2009 Season Forecast: Los Angeles Dodgers

Los Angeles Dodgers
2008: 84-78 (1st NL West)

One of the great mysteries, as I see it, is trying to reconstruct how the Dodgers did what they did.  This is a team that, on the surface, looks like it should have clocked the division – but it didn’t.  Joe Torre’s job, as I see it, is to figure out how to make them play more consistently at the high level shown not just in September but at other odd stretches throughout the season, and eliminate some of the huge stretches of losing streaks that plagued Los Angeles for much of the season.

Looking Back on 2008

Looking at the roster, you had a lot of potential in the young players like Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsly, Jonathon Broxton, James Loney, and Matt Kemp, surrounded by the veteran presence of players like Rafael Furcal and Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent, and Derek Lowe.  Plus, you had the new sage leadership of Joe Torre and his management crew – guys like Don Mattingly and Larry Bowa.  At the beginning of the season, many (including me) had them winning the division and possibly making a run deep into the playoffs.  And they did – but it wasn’t in any way a dominating performance.

Instead, you had a wildly inconsistent team.  The Dodgers were capable of winning ten out of eleven, just as well as losing ten out of eleven.  Nearly unbeatable at home, the hitters didn’t produce on the road and the pitchers might as well as not got off the plane on the road.

Right away, the Dodgers lost nine of twelve to fall into a deep hole as it coincided with the hot start of the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Facing Colorado twice, the Marlins and Mets at the end of April, the team ran off ten wins in eleven games, to get five games over and back into the race.  However, with Andruw Jones hitting half the Mendoza line, and Brad Penny fighting through injuries and pitching poorly, a second slump pushed the Dodgers seven games under .500 after getting swept by a lousy Detroit team in mid-June.

Not quitting – and getting Penny and Jones out of the lineup – the team rallied gamely back over the next six weeks, winning a few more than they lost into mid-August when another extremely poor streak (losing eleven of 13) would have appeared to bury LA.  The last of the losses was to Arizona.  Any other manager might have been fired, but Joe Torre was left in charge – at which point Manny Ramirez put the Dodgers on his back.

Los Angeles won the last two against Arizona and never looked back.  Winning fourteen of sixteen, the Dodgers not only roared back into the race but caught the fading Diamondbacks, holding them off thanks in large part to a weak schedule for the last two weeks of the year.  The Dodgers finished with San Francisco, San Diego, Colorado, and Pittsburgh down the stretch, while Arizona imploded.

Manny Ramirez continued his hot hitting into the playoffs, but by then the Dodgers had to face really good teams (Chicago and Philadelphia) and one of them was bound to be hotter.  Philadelphia finished off Los Angeles one series shy of the World Series.

 
Tell me about that offense

The Dodgers had a lot of solid performances up and down the lineup, but had two or three really poor performances that prevented this team from looking really as strong as they probably should have been.

The two best hitters didn’t play 90 games combined.  Rafael Furcal played in just 36 games, Manny Ramirez 53, but in those 89 games, I see them as having created about 117 runs – an unreal total.  The problem was that both players were negated by two others, Angel Berroa and Andruw Jones, who hit like two non-prospects from AA.  Much has been written about Ramirez’s hitting .396 in two months – at a pace that would have created 50 homers and 160 RBI in a full season.  But Furcal was also remarkably productive – in about a fourth of a season, he paced out at 20 homers, 30 steals, a .340 bat and a .440 OBA, a leadoff hitter any team would wish for.

They just weren’t here all year.

Behind the plate, Russell Martin played every game (not really – 155 of 162) and only really wilting in August, but playing well in September.  Few catchers have as well rounded a game as Martin – a little power, decent baserunner, works the count.

The infield was pretty sold, except when Angel Berroa had to play in Furcal’s absence.  Aside from Furcal, Jeff Kent was still an above average run producer and Blake DeWitt hit just as well as Kent.  James Loney isn’t a bopper at first base but still contributed close to 100 runs, hitting like Mark Grace without the batting eye.  Casey Blake and Nomar Garciaparra were decent fill-ins offensively.  Berroa, however, consumed outs and didn’t generate any offense (about 3 runs per 27 outs).  Not having Furcal all season probably cost the Dodgers 60 runs of offense.

