What’s next for the NL West? Lockout leaves MLB’s wildest division with huge question marks

Sports

In 2021, the top of the National League West included both the best teams in baseball and a race to win the division that wasn’t settled until the final day of the season. Now the top of the division is a jumble. And after Major League Baseball’s lockout ceases — whenever that is — a lot will be left to sort out.

The Dodgers, a team that dominated the division for the better part of a decade, could see as many as four star players sign lucrative deals elsewhere. The Giants, the team that overshot its projections by more than 30 games, has already lost its best pitcher and one of the greatest players in franchise history. The Padres, the team that flopped dramatically in the second half, has a new manager and, thus, a new identity. The Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks, meanwhile, have no intention of undergoing a full-scale rebuild, even though they probably should.

Below is a closer look through it all.


play

1:35

As Clayton Kershaw enters the latter stage of his career, look back at the top moments that made him such a dominating pitcher.

2021 record: 106-56 (lost in NLCS)

Biggest additions so far: UT Chris Taylor, SP Andrew Heaney, RP Daniel Hudson

Biggest subtractions so far: SP Max Scherzer, SS Corey Seager, RP Corey Knebel

Biggest pending free agents: SP Clayton Kershaw, CL Kenley Jansen, RP Joe Kelly

What to expect when the lockout ends: Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman admitted recently to being taken aback when looking over his list of pending free agents at the onset of the offseason. “And then,” he said during the general managers’ meetings in early November, “I had to look at the list of guys that we actually had returning and I’m like, ‘OK, I feel better.'” Yes, the Dodgers fielded a very, very talented team in 2021. They’ve already lost some key players from that group and could lose a few others, but the returning core remains formidable. The key question lies within the starting rotation — and it’s a big one. Walker Buehler and Julio Urias are the only bona fide top-tier starters returning. The rest of the depth chart — consisting of Tony Gonsolin, David Price, Andrew Heaney and Dustin May, the latter of whom is recovering from Tommy John surgery and won’t be available until midseason at the earliest — is littered with uncertainty.

The biggest uncertainty revolves around Trevor Bauer, who faces potential criminal charges in the wake of sexual assault allegations and could be handed a lengthy suspension. The belief around the team by the end of the 2021 season was that Bauer would not return, regardless of the fallout. The question is: How much will the Dodgers owe him in 2022? Bauer’s contract calls for upward of $47 million (a $32 million base salary, plus an additional $15 million if he opts out for 2023). Paying all of it would put the Dodgers at a projected Opening Day payroll exceeding $220 million — roughly $25 million less than Opening Day of 2021 but possibly already on track to exceed the luxury tax threshold, depending on what the new collective bargaining agreement looks like. Take $47 million off, and the outlook obviously changes dramatically. Of note: The Dodgers’ payroll could free up pretty significantly after 2022.

Current outlook for 2022: For as much as it hurt to lose Seager, it was just as significant to bring back Taylor, who cost a fifth of the price and provides so much value because of his versatility. Taylor’s ability to play as many as six positions creates a trickle-down effect that eases some of the pressure off Gavin Lux, allows the likes of Justin Turner and Max Muncy to get plate appearances at designated hitter (assuming a universal DH is part of the new CBA) and gives the Dodgers an additional platoon situation if Cody Bellinger once again struggles against lefties. The Dodgers’ offense looks potent already, and their bullpen is deep enough to absorb Jansen’s likely departure. But they need to beef up their rotation. Ideally, they’ll do so with short-term, high-AAV contracts (Kershaw is perfect for one if he’s healthy; Carlos Rodon might be too). Acquiring a top-shelf starter by trading more prospects seems unlikely, but Friedman and his front office could also get creative with the major league roster. One path towards doing so, which has Dodgers fans salivating: Signing Freddie Freeman, a move that would free up the ability to trade for a top-flight starting pitcher and significantly alter the complexion of this division.


play

1:52

Buster Posey says spending more time with his family and dealing with his ailments are reasons he thought it was time to retire.

