Five questions: Los Angeles Dodgers

Who is going to run the team?

This is the proverbial elephant in the room. There isn’t a single question regarding the team that can be given a definitive answer, from “Who is leading off?” to “What brand of mustard will be available to put on the Dodger Dogs?” that can be answered with any certainty. Frank McCourt won’t be running the team. Neither will Joe Torre, Mark Cuban nor me. Whoever does take the reins of the team will certainly leave his thumbprint on the team. But what direction will that be?

New owners tend to mean new management. Does that mean the end of Ned Colletti’s term as general manager? How does that affect manager Don Mattingly?

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Mattingly: bringing some stability to an unstable situation.

Will the new management want to slash payroll? Or will it try to win over fans with a big crowd-pleasing trade for the likes of a Justin Upton or excite Hideo Nomo‘s old fans by importing Ichiro Suzuki?

None of these questions can be answered because we don’t know who the participants are. Trying to come up with answers on this topic is as futile as Little Orphan Annie openly wondering what her parents were really like. There is a lot of emotion, but none of it is based on any facts. And yet, the other four questions in the article can’t be addressed properly without figuring out this one.

In many ways, the 2011 Dodgers showed the perils of analyzing baseball solely by statistics. In 20 years or so, a young person might take a look at the 2011 season
and think it was a positive one in Chavez Ravine.

The team won more games than the previous year, had a new young manager, and featured an electrifying Cy Young season from Clayton Kershaw and an MVP-caliber performance from Matt Kemp. Andre Ethier went on a 23-game hitting streak, and Dee Gordon emerged as an exciting sparkplug at shortstop. That person reading the numbers would come to the conclusion that Dodgers fans had fun and were optimistic in 2011.

But stats do not mention things like “bitter divorce” and “misused funds” and “bankruptcy” and “ownership taken over by the league” and “possibly missing payroll” and “Bryan Stowe’s beating.” Dodger fans stayed away in droves and were angry most of the season, with good reason. The team that should be a powerhouse in the National League and one of the most glamorous franchises was a source of ridicule and humiliation.

The team will go in a different direction in 2012. But which way? Using a Ouija board might be a good way to find out now.

On to the other four questions. Inevitably the management issue will come up again.

Will Kershaw and Billingsley be a great 1-2 punch?

The great Dodger tradition of Cy Young Award winners continued with Kershaw last year. In a league that features Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum as well as a surprising year from Ian Kennedy, Kershaw’s award was well deserved no matter what pitching criteria you use. He won the pitching triple crown, leading the league in wins (21), ERA (2.28) and strikeouts (248).

For people who like cooler new stats, he was second in WAR for pitchers (7.0), had the best WHIP (0.977) and did this while logging 233.1 innings and winning a Gold Glove. Starting the 24-year-old Kershaw every five days is a good start.

As Kershaw had his breakout year last year, the Dodgers are hoping Chad Billingsley will improve. In 2008, the 23-year-old Billingsley was a 200-inning pitcher, striking out 2.51 for every walk with an ERA+ of 133. And he won 16 games with an ERA of 3.14, for those of you who still care about that.

Three years later, his innings and strikeout totals are down and his ERA+ is at 88. At one point, the 2009 All-Star looked like he was on the fast track to being an ace. Now he is at a crossroads. Will be turn it around and be a right-handed compliment to Kershaw or just a good No. 4 starter?

The rest of the rotation will be rounded out by steady, if unspectacular, veterans. Ted Lilly is about as exciting as a plate of croutons, but the left-hander has been cashing big-league checks for more than a dozen seasons for a reason. He logs 190-some innings, maintains an ERA under 4.00 and keeps his team in the ballgame.

Former Padre Aaron Harang had a solid season in Petco while Chris Capuano was mediocre for the Mets. They both let up their share of homers, but spacious Dodger Stadium (as well as many starts in pitcher-friendly San Francisco and San Diego) should help them and the Dodgers make up for the loss of Hiroki Kuroda. Also, young Nate Eovaldi could emerge as an effective arm for the club.

But this rotation is the Kershaw and Billingsley show. And how far they will go depends on how much Billingsley can catch up to his counterpart’s production.

What is the fate of Andre Ethier?

The remarkably talented if sometimes enigmatic Ethier should be part of the best outfield in the National League. Kemp’s MVP credentials were solid with or without a positive PED test for Ryan Braun. The durable, dynamic, power-hitting Gold Glove center fielder was so valuable that a team in bankruptcy court signed him to an eight-year, $160 million contract extension.

Ethier, however, is a free agent at the end of the season, and he best personifies the unknown future of the team. On the one hand, he is a Gold Glove-winning, power-hitting, walk-off hit-slugging star. On the other hand he is injury-prone. And Ethier did not exactly endear himself to Mattingly by publicly saying he was being made to play hurt for most of 2011. He backed down from the statement but was shut down for the rest of the season. He had knee surgery in the offseason and has been a dour figure in spring training.

Ethier could negotiate for a new contract once the new management arrives. Or the new management could turn around and trade him away while he still has value. (Injury-prone players entering their 30s no longer have as much value since other ways of recovery have been cut off by testing.)

Kemp and Ethier should be a wonderful 1-2 combo if they are both healthy. But if Ethier isn’t, they should change direction. Until new management arrives, this question is up in the air.

Can Guerra and Jansen anchor the bullpen?

In April of last season, Javy Guerra was in Double-A Chattanooga, his eighth year in the minors without a single game in Triple-A. This year he enters training camp as the closer of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He saved 21 games to a 2.31 ERA and an ERA+ of 162. He struck out 2.11 for every walk and gave up only two homers.

However, he only pitched 46.2 innings and faced just 195 batters. Is he for real or will batters make adjustments in his sophomore season? He still hasn’t pitched in Triple-A as he jumped straight from Chattanooga. If he plays in the minors this year, that would be bad news.

The other surprising star in the 2011 Dodgers bullpen was Kenley Jansen. In 2010, he held batters to a 0.67 ERA over 27 innings. It was a warm-up to last year, his official rookie season. His 96 strikeouts in 53.2 innings set a major-league record with 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings. He only finished 13 of his 51 games last year (saving five of them) but would certainly be a candidate to close if Guerra falters.

Scott Elbert and Josh Lindblom both were effective out of the pen last year, and Todd Coffey was brought in for depth. But the late innings look to be split between Guerra and Jansen.

Will the real James Loney please stand up?

James Loney was supposed to be one of the Dodgers’ home-grown stars along with Kershaw and Kemp. But he has yet to put together the solid all-around season he hinted at in his 2007 rookie year.

His average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS+ and WAR are all thoroughly mediocre. Throw in a shady traffic accident in the offseason, and there are a lot of eyes on the Dodger’s first baseman. He seemed like a candidate for non-tender in the offseason, but he is back.

And there are some reasons to hope. Eight of his 12 homers were hit after the All-Star break, when he slugged an impressive .534. Plus, batting second in front of Kemp could help him see more pitches. If Loney and young shortstop Gordon can get on base for Kemp and Ethier, the Dodgers might score enough runs for Kershaw and company on the mound.

If Loney falters again, maybe Ethier could move to first and young Alfredo Silverio might fit into the outfield. Of all the positions on the diamond, the easiest to find a replacement is first base. Loney needs to hit like he did in the second half, or he will be on the outside looking in. Then again, Loney’s fate is also tied to management.

Maybe the 2012 Dodgers should be the first team to have their season preview written after the season has started.

References & Resources
Baseball-reference.com

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