Saturday, November 04, 2006

Looking Ahead: Los Angeles Dodgers

2006 W-L Record: 88-74
2006 pW-pL Record: 87-75
Runs Scored: 820 (4th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 751 (3rd in NL)
Free Agents: Nomar Garciaparra, Kenny Lofton, Julio Lugo, Greg Maddux
Pending Options: Jose Cruz, Jr., Eric Gagne

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- James Loney
2B -- Jeff Kent
SS -- Rafael Furcal
3B -- Andy LaRoche/Wilson Betemit
LF -- Matt Kemp
CF -- Andre Ethier
RF -- J.D. Drew
C -- Russell Martin

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Brad Penny
Derek Lowe
Chad Billingsley
Hong-Chih Kuo
Aaron Sele/Brett Tomko/Mark Hendrickson

2007 Proj. Closer: Takashi Saito

The Good News:
Just about everything is good news in L.A. these days. They've made the playoffs two of the past three years, and despite getting thumped in the NLDS, it's a start for a team that had suffered through an 8-year postseason drought. They've got one of the best youth movements about to reach the majors and should blow the top off of the NL West, and possibly even the National League.

In the infield, the Dodgers will be sporting star prospects at the infield corners. The team could decide to re-sign 2006 star Nomar Garciaparra (303/367/505), but Nomar became expendable with the arrival of James Loney. Loney, who will be 23 next year, moved steadily up the Dodger minor league system before enjoying a breakout year at Triple-A Las Vegas. Now a lot of hitters have breakout years in hitter-friendly Las Vegas, but Loney's numbers (380/426/546) are impressive even in context. Upon promotion to the majors, he hit 284/342/559, which is probably a better indication of his talent level. Loney has shown great power potential and surprisingly good plate discipline. The Dodgers should -- and probably will -- go with Loney as their starting first baseman and reap the benefits (while paying him the league minimum).
At third base, the Dodgers will likely be starting Andy LaRoche, younger brother of Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche. LaRoche has shown great power and great plate discipline in the minors, climbing steadily through the Dodger system until reaching Triple-A last year. LaRoche started the season in Double-A and earned a promotion by hitting 309/419/483. He spent the second half of the season in Triple-A Vegas, hitting a dynamic 322/400/550. There are some questions about LaRoche's defense at the hot corner, but he does seem to be making some progress there. And with Bill Mueller essentially retired due to injuries, LaRoche is by far the Dodgers' best option at third, having proven all he can prove in the minors. The only thing that might get in LaRoche's way is Wilson Betemit, but it's in the Dodgers' best interests to go with the high-ceiling player in LaRoche rather than settle for the merely above-average Betemit.
In the middle infield, the Dodgers are set with two key free agents. Jeff Kent was not supposed to age this gracefully in L.A, and yet that's exactly what he's done. Although he was limited to 115 games, the potential Hall-of-Famer hit an impressive 292/385/477 and continued to give the club solid performance at second. His advancing age could be an issue (he'll turn 39 in March), but the club has the advantage of several options in the infield.
At shortstop is 2006 free agent signee Rafael Furcal. Furcal got off to a terribly slow start in 2006. Six weeks into the season, he was hitting a bare 235/337/315, never a way to endear yourself to the locals after signing a big free agent deal. But Furcal caught fire down the stretch and finished with a vintage Rafael Furcal season: 300/369/445, 37/50 in steals, and great defense at short. Furcal is a huge asset and a solid presence on a young team that's still assigning roles and finding its rhythm.
The outfield is anchored by right fielder J.D. Drew. Drew is another big free agent. In his debut season of 2005, Drew spent a lot of time on the DL (as was his M.O.) and led many to dub his signing a failure. But Drew bounced back with a healthy season in 2006, playing in 146 games (2nd on the team to Furcal) and hitting a powerful 283/393/498. Drew was by far the best hitter on a Dodger team that was missing an impact, power bat. His continued presence will be a true asset -- so long as he can stay healthy.
The other two outfield spots will likely go to Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. Both men are capable of playing left and center, but Kemp's size will likely see him end up in left, with the more athletic Ethier in center. Ethier got off to a hot start in 2006 before settling down somewhat, although his final line of 308/365/477 is impressive enough. Many feel that Ethier was hitting over his head in 2006, but even 80% of that production combined with good defense in center would make him an asset on a team that should have plenty of offense elsewhere.
As you can tell, the Los Angeles lineup has a lot of young talent, but Matt Kemp might be the best hitter of them all. Kemp rose steadily through the L.A. system, making it to the majors in 2006. He started the season in Double-A and earned a promotion by hitting 327/402/528. In Triple-A, Kemp mashed to the tune of 368/428/560, which earned him a call to the majors. His debut in L.A. was a bit of a letdown; in 52 games, he hit a disappointing 253/289/448. However, Kemp has a strong minor league pedigree and every indication of being a heck of a hitting prospect. He should start 2007 in the Dodger outfield, barring some sort of freak accident.
At catcher, the Dodgers have young Russell Martin. Martin was supposed to be behind resident Dioner Navarro on the team's depth chart. But Martin hit 282/355/436 in 2006, claiming the job for his own and prompting the team to trade Navarro to the Devil Rays. Martin will be just 24 next year and has already earned strong praise for his defensive skill and strong offensive potential.

