Five questions: Los Angeles Dodgers

In terms of roster moves and baseball dealings, it’s been a relatively quiet offseason for Southern California’s flagship sports franchise. Part of that lull in coverage can be attributed to the underwhelming moves engineered by Dodgers GM Ned Colletti. Bringing back Vicente Padilla and Ronnie Belliard and adding Jamey Carroll and Reed Johnson doesn’t exactly light up MLBTR. Indeed, the most significant baseball news of the winter was the team’s decision not to offer Type A free agents Randy Wolf and Orlando Hudson arbitration. Other than that, it’s been a downright tranquil hot stove season.

What’s that you say? Something about a high-profile, billion-dollar divorce? Affairs with team underlings, grandiose plans for world domination, and repeated denials that the seemingly simple dissolution of a marriage has had any effect on the club despite ominous evidence to the contrary? Okay, so this might not all be news to me, but I feel that the club itself has taken a backseat this winter to the McCourts’ shenanigans. That said, ignoring them completely in a preview of the 2010 season would be inappropriate, so let’s get this nastiness out of the way.

1. How will the McCourt divorce affect the 2010 Los Angeles Dodgers?

Other than deflecting attention from the Manny Ramirez contract drive circus, the answer is probably “not a whole lot.” The litigation to resolve the ownership of the club, once scheduled to begin May 24, has been postponed indefinitely. Reaching a resolution during this baseball season is a long-shot, and don’t put this thing past extending all the way into 2011. With the ownership of the club up in the air, one wonders, should the season have a successful ending, if Jamie McCourt might petition the family law court to award her a locker-room-style champagne celebration to keep her on equal footing with Frank.

As far as the product on the field goes, it sure appears that the die has been cast when it comes to payroll. If the Dodgers somehow sell more tickets or merchandise than forecast, might there be money to make a splash midseason? Perhaps. But given that the team’s recent M.O. has been to spin off talented prospects rather than pick up salaries, Dodgers fans can’t be terribly optimistic about the team’s ability to add a big piece in mid-to-late July. Regardless of who you want to believe on how much money Frank’s got to spend on the team, it’s clearly not being run as a megamarket team should be.

The most visible impact of the McCourt divorce will be the constant media noise surrounding the topic. Being a Dodger this year must be something like being a non-Tiger Woods PGA Tour member. At some point, you probably have to convince the media that you still, you know, play the game. And given the tendency thus far for fairly explosive information to hit the press at least once per month, this story isn’t going away any time soon. From a fan’s perspective, though, the divorce ought to be fairly benign. Tickets to games will still be reasonably priced, even if the same might not be said for the options for purchase within Dodger Stadium. But, hey, there’s still nothing like Chavez Ravine on a warm summer night at sunset.

2. What in the world does this team do if someone gets hurt?

This team is supermodel-thin in the outfield. It’s got a kiddie-pool infield—breadth in lots of options, but no depth in talent. The outfield—Ramirez, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier—is backed up by Johnson and the mythical Jason Repko. Greg Miller disease, you see. Casey Blake, Rafael Furcal and James Loney are assured starting spots in the infield, while Blake Dewitt and Alfredo Amezaga are battling the aforementioned Belliard and Carroll for the second base job. If one of the non-Loney infielders goes down—and remember, Furca is a member of this group—then the replacement would likely come from one of the losers of the second base competition. Catcher Russell Martin, facing serious questions about his own future, is backed up by A.J. Ellis, whose tangible skills include getting on base at an acceptable rate and, well, getting on base at an acceptable rate.

If one of the outfielders, the three of which are the team’s best hitters, has to miss extended time, this team might be toast. The good news is that Kemp and Ethier are reliable and young. The bad news is the other is Ramirez. As for the infielders, the team could survive an injury to anyone from second base around to third without suffering a season-crushing blow. That is, of course, unless Blake plans to do at 36 something like what he did at 35, when he posted a .280/.363/.468 line. That’s a guy you can’t lose. Problem is, of course, due to regression and aging, the Dodgers probably already have lost him. It’s difficult to say what sort of impact an injury to Loney would have, as he’s quite the wildcard heading into 2010, but we’ll talk about him later.

