I'm not sure if there was a more compelling division in baseball this offseason than the NL West. The Dodgers replaced the quality of a Cy Young contender with the quantity of the open market. The Diamondbacks were the surprise spenders that made their rivals scramble. The Giants took the $200 million they were going to spend on Zack Greinke and sprinkled it around. The Rockies were convinced that Gerardo Parra and Jake McGee were the missing pieces for some reason. And the Padres got Jon Jay or something, which was almost as exciting as everything that happened in the previous offseason.
And these compelling offseasons mean that each team is stuffed with compelling players. Our job is to find the most interesting player on each team in the division, the one guy who stands out on the 25-man roster. Here's whom you should watch carefully this season:
Arizona Diamondbacks -- Yasmany Tomas
Shelby Miller might seem like the obvious pick, considering that he was a huge part of the Diamondbacks' multi-tiered shock-the-world plan, but once you get past the ransom the Braves extracted for him, he's still just Shelby Miller. That is, a solid pitcher who might or might not have reached his ceiling. He probably isn't an ace, but he should help his team win more games than last year. He's not a mystery.
Ah, but to get him, the Diamondbacks had to double down on their Yasmany Tomas gamble. Ender Inciarte is a defensive whiz, and he'll be replaced by Tomas, who is a defensive pit. Inciarte also hit better than Tomas last year, so by including him in the deal for Miller, the Diamondbacks are really, really committing to the Tomas experiment. Which, I suppose, makes sense, considering the money they spent to sign him in the first place.
The problem, though, is that Tomas just might be Delmon Young. It's a comp that works on about 53 levels, from the high initial hopes, to the defense, to the approach at the plate. The only thing stopping us from saying that Tomas is definitely a Young-caliber player is that he's played just a season in the majors. Reading too much into a rookie season from a player in a new country is patently unfair, so it's wise to see if he can calm down and be more patient at the plate with a little additional experience.
But from here, it looks like the Diamondbacks traded a defensive marvel and solid hitter so they could start a positionless hacker who struck out over six times as much as he walked. He's still just 25. And it's not like the Diamondbacks were the only team that was interested in giving Tomas scores of millions, so he certainly has some raw talent. It's just an open question whether he'll polish those tools in 2016. His team is certainly counting on it.
Colorado Rockies -- Jon Gray
The Rockies have tried buying new pitchers. They've tried trading for them. But the only thing that's worked over the last two decades is developing their own. If the 2016 Rockies are going to surprise, they'll need their younger pitchers to have breakout seasons. Fair enough. And they do have a lot of young pitchers in the rotation.
The problem is that most of the Rockies' youngsters aren't capable of missing bats. It almost seems like it's something the organization is doing on purpose, acquiring pitchers with low strikeout rates (Tyler Chatwood, Jordan Lyles) and drafting them (Eddie Butler), as if putting the ball in play at Coors Field is the secret formula for success. Which seems bonkers. But I'm just a keyboard masher, and wackier ideas have made me look silly before.
Gray is the exception. Even if the Rockies are telling him to pitch to contact, his mid-90s fastball and devastating slider won't allow it. He looks like the organization's best chance for an ace since Ubaldo Jimenez's peak, unless he's swallowed whole by Coors Field and ends up on the dark side of the moon, where the Rockies' young pitchers are usually spit out. He's the best arm they've had in a long time, though, and you have to root for pitching prospects who get drafted into the worst pitching environment in baseball. It's the romantic in you.
Los Angeles Dodgers -- Corey Seager
Seager came up and demolished National League pitching at the end of last season, which is understandably making folks optimistic about him. ZiPS gave him an uncharacteristically bullish projection, predicting 20 homers and solid defense, which would make him about a four-win player. It's about time the Dodgers caught a break like that.
Except this all glosses over an uncomfortable truth: Seager didn't exactly dominate when he was promoted to Triple-A. A 21-year-old hitting .278/.332/.451 is nothing to dismiss, especially when he plays shortstop, but those aren't gaudy numbers for the Pacific Coast League, especially considering he played at a park that grades out as slightly above-average for hitters. That isn't to say that he isn't one of the very best prospects in baseball, if not the best. It's just a reminder that transitions aren't always seamless. Addison Russell's promising-not-dominant rookie season is far more common than what Kris Bryant did last year, for one example.
But Seager could also be an immediate star in a deep lineup, hitting second and scoring 120 runs, while fielding well enough to make everyone hush about his future at shortstop. He's the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year and an unquestioned starter on a team with a World Series-or-bust mindset. You don't often get to watch players who fit that description.
San Diego Padres -- Andrew Cashner
To analyze baseball is to be wrong about baseball. It doesn't matter if you're a blogger or a GM; you're going to look foolish, over and over again. The good news, though, is that when you're right, you get to point it out constantly. Look at this pearl:
I am absolutely fascinated with the Anthony Rizzo trade. I don't care if Cashner can hit 108, I think the Padres will regret that deal.— Grant Brisbee (@mccoveychron) March 16, 2012
Toot toot! What a smart piece of 140-character analysis from a handsome, verified individual. Just don't look at any other opinions, and we'll be fine. Still, the Padres took a huge risk in exchanging Anthony Rizzo for a live arm with a history of health concerns. Four years later, Rizzo is a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate. Cashner is a live arm with a history of health concerns.
Cashner will be 30 in September somehow, so it's probably time to stop thinking of him like he's a phenom who's going to emerge from a pitching chrysalis and take over the National League. What we see might be what we get, and what we're seeing is about 600 innings of league-average pitching, with imperfect command and a much lower strikeout rate than his mid-90s fastball suggests.
But if he figures out how to make that fastball work for him, if he finally has that breakout season that everyone's been predicting for years, he'll a) be the hottest commodity at the trade deadline, and b) pitch himself into a ludicrous offseason deal. Cashner pitching up to his potential might be a nine-figure contract waiting to happen, and that makes him one of the most fascinating pending free agents in baseball.
San Francisco Giants -- Johnny Cueto
If Cueto's second-half struggles carry over to this season, the Giants are hosed. We'll know that someone said Barry Zito's name into a mirror three times at a sleepover, and everything will be ruined. The Giants' problem last year was abysmal starting pitching behind Madison Bumgarner, and they spent a ton of money to rectify that. If they come out the other side with still-abysmal starting pitching, just $200 million poorer and unable to do anything about it for the next few offseasons, they'll have wasted the golden opportunity their young hitters have given them.
On the other hand, if Cueto is as good as he was in the first half of last season, if he's the Cy Young candidate that he's been for most of his career, the Giants will have essentially picked up a younger Zack Greinke for half the price, which allowed them to snatch up Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span. Twelve months ago, if you had the option to stuff your team with either Cueto/Samardzija/Span or just Greinke, you would have chosen the trio of players without hesitating. A year later, the Giants are hoping that's still the case.
Mostly, though, be happy that Cueto got out of Great American Ballpark and into a much more forgiving AT&T Park. The ballpark and defense should help him immensely, and the odds are good that he'll twitch and shimmy his way into San Francisco's heart.
Because if he doesn't, the Giants are hosed. Absolutely hosed. So there's no pressure, Johnny. Just relax.
Oh, okay, good.