Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Double Preview Mega-Post, Part 2 - Andrew's Take

NB: I started this post during the day yesterday. Then I had to go watch the Dodger game. So sue me.


Well folks, it's the best day of the year: not Christmas, not my birthday, not my wedding anniversary (well, ok, maybe the second best day of the year...). It's Opening Day for Major League Baseball. It's typically the one day per season where the Yankees and Orioles are tied for first in the AL East, where Pirates fans hope that maybe, just maybe their team will finish at .500, and where Cubs fans pretend that their team is not, in fact, the most hapless franchise in professional sports. Yep: hope springs eternal from Seattle to Miami to Toronto to San Diego.

Of course, we could just forgo the regular season and jump straight to the Phillies/BoSox World Series. According to most analysts, we may as well. But then, that's the beauty of Opening Day: no matter how true it is that Fightins' v. Sox is the smart money to be our World Series match-up (and let's be honest: it is), well, let's just say I don't remember Buster Olney or Jayson Stark predicting a Giants/Rangers World Series last year.

This post will have 2 purposes: first, to breakdown what we can reasonably expect from the Dodgers this season, and two, to get on with the rest of my predictions. So let's get started with Los Doyers. We'll handle this with my favorite writing tool: a numbered list.

1. The pitching staff will be excellent. Ned Coletti's off-season plan for the pitching staff was apparently to stockpile. I cannot remember a deeper Dodgers' pitching staff in my 25ish years of being a fan. This team has 6 legitimate starters (if they were together last year, they would have had the lowest combined starting rotation ERA in baseball) and about 50 bullpen arms. This is not only the year that Clayton Kershaw gets his rightful recognition as a legitimate ace (his ERA, by the way, was a full half a point lower than Tim Lincecum's last year), but Billingsley, Lilly, Kuroda, Garland, and Padilla should all end up in the 3.50-4.00 range.

Since the Dodgers were never going to be players for Cliff Lee or Zach Greinke, I for one think that Coletti's strategy was downright brilliant: get a bunch of proven starters, thereby minimizing starts from minor league call-ups, swingmen, and off-the-scrap-heap types. What other team has a 6th starter as good as Vicente Padilla? For that matter, most other teams don't have 4th and 5th starters on his level. I even wonder if this will be the new moneyball: instead of spending huge on 1 and 2 starters and leave gaps in the back end, round up a ton of proven-but-not-amazing guys and make one of them a swingman. Seems smart to me.

The bullpen strategy appears the same: even if Jonathan Broxton struggles like he did last year, the Dodgers have Hong-Chih Kuo (easily the best setup man in baseball last year) waiting in the wings, not to mention Kenley Jansen and Mike MacDougal, both of whom, despite their problems, throw gas. That's 4 relievers whose fastballs live in the upper '90s, and that alone is a quick trip to a few outs. Add Matt Guerrier, Blake Hawksworth, sometimes Padilla, and the wealth of extras waiting in AAA (think Troncoso, Link, Elbert, and Schlichting), and the Dodgers shouldn't have too much trouble keeping the 'pen together.

My guess is that the Dodgers pitching staff ends the year in the same category as those in Philadelphia, San Fancisco, Oakland, Anaheim, and Boston. The difference is that they'll get there less with flash and more with depth.

2. The lineup will be better than most people think. I realize I'm starting to sound like a homer, but hear me out. Apparently the strategy for putting together the lineup was, again, don't go after the 3 or so biggest off-season names. Instead, it was to create a solid top to bottom with at least above average power everywhere. The Dodgers could quite reasonably get 15+ home runs from every starter on the field who stays healthy, assuming Marcus Thames gets the lion's share of the at-bats in left field. Look at the list of player: Thames, Kemp, Ethier, Blake, Furcal, Uribe, Loney, and Barajas. The biggest stretches there are, Loney, who has only hit 15 once, and Furcal, who has done it twice. But it really is possible.

