Think Blue

Obsessing over the Dodgers' minor league system so you don't have to.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Year in Review - Los Angeles Dodgers

Major League Baseball - Los Angeles Dodgers (Overall record 82-80, 4th in NL West)

Last year, as quickly as the thrill of victory filled Dodger fans' hearts from making the playoffs, the agony of defeat swept into LA as the Mets swept the Dodgers out of the playoffs. Still just one playoff win in the last 19 years. The Dodgers went into the offseason with a wishlist that included a power hitter, a starting pitcher and some complimentary pieces to flesh out the team around young players like Russell Martin, Andre Ethier, James Loney, Chad Billingsley and Matt Kemp. However, the Dodgers didn't get what they needed, be it by miscalculation or mishap, and I'll now attempt to look back and figure out why the Dodgers' season ended the way it did.

Where Did We Begin?

The roster has been fluid over the past few years, the result of having three general managers in the last four seasons. JD Drew's exodus seemingly spelled the end of the sabermetric experiment for the Dodgers. Two-month rentals were also purged from the roster, as Julio Lugo joined Drew in Boston and Greg Maddux headed south for San Diego. And journeyman Kenny Lofton signed with his eleventh organization, the Rangers, before returning to the Indians at midseason.

So what did Colletti do? First, he re-signed Nomar Garciaparra for 2 years at $9.25 million a year. Initially, I thought this was a fair deal that wouldn't hurt the Dodgers. However, upon further review, you'll notice Nomar's nose-dive began in the second half of 2006. His post All Star OPS was a dismal .694 and while he clubbed 6 Homeruns in September, that should not have been enough to block James Loney, who led the planet by batting .380 in the minors last season.

Next, Colletti signed Juan Pierre to a 5 year deal worth $44 million. This acquisition did not make sense to me. Generally, giving 5 year deals to ANY player is a bad idea, but even worse when the player turns 30 in the first year of the contract. Pierre did nothing in the past two years to warrant such a contract, as he put up mediocre numbers in both Florida in 2005 and Chicago in 2006. He does not get on base enough to compensate for his utter lack of power nor to properly utilize his greatest asset: his speed. And given his age, he likely isn't going to get any faster.

Then the Dodgers signed a pair of pitchers: Jason Schmidt and Randy Wolf. Schmidt was a player I believed the Dodgers would target in the offseason, given his history with the Giants and the Dodgers' need for a good starting pitcher. What the Dodgers got, however, was damaged goods. I'm not going to accuse anyone of anything, but I find it hard to believe that such serious shoulder problems would go unseen during a routine physical examination. With Wolf, it was a matter of risk versus reward. The risk was that he'd get hurt, the reward was he'd pitch well. And in reverse order, both happened.

Finally, the Dodgers signed Luis Gonzalez to a one year deal. This signing showed me Colletti's apprehension for giving too many "kids" too much playing time. The Gonzalez signing effectively assured James Loney, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp that they would not be full-time starters. And they were being replaced by a near-40 year old who would not outproduce them. Suffice it to say, I was not a fan of this signing either.

Where Did We Go From There?

The Dodgers finished April with a 15-11 record, then went 16-11 in May. Unfortunately, they would not finish another month over .500. Schmidt, who started on opening day in Milwaukee, would make just five more appearances with the big club and end up with only 25.2 innings logged during the entire season. Randy Wolf, who started strong, was bitten by the injury bug in July and missed the rest of the year. Brett Tomko and Mark Hendrickson filled in with mixed results. Hendrickson made the most of his opportunities in April, posting a 1.66 ERA in just over 21 innings. However, "Lurch" would be relegated to relief duty for the remainder of the season. Tomko, on the other hand, pitched himself out of the rotation and was given his walking papers in late August. The bright spots in the rotation ended up being Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley. Penny was a Cy Young contender for most of the season, Lowe logged just under 200 innings with a 3.88 ERA and Chad Billingsley was arguably the Dodgers' best pitcher in the second half of the season.

At the plate, Nomar got off to a hot start but faded quickly and struggled through injuries. Luis Gonzalez posted respectable numbers in the first half, but couldn't save his second half even with a strong September. Jeff Kent led the team with 20 HR and OPS'd .971 after the All Star break. Similarly, Juan Pierre came on strong after the All Star break by raising his OBP by .045 points.

