In honor of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, which starts April 2, FiveThirtyEight is once again assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about what’s ahead. Today, we focus on the National League West with Molly Knight, author of “The Best Team Money Can Buy,” and Sarah Wexler, a writer for Dodgers Digest and The Hardball Times. The transcript below has been edited.
|EXPECTED NUMBER OF WINS|
|1||Los Angeles Dodgers||97||94||98||95||95.9|
|2||San Francisco Giants||88||88||85||88||87.1|
|5||San Diego Padres||69||65||65||68||66.6|
neil (Neil Paine, FiveThirtyEight senior sportswriter): All right, so let’s talk NL West! I’m gonna start with the Dodgers, since they’re considered by most people to be the favorites in the division. (And, of course, both of you are very familiar with them!)
mollyknight: It’s totally bizarre to me that they’ve won the division four years in a row. And yet somehow the Giants have won 11 World Series during that run.
neil: Hah — yes, it does feel that way for the Giants. (At least until last year.)
mollyknight: When I was reporting my book, Dodgers President Stan Kasten told me the goal was to make the playoffs every year because the playoffs are such a crapshoot and there’s no other way to control winning a title.
But now it strikes me they may be turning into the ’90s Atlanta Braves. Which were also run by … Stan Kasten.
neil: Well, that was one thing I wanted to ask about — the Dodgers seem to have an absurd amount of talent this year. FanGraphs considers L.A. to be the most talented team — not just in the NL West, but in all of baseball. It also gives them the third-best odds of winning the World Series.
It seems kind of assumed that the Cubs are the NL’s best team. But is it possible that we’re all underrating the Dodgers, particularly with a healthy Clayton Kershaw, an improving Corey Seager, the Logan Forsythe trade, etc.? (Feels weird to say a $240 million team is underrated.)
mollyknight: I still think the Cubs are better, but the gap is narrowing. The Cubs don’t have much starting pitching depth. If anything happens to one of their big three, I believe the Dodgers become the favorite.
What do you think, Sarah?
sarahwexler: That sounds about right. We saw last year the way the Dodgers were able to cobble together a rotation that worked (with the help of an excellent bullpen, of course) despite a league-leading number of injuries because of the incredible depth they have. And while that hopefully won’t be necessary this year, it’s certainly something they could do again if they had to.
Also, I think it’s telling that they’ve traded away both Jose De Leon and Chase De Jong this offseason and they’re still flush with starting pitcher depth.
mollyknight: It’s going to be so fun when top prospect Cody Bellinger gets called up. He’s a rock star. I think Seager/Bellinger will be the West Coast version of Bryzzo, and I’m here for it. And I think Bryzzo is here for it, too. They’re fun guys who love to compete. That rivalry should be outstanding.
sarahwexler: I’m very much looking forward to Bellinger, too, though you have to wonder what that means for Adrian Gonzalez, who’s been an absolute rock at 1B for the Dodgers
mollyknight: Yeah, that’s sort of the iceberg looming on the horizon for me with this team, tbh.
neil: Although even that is a good problem to have!
mollyknight: I don’t know how the team will respond if Gonzo’s production continues to taper off (as it does for all players on the wrong side of 32). It’s very difficult to bench a guy like that. But Bellinger plays in the outfield also, so I believe we may see him there first.
neil: That’s going to be one of the questions that weighs on L.A. manager Dave Roberts. What did you think of his first season?
mollyknight: He showed a willingness to embrace analytics and use relievers in unorthodox ways, both of which are vital to any team’s success going forward. This oversimplifies, but the three teams left standing at the very end (Cubs, Indians, Dodgers) all had managers willing to use their closers in the eighth inning or earlier.
neil: That’s a great point — probably one of the reasons that creative bullpen management is the big new trend people are talking about leaguewide.
mollyknight: Zach Britton sends his regards from hell.
So we’ve raved about the Dodgers’ strengths — what are the potential pitfalls for this team?
sarahwexler: For as much talent and depth as there is in their rotation, there’s also a lot of uncertainty there. Will Rich Hill’s blisters be an issue again? Will Kenta Maeda wear out like he did last season? Is Julio Urias going to live up to his potential? Will we ever see Hyun-Jin Ryu again?
mollyknight: They need to hit left-handed pitching. Logan Forsythe is a nice addition at second, but if he’s going to be leading off, I’m slightly concerned that his on-base percentage was .333 last season.
