In honor of the 2016 Major League Baseball season, which officially opened on Sunday, FiveThirtyEight has been assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about the year to come. Today, we finish the series by looking at the National League West with ESPN baseball writer/editor Christina Kahrl and Deadspin news editor Tom Ley. The transcript below has been edited.
Los Angeles Dodgers
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Every year, it feels like the LA Dodgers open the offseason as World Series favorites, and every year they win 90-something games, but they haven’t quite put it together in the postseason. What do we make of them going into 2016, sans Zack Grienke? More of the same formula — regular-season success but disappointing playoffs — or do we think they move the needle away from that in either direction?
tomley: The Dodgers are a strange team. Despite entering each season with a stacked roster and as World Series favorites, don’t they seem to have been — I don’t know — treading water these last few seasons? I realize it’s kind of crazy to say that about a team that spends and wins as much as the Dodgers have, but it feels like they always manage to slog their way to 90 wins, if that’s possible.
But that’s why I’m really excited to see what they do this year. Losing Greinke is obviously a big blow, but I feel like this is the season in which the Dodgers might actually take a few steps forward. Corey Seager‘s arrival has a lot to do with that, and I’m also bullish on Joc Pederson ditching his Jekyll-and-Hyde routine and finding a happy middle ground. Toss in a bounce-back season from Yasiel Puig, and I think you’ve got something.
neil: It does seem like there’s already been a bit of a shift in organizational direction under the Friedman regime — rather than the typical guiding philosophy of “spend literally as much money on a baseball roster as is humanly possible.” (Then again, their relative lack of activity this offseason wasn’t exactly for lack of trying.)
tomley: Yeah, maybe the team is moving beyond the “outspend everyone” phase, although I never really had a big problem with that strategy. Absorbing massive contracts attached to aging, once-great players is exactly what teams with More Money Than God should be doing.
But saddling a roster with all those old guys can also give the team a kind of moribund feel. If the Dodgers want to move beyond that, they really need Pederson, Seager, and Puig to put something together this season.
christina_kahrl: I still have to wonder if they really understand how to use their money muscle to good advantage, frankly. Blowing it on Greinke was certainly sub-awesome, and spending $62.5 million on Hector Olivera — only to flip him for a No. 4 starter like Alex Wood — makes me wonder if they’ve really got a handle on how to spend all those dollars well.
That said, Tom’s hit the nail on the head: They really need Pederson, Seager and Puig to put it together, now.
christina_kahrl: Anybody who signs Anderson has to be ready for his unavailability.
tomley: If I were a Dodgers fan, thinking about Kazmir would give me hives. His late-career renaissance has been good and fun, but I always just assume his arm is about to come apart at any moment.
christina_kahrl: Given their investments, I really think they’re going to have to pull the trigger on a deal to add a starter soon. They need the depth.
tomley: Maybe we’ll get to see Julio Urias!
christina_kahrl: I think we’ll have to, for the Dodgers to deliver on their promise. If not, bad rotations and rookie skippers lead to messy games lost in the middle innings.
neil: We’ll definitely get to see Kenta Maeda — are you buying the relatively optimistic projections for how he’ll translate from Japan?
christina_kahrl: He had a nice camp, but I’ve heard more than a few scouts say it’s fourth-starter stuff that may not be so deceptive once he has to make a second pass through the division. Accrued experience counts.
But if he’s a No. 3, that’s still the second-best starter the Dodgers have if Kazmir’s gone kablooey. (It’s also significantly worse than what the Giants or D-backs have going for them in their first three slots.)
tomley: Yeah, even if Maeda is fine, it’s hard to look at a team on which he’s the No. 2 starter and call them a real championship contender.
neil: Of course, when your No. 1 is Clayton Kershaw, that does change things a bit. Kershaw, plus a pretty solid bullpen, plus … whatever the rest of that rotation is … might still equal a pretty good run-prevention corps. (In the regular season, at least.)
christina_kahrl: Again, that’s where I worry about/for new manager Dave Roberts. In-game, in-series, in-week management of your bullpen is the tactical fulcrum around which managers succeed or fail. If he’s got a handle on that, great. If he doesn’t, you won’t see him back in MLB any sooner than you will Mike Quade.
