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May 11, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Night of The Living Dodgers

by Jay Jaffe

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On Sunday, Clayton Kershaw made like an ace, outdueling the National League's hottest pitcher, Ubaldo Jimenez, to beat the Rockies 2-0. Kershaw simply dominated the Colorado lineup, holding it to two hits over eight shutout innings while striking out nine. Not until the eighth frame did the Rockies even hit a ball out of the infield. It was a marked contrast to the 22-year-old southpaw's previous outing, in which he retired just four Brewers hitters while being rocked for seven runs, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Dodgers.

That's because Kershaw's performance was a marked contrast to the work the Dodgers have been getting from any of their starters lately. In their previous cycle through the rotation, the starters had managed just one quality start out of five, that from rookie John Ely, a 24-year-old Matthew McConaughey look-alike making just his second big-league start. Kershaw wasn't the only starter to take an early powder during that stretch. On Saturday, Charlie Haeger failed to retire any of the five hitters he faced.

Even with back-to-back wins on Sunday and Monday, the two-time defending NL West champions find themselves closer to the division's basement than its penthouse, sitting two games under .500 and 4 ½ games behind the upstart Padres. The Dodgers aren't there because of their offense, which is averaging 5.1 runs per game despite missing Manny Ramirez for nearly half of the young season. They're underwater because of their pitching, as poor offseason planning has caught up to them amid injuries and lackluster performances.

Rewind to the winter, when the Dodgers let Randy Wolf, who'd just set personal bests for starts, innings and ERA+ while finishing 11th in the league in SNLVAR, depart as a free agent without so much as an arbitration offer. Even having shed not only Wolf's minimal salary ($5 million plus incentives) but also that of perennial deadweight Jason Schmidt ($15.5 million in the final year of a three-year, $47 million deal) and second baseman Orlando Hudson ($3.38 million plus incentives), the Dodgers made no attempt to corral a frontline hurler, studiously steering clear of the bidding for John Lackey, the top starter on the market. Furthermore, they avoided Joel Pineiro, Jason Marquis, Ben Sheets and others who wound up signing contracts of at least $10 million, as well as riskier but less expensive propositions such as such as Brad Penny (who left a bridge smoldering on his way out of town after the 2008 season), Carl Pavano (likewise vis-à-vis Torre during his tenure in New York), Rich Harden or Erik Bedard... The list goes on.

Not that any of those pitchers were necessarily ideal fits for the Dodgers, but it was clear going into the season that with Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda—a trio that totaled less than 500 innings in each of the last two years—the only proven starters under contract, the team needed at least one proven innings-eater, and might do well to take an additional shot on a more mercurial starter with a higher upside. Instead, with the news of owner Frank McCourt's divorce proceedings with wife Jamie turning the team's hot stove news into tabloid fodder, the Dodgers sat on their hands until late January, when they finally doled out a one-year, $5.025 million deal (plus incentives) contract to Vicente Padilla, who made all of 10 starts for the team after being plucked off the waiver wire last August.

The Dodgers are now paying for those decisions, or lack of them. Through Monday, the rotation ranked just 12th out of the 16 NL teams in terms of SNLVAR (1.8), and was carrying a 5.47 Fair Run Average. The bullpen hadn't been much better, ranking 11th in WXRL, with a 0.04 mark and a similarly awful 5.68 Fair Run Average. The staff as a whole leads the league in walks (4.4 per nine innings), and while they're missing a reasonable number of bats (7.9 strikeouts per nine, third in the league), their defense has provided little support, with a .673 Defensive Efficiency, which ranks 12th.