This strikes me as a fascinating lineup idea: rather than depend on 2 guys in the middle of the order to take care of all of it (though they have legitimate 30/100 threats in Ethier and Kemp), they will instead hope for solid power from top to bottom. I haven't seen anyone do quite this in the post-steroid era that I can remember (though I'm sure someone has tried it). All the talk in the off-season was that the Dodgers weren't going to have enough high OBP guys. Maybe so. But it appears to me that they are willing to take that risk and put their eggs in the slugging basket.

I did the math: the Dodgers' 2011 starting 8 would have had a combined SLG% of .453 in 2010. The Yankees 2011 starting 9 (factoring in Posada as the DH and Russ Martin as the catcher), generally considered a high-powered offense, would have had a combined SLG% of .448 in 2010. The difference is that the Dodgers' slugged consistently through the lineup, where a team like the Yankees high numbers in a few places.

This isn't to say that the Dodgers' lineup is actually as good as the Yankees' this year. But it does mean that it is not nearly as bad as most people think it will be, and it probably is at least above average.

3. The Dodgers improved in left field, at catcher, and at second base. This one sounds especially crazy, but when you factor in Manny Ramirez's power outage last year, his defensive hopelessness, and Russ Martin's well-documented struggles in 2010, the Thames/Gwynn combo in left and Barajas and co. at catcher should be improvements. This is even if we take seriously that Martin is probably better defensively than Barajas and that Manny still had a +.400 OBP last year. Thames has been fine in the outfield and Gwynn is obviously exceptional, Thames has excellent power, and Barajas is not nearly the problem many have thought him. Add to this the flexibility, defensive prowess, and power of Uribe, and the Dodgers should be at least not-worse, and quite possibly better than they were at each of those positions.

4. The Dodgers' biggest problems this year will be OBP and injuries. The OBP point is obvious: this lineup has a lot of low OBP guys. That's well-documented and I've already considered what I think the strategy was above.

Injuries are the bigger concern in my book. Casey Blake and Rafael Furcal are obviously the most likely to be DL-prone, and losing Furcal will only hurt the OBP issue more. There is real depth on this team with guys like Uribe and Carroll, but it could still be a real problem. It will only get worse if Hong-Chih Kuo's brittle left elbow acts up, and it's not hard to imagine the perfect storm of a Kuo elbow injury, continued struggles from Broxton, shakiness from the still-very-raw Kenley Jansen, and the usual control problems of Mike MacDougal. That hard-throwing bullpen, deep though it is, could get thin in a hurry, and over 162 games, these are exactly the kinds of things that happen.

That is all to say nothing of the ever-present danger of injuries to key guys like Kershaw, Ethier, or Kemp. The fact that depth seems to have been the name of Ned Coletti's off-season game could quickly mean that the few truly standout players on this squad must be healthy. No matter how many 15-homer guys a team has, they also need a 30-homer guy or two to really compete, even in the post-steroid era.

5. Vin Scully will make everything right with the Dodgers' world no matter what happens with the ownership, the injuries, or the worst case scenarios all happening. It's honestly my favorite thing about being a Dodgers' fan. The Dodgerblues guy tweeted it the other day, and I agree: all is simply right with the baseball world (and maybe the real world too) when Vinny is calling a game. Having the best broadcaster in the history of sports calling your games is a blessing that I for one never take for granted.

Season Prediction: Maybe it's bias, but I think the Dodgers are underrated by most. The idea that the Rockies or Giants will run away with the division just seems strange to me. It should be a 3 horse race (maybe even 4 if the Padres don't regress too much), but I think the Dodgers are a 93ish win team. I'll give them the division with that.

Overall Predictions:

NL West: Dodgers, with the Giants right behind.
NL Central: The Reds, but I don't like anyone in this division. The Reds just have the best pitching depth and didn't lose much from last year. The Astros are a year away, but better than you think. The Pirates are two years away, but better than you think. Losing an ace is more than the Cards can overcome, and Milwaukee is good, but health problems for 2 starters already is tough. It's a Reds vs. Brew.ers race, and the Reds will take it. But if the Brewers make the playoffs: look out. Oh, and the Cubs- they're probably another hundred years away.
NL East: The Phillies. Just ask the 2010 Giants: you don't need a great lineup. You just need enough to get by when your pitching is that good. And the Phillies pitching is historically good.
NL Wild Card: The Braves. Mostly because that's what everyone else is saying.