San Francisco Giants
christina_kahrl: Heehee, well, they do have to play the games, right?
neil: I suppose.
christina_kahrl: One day at a time, 110 percent.
I think any NL lineup that can afford to bat Brandon Belt seventh is pretty close to the definition of scary. And while everyone noticed Matt Duffy‘s breakout last season, if Joe Panik had put up a full season, we’d have been talking about his power outburst as well.
neil: SF was somewhat sneakily a good team last season, too. If any team that missed the playoffs might be due for an uptick, it’s probably them.
christina_kahrl: Yeah, I definitely like the rotation depth — if Chris Heston‘s your No. 6 starter at the beginning of a season, that’s nice, because we’re going to have to see how long they roll with Matt Cain if he just can’t deliver.
neil: They’re kind of the anti-Dodgers in that regard.
christina_kahrl: And does anyone have less drama in their bullpen? I mean, let’s say Santiago Casilla loses the save-generator’s job to Hunter Strickland — so what? Sergio Romo was ready to roll with a demotion, and I expect Casilla will be as well. It all goes back to their stability, among the leadership — Bruce Bochy and Dave Righetti — and the talent. Winning provides its own kind of chemistry, where a worse track record and other people would generate spats.
They might be baseball’s perfect “Just win baby!” team.
tomley: It’s really hard to find a real weak spot on the roster, which is normally a kind of odd thing to say about a team that missed the playoffs. But like you said, Neil, last year’s version of the Giants wasn’t that much worse than the one that won it all in 2014. Throw in Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, and a full season of Panik, and an uptick seems almost inevitable.
christina_kahrl: I do worry a little about the outfield, if only because Gregor Blanco can only only fill one hole at a time. Denard Span and Hunter Pence both need to show better health this season, because Angel Pagan could very well be completely done.
neil: That might be the only hole to speak of — Fangraphs calls for 0.8 combined WAR all year from their LF corps.
christina_kahrl: But even then, Mac Williamson‘s a decent prospect to have to turn to. Again with the nice problems.
tomley: Again, I’m fed up.
neil: So we all kind of sound higher on the Giants than the Dodgers, projections be damned.
christina_kahrl: Now, should we skip to the cellar and talk about the Purple Eaten People, or will that just make you crankier, Tom?
neil: Hey, we have to talk about Arizona first!
christina_kahrl: Good point, we should stick to the upper crust before touching on the lumpenteam tandem at the bottom.
tomley: Yeah, let’s give me a few more minutes of peace.
neil: OK, fair enough. So the D-backs obviously made some splashes this offseason, on the heels of a 79-win campaign last year. Is there a chance those machinations propel them at least into the conversation for the division or a Wild Card slot? Or is Arizona this season’s version of the mediocre team each year that comes out of nowhere to spend a lot in the hot stove, only to still be … well, mediocre?
christina_kahrl: I think the Snakes have an interesting riff on the stars-and-scrubs formula. Starting from Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke is a nice place to be, and A.J. Pollock, David Peralta, Patrick Corbin and Shelby Miller aren’t just sidekicks. It’s everything else that I sort of wonder about.
(Ed. note: After we conducted our chat, Pollock fractured his elbow in a spring-training game. The Diamondbacks haven’t yet put a timetable on his recovery, but FanGraphs estimates his absence will cost Arizona about 3.9 wins above replacement.)
tomley: I can’t decide what to make of the D-backs. On the one hand, they seem primed to pull people into the “Mid-Market Team That Makes Some Splashy Moves and Becomes a Trendy Pick But Then Continues to Suck” trap. But, there are some reaaaallllly good players on this team. Goldschmidt is incredible, Pollock is basically Desiigner to Mike Trout‘s Future, and I see no reason why Greinke won’t continue to dominate.
christina_kahrl: If their “second rank” — say, the guys like Jake Lamb, Yasmany Tomas, Rubby De La Rosa, Robbie Ray — also deliver, that’s a team that will be in the Wild Card mix, absolutely. But Lamb has to show power, and Tomas has to show something.
tomley: Tomas has to give them something more than he did last year, right? He can’t really be this bad …
christina_kahrl: Or he could be the worst big-money mistake out of Cuba since Rusney Castillo. (Which is unfair to both guys, but when you have guys like Puig and Jose Abreu providing instant wins, that’s where expectations come from.)
