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I don't intend to do a preview of every team in MLB -because, really, who has the time? - but it seems to me that it is worthwhile to look at some of the teams on the edge, teams that could go either way. Anyone can predict that the Giants or Royals will lose 100 games or that the Red Sox will win 95 or more. It takes real talent to predict that the Phillies will win 84 games. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself.
So, in this vein, I'm now going to analyze the chances of the 2008 Dodgers, a team about which I know almost nothing, and in which I have absolutely no rooting interest.
The 2007 Dodgers finished 10th in the 16-team Senior Circuit with 735 Runs scored, despite the fact that they were 2nd in batting average and 4th in OBP. This is because they showed so little power, ranking 13th in slugging and 15th in home runs. They were basically a singles hitting, slash-and-dash team, 3rd in the NL with 137 steals. Nobody hit more than Jeff Kent's 20 home runs. Dodger Stadium is a pitchers' park, so that's not a total surprise, but they actually hit a little worse on the road than they did at home, so the park factor doesn't explain it. They just weren't that good. That explains it.
The Dodgers had a lot of old veterans last year, but many of those are gone: Mike Lieberthal, Luis Gonzalez, Mike Sweeney, Marlon Anderson, Brady Clark, Shea Hillenbrand - all overpaid, underproductive and on the wrong side of 30, some on the wrong side of 35. Of those that are left, basically Kent and Nomar Garciaparra, at least they can still hit, if not field. Well, Kent can hit. Nomar can pinch-hit, but that's about all he's good for these days.
Kent just turned 40, and is unlikely to play more than the 136 games he played last season, but they need all they can get out of him, because the remaining 30 or so games will mostly go to 22-year old Tony Abreu. Baseball Prospectus thinks Abreu will hit .276/.323/.401, well below the production levels of even Jeff Kent's quatragenarian bat. Abreu hit for average in the minors, but with little patience and no power, so it's unlikely that the team can withstand any sustained absence by Kent. (Delwyn Young is strictly outfield material, not a secondbaseman, despite what ESPN.com's depth chart says.)
Most of Nomar's at-bats last year should get taken by Andy LaRoche, who's projected to hit .278/.362/.481 by BP, but could easily out-pace that. (He averaged about .310/.400/.570 the last two seasons in AAA, which, even accounting for how much the PCL inflates offense, is still pretty impressive. Unfortunately, LaRoche has a thumb injury that will likely keep him out of commission until mid-May at the earliest. Now, whether new manager Joe Torre will actually let the young, unknown LaRoche play in lieu of a "proven commodity" like Nomar will depend on how well Garciaparra does for the first 6 weeks of the season. If he's hitting .260 with no power and demonstrating his usual lack of defensive prowess at third base, LaRoche will get a shot. Torre may not trust youngsters, but even should be able to tell the difference between Andy LaRoche and Andy Phillips.
The rest of the infield consists of shortstop Rafael Furcaland first baseman James Loney. Furcal, now 30 and not the superstar some expected him to be, is still a decent lead-off man and an excellent fielder. Loney hit like crazy in a truncated 2007 season, mostly because he hit .400 whenever he put the ball in play, which he won't do again. Still, a .290/.350/.450 line or better, as Baseball Prospectus predicts, would be fine if they can get a whole season out of him. The trouble is that Loney's got a history of wrist injuries, and may get hurt again. Worse yet, he may not get hurt enough to be placed on the DL, but just enough to rob him of the power he seemed to regain last year.
Catcher Russel Martin became a fan favorite last year with his quick bat (.293, 19 homers) and hustling style of play (21 steals and a Gold Glove). Given the fact that Dodger Stadium is still a pitchers' park, Martin's performance was even better than it looked on paper, a near-MVP caliber season from a 24-year old catcher, a truly rare commodity.
His career minor league slugging percentage was only .419, and that was bolstered by spending the whole 2004 season at Vero Beach, a power hitter's paradise, so those 19 homers he hit last year may prove to be a career high. In any case, he's got a solid bat, hitting both for average and a little power, with decent patience as well. He might want to be a little more selective with base-stealing, however, both because of the injury risk associated with it and because his 9 times getting caught essentially negated any benefit from the 21 times he was successful.