There are similar questions facing the rotation. Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley—who also will be discussed later—are nearly irreplaceable. Think of those two like the outfielders, Hiroki Kuroda and Padilla are penciled into the third and fourth spots. While they aren’t great shakes—Kuroda has durability issues and Padilla has Padilla issues—the Dodgers really can’t afford for one of them to go down either. That’s because the group battling for the 30-some starts from the fifth spot, which features Eric Stults, James McDonald and Carlos Monasterios, really ought not to make many starts from the third and fourth spots in the rotation.

The bullpen is a brighter picture. I think about four of these guys—Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill, Ramon Troncoso and Hong Chih Kuo—would be in line for relief ace work with other teams. (Psst…Mr. Colletti…are you paying attention?) And there’s some depth to the ‘pen, too. Any number of losers in the race for the fifth rotation spot can help out of the bullpen, including McDonald and Scott Elbert. Bottom line is that the bullpen is about the only place the team can reach into its reserves and not suffer much on the field. Except second base, I suppose, but the Dodgers don’t figure to get much from there anyway.

3. Just who are Loney and Billingsley?

Both born in 1984 and debuting in 2006, they were supposed to be the first wave of the monsoon of youngsters who figured to put the Dodgers in a dominant position for several years. They’ve certainly shown significant signs of life. All Loney did in his 111 plate appearances in 2006 was post a .284/.342/.559 line. Not bad for a 22-year old with a reputation as an excellent defender. As for Billingsley, he recorded a shiny 3.80 ERA in 16 starts. This being 2010, of course, we know to look further—he struck out just one more batter than he walked, FIPing his way to a 4.88 freshman campaign. Not awe-inspiring, but he is the younger of the two.

Since his debut, Loney has moved the wrong direction in some ways. His SLG dropped from .538 in 375 plate appearances in 2007 to .434 (651 PA) in 2008, and cratered at a ghastly .399 in another 651 plate appearances in 2009. He was 25 last year. This is not the trend you want to see from a first baseman, especially one whose swing just looks so good. But there is, yet, cause for hope. He rebounded from a 0.53 BB/K ratio in 2008 to a much-more encouraging 1.03 figure in 2009. And he shows decent enough plate control: His percentage of swings outside the zone has decreased each season, while his contact rate reached a career high 88.5 percent last season. If the power comes—and he’ll turn just 26 in May—he might still be a monster. Through his age-25 season, his No. 1 Baseball Reference comparable is Jeff Bagwell. Don’t give up, yet, Dodgers fans.

As for Billingsley, I admit to being among the most bullish on his future. While a couple of notable playoff debacles and odd injuries have drawn some extremely negative press, I’m not sure most realize what the Dodgers have in the solidly built right hander. After that promising-but-illusory 2006, he proceeded to fool hitters instead of shiny-number worshipers. Although, “fool” might be the wrong word; Billingsley’s tool of the trade is power. In the three seasons since his debut, he’s never struck out fewer than 8.21 per nine or posted a WHIP greater than 1.32. In 2008, he threw more than 200 innings and logged a 3.62 xFIP as a 23-year old. Last season, he made the All-Star team following a sparkling first half in which he allowed a .227/.316/.339 line. That’s pretty much turning every hitter into David Eckstein. The injury problems that derailed his season, combined with his reputation for postseason failure, have made many forget that he was on the fast track to acedom only a few short months ago. I expect him to be excellent this year and going forward.

