Think Blue

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Offseason Plans - Part 3

We've covered the hitters. Let's take a look at the pitching staff.

Starter - Clayton Kershaw

I've been a member of the Clayton Kershaw Marching and Chowder Society since the spring of 2006. I squealed like a little girl when the Dodgers drafted him. I got chills when he made his first major league start. And in 2009, he justified all of my giddy optimism.

Not only was Clay the Dodgers' best starter, he was one of the best pitchers in the major leagues. He finished 8th in MLB in both ERA and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). He was 7th in K/9, 2nd in HR/9 and first in opponents batting average. And to accomplish all of this at the ripe old age of 21 makes a spectacular season even more impressive. The Dodgers did a good job of limiting his innings and holding him to strict pitch counts. In 2010, they should be able to give him a little more leeway. He'll need to make sure his tempo doesn't get out of whack, causing him to accelerate his lower body which leads to him struggling to catch up with his arm and results in erratic command. It'll be fun to watch Mr Kershaw mature even further next year.

Starter - Chad Billingsley

Billingsley's name has come up a number of times as a potential trade candidate, which I'll address later. His 2009 campaign is widely viewed as a catastrophic failure, though I'm not so ready to give up on him.

Over the first 3 months of the season, Chad was one of the best starters in the National League. However, during that time, he made over 110 pitches in 10 of his 17 starts. In 5 July starts, he allowed a 7.52 ERA and had one of his shortest outings of the year, a 1.2 inning disaster in which he allowed 6 earned runs on 9 hits against the Astros. Then in early August, he came up with what Dodgers' trainers called a hamstring cramp that caused him to miss a start. He actually pitched better in August than July, but struggled more in September with another 1.2 inning appearance. His ERA ballooned from 3.13 through June to 4.03 to end the season.

To me, this says he was overworked in the first half and flattened out in the second. It could have had something to do with the fact that he broke his leg in the offseason and didn't get in his usual conditioning work before Spring Training. His problem could have been mechanical, since his stuff was consistent throughout the year. His command was inconsistent, which is the norm for Billingsley. Regardless of the cause of his second half swoon, he's still just 25 years old and entering his first year of arbitration eligibility. I'm not willing to write him off as a bust.

Starter - Hiroki Kuroda

The former NPB standout is entering the final year of his contract with the Dodgers, and while his season ended on a forgettable note, Kuroda is likely to be a major ingredient to the Dodgers' success (or failure) in 2010.

Hiroki couldn't catch a break in 2009. After his first start of the season, he strained an oblique and missed the entire month of May. He struggled through the next 2 months, posting ERA's of 4.10 and 5.46 in June and July. Just as Kuroda was starting to turn things around, he was drilled in the cranium by a comeback line drive which landed him back on the disabled list with a concussion. After missing another 3 weeks, he was back on the mound and pitched well in September outside of a hard luck loss in his last game of the regular season. Then came the playoffs. He was left off the NLDS roster, but given a start in the eventual deciding game of the NLCS. Having not pitched in a game in 3 weeks, Hiroki was understandably rusty and lasted only 1.1 innings before leaving the game with a 6 run deficit.

Health will be a huge factor for Kuroda in 2010. He's not getting any younger, as he'll turn 35 in February, so even the greatest optimists will have to pray extra hard for him to amass 30 starts. The Dodgers are already thin at starting pitcher, so if he goes down, they'll be hard-pressed to find a suitable replacement. Guys like Josh Lindblom and Chris Withrow, while considered top prospects, likely wouldn't be able to step right in and contribute just yet. Don't be surprised to see an NRI either make the OD roster and wait in the wings in Albuquerque for an eventual, inevitable callup.

Reliever - Jonathan Broxton

Ah, the pariah. And I'll admit, I was cursing his name after Game 4. Nevertheless, he's just a 25 year old kid who made a bad pitch. And had he thrown more than 2 sliders in that appearance, I have the feeling Dodger fans would be singing a very different tune right about now.

It all starts with the fastball for Jon, which was the 3rd fastest pitch in the majors. But his slider made him nearly unhittable. He turned it into a devastating pitch down and in on lefties (which would have been a great place to throw it to Rollins, dammit). That led to his amazing 13.5 K/9 rate, his 2.61 ERA and 36 saves. He was absolutely the best reliever in the majors last year and that shouldn't be forgotten by the Dodger faithful.

The Bull is entering his second year of arbitration eligibility and is due a fairly significant raise. He made $1.825 million last season and I wouldn't be surprised to see his 2010 salary approach $5 million. Regardless of how you may feel about Game 4, he's the Dodgers' closer for now.