The Dodger outfield, with the recent addition of Andruw Jones, now has impressive depth, if not a bonafide superstar. Jones is probably expected to become a great Dodger centerfielder, in the mould of Duke Snider, but of course he hit only .222 last year, so if he can just make the fans forget about Milton Bradley, he'll be a success. Expect him to bounce back to his more typical .260/.350/.500 type of production, maybe just a tick below that because of the pitchers' park thing.
Jones is flanked by Matt Kemp and (hopefully) Andre Ethier. Kemp is still quite young, having just turned 23 in September, has hit for average everywhere he's played, and has power to burn, though he's never really walked much. Like Loney, Kemp hit over .400 when he put the ball in play last year, so don't expect him to hit .342 again, but if he hits the .293/.346/.497 that BP predicts, nobody will much care that he only walks about once a week. Especially if he goes back to stealing 15-20 bases per year, as he did in the minors.
Ethier, by contrast, does not steal bases, but he can hit a little, and since he's entering his prime (he'll be 26 in about a month) he could easily outpace the .281/.349/.444 that PECOTA suggests. Ethier, however, is not so obviously talented that he can rest on his laurels. Incumbent centerfielder Juan Pierre, pressed out of a job by the acquisition of Jones, will be vying for playing time in Left.
Pierre, nowhere near as productive a talent as Ethier, is nevertheless a Proven Veteran, except that Joe Torre doesn't realize that what he's proven is that he shouldn't be playing every day on a championship team. His defense, which was terrible in CF, won't be so bad in Left, but his bat will be that much worse. He's got plenty of speed, but little pateince and no power, so the apparently decent batting averages he puts up tend to be hollow. He's been in the top 3 in the NL in Outs made each of the last 5 years, leading it twice, with his only real competition coming form Jimmy Rollins, who at least hits for some power and plays better defense.
Still, having Pierre on the bench to spot start, pinch-run, or try to slap a key single in the late innings can be helpful. Just not worth the $55 million contract he signed. Pierre and Delwyn Young give the Dodger bench a range of useful skills and the ability to suffer some injuries to the starters, if they should happen.
The rest of the bench consists of run-of-the-mill backup catcher Gary Bennett, standard-issue 5th outfielder Jason Repko and back-up shortstop Chin-lung Hu. Hu has a career minor league stat line of .299/.346/.425, and has hit for average, taken walks and stolen bases during his minor league career. Unfortunately, he's really never done more than two of those at once, and usually only one. His real asset is his defense, for which he's gotten raves everywhere he's played. Someone who hits Hu's 50th percentile BP projection (.274/.318/.403) and plays Gold Glove defense would be a starter on most teams, but this one's committed to Furcal for two more seasons at about $13 million each, so that won't happen any time soon.
With all the injuries ot Dodger infielders, he might get a little playing time at third base, but his bat won't carry that position for any length of time. For now, Hu's greatest contribution to the team may be as the start of a "Hu's on First" type of gag.
The rotation consists of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and Esteban Loaiza, all righties.
Penny, who was 10-1 with a 2.39 ERA at the All-Star Break, looked poised to win the NL Cy Young Award for most of last year, but went only 6-3 with a 4.25 ERA after June, so Jake Peavy won it instead. Still, Penny was one of the 5 best pitchers in the NL last year, and there's no reason he should be much different this year.
Lowe, whose performance was wildly erratic his last few years in Boston, has been the very picture of consistency in the three years he's spent in LA. He's pitched between 199 and 222 innings, with 12 to 16 wins and an ERA between 3.61 and 3.88 each of those three years. The big differences have come in the Loss column, due to bad luck and/or poor run support. He's 34 now, and therefore probably due for a slight drop-off, but not anything severe.
Chad Billingsley has got the size (6'1", 245) and the stuff (95 mph fastball, slider and curve) ot be a stud in the majors. His MLB record right now is 19-9, 3.47 in 237 innings over two seasons. He walks a lot of batters, but can get a strikeout or a groundball when he needs one, so that's less of a concern than it would be if he were a pure fly-ball guy.
The key for him will be staying healthy. He's a big, stocky guy, with a high, almost El Duque-style leg kick, and his list of comparables on Baseball Prospectus includes Jaret Wright, Kelvim Escobar, Wilson Alvarez, Tony Armas Jr., and several other big, stocky guys who got injured at a young age and never met their potential. On the other hand, he could do worse than to turn out like Tom Seaver or John Smoltz, or even Dan Petry and Mark Gubicza, who are also on his list of comps.
PECOTA's projections for him are modest, probably because of his youth/inexperience and all those walks, but don't be surprised if he wins 18 games next year either. He could turn out to be the best pitcher on the staff.
The nominal 4th starter is a 33-year old Japanese veteran named Hiroki Kuroda, who went 12-8 with a 3.56 ERA last year for the Hiroshima Carp. Baseball Prospectus has what seems to me an overly optimistic 10-8, 3.94 projection for him. For comparison, last year they predicted 12-9, 3.99 for Daisuke Matsuzaka, who actually went 15-12, 4.40. Still solid, but hardly dominant, with higher walk- and homer-rates than they expected, hence the higher ERA. And you don't even want to know what they projected for Kei Igawa. If those two are any indication, Kuroda may be in for a rough season.
Rounding out the top five is Esteban Loaiza, who's trying to get healthy and pitch a full season for the first time since 2005. He made two starts for Oakland last year and pitched well enough to sucker the Dodgers into picking him up off waivers and assuming his $8 million in remaining contract dollars. While in LA, he pitched only 22 innings and racked up an 8.34 ERA, which, on a scale of one to ten, is 8.34.
Loaiza's doing well enough this spring (3 ER in 7 innings, 7 strikeouts and 2 walks) to make it seem that he may be healthy, but at 36 years old and following two years of injury trouble, he may be near the end. If Jason Schmidt can get healthy later in the year, perhaps in June, they could get a nice boost, but that's unlikely at best. Another option is <a href="http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/players/profile?statsId=7649">Hong-Chih Kuo</a>, who was a strikeout machine in the minors but is yet to have much success in the majors. If not him, then Joe Torre has Yankee cast-off (and inexplicable favorite) Tanyon Sturtze on whom to fall back. In any case, the front four should be good enough that the #5 man doesn't matter too much.
Closer Takashi Saito has been nothing short of brilliant since he crossed the Pacific two winters ago: 63 saves in 69 chances, 185 strikeouts in 142 innings, and a Mariano-esque 1.77 ERA. He also has a Mariano-esque age of 38 years, so he may miss a few games due to the sorts of nagging injuries that older pitchers sustain, but it appears that he is as good as any reliever in baseball when he's on the mound.
The bullpen workhorses are young Jonathan Broxton (32 Holds and a 2.85 ERA in 83 innings last year) and Scott Proctor (3.65 ERA in 86 innings), both of whom were equally solid in 2006. Proctor earned Joe Torre's trust in new York, and should see a significant share of the middle relief work as long as he continues to perform.
The main lefty is 30-year old Joe Beimel, who held lefties to a .188 BA against last year. Righties hit .294 off him, albeit with no power. He's totaled 137 innings the last two years, with ERAs of 2.96 and 3.88, and should continue to do well in that role in 2008. Rudy Seanez, now 39 years old, is also in the mix.
The mop-up duty will likely be handled by youngster Jonathan Meloan and minor league veteran Eric Hull. The former has been great everywhere he's pitched, but has only 27 innings of experience above AA ball, and therefore probably will get osme more seasoning before the Dodgers call him up for good. Hull was quite good in Las Vegas last year, after a couple of seasons of growing pains. His minor league numbers do not suggest future stardom, but he should be an effective mop-up man. Re-tread Yhency Brazoban may get some work, if he can get his weight under control, and Mike Myers is trying to eek out one more year as a resident wacky, laredo LOOGy. He's probably better off trying to make more Austin Powers movies.
In total, the Dodgers look really, really good on paper. They've got a starting rotation that is the equal of almost any in the national League, and a bullpen that is both very good and quite deep. The offense is not likely to be anything special, but is probably good enough, and with a full season from Ethier and Kemp, and Juan Pierre's out-making at-bats mostly replaced by Andruw Jones, who has a good shot at bouncing back from an off year, they could improve significantly from their 2006 numbers. Whatever they can get from Andt laRoche, once he's healthy, should be an improvement on the terrible numbers they got from the Hot Corner last year as well. Those improvements, if Torre can bring himself to make them, should more than offset any age-related decline from Jeff Kent and/or a return to earth by Russel Martin.
The Dodgers will be a force to be reckoned with, and have as good a shot as anyone in the NL West to win 95 games and take the division. In a division full of contenders, Los Angeles has the best chance to come out the champion.