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August 31, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Recurring Dodger Blues

by Jay Jaffe

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While the East Coast was dealing with the effects of Hurricane Irene over the weekend, Andre Ethier was making waves out in Los Angeles. In Sunday's Los Angeles Times, columnist T.J. Simers—a writer who is rarely far from controversy, even if means picking on someone smaller than him—caught up with the Dodgers’ right fielder, who suggested that the team is pushing him to play through a right knee injury that has eroded his production and will require off-season surgery. "If you're expecting me to do what I've done in the past, no, there's no possible way I can do that right now," he told Simers. "It's only going to get worse from this point… I keep getting put in the lineup, so what am I supposed to do?" In a season where the Dodgers have found new ways to be dysfunctional—not only with regards to owner Frank McCourt driving the team into bankruptcy, but also with general manager Ned Colletti's inept handling of the job of selling at the trade deadline—here they have called upon an old standby, pitting one of the team's best players against its management.

Predictably, Ethier's words caused headaches up and down the Dodger hierarchy. "What am I supposed to be concerned about?" asked Colletti. "That he has those numbers [since the All-Star break], that he's hurt or contends he's hurt?" Manager Don Mattingly described himself as "blindsided" by the Simers column (hey, that's practically a rite of passage in the City of Angels): "To me, the way I read it was that Dre has been telling us he couldn't play and we said play anyway. That definitely isn't the case. For me, that is taking a shot at my integrity. Not just mine, but the organization, the training staff and Ned." Predictably, it took a closed-door meeting between the player, manager, and general manager to get everyone more or less on the same page. Ethier sat out Sunday's game but collected three hits apiece in each of the next two games, both Dodger victories.

That the outfielder is struggling isn't in dispute. At the time of the blowup, the 29-year-old was hitting .224/.316/.284 with just one homer in 152 plate appearances since the All-Star break. He's batting .294/.369/.426 overall, the first two numbers dead ringers for his career line, but the slugging percentage 53 points below. He has just 11 homers after averaging 25 per year from 2008-2010. His .289 True Average (through Monday) is still respectable, but it's his lowest mark since 2007, following years of .310, .296, and .302. It's still good enough for third on the team among the 14 Dodgers with at least 100 plate appearances, but as the team's collective .255 mark shows, it's a lineup full of stiffs. 

Ethier's knee injury isn't something that had previously gotten much attention. Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness (the well-named blog of our own Mike Petriello) did unearth a short item from July about his having hyperextended it back in spring 2010. Apparently, loose matter inside his knee gets trapped beneath the kneecap, causing pain when he plants his front foot on a swing, or stops running hard. He considered surgery last winter but opted to rehab instead, and while he's played all but five games this season, he has to ice the offending joint after every game, and recently received injections of synthetic joint lubricant.

Surgery looms, but contrary to the impression that Ethier gave Simers, the decision on whether to cut and run rests with him. Said Mattingly, "It’s always been [Ethier's] choice. If he felt like it was something he couldn’t play with, then we wouldn’t keep playing him." The Dodgers are convinced he's not making the problem any worse; after the closed-door meeting, the manager said, "We’re not going to any damage. We're not taking a shot at blowing an anterior cruciate ligament. It sounds like it’s a clean-up type surgery."

This isn't the first time Colletti has questioned the veracity of a player's injury. Back in 2007, rookie infielder Tony Abreu had a series of abdominal and groin woes; the Dodgers sent him to the minors, but agent Scott Boras charged that he should have been placed on the major-league disabled list, and filed a grievance with the Players Association over lost service time. Abreu wound up needing surgery to repair a sports hernia, and while the Dodgers ultimately settled their grievance, there's no word as to whether Colletti apologized for publicly doubting his injured player.

Because those who forget history are doomed to something something something, the Dodgers have lately revealed their frustration with Juan Uribe over what was initially believed to be a hip flexor strain but what trainer Stan Conte more recently called—wait for it—a sports hernia. The rotund 32-year-old was the team's marquee free-agent signing last winter—a depressing thought if there ever was one—via a three-year, $21 million deal, but he has been limited to just 77 games and a dismal .204/.264/.293 line while serving two stints on the DL, the second one since July 24. He, too, may need surgery. Said Conte, "Even in the worst-case scenario, we're confident he'll be ready for spring training," but the truth is that by owing him money for two more years, the Dodgers are already there.

