I am powerless against the allure of EA Sports' MVP Baseball 2005. The controller sits there on the floor, "pick me up", "play me", she will say. She is a formidable temptress, and I am well beyond the point of feigning self-control.
As is the case with most addicts, I have begun to look for ways that I can incorporate the object of my addiction into seemingly unrelated tasks that I must complete. Attempts at playing the game in order to prepare myself for a big meeting (I will be more confident if I can no-hit the Yankees) or to compile my grocery list (if Halladay throws a no-hitter, I will buy Cheerios... if Manitoban Koskie hits a home run, Shredded Wheat it is) have proven to be colossal failures.
But this task, writing the Dodgers season preview, this is my chance. I will play a game, with the Dodgers, against division rival San Diego. Brian Lawrence will start for the Padres, and I will roll a die to determine the Dodgers' starter: one represents Odalis Perez, two is Brad Penny, three is Derek Lowe, four is Jeff Weaver, five is Kaz Ishii and six is Wilson Alvarez. And... three it is, so Derek Lowe will be starting on the mound for the Dodgers.
The Starting Pitcher
2004: 182.7 IP, 14-12, 105 K, 71 BB, 5.42
Game: 6 IP, 9 H, 2 ER, 5 K, W
It seemed clear during the off-season that some team would overpay for Lowe's fantastic post-season performance, but it was surprising that the team to do so was DePodesta's Dodgers. Lowe is one of the league's most prodigious inducers of ground-balls, which would make it seem as though he would be at his most valuable pitching in a more hitter-friendly park than Dodgers Stadium.
In the last three seasons, Lowe has posted win totals of 21, 17 and 14, innings pitched totals of 219.7, 203.3 and 182.7, strikeout to walk rates of 2.65, 1.53 and 1.48, and earned run averages of 2.58, 4.47 and 5.42. These are all disturbing trends.
On the plus side, Lowe won my game against the Padres, pitching six strong innings, striking out five and walking none. He gave up nine hits, including a home run to Sean Burroughs in the fifth inning. In the second inning, Lowe gave up three consecutive singles, each of which were just out of the reach of Jeff Kent. Would Pokey Reese have gotten to those grounders, and if so, will the Jeff Kent factor significantly affect Lowe's numbers? Intuitively (and if you've ever tried to look up defensive stats, you know that intuition is just about the best metric that we have), Izturis in lieu of Garciaparra/Cabrera should substantially offset the Kent factor, but it remains a concern.
Here is the lineup, complete with 2004 stats, 2005 prognostications and game notes of the epic match-up against San Diego that took place in my small bachelor apartment earlier today.
1. Cesar Izturis, SS
Game: 2 for 4, 2B, RBI, CS
Izturis' double in the fifth inning - scoring Hee Seop Choi - tied the game at one, and was the beginning of the end for Padres starter Brian Lawrence. He hit 32 doubles in 2004, a career best by eight. He does not have any real power, but he is fast and plays in a cavernous ballpark, so he should be able to continue his upward trend in extra-base hits (27, 28 and 45 in the last three seasons).
Izturis' plate patience has improved dramatically, but in the lead-off spot a .330 on-base percentage is simply not good enough. He seems like a lead-off hitter because he is fast and hits for a decent average, but I suspect that the optimum construction of this lineup would have Izturis batting lower.
2. Jayson Werth, LF
Game: 1 for 4, RBI
Werth's RBI infield single in the fifth put the Dodgers up 3-2.
Traded last year for Jason Frasor, Werth posted a 115 OPS+ for the Dodgers in 2004. He hit 16 homers in only 326 plate appearances, compared to only 11 doubles.
He is at an age (25) where he should be able to improve his power numbers in the next season or two, but without an increase in plate patience he will be a below average corner-outfielder. If he struggles, he could lose plate appearances to Ricky Ledee against right-handed pitching.
3. J.D. Drew, RF
Game: 1 for 4, HR, no injuries
J.D. Drew took Brian Lawrence deep in the fifth inning, with nobody on base. The reason I quibble with the Dodgers' lineup construction is that its best slugger, Drew, bats behind two players (Werth and Izturis) who do not get on base often enough. Video games and on-base percentages do no lie.
Just when it seemed as though Drew would never be healthy for a full season, he managed to remain uninjured and produced the best raw numbers of his career in 2004 (2001 was better in terms of rate statistics). He finished in the top ten in the National League in OBP, SLG, OPS, 3B, R, BB and MVP voting (6th). Making the big fat assumption that Drew can keep himself off of the disabled list for the duration of the season, he will certainly be an improvement for the Dodgers over the 2004 combination of Shawn Green and Juan Encarnacion.
4. Jeff Kent, 2B
Game: 3 for 4, R, 2B
Although Kent had a good day at the plate, I could have sworn that I heard the video-game Derek Lowe cursing him in the dugout over his lack of range. Wait... that was me doing the cursing, but I am sure that I had Derek's support.