Reliever - George Sherrill

Acquired for third base prospect Josh Bell and pitching prospect Steven Johnson, Sherrill was originally seen as an emergency replacement at closer if Broxton faltered. However, The Bull finished the season strong and George did a great job of setting him up.

After being dealt to the Oreos in the Erik Bedard deal, Sherrill settled in as Baltimore's closer to begin the 2008 season. He compiled 31 saves, posted a 4.73 ERA and struck out 58 batters in 53.1 innings. In 2009, he was even better, lowering his ERA by more than 2 runs while lowering his walks and home runs allowed totals. Seeking some depth in the pen, Colletti pulled the trigger, bringing the 32 year old southpaw to the west coast. His time with the Dodgers during the regular season was remarkable. In 27.2 innings, he allowed just 2 earned runs, yielding a 0.65 ERA. After pitching in the AL East, he made the NL West look like A ball. He struggled a bit in the playoffs, but should be a part of yet another impressive relief corps in 2010.

Reliever - Hong Chih Kuo

No, I couldn't find a picture of the bat flip. The bionic Taiwaniac (that's a word, right?) established himself as a dominant bullpen arm in 2008, throwing a career high 80 innings and posting a career low 2.14 ERA. Coming into the season, big things were expected of the 27 year old.

But his season nearly ended before it really began. He made 7 appearances in April, struggling through the last 4, before being shutdown with elbow problems. After undergoing his 4th left elbow operation (no, that's not a typo), Kuo seriously considered retirement if faced with another serious injury that required going under the knife. But he was lucky enough to rehab back to full strength and rejoin the club in late July. He pitched well, posting an ERA of 3 and gave the Dodgers yet another valuable arm in the pen.

The future is uncertain for Hong Chih Kuofax (TM). He has all the talent in the world, a rare lefty who can get righties out, but that oft-repaired elbow could blow at any moment. We'll just hope for the best and not think about the worst.

Reliever - Ramon Troncoso

The flamboyant Dominican was better than his 4.26 ERA would suggest in 2008. He struck out a batter an inning, walked only 12 in 38 innings and allowed just 2 home runs. So it was not a huge surprise that he played a very important role in last season's clean-up crew.

Armed with a nasty 92mph sinker, the 26 year old induced 1.31 groundballs per flyball in 2009. His ERA was 2.72 and he surrendered just 3 longballs while leading Dodger relievers with 82.2 innings pitched. He doesn't have the gaudy strikeout numbers that you'd expect, but he's a very solid middle reliever who will continue to develop into a potential setup man.

Reliever - Ronald Belisario

Big ups to the Dodgers' scouting department. A 4.74 ERA from a 25 year old in Double A wouldn't create much buzz among fans and organization personnel alike, but LA saw something the liked and invited Ronnie to spring training. He showed some wicked stuff, including a a 95mph fastball with movement and that earned him a spot on the Opening Day roster.

It wasn't all beer and skittles for Belisario, who missed most of July with a strained elbow and plead guilty to a drunk driving charge. But he came back with a bang, posting a 1.21 ERA after the All Star Break. A few bad outings in the playoffs can't tarnish a fantastic rookie season, and he'll be Dodger property for another 5 years unless they trade or non-tender him.

Reliever - James McDonald

Big things were expected of McDonald this year, as he entered the season as the Dodgers' best pitching prospect. And after a successful spring, he opened 2009 in LA's rotation. Though, while he didn't stick there, he found his niche in relief, pitching better than many expected in the role.

Displaying pinpoint command in the minors was supposed to translate to the majors, in theory. Then again, in theory, communism works. In theory. But it took 13.1 innings and 14 walks to convince Joe Torre and the rest of the Dodgers' brass that J Mac wasn't quite ready for a starting gig in the bigs. Some soul-searching in Albuquerque ended his second stint as a major leaguer in mid May, but not for long. He returned to the Dodgers in late June and did very well, posting an ERA of 2.72 coming out of the pen. He's still just 25, so there's a chance that he could get another shot at starting, especially given the Dodgers' need for arms.

Now, onto the fun part. In the 4th and last installment of my Offseason series, I'll look at what moves I think the Dodgers should (and will) make.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Offseason Plans - Part 2, First Blood

Now it's time to look at the left side of the infield and the outfield. Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot in question here so I'll look more to the future.

Shortstop - Rafael Furcal

The former Brave is entering his 5th season as the Dodgers' starting shortstop. It's been a tumultuous tenure for the diminutive Dominican, as he started his Dodger career with a bang but has disappointed since with ailments and sub-par performance.

Coming off an injury-plagued 2008, Furcal appeared in 150 contests this past season. And while his defense was among the best in the National League (in spite of his 20 errors), Rafael again struggled to hit. His platoon-splits were favorable against lefties, as he OPS'd .815 against southpaws, but he struggled to hit versus righties, compiling a .261/.326/.352 line while batting left-handed. Once a base-stealing threat, he averaged only a pair of swipes per month, the cost of doing business with a player on the wrong side of 30.

