NL West Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

It was a year of extremes for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw won the Cy Young and Triple Crown, while Matt Kemp chased the Triple Crown and nearly won the MVP. Jonathan Broxton and Hong Chih Kuo imploded. Javy Guerra and Kenley Jansen arrived, but injuries and/or ineffectiveness killed contributions from Dodger mainstays in Andre Ethier, Casey Blake, Ted Lilly, James Loney and Chad Billingsley. One assured bright spot in rookie Rubby de la Rosa got sidelined with Tommy John surgery.

Los Angeles spent five months of 2011 with a losing record, yet consecutive 17-win months propelled them to an 82-win team, three games over .500. That accomplishment is quite impressive in retrospect, but the ownership cloud still had Ned Colletti hogtied. Aside from a longterm extension given to Matt Kemp, the transactions of the Dodgers' offseason were filled with yawns. Veteran role players walked into the picture, watching a veritable mirror of other veteran role players leaving through the side door.


Additions

2B Mark Ellis (FA), C Matt Treanor (FA), 2B Adam Kennedy (FA), LHP Chris Capuano (FA), RHP Aaron Harang (FA), IF Jerry Hairston Jr. (FA) C Josh Bard (FA), OF Corey Sullivan (FA), LHP John Grabow (FA), RHP Todd Coffey (FA), LHP Alberto Castillo (FA), OF Matt Angle (waivers), RHP Jamey Wright (FA).

Subtractions

RHP Hiroki Kuroda (FA), RHP Jon Garland (FA), RHP Vicente Padilla (FA), C Rod Barajas (FA), 3B Casey Blake (FA), SS Jamey Carroll (FA), IF Aaron Miles (FA), LHP Hong-Chih Kuo, RHP Jonathan Broxton (FA), OF Jamie Hoffman (FA), LHP Dana Eveland (trade)

Returns

LF Juan Rivera, RHP Mike MacDougal.

Projected 25-Man

Lineup Bench Rotation Bullpen
1) Dee Gordon - SS 1B/OF - Jerry Sands 1) Clayton Kershaw Closer - Javy Guerra
2) Mark Ellis - 2B OF - Tony Gwynn Jr. 2) Chad Billingsley Set-up - Kenley Jansen
3) Matt Kemp - CF IF - Adam Kennedy 3) Ted Lilly MR - Matt Guerrier
4) Andre Ethier - RF IF/OF - Jerry Hairston, Jr. 4) Aaron Harang MR - Scott Elbert
5) Juan Rivera - LF C - Matt Treanor 5) Chris Capuano MR - Mike MacDougal
6) 1B - James Loney

MR - Todd Coffey
7) 3B - Juan Uribe LR - Ramon Troncoso
8) C - A.J. Ellis
Lineup

Five of the eight positions in the Dodgers' line-up have changed from a year ago, with only Kemp, Ethier and Loney being the mainstays. I have a hard time seeing the speedy Dee Gordon maintaining his pleasantly suprising production last year, but that position is the most likely to improve over 2011. Ned Colletti again acted quickly in the off-season, resulting in overpays on both sides of the roster, with Juan Rivera the most notable representative in the lineup. Rivera will make just $2.5million less than Josh Willingham in 2012. There isn't much to be excited about here outside of Kemp, but enjoy it now, because it is likely to get significant reinforcements in coming seasons.


Bench

Jerry Sands is an interesting name on that list, the lone player developed by the Dodgers. The 24-year-old managed a 102 OPS+ in 61 games last season as a rookie, so he might be able to leverage himself into the line-up more. Jerry Hairston, Jr. signed a two-year contract in November, the first multi-year deal of his 14 year career. Hairston will make $3.75million in 2013, 64% higher than his highest career salary, at age 37. Adam Kennedy joins the veteran infielder glut, and Gwynn (two year contract!) and Treanor (Mr. Misty May) provide shallow depth. In case Don Mattingly decides he needs more infielders, Justin Sellers, Ivan DeJesus Jr and Josh Fields are candidates for Sands' spot on the bench.


Rotation

Clayton Kershaw won the Triple Crown and Cy Young in 2011. It doesn't get much better than that, and while most would predict regression from a career year, he was just 23. He will be just as awesome. Chad Billingsley just hasn't transformed into a reliable TOR starter, and 2011 represented a step back for the right-hander who posted his career worst K, BB and ERA rates since his rookie season in 2006 at age 22. Ted Lilly was a disappointment in 2011, putting up just 1.3 fWAR in 33 starts, less than Jorge de la Rosa posted in 10. The back end of the rotation was cobbled together early in free agency, with Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano earning just $6million total. Not bad, but they both got 2-year contracts(!) (Capuano's first of his career), and they'll get $13million total in 2013, when Eovaldi and de la Rosa are knocking on the door, with potentially Chris Reed, Chris Withrow and Allan Webster arriving. The rotation is most certainly a step back from how it appeared a year ago, but it will keep them competitive in 2012.