Pitching-wise, the Dodgers may not have as many blue-chip prospects on the way, but they've got a strong core of free agent veterans and some promising rookies that should supplement them nicely. The team's nominal ace is 28-year-old Brad Penny. Penny is easily the most promising pitcher on the team, but his inconsistency and injury troubles make him tough to predict. Penny was pitching his way into the Cy Young discussion in 2006, but poor health and bad luck brought him down to a final 4.33 ERA in just 189 innings. The good news is that even when Penny's off, he's still a quality pitcher. The bad news is that the Dodgers would like to get a glimpse of the ace they thought they were trading for.
Behind Penny is the surprisingly effective Derek Lowe. Lowe could not have picked a better destination as a free agent than Los Angeles. As a sinkerballer who allows a lot of balls in play, Lowe benefits both from the roomy dimensions of Dodger Stadium and a strong defense behind him. When the Dodgers signed defensive whiz Furcal to play shortstop, Lowe should have offered to pick up 5% of his salary. Despite only striking out 123 hitters in 218 innings, Lowe managed a team-best ERA of 3.63, only slightly worse than his 3.61 mark from last year. Los Angeles was the perfect fit for Derek Lowe, and he's gone a long way toward repaying the team's considerable investment in him.
Neither Penny nor Lowe will realistically be pitching like an ace in 2007, but both are strongly above-average pitchers who could end up one of the 10 best pitchers in the league if everything goes right. Behind them, the Dodgers will be trying out some rookie options in the rotation. 22-year-old Chad Billingsley may have had some control issues in the minors, but everything else about him was golden. Baseball Prospectus 2006 described him thusly: "Two words: 'potential' and 'stud.'" It's hard to disagree. Billingsley's baptism into the big leagues in 2006 was pretty rough; his 3.80 ERA belied a dismal 58:59 BB:K ratio in his 90 innings of work. But if his minor league track record is to be believed, Billingsley should have no trouble filling in the #3 slot in the rotation and should move up to #1 before too very long.
Hong-Chih Kuo was supposed to be a relief pitcher, especially after two Tommy John surgeries left him looking like a Taiwanese Frankenstein. But Kuo still had great stuff and a lot of potential, so the Dodgers used him in some spot starts and liked what they saw. In his 59.2 innings of big-league work last year, Kuo struck out 71 batters and gave up just 3 home runs. If he can handle the strain, the Dodgers may well decide to keep him in the rotation. If not, he'd be one hell of a middle reliever with the versatility to work long relief and make a spot start or two.
If those guys are the 1-4 of the rotation, then the Dodgers shouldn't be too worried about having to sift through Brett Tomko, Aaron Sele, and Mark Hendrickson for the #5 job. Word is that the Dodgers will be aggressive on the free agent market. Peter Gammons reported today that the Dodgers would like to sign Jason Schmidt and re-sign Greg Maddux. This seems like overkill to me; Schmidt may have more upside than anyone else in the rotation, but he's also getting older and more volatile; he could easily end up being a much more expensive version of Brad Penny. The Maddux signing makes more sense; he could fill in at #4 and eat up innings in a ballpark well-suited to his declining talents.
In the bullpen, the Dodgers are equally blessed. 36-year-old Takashi Saito isn't a rookie sensation; he's a Japanese League veteran who put in possibly the most dominant relief performance in the NL this year. In spite of his age, Saito's great showing makes the Dodgers even less likely to pick up Eric Gagne's big-money option. Behind Saito, the Dodgers have the excellent Jonathan Broxton and the surprisingly effective Joe Beimel. There's not a lot of depth here, as the bullpen has experienced some serious attrition in recent years; GM Ned Colletti will probably address this issue in the offseason.

