How They Got Here: The NL West is Baseball's Most Compelling Division
In 2014, all five teams in the NL West made changes to their front offices, and set on the paths that have led it to become baseball's most interesting division.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sport
On October 29th, 2014, about 15 minutes past 10 PM local time, Venezuelan Salvador Pérez popped out to his countryman, Pablo Sandoval, giving the San Francisco Giants a third World Series win in five seasons. That pop out capped off a tumultuous year for the National League West, in which four of the division's five teams made major changes to their front offices, and at the close of which, the fifth—Sandoval's Giants—was just a few months away from doing the same. It was a year of change.
A little over two years later, the shine has faded on many of the new bosses installed across the West that year, and some are already out of a job. But the paths they set their teams down in 2014 are still unwinding as we enter the 2017 season, which makes the NL West among the most interesting—and competitive—divisions in baseball.
Los Angeles Dodgers
At the head of the pack are the Los Angeles Dodgers, who hired GM Andrew Friedman away from the penny-pinching Rays in October of 2014, and then gave him a quarter of a billion dollars to build the team of his dreams. The team he has now isn't that—and probably won't be, as long as some combination of Andrew Toles and Andre Ethier continues to man left field. But the team has quietly won four straight division titles on the back of some smart trades and the sensible allocation of far-from-scarce-resources. In today's era of parity, that's not nothing.
What's most interesting about this year's Dodgers is the degree to which nobody on their roster sucks. Compare that to the Washington Nationals, who boast similar star power but also have replacement-level players like, say, Michael Taylor (.231/.278/.376 last year) and Chris Heisey (.216/.290/.446) expected to get significant playing time when and if starters go down. The back end of the Dodgers' bench, by contrast, features somewhat more reputable characters: Scott Van Slyke, Enrique Hernandez, and Trayce Thompson, to name three.
This leaves a team that's great at some things—they currently lead the league in Having Clayton Kershaw On The Roster—and bad at virtually nothing. They're the team equivalent of Ben Zobrist. Because they also appear to put little stock in such niceties such as "having players who like each other," they also get an added Watchability Bonus™ for the non-zero chance that any given game could end with Yasiel Puig getting decked by a teammate.
San Francisco Giants
Such in fighting is not a possibility in San Francisco, where the Giants boast the second-best team in the division and a clubhouse culture that's second to none. GM Bobby Evans, who took over from long-time head man Brian Sabean a few months after the final out of the 2014 World Series, has spent his time at the helm finding bit players and the occasional star willing to buy into the San Francisco way, and who is able to contribute some specific skill set to a club that seems perennially locked into 85-95 wins.
Where the Dodgers have zagged by spending their millions on shoring up the back end of their roster with the best talent available to them, the Giants have held steady with very traditional spending patterns—locking up homegrown stars (Madison Bumgarner) and filling clearly defined gaps in the roster through careful and targeted needs assessment. There's no "get the best player available" attitude here. The Giants get the best player for a need. Last season, that meant spending big to bring Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija into the rotation, and this offseason it meant signing free agent closer Mark Melancon.
The Giants will never quite match the glitz of the team down south, and—unless something dramatic changes on the business ops side—they won't match their pocketbook, either. But they know who they are, know who they're not, and know how to go out and get players that'll buy into their existing dynamic and contribute exactly as needed. For the last half-decade, the Giants have been the mutual funds of the baseball world—not a lot of ups and downs in the profile, just quarter after quarter of prudent moves and steady gains. Don't expect too much change in 2017.
So that's the top of division: The mercurial, volcanic brilliance of L.A.'s loaded roster, and the predictable excellence of San Francisco's tight-knit band of brothers. Just below them in the middle of the pack, and threatening for a Wild Card spot as things stand, are two teams with big talent in-house and even bigger flaws: The Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies. Both teams are imperfect enough that they're as likely as not to finish below .500, but both have enough pure horsepower on the roster to make a run for the division if things really break right.
The Diamondbacks are probably a bit closer. After the Tony La Russa experiment, which began in the early summer of 2014, and came to a shuddering end last October—not before La Russa traded starting center fielder Ender Inciarte and No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson to Atlanta in exchange for 7.31-ERA Shelby Miller—Arizona brought in Red Sox alums Mike Hazen and Torey Lovullo to right the ship.
The new guys have already taken steps to build around Arizona's still-strong core of A.J. Pollock, Paul Goldschmidt, and Jake Lamb, while avoiding locking the franchise into any more decade-defining mistakes like the $206 million contract La Russa gave Zack Greinke. Although their lack of depth and financial limitations mean they're a more likely bet for 2018 and beyond, the Diamondbacks have more than enough talent on their roster to make a run for it in 2017.
The same is true of Colorado, which features the world-shattering power and jaw-dropping defensive prowess of Nolan Arenado, the consistent excellence of Charlie Blackmon, and the Oh I Remember When He Was a Thing-ness of Trevor Story. The problem, as is always true in Colorado, is pitching. It's bad again this year. Yes, Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson have demonstrated the ability to pitch effectively for the Rockies. But then again, Chad Bettis is listed first in the rotational depth chart on the team's official website, where, you know, people can see it.
Still, newish GM Jeff Bridich—he joined the club in, repeat after me, 2014—has made some good moves at the margins, strengthening the team's outfield defense and shoring up the back end of the bullpen. And, in fairness to Bettis, who was actually reasonably decent last year, on days when he could find the strike zone, the Rockies have a very nice collection of number three starters in-house. The problem is that two of them are being asked to pitch at the top of the rotation, and their skills (with the possible exception of Gray, who's also struggled with his command) just don't merit that spot. If the Rockies find or develop a true ace next year they're not in a bad spot.
San Diego Padres
And then there are the San Diego Padres who could sign Bryce Harper next offseason and still be in a bad spot. The Padres, like the Diamondbacks, brought in a new executive in the summer of 2014, and the Padres, also like the Diamondbacks, saw that new executive fall spectacularly on his face in the months that followed. In San Diego's case, the new boss was former Texas assistant general manager A.J. Preller, and the most notable faceplant (besides the Matt Kemp trade, and the Wil Myers trade, and the Melvin Upton trade, and the James Shields signing, and the ... well, let's stop there) was a poorly-executed and recently-exposed plan to lie to every other team in the league about the health of San Diego's players.
Preller still has a job, and there are some indications that the Padres organization, fresh off a 68-94 finish, now appreciates the need for a full rebuild. Notably, through a series of quick maneuvers to undo the big spending of 2014, the team has built up its farm system to the point that ESPN's Keith Law recently ranked them third in the majors. And just last month the Padres signed Myers to a long-term extension worth $83 million, presumably so that the kids have someone to play alongside when they get to the big leagues in 2018. The Friars won't compete this season, but they're back on the right track, and if Preller manages to deal himself back into his fellow executives' good graces, they might even be a good team one day.
Taken together, the division has everything you could want in a summer race: A billionaire organization that isn't here to make friends, run by the brightest brains in the business; a workmanlike legacy franchise that just can't help but finish first, but without much to recommend it for watchability; two middle-income squads with talent to spare and with an outside chance at a late-summer push; and a morass of awful and as-yet-unredeemed venality that just might be on the path to redemption. There's every kind of team here, and every kind of story. The five teams of the West are charging headlong down the paths they set themselves down in 2014, and watching them collide this summer promises to be a treat.
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