MLB 2018 Season Preview: National League West

Imagining a perfect season for each team in the tank-free National League West

If, as Scott Boras suggested earlier this winter, baseball has indeed been corrupted by tanking, a practice he decried as “a non-competitive cancer,” then the National League West is … wait, what cures cancer?

In truth, it’s up for debate whether this glut of brazenly bad teams is actually a new phenomenon, or even all that harmful to the game, but what is clear is the five teams in the NL West – three of whom made the postseason in 2017 – did nothing to help this supposed cancer metastasize.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are going for it. Obviously. So, too, are the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, who squared off in last year’s NL wild-card game. As for the San Francisco Giants, who finished with the worst record in the majors in 2017, they were undeterred by that disaster, bringing in a couple past-prime superstars this offseason to ensure last year was an anomaly. Even the San Diego Padres, the division’s longtime whipping boys, aren’t punting anymore, having inked Eric Hosmer to an eight-year deal in February to start wrapping up their most recent rebuilding effort.

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You still have to squint pretty hard, of course, to see the Padres making the playoffs, and it’s not like Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria have cured all that ailed the Giants last summer. But in a climate now arguably too hospitable to those teams demonstrably disinclined to put a winner on the field, it’s refreshing to see a division sans any tank jobs. That isn’t to say all five teams will be good, because they won’t, but at least none of them are actively trying to be as un-good as possible. Find another division with five clubs that fit that description.

With their eyes on the prize, then, let’s take a look at what needs to happen for each NL West team to realize its perfect season, whatever that may be, starting with the reigning division champs (2018 projections and playoff odds courtesy of FanGraphs):

Los Angeles Dodgers

2017 RECORD PROJECTED 2018 RECORD PLAYOFF ODDS (%)
104-58 93-69 93.5%

 

A perfect 2018 season ends with … a World Series championship

For the Dodgers, divisional champs in each of the last five seasons and all but assured to repeat again this year, the 2017 campaign was perfect, really, until Game 7 of the World Series. They had, over the preceding months, authored their finest regular season since emigrating from Brooklyn, then bullied their way to the World Series, losing just one game through the first two rounds of the playoff. And yet they fell short of the Hollywood ending. They failed, Clayton Kershaw said, shouldering much of the blame himself. In truth, though, had Yu Darvish done a better job hiding the ball in Game 7, or had George Springer woken up with a sore back that morning, the Dodgers’ season would’ve ended with exaltation rather than heartbreak.

Having brought back almost every essential member of last year’s club, in order to realize their perfect season in 2018 by getting that World Series title and exorcising three decades worth of demons, the Dodgers don’t need to do anything different – just win the damn thing. And there’s a good chance that’ll happen if Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor even approximate last year’s huge numbers; if Alex Wood sustains the gains he made in 2017, when he was an All-Star for the first time; if Justin Turner returns to form once his fractured wrist has healed; and if Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, finally starts to act like himself in the postseason.

Arizona Diamondbacks

2017 RECORD PROJECTED 2018 RECORD PLAYOFF ODDS (%)
93-69 81-81 25.6%

 

A perfect 2018 season ends with … a division title

The Dodgers’ cushion atop the NL West seems insurmountable, but it’s salient to remember the Diamondbacks were a punchline this time last year following a 69-93 finish in 2016, a catastrophe of a season that effectively ended Dave Stewart’s career as an executive. Then, as we all know, they ended up silencing the haters, riding their exemplary rotation – comprised of Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Zack Godley, Patrick Corbin, and Taijuan Walker – to a 93-win season in which they actually underperformed against their expected record (per the Pythag theorem, a run differential-based record estimator, the Diamondbacks should’ve finished 96-66). Though they’re projected to take a step backward in 2018, the Diamondbacks will field that exact same rotation this season, meaning they’re probably going to be an elite run-prevention club again. There’s even room for improvement, too, seeing as they gave 17 starts last year to a cadre of scrubs who combined for a 5.67 ERA.

Again, dethroning the Dodgers won’t be easy, but considering how talented their staff is, the Diamondbacks will have a shot at their first NL West title since 2011 if A.J. Pollock, who struggled last year after missing almost all of 2016, resembles his former self (from 2014-15, he hit .311/.363/.498 with 9.8 WAR in 232 games, averaging 14 homers, 29 doubles, and 26 steals per season); if Jake Lamb, who owns a .843 OPS over the last two seasons, improves his ghastly .566 career OPS against left-handers; if Ketel Marte, who landed a five-year extension Monday, realizes the potential the club obviously sees in him; and if Jarrod Dyson can ably fill the outfield void created by the departure of J.D. Martinez.