Al West: The Angels. I don't love anyone in this division. The A's are a couple bats away and their pitching is overrated (I'm looking at you, Dallas Braden). The Rangers have the bats, but their arms will not be up to the task like they were last year. And the Mariners are terrible. When every team has major holes (the Angels infield, especially without Kendrys, is a giant mess), pick the team with the best manager and pitching. That's the Angels in this division.
Al Central: White Sox. This is a really complete, deep team, especially if they can get Jake Peavy healthy. Detroit and the Twinkies are solid, but Chicago is a clear step above both.
Al East: Boston. Everyone's picking them because they are blatantly the best team in the division. Too many bats and too many arms everywhere. I expect either Lackey or Beckett to bounce back, and maybe both. No one in the division is this completel.
Al Wild Card: Baltimore. The ballsiest pick I'm making, but this team will absolutely mash, and they'll do it in a division where a lot of teams have issues in the back ends of the rotation. If they can get just enough pitching, they'll be fine, and with the help of a really solid bullpen, I think they'll be able to.

NLCS: Phillies over Dodgers
ALCS: White Sox over Boston
World Series: White Sox over Phillies

Now we'll all be able to look back at this in October and say, "Man, what was Andrew thinking?" That's ok though: the "experts" at ESPN and SI and the rest of 'em will all have the same problems.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Double Preview Mega-Post

If you're face didn't look anything like that when you saw that Opening Day is less than 24 hours (from the time of this post being written) away, then I don't know what's wrong with you, and why you've read anything I've written in the past two months.

I contemplated separating this into two posts, one that previews the Dodgers specifically (record, NL West standings, what happens, etc), and one that previews the rest of the MLB (World Series winner, important awards, etc.), but I decided to just make one mega-post. Again, your reaction should similar to the face seen to the left. And now, on with the post!

The Dodgers:
The Los Angeles Dodgers (of Los Angeles, for anyone who was wondering), could be one of the most unpredictable teams heading into 2011. This is because they were in the NLCS in 2008 and 2009, and haven't lost too much talent since those years (Besides this one guy named Manny, who you may have heard of). If 2009 was a year in which everything went right, 2010 was a year in which everything went wrong. With the team itself is overshadowed by the McCourt divorce, and lacking the star power that Joe Torre and Manny Ramirez brought, this team has flown under the radar all spring. This is good. A common trend in sports teams is that those talented teams who fly under the radar tend to have great success. Just ask the 2010-2011 Green Bay Packers. They were at their best when everyone forgot about them as they were sneaking into the playoffs.

But enough introduction, I predict the 2011 Los Angeles Dodgers will finish 2nd (!) in the NL West behind the Colorado Rockies (!) with a record of 88-74. They will not make the playoffs, as the Atlanta Braves will take the Wild Card spot. Fans will be happy with the managing debut of Donnie Baseball, and won't be too upset at what most will call a surprisingly successful season for the Boys in Blue, even if they don't make the playoffs. Now, if absolutely everything goes right, this is certainly a team that could win 95+ games. I have no doubt of this in my mind, but betting on everything going right for any sports team is foolish. Josh Beckett of the Red Sox can suddenly be really bad, then hurt, then really bad again. A.J. Burnett of the Yankees can have his worst year ever. The once-frightening Phillies lineup can suddenly become destroyed by injuries and merely average across the board. Things like this happen in every sport, all the time. The Atlanta Falcons can win 13 games, but then suddenly remember nobody on their team can get open besides Roddy White, and get blown out in the playoffs by the Packers. You get my point?

So why will the Dodgers improve from an 80 win season? Well, because Jon Garland will (likely) man the 5th starter spot all year long, this year's Left Field platoon will outhit Garret Anderson and Scott Podsednik, and Juan Uribe will absolutely outhit Blake Dewitt/Ryan Theriot at 2nd Base. Matt Guerrier will help bring stability to what was a thin bullpen. Clayton Kershaw will improve, and Chad Billingsley could very easily get a little bit better. These are mostly guarantees.