The Bad News:
Umm . . . didn't I just cover everything? Okay. Well, a few short points, then.
One problem with adding so many young players in such a short period of time is that it's difficult to count on them all to start producing at once. I'm not questioning the minor league pedigree of guys like LaRoche, Loney, and Kemp, but it would be naive to expect them all to play to their potential in 2007. It wouldn't be surprising at all for one of them to stall, or to take a bit longer to develop than expected. This makes it harder to predict exactly where the Dodgers fall on the talent scale.
There should also be some concern about the Dodger pitching. They've got several good arms coming up from the minors, but it's hard to be too optimistic about L0we and Penny. Also, that group of #5 starters is going to cost a lot of money for what little production they can give the team. Let's hope that Colletti gives the talented youngsters a chance and doesn't invest too much misguided faith in the likes of Mark Hendrickson.
Which brings me to my main point. GM Colletti took over the Dodgers prior to the 2006 season and inherited one of the best farm systems in baseball (thanks to the incomporable Logan White, Scouting Director). And since then, Colletti has . . . well, I won't say that he's pissed it away, but he's been far too careless with it.
Since taking the job, Colletti has traded away valuable prospects Willy Aybar, Dioner Navarro, Joel Guzman, Chuck Tiffany, and Justin Ruggiano. To a certain extent, I can understand this. Colletti has surplus talent, and when you have that, you trade it away to fill your needs. That's simple. The disturbing thing is not just that Colletti has been a little too willing to trade away his talent, but that he's gotten so little in return.
In 2006, the Dodgers had issues in the middle infield, with injuries to Jeff Kent and Bill Mueller creating holes in the lineup. The Dodgers were forced to use guys like Ramon Martinez, Olmedo Saenz and Cesar Izturis more than was healthy for them. So to fill the gaps, Colletti traded away several of his young middle infield prospects. Now, wait a minute -- wouldn't that be a possible solution to the problem? Guys like Willy Aybar and Joel Guzman may not have been major league ready, but they could have solved the problem, yes? And why would you trade away middle infield prospects in order to get middle infield non-prospects?
Good question. Because Colletti sent away Aybar, Guzman, and a few others to get Julio Lugo from the Devil Rays . . . and Wilson Betemit from the Braves. Now the Dodgers had too many middle infielders, with Lugo especially stuck on the bench as the odd man out, an inexcusable position for a player of his talents (and salary). The Dodgers were forced to trade Izturis to the Cubs, although Colletti wisely managed to trade away the most overvalued of all his middle infielders.
But that wasn't nearly as odd as another trade made with the Devil Rays. This trade sent catcher Navarro and spot starter Jae Seo to the Devil Rays for catcher Toby Hall and pitcher Mark Hendrickson. Now as I said before, I can certainly understand trading away expendable players, and Navarro was indeed expendable with the arrival of Russell Martin. But, as I said in my blog at the time, are there two less desirable players in all of baseball than Hall and Hendrickson? And if your problem is that you have too many catchers, why would you trade away one of them just to get another catcher, one who was much worse and much more expensive and due to leave as a free agent after the season? And why would you exchange one fifth starter (Seo) for an older, more expensive fifth starter (Hendrickson) who is, if anything, slightly less valuable? I still don't know what the f*** Colletti was smoking to make this head-scratcher of a trade.
The thing that troubles me is that this could be part of an overall strategy. When I heard that Colletti, formerly an assistant under Brian Sabean of the Giants, was going to be taking over the Dodgers system, my first thought was that they should nail down all of their prospects to keep them from getting traded away. The Giants (as I'll speak more about later) are one of the oldest teams in baseball, a team that has consistently signed older and less reliable players for lots of money while letting their farm system deteriorate. That this was the team that Colletti came from was not insignificant. And while Colletti hasn't traded away the farm system for expensive 35-year-olds yet, his actions during his first year in office are enough to make Dodger fans nervous.
I'd like to think that Ned Colletti recognizes the wonderful gift he's been given in this glorious farm system. I'd also like to think that he's too intelligent to screw it up by going after worthless, expensive veterans. And while there's no reason to panic yet, the Mark Hendrickson trade is enough to raise some eyebrows. Let's hope that Colletti nurtures this crop of young talent like a gentle rain rather than a plague of locusts.

Offseason Game Plan:
Ned: If there's a part of you that's still connected to your former boss, Mr. Sabean, disconnect it now before you overspend on a frivolous old geezer free agent. Your core talent base is there; your lineup only needs some bench support to continue as one of the best in the league. You could use a better arm in the starting rotation as well as some bullpen help, but resist the urge to paying a million billion dollars to the likes of Eddie Guardado and Roberto Hernandez. Do your best to exploit the talent in your farm system; it should always be your first option, because it will always be the cheapest.
You've been handed a collection of fine china. Your job is simple: don't drop it.

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