2007 was a disappointing year for the Dodgers as they missed the playoffs after playing in October in two of three previous seasons. Already boasting one of the best collections of young talent in the Majors, the Dodgers went out and brought in Joe Torre to lead the charge, and signed proven veteran™ Andruw Jones to anchor the outfield. Will Jones rebound from a terrible 2007? Will the Dodgers stop playing proven veterans™ and let their youngsters take over? How does Juan Pierre hold the fate of the Dodgers in his hands? All this and more, on an all new episode of Battersbox!
While the Dodgers 2007 finished a respectable 82-80, the season has to be considered a disappointment given high expectations coming in and a significant collapse midway through the season. The Dodgers had a firm lead in their division until July, which is when things started coming apart at the seams. The awesomely named Dodger’s site Sons of Steve Garvey offers an equally awesome summary and explanation, in video form.
The Coles Notes version: it was Alyssa Milano’s fault.
Despite this swoon, the Dodgers clawed their way back and were in the thick of the pennant race until the final weeks of the season. On September 15th they were 79-69, 3.5 games out of the Division lead and 1.5 games back in the Wild Card race… and promptly lost seven straight and eleven of their last fourteen to finish two games over .500. Clearly the Dodgers were disappointed, but sensing they were close, kept their team mostly intact heading into 2008.
The Dodgers offense was a relative weakness in 2007, especially given that Dodger Stadium has played as a hitters park for a few years now. The Dodgers had a team OPS of .752 at home versus .734 on the road, though oddly this was driven entirely by OBP. It’s hard to believe that a team with this type of talent could have such a poor offensive showing. Russell Martin, James Loney, Jeff Kent, Rafael Furcal and Nomar Garciaparra made up the infield for much of the year, and Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Luis Gonzelex got plenty of playing time in the outfield, where all were above average. What the Dodgers really suffered from was a complete lack of power. They finished second to last in the NL in home runs, ahead of only the Nationals, who play in a terrible hitters park. They had only one player (one!) hit more than 20 home runs, and that was 39 year old Jeff Kent, who hit 20 on the nose (though Martin had 19). For comparisons sake, Milwaukee, which led the Majors in homers, had five players hit more than 20 home runs, including Prince Fielder, who hit 50 dingers.
Juan Pierre, who slugged an anti-Ruthian .353, best exemplified the Dodgers lack of power last year. He also was a painful reminder that the Dodgers’ management really only has the vaguest idea of how to organize a baseball team. After signing Pierre to a 5 year/$44 million deal last off-season (a poor decision), the Dodgers proceeded to bat him first or second an astonishing 154 times (a terrible decision). As a result he led the team in at bats by far despite the fact that
A) He hit .293/.331/.353.
B) He walked 33 times in 700 PAs.
C) He hit 0 home runs.
D) He is a terrible hitter.
This whole process was eminently predictable as well, given that Pierre hit .292/.330./388 two years ago, aka the year before the Dodgers paid him $44 million to be their centre fielder. The club also stuck with Nomar for too long, giving him 430 ABs at both corner infield spots despite his .700 OPS. Some things that happened probably weren’t the Dodgers fault, to be fair, like Rafael Furcal falling off the edge of a cliff and having a terrible year – he batted a Pierre-esque .270/.333/.355, and hit leadoff all year. Still, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic heading into 2008.
Russell Martin, the pride of East York, Ontario, put up a great year for a catcher, both behind the plate and in the batters box. He hit a very respectable (for a catcher especially) .282/.374/.469 with 19 homers and 21 stolen bases. He looks to be one of the best catchers in baseball this year, and figures to continue to improve as he just turned 25. He won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger last year, a pretty impressive feat considering it was his second season in the bigs.
Uber-prospect James Loney was finally given the chance to play midway through last year when the Dodgers moved Nomar over to third, and Loney didn’t disappoint. He had previously hit a whopping .380/.416/.546 in AAA Las Vegas (albeit a big hitters league) at age 22, and hit .284/.336/.559 in a 100 AB call-up in 2006. Still, the Dodgers didn’t feel the need to promote him, and he struggled in AAA last year before hitting .332/.381/.539 in 350 big league ABs. Loney might not be that good again this year, but those are pretty good numbers for someone who doesn’t turn 24 until May.
Manning second base is old man Jeff Kent, now entering his forties. Kent continues to defy the aging process and has never been below the league average in OPS in his sixteen-year career to boot. Leaving aside the far too obvious Barry Bonds references, Kent has been a force at second in his three years with the Dodgers, posting OPS’ of .889, .862 and .875. I think at this point he has to be considered a pretty likely Hall of Famer, especially due to a lack of any real competition at second the last couple of decades, Alomar aside. Kent’s been laid up with a hamstring problem in spring training, but figures to be fine to start the season. He’ll once again form the double play pivot with the otherwise uninteresting Rafael Furcal, who figures to rebound off an uncharacteristically bad 2007.
