Different Arms Race Simmers in NL West
The National League West is still defined by its pitching and the arms-and-glove race it inspires, said the man whose pitchers delivered the World Series trophy to San Francisco just a month ago.
Surveying recent personnel moves within the West, Giants manager Bruce Bochy sees improved pitching staffs in Phoenix and Los Angeles and reasons to believe San Diego again will turn foes' bats into balsa sticks.
"What we're seeing this offseason in our division is what we've seen in the last few years," Bochy said from the Winter Meetings. "And that's trying to improve our pitching, both our bullpens and starting rotations. And our defense."
The renovations amount to attempting to keep up with not the Joneses, but the Lincecums, Jimenezes, Cains, Wilsons, Kershaws, Bells and Latoses.
"You've got to pitch, and catch the ball," said Padres manager Bud Black, a former pitcher and pitching coach.
Four of the last five Cy Young awards to NL pitchers have gone to a West starter; in three of those five years, the Cy's runner-up also came from the West.
ERA+ is one decent way to measure a pitching staff's performance, because the statistic accounts for ballpark differences. Thirteen of the NL West's 15 pitching staffs from 2006-08 were among the NL's top seven in Baseball-Reference's ERA+ rankings.
The Giants, Rockies and Padres finished 1-2-3 in ERA+ this year. In 2009, the Giants and Dodgers went 1-2 and the Rockies tied for fifth.
In the same five years, the NL West produced three of the five wild-card winners.
"It's an underrated division," Black said.
Weak offenses in the West and DH-less lineups make life easier for NL West pitchers, but when better offenses confronted the Giants in the postseason, their pitchers overwhelmed the Braves, Phillies and Rangers.
No team scored on Giants starter Matt Cain in his 21 1/3 postseason innings. In the World Series, Tim Lincecum, San Francicso's homegrown ace, twice outpitched Rangers ace Cliff Lee, who on Wednesday fielded a $140 million offer from the Yankees.
Recently two other NL West teams worked to bridge the run-prevention gap between themselves and the Giants.
The Dodgers signed three veteran starting pitchers -- Ted Lilly, Jon Garland, Hiroki Kuroda -- to fill out a rotation fronted by young ace Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. They may also bring back Vicente Padilla.
Moving to improve their pitiful outfield defense, the Dodgers signed center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. and hired former Phillies first base coach Davey Lopes, whose defensive tutelage drew praise from Phillies outfielders such as Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino.
"Davey might be our biggest move of the offseason," said one Dodgers evaluator.
Gwynn may be relegated to a bench role by his glass bat, but if he hits at all, the Dodgers are talking like he could crack the starting lineup more often than not in anticipation of a defensive upgrade across their outfield. Miscast in center field despite winning a Gold Glove there two years ago, Matt Kemp would move to where he belongs -- right field -- and Andre Ethier would go to left.
The Dodgers aren't done shopping, but a left-to-right outfield of Ethier-Gwynn-Kemp tutored by Lopes would draw applause from their pitchers.
In a similar vein, the Diamondbacks helped themselves this week, Bochy said, when they signed closer J.J. Putz and obtained two relievers from the Orioles. The Diamondbacks still have a suspect offense, but in the NL West, you can't win if you can't pitch well.
"Their improved bullpen, I think, can make them contenders," Bochy said. "That bullpen is going to be key for them and they've already improved the back end."
Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, below right, built the Padres bullpen that a season ago led the NL in ERA. The unit, as closer Heath Bell put it, was the spine of a surprising Padres club that won 90 games in 2010 with the majors' second-smallest payroll.
Sunday, West Coast Bias saw Padres ownership raise a white flag on 2011 with the trade of Adrian Gonzalez, the team's best hitter by far, but I still see a promising pitching staff led by Mat Latos and a bullpen that may not lose Bell until next summer.
This is the NL West, remember. Pitchers rule.
"They're going to compete very well again," Bochy said of the Padres. "I think they're going to surprise people like they did this year because they're very underrated with their pitching staff. Their bullpen, their starters, pitching in that ballpark -- they've got a great staff that gives them a chance to win on an everyday basis, and I think that's why they're going to have another good year."
Padres general manager Jed Hoyer made several good moves in his first year on the job and recently appeared to sell high on his fruitful buy-low acquisitions such as catcher Yorvit Torrealba, Garland and shortstop Miguel Tejada.
Playing to the organization's foremost strength -- buying relievers for pennies and getting from them nickels, dimes, quarters and dollars of performance -- Hoyer has dealt four middle relievers this offseason. In return, he gained starters in center field (Cameron Maybin) and shortstop (Jason Bartlett).
The Rockies' biggest move of the offseason to date was to lock up their star shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki, through 2020. GM Dan O'Dowd is likely to add several more players before spring training to a core led by Tulowitzki, ace Ubaldo Jimenez and budding star Carlos Gonzalez.
The World Series champions, meanwhile, are enjoying an unusually calm offseason. With a rotation of Lincecum, Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner and Barry Zito under contract, the Giants could've spent the Winter Meetings in California rather than frigid Florida.
"You're always trying to get better," Bochy said, "but we kind of like the job they did last year."
CEOs in the NL West might prefer the addition of a crowd-pleasing slugger or two, but it doesn't appear that weak hitting and good pitching bores most baseball fans on the better coast. The NL West led the majors in average attendance last year.
"Here again," Black said, "it's an underrated division."
More from the Winter Meetings: