Friday, April 5, 2002

2002 NL West Preview

Arizona Diamondbacks:

Every so often, bad decisions lead to good outcomes. As proof, I give you the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks.

In 2000, the Diamondbacks finished a distant third in the National League West, with a roster full of aging B-listers like Matt Williams, Steve Finley, and Jay Bell. Inexplicably, Arizona brought in even more old-timers for the 2001 season (Reggie Sanders and Mark Grace), and benched their lone young slugger Erubiel Durazo. The result? An improbable World Series championship run fueled by unexpectedly good performances from a number of guys on the wrong side of 30. Clearly, Lady Luck shined her ever-loving light on the D-Backs last season.

But it would be sheer folly for the Snakes to count on luck two years in a row, wouldn't it? Unfortunately for Diamondback fans, however, that's exactly what their team appears to be doing.

Instead of infusing the Arizona lineup with young blood in Durazo and minor league masher Jack Cust, Diamondback GM Joe Garagiola Jr. traded Cust to Colorado for a spare part-level lefty reliever, and announced that Durazo would once again be riding the pine. Cust has shown no glove-skills whatsoever, and his trade may be marginally defensible, but continuing to block Durazo with the geriatric Mark Grace is nothing short of outrageous, and has even inspired a guerrilla movement of sorts among Durazo's supporters.

It may seem a bit picky to criticize a world champ for not playing its youngsters, but the Diamondbacks aren't your typical world champion. The average age of Arizona's everyday players and most frequently-used pitchers was 33 last year, making them the oldest World Series winner ever by a long shot. Given that they hardly made any moves on the roster this offseason, that age is going to be even higher in 2002. It's always possible that the Diamondbacks will once again beat the odds and not avoid having a gaggle of starters succumb to injuries and statistical regression, but I wouldn't count on it.

A strong starting rotation and an overall weak division will probably save the Diamondbacks' bacon this year, but time is not on their side. They'll probably still win the division, but if they run into some bad luck, they may find themselves looking up in the standings at...

San Diego Padres:

San Diego is this year's fashionable pick to surprise in the National League -- which is usually a bad sign, since fashions in sports aren't much more rational than deciding that brown is this year's black. Still, at the risk of looking foolish six months from now, I have to say that the Padres are going to surprise a lot of people this year. My prediction, however, has nothing to do with fashion, and everything to do with wine.

The Padres kind of stank last season, but in baseball, not all smells are equal. The 2001 Orioles, for example, had the stink of a rotting corpse, but the 2001 Padres had the slightly yeasty funk of an immature burgundy. You didn't want to drink last year's Padres, but connoisseurs knew that given some more time in the cellar, 2001 Padres Noir would eventually show its good breeding.

The Padres' vintner is general manager Kevin Towers, who has shown a great deal of patience and savvy in his craft, always seeming to know the exact time to plant, prune, pick, and preserve the fruits of the Padre farm system. He showed his technique last year, as he pulled off one of the better steals of the season, trading Jay Witasick to the Yankees.

Witasick, a perpetually average pitcher, was picked up by the Padres for almost nothing late in the 2000 season. Before the 2001 season, San Diego moved Witasick to the bullpen where he began the year strong, as many converted starting pitchers do when first assigned to relief duties (over time, a starter moved to the bullpen will usually revert to his mediocre ways). Despite all the obvious signs that Witasick was a flash in the pan, Towers fooled the Yankees into giving up prized middle infielder D'Angelo Jimenez for him. Predictably, Witasick immediately slid back into mediocrity, while Jimenez established himself as the Padres' second baseman of the future. Towers has pulled off several deals like that over the past few seasons, and as a result, the Padre organization is loaded with talent.

This year, Towers will focus on making sure that nothing goes wrong with the aging process. The Padres will open the 2002 season with two rookies in the infield: third baseman Sean Burroughs and shortstop Ramon Vazquez. These guys are so good that the Padres moved their two best players -- Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko -- to different positions in order to accommodate them. In addition, the Padres have two of the best starting pitchers in the minors in Dennis Tankersley and Jacob Peavy. While one or both may begin the season in the minors, they are likely to contribute sooner rather than later. If Burroughs, Vazquez, Tankersley, and Peavy perform well, the Padres may be worth decanting come October. If any of them have a breakout season, Robert Parker might just give them a 90+.

San Francisco Giants:

Barry Bonds is without question the best player in baseball, and barring injury will smack 60+ homers this year. The Giants, meanwhile, are a respectable club in a division lacking a clearly dominant team. Once again, they should find themselves challenging for the division title.

But that's been the story for the past five or six years now, and it's getting a little stale. So instead of rehashing the question of whether Tsuyoshi Shinjo can handle centerfield every day or whether Jeff Kent will rebound from his wrist injury, let's talk about ballparks.

Baseball has seen a stadium-building boom over the past decade. Since 1992, twelve new baseball-specific stadiums have come online, with future parks slated for at least three other cities. With few exceptions, these parks were funded primarily from public sources: the issuance of tax-exempt bonds, the hiking of sales taxes, or the out and out underwriting of construction costs by state and local governments. Why do Mayor Smith and Governor Jones continue to foot the bill? Because they believe that new stadiums spur economic growth and that government subsidies will be offset by revenues from ticket taxes, sales taxes on concessions, and property tax increases arising from the stadium's presumed economic impact on the region.

Unfortunately for John Q. Taxpayer, this theory is bunk. As people smarter than me have conclusively shown, a new sports facility has an extremely small and perhaps even negative effect on a region's overall economic activity and employment. Even when a stadium provides a spark for its neighborhood -- as Camden Yards did for Baltimore's Inner Harbor -- such benefits usually come at the expense of other areas in the city.

Rather than spreading benefits among the general public, a new baseball stadium usually redistributes wealth upward to rich baseball owners. Owners typically keep all revenues from luxury boxes, advertising, concessions, and parking. They even have the right to all rents derived from non-baseball use of their publicly-owned stadium. It's a first-class scam, and the local governments that finance these things are either accomplices or dupes.

Thank goodness for guys like Giants' owner Peter Magowan. After 20 years of owners trying to shake down the citizens of San Francisco for a publicly funded stadium, two years ago Magowan and a band of bankers opened PacBell Stadium: the first privately financed ballpark since Dodger Stadium was built in 1962. Contrary to Bud Selig's prophecies of doom, the world didn't end when the Giants footed their own bill. In fact, it got a whole lot brighter: PacBell is widely considered to be the best new park in baseball, and the Giants cover the $20 million/year debt service on the new joint with billboard advertising alone. Over time, owning its own park will also dramatically enhance the value of the franchise.

So the next time you hear your favorite team whining about how it can't compete because taxpayers won't give it a shiny new ballpark, remember that there is a team in San Francisco that never drew a large number of fans, and had fairly piddling annual revenues, but somehow managed to both pay for its own stadium and put a consistently solid product on the field. Nice story, no?

Colorado Rockies:

Some of the most intuitive but underused analytical tools in baseball fall under the category "park effects." These are statistics that account for the ways the physical characteristics of a ballpark can increase or decrease offensive production. Some of these characteristics are static, like the distance of the fences from home plate; others, like wind and humidity, can change from year to year.

Playing in the mile-high environs of Coors Field, the Rockies have to contend with the most extreme park effects in the history of baseball. The thin mountain air allows balls to fly out of Coors at an unprecedented rate. Knowing this, outfielders tend to play deep, allowing weakly hit balls to fall in for cheap base hits. As a result, Coors makes ordinary hitters look like Hall of Famers, and solid pitchers look like scrubs.

Unfortunately, the Rockies have learned the wrong lesson from their freakish park. Rather than acknowledging that their mostly average hitters are only apparently good, and that their mostly decent pitchers are only apparently bad, the Rockies have done an inordinate amount of fiddling with their pitching staff. In some cases, this has led them to try interesting and harmless tactics like carrying 12 or 13 pitchers on their roster. In other cases, however, they have spent way too much money on free agents like Daryl Kile or Mike Hampton.