2021 record: 107-55 (lost in NLDS)

Biggest additions so far: 1B Brandon Belt, SP Anthony DeSclafani, SP Alex Wood, SP Alex Cobb

Biggest subtractions so far: C Buster Posey, SP Kevin Gausman

Biggest pending free agents: UT Kris Bryant, SP Johnny Cueto, INF Donovan Solano, RP Tony Watson

What to expect when the lockout ends: On Oct. 18, four days after his team was eliminated in the final inning of the final game of the first round, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi uttered the one sentence the fan base was clamoring for: “We want to keep as much of this group together as we can.” True to his word, Zaidi retained Belt, who accepted the qualifying offer, and re-signed DeSclafani and Wood on free-agent contracts totalling $61 million. But the Giants’ ace, Gausman, signed a lucrative deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, and their rock, Posey, retired. And so the team’s core group certainly won’t return, triggering plenty of intrigue for the remaining offseason.

The biggest, perhaps, revolves around starting pitching. The Giants began the offseason with only Logan Webb returning to their rotation. They have since added DeSclafani, Wood and Alex Cobb, the latter of whom attained a two-year, $20 million deal after a sneaky good season with the Los Angeles Angels. The Giants could still use a frontline starter and have the flexibility to afford one — they project for an Opening Day payroll below $120 million, which would rank 14th in the sport, and don’t have anybody signed beyond 2024 — but most of the best free-agent starters are gone.

Surprisingly, the Giants didn’t add from a group that included Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray, Eduardo Rodriguez, Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard or Justin Verlander. But the trade market is still readily available to them, and it’s a lane where a savvy front office can take advantage of its robust minor league depth (especially considering the Dodgers’ presumed hesitancy to keep going down that path). But the Giants could also use another bat. And it’s tough to form the argument against trying to keep Bryant, who helps them in the corner infield and throughout the outfield and seemed to fit so nicely down the stretch last season.

Current outlook for 2022: If you believe Belt and Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria and Darin Ruf and DeSclafani and Wood and a host of others can replicate their production from 2021, then you probably believe the Giants look like a championship contender already, even without Posey and Gausman. But, if last year was any indication, none of us have any clue. Are they closer to the 75-win team they were initially projected to be, or the 107-win team they ultimately became? Maybe it’s somewhere in the middle? Certainly, an elite starter and an elite hitter — preferably someone who can play center field — would put them much closer to the latter group. But what about catcher? Joey Bart, who turns 25 next week, was being groomed to replace Posey behind the plate, and after a rough showing in 2020, Bart got some much-needed time in Triple-A and performed, batting .294/.358/.472 in 279 plate appearances. The Giants also employ a quality backup in Curt Casali. It might be best to roll with that and see where it takes them — which is even more reason to solidify the rotation and the rest of the lineup.


2021 record: 79-83 (missed playoffs)

Biggest additions so far: MGR Bob Melvin, SP Nick Martinez, RP Luis Garcia, RP Robert Suarez, C/OF Jorge Alfaro

Biggest subtractions so far: 2B Adam Frazier, CL Mark Melancon, RP Daniel Hudson

Biggest pending free agents: OF Tommy Pham

What to expect when the lockout ends: The Padres need everything and nothing, all at once. They have accomplished veterans and high-ceiling young players sprinkled throughout their pitching staff and their infield, but a stunning percentage of those players also come with a lot of uncertainty. You could understand president of baseball operations A.J. Preller making more moves on the margins and rolling out the same core group, hoping they play closer to their talent level under Melvin, who stands as the best offseason addition this team has made. But you could also see him shaking everything up because 1) this group played below-.500 baseball from the start of June to the end of September last year and 2) the Padres really need to vault themselves into contention in 2022.

Preller’s history indicates he’ll sway more toward the latter strategy, which brings us to a fascinating question: How much more money is ownership willing to invest in this team? The Padres — the small-market Padres, who ranked in the bottom half in payroll to begin every season of the 2010s — reportedly exceeded the luxury-tax threshold in 2021 and already have nearly $190 million in financial commitments for 2022. Shedding the salaries of Eric Hosmer (owed $59 million over the next four years) or Wil Myers (owed $20 million in 2022, with a club option for 2023) would help tremendously, but the Padres probably won’t be able to do so without attaching a good prospect in a deal. One good option for trade bait: The Padres have four capable catchers on their 40-man roster after the Alfaro acquisition. Preller has long been high on Alfaro, but he also employs two solid incumbents, Austin Nola and Victor Caratini, and one premium prospect, Luis Campusano. It’s an enviable amount of depth at an exceedingly valuable position. And it’d be a waste, not to mention a shock, if Preller didn’t take full advantage of it to beef up elsewhere.