Raffy's job is safe for the next 2 years, as his salary dictates his role. Waiting in the wings, however, is an exciting young player by the name of Dee Gordon. If you're a regular reader of this blog, and who is, you'll recognize him as the son of Tom "Flash" Gordon and MVP of the Midwest League. Flash Jr offers an exciting blend of blazing speed and pure athleticism, allowing him to make all the plays at short and stretch doubles into triples on the basepaths. However, he's still raw and will require a few more years in the minors to develop. His path to the majors coincides nicely with Furcal's contract status, so expect Dee to take over in 2012.

Third Base - Casey Blake

Now, I have nothing against the guy personally. I don't know him, never met him, haven't read anything about about him. So while my constant bashing of the trade that brought him here may seem like I have a vendetta against the guy, it's purely analytical and has nothing to do with the player lovingly referred to as "the beard." And with all my criticism, I'm man enough to acknowledge that Casey had a solid season, exceeding my relatively bleak expectations.

The biggest surprise for me was Blake's defense. Over his last 2 seasons, he was about 5 runs below league average. In 2009, he was 8 runs above league average. That's a difference of about 1 win, which is a huge turnaround especially given his age. Offensively, Casey also improved over his previous season, thanks in large part to a couple great months. Another oddity was his walk rate, which jumped to 11.5%, his highest mark in a full season's work. Maybe he's found the fountain of youth.

After Josh Bell was traded to Baltimore, the Dodgers lack of corner infield depth in the farm system was exposed. Blake DeWitt is likely to win the starting second base job in spring training. That leaves Pedro Baez with the mantle of "Top Third Base Prospect." The 2009 Futures Game participant has a power arm/power bat combination that entices scouts, but he's still raw offensively as evidenced by his 84 strikeouts compared to just 16 walks in 79 games. He probably didn't belong in High A last season, so I don't see the Dodgers having a problem repeating him at the level in 2010.

The Outfield - Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier

The Dodgers have the best outfield in the majors. Last season, Ramirez had the fewest HR of the trio (19) mainly because he missed 50 games due to his hormone treatment. Given a full, erectile dysfunction free season in 2010, it would be easy to imagine all 3 hitting 25+ HR. Unfortunately, while Kemp made strides in center, Ramirez and Ethier have the defensive aptitude of beached whales. Still, the unit is the envy of the major leagues and the younger two are under Dodger control through (at least) 2011.

Given the fact that the Dodgers' outfield situation for 2010 is set, it may be fun to look at the future of the club.

Andrew Lambo - Had a subpar showing in his return to Double A, putting up a line of .256/.311/.407. Adjusting for luck, his numbers take a jump in the right direction, increasing his OPS to nearly .800. He also has had a solid showing in the AFL, batting .330 with with 6 doubles and a pair of home runs. He'll participate in the league's championship game tomorrow. This performance may have earned Andrew a promotion to Triple A next season.

Trayvon Robinson - A 10th round pick in 2005, Tray has always had the tools but they haven't translated into production...until this year. Now, granted, he was playing in the hitter's haven known as the California League, but his peripherals and power numbers took a huge step forward. Coming into the year with 12 career home runs, Robinson smacked 15 long balls in High A and added 2 more after a brief promotion to Double A. He also stole 47 bases and OPS'd .866 overall. Joining Lambo in the AFL, Tray didn't have as much success nor as consistent playing time. However, while he batted just .244, he drew 7 walks in 12 games and stole 7 bases. He'll likely head to Double A next year.

Scott Van Slyke - The son of former Pirates slugger Andy was taken 4 selections after Robinson. He's followed a similar career path and, like Tray, broke out this year with High A Inland Empire. Whereas Robinson is a shorter, more compact athlete, Van Slyke is a big, hulking power hitter. At 6'5 and over 200 lbs, he finally tapped into his raw power potential in 2009. Coming into the season, Scott only had 40 doubles and 11 HR. He more than doubled each of those categories as he ended the season with 42 doubles and 23 HR. He also improved his walk rate, drawing a free pass in more than 10% of his plate appearances. He'll surely join Tray in Chattanooga in 2010.

Kyle Russell - Russell, to me, is the most interesting of the four prospects. He enjoyed a good amount of success this year, leading the Midwest League in home runs (26) and tied for 2nd in doubles (39). He was also the only Dodger farmhand to hit at least 20 home runs and steal at least 20 bases. The downside is that he also led the league with 180 strikeouts. There are serious questions as to whether Russell will make enough contact in the majors. One major part of Russell's game that tends to be overlooked is his defense. estimates that he saved the team 17 runs in the first half of the season. His defensive value alone may warrant a major league role, but he'll have to prove he can hit advanced pitching in order to earn the spot. I think, given his age (he'll be 24 in June), he'll need to start next season at Double A. He, Tray and Scott should provide a very talented and entertaining unit for the Lookouts.

