominal starter in left field but in reality they have four starting-caliber players when everyone is healthy so they should have the benefits of depth for injuries and the ability to rotate players. Crawford is actually projected as the lightest hitting of their outfielders but rates as a better defender than Andre Ethier.

The Rockies’ situation in left is similar to the Dodgers (except with less talented players). Corey Dickerson is the projected starter but is expected to split time with Drew Stubbs and maybe a bit less with Brandon Barnes. Dickerson has good power, with ZiPS projecting 59 extra-base hits over nearly a full season, but the value is muted by a low walk rate and relatively high strikeout rate. If the Rockies go with a strict platoon between Dickerson and Stubbs they might end up with the best left field value.

Center field

center field

Matt Kemp holds the slightest of leads over (125 vs 124) Carlos Gonzalez in the OPS+ projections, but with Kemp’s injury history I would hesitate to pick him to have the better overall season. All else being equal, it’s tough to pick one or the other, with both among the best center fielders in the National League.

Angel Pagan rates a notch below Kemp and Gonzalez but is arguably just as important to his team’s chances. With Pagan, the Giants won games at a .549 clip last season. Without him, they had a winning percentage of just .407. What the loss of Pagan did was really expose the Giants’ lack of depth in the outfield — it forced the Giants to start both Andres Torres and Gregor Blanco far more than planned, and obviously that backfired. Even if Pagan is only as good as this projection but stays healthy, the Giants will be in a much better position than last year.

ZiPS sees Cameron Maybin coming back to his 2012 level after an injury-filled season last year that limited him to just 14 games, which seems about right to me. In the same range is A.J. Pollock, who looks to be the Diamondbacks’ starting center fielder with the team trading last year’s starter, Adam Eaton, to the White Sox. Pollock isn’t expected to be a great hitter and ZiPS seems to agree, expecting him to step back from his production last season.

Right field 

right field

Last but not least are the right fielders, which compared to the other corner outfield spot are manned by much better players.

Leading the way is Yasiel Puig, who after busting out last season is expected to regress back toward the mean a little bit but is still projected as the second best hitter in the division behind Posey.  This seems like it should be a high variable — Puig was amazing over his first month, but after that he was just really good. It’s possible he could end up a legit MVP contender, while it’s also possible that pitchers find a new way to attack him and he ends up as a good hitter instead of an elite hitter.

Michael Cuddyer barely edges Hunter Pence for the runner up spot. Cuddyer is coming off of a BABIP-fueled career year that makes me doubt that he will be able to live up to even the regressed expectations ZiPS has for him. The Pence projection seems a bit low, but not outrageously so. His only down season was still above average and he was very good offensively in 2011 and 2013. The bright side for the Giants is that by acting early on his extension it looks like they were able to lock in a somewhat favorable contract for the team. With Posey, Sandoval, Belt and Pence the Giants actually look to have a very respectable middle of the order that should hopefully produce some nice offensive numbers.

Finishing things out is Will Venable and Cody Ross. Last season, Venable had his best season of his career. However, as he is now on the other side of 30, ZiPS is expecting him to decline with a projection below his career averages. As for Ross, he is the nominal starter but the best solution for Arizona might be for him to be the right-handed portion of a right field platoon with Gerardo Parra. Ross is a lefty killer and Parra has done much better against right-handed pitchers, while also producing very good defense. Going this route is probably the best way to maximize the Diamondbacks’ production, but I am not sure they will be willing to push Ross to the more limited portion of the platoon while paying him $8.5 million in each of the next two seasons.

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