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Friday, September 28, 2007

Hu's on first? Second? Third?

The Dodger's second-half collapse does include a few sources of optimism. Most obviously one can look to the performances of outfielders Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, and first baseman James Loney, all of whom should probably have been given starting assignments earlier in the season.

Loney's 32 RBIs in September is best in all of baseball, and his overall numbers (.337 - 15 - 67) would have undoubtedly garnered him some MVP consideration if he weren't barely ineligible (102 AB in 2006). The 6' 3" Loney is an athletic first baseman who has always hit for average, increasingly for power, works the count, and plays excellent defense. He is very reminiscent of Derrek Lee, and could be even better than D-Lee, who developed rather slowly at the big league level, seeing as Loney is only 23.

Kemp (.333 - 10 - 40) matured dramatically over the course of the last season. He will probably never be a particularly patient hitter, but his plate coverage means he doesn't have to be, and he is no longer chasing everything from his nose to his toes, as he did during his up-and-down tenure with the Dodger in 2006. Kemp is also just 23-years-old, so it is not unfair to expect another dramatic improvement given a full season at the major league level.

Ethier spent the entirety of the 2007 season with the Dodgers, unlike Kemp and Loney, but for some reason Grady Little has been reluctant to make Andre an everyday player. His modest numbers (.288 - 13 - 64) look better when considering that he got only 441 ABs, posted a strong .352 OBP, and had an identical average against righties and lefties. Next year he will have the first shot as the starting left-fielder, with Gonzo undoubtedly moving on, but he will still have to prove himself, as Delwyn Young has looked pretty good during his August/September cup-'0-coffee.

The Dodgers primary problem has been the rotation. No Jason Schmidt. No Randy Wolf. No Hong-Chih Kuo. The staff ERA since the All-Star Break is 4.61. Surprisingly, of their emergency acquisitions, it has been David Wells who has been stronger (4-1) than Esteban Loaiza (1-4). Nonetheless, a healthy Loaiza could comprise the back-end of an excellent rotation in 2008. Hopefully Schmidt and Kuo will return. Brad Penny has turned himself into a perennial Cy Young candidate. Derek Lowe is the prototype workhorse, registering 32 starts and at least 12 wins for six consecutive years. And there will be high expectations for the young Chad Billingsley who has gone 8-5 with a 2.71 ERA since the beginning of July.

The biggest question this offseason could be whether or not the Dodgers should pick up Jeff Kent's $9,000,000 option. Kent is still a productive player when he's in the lineup. In 2007 he has 20 HR, 78 R, and 79 RBI, with a .302 AVG and 875 OPS. Only Chase Utley, Brandon Phillips, and Robinson Cano are obviously better offensive option at second base, while Kent falls squarely in a class with Placido Polanco, Brian Roberts, Orlando Hudson, and Dan Uggla. If he want to, Kent will play somewhere in 2008. Will it be Los Angeles?

They don't have any obvious replacements. However, they do have the 2007 Futures Game MVP, Chin-Lung Hu, an excellent defensive shortstop, who hit .364 in 127 minor league games this season between AA and AAA. Will he have to wait for Rafael Furcal's contract to expire at the end of next year? Or will he perhaps share time with Wilson Valdez at 2B and Andy LaRoche at 3B in 2008?

One thing is certain, the Dodgers need a power boost.

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