NL West Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers aren't favorites in the division, but big years from these three could put them atop the NL West in 2011.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, one of Major League Baseball's most prideful franchises, is going through trying times.  With the ongoing divorce of the franchise owners undeniably placing the team in financial purgatory, Ned Colletti has had to get creative in improving his team.  He certainly did so.

Colletti was the first horse out of the gate after their rivals won the World Series, inking Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda, Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla to not only preserve the status quo in the rotation, but improve it.  Consider that 2010's Opening Day starter (say what you will about that choice) was to be slotted as a long reliever.  Those four pitchers will cost as little as $26 million in 2011, quite the deal for solidifying a rotation. 

Colletti dealt Ryan Theriot to St. Louis, then filled his starting spot at second base with Juan Uribe, who will earn just $5mil this season.  He also brought in long time Twins reliever Matt Guerrier, who will earn just $1.5mil in 2011.

It's a pretty thrifty purchase plan on the surface, but there is a catch.  Rampant deferrals of contracts figure to make building a roster more difficult in coming years.  Lilly's salary balloons to $10.5mil and $12mil the next two seasons (when he will be 36 and 37), Uribe jumps to $8mil and $7mil after 2011, and Matt Guerrier leaps to $3.75mil for consecutive seasons after 2011.  

The solid signing of Marcus Thames to join an outfield platoon (just $1mil) was offset by the confusing overpay of Rod Barajas ($3.25mil).  And at the end of the day, Barajas and Jay Gibbons are starting in positions where the Dodgers used to carry All-Stars (Russell Martin and Manny Ramirez).

Presuming the McCourt divorce doesn't suddenly neatly resolve, paving the way for a new owner with more money to clean up the mess, the Dodgers will have a very difficult time filling holes in coming years (even considering the Juan Pierre and Ramirez contracts will soon be finally off the books).  It places a bit of importance for the Dodgers to be competitive deep into 2011.  Ned Colletti seems to think sacrificing future flexibility is worth giving the Dodgers a shot in 2011.  Just how much of a shot is that?


Additions

IF Juan Uribe (FA), SP Jon Garland (FA), OF Marcus Thames (FA), OF Tony Gwynn Jr. (FA), RP Matt Guerrier (FA), C Dioner Navarro (FA),  RP Blake Hawksworth (trade), RP Juan Rincon (FA), RP Lance Cormier (FA), RP Oscar Villareal (FA), IF/OF Eugenio Velez (FA), OF Gabe Kapler (FA). 


Returns

SP Ted Lilly (FA), SP Hiroki Kuroda, SP/RP Vicente Padilla, C Rod Barajas, SS Juan Castro.

 

Subtractions

C Russell Martin (FA), RP George Sherrill (FA), C Brad Ausmus (retired), RP Ronald Belisario (restricted list), Ryan Theriot (trade), RP Jeff Weaver (FA), OF Scott Podsednik (FA), OF Reed Johnson (FA), OF Trent Oeltjen (FA), SS Chin-Lung Hu (trade).

Star-divide

Projected 25-Man

Lineup Bench Rotation Bullpen
1) Rafael Furcal - SS LF - Marcus Thames 1) Clayton Kershaw Closer - Jonathan Broxton
2) Casey Blake - 3B OF - Tony Gwynn Jr 2) Chad Billingsley Set-up - Hong-Chih Kuo
3) Andre Ethier - RF IF - Jamey Carroll 3) Ted Lilly MR - Matt Guerrier 
4) Matt Kemp - CF IF - Aaron Miles 4) Hiroki Kuroda MR -Kenley Jansen
5) James Loney - 1B C - Dioner Navarro 5) Jon Garland MR - Ramon Troncoso
6) Juan Uribe - 2B

MR - Mike MacDougal
7) Jay Gibbons - LF LR - Blake Hawksworth
8) Rod Barajas - C
Lineup

After losing Mannywood and the All-star version of Russell Martin, the Dodgers' lineup appears far more hollow than we are used to, especially after getting past Matt Kemp.  GM Ned Colletti made no notable upgrades to the lineup, one which suffered through a very poor 2010, scoring just 667 runs.  That represents just four more than the Athletics, two more than the Padres, and ten less than the Royals.  Colletti is clearly banking on bounceback years here.

 

Bench

Marcus Thames was signed to be the right-handed platoon in left-field.  There was a window for Thames to step into the starting lineup, as Jay Gibbons was dealing with vision problems don't improve.  However, those issues were easily resolved.  I strongly suggest you click here for a laugh.  Dioner Navarro returns to his 2005 team to back up Barajas, and Tony Gwynn Jr has signed on to be the fifth outfielder.  The infield bench looks awfully familiar, as Jamey Carroll returns to the role, potentially joined by free agent Aaron Miles.  Juan Castro is still battling Miles for the role.  Beyond Thames, there isn't a single bat to worry about in late innings, and moreover, there is essentially zero untapped potential riding the bench that could replace production of the top five in the lineup if they got hurt.

 

Rotation

Starting pitching is without a doubt the Dodgers' strength.  Ned Colletti signed four starting pitchers early in the offseason, three of whom were on the team last season and one of whom was there in 2009.  If anything, this rotation is sorely underrated, as the top four have the potential to completely shut down opponents on a semi-regular basis. Jon Garland is as solid and dependable as one could ask for in a fifth starter.  However, Garland will be on the disabled list for the first time in 11 years, missing the first half of April.  Tim Redding or John Ely will fill in for a couple starts.  The overqualified sixth starter - Vicente Padilla - has a strained forearm and won't return until anywhere from May to mid-July.