The move from Minute Maid Park to Dodgers Stadium is going to help remind fans that Jeff Kent is now 37 years old. 35 doubles and 20 home runs are a possibility, but the days of a .900 OPS are over and Dodger fans would be well-advised to adjust their expectations accordingly. Kent is still a valuable offensive player, especially for a second baseman, but age and park effects will conspire to weaken his numbers this season.
5. Milton Bradley, CF
Game: 1 for 4, HR, 2RBI
Bradley hit a two-run shot with Jeff Kent aboard first base in the sixth inning that was the undoing of Brian Lawrence. He got called out on strikes in the eighth, but I could not figure out which was the "throw everything not nailed down in the dugout onto the field" button.
Plucking Bradley from Cleveland in exchange for Franklin Gutierrez and Andrew Brown proved to be a stroke of genius as "The Game" was able to be a productive outfielder, relatively in control of his idiosyncrasies. If he can stay off of the disabled and suspended lists, he ought to continue to improve.
6. Hee Seop Choi, 1B
Game: 2 for 3, R
Hee Seop Choi did not draw a walk against the Padres this afternoon, but that is due to my complete and utter lack of patience at the plate. The same video game world dynamic that makes Shea Hillenbrand surprisingly productive renders a player like Choi somewhat less so. DePodesta is most likely more concerned with the real world, in which Choi drew 63 walks in 416 plate appearances.
I propose that Choi hit in the lead-off spot, in lieu of Izturis. Firstly, it maximizes the plate appearances of the more productive hitter, Choi, and secondly it would increase the likelihood of there being runners on base when Drew comes to bat.
7. Jose Valentin, 3B
Game: 0 for 4
Having Valentin at the hot corner against the Padres made me wish that Adrian Beltre was there instead. I suspect that Dodger fans will feel the same way beginning in early April.
The difference in production between Beltre and Valentin is less than the difference in production between Encarnacion and Drew. Following are the runs created per 27 outs numbers from 2004 for the four players: Beltre 9.41, Encarnacion 3.97, Valentin 4.36, Drew 9.24. Drew plus Valentin is greater than Beltre plus Encarnacion - and that is assuming 2004 levels of production, which is a kind assumption for Beltre and a rather unkind one for Valentin. The Dodgers did okay here.
8. Dave Ross, C
Game: 1 for 3, R
Ross singled to leftfield in the fifth and scored on Werth's infield single. He called a great game behind the plate, working in tandem with Derek Lowe: sinker, sinker, sinker, sinker...
Ross' career numbers amount to about two thirds of one season for a catcher, during which time he has posted a .207/.292/.411 line. He is apparently better than his 2004 numbers would indicate, but he is no Paul Lo Duca. He has some serious power potential, having hit ten home runs in 140 plate appearances in 2003, which should be enough to hold down his starting spot (over Paul Bako). He will either have to hit for power early this season or come to terms with the fact that he is just keeping the plate warm for Dioner Navarro.
Ricky Ledee, OF
Game: 1 for 1
Ledee pinch-hit for Derek Lowe in the sixth inning, lining a single up the middle off of Brian Lawrence.
Ledee has been decent in a limited role over the past three seasons for the Phillies and Giants, and could see significant playing time if either of Milton Bradley or J.D. Drew get hurt. If you add the probabilities of Bradley getting injured, Drew getting injured and Werth being ineffective against right-handed pitching, it is almost a statistical certainty that Ledee will get 500 plate appearances in 2005.
Olmedo Saenz, 1B
Game: 0 for 1
Saenz pinch hit for Choi in the eighth inning, to counter the Padres' introduction of lefty Chris Hammond to face Choi. It was a tense battle of managerial wits in my apartment this afternoon, between me and a little black box on my floor. I am a sad, sad man.
Saenz crushed lefties last season (.338/.427/.631) to such a degree that a platoon with Choi (.167/.268/.278 against lefties) might be advisable.
2004: 120.7 IP, 7-6, 1 SV, 102 K, 31 BB, 4.03
Game: 1 IP, 0 ER
Alvarez relieved Derek Lowe in the seventh inning, with Padres lefties Dave Roberts and Brian Giles due up. He sat them down in order before giving way to the set-up man.
Alvarez has experienced a renaissance in Los Angeles, having been very good as both a starter and a reliever in the last two seasons. In 2003 and 2004 combined, he has pitched 215.7 innings, recording 184 strikeouts against only 54 walks. He will continue to be a grossly underrated swing-man.
2004: 32.7 IP, 6-2, 27 K, 15 BB, 2.48
Game: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 ER
Brazoban pitched the eighth inning, setting up for you-know-who.
The numbers from his rookie campaign in 2004 look pretty good, but he only pitched 32.7 innings. Trading Guillermo Mota was a bold stroke, given the lack of major league data upon which to adjudge Brazoban. He does seem promising, however, and could eventually prove to be the key part of the Kevin Brown trade last off-season.
2004: 82.3 IP, 7-3, 45 SV, 114 K, 22 BB, 2.19
Game: 1 IP, 1 H, 3 K, SV
Gagne came in and struck out the side in the ninth to nail down the Dodgers' victory in my apartment this afternoon.