What could hold them back? Well, Rafael Furcal's back could continue getting hurt at the same rate as Yao Ming's legs. Casey Blake can continue turning into an over-the-hill, below average player. Jonathon Broxton might start listening to everyone telling him he has no spine and can't close. Hong-Chih-Kuo's arm could get hurt (side note, I hate to predict injuries, because they are really random, especially with pitchers. But when guys like Furcal and Kuo have a history with them, you have to take them into account), and Kenley Jansen could suddenly remember he's only been pitching since 2009. James Loney could also continue being the mediocre hitter (and below average hitting 1B) he's shown himself to be.

But enough speculating. Here's what I think will happen. The pitching will be top 7ish in the league, and surprise quite a few people. Kershaw will continue to develop, Bills will get a bit better, and Kuroda, Lilly and Garland will all be solid. Broxton will have a good year and re-establish himself as a top-tier closer, and the rest of the bullpen will be reliable and effective. The offense will hold them back though. Ethier will have another solid year, and Kemp will rebound like the team needs him to. But Loney won't have the success this team needs of him, and will ultimately be traded halfway through the season. Jerry Sands will take his place, but he won't hit well enough in his first big-league stop, and will simply be a bit better than Loney. Furcal will miss 65ish games, and while Tony Gwynn Jr. and Marcus Thames will hold down Left Field fairly well, but it won't be enough. Uribe and Rod Barajas will have power, but will not be able to get on base nearly enough, and Casey Blake will play far too many games as a not-so-effective starter. In short, while the pitching will be a complete package, the hitting just won't be there.

Everyone else:

NL Division Winners:
West: Rockies - The Giants don't have anyone besides Buster Posey in that lineup who scares me. It's not wise to bet on veterans all having career years at the same time. It's plain stupid to bet on it twice.
East: Phillies - Pitching will be just as advertised. Hitting will be good enough, especially once Dominic Brown settles in.
Central: Brewers - Offense equal to the Reds, but I like their pitching a lot more.
Wild Card: Braves - This team (as well as the Rockies) is the most complete team in the NL.

Al Division Winners:
West: Rangers - Offensive juggernaut will carry the average pitching staff to the playoffs. A's and Angels aren't quite there yet.
East: Red Sox - Pitching staff worries me a bit, but still the most complete team in the MLB.
Central: White Sox - Deep Pitching, the hitting is better than you think.
Wild Card: Angels - Struggled with this pick the most. Pitching and Hitting is better than you think, similar to the White Sox.

AL - Adrian Gonzales. Just wait to see what this dude can do when over half his games are played in Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards, and The Rogers Centre instead of Petco Park, AT&T Park, and Dodger Stadium. He'll have unlimited lineup protection by hitting next to all of the Red Sox hitters, rather than the AAA lineup of the Padres. I'm excited as a Baseball fan to see what this guy can do in Boston.
NL - Troy Tulowitzki. I probably have an NL West bias, but he's going to put up his usual monster hitting numbers, while playing Gold Glove defense at Shortstop (not usually an offensive position), and the Rockies will win the division. Being the best player on a division winner can easily net you the MVP award. No disrespect to Pujols or Votto, but they don't play Shortstop.

Cy Young Award:
AL - Justin Verlander. The AL doesn't have one guy who makes you say "Wow, this guy is unbelievable". I don't think Jon Lester or David Price puts up good enough numbers, and honestly, I just really like Verlander as a pitcher.
NL - Roy Halladay. Wow, this guy is unbelievable.

Rookie of the Year
AL - Jeremy Hellickson. This is mostly because I don't know of any other AL rookies getting much pre-season hype. I think he'll be good, and unless Dustin Ackley in Seattle hits amazingly, the award will go to the guy pitching really well in the AL East.
NL - Dominic Brown. It amazes me that a guy with so much hype last year has been forgotten about. He'll be one of the better hitters in a Phillies lineup that has suddenly found itself to be thin. They'll win the division, and he'll take his award.