neil: Chris Owings, meanwhile, really is that bad.
christina_kahrl: Yeah, and Nick Ahmed is sort of a latter-day Mark Belanger. You can win with that guy, but you need more from the non-Goldschmidts. I like the upside possibilities for Jean Segura, but if he’s just regular Segura, a relative improvement on Owings still doesn’t move the dial that much.
neil: On the other hand, I can kind of appreciate where Dave Stewart’s coming from here. Are the uninspiring projections simply from factors like Goldschmidt (great as he is) regressing to the mean after such a tremendous 2015 season? Oftentimes it’s easy to envision poor performers improving and be blind to great performances regressing back.
christina_kahrl: Absolutely, but that gets into the weird competitive imbalance of the NL, where you have eight contenders and seven also-rans. Given health from Greinke, Corbin, and Miller, plus Goldschmidt, the Snakes have mid-80s potential, and higher upside than that with the right kind of breakthrough from a guy like Miller. But it’s a fragile proposition, and really probably rests with one guy in particular. If Goldschmidt takes another hit and misses 50-70 games? Then 79 might seem high.
tomley: This is when I really feel for the small-market teams. If this was the Dodgers, they could spend the money necessary to turn the holes around this roster’s (very good) nucleus into bright spots, and it wouldn’t even matter if Tomas continued to suck. But the D-backs can’t just eat the $68.5 million they spent on him and go get someone else. It’s never fun to be a fan of a team that has one of the best hitters and pitchers in baseball, and still have to say things like, “Hey, if Yasmany Tomas or Jean Segura give us something, we might be in business …” to yourself.
San Diego Padres
neil: OK, now let’s pivot to the members of this division clearly belonging to the “also-ran” group.
christina_kahrl: Who do we want to pick on first?
neil: Well, PECOTA and FanGraphs are split on whether the Padres or Tom’s Rockies will be better — what do we think?
tomley: I’m going to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to muster an opinion on the Padres.
neil: Yeah, the Padres have been pretty opinion-proof for a while now, aside from that crazy offseason they had a few years ago.
christina_kahrl: We could pick holes in the Panda-to-the-Padres rumors for pernicious pandering to Beantown fantasies!
neil: Oooh, that might change things.
christina_kahrl: Yeah, put Panda on the Padres, and I can imagine a quick parade to throw A.J. Preller into the Pacific.
neil: But going back to that offseason and Tom’s point about the “Mid-Market Team That Makes Some Splashy Moves and Becomes a Trendy Pick But Then Continues to Suck” — that was San Diego not long ago.
tomley: Yeah! I remember when they made all those moves and I thought to myself, “Oh hey, might be time to pay attention to the Padres.” Serves me right. Nobody should ever pay attention to the Padres.
christina_kahrl: I think the jazzy opening of that one busy winter misled folks into thinking this was going to be anything other than a complete rebuild. But, having made noise to advertise that he’ll deal, Preller’s now retrenching with what he has to work with.
I’m more interested in seeing if they flip Matt Kemp or lose him to a waiver claim in August, but with James Shields, he’s better off holding out for a premium prospect deal, not other people’s big-money mistakes. And I think the area of scientific curiosity I have about them is whether Austin Hedges is as amazing a receiver as we saw last season.
neil: In an era where receiving numbers are potentially less predictive than usual.
christina_kahrl: Indeed. And a Derek Norris trade would go far in giving us a better idea, obviously. Let’s have Mr. Preller get right on that.
tomley: Norris for Sandoval. Let’s do it.
neil: All hypothetical transactions aside, what do we think about the Padres this season? A step in the right direction to move on from the disaster of 2015?
christina_kahrl: Low 70s in wins if things break their way, but if the Giants, Dodgers and D-backs all get into the high 80s or more in wins, part of that’s going to come at the expense of the tiny two.
tomley: My bold prediction is: The Padres will be bad.
christina_kahrl: My equally bold prediction: They’ll be bad and boring, which is even worse.
neil: Either way, the important thing is that you both mustered an opinion on the Padres.
neil: All right, finally, we have to talk about the Colorado Rockies.