Bullpen

The Padres get plenty of attention for producing relievers, but they seem to grow on trees in DodgerTown as well. Your All-Stars in Jonathan Broxton and Hong-Chih Kuo completely implode? Fine, there's Javy Guerra (162 ERA+ in 2011) and Kenley Jansen (179 ERA+, 16.1 K/9) ready to step in. Guerra will start in the closer's role, but Jansen is likely to take it over before long. Todd Coffey joins Matt Guerrier and Mike MacDougal as veterans inked by Ned Colletti from the previous year, and the optionless Ramon Troncoso fills out the pen, most likely. He was hit around quite a bit in 2011, so veterans Jamey Wright or John Grabow might push Troncoso out of a job. Blake Hawksworth may figure into the picture at some point as well, but he had elbow surgery in January to remove a bone spur.

Why They Could Be Good

Stephen Cohen and Patrick Soon-Siang. No, those aren't stud prospects or international signees - they are actually more important. Soon-Siang is Los Angeles' richest man, and Cohen is worth even more than that. They form an irresistible potential ownership group. It might not be the Cohen/Soon-Siang ticket that wins, but a new ownership group will likely be selected before the season starts. The new owners would gain control at the end of April, giving the Dodgers a lot more in terms of resources. The new owner(s) would likely be motivated to make a splash to gain fan favor over McCourt, so if the Dodgers are in contention in July (and hey, the Pirates and Indians were last year), they may make a play for a big name. With a middling farm system, it would make more sense to make the big splash in the off-season when money can build a roster alone, but keep an eye on Los Angeles' start, because they might not have problems taking on salary.

To get there, Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley would seem to be capable of much better years. Improvement from them is far from unreasonable and would go a long way in strengthening their staff. Jerry Sands and Dee Gordon have pathways to allow them to contribute more, and they have the ability more than anyone on the roster to break out. Andre Ethier was bothered by injuries much of last year, but he seems to be at full strength in Spring Training, where he is hitting .440/.483/1.080 with 10 extra base hits in 25 at bats.

Why They Could Be Bad

There are very few breakout candidates on the roster, yet Kershaw and Kemp are possibilities to come back down to earth a bit. If they do (more like when for Kemp than Kershaw), there isn't much in the pleasant surprise department to pick up the slack. The roster is filled with aged veterans or Dodgers prospects that just have not fulfilled their early career promise. The upside is really missing from the supporting cast with this team, as I'm not a big believer in either Sands or Gordon.

Prospect to Watch - Nathan Eovaldi, RHP

In 2011, Trayvon Robinson was shipped to Seattle, while Kenley Jansen, Dee Gordon, Rubby de la Rosa and Jerry Sands played enough for the Dodgers to lose their prospect status. Those names represented Kevin Goldstein's #2-6 Dodgers' prospects a year ago, with #1 Zach Lee remaining years away from the bigs. The guy to watch in 2012 is a name that didn't even get a mention on Goldstein's list in 2011, Los Angeles' 11th round pick in 2008 who did not pitch above A-ball until 2011.

Nathan Eovaldi started 19 games for AA Chattanooga and impressed enough to be given a spot in the Dodgers' rotation when Rubby de la Rosa got hurt. In 10 appearances and 6 starts, he held opponents to 2 ER or less, working to a respectable 101 ERA+ and nearly a strikeout per inning. He works with a low-mid 90's fastball and strong slider, but the rest of his arsenal is limited.

With the acquisitions of Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano, the Dodgers actually have five pitchers under contract through at least 2013, not including Eovaldi or de la Rosa. He will likely start the year as a starter in AAA Albuquerque, with the chance to fill in at the first injury in the rotation. If there proves to be no path, he could be more effective in the bullpen.

Summary in Blue

Eric Stephen, TrueBlueLA:

I think the Dodgers hope to parlay their hot finish to 2011 (25-10 over final 35 games) into 2012, but even if everything goes right I think this team is an 85-87 win team tops. Their best hope is a collapse by the Diamondbacks at the top, and a 2005/2008-type free-for-all in which a mid-80-win team could win the division.

Quotable

Jamey Wright:

"I want to be the first 20-year big leaguer to sign 10 minor league contracts in a row." Jamey Wright, who has a non-roster invitee to spring training every year since 2006.

Conclusion

The Dodgers have an ugly roster. There are two superstars, one inconsistent stud in Ethier, a couple potentially interesting young guys, and then three dozen veteran role players. The rotation and lineup appear weakened from a year ago, and any reinforcements brought in over the offseason addressed the periphery only. The good news for Dodgers fans is that it is a transition year, and one in which they could still win the NL West if everything goes right. The bad news for fans in the NL West is that the hamstrung Dodgers period is nearing its end, and the 2013 Dodgers will likely have significant reinforcements.

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