4. What will become of Manny Ramirez?

You’ve seen the story: Manny doesn’t expect to be back with the Dodgers in 2011 after the expiration of his two-year, $45 million contract. Manny’s clearly smarter than people give him credit for; of course he won’t be back! Not at anything approaching his current price tag, anyway. Between his personality quirks, chicanery in the outfield, and ever-looming threat of a shutdown, Manny’s best team for the remainder of his career (with the Dodgers and otherwise) might always be “another team.” Given his pending free agency, and taking into account the declining market for declining designated hitters, it’s hard to know what to expect from him this season.

On one hand, he could rake. Desperate to prove he’s still a top-line hitter, he might come out and do something preposterous for a 38-year-old. Make no mistake, .325/.430/.580 is in play. While this outcome isn’t likely by any means, it’s possible, and not even in the anything-is-possible-with-Manny way. If he does something like that over 600 plate appearances, he’ll be one of the most interesting free agent cases in recent years. And the Dodgers just might do a whole lot of winning along the way.

Things aren’t likely to go quite that well. Our own forecast has him at .298/.400/.524, coming to the plate 554 times. Most Dodgers fans would take that outcome in a heartbeat. ZiPS projects a .290/.405/.538 line over 536 plate appearances, while CHONE pegs him for a .280/.374/.511 season in just 478 plate appearances. Obviously, even the most bearish expectations for what he’ll do at the plate identify him as a serious offensive threat. It’s all a matter of how often he’ll be in the lineup and the extent to which his offense can offset his defense.

5. Is there a more desirable young hitter/pitcher combination in the majors than Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw?

You might not have heard of many members of the horde of pitchers competing for the last spot in the rotation. And, like me, you might be skeptical of Jason Repko’s existence. Kershaw and Kemp do not enjoy such anonymity. The pair—Kemp will be 25 this season and Kershaw just 23—has everything you might want in a young duo. Kemp is on the cusp of MVP candidacy already, coming off a .297/.352/.490 (plus good defense) effort in 2009. And all Kershaw has done is strike out 285 batters in his first 278.2 innings.

Kershaw, with just two seasons under his belt and susceptible to pitchers’ generally more unpredictable career trajectories, has the more significant warts. He still walks too many batters—4.79 per nine innings last year. Unsurprisingly, he has difficulty going deep into games, averaging just under 5.2 innings per start in 2009. But man, oh man, his stuff. Despite the ugly walk figure,he carried just a 3.90 xFIP last season. And while his innings did rise from 107.2 to 171 over the last two seasons, he has been used judiciously. Often to the point of frustration (both of the fans and Kershaw himself), he’s been routinely pulled during good games once his pitch count exceeded 100. While this isn’t a perfect indicator of durability, the point is the Dodgers have done what they can. There’s only so much you can hold back a player as talented as Kershaw. Three of his pitches are worth at least 1.36 runs per 100 pitches, and he uses his one below-average pitch—a nascent changeup—just 4.6 percent of the time. He’s special.

Kemp is much more of a known commodity, though he still possesses potential for more. His development trend line has been, well, the sort of thing that would be in a textbook about this sort of thing. Over the last three years, his plate appearances have gone 311, 657, 667. BB/K rates: 0.24, 0.30, 0.37. Isolated power: .178, .168, .193. Heck, even his run value in the outfield has trended -3.7, -0.1, 2.6. He’s not the perfect player; his on-base skills could use work, he takes strange routes now and then, and his performance is BABIP-heavy. And yet his on-base skills are moving the right direction, he’s getting better in the field, and sustainable BABIP varies player to player. Simply put, when you’ve got a young player with such excellent strengths—power and speed—who is improving on his weaknesses (instincts in the field and getting on base) you’ve got one of the most valuable players in the game.