 

Bullpen

Los Angeles had a serviceable bullpen in 2010 at 3.0 fWAR (14th in MLB), but that is a far cry from what Dodger fans have come to expect.  That is a result of George Sherrill's meltdown and Jonathan Broxton falling apart after years of abuse.  Ned Colletti panicked and gave out an ill-advised backloaded 3-year $12mil contract to middle reliever Matt Guerrier, whose career FIP is worse than Matt Daley, Franklin Morales, Manny Delcarmen and Manuel Corpas.  Ronald Belisario figures to be on the restricted list all season with visa issues, and the spring struggles of Scott Elbert and Ron Mahay push Mike MacDougal into a possible role.  Like the lineup, the success of the bullpen requires a bounceback year for Jonathan Broxton, who has a 10.80 ERA in 3.1 IP this spring training, with three walks and zero strikeouts.

 

Why They Could Be Better

The Dodgers are counting on bounceback years, but no other team in the division is in better position to count on that than Los Angeles, even the Rockies.  Matt Kemp saw his entire game go in the toilet, and he tops most lists as a bounceback candidate.  Andre Ethier missed 23 games with various ailments and was slowed at the plate with a finger injury after starting the season chasing the Triple Crown. Rafael Furcal missed 65 games last season and Casey Blake posted his worst wOBA since his rookie year in 2003.  Toss Jonathan Broxton in there as a bounceback candidate as well.  Don Mattingly is almost assured of gaining some wins from that group improving in 2011, and the McCourt divorce figures to be less of a distraction after moving into its second year.

The rotation already appears to be a great strength, and despite three aged arms, they could actually get better in 2011.  Chad Billingsley finally got rid of what was holding him back by midseason, and a full year of second-half Billingsley provides a fearsome #2 pitcher.  A poor August aside, Clayton Kershaw steadily improved his control as the season went on in 2010.  If that final hurdle is cleared, Kershaw could be in position for a Ubaldo-like breakout in 2011.  While the Phillies and Giants get a lot of love, the Dodgers are easily one of the top rotations in the league, giving Los Angeles a tremendous strength in arguably the most important aspect of the game.

 

Why They Could Be Bad

There's very little depth here, which is especially concerning with the age (read: little upside) on the roster. The bench is uninspiring and has a low ceiling.  The lineup could be good enough with their rotation, but they'll need bounceback years from at least two of Kemp, Ethier and Blake while keeping Furcal healthy.  The lineup was good back when Kemp and Ethier were at their best, but even if they rebound to that level, there will still be a Manny-sized hole from the strong 2009 offense. Even their deep and strong rotation may have Tim Redding taking the ball in April.  Even if the Dodgers end up with the best rotation in baseball come October, the offense, uneven bullpen (Broxton), and bench might hold them back from playing meaningful games in the season's final two weeks.

 

Prospect to Watch

In 2006, Dodgers diehards in Florida got the treat of seeing an 18-year old phenom pitch on the mound for the rookie level Gulf Coast League Dodgers in Vero Beach.  He did not disappoint.  A certain Dodger on the field from Clayton Kershaw's professional debut would go on to post a 0.67 ERA for Los Angeles in 2010; ironically, it was Kershaw's catcher.

After nearing washing out of the minors with five horrible seasons at the plate, then 21-year-old Kenley Jansen tried his hand at pitching in 2009.  After starting in High-A in 2010, Jansen found himself in the majors after a 2.22 ERA and 15.4 K/9 in 56.2 IP.  He followed that with 41 K's in 27 big league innings and a miniscule 0.67 ERA.

The former catcher throws predominantly mid-90's fastballs and struggles with command, while working on a developing a slider and change-up.  How legitimate is this fairy tale?  Brandon Lennox of TrueBlueLA relays in an email:

I think that Jansen can be a quality big league reliever for years to come...Big league hitters will eventually figure out how to hit his fastball, so he's going to have to rely more on his secondary pitches. I'm sure he can continue to improve his slider and changeup, so it will really just depend on how big his learning curve is and how fast he is able to make adjustments. His slider is pretty good, and I'm sure that is one the main things he'll be working on during spring training.

Also, be on the lookout for Trayvon Robinson, a speedy center fielder and potential leadoff man that will start in AAA Albuquerque.  He could be called up midseason with a good start in AAA and underwhelming Gibbons/Thames platoon.  Matt Kemp would presumably be moved to left field in that scenario.

 

Conclusion

Personally, I think the Dodgers are the most underrated team in the division, particularly by many here at Purple Row.  Their rotation can match up with just about anyone, the newness of the McCourt divorce distraction has worn off, and I just cannot see that miserable offense from 2010 performing as badly.  There is a good portion of this team that is intact from their consecutive division titles, and healthy bounceback years from the middle of the order could lead to Los Angeles stealing the division.

There is undoubtedly a potential path for the Dodgers to win the NL West, but I don't see it happening.  I am skeptical that Ethier, Kemp, Broxton and Blake can indeed return completely to 2009 production or that Rafael Furcal can stay healthy.  Without that, the poor bottom of the lineup will hold them back.  In a competitive NL West, that won't be enough.  I currently have them battling neck and neck with the San Francisco Giants for second place, eventually finishing slightly higher than their hated rivals at season's end.

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