christina_kahrl: Hey, at least they’re not boring — Nolan Arenado is worth the price of admission.
tomley: Oh boy, do I have some TAKES on the Rockies.
neil: Do tell.
christina_kahrl: Expectations of a clutterbuck-spattered detonation on the subject of their rotation in 3, 2, 1…
tomley: Yeah, so, the rotation…
I’ve spent most of the winter trying to convince myself that the Troy Tulowitzki trade was actually cool and good, and that Jeff Hoffman will indeed turn out to be the next Justin Verlander. But here’s the thing a lot of people who don’t care about the Rockies (i.e., everyone) may not realize: This organization has never once in its history successfully developed a pitching prospect.
That’s bad news in any year, but it’s especially harrowing heading into this season, as the Rockies have one of the better farm systems in the majors and should be turning out quality arms in the next year or so.
tomley: But! So far we’ve only gotten glimpses at Jon Gray and Eddie Butler, and the results have been … not very encouraging. It’s hard to look at this team and not come away with the conclusion that there is just something fundamentally wrong with their development philosophy. Butler has only gotten worse as he’s risen through the organizational ranks, and Gray somehow lost a huge chunk of his velocity on his journey from college to the pros.
This is not good! And it doesn’t bode well for a team that just traded its Hall-of-Fame shortstop for a collection of pitching prospects.
christina_kahrl: Well, I think there we can hope that the change of philosophy in-house might be a good thing. They seem more ready now to let guys do their thing, instead of trying to mold them.
tomley: Yes, the one thing that gives me some hope is that Jeff Bridich seems to be bringing a new philosophy, which values high-velocity guys and hopefully doesn’t involve trying to turn everyone into a worse version of Aaron Cook.
christina_kahrl: “Make no small plans,” as it were.
tomley: And I am legitimately intrigued to see how he plans on deploying the bullpen. We could definitely see the Rockies deploying the Rays’ strategy from last year, and try to get every game into the hands of the flame-throwers in the pen as fast as possible.
neil: If they squeeze every bit they can out of the pitching staff, what are the bright spots in this lineup aside from Arenado?
christina_kahrl: CarGo ain’t chopped liver.
neil: He did have a resurgent year last season.
christina_kahrl: Indeed, Story might make Jose Reyes history.
tomley: Yeah, I don’t think we are going to see any of Reyes this season.
neil: It’s amazing how quickly the Tulo trade just completely became about the prospects and not about Reyes at all.
tomley: I don’t think many Rockies fans were all that excited about getting him in the first place. We mostly wanted him out of the way as soon as possible so that Story could get a shot.
christina_kahrl: Now there’s the additional downside that they can’t flip Reyes for much. It’s a PR win if they excise him, though.
tomley: But again, hitters like Story, Arenado and Dahl don’t matter unless there’s a dramatic shift in the pitching development. This really feels like a make-or-break year, in terms of what direction this team is going in. Trading Tulo was a nuclear option, and if it just yields another crop of failed pitching prospects, I don’t really know where the team goes from there. They’ve tried everything — throwing money at Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, installing the humidor, preaching the importance of ground balls — and at some point something has to work.
neil: And is it fair to say it’s a race against time to develop some of these supporting pieces before Arenado’s years of team control are up?
tomley: Yes. Good things need to start happening this year, or the Rockies can say goodbye to Arenado.
neil: That’s a lot of pressure for this season!
tomley: I don’t feel great!
neil: Do we think they start to make that progress?
tomley: I’m cautiously optimistic. Like Christina said, there does seem to have been a real shift in philosophy, and I’m much more on board with the team collecting as many hard-throwing guys as possible, instead of trying to squeeze innings out of sinkerballers and guys who rely in the curve ball.
neil: Strikeouts do make a lot of sense as an overriding strategy at Coors.
tomley: But if Jon Gray comes out and is suddenly throwing 92 and pitching to contact, I will walk into the ocean.
neil: Well, if you end up exiting the continent, can you do it via San Diego? The Padres need something exciting to happen around them.
tomley: If I can remember that the Padres exist, I’ll catch a game before I hit the coast.
Ben Lindbergh joins the Hot Takedown podcast to preview the 2016 MLB season.