And now for the moment you've been waiting for... Your 2011 World Series Champions are:
The Boston Red Sox. Their lineup is amazing, and if Beckett and Lackey improve at all, the pitching will be there. I'll say they beat the Braves in 6 games.

Thank you, readers, for sticking around through all of this. Please, feel free to leave a comment to make fun of me, question how anyone who watches Baseball can leave the Yankees out of the playoffs, or whatever you want.

And remember, enjoy your 2011 Baseball season!

Monday, March 28, 2011

5 Dodger Questions Before Opening Day: Who Needs to Rebound?

It's time for me to attempt to answer what I see as the last major question of this Dodger team just three days before Opening Day. That being (as the title implies), exactly who do the Dodgers need bounce-back years from?

The first and really answer is Matt Kemp. After a disappointing year in which his Batting Average dropped about .050 points and his caught stealing % rose sharply, combined with poor defense and what appeared to be a lack of effort (although I don't buy that one bit), Kemp made many fans sad and angry. Did he do anything right last year? Well he hit 28 Home Runs, which was a career high, and his walk rate stayed virtually the same as his breakout 2009. As MSTI points out, according to peripheral statistics such as BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play, essentially measures how often someone gets a hit when they put the ball in play. Probably the best way to measure "luck" for a hitter or pitcher), Kemp was unlucky, and his average should recover (that's assuming he doesn't get any better as a hitter than he was last year, which I happen to believe he will). Davey Lopes is one of the best 1B coaches in the business, and should help Kemp's SB rate climb back up. Plus, the members of last years coaching staff that hated his guts are gone, and finally, Kemp was clearly disappointed with himself last year, and was proud of how he ended the year last year, basically saying that he was giving fans a taste of what's to come this year. Kemp, of all the hitters, needs to rebound the most next year. He's probably the biggest key to the Dodger offense.

Andre Ethier's year last year was only a disappointment because of how he started the year. Before the dreaded pinkie injury, Ethier was hitting well enough to be an MVP (this isn't exaggeration either, even though it's very easy to), and it got to the point where pitchers walked him to get to Manny Ramirez. Ethier finished the year comparatively slowly, and his On Base Percentage tanked after his injury. I'm expecting him to bounce back and have a very solid year, at least for his standards. Again, it's hard for me to say that he needs to bounce-back, because he's such a consistent player and we don't know how his numbers would have ended up had he not been hurt. If he can stay healthy and be his typical .300/30HR/100+RBI self, that'll be more than great.

James Loney is the other obvious candidate, but his situation isn't just needing a bounce-back, it's needing a breakout year. While I like James Loney, you just can't play first base and be as average offensively as he was last year. I've always said that he's a second baseman in a first baseman's body (similar to how many say Dan Uggla is a first baseman in a second baseman's body). Loney will probably never have 30 Home Run power, but if he can show signs that power is actually developing, say by hitting 12-15 before the trade deadline, Dodger fans will be rejoicing. If he can hit 20-25 over a full season while still retaining his good Batting Average and Plate Discipline, he'll be a useful player, one that Dodger fans (including myself) will love. It's just hard to see that happening though. Luckily for the Dodgers, they've got Jerry Sands knocking on the door, so should Loney not be bouncing back, he can be flipped for prospects (Loney seems to have a reputation around the league of being better than he actually is) and Sands can (hopefully) step in and give us the power we've all wanted from the 1B position. Because of Sands, Loney's bounce-back/growth isn't crucial, not in the same way that Kemp's and Ethier's is, but it would certainly be nice.

While it would be nice if players like Casey Blake and Jonathon Broxton rebounded, I don't think it's necessary for this team. As I talked about in the Bullpen post, the Dodgers have 4 guys in Broxton, Kuo, Jansen, and Padilla who can close well enough for this team. Broxton rebounding would be nice (and I think he will, provided the defense starts, ya know, defending whenever he's pitching), but I don't think it's as necessary as Kemp, Ethier or Loney. There aren't too many analysts questioning how good the pitching staff is, or calling the Bullpen the weakness. All the questions with this team lie on the offense. Can they play well enough and score enough runs to win games for this pitching staff? If the core of Kemp, Ethier, and Loney rebound and do well enough, that answer should be a resounding "Yes!"

