The third installment of this week's romp through the National League West brings us to Chavez Ravine and the Los Angeles Dodgers. This installment will not talk about the ownership situation though that continuing story does relate to the product the Dodgers will have on the field. Instead, the post will simply stick to the team the Dodgers will be sending into the scrum that is the NL West. The Dodgers may well finish at the bottom of that imagined rugby pile.
The Dodgers won 82 games last year. That is above .500. That is respectable, no? And Baseball Prospectus predicts the team will win 78 games this coming season. That win total, according to BP, will place them only eight games behind the eventual division leader. Even so, according to BP, that would place the Dodgers in last place. That is how close this division is supposed to play out. The thought seemed reasonable until MLBdepthcharts.com was consulted. And, ugh, the Dodgers depth chart found on that site does not look pretty.
The biggest problem when looking at the Dodgers' depth chart is the offense. BP predicts this offense will be as paltry as the Giants. And as we saw yesterday, that's not a good thing, especially when the Dodgers can't match up with the Giants' pitching staff. Both the offense and the pitching contains one shining star. Clayton Kershaw has developed into an amazing pitcher and Matt Kemp had about as good a season as you can have in baseball last year. Every single projection system consulted for this piece (and there were a lot of them) believe that both stars will not be quite as good in 2012. Let's say they are wrong and pessimistic, and that may well be the truth, these two simply cannot bring the rest of their teammates over the hump.
Last year's Dodger offense accounted for 16 WAR according to Baseball-reference.com and Matt Kemp accounted for 10 of that 16 WAR total. According to that same site, the top three pitchers in WAR were Kershaw, Hiroki Kuroda and Ted Lilly. Kuroda and his 3.7 WAR is gone and replaced by pitchers who shouldn't be quite as good.
Let's look at the offense. Can any projection be optimistic when according to BP, Clayton Kershaw was the fifth most valuable offensive contributor last season? No, not really and guilt is starting to rise that this preview is turning out so negative. Sincere apologies to you Dodger fans. But the facts are facts and fairness needs to call it as close to reality as possible. When 83 year old, Jimmy Carroll, was the third most valuable offensive chip on the table last season, there is a problem.
The infield is, frankly, pathetic. James Loney is a known entity. He probably had his best overall full season as a Dodger last season and despite being a slick defender at first base, does not produce the kind of offense you would like to see from a first baseman. He is never going to be a big power guy and that would be okay if he was as good a hitter as Mark Grace was. But he isn't. He is league average at getting on base. And that simply doesn't cut it.
Jimmy Carroll was allowed to walk as a free agent and he will take his Methuselah act to the Twins. His replacement is Mark Ellis who is probably an upgrade. Ellis has been an underrated player during his career as he was hidden away as a member of the Athletic for years. He has a little pop in his bat, is an excellent fielder (or used to be at least). But he is going to be 35 in 2012 and his best days may be behind him.
Here is a bit of trivia for you. With A.J. Ellis behind the plate, he and Mark Ellis make up twenty percent of the total number of guys with the name Ellis that have ever played Major League Baseball. And no two guys with that last name have ever started in the same line up. More on A.J. Ellis in a minute.
Continuing with the infield, shortstop will be manned by Dee Gordon. Gordon had an excellent season at Albuquerque before coming up to the Dodgers to take over once Rafael Furcal was injured and eventually traded to the Cardinals. And Gordon continued his hot hitting for the Dodgers as he batted .303 and added some excitement with 24 steals in just 31 attempts.
But the good news for Gordon stops there. He was inadequate in the field as all major systems rated him poorly for his defense and he made ten errors in just 56 games. Plus, Gordon almost never takes a walk. He walked just three percent of the time in 2012 and that was just slightly lower than his minor league averages. Gordon swings at forty percent of pitches outside the strike zone and that is not a good thing. Such a rate is nearly double that of someone who is considered to have good plate discipline.
Gordon perhaps will be better in the field, but projection systems consulted have him batting in the .260 range with an on-base percentage under .300. Let's hope that he performs better than that because those numbers are not good.
Third base will be occupied by Juan Uribe. Uribe followed his 2010 World Series heroics and a pretty good season with the Giants to a three year contract with the Dodgers for a pretty decent chunk of change. But he was awful last season. His final OPS+ was 56. His power went away and he batted just .204 with an on-base percentage of .264. Uribe is still slick with the glove and could perhaps bounce back offensively. It would be a great help to the Dodgers if he could at least hit again for league average.