In the outfield, Ethier and Kemp were both worth 110 or more runs offensively, with good power, some speed, and, in Ethier’s case, a willingness to work the count.  Jones was awful (2 runs per 27 outs); where he once created 110 runs a season or more, he was on pace to create about 35.  Forced to play Juan Pierre, Pierre did what you would expect – hit singles, ground out a lot, and steal a few bases.  He was slightly above what the average player delivers, but the net loss caused by Jones’s poor season was probably another 40 runs.

Then, you look at the rest of the bench and you see a lot of holes.  Mark Sweeney was asked to pinch hit a lot.  In 92 at bats, he got 12 hits.  Berroa was so weak as a hitter, the Dodgers gave innings to Luis Maza and Chin-Hung Lu, both of whom were even worse than Berroa.

Jones, Furcal, and the weak bench kept this team from scoring 800 runs, which would have been near the top of the National League – impressive for a team playing in Dodger Stadium.

Defensively:

Not so good.  Behind the plate, Martin is average – good with the pitchers, weak against the run, and makes a few too many errors.  Danny Ardoin occupied the bench a lot.

The infield features James Loney, who looks rather immobile for such a young player, and is missing a fielder at either second or third.  Offensively, Casey Blake and Jeff Kent and Blake DeWitt were interchangeable, but only DeWitt can field.  Once Kent lost his mobility, Torre made the right decision to play DeWitt at second and let Blake play at third.  If Manny Ramirez doesn’t come back, I think the Dodgers may miss Andy LaRoche.  Berroa played decently in the field, while Furcal’s numbers were way off thanks to injuries.

The outfield was generally weak.  Jones is no better than an average centerfielder, Kemp is slightly below average.  Ethier is weak in either corner.  That leaves you with left field where Pierre isn’t really that good at running down flies (for as fast as he is, he is consistently below average defensively).  Ramirez was surprisingly interested in fielding for two months – the best corner outfielder they have.

Ideally, the Dodgers would love to have a burner in center and move Kemp to right, Ethier to left – but I don’t see that happening soon.  And, thankfully, Jones is gone.

Now Pitching…

Just as the offense had to studs and a couple of serious burnouts, the pitching staff had a couple of studs, some good complimentary arms, and two guys who just killed them.

Chad Billingsley’s first full season as a starter was a decided success, finishing nearly 24 runs better than the average pitcher in 200 innings.  Derek Lowe was nearly as good, another 20 runs above average.  Hiroki Kuroda was slightly above average, and Clayton Kershaw showed enough in 100 innings that if he gains command of the strike zone, he could become a solid #2 starter.  After that, the Dodgers prayed.  Brad Penny was miserable, costing his team nearly 23 runs that an average pitcher wouldn’t have allowed – basically negating one ace – and the scraps given to Greg Maddux and Eric Stults were tolerable.  At least Stults looks like he has a future.

The bullpen was nearly as good as Philadelphia’s – with Takashi Saito holding down the closer role until he had to sit with a sore elbow.  Jonathon Broxton was solid as a setup man, and other pitchers, like Joe Beimel, Cory Wade and Hong-Chi Kuo were well above average pitchers.  Only Scott Proctor – also marred by a sore elbow – didn’t pitch above average on the season.

Forecasting 2008:

If there is optimism here, I don’t see it – and it really starts with the pitchers.

Billingsley was marvelous but it was his first season, and now he’s recovering from a broken shin bone suffered while falling on the ice in November.  He should be healthy, but he could be good and still ten runs worse than last year.  Lowe is gone – his likely replacement could be Randy Wolf, who has been generally unimpressive since coming back from injury three years ago.  If he actually gets to 200 innings and is better than planned, that would be league average and likely another 20 runs worse than last year.

Kuroda and Kershaw will be expanding their roles – not totally confident that either will make significant strides in any direction.  Let’s call that a wash over last year – but with more innings pitched.  That leaves the fifth spot, which could go to Stults, or Jason Schmidt (yeah, still here and collecting a paycheck), or Claudio Vargas.  If Schmidt is really healthy (the first surgeries were okay, but a clavicle repair in the fall apparently cleared up his pain and he’s throwing freely for the first time in years), this could be a big upgrade – a 30 run upgrade.  If not, it’s still going to be better – maybe 10 runs better.  I’ve seen a list of the other options and none of them impress me.  Jeff Weaver?  Really?