So there we go. In what I suppose is my first series of posts (I meant to break down each of the Packers opponents in the playoffs, but that obviously didn't happen) I talked about the Left Field Situation, the Starting Pitching, the Bullpen, the Upcoming Minor League Players, and in this post, who needs to bounce back. While some of it is a bit outdated since I wrote it, most of the main ideas should still be relevant. Thanks for following along, and feel free to leave a comment!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

5 Dodger Questions Before Opening Day: Who's Knocking on the Door?

Reading people's opinions and evaluations of minor league players (specifically the ones in the Dodger farm, who would've guessed?) is one of my favorite things about off-season baseball. Especially after Brandon Lennox made this monstrous but incredibly thorough recap of the Dodger system. So for this portion of the Dodgers, I'll be covering who (I think) will be coming up from the farm and making an immediate impact this year.

The easiest place to start is with Jerry Sands (pictured to the left), who tied for the home run lead last year in the minors, and is probably the most exciting prospect in the Dodger system. I say that because fans (i.e., chicks) dig the long ball, and Sands, if nothing else, can hit a long ball. He might not quite have the face of a champion, but he appears to be most likely to make an immediate impact. Especially if the whole JaMarcus Gwybbons Jr. thing doesn't really work out, (which, as MSTI pointed out today, Jay Gibbons could very easily not make the club out of spring training, and probably shouldn't, in this blogger's opinion). Should the Left Field platoon fail, fans will be begging for Sands to come up, and infuse some likely-much-needed power into the lineup. Now, if he's not doing well in AAA, this probably won't happen, but it's really hard not to do well in AAA Albuquerque. Sands also has the advantage of being Right Handed, which means he can take Ethier's place in the lineup against tough lefties, and his defense is projected to be average to slightly below average, depending on who you ask. I happen to think he'll be serviceable, which is all a corner outfielder really needs to be anyway. There is concern about his ability to hit a major-league breaking ball, so that's the one area to watch if he does indeed get called up. Bottom line, Sands will likely be mashing in AAA, the current left field platoon doesn't look like it will, put two and two together, and it's easy to see Sands being called up by late May.

So what if both the Left Field platoon and James Loney are having poor starts to their seasons? Well Sands can also play First Base, so he could easily be called up to play there, but what about Left Field? Enter Trayvon Robinson. A switch hitting Center Fielder with a bit of power and good speed. He's pretty solid up and down, with nothing spectacular about him. He's one clever nickname away from being the Dodgers version of Shane Victorino. Trayvon could easily play left and bat toward the top of the order, using his good speed and on-base skills to set up the big bats in the middle. Because he simply has less power, and a bit less upside, he excites me less as a prospect than Sands, but he certainly wouldn't be a bad player on this Dodgers team. I see him as more of a late June than early May call-up, but I certainly do look forward to him contributing to the Major League Club in the near future.

Justin Sellers and Ivan Dejesus Jr. look to be the Shortstop and Second Baseman, respectively, of the AAA team, and if the Middle Infield depth of the Dodgers is severely tested, I could see either of them being called up as a temporary replacement. Sellers seems to be the latest version of Chin-Lung-Hu, a guy who can play solid defense, but can't hit much at all. I still think there's good potential in Dejesus, but he's got to really prove himself in AAA this year, both offensively and defensively. Don Mattingly seems to like him, and he knows a lot more about Dejesus than I do. I see both of them being called up before Dee Gordon, who is by far more popular, only because I think Gordon needs to prove himself in AA as a legitimate player, especially defensively. Obviously he's got the speed, but his bat and glove aren't major league ready, and both Sellers and Dejesus are closer than Gordon, so they'll get looked at first. If Gordon is having a big season in AA, then that only makes it more likely he begins next year as the starting Shortstop, assuming Rafael Furcal is let go of, but that's for a whole other blog post.