Start with Padilla, improbably named the Dodgers' opening day starter by Torre. After receiving his walking papers from the Rangers last August, he pitched rather well for LA down the stretch and into the postseason before his brand of magic finally ran out. Those few hot weeks notwithstanding, the pitcher on whom general manager Ned Colletti chose to spend the few nickels he had available was one who over the previous six seasons had averaged just 26 starts and 150 innings a year, with an ERA that was 5 percent below the park-adjusted league average. Torched for seven runs against the lowly Pirates on opening day, Padilla had just begun rounding into shape with a pair of quality starts that brought his ERA into the Boeing range, but he landed on the disabled list at the end of April with an inflamed nerve in his elbow, and ability to approximate a league-average hurler isn't so much in doubt. Not so for fifth starter Haeger. The 26-year-old knuckleballer, whose pair of solid starts for the Dodgers late last August was trumped by the waiver deadline acquisition of Jon Garland, won the No. 5 spot in spring training. When he struck out 12 Marlins in his first outing of the year, it appeared the team might be onto something, but he's been Haeger the Horrible since then, yielding 22 runs in 17 1/3 innings. Not helping matters is the fact that he's been called upon to make two emergency relief appearances to cover for the depleted Dodgers bullpen corps, one of them to ameliorate Kershaw's early exit. Thus Haeger has made only two regular-season starts on four or more days of rest, making it hard to discern under what conditions his flutterball is actually effective. Breaking in what may be the last of the dying breed is a difficult enough task without that additional challenge.

Then there are the two blue-chippers. Expected to justify the team's forswearing of a front-liner, Kershaw and Billingsley entered the weekend both averaging just over five innings per start, with ERAs around 5.00, and Support Neutral Winning Percentages under .500. The 25-year-old Billingsley's problems actually date back to the middle of last season. After earning All-Star honors with a strong first half—3.38 ERA, 8.5 strikeouts per nine, 14 quality starts out of 19—he suffered a hyperextended knee and subsequently trudged to a 5.20 ERA in the second half, with six quality starts out of 13, never once recording a single out in the seventh inning, and often imploding in the sixth. By October he was so marginalized that he didn't even make a post-season start, yet another reason why it was all the more surprising the team didn't further fortify its rotation.

Billingsley's peripherals thus far this season aren't terrible; he's striking out 8.0 per nine and has allowed just three homers in 37 1/3 innings; his 4.30 SIERA bespeaks a better pitcher than his 4.82 ERA. But the results haven't improved much. After consecutive disaster starts in his second and third outings of the year, talk of dropping him from the rotation surfaced, and Torre questioned his confidence level. Billingsley responded with a pair of quality starts, albeit against two of the league's weak sisters, the Pirates and Nationals, but just when it looked like he may have turned a corner, he yielded four first-inning runs against the Brewers on May 5. And for a skipper concerned about his confidence, Monday night's early hook, after 5 1/3 innings, with a three-run lead and just 90 pitches under his belt, was hardly a step in the right direction.

As for Kershaw, he's shown flashes of brilliance; prior to his May 4 start, he had yet to allow more than three runs in any outing. But coming into Sunday's start, he'd yielded a league-leading 24 walks in 30 2/3 innings, a rate of seven per nine. For a pitcher with a limited number of bullets, that's a major problem, though it's worth noting that the Dodgers have let Kershaw go as many as 117 pitches thus far; prior to his four-out debacle, he'd averaged 112 pitches and 5.9 innings per start, and even with his shortened outing, he's averaging five more pitches per start than last year, 104.7 to 99.6.

As shaky as the Dodgers rotation has been, the starters have actually thrown a larger share of the team's innings than all but two other NL clubs, the Pirates and Mets, though given the divergence between those two rotations' fates, that may not be saying all that much. What is worth saying is that as currently constituted, the Dodgers bullpen is best avoided. At times it's looked more like a zombie revue worthy of a George Romero retrospective, particularly when the Dodgers broke camp not only with Jeff Weaver (-1.9 WARP since 2005, albeit with reasonable work as a swingman last year) but also both Ramon Ortiz (-1.7 WARP since 2002) and Russ Ortiz (-3.0 WARP since 2004) on the staff. Also making the cut was Rule 5 pick Carlos Monasterios, one of just four such picks to wind up on active rosters on opening day.

Injuries were a big reason the non-roster invitee body count was so high, but they weren't the only one. Hong-Chih Kuo and Cory Wade began the year on the disabled list, the former with the latest in a lengthy litany of elbow woes, the latter due to the kind of arthroscopic shoulder surgery which comes free with a subscription to Scott Proctorology: The Magazine for Joe Torre's Overused Relievers. Also missing in action was Ronald Belisario, who emerged from nowhere as one of Torre's go-to guys last year but whose entry into the United States this spring was delayed by visa issues stemming from a DUI charge.