Stay tuned for Part 3, when I look at the pitching staff and some possible additions to the rotation.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Offseason Plans - Part 1

I know I'm getting into this a little late, but I thought it would be fun to take a look at the Dodgers, position by position, and try to figure out what they have and where, or how, they could improve. I thought about doing one big, long post but I figured it would be less time consuming and easier to read if I only did a few positions at a time. So, without further ado, I bring you my plans for the Dodgers' 2009-2010 offseason.

- Russell Martin

Russell is coming off of a rough year, in which he batted just .250 with a mere 26 extra basehits. And while the power did start to come around after the all star break (5 of his 7 home runs were hit after the mid-summer classic), his OPS actually dropped from .687 to .670 due to a significant drop in walks.

A deeper look at his numbers implies some bad luck may have had an effect on his production. Martin's BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was .285, .017 points lower than league average. Add to that the fact that he hit line drives 20.5% of the time and you have a player who's making good contact but not reaching base. His walk rate was strong at 12% and he still has good speed, so Russell's numbers should improve as his luck regresses to the mean. His power numbers have decreased over the past 3 seasons, but even if he doesn't hit .300 with 20 home runs, the Dodgers' lineup is deep enough to compensate for his offensive shortcomings. Martin did post a career high in Fielding Percentage and a career low in passed balls, while throwing out more than 30% of attempted basestealers, so he's shown he still has plenty of defensive value.

Now, it appears as though Brad Ausmus is ready to hang up his chest protector and call it a career. I'd personally like to see the Dodgers offer him a coaching job in the minor leagues, possibly grooming him for a future managerial stint in LA. To fill his vacancy on the roster, I'd like to see AJ Ellis get the nod (although there are rumors of him being dealt to Kansas City for infielder Alberto Callaspo). If Ellis is gone, the Dodgers could find a cheap alternative on the market such as Mike Redmond or Brian Schneider.

First Base - James Loney

Loney's season was similar to Martin's, in that he was saved from utter disaster by a strong walk rate. In fact, James accomplished the impressive feat of drawing more walks than strikeouts. And he did manage to show up in the playoffs, batting .310 with a pair of home runs in the Dodgers 8 post-season appearances. But it wasn't enough to hide his glaring lack of power during the regular season, as J Lo accounted for a measly 40 extra basehits in 652 plate appearances.

Again, as was the case with Martin, Loney appears to have been the victim of some bad luck. His line drive percentage was 22.3, which is above league average, but his BABIP was a pedestrian .301. So assuming that his numbers will improve simply by the cosmos re-aligning in his favor isn't completely out of the question. Defensively, James showed his usual proclivity for digging bad throws and a little range to boot. All in all, the Dodgers can afford to continue letting him progress at first.

It looks like backups Mark Loretta, Doug Mientkiewicz and Jim Thome will be either finding a new homestead or riding off into the sunset, so a backup will be needed. Minor league journeyman Mitch Jones seemed to be a fan favorite, but his Pedro Cerrano-esque aversion to breaking balls would limit him to blowouts and beer league softball games. The free agent market doesn't offer a whole lot, though Eric Hinske would be a fantastic addition to the bench if he doesn't re-sign with the world champs.

Second Base - Player To Be Named Later

Orlando Hudson looks like he'll head out of LA after losing his starting gig late in the season to post trade deadline acquisition and buffet enthusiast Ronnie Belliard. And you can't really blame the guy for wanting to move on, given the fact that he was a gold-glove winning all star this year.

Hudson's season wasn't overwhelmingly successful, as he managed a .774 OPS, which was his lowest mark for him in 4 years. Still, getting benched for the playoffs (and reportedly not hearing from Torre about the decision) is a slap in the face to a player of Orlando's experience and reputation. His defense was below average, though it should surprise no one that Gold Glove awards have far more to do with offense and reputation than actual defensive contributions.

Rumors have been floating in for about a week now regarding the Dodgers' trade interests in middle infielders, from Alberto Callaspo and Luis Castillo to Dan Uggla and Brandon Phillips. Were Callaspo acquired for 4A catcher AJ Ellis, I'd support the deal. But the other 3 would require too much in trade or salary to justify blocking Blake DeWitt. Give the job to the kid and let him keep it warm for Ivan DeJesus.

Stay tuned for Part 2, looking at the left side of the infield and the outfield.