Also, Clayton Kershaw can only pitch once every five days.
sarahwexler: $240 million team, and they haven’t even figured out a way to clone Clayton Kershaw yet. Pft.
mollyknight: I’m calling for a nonpartisan investigation into Rich Hill’s blister.
neil: As long as nobody has to investigate his treatment method.
sarahwexler: I was going to make a golden showers joke, but I restrained myself.
mollyknight: I did not know about this, and now my lunch is ruined.
neil: On that note, let’s move on to the Giants! They had such an up-and-down season in 2016 — at their best, they looked ready to keep that even-year championship streak going; at their worst, they nearly tailspun their way out of the playoffs down the stretch. What version do we expect to see this year?
sarahwexler: I think those Giants evened out to about where they were supposed to be, and I think we’ll see similar end results with them this year. They’ve made a few key changes in signing closer Mark Melancon and bringing in Jae-gyun Hwang to play 3B, but besides that, they’re really not a radically different team.
neil: How big was the Melancon pickup? The bullpen was a huge issue for them last year.
sarahwexler: It was a great signing for them. It definitely fills one of their most substantial needs, and for one year fewer (and slightly less average annual value) than Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen got (which makes sense, given that Melancon’s a bit older and not quite as good, though still very good).
Of course, besides that, their bullpen doesn’t look especially different, so we’ll see.
mollyknight: It is tough to count the Giants out though. Never forget Hunter Pence is a witch.
sarahwexler: I usually go with alien myself. Maybe he’s a witch from another planet.
mollyknight: He actually lives in my friend’s building in San Francisco — and it’s sinking!
sarahwexler: Something something metaphor for America.
neil: Or the Giants’ division odds down the stretch?
mollyknight: I was there in the fall, and I ran into him in the gym. He was doing Pilates.
So Giants fans reading this should know that Hunter Pence takes his offseason seriously enough to do Pilates while the building sinks.
neil: Even Pence is getting a little long in the tooth, though (supernatural origin notwithstanding). If this is basically the same group as the past few years, back for another go-around, they seem a little bit short of where L.A. is talent-wise (to say nothing of the NL’s other heaviest hitters). What has to go right for San Francisco to win the division?
mollyknight: Buster Posey hitting for power again. Matt Moore turning into the guy everyone once thought he could be, on a consistent basis. Hunter Pence not changing his underwear.
And the Dodgers collapsing.
sarahwexler: All of that, plus Hwang panning out at 3B, and maybe also figuring out a way to plug the black hole that is their left field.
mollyknight: It would also help if their bullpen didn’t blow 32 games. Melancon really should help. I don’t know how it could get any worse than last year. I looked up one night last September and saw Joe Nathan pitching in a tie game at Coors Field and thought I was hallucinating.
neil: According to FanGraphs, basically the Dodgers and Giants were the only teams that had any shot at the division all year. Is this a two-team race again? Colorado got some buzz over the offseason (as much buzz as the Rockies ever really get).
sarahwexler: The Rockies kind of seem to do the same thing every year, which is get off to a really hot start that leads people to question if they’re legit. They then answer that question by falling off quickly.
mollyknight: It’s so hard to evaluate the Rockies since I’m not even sure what game they play in Denver. It looks nothing like baseball. Can you even imagine being a pitcher drafted by the Rockies?
neil: Well, that was going to be one of my questions — is it possible their rotation looks … kinda OK?
sarahwexler: They do actually have some intriguing young arms.
mollyknight: They’ve got a young kid they drafted last year named Riley Pint who sits 97 and can touch 100. He’s 19 years old. I WANT TO BELIEVE.
They’ve also got Nolan Arenado, who, in my opinion, is the most underrated player in baseball.
neil: What did you make of the Ian Desmond signing? Was it as bad as everyone said?
sarahwexler: Can’t say I love giving five years/$70 million to a guy to play a position he hasn’t played a single inning at in his entire career, but I don’t think their 1B situation is going to be what makes or breaks them this year.
mollyknight: Their farm system is decent. I believe Baseball America has them at No. 10. The problem is the Dodgers and the Padres are both deeper. But they do have two potential future stars, in Pint and shortstop Brendan Rodgers — though neither one is close to the big leagues right now.
neil: So even if the “dark horse” talk is premature for the Rockies, maybe they’re finally taking steps in the right direction. (Now, if only anybody can figure out what the heck to do about the weird underperformance of their batters on the road …)
mollyknight: Spoiling the Dodgers’ or Giants’ season might be the best they can hope for this year.
neil: The other team that I think is interesting as a spoiler is Arizona. They were one of the buzzy teams of last offseason and had a complete disaster of a season. Any chance they bounce back?
mollyknight: I saw Zack Greinke was sitting 89 during his last spring training start. That is not what you want.
