Five Questions: Los Angeles Dodgers

Sometime in the past 400 days – you could probably pinpoint exactly when, but it doesn’t really matter – the Los Angeles Dodgers morphed from a baseball team into a political beast. In that time, almost everything to do with the organization has been viewed, depending on your point of view, as part of either a grand or nefarious experiment.

Most business transactions fall simply on the spectrum of good to bad, free of broader meaning. But like tea in 1773 Boston or borscht in 1917 Petrograd, the exchange of ballplayers in 2004-05 Los Angeles became something more – something charged with Whole World Is Watching significance, with everyone rushing to place their bets on Armageddon or Nirvana.

Few will conflate Dodger general manager Paul DePodesta with Samuel Adams or Karl Marx, but he has been positioned – perhaps even more so than his mentor, Oakland GM Billy Beane – as a watershed figure in the history of baseball. The popular belief is that DePodesta embodies a radical philosophy, and unlike Beane, he’s not unleashing that philosophy in a second-world nation. DePodesta has taken his politics to a superpower – a team in the baseball’s second-largest market.

And so, we ask …

1. The 2004-05 Dodger offseason – democracy in action or radical communist plot?

Since the Dodgers shook hands with the St. Louis Cardinals in their Solidarity Now farewell to the National League Divisional Series in October, here are Ten Transactions That Shook the World. In alphabetical order:

  • IF Adrian Beltre allowed to sign with Seattle as a free agent.
  • IF Alex Cora and IF-OF Jose Hernandez allowed to sign with Cleveland as free agents.
  • OF J.D. Drew signed as a free agent.
  • OF Steve Finley allowed to sign with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as a free agent.
  • IF-OF Shawn Green traded to Arizona.
  • IF Jeff Kent signed as a free agent.
  • OF Ricky Ledee signed as a free agent.
  • P Jose Lima allowed to sign with Kansas City as a free agent.
  • P Derek Lowe signed as a free agent.
  • IF Jose Valentin signed as a free agent.

    Dare we ask, “What’s the big deal?”

    DePodesta essentially traded platooning second basemen Cora and Hernandez for Kent. It’s the kind of trade almost any general manager would make.

    Lima was traded for Lowe in an exchange of two pitchers who have had moments of both greatness and sorrow.

    Out went Finley, a 162-gamer celebrating a series of 39th birthdays, while in came Drew, a 130-gamer about a decade younger. VORP in 2004 for Finley: 38.0. VORP for Drew: 78.7. The seemingly obvious advantage in favor of Drew is countered by questions about whether he will be healthy enough to justify his contract – so this exchange is hardly the stroke of insanity or mad genius.

    Because some of these new fellas cost more than a few rubles, Green and a healthy part of his $16 million salary went away. In advance of this move, Ledee arrived to give the team a backup outfielder. Even in a career decline, Green is a better player than Ledee – but not by an extraordinary amount (113 OPS+ in 2004 for Green vs. 90 for Ledee, with 100 the league average), especially considering Ledee’s superior defense.

    That leaves the final tradeoff: Beltre, who in 2004 discovered the Fountain of Going the Opposite Way, for Valentin, whose career is on the downhill run, if not the downhill sprint – he had a .601 OPS after July 1 last season, despite batting mostly against right-handed pitching. Not an ideal exchange.

    What this all adds up to is a Dodger general manager who made some conventional moves and some unconventional moves, some superficially good ones and some superficially bad ones. In other words, what this adds up to is a general manager, period. If Jim Bowden, recently recycled by the Les Expos Montreal of Washington, made the same moves, some commentators would applaud, some would cringe, but none would ascribe the slightest subtext.

    The Dodgers had an eventful offseason – but like much their neighbors in the entertainment industry, the eventfulness of it was mostly hype. DePodesta values players in a certain way – but not an outlandish one.

    2. So, what about the people coming back? There are some people are coming back, right?

    Sure. Darren Dreifort, for one.

    Actually, the active Blue Man Group features 15 players who were with the team at season’s end, or 60 percent of the 25-man roster that saw playoff baseball together in Los Angeles last season. So another media conceit, the idea that everyone needs nametags, is also a little overblown.

    The returnees are:

    Infielders (4): Hee Seop Choi, Cesar Izturis, Olmedo Saenz, Antonio Perez

    Outfielders (3): Milton Bradley, Jason Grabowski, Jayson Werth

    Starting pitchers (2): Odalis Perez, Jeff Weaver

    Relief pitchers (6): Eric Gagne, Yhency Brazoban, Giovanni Carrara, Duaner Sanchez, Elmer Dessens, Wilson Alvarez

    Or, put another way:

    Established players with more to prove: Cesar Izturis, Milton Bradley, Jayson Werth, Jeff Weaver, Yhency Brazoban

    These players clearly have talent – and the oldest is Weaver at 28. That means they can still get better. A good place for them to start would be by being more consistent throughout the season – all endured major slumps at some point in 2004. Some observers are expecting an overall setback for Izturis, but given his steady improvement up to age 25, look for, at worst, a drop in batting average, a slight rise in walks and a holding pattern for slugging percentage. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the top comparison for Izturis at his age is Luis Aparicio.

