July 12, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL West
The Dodgers Were Not Built to Wait Until Next Year
The Dodgers have a problem. Hello, understatement. This is a team that, at the All-Star break, finds itself in fourth place (was last place before a weekend sweep at home against the equally hapless Padres) in the NL West, 11 games out of first. The Dodgers own the seventh-worst record in baseball and are ill-poised to make a second-half run.
Ownership and attendance issues aside—and it really is impossible to brush these aside, but my strong preference is to discuss baseball—the Dodgers are sinking fast. The last time they sniffed .500 was on May 2, after a 5-2 victory at home over the Cubs. Four consecutive losses later, the free fall was in full effect.
Still, at the end of May, the Dodgers held a share of third place and sat a mere 4 ½ games out of first. Since then, the situation has soured:
NL West: June 1 – July 10, 2011
This looked even worse for the Dodgers a few days ago, before they won four straight and the Padres lost five in a row to close the season's first half. The saving grace (or perhaps the damning curse, in the sense that it keeps any team from embarking upon a decisive course) is that nobody seems to want the division title. But even with the indifference at the top, it is hard to envision a scenario in which the Dodgers (or Padres) become a threat to anything other than themselves.
This past winter, the Dodgers spent nearly $58 million to sign and retain free agents—mostly mediocre thirtysomethings. They owe Matt Guerrier and Juan Uribe a combined $33 million through 2013. (They owe Marquis Grissom—who hasn't played for the Dodgers since 2002 or for anyone since 2005—a shade more than $2.7 million, but that’s another story.) The trouble is that Guerrier (4.10 ERA, 4.70 SIERA) has given no indication that he can help a contender down the stretch. Neither has Uribe (.207/.273/.306, .209 TAv), which means that whomever rescues Los Angeles from the McCourts will continue to “benefit” from their services for the next couple of years.
Other available parts have minimal value. Rod Barajas could be useful in a “better than Chris Stewart” kind of way. Casey Blake might fetch something, although it won't be Carlos Santana. Rafael Furcal and Tony Gwynn Jr. figure to bring even less.
On the pitching side, Hiroki Kuroda is enjoying a fine season. Presumably the Dodgers could get something in return for his services... assuming they can convince him to waive his full no-trade clause. Jon Garland? He is no stranger to deadline deals, having been traded from the Cubs to the White Sox for Matt Karchner in July 1998 and again from Arizona to the Dodgers in August 2009 for Tony Abreu. Garland normally would be a marketable commodity due to his reliability—he made no fewer than 32 starts in a season every year from 2002 to 2010. Unfortunately, he has spent much of 2011 on the disabled list, which puts a damper on the plan.
Even if the Dodgers succeed in moving the veterans, who will take their place? Which young players are part of the solution in Los Angeles?
Matt Kemp is 26 years old and obscenely talented. The same description also applies to 23-year-old Clayton Kershaw. But what’s after those two? James Loney is in his prime and hits well for a shortstop, which would be fantastic if not for the fact that he plays first base. Andre Ethier is solid, with occasional bouts of greatness. He doesn't become eligible for free agency until 2013, and many teams that are on more stable financial ground would consider offering him a long-term contract right about now. However, Ethier appears to have had one foot out the door since spring training and may see the other soon follow.
Chad Billingsley? Only two months older than Kemp, he should be a star but isn't. Through his age-23 campaign, Billingsley's numbers bore strong resemblance to those of Carlos Zambrano, Jair Jurrjens, and Mark Prior. Since then, the results have been far more pedestrian, with performances more in line with those of Garland or San Francisco's Barry Zito.
Billingsley is younger than Garland and Zito. He also strikes out more batters, which gives hope that may or may not be justified. It is easy to fall in love with a pitcher's peripheral numbers and confuse them with actual production.
Once upon a time, I had a thing for Shane Reynolds. A part of me still believes that he is this close to a breakout campaign. (Never mind that Reynolds is 43 years old and hasn't pitched since Grissom roamed the earth. Hey, it could happen... look at Dave Stieb.)
Another peripheralphile favorite over the years has been Javier Vazquez. If nothing else, he racks up the strikeouts. (The author checks to see precisely how many and is appalled to discover that Vazquez is the active career leader in strikeouts. How very wrong.) You know who's done a pretty good Vazquez impression the past 3 years? You should, because I foreshadowed it with that long discussion on Billingsley up there:
Billingsley vs. Vazquez, 2009 – 2011
Billingsley lacks Vazquez's control, but does a better job keeping the ball in the park. Still, one doesn't expect a former first-round pick to turn into a league-average innings eater by age 24. If you're trying to trade Billingsley, what are the chances that you can convince some other team that his 2008 performance portends a brighter future? And if you cannot convince anyone of such but decide to trade him anyway, what are the chances that your spiel turns out to be true and you come to regret parting with him for so little?
Meanwhile, Rubby De La Rosa appears to be part of the solution. The 22-year-old right-hander has been predictably inconsistent but has shown enough to provide hope. Besides, baseball is long overdue in getting a guy named “Rubby” to the big leagues.
Trayvon Robinson has posted excellent numbers (.299/.377/.561) in the rarefied air of Albuquerque. The 23-year-old would do well to cut down on his swing (he leads the PCL in strikeouts, failing to make contact in about 29 percent of plate appearances this season), and it isn't clear whether his future lies in left or center field, but he should have a future. Although he doesn't figure to be a star, Robinson's broad base of skills could make him a useful cog for the next contending Dodgers club.
Another 23-year-old, shortstop Dee Gordon, possesses exciting skills but is not without flaws. His speed is offset by his lack of power and patience at the plate. Guys like that can succeed, but they also can become Cristian Guzman... or worse.
Jerry Sands could be something. Though Sands' first crack at big-league pitching didn't go so well (.200/.294/.328), his career minor-league record is outstanding (.294/.389/.583 in 1,272 PA). At age 23, and despite the lackluster initial trial, he is ready to receive an extended look with a big-league club that is headed nowhere.
The Dodgers may not have serious trading chips, but they can't let a brief hot streak at the expense of another lousy team keep them from trying to make moves. Fans in Los Angeles have been asked to endure a great many trials on behalf of their team. It would be good to give them something in return for their sacrifice. If wins are unavailable, then at least let them see some of the young talent that they've been hearing about for a while. Even if the kids don't all pan out, they deserve the opportunity to try. And fans deserve the opportunity to watch them.
Actually, Dodgers fans deserve a great deal more. But you have to start somewhere, and letting the youngsters play is as good a place as any... even if that wasn't the original plan.