Things at the hot corner are a pretty shaky for the Dodgers, however. Nomar is back after a poor year in which he hit 24 XBH in 430 ABs, and has been suffering minor injuries throughout spring training. Uber-prospect Andy LaRoche had hand surgery a few weeks ago and isn’t due back until late May or early June, which is a shame because he is going to be fantastic – you heard it here first. It’s unfortunate that the Dodgers left him in triple-A to start last season - he has nothing left to prove in the minors; in 500 triple-A ABs he hit about .315/.400/.570, and he turns 25 in the fall. Twenty-three year-old Tony Abreu (not one of the Abreus as near as I can tell) figures to be the primary backup, and looks to be an alright player in his own right someday.
In the outfield the Dodger’s might actually have too many players. Matt Kemp, Andruw Jones, Andre Ethier, Juan Pierre and Delwyn Young all figure to break camp with the team. One would naturally assume, given the vast superiority of people not named Juan to people named Juan in the aformentioned group than Pierre would sit on the bench this year. I guess that’s why you aren’t the GM of the Dodgers. Jones gets the nod in centre, Pierre in left and one of Kemp/Ethier in right, last I heard To say that both Ethier and Kemp are significantly better hitters than Pierre would be an understatement, but only Pierre is a proven veteran™, though I think in this case proven is the operative word. The Dodgers are basically shooting themselves in the foot every time they send Pierre to the plate instead of Ethier. Kemp was the Dodgers best hitter last year at age 22, while Ethier, in addition to being an awesome singer, was slightly better than league average as a hitter. Basically the Dodgers could go grab Darryl Strawberry off the street at this point and he would be a better hitter than Pierre – it is hard not to belabor this point. Moving on… except not actually.
Age AVG OBP SLG HR (Career Numbers)
Juan Pierre 31 .301 .348 .374 12
Matt Kemp 24 .312 .344 . 496 17
Andre Ethier 26 .284 .357 .464 24
Andruw Jones 31 .263 .342 .497 368
Which of these things is not like/sucks way more than the others. Any guesses?
The Dodgers offensive season will probably be made or broken on the back of Andruw Jones, who signed for two years and $36.2 this offseason Jones is one of the greatest defensive centre fielders of our time, though by some accounts he has lost a step now that he has turned thirty. He probably won’t hit .222 again as he did last year, but he probably won’t hit .300 again any time soon either. Jones has become a three true outcomes hitter, drawing a lot of walks, striking out a lot and hitting a lot of homers. If he can repeat his .262/.363/.531 line of 2006 and hit 35 home runs with good defense, the Dodgers will have come out great. If he pushes Juan Pierre out of the lineup, is an average hitter and plays good defense, the Dodgers come out great. Basically any combination of Jones playing well, and Pierre not playing at all will make the Dodgers instantly better than last year, which should allow them to improve upon their 10th best in the NL runs scored number from 2007.
On a closing note for the Dodgers offense… seriously? Juan Pierre? He had the ninth worst gross productive average in the NL last year and you are going to start him over an above average professional baseball player?
If the Dodgers hitters let the team down in 2007 it was their pitchers that stepped up. They had the second best road ERA in the NL, a ranking which could possibly improve if anything. Carrying the load was Brad Penny, who rebounded from a bad second half of 2006 to rank as one of the four or so best pitchers in the NL last year. He’s been lighting it up in spring training so far this year as well, for what its worth. It does seem unlikely that he can post an ERA of 3.03 again this year, but nevertheless he figures to again be a top 10 pitcher in the NL in addition to an all around love machine.
Continuing in fine form is number two starter Derek Lowe. Everyone ridiculed Paul DePodesta for signing him to a big free agent contract following a year in which he posted an ERA of 5.42, but over the last three years Lowe has been on the verge of dominant for the Dodgers, throwing 640 innings of ball with an ERA in the 3.6’s over that time span. Lowe is such a ground ball pitcher that he makes Roy Halladay look like a fly ball pitcher – he has led the Majors in ground ball percentage each of the last two years by a healthy margin. Combine that with a healthy number of strikeouts and you can see why he’s been successful – it takes an awful lot of singles to beat Lowe.