    The Lightning Rod Store called – and they’re out of you: Hee Seop Choi

    Another victim of politics. Because Dusty Baker and Jack McKeon didn’t want him, he must be damaged goods, right? Never mind that his career OPS+, through 718 plate appearances, before turning 26, is 106. Choi, the possessor of perhaps the most overemphasized 62 at-bats in Dodger history, doesn’t figure to make anyone’s All-Star team in 2005. What he does figure to do is get on base, hit doubles and pop a home run almost every week.

    Established players who just need to stay healthy: Eric Gagne, Olmedo Saenz, Wilson Alvarez

    Gagne’s 2004 was a drop off his 2003, but actually fit in nicely with his breakout season of 2002. He should be fine, even if his aches slow his start a bit. Saenz should have a couple of years of fine pinch-hitting left, and Alvarez just needs his rest.

    Bench players with much to prove: Antonio Perez, Jason Grabowski

    Perez made a name for himself as Triple-A Las Vegas’ first 20-homer, 20-steal man. It’s unlikely he’ll get either total in the bigs, so more significant for him is the 61 walks he had on the Strip. Grabowski’s OPS after the All-Star Break was .544 – worse than even Choi’s – but the jury has even fewer plate appearances to review, so Grabowski will get another chance.

    Established players who could struggle: Odalis Perez, Giovanni Carrara, Duaner Sanchez, Elmer Dessens.

    These guys live on the Being John Malkovich 7 1/2 floor – it’s going to be harder for them to rise up than topple over. Perez was unlucky to win only seven games with a 3.25 ERA, but he was lucky to get that 3.25 ERA with only 128 strikeouts in 196 1/3 innings. Although only 27, his K rate is dropping, and there are reasons to be nervous about his health. Carrara’s 2.18 ERA, 8.05 K/9 half-season with the Dodgers last year was anomalous to his career – and don’t forget he’s 37. Dessens also had an unusual strikeout spike upon his arrive in Los Angeles, while Sanchez has no strikeout rate to speak of at all.

    3. In general, lots of injury worries, no?

    Si.

    Penny, Perez, Bradley, Werth, Drew – these guys have a passing familiarity with the disabled list. Scott Erickson, in particular, is about as likely to be in the Dodger rotation by season’s end as Leif Ericson. Which means help will be needed from that vaunted farm system.

    4. About that vaunted farm system? Will it do more than just vaunt?

    The Dodger minor league rejuvenation, known in the industry Waiting for Guzman, doesn’t figure to come until 2006 at the earliest, as few of the top guys are in Triple-A. Almost certainly, however, the Dodgers will look for a starting pitcher from their farm system to help them through the stretch run. That could mean Edwin Jackson, who could take the role of departed Kazuhisa Ishii as wild and randomly effective starter. It could also mean Chad Billingsley, who could take Jackson’s role as top phenom en route to wild and randomly effective starter. Here’s a comparison:

    2003: Jackson as a 20-year-old at Double-A Jacksonville (no relation):
    3.70 ERA, 148 1/3 innings, 3.22 BB/9, 9.53 K/9

    2004: Billingsley as a 20-year-old at Double-A Jacksonville (if only he had pitched in Billings)
    2.98 ERA, 42 1/3 innings, 4.68 BB/9, 9.99 K/9

    One overlooked concern for the Dodger farm system has been that many of the top pitchers walk too many, while many of the top batters (such as Joel Guzman) don’t walk that much. If you’re keeping an eye on Dodger minor leaguers, look to see if these problems modulate in 2005. The rise of sharp-eyed catcher Russ Martin, along with newly acquired minor leaguer Dioner Navarro, could push things further in the right direction.

    5. So, what happens in 2005?

    Brad Penny will make at least 30 starts, throw at least 180 innings with an ERA below 3.50 and justify his acquisition.

    Drew will have an OPS over .900 for a minimum of 130 games and justify his acquisition.

    Resting often against lefties, Choi will have an OPS over .850 and justify his acquisition.

    Lowe will throw 190 innings and justify his acquisition this year – though perhaps not for years to come.

    Kent will hit more than 20 home runs, field effectively but look clumsy in comparison to Izturis, and the media will be unimpressed.

    Non-roster invitee Scott Erickson will be a low-cost bust, but non-roster invitee Buddy Carlyle will be a low-cost success.

    Beltre will be truly missed, and people won’t completely come to terms with his departure.

    The Dodgers will win between 80 and 100 games – no more precise prediction is possible – but whatever the result, optimism will reign for their future.

    The people who answer to no one, like Rick Blaine in Casablanca, are inevitably questioned by everyone. But you must remember this. A kiss is just a kiss; a Choi is just a Choi. By the end of the season, this show stops being about the Dodgers as a political animal or DePodesta as Howard Roark, and returns to being about baseball.

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