But the stars this season were the kids. According to Vin Scully, Matt Kemp's .342 batting average was the third highest ever from a Dodger with that many plate appearances. James Loney led the league with 32 RBI in September and led the team (Delwyn Young excluded) with a .919 OPS. Russell Martin established himself as the best catcher in the National League. Chad Billingsley sported a 3.31 ERA for the year between the pen and the rotation. And Andre Ethier compiled a respectable .802 OPS.

What Went Wrong?

If there's one truth in Baseball, it's pitching wins championships. And the Dodgers just didn't have it. The first problem was Tomko making the rotation to start the year. In spite of acquiring two starting pitchers through free agency, the rotation was not set until the end of spring training. And when Chad Billingsley was relegated to the pen for half the season, it seemed as though the staff would be constantly adapting to who was hot and who was cold. With Schmidt suffering through injury and Tomko suffering through ineffectiveness, Mark Hendrickson and Hong Chih Kuo got the call. But more injuries and less reliable performances forced the Dodgers' hand and Chad Billingsley entered the rotation in late June. Billingsley, Lowe and Penny could only pitch so much. But when the year ended with the likes of David Wells and Esteban Loaiza gracing the Dodger rotation, it proved to be the team's undoing.

The hitting didn't fare much better, starting with Garciaparra's power outage. Gonzalez did well in the first half but not so much in the second, with Pierre doing the opposite. Furcal struggled with his ankle injury all season. Only Kent held his own as far as the veterans go. And as I already mentioned, the kids did more than anyone could have expected.

The defense was a problem as well. While Russell Martin, James Loney and Rafael Furcal are all above average to excellent, the rest of the team struggled with the glove. Juan Pierre, despite his speed, rarely gets great jumps and occasionally takes circuitous routes. Luis Gonzalez's arm strength and range rival Stephen Hawking's. And while Matt Kemp has good speed and a nice arm, he's still raw in the outfield. Jeff Kent is known for his bat for good reason, and Nomar Garciaparra was nothing special at first and flat out poor at third.

What's The Solution?

The first issue that should be adressed is the rotation. Jason Schmidt's health greatly affects the shape of the Dodgers' pitching staff heading into next year. Unfortunately, Dodger officials and fans alike will have to wait until next spring to see if he'll be able to pitch in 2008. Another problem with the Dodgers' projected rotation is the presence of Esteban Loaiza. Not only were his numbers downright ugly (16 walks and 9 HR allowed in 22.7 innings), he also seemed dismissive of Rick Honeycutt's advice when approached about his performance. So, assuming Schmidt is healthy, who steps in for Loaiza? My target would be Jason Jennings. Jennings was acquired along with Miguel Asencio by the Astros for Willy Taveras, Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz. Jennings' second half, coupled with a new front office staff, could dissuade the Astros from re-signing him. His G:F ratio this year was an outlier, as he's been a groundball pitcher throughout his career. So keeping the ball down and pitching in a more forgiving home park should see his numbers change for the better.

Secondly, the Dodgers could use a big bat. Now, call me crazy, but I'm in the crowd that would like to see Alex Rodriguez don Dodger blue. And while LA hasn't had many superstars play their home games in Chavez Ravine, it would make too much sense for A Rod to return to the west coast. Afterall, he should have been a Dodger all along. LA should have had the first overall pick in 1993, but due to an arbitrary rule that alternated which league got the first pick, the Mariners had the first choice and chose Rodriguez. The Dodgers, picking second even though they had the worst record in Baseball, wound up with Darren Dreifort. And it's not every year that the best player in the game hits the free agent market. With the team's youth and inexpensive contracts over the next few years, McCourt could absorb the blow of spending $25-30 million a year on a single player. Plus, he fills a black hole at third base and could move over to short in 2009 once Furcal hits the open market.

But last, and most important, this team needs a leader. While I am a believer in the theory that winning breeds chemistry, someone needs to light a fire under these guys. It's not going to be McCourt, who's too far removed from the clubhouse and doesn't appear to be really "hands-on." It isn't Colletti, who came out and defended Kent's remarks about how the young players don't have the experience or "know-how" to win (Even though the youth carried the veterans in the final weeks of the year). It isn't Little, whose laid-back nature and almost apathetic attitude irritated many Dodger fans when they were on the verge of missing the playoffs. Whoever it may be, the Dodgers desperately need him to step up and lead the clubhouse to the promised land.


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