Although Ethier is in the final year of a two-year, $15.25 million contract, he still has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining. Just before Opening Day, he caused a stir by addressing the possibility that he might not be in Dodger blue come Opening Day 2012. Following the Freeway Series with the Angels, he told reporters, "This is my sixth one, and who knows? It might be my last one here with the Dodgers. You never know. A lot of signs are pointing that way, so we'll have to see." Later that week, he elaborated. "If I don't play well, we've seen them non-tender guys here, and if you play well, I've seen them not offer arbitration because they're afraid guys are setting their salaries too high," he said, mindful of the sad tales of Russell Martin and Orlando Hudson, among others. The fact that he's slumping during a season in which the Dodgers (64-70 even with a 16-11 August) are going nowhere may play to the team's advantage given his arb status, denting his earning potential somewhat, a point even Colletti conceded, but it also harms his value in the trade market should the Dodgers decide to entertain offers.

Ethier isn't the only key Dodger with whom the team will have to reckon this winter. Matt Kemp is in the second year of a two-year, $10.95 million deal with another year of arbitration eligibility as well, and unlike Ethier, he's in the midst of the best season of his career. After years of alternating tantalizing performances with frustrating ones, the 26-year-old is hitting .319/.391/.572—career bests in all three categories—with 31 homers and 35 steals, just the 55th time a player has reached the 30/30 plateau, and just the third time a Dodger has done it (Raul Mondesi had the other two). Kemp's .343 True Average ranks a very close third in the NL, while his 6.5 WARP is first, not only thrusting him into the Most Valuable Player discussion but, along with Jose Bautista, suggesting that it may be time to reassess the notion that an MVP should come from a contender.

The question, of course, is whether the financially beleaguered Dodgers, who are still in bankruptcy as McCourt battles to keep the team, can afford to keep him. Because he's making just $6.95 million this year, Kemp isn't likely to challenge Prince Fielder's record for a pre-free agency one-year contract ($15.5 million), but he'll certainly reach eight digits for 2012 even if he does wind up in arbitration. The real question is if the embattled regime can convince him to ink a long-term deal, or more to the point, can show him enough money—Carl Crawford money? Jayson Werth money?—to forestall any curiosity about the free-agent market. It's a longshot, but it may be a shot worth taking, particularly as Kemp has said several times that he wants to stay.

The good news is that the Dodgers have commitments to just four players for 2012, totaling less than $34 million once Casey Blake's option is declined, with Clayton Kershaw the only key player reaching arbitration eligibility. The bad news is that unless the Cubs miraculously swoop in to reclaim their former publicist and baseball operations assistant ahead of more obviously desirable candidates, it will be Colletti doing the filling, and likely on a shoestring given the team's financial constraints, which aren't likely to improve so long as fans stay away in droves to protest McCourt's ownership. With desirable free agents unlikely to line up for long-term deals in the barren Chavez Ravine parking lot, that probably means more one-year deals for players of the Rod Barajas/Phony Gwynn caliber. Hell, the way things are going, even James Loney might be back given his recent hot streak.

 Those are grim prospects for the future, but not all hope is lost. Kershaw has asserted himself as a viable Cy Young candidate, kids such as Dee Gordon and Jerry Sands have gotten their first look at the big leagues, and while they haven't shown much, the likes of Rubby De La Rosa, Nathan Eovaldi, Javy Guerra, and Scott Elbert have solidified their place in the team's future (though De La Rosa did undergo Tommy John surgery this summer). Furthermore, Vin Scully just re-upped for his 63rd season, and Spanish-speaking broadcaster Jaime Jarrin will be back for his 53rd as well. Those two golden voices have seen the Dodgers through thick and thin, and they'll continue talking fans off the ledge even in this dire time.   

 

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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