The Los Angeles Dodgers were the clear favourites to retain their NL West crown and they duly lived up to those expectations; however, the division was far from being uneventful. The drama surrounding the Dodgers’ march to the postseason was enhanced by the performance-enhancing suspension of their star slugger, while the Rockies staged a remarkable turnaround to win the Wild Card.
Joe: Dodgers (Wild Card: Giants), Mark: Dodgers, Matt: Dodgers, Russ: D-Backs (WC: Giants)
Three of us correctly predicted the Dodgers would come out on top, but Russ must have jinxed the D-Backs. In fact, Russ had predicted a D-Backs-Indians World Series, so I think we can say his jinxing powers are lethally strong.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (95-67)
It was déjà vu all over again for the Dodgers. As they had done in 2008, they won the West, swept their way through the Division Series past the NL Central winners (last time it was the Cubs, this time it was the Cardinals), but then lost 4-1 to the Phillies in the Championship Series.
The Dodgers got off to a hot start, going 35-17 through April and May, and consistency the rest of the way was enough to keep the pack behind them. In fact, the Dodgers never fell from the top spot after tying the Padres for the division lead on 15 April. The Rockies created a few nerves as September rolled around, but the Dodgers ended up winning the division by three games and their 14-4 record against Colorado certainly helped.
Manny Ramirez was the big story in Los Angeles in 2009, just as he was in 2008. The Dodgers really couldn’t have let him slip from their grasp after his astonishing second-half performance last year and he re-signed with the club on a 2 year/$45m deal. Unfortunately Mannywood turned sour when he failed a drug test and was suspended for 50 games, seeing him miss virtually all of May and June. Despite a few typical Manny moments when he returned, not least his pinch-hit grand slam on ‘Manny bobblehead day’ on 22 July, his overall 2009 contribution didn’t quite hit his previous heights and his previous designation as a future Hall-of-Famer is now in doubt.
The one positive from Manny’s situation (well, apart from the ‘positive’ drug test) was that Matt Kemp stepped up in the star slugger’s absence and had a tremendous season. Andre Ethier was close behind him and both Casey Blake and Orlando Hudson had good years, although the latter was mysteriously benched for Ronnie Belliard down the stretch.
The Dodgers’ offense was good, but it was their ability to stop the opposition from scoring that was the key to their success. They had arguably the best defense in the Majors and tied the Giants for conceding the least runs per game in the Majors (3.77). Clayton Kershaw was exceptional in his first full Major League season (8-8, 2.79 ERA), Randy Wolf proved to be a brilliant one-year free agent acquisition and Chad Billingsley had a good season overall, even if his downturn in the second half (3-7, 5.20 ERA compared to 9-4, 3.38 prior to the All-Star break) was a source of some concern. Jonathan Broxton continued to strikeout batters at an incredible rate (13.5 K’s per 9 innings) and he combined with Ramon Troncoso, Ronald Belisario and George Sherrill (acquired from the Orioles at the end of July) to make for a top bullpen.
All that hard work to finish the season with the best record in the National League ended with the Dodgers seemingly no further forward than they had been twelve months before due to that 4-1 loss to the Phillies. However, you can’t judge a team’s season solely on one series. The Dodgers were arguably the best team in the Senior Circuit in 2009 and they won’t be far away in 2010 either.
2. Colorado Rockies (92-70 – NL Wild Card)
It’s Wednesday 27 May, the Rockies have just been swept in a three-game series by the division-leading Dodgers to leave them dead last in the West with an 18-28 record, 14 games behind L.A. Even the most optimistic Colorado fan would have struggled to seriously believe their team would make the playoffs from there.
But they did. Manager Clint Hurdle was sacked and Jim Tracy sparked an incredible transformation. A 21-7 June cut the deficit to 7.5 games and a 74-42 record overall under Tracy’s stewardship won them the Wild Card by 4 games over the Giants. Their fairytale was ended by the Phillies in the first round of the postseason, but the Rockies came out of the year deserving an enormous amount of credit for the way they had battled back from such a poor start.