I mean, unless you are Dodgers baseball-ops president Andrew Friedman.
sarahwexler: Greinke rebounding is obviously going to be essential for this Dbacks team, as is Shelby Miller looking … well, better, but that’s a low bar.
mollyknight: The Diamondbacks have a bunch of sort-of-broken young pitchers with plenty of promise. If someone can fix a couple of them, then this team looks very different.
sarahwexler: Yeah, Taijuan Walker’s a guy who’s yet to live up to his potential, but I still think his addition improves their rotation.
mollyknight: Shelby Miller, Taijuan Walker, Patrick Corbin, Archie Bradley — all of these guys were GUYS at one point.
sarahwexler: Plus, Robbie Ray was one of the top strikeout guys in baseball last year. What’s up with that?
mollyknight: Dansby Swanson looks like a franchise shortstop. That Shelby Miller trade will go down as one of the worst deals in the history of baseball if he doesn’t turn it around. No pressure, Shelbs. They’ve got to hope Greinke has a good first half and then unload him for prospects and money relief. They cannot win while paying his salary. Their farm system is in ruins.
They’ve finally got a smart front office in there, but they are a decade behind other teams in terms of analytics. The good news is nobody expects anything, and Paul Goldschmidt exists. The bad news is everything else, including the uniforms.
neil: Yeah, they seem like a team in a weird place, with too many expensive players to fully rebuild right now but nowhere near enough talent to contend.
mollyknight: I believe Dan Haren will fix the Diamondbacks with his tweets alone.
neil: Finally, we have the San Diego Padres. Exactly how bad are they going to be?
sarahwexler: Oof. When I got asked to do this, one of my first thoughts was, “Oh, great, I have to find things to say about the Padres.” Uh … Carter Capps might be fun to watch?
neil: Yes! They have to be glad that Carter Capps a) will return from injury and b) still has a legal delivery!
mollyknight: I still can’t believe GM A.J. Preller didn’t get fired for trying to hide injuries of players he traded last year. I will give this to the Padres: Even when they are bad, it’s never boring.
neil: Will other GMs ever trade with Preller again?
sarahwexler: I mean, what does he even have at this point that anyone would want to trade for?
mollyknight: Pitcher Anderson Espinoza and center fielder Manny Margot, both of whom could either wind up being total stars or total duds. Fun times! I also like Cal Quantrill a lot, especially as a pitcher in that park. He needs to work his way back from Tommy John, but I think he’ll be a solid front-end rotation guy for them in a few years.
It’s hard for me to knock the Padres, though, because their ballpark food is so great. They even have beer garden days. And the crowds are so chill. It’s the most relaxing atmosphere in sports.
But, yeah, they’re going to be ril bad.
neil: One cool thing they might do is to tinker with pitcher usage, having the starter only go through the lineup once. So, that’s fun. (Bad teams should do more of this cool, experimental stuff.)
mollyknight: Yes, if you are going to lose, you might as well do it in style.
neil: Sounds like “intriguing” is just about the best you can hope for out of this division if you’re not named the Dodgers or Giants.
sarahwexler: It’ll likely be another fun chapter in the Dodgers/Giants rivalry, and there’s certainly potential for the Rockies or Dbacks to surprise us. Or for the Padres to make us look like jerks for being so mean to them.
mollyknight: I’d be surprised if the Dodgers ran away with the division. The Giants always hang around. As certain as a Madison Bumgarner snotrocket in September, the Giants will be there.
sarahwexler: Peeing on blisters, snotrockets … this chat has everything.
CORRECTION (March 14, 10:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this chat misattributed one of Sarah Wexler’s lines to Molly Knight. The statement beginning “It’ll likely be another fun chapter in the Dodgers/Giants rivalry…” was said by Wexler, not Knight. An earlier version of this correction misidentified the statement that had been corrected.