Lastly, the minor league bullpen is stocked full of capable arms. I talked about it a bit in my last post, but just to recap, guys like Ramon Troncoso and Scott Elbert (assuming neither makes the major league 'pen) are capable arms (although Elbert has well documented control issues, I think he can be effective as a lefty-specialist, at least in the beginning of his call up, just to ease him into the major leagues). Jon Link, once the Dodgers decide to stop stretching him as a starter, is another good arm. Travis Schlichting was actually better in the majors last year than in the minors, not that that's worth a whole lot, because his Major League sample size was very small. Ronald Belisario has proven himself as a solid arm, at least when he's been in the United States. Josh Lindblom is now strictly a reliever forever, and he's certainly got what it takes to be a good relief pitcher as well. I trust almost all of those guys as middle relievers, so should the bullpen be hit with injuries, those guys can all step in and perform well enough.

Overall, Jerry Sands and Trayvon Robinson are the two guys to get most excited about, and while I could see the Left Field platoon not hitting well enough to justify it's own existence, I think James Loney will hit well enough for Ned Coletti not to replace him or trade him, unless a team really wants him and makes an offer Coletti can't refuse. What that means, is that likely only one of Sands and Robinson can/will get called up this year, and as I said before, Sands has power and higher upside because of it, so he's likely to get called up first. And I'm looking forward to that day.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

5 Dodger Questions Before Opening Day: Is the Bullpen Ready to Rumble?

Well it's hard to say whether or not the Bullpen is ready to rumble, because it's impossible to predict who exactly is going to make it in the Bullpen. The Dodgers will probably have a 7 man Bullpen to start the season, so if I was to make early guesses about who will start the season, I'd say:

Closer - Jonathon Broxton
Set up- Hong-Chih-Kuo
RHP - Kenley Jansen
RHP - Matt Guerrier
RHP - Tim Redding
LHP - Ron Mahay
Swingman - Blake Hawksworth

When Vicente Padilla is healthy again, I expect him to take Redding's spot in the 'pen, which also makes the pen a whole lot better. Between Broxton, Kuo, Jansen, Padilla, and Guerrier, you've got 5 guys who you can confidently give the ball to and expect consistently good results. Sure, Broxton didn't end last year very well, but that was more of a Joe Torre thought he was a starter-thing than a confidence thing. I fully expect Broxton to return to greatness next year in the same way that Chad Billingsley did last year, after his awful 2nd half of 2009. Kuo can't go more than three days in a row because of his elbow, but if nothing else, the dude can flip a bat, and Jansen is very similar to Kuo in that he's a power arm who attacks hitters with a great fastball. His secondary pitches need work, which hopefully won't be an issue by the end of Spring Training, and if they are, I could see him being optioned to AAA to get those fixed up. Padilla has shown success as a starter, and should be great as a reliever. He's also got the ability to go multiple innings or multiple days, depending on what's needed of him. Guerrier isn't a power arm by any means, he induces a lot of groundballs. But the Infield looks strong defensively with Loney-Uribe-Furcal-Blake, so Guerrier will be a good middle-relief type of guy. He can pitch a ton of innings too, as he has shown over his career.

All four of those guys, Broxton, Kuo, Jansen, or Padilla can capably close, and while Guerrier can't close, he's more than capable of a set-up guy. Ron Mahay will likely be the lefty specialist, which is good because he's downright terrible against Right-Handed-Batting. Although his spring has been pretty bad so far, to say the least, I think he winds up getting a spot because the Dodgers are going to need a second lefty besides Kuo, and Scott Elbert's control issues will get him killed in the Big Leagues, even as a lefty specialist. Hawksworth will round out the bullpen as a swingman type, and his greatest strength will be not being Ryan Theriot, which is important and worthwhile for the Dodgers. Admittedly, I don't know much about Hawksworth. The only time I've seen him pitch is when the Dodgers shelled him last year, but from what I understand, he was a fairly highly touted prospect, and that he's been better in the bullpen than as a starter over his major league career. If he's solid, he'll be more than enough for this team.

