Welcome back to our series looking at the most important/compelling players in each division. These are the players whose fates are intertwined with their teams. If they have a great season, their team probably is having a great season, too. If they flop, their teams will be scrambling. These are the canaries in the coal mine.
Of course, we can’t be too obvious. You’re not going to learn anything if I write, “Boy, if Clayton Kershaw pitches fewer than 100 innings, the Dodgers won’t win as many games as expected.” We need players who are more enigmatic than that.
Who are the canaries in the NL West coal mine? We have answers.
San Diego Padres - Wil Myers
I’m not a Padres fan, but I still stay awake at night, thinking about trading Trea Turner away. Not only did they trade him away, but they had to fudge the rules to do it, making him a player-to-be-named-later-wink-wink to get the deal done. How does that happen? How many people had to sign off on that?
Then I remember Joe Ross and curse a lot. And, again, I’m not even invested in the danged team.
Which is all an extended way of saying this: Earn this, Wil Myers. Be the All-Star from the first half of last year, not the dizzy mess from the second half.
Myers is almost a human window for the Padres. When he’s mashing like the cleanup hitter they thought they were acquiring, he looks like a cornerstone of the team, someone who will be around for at least three or four years. If the Padres turn their outstanding farm system into an outstanding major league roster, Myers would be young and cheap enough to help them, regardless if it’s in 2019 or 2021.
If he can’t overcome the swing-and-miss in his approach, and if the league has truly figured him out, the Padres will deal him for ... not Trea Turner. He’ll wander the badlands like Justin Smoak or Brett Wallace, surviving on pine cones and his wits.
Myers was an above-average hitter last year, so keep the faith. If he struggles, though, there really isn’t any incentive at all for the Padres to speed the rebuilding process up.
Los Angeles Dodgers - Julio Urias
The Dodgers cannot live on Clayton Kershaw alone. Every year, they reach the postseason. Every year, they ask him to pitch on short rest and do everything. Every year, it doesn’t work out.
What the Dodgers need is a situation that allows them to use Kershaw on short rest once, maybe twice, as a secret weapon, a card pulled from somewhere unspeakable that wins the hand. That is, a situation where they aren’t using Kershaw on short rest because, hey, that’s the blueprint. The Dodgers were probably pretty jealous of how the Indians aped their postseason plan, riding Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller through the prickle bushes and all the way to the pennant. Except:
- Both of them had cartoonish tombstones in their eyes by Game 7 of the World Series, and
- The Indians had to do that because of various injuries
What the Dodgers need, then, is that third pitcher. The complementary head to the postseason hydra. It’s something they lacked when Zack Greinke was around, in part because they refused to trade Julio Urias. Now they have Rich Hill — risky, but excellent — and they need a third.
Urias has as much talent as any pitcher in baseball. He’s still a zygote, sure, but the Dodgers are reverse-strasburging him, starting him slow and ramping up the innings in preparation for the postseason. You’ll know in two or three months if the plan is to roll into October with Kershaw/Hill/Urias and Kershaw available for a Game 5 or 7, or if the Dodgers are just going to make Kershaw do everything again. The success of Urias in his first full-ish season will be a huge part of that.
Colorado Rockies - assorted Tylers
The Rockies will have an absurd lineup in a month or so, just absurd. When David Dahl, Ian Desmond, and Tom Murphy come back, it’ll be possible for them to have six, seven, or even eight superior hitters to the hitters playing the same positions for their opponents. Desmond is being misused, but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about their infield in the same breath as the Cubs,’ both offensively and defensively.
If they want to contend, then, they need to pitch. This is not a novel concept. This is sort of the story of the franchise, really.
The reliable pitching staff fled across the mountains, and the executive in the purple tie followed.
This has gone on for decades. Remember the weirdo piggyback experiment? Goodness.
But this time, the Rockies have some homegrown pitchers of note, and they’re used to Coors Field and ready to evolve. Jon Gray should be the ace, and there are younger pitchers like Jeff Hoffman and Kyle Freeland who could develop quicker than expected, but Tylers Anderson and Chatwood have the potential to turn the Rockies into immediate contenders. If they’re fine, the Rockies are fine. If they’re great, the Rockies are great. If they’re a mess, well, you get the idea.
Both Anderson and Chatwood are 27.3 years old, according to Roster Resource, so while it’s not fair to suggest they’re at the crossroad of their respective careers, expectations for both of them shouldn’t be tempered. This when they both need to rustle around and come up with 180-200 innings of above-average pitching.
Because if they don’t, man, what a waste of a great lineup.
San Francisco Giants - Jarrett Parker
There are few teams in baseball that need to scrap for every last win as much as the Giants. They’ll need every position to be humming along as expected if they’re going to threaten the Dodgers. They’ll need every pitcher to do what they’re supposed to if they’re going to fight off other teams for the NL Wild Card again. They might squeak into the postseason by a game. They might miss the postseason by a game.
Considering this, it sure was bold of them to go in-house with left field. Parker has what the Giants need, which is power, and lots of it, but he’s also 28 and something of a finished product. Just taking his strikeout rate at Triple-A and copy/pasting it into the majors would make him one of the greatest strikeout hitters in franchise history, too, so it’s not as if it’s taken him this long to become a starter because he’s been blocked by better players. He’s a flawed hitter.
But Parker has power. Enough power to get it out of right field in AT&T Park, and the Giants might be baseball’s most desperate station-to-station team. They hit just 55 home runs in the second half last year, with most of them coming from Denard Span, who won’t do it again, and Angel Pagan, who’s gone.
The Giants already platooned Parker, which is sensible, considering his splits, so all they want him to do is bludgeon right-handed pitching early in games. That’s his one job, and they essentially planned this crucial offseason around his ability to do that.
If he’s hitting .190 with 3 homers by May 15, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how the Giants are feeling. But that goes for him hitting .240 with 10 homers, too. It’s a fine line.
Arizona Diamondbacks - Shelby Miller
If we’re going to start the divisional tour by complaining about Joe Ross and Trea Turner, we have to end it here. Miller didn’t exactly knock on a door, sit down, and fire Dave Stewart himself, but it was close. Metaphorically, at least.
Zack Greinke should be fine, even if “fine” is defined as something below a Cy Young level of performance. Robbie Ray will have to figure out how to turn his xFIP into ERA, and Patrick Corbin will have to figure out how to return to 2013, but there’s no one more crucial to the entire franchise than Miller. Like the Rockies, the Diamondbacks can hit. They have roughly the same roster they did last year, when some folks were predicting to win the NL West. They should have the same lineup next year, too, with everyone young and talented enough to help them score 850 runs.
The only difference is that we have a season’s worth of evidence that suggests their pitching is completely incapable of helping that lineup out. That might have been a hiccup, something they’ll be mercifully incapable of repeating.
Miller is another one of those players who could push the Diamondbacks to reload or rebuild. Is he the young, cost-controlled No. 2 they thought they were getting? If so, keep A.J. Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt around and fill in the margins. Is he the disaster of 2016? Well, uh, see, there aren’t any prospects to trade, really, and there isn’t a lot of money to spend in the market after Greinke, so it’ll become awfully tempting to start over.
The Pollock-Goldschmidt window is something like that duck-rabbit optical illusion. It’s a window the Diamondbacks can look at and interpret two different ways. There’s the window of contending with these superlative talents ... but there’s also the window of cashing those superlative talents in for some of the greatest prospects in baseball. It’s a heckuva lot easier to go all-in on the first window if there’s a 20-something starting pitcher coming into his own, just like they were expecting in the first place.