The Rockies were able to rely on a stable starting rotation. Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel, Ubaldo Jimenez and Jason Marquis together started all but 7 of the Rockies’ 162 regular season games: an impressive feat particularly as Jeff Francis, who would have been a key part of the rotation, missed the entire year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Jimenez was the pick of the bunch and is ready to become a genuine ace, if he isn’t there already, while Marquis was a very useful offseason pick-up from the Cubs. Houston Street was another newcomer to the Rockies in 2009 and the former Oakland A blossomed in the closer rule he had lost at his former team, picking up 35 saves.
Street was acquired in the trade that saw Matt Holliday depart from Denver. Although the Rockies didn’t (and couldn’t) replace his bat directly, they still put together a very good offense. Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton both rebounded from frustrating 2008 seasons. Tulo had an excellent 2009 that saw him placed fifth in the NL MVP voting and while Helton’s inflated salary of $16.6m did make the cost of his contribution relatively high, it was an important contribution nonetheless. Ian Stewart (25 home runs) and Clint Barmes (23) provided some pop from the infield, outfielders Brad Hawpe and Seth Smith chipped in with useful years and Carlos Gonzalez (another part of the Holliday trade) got his chance in June and took full advantage. The only real let down was Garrett Atkins, whose performances have gone steadily downhill since his 2006 season resulting in him being non-tendered on Friday.
If they can get their 2010 season going at the beginning of April rather than giving teams a headstart, the Rockies could go one better in the NL West next year.
3. San Francisco Giants (88-74)
The Giants finished with a 72-90 record in 2008 and a sixteen-win swing in 2009 was obviously a major improvement; however MLB is an unforgiving environment and for all of the good things that happened in San Francisco this year, you have to conclude that they should have done better than they did.
Talents like Tim Lincecum don’t come along too often. He’s completed two full seasons in the Majors and won two Cy Young awards: an achievement that would earn him the ‘freak’ nickname even if he wasn’t a relatively small guy with an unorthodox pitching action. Stupid off-the-field misdemeanours aside, he’s the sort of pitcher that every team would kill for. The Giants’ can pair him with Matt Cain to form an outstanding 1-2 punch in their rotation. Cain’s two years of atrocious win-loss record luck finally came to an end in 2009 as he gained a career high 14 wins to go alongside his 2.89 ERA. Jonathan Sanchez was an able deputy and produced one of the season’s most memorable moments by pitching a no-hitter against the Padres on 10 July, while even Barry Zito (10-13, 4.03) put together a decent season. Although Randy Johnson could only muster 17 starts, the Giants’ rotation matched up well against any other in the Majors.
The problems start when you consider that Zito’s decent season cost the Giants $18.5m. The 7 year contract he signed in December 2006 looked terrible at the time and doesn’t look any better now. San Francisco’s next most expensive contract is with Aaron Rowand: another deal (5 years/$60m) out of step with the value he brings to a team. The Giants paid Rowand $8m for a distinctly average year in 2009, paid Randy Winn $8.25m for 2 homers and a .318 OBP and received a .250/.307/.328 batting line from Edgar Renteria for $7m. Winn at least is now a free agent, but Rowand ($12m) and Renteria ($9m) will be paid even more in 2010 and are not exactly a great bet to improve at this stage in their careers.
The Giants’ General Manager Brian Sabean received a two-year contract extension in October, but it’s difficult to see how he deserved it. A merely good offense would have given them a great shot at a postseason place and Lincecum and Cain would have made them a dangerous opponent for any team in the short playoff format. Sabean failed to put together a good offense, as shown by the presence of free agent Bengie Molina in the clean-up spot for the majority of the season. Pablo Sandoval was an eye-catching exception to their batting woes: the ‘Kung Fu Panda’ had a great year and became one of the most likeable players in the Majors at the same time. Him apart, there was little else for Giants fans to cheer when their team was up to bat.
Sabean’s Giants made just one World Series appearance during the Barry Bonds era and that 2002 season was the only time they made it past the division series stage. It was a negligible return on Bonds’ fearsome power-hitting pomp and unless Sabean makes some key additions to the offense, San Francisco will once again be the land of unfulfilled promise on his watch.