The key to winning in Colorado is to face the facts. Rather than try to fight the laws of physics by developing a Coors-proof pitching staff, the Rockies should acknowledge that their juiced park has led them to overestimate the quality of their hitters. Sure, they have plenty of guys who put up big numbers, but only a couple of them (Larry Walker and Todd Helton) have shown that they can put up those numbers on the road as well as at home. It may seem counterintuitive for a team that routinely scores in double digits, but I think the answer for the Rockies is to add offense.

And in fact, while they didn't have a particularly busy offseason, the Rockies do seem be pumping up. Their best trade -- unloading relief pitcher Mike Meyers to Arizona for masher Jack Cust -- was an absolute steal. As I mentioned in the Diamondbacks preview, Cust's inability to play defense does pose a bit of a problem, but for a team facing the challenges of baseball at altitude, Cust's mighty bat will come in handy. Emphasizing pitching and defense didn't work for Colorado; who's to say that improving their offense at the expense of their defense will be any worse?

Los Angeles Dodgers:

The Dodgers have had more nicknames than just about any team in baseball history. Since their founding in 1884, the Brooklyn/Los Angeles franchise has been known as the Dodgers, the Superbas, the Grooms, the Bridegrooms, the Grays, and the Atlantics (why any team would get rid of a great name like "the Superbas" is beyond me, but we'll leave that for another column).

Now that they've won six world championships and sixteen pennants as the Dodgers, it's unlikely they'll be changing their name anytime soon. But maybe they should, since "the Dodgers" just doesn't seem to fit anymore.

Part of the problem is geographic. The name "Dodgers" supposedly comes from the phrase "trolley dodgers," which is what players walking to the ballpark through 1930's Brooklyn really were. But as anyone who has been there knows, nobody walks in L.A. -- least of all, millionaire baseball players. And the auto and real estate industries did away with L.A.'s Red Line Trolley years ago (remember Roger Rabbit?).

The other and more important reason "Dodgers" doesn't fit is that most people associate that nickname with the well-run franchise that was the envy of the baseball world for decades. The O'Malley family owned the team for nearly 50 years, and under their watch, the Dodgers established baseball on the West Coast, financed their own stadium, and compiled a record of on-the-field success rivaled only by the Yankees. The O'Malley Dodgers symbolized class, stability, and a good deal of horse-sense. All that ended, however, when the National League's most legendary franchise was sold to News Corp.'s Fox Broadcasting Company in 1998, becoming merely another horse in Rupert Murdoch's corporate stable.

Since then, the Dodgers really haven't been the Dodgers. Despite fielding one of baseball's most expensive teams for the past few years, Los Angeles hasn't made the playoffs since 1996, and the extremely questionable personnel decisions made by Fox executives over the past few years will no doubt ensure that the current losing streak will last a long, long time. Two months after Fox bought the Dodgers, it traded Mike Piazza -- perhaps the best-hitting catcher in the history of the game -- to the Florida Marlins for Gary Sheffield, who was recently traded to the Braves for spare parts and little else. And if you think turning a living legend into scrap is a good trick, wait until you hear what Fox has done on the free-agent market. Before the 2001 season, the Dodgers signed free agent pitcher Darren Driefort to a contract paying him Roger Clemens money despite the fact that, statistically speaking, Driefort is most similar to Harry Byrd, Pete Redfern, and Bob Milacki. Don't remember those guys? Don't worry, because in a couple of years you won't remember Driefort either.

Prior to this season, the Dodgers tried to solidify their outfield (an outfield that needed solidifying the minute the Dodgers got hosed in the Sheffield deal) by inviting a lot of "big name" free agents like Dante Bichette, Roberto Kelly, and Mark Whitten, to camp. Unfortunately, the talent attached to these names hasn't been impressive since Clinton's first term, and none of them will make the team. Of course, with a couple of exceptions, the players that will make the team aren't much better than the flotsam that will get cut before opening day. The team was somewhat respectable last year, but this feels like the year the Dodgers hit bottom.

And there's no relief in sight. It's hard to have any confidence that the same people who brought you "Celebrity Boxing" have the class or wisdom necessary to do what's necessary to restore Dodger blue to its former glory. The least Fox can do is change the name of the team to protect the innocent. The Los Angeles Superbas, anyone?

PROJECTED FINISH: Arizona, San Diego, San Francisco, Colorado, Los Angeles