Colorado Rockies

2017 RECORD PROJECTED 2018 RECORD PLAYOFF ODDS (%)
87-75 80-82 18.1%

 

A perfect 2018 season ends with … a division title

Much like the Diamondbacks, the Rockies snapped their playoff drought in 2018 on the strength of their pitching staff, which finished eighth in the majors (fourth in the NL) in WAR and seventh in park-adjusted ERA. Also like the Diamondbacks, the Rockies face the unenviable reality of having to compete with the Dodgers, and so spent considerably this winter to improve that already impressive staff, inking Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw while also re-signing Jake McGee for a combined $106 million to ensure run prevention, a notoriously difficult task in Colorado, doesn’t become problematic once more in 2018.

However, for the Rockies, who added only Chris Iannetta to a lineup that finished fourth-last in the majors in wRC+ (87) last year, a division title will only be possible if Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado, worth 12.1 WAR between them in 2017, continue to produce at close to MVP levels; if DJ LeMahieu, the NL batting champ two years ago, rectifies whatever caused him to produce below-league-average numbers in 2017; if Trevor Story, who lost almost 80 points of isolated power last season, reproduces the figures from his sensational 2016 rookie campaign; and if David Dahl and Ramiel Tapia deliver when the Rockies’ incumbent corner outfielders – Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra – ultimately disappoint.

San Francisco Giants

2017 RECORD PROJECTED 2018 RECORD PLAYOFF ODDS (%)
64-98 81-81 24.9%

 

A perfect 2018 season ends with … a wild-card berth

A week ago, it was difficult to envision the revamped Giants competing for the division. Now, with Madison Bumgarner possibly sidelined until June with a broken hand and Jeff Samardzija set to miss the first three-to-four weeks of the season with a strained pectoral muscle, it’s impossible.

That said, even with their rotation in disrepair and a bevy of good-but-not-great teams poised to compete for an NL wild-card spot, the Giants – who added big-name talent this winter to a team whose 2017 record belies the strength of its core players – can force their way into that one-game playoff if Longoria proves his sub-par 2017 (98 wRC+; 2.5 WAR) was merely a blip, and McCutchen, who managed 3.7 WAR last year following a disastrous 2016 campaign, more closely imitates his younger self in his final season before free agency; if Brandon Belt, plagued by concussion problems in 2017, logs a full season; if Mark Melancon, who flopped in his first year with San Francisco, vindicates the club’s decision to give him a four-year, $62-million deal last winter; if Hunter Pence dispels the increasingly popular notion that he can’t play at a high level for a full season anymore; and if their interim starters, tasked with keeping Bumgarner and Samardzija’s rotation spots warm, don’t completely suck.

San Diego Padres

2017 RECORD PROJECTED 2018 RECORD PLAYOFF ODDS (%)
71-91 73-89 2.7%

 

A perfect 2018 season ends with … a wild-card berth

When you get down to do it, the real impetus for the second wild-card is the suspension of disbelief – more easily monetized, after all, than the death of hope and faith – and no team better exemplifies this reality than the refurbished Padres, whose competitive window isn’t really open yet but has just enough room for a breeze of hope to whisper through. With Fernando Tatis Jr., MacKenzie Gore, Cal Quantrill, and Luis Urias still toiling away in the minors, most of the centerpieces of their rebuild have yet to ripen, all due respect to Manuel Margot and Carlos Asuaje. But the Padres’ decision to commit $144 million to Hosmer – who will be their second-oldest everyday position player this year – suggests they don’t think they’re that far off.

And while nobody in their right mind expects them to make the playoffs, suspend your disbelief and consider the possibility it could happen if Hosmer, as volatile as they come, manages a second excellent season in a row – he hit .318 with a 135 wRC+ and 4.1 WAR in 2017 – for the first time in his career; if Wil Myers, heading into the second season of an $83-million extension, finds the value he lost last year both at the plate and in the field; if Austin Hedges, owning a career .596 OPS, dispels his deserved reputation as a catch-and-throw guy; if Margot, who managed 1.9 WAR as a rookie in 2017, takes another significant step forward; if Chase Headley, who turns 34 in May, rediscovers the stroke that made him an All-Star and MVP candidate during his previous stint in San Diego; and if their entire rotation, now down Dinelson Lamet for at least the first month of the season, dramatically exceeds expectations.

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