So how do these two stack up with other young tandems? Zack Greinke and Billy Butler certainly deserve a mention. Yovani Gallardo and Prince Fielder figure in, though Fielder gets expensive soon. Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson might be better, but they’re costlier. Pablo Sandoval and Tim Lincecum are certainly contenders. Ubaldo Jimenez and Troy Tulowitzki are very good. And who knows what Jason Heyward might do paired up with Jair Jurrjens or Tommy Hanson. Evaluating all these duos against each other sounds like excellent fodder for a future article, but for now I’ll go with this: if Kemp and Kershaw aren’t the best young hitter/pitcher combination in the majors, they’re very, very close.

Conclusion

The 2010 Los Angeles Dodgers are, fittingly, an impressive team on the surface. The club enters 2010 in a very strong position to win a middling NL West. The Dodgers might have the finest group of outfielders in the game, and Kershaw, Billingsley and Broxton are a ferocious trio of young arms. But there is trouble lurking. An injury to an outfielder or key pitcher would present a serious risk to the club’s bid to win its third straight division crown.

There are established young performers in Kemp, Kershaw, Billingsley, Broxton and Ethier. There are position players whose careers are, if not yet in danger, surely on the protected species list: Loney and Martin. There are several veterans whose sustained health and performance are vital to the team’s success. There is Manny Ramirez, who gets a category all to himself.

And then there are the McCourts. The hope in Chavez Ravine is that the product on the field is so good that talk circling around the Dodgers can focus on the reason the club exists: to compete for World Series championships. However, if injury, regression or stalled development tanks the club, you can bet that the daily workings of the McCourt divorce will overshadow quiet developments on the baseball front. The 2010 season might go just as its preceding offseason went: noteworthy for all the wrong reasons.

But this Dodger lifer has hope, as should all. Odds are strong that September will, at the very least, matter. And the potential is there for meaningful baseball to continue into November. This club has it all. Top-shelf ceiling. Ugly downside. A scandalous side story which shows no signs of quieting. The Dodgers are, truly, Hollywood’s team. The only guarantee? The most gorgeous sunsets in baseball.

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Comments

  1. Jeff Jaffee said...

    Excellent analysis and well-written as well. I’ve got the number 5 starter for you.  After seeing Josh Lindblom pitch last week, I think he is the guy.  Smoke, hammer curve, poise on the mound, and he almost made the roster last spring.  Blake DeWitt has looked like he’s ready to take a positive step as well.  A little depth came back, too, in Jamie Hoffman, the rule fiver from the Yankees.  And Colletti, despite some questionable moves, has been clever enough to get what the team needs.

  2. HP3 said...

    Colletti has made some very questionable moves; especially Schmidt and Pierre.  Talk about wasting $60 million and Ned came from SF and had to suspect that Schmidt was close to done.  Then to get two months of Casey Blake for free, the Dodgers traded one of the best catching prospects in baseball, Carlos Santana.  Last year for maybe 30 innings of Joe Beimel, Ol’ Ned dumps Josh Bell, an outstanding 3B prospect.  Then he lets Wolf walk. 

    As Mr. Fisher said, there is a very ugly downside to this team and no leadership for awhile to get it back on track if things go south.  It could get ugly this summer.

  3. Seth said...

    The B-R comparables thing weighs RBI pretty heavily and that’s where Bagwell and Loney meet most squarely.  Plus, Bagwell played in the horrendous anti-hitter Astrodome and did it with a much better IsoD.  I liked the Big Klu comp a lil better.

  4. Seth said...

    Yeah, didn’t mean to put the article down by saying that. I thought this was a very good article.  Really happy more people are hopping on the “Billingsley will be back” bandwagon and dispelling the notion that the team has lost something it hasn’t because of the divorce.

  5. chukpark said...

    Is the NL West just permanently the “middling NL West” now? After last year when the wild card came from the West and the head-to-head records with the other NL divisions compared favorably, I was starting to think that the division was earning a little respect. Especially with articles coming out about how set the Rockies are for now and the future and with the young talent on Arizona and the Giants. I guess it’s just become a reflex for a lot of writers just to knock the NL West. Well, take another look, especially those among you who primarily write about the NL West.

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