The Dodgers number three starter is young’un Chad Billingsley. Another one of the Dodgers’ uber-prospects (see a theme here?) who turns twenty-four later this year, Billingsley is an ace in training. He struck out 141 and walked 64 in 147 innings last year, posting an ERA of 3.31. If he can cut down on his BB/9 IP, which he has started to do, forget about it. Billingsley is just going to be phenomenal down the road. As Tommy Lasorda puts it, “Now I have renamed Chad Billingsley the Pitbull. He has as good stuff as you'd want to see in a young pitcher. I wouldn't even trade him for a power hitter because he can win games for many years to come.” That’s some pretty high praise.
The number four man in the rotation is newcomer Hiroki Kuroda, formerly of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. Kuroda opted out of the three years and 750 million yen remaining on his deal with the Carp to sign with the Dodgers for three years and $35.3 million . In the Japanese Leagues Kuroda had fantastic K/BB ratios and was reportedly a ground ball pitcher. This formula has worked for the Dodgers in the past (see Lowe, Derek) but few Japanese pitchers have had a successful first season in North America, so I’d be wary.
The most interesting battle in Dodgers camp surprisingly doesn’t involve Juan Pierre. The wires have the fifth starter changing depending on who throws well, but the battle rages on between Lord Voldermort (surprise!) and uber-prospect Clayton Kershaw, one of the top pitching prospects in the minors. We already are familiar with HWMNBN, but the lefty Kershaw stands 6’4”, throws 97 MPH, posses a wicked curve and turns twenty today. He struck out 134 in 97 innings in single-A and held his own in a stint in AA last year. He probably figures to be a mid-season call-up, and Joe Torre is already impressed. Also-rans included Chan Ho Park and Jason Johnson, but it looks like Lord Voldemort will get the nod for a couple of games at least. Jason Schmidt is still rehabbing after a bad injury, and doesn’t figure to be around until well into the season if he ever recovers enough to be an effective pitcher again.
The starting rotation isn’t even the best part of the Dodgers staff – it’s the pen. Japanese import Takashi Saito saved 39 games last year while allowing only 10 runs in 63.1 innings, striking out 78 and walking 13. So yeah, he was pretty good. Set-up man Jonathan Broxton is only twenty-three, but still managed to strike out 99 in 82 innings last year to finish with a sub 3 ERA. He figures to be the closer some day, and could probably close for most teams at this point. Scott Proctor finally escaped Joe Torre’s attempts to kill his career in the Wilson Betemit trade, only to be reunited with Torre in LA. Still, Proctor figures to be good for another solid season as one of the Dodgers top set-up men, along with veteran Joe Beimel, who has quietly had two good seasons in a row with the Dodgers after fleeing Tampa Bay. The even more veteran Rudy Seanez is back for another year as well after posting an ERA of 3.79 in the Dodger’s pen last year. Rounding out the main gang is perhaps one of my favourite baseball players ever, Hong-Chih Kuo, the Taiwanese Terror. Kuo figures to be the long man after starting several games the past few years, and is still looking to put things together – I think he can break out and be a solid middle reliever. You heard it here first.
If there is a common theme to the Dodgers staff it is the strikeout. The Dodgers have several relievers that averaged better than a K an inning last year, when they finished second in the NL in strikeouts, and figure to improve again this year. Given that the Dodgers gave 48 starts to Randy Wolf, Mark Hendrickson and Brett Tomko last year, their staff also figures to improve again this year, which on the whole promises to be a good one for the Dodgers.
Just on a general note, how do you suppose former Dodgers GMs Paul DePodesta and Dan Evans feel right now? Evans drafted Martin (17th round), Kemp (6th), Loney (1st), LaRoche (39th) Broxton (2nd) and Billingsley (1st), while DePodesta pulled the trigger on a trade for Penny, signed Jeff Kent and Derek Lowe (and J.D. Drew admittedly), and let Adrian Beltre go. Meanwhile, Colletti signed Jones, Pierre, Schmidt, He Who Must Not Be Named and, admittedly, inked Saito and drafted Kershaw. So basically Colletti’s predecessors left him three significantly above average starting pitchers, a relief ace, two potential star corner infielders, the second best young catcher in baseball and a potential star corner outfielder. Richard Griffin, where are you when we need you.
To wind up, the Dodgers have a lot of potential this coming year, especially if youth is served. If Kershaw and LaRoche both make it to the Majors this year and succeed, if Juan Pierre ‘mysteriously’ gets injured in an altercation with a fed-up Dodgers fan and has to take a few months off, if Joe Torre recaptures the magic of those young mid-90s Yankees teams and if Andruw Jones bounces back, the Dodgers can be as good as anyone, even in the heavily competitive NL West. Those are a lot of ifs, but there is no denying the talent the Dodgers have, which should serve them well this year and in the future, assuming they don’t ruin it by trading for a proven veteran.™
89-73 second in NL West (Wild Card.)