Should any of these guys get hurt (such as Padilla), there's depth in the minors as well. Ramon Troncoso, Jon Link, the previously mentioned Scott Elbert, and Travis Schlichting are all capable arms that will be hiding in AAA this year, as well as Ronald Belisario, if he can ever get into the United States. The Bullpen, on paper, looks like it will return to the 2008 and 2009 levels of elite-ness, rather than be below average like it was last year. It does appear to be ready to rumble.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

5 Dodger Questions Before Opening Day: Just How Good is the Pitching Staff?

Well, when this dude is your ace, you can't be too bad can you?

The Dodger pitching staff, especially the starters, appeared to be very strong on paper. Then both Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla had to get themselves hurt for the first month or so of the season. The Fish's injury hurts less because he was going to pitch primarily out of the Bullpen, and was the 6th starter, who would only start in the unlikely event that Garland actually got hurt. Funny how these things go sometimes.

Even in spite of that though, I love this pitching staff. Minor Leaguer John Ely, he of the Elymania last year, and Non-Roster-Invitee (aka, an old veteran with "grit", but who probably shouldn't be on an opening day roster) Tim Redding are now battling for the 5th starters spot. If it were up to me, I'd pick Ely in a heartbeat, but that's because I think Ely can and will be a solid pitcher compared to Redding, who I've occasionally mispronounced as "Ramon Ortiz". The great thing is, when Garland and Padilla are healthy again, Ely will be the 7th starter. That's awesome.

But enough about the back end of the rotation, let's talk about the bigger names. Clayton Kershaw is an ace, and only the really misinformed fans will dispute this. The dude will be 23 this year, and he's already pitched as well as the elite NL pitchers, the Ubaldos, the Lincecums, etc. In fact, he actually had a better ERA (for what it's worth) than Lincecum last year. He just doesn't bring a lot of attention upon himself, which I'm perfectly fine with. As Jon Weisman pointed out though, if Kershaw beats Lincecum to start the season, the media is going to take notice. I think Kershaw's walk rate will continue to decrease over this next season, and really that walk rate is the only main thing that can be improved on. He could very easily be a Cy Young contender. Chad Billingsley is a pretty good number two starter as well. According to Fangraphs' WAR calculations, he was worth just a little bit less to the Dodgers as a starter than Kershaw was. So he's pretty good. It feels like he's been around forever, but he's only 26 years old. There's no reason to think he can't improve on last years numbers, and like Kershaw, if his walk rate decreases, he'll put up excellent numbers. I think Kershaw is very capable of putting up a 2.72ish ERA, and Bills can put up a 3.10ish ERA. And as a Dodger fan, you gotta be happy with those as your top two starters.

Your three and four are Hiroki Kuroda and Ted Lilly, although I'm not really sure who's three and whose four. Lilly is more a flyball pitcher, which will be great in Dodger Stadium, as well as AT&T Park and Petco Park. In Coors Field and Chase Field? Not so much. Although that's not to say the dude can't pitch or anything, as he gets his share of strikeouts and will put up solid numbers as the year goes on. Kuroda has great control, and with a fully healthy year last year, he put up his best season in the MLB (admittedly, a three year career isn't very long). If he does what he did last year (and this applies to Lilly as well), the Dodgers will be in many games that they play unless the bullpen gives it away. Kuroda and Lilly are 3.5-3.75ish ERA pitchers, and as with Kershaw and Billingsley, that's excellent as a Dodger fan.

I'll write more about Garland and Padilla when they're healthy, but let's just say I'm happy that both are on the team. When this staff is fully healthy, it will be amongst the deepest in the league. And while their injuries prove that you can never have too much starting pitching depth, I'm still expecting great things from the Dodger rotation this year. I have no problem ranking them behind only the Phillies and Giants in the National League. They're that good. And for what it's worth, Bobby Valentine things Kershaw and Bills will be better than Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. So there's that.

Tomorrow I'll write about the Bullpen, and the day after that, I intend to write about the months of February and March, and why they suck for me as a sports fan. That's right readers, three blog posts in three days. Fasten your seat belts, or whatever.