Current outlook for 2022: The Padres, contrary to what you might think, have a bevy of starting-pitching depth, but Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Mike Clevinger, Chris Paddack, MacKenzie Gore, Dinelson Lamet, Ryan Weathers and Adrian Morejon will all bring varying levels of uncertainty into 2022. You can say the same, perhaps to a lesser degree, about a bullpen that lost its 2021 closer, Melancon, and is currently on track to replace him with Drew Pomeranz, a dynamic lefty reliever with a lengthy injury history. The position-player side is fronted by Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado and Jake Cronenworth, but the outfield looks thin, perhaps even if Pham returns.


Colorado Rockies

2021 record: 74-87 (missed playoffs)

Biggest additions so far: RP Jhoulys Chacin

Biggest subtractions so far: SP Jon Gray

Biggest pending free agents: SS Trevor Story, UT Chris Owings

What to expect when the lockout ends: The Rockies, under new general manager Bill Schmidt, believe they’re closer to contention than you do. They see a respectable rotation, featuring German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Austin Gomber, and think a few of the right offensive pieces can help them keep things interesting throughout the upcoming season. Scoff if you want, but for the purposes of how they’ll navigate the rest of this offseason, all that matters is what they believe. And what they believe will probably push them to be quasi-aggressive in the outfield market, where Nick Castellanos, Michael Conforto and Seiya Suzuki top the list of available free agents. Story’s likely departure means the Rockies will desperately need a shortstop, too. And depth everywhere, of course. There’s currently no logical replacement for Gray, whose departure to the Texas Rangers signified gross mismanagement on multiple fronts. And they never really replaced Nolan Arenado, either.

Current outlook for 2022: These certainly aren’t the Rockies of Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla. Heck, they aren’t the Rockies of Todd Helton and Matt Holliday, either. These Rockies have ranked dead last in weighted runs created plus over the last five years and are in desperate need of bats this offseason. Schmidt, the longtime scouting director who was promoted to GM in the wake of Jeff Bridich’s firing, sees some pieces in Ryan McMahon, Charlie Blackmon, C.J. Cron, Brendan Rodgers and Elias Diaz. He also sees intriguing talent in the lower levels of the farm system — the question will be whether it will arrive in time to blend with the current mix of veterans and make the Rockies something more than an NL West afterthought.


Arizona Diamondbacks

2021 record: 52-110 (missed playoffs)

Biggest additions so far: CL Mark Melancon, 1B/OF Jordan Luplow

Biggest subtractions so far: OF Kole Calhoun

Biggest pending free agents: RP Tyler Clippard

What to expect when the lockout ends: Sound strategy aside, here’s the thing about tanking: It sucks. The baseball season is long and arduous, games are staged almost daily for a full six months, and showing up to work every afternoon knowing that you will likely lose later that night can be quite mind-numbing. The D-backs can’t make up 30-plus wins in one offseason. But they can get better. And they can do their best to avoid a season that featured the second-most losses in franchise history — but they need to supplement their major league roster without mortgaging their minor league system. So they signed Melancon, who’s coming off a major league-best 39 saves and can change the dynamic of a dreadful bullpen. When the offseason resumes, they’ll probably trade for a controllable third baseman, a position of weakness in an otherwise improved farm system. And unless they’re blown away by an offer, they might just keep holding on to Ketel Marte and Zac Gallen — because 110 losses is not for the faint of heart.

Current outlook for 2022: The D-backs seemingly have a full rotation already, with Gallen, Madison Bumgarner, Merrill Kelly and Luke Weaver likely taking up the first four spots, and some intriguing young arms coming up the pipeline. Josh Rojas and Daulton Varsho displayed signs last season that they might be able to stick in a lineup headlined by Marte and Carson Kelly. The hope is that someone like Alek Thomas can do the same next year. The D-backs will be better simply if Kelly, Gallen, Marte and Weaver are healthier. But there’s a lot of uncertainty on this roster, even among those previously mentioned. The front office has payroll space to improve the current team, but what the D-backs need more than anything else is internal improvement. The thought throughout the industry last season was that the D-backs were more talented than their record indicated. It’s why a brand-new coaching staff now surrounds manager Torey Lovullo.