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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #14: The Los Angeles Dodgers

The conventional wisdom this offseason has been that L.A. has not and will not be a major player in the free agent market because of the messy divorce proceedings between owner, Frank McCourt, and his wife and former Dodger CED, Jamie McCourt. I don't care to speculate too much regarding this subject, except to say, it is probably in the best interests of the franchise if Jamie is awarded the team when all is said and done. She is clearly more familiar with the daily operations of the franchise and perhaps more dedicated to the teams success (as she has made it her sole priority since 2004). Since the McCourts took over, the Dodgers have had only one losing season and, under the leadership of Paul DePodesta (GM '04-'05) and Ned Colletti (GM '06-Present), as well as Jim Tracy (Manager '04-'05), Grady Little ('06-'07), and Joe Torre ('08-Present) they have made four playoff appearances and assembled perhaps the best collection of homegrown stars in all of baseball.

Ponder this list for a few moments:

RHSP Chad Billingsley (25) Drafted in 2003 (1st Round)
RF Andre Ethier (28) Drafted in 2003 (2nd Round)
OF Xavier Paul (25) Drafted in 2003 (4th Round)
CF Matt Kemp (25) Drafted in 2003 (6th Round)
SS Chin-Lung Hu (26) Signed in 2003 as Amateur Free Agent
1B James Loney (26) Drafted in 2002 (1st Round)
RHRP Jonathan Broxton (26) Drafted in 2002 (2nd Round)
LHSP James McDonald (25) Drafted in 2002 (11th Round)
C Russell Martin (27) Drafted in 2002 (17th Round)
IF Tony Abreu (25) Signed in 2002 as Amateur Free Agent
RHRP Ramon Troncoso (27) Signed in 2002 as Amateur Free Agent
RHRP Ronaldo Belisario (27) Signed in 1999 as Amateur Free Agent
LHRP Hong-Chih Kuo (28) Signed in 1999 as Amateur Free Agent

I think it's safe to say the Dodgers would not have gone to the NLCS the last two years without this collection of talent. Nobody on this list is older than 28, and yet there are four All-Stars, two Gold Gloves, and three Silver Sluggers. They make up a significant portion of the everyday lineup (Kemp, Ethier, Loney, Martin), provide arguably the Ace of the pitching staff (Billingsley), and almost the entirety of the bullpen, which was, in '09, the best in baseball.

So, the McCourts and Ned Colletti deserve some commendations right? Well, yes, they did have a significant hand in developing these players, but all of them were acquired prior to the McCourts purchasing the Dodgers, by the man they fired as GM, Dan Evans. Evans, who now heads up West Coast Sports Management, deserves a great deal of the credit for the Dodgers recent success and may be one of the more underrated general managers of the Moneyball era. In addition to the guys on this list, he was also responsible for drafting Edwin Jackson (who Colletti later traded to Tampa Bay for Lance Carter and Danys Baez) and for engineering several trades which gave the Dodgers a great deal on long-term financial flexibility (sending away Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, Eric Karros, Mark Grudzielanek, Paul Lo Duca, Juan Encarnacion, Devon White, etc.). Obviously, trading away veterans (or letting them walk, as he did with Chan Ho Park) didn't make Evans particularly popular with the Dodgers fan base, but it is hard to cite a case (except maybe Sheffield's) where he unloaded somebody who proved toe be worth what they were being paid over the next several seasons. And in the process, Evan stocked the farm system to the incredible degree which is paying dividends for his successors.

Then again, Evans also signed Darren Dreifort to five years and $55 Million.

