Thrill of victory? Agony of defeat? The Los Angeles Dodgers had it all in the wide, wide world of 2006. They produced this decade’s nominee for Game of the Century with September’s 4+1 game: four consecutive solo home runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie San Diego, followed by a two-run shot in the 10th to win. And they quickly turned around to offer the year’s Vinko Bogataj, when Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew were tagged out at home on the same play in the National League Division Series.
Buoyed by some of the best organizational depth in baseball and a payroll apparently so limitless that … well, we’ll get to that later … the Dodgers would figure to be poised collect themselves from last season’s highs and lows and make an even deeper playoff run in 2007. But some questions remain. About five, in fact:
1. Is this a young team or an old team?
To some extent, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti has kind of done a reverse botox to his roster. With smooth, 22-year-old James Loney ready to take over at first base or left field, Colletti inserted wrinkled free agents Luis Gonzalez (age 39) and Nomar Garciaparra (age 33). Chad Billingsley, two-and-a-half months younger than Loney, pitched in the starting rotation during the second half last season, struggling with his pitch count at times but improving as the weeks went by, but he’ll start 2007 in the bullpen. Cleanup-hitting second baseman Jeff Kent will occupy the heart of the offense and defense despite having turned 39 this month.
But overall, Colletti’s Dodgers lineup starts the season under the age of 30 at center field, third base, shortstop and catcher, and that’s with Loney, Matt Kemp and Andy LaRoche waiting in the wings. Within a year, Garciaparra could be the only Dodgers full-timer above the age of 30. Basically, the Dodgers this season are a couple of trips to the disabled list away from being young (unless Colletti dips into the Botulinum toxin again).
2. What is deep but shallow all at once?
The Dodgers starting rotation—at first glance, at least. As recently as last year, a retread like non-roster invitee Joe Mays probably would have become the number five starter. But at spring training this year, the Dodgers have nine pitchers who registered quality starts last season: Jason Schmidt, Derek Lowe, Randy Wolf, Brad Penny, Hong-Chih Kuo, Billingsley, Brett Tomko, Mark Hendrickson and Eric Stults (not to mention D.J. Houlton from the year before).
Now, that may say more about the value of the quality-start statistic than anything else. Last season, the group mentioned above combined to throw one shutout. It doesn’t matter who your Dodgers ace is—newly signed Schmidt, sinkerballer Lowe or first-half sensation/second-half abomination Penny—they always give the opposition some hope.
Then again, shutouts aren’t much of a measuring stick these days either. Schmidt and Lowe were ninth and 14th in Pitching Runs Created last season in the NL. With 16 teams in the league, you can make the case that the Dodgers have two No. 1 starters.
Lowe and Schmidt aren’t getting any younger, and depending whom the Dodgers settle upon for the back of the rotation, the Dodgers might have a more inconsistent rear end than Eddie Murphy in Norbit. Despite being pitched as the strength of the team, the Dodgers rotation could easily be good or mediocre. The team will still need strong performances from the bullpen and the offense to win in 2007.
3. Can the Dodgers get strong performances from the bullpen and the offense to win in 2007?
There might have been no bigger surprise for the team in 2006 than to see 36-year-old reliever Takashi Saito bring a 3.82 ERA from Japan and outpitch Cy Young runner-up Trevor Hoffman of San Diego. (From Baseball Reference: Saito, 78.1 innings, 222 ERA+, 0.906 WHIP, 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings; Hoffman, 63 innings, 197 ERA+, 0.968 WHIP, 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings). Skeptics can fairly wonder how much of that performance Saito will repeat, but the same could be said of Hoffman. It’s certainly something to work off of.
Should Saito falter, 22-year-old Jonathan Broxton (76.1 innings, 177 ERA+, 1.231 WHIP, 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings) is ready to step in. Behind him and Billingsley, the Dodgers have your garden-variety relievers, a few of whom will be the losers from the starting-rotation competition. But the team also has more down on the farm where Broxton came from, such as exciting prospect Jonathan Meloan. All in all, the bullpen should be an asset this season.
As for the offense, it’s no secret that with Kent as the cleanup hitter, the Dodgers lack home-run power. It was something of a secret that last year, the team nevertheless featured one of the top offenses in the National League, thanks to the Dodgers’ high on-base percentage and high batting average with runners in scoring position. Last month for SportsIllustrated.com, I explored the potential of the Dodgers repeating this formula for success, and concluded that it was a good thing the Dodgers had a deeper pitching staff in 2007 to depend on. Three paragraphs ago, on The Hardball Times, I wrote, “The Dodger rotation could easily be good or mediocre. The team will still need strong performances from the bullpen and the offense to win in 2007.”
4. Seems like you’ve written yourself into a corner. What are you gonna do about it?
Not much, frankly. Despite losing offense with the departure of Drew, the Dodgers are slightly better on paper this year thanks to the ongoing maturation of the kids and the increased depth on the mound, but they also had some things break their way last season in unexpected fashion: Saito’s debut, Kemp’s seven home runs in his first 15 career games, the clutch hitting, and will need similar strokes of good fortune to keep pace with the San Diego Padres and improving Arizona Diamondbacks. (On the bright side, Odalis Perez‘s collapse and Cesar Izturis starting at third base are distant memories.)
Basically, the team’s entire season rests within the infamous margin of error, and I’m not going to try to fool anyone by pretending to know where it will land. You like a good mystery? Pick up the Los Angeles Dodgers in paperback.
That said, the Dodgers do have the potential of getting a boost if Kemp once more finds a spot in the lineup (perhaps once Gonzalez needs an extended rest) or if Colletti can make a useful trade from their pitching surplus. The Dodgers will contend for the playoffs, and if they make it, should find themselves in better position on the mound to win their first playoff series since 1988.
5. There’s a 5-foot-11, 180-pound elephant in the room. Don’t you see him?
Yeah, I see him. His name is Juan Pierre, and the first thing I want to ask is, he’s really 180 pounds?
Anyway, the $44 million offered to an outfielder with below-average EQAs (that factor in stolen bases) of .255 in 2006 and .257 for his career and with a below-average throwing arm puzzles those who don’t believe in the sparkplug theory of baseball. Looking ahead at the next five years, the commitment figures to make less and less sense as time passes and alternatives mount (although the dollar value might not seem as extravagant if major-league salaries continue to rise). I railed against the signing at the time and continue to disapprove: Certainly, shorter-term solutions seemed the way to go.
But we’re mainly talking about the 2007 season today, and I do want to play down the impact that the Pierre signing will have for this year specifically. At the outset of the season, options such as mixing the still-developing Kemp (.260 EQA in 2006), Loney (with Andre Ethier moving to center) or reserve Jason Repko weren’t likely to be much of an improvement over Pierre. Once Drew and the Dodgers parted ways. the Dodger outfield had no depth. Pierre doesn’t help much, but nor is he blocking anyone who is demonstrably superior at playing his position. The best-case scenario offensively, an outfield of Loney-Ethier-Kemp, posed a defensive shudder.
True, the Dodgers would have been better off with someone else who was available for the short term, like Dave Roberts. I think Dave Roberts is a great human being, but if your playoff hopes depend on Dave Roberts, you’re probably in trouble.
Pierre doesn’t help the Dodgers nearly as much as his main supporters think, but in 2007, he doesn’t hurt the team as much as his detractors might fear. He is an expensive placeholder, but there was a place to hold.