Five Questions: Los Angeles Dodgers

After a 2005 season as joyful as the courtroom of Kramer vs. Kramer, the Los Angeles Dodgers are a family again. The general manager likes the manager. The manager likes the players. The owner likes the owner.

Oh, the Dodgers might still be dysfunctional, but if so, it’ll be in new and different ways! If they stumble, they will stumble as one.

And in the end, success might make friends with harmony. The Dodgers are the choice of several prognosticators to win the achy National League Western Division. If that is to happen, though, it will all depend on the answers to the following questions…

1. Can they stay healthy?

Last season, the Dodgers had so many injuries that the players applied for and received permanent residency status on the Disabled List. They got to vote in Disabled List elections, work in Disabled List restaurants, receive Disabled List benefits and attend Disabled List schools.

Yep, it’s as if the Dodgers were Sideshow Bob and every game was another rake to the face. While there was some bad luck involved—for example, two-thirds of the starting outfield (J.D. Drew and Jayson Werth) each missed about half the season because pitches hit them in just the wrong spot—there were also plenty of players on the team who appeared past the point of being available for 162 contests.

Though people can debate all night the level of talent that new general manager Ned Colletti has brought in, any improvement in the Dodgers medical fortunes will depend largely on luck. Heading into 2006, the starting lineup is still a Blue Cross rep’s nightmare:

C – Dioner Navarro (nursing a hamstring pull, flirted with the disabled list already)
1B – Nomar Garciaparra (181 games missed in last two seasons)
2B – Jeff Kent (despite being 38, he might be the iron man)
SS – Rafael Furcal (coming off knee surgery)
3B – Bill Mueller (missed at least 50 games in three of past five seasons)
LF – Jose Cruz Jr. (back ailments might be behind him)
CF – Kenny Lofton (management already plans to limit him to 100-110 games)
RF – J.D. Drew (recovering from multiple surgeries)

In 2005, only one Dodger (Kent) had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. It’s completely possible that this circumstance could repeat—and that even with good luck, only about three starters may be in the lineup full-time.

2. Can the prospects help? (This year, that is.)

Yes. Last year, when the injuries came, virtually every highly rated Dodger prospect was in Double-A or lower. This year, Triple-A Las Vegas is fielding a team filled with Baseball America/Baseball Prospectus/Baseball Analysts/Hardball Times honorees.

Russell Martin is poised to sub for Navarro (who is barely out of the prospect stage himself). Though concerns remain about his plate discipline, Joel Guzman has threatened to take the left field job from Cruz by Opening Day, and is practically expected to do so by summertime. Chad Billingsley could join the starting rotation then as well. Andre Ethier could help off the bench. At least one and as many as three Rookie of the Year eligibles could be in the bullpen: Hong-Chih Kuo, Jonathan Broxton and Franquelis Osoria. Even the guys who don’t get headlines could help, like Willy Aybar, who OPSed .901 in 105 plate appearances last season.

As always, the Dodgers can’t count on meaningful contributions from every prospect on its list. But if nothing else, the team will have more choices than it did last season and can set higher standards—Los Angeles won’t necessarily have to settle for mere breathing as a qualification to play.

3. What about the new management?

The overarching theme of the Dodgers offseason was to purge, fumigate and eradicate the emotional traumas of last season—not at any cost, but certainly there were moments when statistics would have dictated different moves. Most notably, polarizing general manager Paul DePodesta, center fielder Milton Bradley, and first baseman Hee Seop Choi are gone. Agree or disagree with the decisions, the past is past.

As far as the future goes, Colletti has given mixed signals. Unsurprisingly to those who are familiar with the San Francisco Giant organization he just departed, Colletti has shown a predisposition toward veterans, from bona fide elite players like Furcal, to All Stars of years past like Garciaparra, to hangers-on like non-roster invitee Ramon Martinez. Colletti exchanged the unproven potential of two prospects, Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany, for the proven adequacy (or mediocrity) of two Tampa Bay relief pitchers, Danys Baez and Lance Carter. Colletti has also thrown out words like “veteran leadership” in ways that squeamishize those who believe that a player should be evaluated in more tangible ways, and that intangibles actually manifest themselves in on-field performance.

At the same time, Colletti has not offered a contract of more than two years to anyone over the age of 30, and new manager Grady Little seems genuinely eager to test out the kidfolk. Perhaps we should read the mixed signals at face value—Colletti might force prospects to be spectacular before he promotes them, but in many cases, he may fully expect that to happen.

4. So overall, what are the Dodgers’ strengths and weaknesses?

The Dodgers allowed 4.76 runs per game in 2005, below the National League average. There are reasons to be optimistic that the team will turn things around on the mound.

In the rotation, Derek Lowe made a mechanical adjustment that boosted his performance in the 2005 season’s final weeks, and unlike last year, Brad Penny will start the season at 100 percent health. Jae Seo looks like an improvement over D.J. Houlton (not to mention Scott Erickson). On the other hand, Brett Tomko is a proven step back from Jeff Weaver, and Odalis Perez … well, the Dodgers are just hoping for now he continues his trend of better-than-average ERAs in even-numbered years. But with the return of Eric Gagne (even as he works the kinks out) a boon, with Baez and with the young arms in the bullpen, the pitching should become at least a small strength instead of a weakness.

Among the position players, there are three viable All Stars in Drew, Furcal and Kent … there are guys from leadoff to the number 8 spot who can hurt you … there appear to be no egregious fielders out there … but there also may be only a handful of games that they’re in the lineup together. It’s just impossible to tell whether the position players will be a strength without knowing how many games they will play.

Except in the case of someone like Lofton, you can’t guarantee they will miss X number of games any more than you can promise they will play Y. At the risk of drawing a bunch of ZZZZZs, any assessment of the lineup must be an I—for incomplete.

5. Can they win?

In this space last year, I really tried to protect myself. I offered the not-so-daring prediction that the team would win between 80 and 100 games—and still managed to be wrong. Way wrong.

I’m not going to be the one to say that the Dodgers veterans don’t have a good season left in them. I just don’t know if it’s one good season each, or one total. But I will say this. Whatever you might have come to think, the Dodgers farm system is deeper than it has been in years, and with each passing day that the team stays in contention, it becomes a little more likely that a few of those prospects will grow to help Los Angeles win. Benefiting from the overall weakness of the NL West, the Dodgers should contend for a division title in 2006. By 2007, they should be considered serious contenders for a league title, and by 2008, they might even be World Series favorites.

At least that’s the way it looks fresh out of divorce court.

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