Free Agents:

C Brad Ausmus (40)
2B Ron Belliard (34)
IF Juan Castro (37)
RHSP Jon Garland (30)
2B Orlando Hudson (32)
IF Mark Loretta (38)
RHRP Guillermo Mota (36)
LHRP Will Ohman (32)
RHSP Vicente Padilla (32)
RHSP Jason Schmidt (36)
DH Jim Thome (39)
RHSP Jeff Weaver (33)
LHSP Randy Wolf (33) [Signed w/ Brewers]

Arbitration Eligible:

Chad Billingsley (25) RHSP
Jonathan Broxton (26) RHCL
Andre Ethier (28) RF
Matt Kemp (25) CF
Hong-Chih Kuo (28) LHRP
James Loney (26) 1B
Russell Martin (27) C
Jason Repko (29) OF
George Sherrill (33) LHRP

ETA 2010?:

IF Ivan DeJesus Jr. (23)
IF Chin-Lung Hu (26)
RHRP Josh Lindblom (23)
RHRP Jon Link (26)
RHSP Ethan Martin (21)
C Lucas May (25)
OF Xavier Paul (25)

Although the Dodgers have a great core of players in place, one can see by the length of their free agency list that this isn't the best offseason to be standing pat. However, they may have no other choice. If that's the case, the continued success of the team will be dependent on the advancement of the prospects drafted by DePodesta and Colletti. So far, only Clayton Kershaw and Blake DeWitt have made any impression at the major-league level.

The primary source of anxiety for Dodgers fans is the rotation. Although the pitching staff was among the best in the league for the bulk of 2009, the young arms of Billingsley and Kershaw faded down the stretch and especially in the postseason. The most durable and consistent pitcher from the '09 rotation, Randy Wolf, is gone, having signed with Milwaukee, so the Dodgers need a fully healthy Hiroki Kuroda and more consistency from the young guns. At the back end, Joe Torre may be holding open auditions. Scott Elbert, James McDonald, and the knuckleballer, Charlie Haeger, were all starters throughout their minor-league careers, but adapted well to bullpen roles in '09. All are still in their mid-twenties, capable of making big strides. They will probably get long looks as starters during Spring Training. As will Ethan Martin. The 15th pick in the '08 draft hasn't pitched above A ball, but the Georgia alum should move relatively rapidly through the system, both due to maturity and the franchise's desperation.

The starting lineup is set at every position but second base, as both Orlando Hudson and Ron Belliard became free agents. Joe Torre seems comfortable handing a starting job to Blake DeWitt, a converted third baseman, who served the franchise well as a utility man in '08 and '09. If that experiment goes poorly, the Dodgers will turn to middle-infield prospects like Chin-Lung Hu and Ivan DeJesus Jr.

The Dodgers success in '09 depends most upon Billinsley and Kershaw, but they also need bounceback efforts from Manny Ramirez and Russell Martin. Manny's lack of production might be explained by his suspension, as he still managed an admirable 949 OPS for the season, but the Dodgers will no doubt be concerned by the fact that his OPS numbers declined in every month, from 1154 in April to 792 in the postseason. Russell Martin's precipitous decline is utterly without explanation. After being one of the best catchers in baseball from '06 to '08, Martin went into the tank in '09, managing only a 680 OPS, over a hundred points below his previous career low. Perhaps he was hiding an injury. Perhaps it was just a fluke. Whatever the reason, the Dodgers desperately need the All-Star to be back behind the plate in 2010.

Joe Torre has defied all his doubters since coming to L.A., taking the team to the brink of the World Series in each of his first two seasons. 2010 may be his greatest challenge yet.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

SS Rafael Furcal (S)
CF Matt Kemp (R)
LF Manny Ramirez (R)
RF Andre Ethier (L)
1B James Loney (L)
3B Casey Blake (R)
C Russell Martin (R)
2B Blake DeWitt (L)
SP Clayton Kershaw (L)

SP Chad Billingsley (R)
SP Hiroki Kuroda (R)
SP James McDonald (R)
SP Charlie Haeger (R)

CL Jonathan Broxton (R)
SU George Sherrill (L)
SU Ronaldo Belisario (R)
MR Ramon Troncoso (R)
MR Hong-Chih Kuo (L)
LOOGY Scott Elbert (L)
MOP Cory Wade (R)

C A. J. Ellis (R)
IF Jamey Carroll (R)
IF Chin-Lung Hu (R)
OF Xavier Paul (L)
OF Jason Repko (R)

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