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.

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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.

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