And, the bullpen is thinner.  Saito is with the Red Sox, Beimel is unsigned but still a free agent.   Wade and Kuo are still here, and Broxton was promoted to the closer role.  However, the potential replacements are Ramon Troncoso and Guillermo Mota, none of which have had a solid season in the majors in the last three years (granted Troncoso is just 25).  NRI options include Yhency Brazoben and Shawn Estes (really?).  Granted, an injured Proctor is gone, but the bullpen certainly won’t be better than last year.  More realistically, the bullpen will be 20 runs worse than last year. 

Defensively, the Dodgers would improve if they moved DeWitt back to third and played recently acquired Mark Loretta at second.  Only problem is that Loretta is 37 and likely just an insurance policy.  So, the infield will still be a challenge unless Furcal can return to the form he showed three years ago.  Furcal still has the arm, but he is 31 and collecting injuries at too quick a pace.  The outfield, already slightly below average, is likely going to remain below average.  Kemp and Ethier might perform a little better, but Manny will not and a full season of Juan Pierre in the outfield isn’t making anything better.

Offensively, the team is already pretty solid.  Kemp, Ethier or Loney could turn doubles into homers with another year of seasoning – and Ethier is at that age where a breakout season is possible.  The net effect should be about twenty runs better than before.  A full season of Furcal would help – it’s worth 15 more runs than having to play Tony Abreu or Lu at short.  Casey Blake, however is, 35 and may lose a step.  DeWitt has potential for improvement, but he’ll be playing his first full season.  Let’s see what happens.

Russell Martin is the question mark.  If asked to play 150 games again, I don’t think the offense holds up.  And, if he cedes games to Danny Ardoin or the unretired Brad Ausmus, they’ll lose ten runs by letting those guys bat.  If Martin goes down, the loss would be devastating.

And, if Manny signs, he’s not going to hit .396 all season.  Heck, he might not be here at all.  My take on it is that if he signs, the Dodgers will score about 710 runs this year.  If not, it might be closer to 670 runs.  If Manny isn’t back, when coupled with the decline of the pitching and defense, and the Dodgers are a candidate to finish under .500.  Even if he returns, we’re talking about a team that MIGHT with 82 games. 

I’m not that confident.  I think Joe Torre’s last year will be a year of distractions and underperforming.  If I were a betting man, I’d look at the over/under on the number of wins listed in Vegas and bet the under.  The system says 84 wins with Manny, and 79 without him.  My gut tells me 77 wins will be successful.

Down on the Farm…

After a couple of years in Las Vegas, the Dodgers are going back to Albuquerque for AAA games.  A couple of guys may make the move…  Eric Stults and Jason Johnson both pitched well in Vegas.  Stults is a long shot prospect, but Jason Johnson you might remember from stints in Detroit, Baltimore, and other major league outposts.  He’s 35 and running out of time.  Even Stults is rather old for a prospect – he’s 29.  Most of the batters for Las Vegas were older than Stults – those who are younger are now on an MLB roster.

The AA team is also moving from Jacksonville to Chattanooga in 2009.  The best player for Jacksonville was the son of a former Dodger prospect, Ivan DeJesus, Jr., who will likely be Rafael Furcal’s replacement in 2011.  He has a bit more power than his dad, and his batting eye looks to be a bit better, too.  Clayton Kershaw already made it to the bigs, leaving Scott Elbert, a former first round draft pick, as the next best pitcher on the AA staff.  Elbert has been slow to move up, but strikes out a lot of minor league hitters.  His next stop looks to be Albuquerque.

Carlos Santana looks to be the catcher of the future, after a solid season in A ball, and he’s still just 22.  He hit well, showed some power, and good plate discipline.  After that, it’s slim pickings.

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Filed under Andy LaRoche, Angel Berroa, Chad Billingsley, Claudio Vargas, Derek Lowe, Eric Stults, Hiroki Kuroda, Jeff Weaver, Los Angeles Dodgers, Manny Ramirez, Scott Proctor, Season Forecast

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