4. San Diego Padres (75-87)
In writing this series of articles reviewing the 2009 season, I started by noting down my own thoughts on every team and then researched their seasons, jogging my memory on things I had forgotten and discovering some performances that had somehow slipped my attention. When I got to the Padres, the first step in the process was depressingly short. My memory of the San Diego’s 2009 season consisted solely of:
- The lengthy Jake Peavy trade talks, resolved on the last day of July when the still-injured starter was traded to the Chicago White Sox,
- First baseman Adrian Gonzalez having another excellent season, largely unnoticed by many (not including the teams who would love to acquire him this offseason),
- Outfielder Scott Hairston playing well over the first three months of the season before being traded to the Oakland A’s at the beginning of June.
A whole season of hard work was boiled down to just three bullet points, with the third only being there due to my A’s affiliation. Of course, the fact that I support an American League team was part of the reason why I didn’t follow the Padres’ season all that closely. Elsewhere in the Senior Circuit, the Nationals had an attention-grabbing number one draft pick, the Pirates made a stir by trading away every player they could and for their historic losing sequence, while I seemed to catch bits of games involving the D-Backs fairly frequently on MLB.TV.
The Padres just had an innocuous season. They got some good work out of the bullpen from Luke Gregerson, Mike Adams and Heath Bell, Kevin Correia was the pick of an average bunch of starting pitchers and Kevin Kouzmanoff, Chase Headley and Everth Cabrera were the most notable contributors with the bat after Gonzalez and Hairston. San Diego did put together a ten-game winning streak in May, the second victory of which was a sixteen-inning marathon against the Reds, and they were also involved in an eighteen-inning game against the D-Backs (which they lost 6-9).
Otherwise the year was shaped by boardroom changes and the start of a rebuilding project. A new ownership group took charge in April and the season ended with long-time General Manager Kevin Towers being pushed out of the door. Jed Hoyer became the latest Red Sox Front Office alumni to be snapped up by another team and it is his job to change the Padres’ fortunes in the upcoming years, making their seasons more noticeable in the process.
5. Arizona Diamondbacks (70-92)
After narrowly missing the playoffs last year, finishing just two games behind the Dodgers, the D-Backs plummeted down the standings in 2009.
Opening day set the tone for the rest of the season. Ace pitcher Brandon Webb lasted just four innings against the Rockies, giving up six runs in the process, and was placed on the DL the following day with right shoulder bursitis. Webb didn’t pitch again all season and underwent surgery on his shoulder in August. Manager Bob Melvin’s season didn’t last much longer either. A 12-17 start resulted in the end of his four-year tenure at the club and A.J. Hinch made the slightly unusual move from ‘Vice President, Player Development’ to Manager just before his 35th birthday.
Arizona never recovered from that disruptive start. Dan Haren (14-10, 3.14) had another excellent season and if Webb had been healthy then their rotation would have been a real strength. Doug Davis, Jon Garland and Max Scherzer all gave the Snakes some solid innings, but the team was a key man short and the others couldn’t pick up the slack. Billy Buckner and Yusmeiro Petit took 30 starts between them in Webb’s absence and they struggled to keep the runs down, never mind to replace the contribution expected from the team’s fallen ace.
Losing your number one pitcher would hit any team hard, but it was particularly painful for the D-Backs because their offense wasn’t exactly a juggernaut. Conor Jackson, Chad Tracy and Eric Byrnes spent the season alternating between being injured or ineffective, which was of no great help considering they largely played positions (first base and left field) where teams look for strong offensive contributions. Rookie Gerardo Parra started 106 games in the outfield and seemed a bit overmatched, while Stephen Drew and Chris Young didn’t take that next step forward as was hoped. Mark Reynolds was as ‘hack happy’ as usual, bludgeoning 44 homers while striking out 223 times, but the main man on the offense was Justin Upton. At just 21 years old, he had the sort of year (.300/.366/.532, 26 homers, 30 doubles and 7 triples) that gives good reason to believe he will more than live up to his number one overall selection from the 2005 draft. Upton’s season, alongside catcher Miguel Montero’s good year, were bright spots on an otherwise disappointing campaign.
Despite losing Adam Dunn and Orlando Hudson to free agency prior to the season, the offense actually scored the same amount of runs in 2009 as they had the previous season (720), but they allowed 76 more runs and that made the difference. In light of this, the D-Backs’ recent trade for starting pitchers Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy perhaps makes some sense, although additions to the offense are required as well if the team is to charge back up the standings in 2010.