Where will the power come from?
Last year, Los Angeles compiled a meager 120 home runs, with only lowly Houston’s 108 round-trippers keeping the Dodgers out of the National League basement in the category. Only outfielders Matt Kemp (with 28 in a “down” year) and Andre Ethier (with 23), topped 20 homers. They were followed by third baseman Casey Blake and catcher Rod Barajas, with 17 apiece (though Barajas hit a dozen of his as a Met). To add insult to injury, LA also was third-to-last in extra-base hits.
So who will provide the power in 2011? Well, if Kemp can recover from his Rihanna-induced stupor of last year, he could surpass 30 homers for the first time in his career, and Ethier has already reached that mark once before, in 2009. A full year with Barajas on the roster will help, too, as will new second baseman Juan Uribe. Plus, Marcus Thames and his all-or-nothing swing should provide a solid number of souvenirs for fans in the outfield.
But the player who really needs to turn up the juice (no, not that kind of juice) is the one playing the classic slugger position, first base. James Loney has never surpassed 15 home runs and barely reached double digits last season. A sub-.400 slugging percentage from his position is embarrassingly weak, a problem Loney needs to remedy if he wants to remain a first baseman for the Dodgers—or anyone else—for several more seasons.
Loney is only 26 years old entering this season (as is Kemp), so there still is time for his power to develop, but he’d better find it soon. His team’s success and his hopes for long-term employment depend on it.
How much influence will Davey Lopes have?
Sabermetric orthodoxy says stolen bases are fairly trivial. However, a team stealing 138 bases at an 87.9 percent success rate will add significant value to its bottom line, while another swiping 92 bags at a 64.8 percent rate will cost itself several runs. Those two performances belong to the 2007 Phillies and 2010 Dodgers, respectively.
What common thread ties these two squads together? Well, the ’07 Phils had Davey Lopes as their first base and baserunning coach. Now Lopes brings the skills and knowledge that helped him steal 557 career bases at an 83.0 percent success rate to assist those woeful Los Angeles base stealers.
Will Lopes’ influence mean the Dodgers will become the new 1980s St. Louis Cardinals? Certainly not, but maybe Kemp, Loney and a few others can swipe some more bases while shedding some caught-stealings from their stat lines. Maybe Rafael Furcal, 22-for-26 on the basepaths last season, can become an old-school burner like his coach and approach 50 steals once again. And if new part-time left fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. can’t hit better than last year’s .204, perhaps he’ll be a one-trick pony pinch-runner supreme. (If Lopes wants to show he’s a miracle worker, he’ll get Blake and Barajas to steal a base or two apiece.)
Who will close?
Despite the potential for improvements in both power and speed cited above, this still looks to be a decidedly average offense, at best. But with Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda as their top four starters (and either Jon Garland or Vicente Padilla as the fifth), there should be plenty of low-scoring games for the bullpen to lock down.
Jonathan Broxton has been the team’s closer since mid-2008, but he suffered a meltdown last fall that left some wondering if he was healthy. Broxton’s plummeting strikeout rate and rising walks and hits-allowed numbers certainly seemed to indicate something was wrong.
With no definitive cause for his second-half slump, Broxton has been installed as the closer to kick off the 2011 campaign. However, if things go wrong early in the year, will Hong-Chih Kuo once again assume the ninth-inning duties, as he did late last season? Kuo’s 2010 clearly was a career year, as he allowed only 29 hits and 18 walks in 60 innings, while recording 73 strikeouts. Combined with a .139 batting average allowed, this performance yielded a 1.20 ERA. Now those are the numbers of a dominating closer.
Still, if Broxton is back to normal, having these two stud relievers finishing off games will be a bounty for the Dodgers regardless of who gets the high-profile saves and which one gets the lowly-regarded holds. Fantasy owners would be best served to put their money on Broxton, while also being ready to drop him and pick up Kuo at a moment’s notice.
How will the ownership saga impact the team?
The story of Dodgers owners (well, at least one is the owner) Frank and Jamie McCourt’s nasty divorce has made plenty of headlines over the last few months. First it was the announcement they were divorcing, then there was Frank firing his wife. Next were the multiple, conflicting copies of the pre-nup the McCourts signed, and recently the revelation that Commissioner Bud Selig blocked an agreement in which the Dodgers would borrow $200 million from previous owner Fox/News Corp.
This shameful saga has not only given one of baseball’s most storied franchises a black eye, it has also cast the team’s financial stability in doubt. Can Frank McCourt afford to buy out his wife and retain ownership of the team? That concept looks less and less likely as more and more details leak out. Will Selig push for a new ownership group to take the reins in Chavez Ravine, hoping to put this sordid mess behind the franchise while bringing financial stability to the team?
At this point the Houston Astros are probably at the front of the line in terms of team sales, so an ownership change wouldn’t occur for at least several months. This means McCourt will continue to call the shots in 2011, a situation that could handcuff the team if it is in contention and in need of a talent infusion.
Will McCourt sign off on a deal that adds significant payroll after this winter’s tight-fisted moves? Perhaps Billingsley’s new three-year, $35 million contract extension is an indication of looser purse strings, or maybe it’s simply a savvy move that makes the team that much more appealing to potential buyers. Unfortunately for Dodgers fans, it seems a wait-and-see attitude will be required for the time being.
What help can the farm system provide?
If ownership will not pony up to add a key player or two, is there assistance in the minor leagues to call up? The top prospects in the system generally play positions at which Los Angeles likely doesn’t need immediate upgrades.
Shortstop Dee Gordon would not be an upgrade over Furcal, though an injury could provide Gordon an opportunity to show what he can do. Pitcher Rubby De La Rosa had a strong enough spring to indicate he’s ready to help in the fifth starter’s slot, but Garland and Padilla both would have to flop or break down (Garland got a head start on that) for him to get a chance.
Two bush leaguers who could possibly help out in positions of need are outfielder Trayvon Robinson and outfielder/first baseman Jerry Sands. Robinson is a solid-average, high-OBP burner who could be a table setter for the thumpers in the lineup, and left field is far from anchored as Opening Day arrives. Sands is even more intriguing, as he could be one of those thumpers while also providing a dose of speed.
It’s unlikely, but Robinson and Sands in left field and at first base could be just what the Dodgers ordered—maybe not in 2011, but possibly in 2012, and well into the future.