Let's get back to A.J. Ellis. Ellis will be the starting catcher. He takes over for Rod "The Bod" Barajas. Despite the fact that Ellis will be 31 in the 2012 season, this will only be his fifth season in the big leagues, all as a back up. The Dodgers will lose some power production as Ellis does not hit for power while Barajas hit sixteen homers in just 337 at bats. Ellis has much more plate discipline than Barajas which may translate well over a full season. Barajas rated better defensively, however, so all things considered, the Dodgers lose something going forward with Ellis.
Ellis is backed up by Matt Treanor. The only good thing you can say about Treanor is that his wife is a very good volleyball player. Otherwise, Treanor has never hit and is not considered a great defensive catcher. Catching is definitely a weakness on this team.
The outfield is in better shape than anything else on the field for the Dodgers. Matt Kemp has become one of the best players in baseball and should have another monster season. He had a better defensive season last year but is still rated below average in that category. Andre Ethier is a very good offensive right-fielder which makes up for his very bad defense out there. Ethier has had some difficulties staying healthy and isn't very happy being a Dodger these days. He may or may not stay on the team all season. Time will tell. But at least he is one of the brighter spots in the Dodgers' line up.
The depth chart says that Juan Rivera is the starting left fielder. Rivera is a decent player but he's better as a role player than starting every day. It would be a great surprise if Jerry Sands doesn't land more playing time either in left or eventually at first. Sands had a mostly positive first experience in the big leagues last season. Sands just seems like a better option than Rivera and the prediction here is that he will be in the starting line up come April.
The Dodgers' pitching rotation is well suited for their vast ballpark. Clayton Kershaw is easily one of the top five pitchers in the National League and he is only 24 years old. That is scary good. The thing that is so impressive about Kershaw is that despite his power arm, young age and left-handedness, he has excellent control and only walked 2.1 batters per nine innings last season. He is a rare treat and is one of those talents that you can't wait to see pitch every fifth day.
He is followed by the somewhat enigmatic, Chad Billingsley. Billingsley's strikeout rate has gone down for three straight seasons and last year, he walked more batters than he has before. He is only 27 himself though and should have a better season in 2012 than he did in 2011. At worst, he is a solid rotation guy and at best, he had vastly underrated seasons in 2009 and 2010.
Ted Lilly is a solid, if unspectacular rotation guy who should get his usual 30+ starts. He has good control but despite pitching half his games in LA, gave up quite a few homers last season. Lilly will keep the Dodgers in most games and finish about league average with his statistics. There is value in that, especially since he throws from the left side.
The hole left by the departed Kuroda will be filled with Aaron Harang who goes from one pitchers' park in San Diego to another in Los Angeles. That makes Harang a smart guy. Harang is yet another unspectacular, league average pitcher who should give the Dodgers 30 starts and keep them in the game in most of them.
The rotation will be rounded out by Chris Capuano who has resurrected his career after years of injury. If he stays healthy, Capuano still provides solid strikeout rates and his tendency to give up homers should be somewhat mitigated by pitching at Dodger Stadium. He is liked here much more than by most in the baseball analytic society. He should have a solid season if he stays healthy.
The starting rotation as a whole seems solid. Kershaw is spectacular at the top followed by dependable league average types all the way through the rest.
The Dodgers' bullpen is a bit troublesome. Broxton is now gone and the closer is the little known Javy Guerra. Guerra isn't the blow-you-away type of closer but was reasonably successful in his time closing in 2011. He should be solid if not spectacular. He is backed up by the electric arm of Kenley Jansen. Jansen struck out 96 batters in just 53.2 innings of work. There is no way that Mike MacDougal can match his 2.06 ERA last season. No chance. Expect him to revert back to his usual messiness in 2012. Matt Guerrier is solid. Scott Elbert was solid as the designated lefty. But Blake Hawksworth might miss the start of the season with an injury.
The bullpen is rounded out by the usually reliable Todd Coffey and Ramon Troncoso, who was a train wreck last season. Overall, this bullpen walks way too many batters and has only one member that can blow people away. Bullpens are tricky anyway, but this one seems dicey at best.
The Dodgers have a decent bench with either Rivera or Sands, the ever-present Jerry Hairston, Adam Kennedy and Tony Gwynn, Jr.
After spending far too many hours looking at this team, the 2012 Los Angeles Dodgers will do well to win 75 games. The final analysis would love to be more optimistic, especially with Don Mattingly at the helm, but the reality is simply too overwhelming. This isn't a good ball club and will need an infusion of new ownership to bring it back to life. They have two superstars, but far too many mediocre spots around the rest of the roster to think otherwise about its prospects this coming season.