It is hard to believe that 2004 was his worst season as a closer, considering the numbers. As long as he continues to strike out five batters for every one that he walks, there will not be a cause for concern. The only real question this year is: can the Montrealer Fire-Baller hold off a hard-charging Brad Lidge to maintain the title of best closer in baseball?
Players who did not see action this afternoon
2004: 196.3 IP, 7-6, 128 K, 44 BB, 3.25
Pitching nearly 200 innings of 3.25 ERA deserves better than a 7-6 record. Perez' strikeout and walk numbers are great, and he is entering his prime years as a pitcher (28). If he could reduce his home runs allowed by 5-10 per season, he would be a true ace. Perez allowed 28 and 26 homers in 2003 and 2004, respectively. He is probably the best starting pitcher the Dodgers have.
2004: 143 IP, 9-10, 111 K, 45 BB, 3.15
Like Perez, Penny deserved a better record than he ended up with last season. Penny has recorded three excellent seasons in his career (2001, 2003 and 2004), but injuries and poor run support have conspired to disguise that fact. All indications are that Penny should be healthy and ready to go in April.
2004: 220 IP, 13-13, 153 K, 67 BB, 4.01
In last season's Dodgers preview, I wrote: "The extra ERA that Kevin Brown finds in New York will have been left there by Weaver before he came to Los Angeles. Moving to Dodger Stadium, far away from the short right field porch and range-deprived infield of Yankee Stadium should improve Weaver's numbers."
How about that, eh? Weaver's ERA went from 5.99 to 4.01 (a difference of 1.98) and Brown's went from 2.39 to 4.09 (a difference of 1.70). Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
In an effort to be "fair and balanced", I will tell you that I also wrote this: "The Dodgers signed Jose Hernandez during the off-season, and although Hernandez ought to be the starting shortstop, all indications are that Izturis will be." Oops, Izturis proved to be better than I had thought.
2004: 172 IP, 13-8, 99 K, 98 BB, 4.71
I have been searching for a legal doctrine whereby Odalis Perez and Brad Penny can sue Ishii for the undeserved win-loss record that his poor 2004 performance garnered. Like Gladiator beating out Traffic for Best Picture, or the inexplicable celebrity of Ryan Seacrest ("Grand Seacrest Out"), this is, sadly, a gross injustice for which there is no legal redress.
When Edwin Jackson is ready for the rotation (and indications are that that time is coming soon) it will be the Japanese Walking Machine's spot that he will usurp.
2004: 80 IP, 3-1, 44 K, 27 BB, 3.38
Sanchez threw eighty decent innings of relief for the Dodgers in 2004, albeit with a deceptively low ERA (given his peripherals). He will likely lose innings to Giovanni Carrara as the bridge between the starters and Brazoban/Gagne, and is the safest bet of all the Dodgers relievers to suffer a decline in 2005.
2004: 105 IP, 2-6, 2 SV, 73 K, 31 BB, 4.46
Dessens will serve as the right-handed long-man out of the Dodgers' bullpen, forming a formidable tandem with lefty Wilson Alvarez. Dessens could start in a pinch, but he is probably behind Alvarez, Jackson and Scott Erickson on the depth chart in that regard. There is no reason to think that Dessens will not continue to be effective.
2004: 53.7 IP, 5-2, 2 SV, 48 K, 20 BB, 2.18
He is old (37), but improving, and will battle Sanchez for pre-setup duties. Those 2004 numbers are absolutely lights-out, and relief pitching success and geriatrics often coincide, so he could be dominate this season.
2004: 50.7 IP, 1-4, 1 SV, 63 K, 36 BB, 4.44, 4 off-season surgeries.
2005 will be the final year of Dreifort's five-year $55 million contract. Even if he can keep himself healthy, he will still only be the sixth or seventh best pitcher in the Dodgers' bullpen.
Antonio Perez, SS
Perez figures to be the primary infield backup for both Cesar Izturis and Jeff Kent. His 2003 line (with the Devil Rays) was much better than last season, at .248/.345/.360. If he can play at that level, he will be a valuable role player.
Jason Grabowski, OF
Grabowski looks to be the fifth outfielder on the depth cart, behind Drew, Bradley, Werth and Ledee. He has some power potential and should settle into a pinch-hitting role.
Paul Bako, C
Bako cannot hit, so it seems safe to assume that he has a job as a Major League catcher because he is good at catching. Now that that deft analysis is out of the way, I can point out that the most important thing about Bako making this team is that it means that Dioner Navarro will not make the team, providing the prospect with the further seasoning that he most likely needs.
The Dodgers should improve this year, and are the favourite to win the National League West. Ninety wins could do the trick, and that is three less than the Dodgers got last year (although it is one more than last year's pythagorean record). Drew, Kent, Choi and Valentin should out-produce the departed Green/Encarnacion/Beltre/Cora group. The pitching should be slightly better than last year, as the favourable Lowe/Nomo substitution is the only major change.
The most prolific harbinger of good things to come for the Dodgers, however, is the fact that they beat the Padres, 5-2, right here in my apartment.