Kevin C. Cox
Which players in the NL West will give you a pretty good idea of how their team's season is going?
Welcome to the third installment of Canaries in the Coal Mine, in which we look for a player on each team whose success or failure could indicate how well his team's season is going. As goes (player), so goes the team.
We move to the NL West, which is the division of dichotomy. Rich teams, poor teams. Pitcher's parks, hitter's parks. Baseball teams with a chance to play in October, the Rockies. Which player from each team is the bellwether of success for the 2013 season?
Dodgers - Adrian Gonzalez
Remember 11 months ago, when we all thought Adrian Gonzalez was one of the best hitters on the Earth? Man, those were wild times. Except, let's engage in a thought experiment here. What if -- and I'm just throwing stuff to the wall and seeing what sticks -- Gonzalez is still good?
Seems crazy, right? Well, no, not really, but the public perception of Gonzalez went from All-Star to lumbering liability pretty quickly. Too quickly, if you ask me. His OPS+ by year:
2008 - 140
2009 - 162
2010 - 152
2011 - 155
2012 - 116
He turns 31 in May, so while he's not exactly a puppy, he's not at an age where it's okay to extrapolate all sorts of horrible predictions because of one bad season. The smart money is on "blip."
If Gonzalez hits like he did in the four seasons prior to 2012, the Dodgers will almost certainly be in a good place. If he really is on the downside of his career, the Dodgers might be scuffling. And if that's the case, his "We're paying him how much?" contract would also serve well as a bellwether for the Dodgers' strategy as a whole.
Padres - Andrew Cashner
Cashner represents the risk of a bold organization, coming over in a rare prospect-for-prospect trade. The other prospect, Anthony Rizzo, looks like he could be a franchise cornerstone for the Cubs. Cashner came over with a history of shoulder troubles, and then he strained his shoulder. Then he cut his thumb with a hunting knife. But let's focus on the shoulder.
The good news is that they were two different shoulder injuries -- the first one was a rotator-cuff strain, and the second was a latissimus dorsi injury. The bad news is that they were two different shoulder injuries. The hunting accident was unfortunate, of course, but it doesn't suggest any sort of chronic problem. The other injuries are more worrisome, and considering that injury gremlins ate through a rotation's worth of quality pitchers on the Padres last year, Cashner is another one of those organizational metaphors from last year that does well as a bellwether this year.
Because, as a reminder, this is what he looks like when he's right:
Just about the best-looking pitcher this side of Strasburg. But it's almost certainly preferable to be the best-pitching pitcher. To do that, you have to pitch. The same caveat applies to a lot of Padres, but none more than Cashner.
Diamondbacks - Martin Prado
Speaking of risky trades, here's one that kind of means something for the Diamondbacks. The team went into the offseason lacking a good shortstop and a good third baseman. They still might not have a good shortstop, but they did exchange the most valuable trade chip on their roster for a third baseman. It came at the cost of upside -- especially when you consider the upside Cody Ross and Jason Kubel offer compared to Upton and Chris Young -- but it was a creative way of acquiring a third baseman in a market where there weren't many to be found.
Prado is an average-dependent player, as his on-base percentage and slugging percentage are above average only when he's hitting close to .300. His batting average on balls in play has been consistently around .320 for his career, so it's not luck that's helping him. But if he runs into a spot of bad luck, he doesn't have the auxiliary skills to continue being a huge asset. See his 2011, for example, as what Prado looks like when the hits aren't falling.
A .300-hitting Prado should mean the Diamondbacks are getting some value from their wacky offseason escapades. But it's always wise to be a little skeptical of the average-dependent hitters, even if Prado has been good far more than mediocre over the last few years.
Giants - Hunter Pence
The easy answer here is Tim Lincecum. If Lincecum is pitching well again, the Giants are probably in a good spot. Except, that was the exact opposite of what happened last year, so why should it be a qualifier for this year? They did the same thing in 2010, when Pablo Sandoval looked to be the bellwether of an offense that was moribund in its most exciting moments. Yet he did nothing, and the Giants were just fine.
The Giants have been looking for a passable #5 hitter since Pat Burrell caroused his way into that gentle good night. They started last season with Aubrey Huff and 2010 with Mark DeRosa, so maybe the goal is to have the worst possible option hitting fifth to start the season, and then have everything work out? Dunno. But we'll assume that the goal is to have a good #5 hitter and go from there.
Pence looked awful last year, flailing at pitches out of the strike zone over and over again. It's possible, though, that he'll be more relaxed as the incumbent right fielder instead of a trade acquisition who was supposed to solve everything ailing his new team. The other 66.7 percent of the Giants' middle of the order has been consistent when healthy, so Pence getting back to his hitting ways would be most welcome. And if he stinks? He'll keep playing. It's not like the Giants will have an OF prospect pushing him, and there's something of a of a precedent for that kind of lineup management.
So he'd better hit, even if just a little.
Rockies - Drew Pomeranz
The Rockies entered 2011 as favorites to win the NL West, yet by the middle of the season, they had shipped off Ubaldo Jimenez for prospects. What were they thinking? Weren't they in a win-now mode?
Turns out the idea was brilliant. Those early red flags with Jimenez's velocity weren't just a bump in the road, and the whole package of damaged goods is Cleveland's problem now. But if the idea was brilliant, the execution is still an open question. Alex White went from top prospect to a trade asset that fetched a middle reliever -- because it was totally the bullpen that was the problem last year -- which leaves Pomeranz as the last remaining way for the Rockies to turn a well-planned trade into a well-executed trade.
He can do it, too. He was the best starter on the staff, and even though that's like saying he was the most elegant sentence in a Dan Brown novel, it still hints at a competence that's easy to take for granted in a rookie pitcher. And if the Rockies could find a young pitcher who didn't need to be limited to 75 pitches, who didn't collapse under the weight of the thin air, that would almost make their season an automatic success.
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