With a cast of characters like that, you can understand why six of the team's nine top relievers in terms of leverage have WXRLs below zero, with only closer Jonathan Broxton, set-up man Ramon Troncoso and mop-up guy Monasterios above replacement level. And that isn't to say that Broxton and Tronsoco haven't eluded concerns. Broxton (0.5 WXRL, 2.58 FRA) has just three saves in five opportunities, having been deployed in non-save opportunities in eight of his 12 appearances. Troncoso (0.4 WXRL, 5.11 FRA) has appeared in 19 of the Dodgers' first 32 games, a blistering 96-game pace. On Monday night, after the Dodgers had turned a three-run lead into a five-run one in the top of the ninth, Torre sat Broxton and added yet another inning to his overworked set-up man's load. The wear is showing as Troncoso has allowed eight of 17 inherited runners to score and is sporting a considerably lower K/UIBB ratio than last year (1.6, down from 2.2). Meanwhile, the other pitcher in Torre's "Big Three," lefty George Sherrill, has appeared in 17 of the team's 31 games (an 89-appearance pace) while being beaten like a rented LOOGY, with an unflattering 8/10 K/UIBB ratio leading to his allowing seven out of 13 inherited runners to score en route to a 13.95 FRA.

Fortunately, some of the deadwood has been cleared. Russ Ortiz (-0.2 WXRL, 7.23 FRA) has been DFA'd into oblivion, and while the loss of Weaver (-0.3 WXRL, 3.57 FRA) to the DL counted as a mini-crisis, his injury did coincide with the return of Kuo, and occurred one day after that of Belisario. Padilla's injury did open up an opportunity for the team to give a pair of starts to Ely, one of two minor-league pitchers obtained from the White Sox in return for Juan Pierre last December. Ely, a 24-year-old finesse pitcher, made his first start against the Mets and it was forgettable enough, but his second was the rotation's lone bright spot last week. Baffling a Brewers team which had rolled up 11 runs against the young guns and a cast of thousands on consecutive nights, he yielded just four hits and one run while striking out seven. Optioned to Triple-A Albuquerque the day after his start to accommodate Weaver's return, he's now scheduled to start on Tuesday night against the Diamondbacks, as Haeger was sent to the DL with plantar fasciitis.

Lost in all of this is the whereabouts of a pair of homegrown youngsters who should have figured prominently in the Dodgers' plans coming into this season. Both righty James McDonald, who threw 63 mostly effective innings for the big club last year, and lefty Scott Elbert, the team's fifth-ranked prospect, are currently slaving away in the Albuquerque rotation. Not terribly well, mind you, as McDonald is carrying a 4.71 ERA and 4.4 BB/9, Elbert a 7.77 ERA and 7.4 BB/9, but keep in mind this is happening in a mile-high environment where teams are scoring 5.6 runs per game, hardly ideal conditions for anyone to flourish. Also marinating at Albaturkey is No. 9 prospect Josh Lindblom and tattooed love boy Justin Miller. Lindblom's 5.40 ERA is swollen by an absurd .444 BABIP; his 31/6 K/BB ratio in 31 2/3 innings is quite palatable. Miller, who made 152 appearances with a 3.65 ERA and 8.3 strikeouts per nine over the past three years for the Marlins and Giants, has compiled an attractive 16/5 K/BB ratio and a 2.87 ERA in 15 2/3 innings thus far. Given such depth—and even salty veteran goodness of the type Torre notoriously craves more than extra skin in his KFC bucket—there's really no reason why the Dodgers should have suffered even one retread Ortiz, let alone two.

Yet suffer they have, much to the dismay of Dodgers fans. One could argue that the retreads have simply bought time for pitchers more essential to the team's blueprint to get right, either physically or with respect to the strike zone, but it's quite apparent that the team is at least one solid starter away from a rotation befitting a contender, and by struggling to this point they've failed to take advantage of the fact that both the Rockies and the Diamondbacks are down multiple starters as well. For want of a League Average Innings Muncher, the division was lost? That may be the epitaph of the 2010 Dodgers' season.

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