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August 29, 2012

Punk Hits

Will the Yankees West Match The Yankees' Success?

by Ian Miller

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You know all about the money. The Dodgers’ new ownership group has taken on the ungodly sum of $260 million in contracts from the Red Sox, and $400 million in total salary obligations (including acquisitions and re-signings). These figures are wholly abstract; they’re so vast that our brains can’t even process them. Us normal folk have no frame of reference.

There’s no question that the moves Colletti and company have made improve the team in the short term. Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez are massive upgrades over Dee Gordon and James Loney. Shane Victorino is better than the three-headed left-field monster of Tony Gwynn, Jr., Juan Rivera, and Bobby Abreu. In a tight National League West race, these late additions might be enough to put the Dodgers over the top. And once a team reaches the playoffs, we all know that just about anything can happen.

But if they don’t run the table this year, how are they positioned for the future? How much has the Dodgers’ new ownership group’s investment of infinity dollars actually improved the on-field product? Can the new-look Dodgers run away with the National League in 2013?

The Rotation
The Dodgers pitching has been crazy good this year. As of this writing, they’re leading the National League with a 3.93 FRA; the only other NL club with an FRA under 4 is the Nats. When you look at ERA, the Nats and Dodgers swap positions, with the Dodgers moving to second place. Are they good? Are they just lucky? As is usually the case, it’s probably a bit of both.

Clayton Kershaw is a filthy, left-handed wizard, and should have a mantelpiece full of Cy Youngs by the time his career is over. After Kershaw, though, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

  • Chris Capuano: Signed for 2013 with an option for ‘14. Capuano is having a solid 2012, posting a 3.78 FRA. There’s no evidence to suggest that he’ll be able to put up a sub-4 FRA next year -- his age-34 season -- and the best bet is he'll regress to something closer to his career mark of 4.54.
  • Aaron Harang: As with Capuano, Harang will be back next year, and the club holds a 2014 option. He’s also had a solid 2012, putting up a 4.23 FRA, his best mark since 2006. If forced to make a prediction for 2013, I suspect Harang will regress slightly back toward his career FRA of 4.46.
  • Chad Billingsley: Signed through 2014 with an option for 2015. Currently on the DL with a right elbow issue for the second time this year. His 2012 FRA: 3.78 -- well below his career mark of 4.13. If he comes back healthy in 2013, regression is likely. (Are you beginning to see a trend here?)
  • Ted Lilly: signed through 2013. Lilly will be 37 next year and is on the 60-day DL with left shoulder issues. Need I say more?
  • Joe Blanton: Free agent at the end of the year, and, given how poorly he’s pitched in his four starts with the Dodgers, it seems extremely unlikely that he’s in Dodger blue next year.
  • Josh Beckett: signed through 2014 and owed $31.5 million total. There’s never been a better change of scenery candidate than the poster child for Boston’s chicken-and-beer-fueled clubhouse troubles. By some metrics, he’s been in decline since 2007, when he put up a 3.62 FRA and 4.4 WARP. On the other hand, he just might be one of those “every other year” guys. (Jay Jaffe suggested as much here.) He’ll be 33 next year and if he can approach his career average FRA of 4.28, I have to imagine the Dodgers will be thrilled.

The Bullpen
Write this down: If Kershaw doesn’t win the NL Cy Young next year, Kenley Jansen will. Maybe. Not really. But Jansen is really, really, really good. And he’s under team control through at least 2016. If he can stay healthy—never a sure bet with hard-throwing closers—the Dodgers should have an elite closer to call on for years to come.

The rest of the ‘pen, with the glaring exception of Jamey Wright, has been solid. Brandon League has been stellar in his 11 appearances, and L.A. will have to think long and hard about offering him arbitration. (Although with the new drunken-sailor spending model, maybe bringing League back is a no-brainer.) Ronald Belisario has been excellent as well, but predicting reliever performance based on a single year is a fool’s errand. The Dodgers can also expect to get Matt Guerrier back next year, once he recovers from a right elbow injury, giving Don Mattingly an additional quality RHP out of the ‘pen. Bottom line: there are a lot of good pieces in the Dodgers ‘pen, and there are no obvious holes that need to be addressed.

The Position Players
Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez have been, for most of their careers, elite players. Maybe not generational talents, but difference-makers. Like Beckett, both should benefit from a change of scenery. Ramirez, 28, is signed through 2014, and is owed $31.5 million over the next two seasons. Gonzalez, 30, is signed through 2018—his age 36 season—and is still owed $127 million. But hey, he’s not James Loney, right?

So half the infield is shored up, as is the outfield, in the persons of Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, and Carl Crawford (and a slightly used cadaverous tendon). Kemp is locked up through 2019 and owed $148 million, and would have been a lead-pipe cinch for the NL MVP had he not missed more than 50 games due to a left hamstring injury. Ethier is signed through 2018 and is owed the slightly less princely sum of $100 million. Ethier put up 3.9 WARP in 2009 (his age 27 season, by the way), and this year he’s bounced back some (1.9 WARP) from a disappointing 2011.

As long as his recovery from Tommy John surgery goes well, Carl Crawford should be in left field on opening day. Crawford was a total bust in Boston in what amounts to 1.2 seasons of action, but let’s not forget that he put up 6.6 WARP in 2010. His 2010 TAv of .310 might have been the furthest of outliers, but you could say the same about his 2011 mark of .247. The “real” Carl Crawford is probably somewhere in the middle, and will almost certainly be an upgrade over Rivera/Gwynn Jr./two months of Shane Victorino.

There’s still the matter of the non-Gonzalez- and -Ramirez-helmed infield positions. Catcher A.J. Ellis has been a revelation this year: After languishing in the upper minors for the last four seasons, Ellis finally got his shot at playing every day in the big leagues. All he’s done in 2012 is put up a .297 True Average as a 31-year-old catcher. No big deal. On the one hand, I have no reason to doubt that he’ll be able to replicate this next year; on the other, there’s no way this is real, right? Journeyman catchers don’t typically turn 31 and start getting on base at a .386 clip in the big leagues. So again, fluke? Real? I have no idea. But there’s no denying that Ellis has a great eye at the plate, and, unless opposing pitchers miraculously unearth some shortcoming of his, it’s possible that he does it again next year. Total mystery waffle here, folks.

Get stoked, Dodger fans: Mark Ellis is locked up for 2013, and the club has an option for 2014! Adam Kennedy comes of the books at the end of this season, but they’ve also got Nick Punto to kick around next year. The free agent market for middle infielders is looking slim so as of right now, it looks like the 36-year-old Mark Ellis will get the bulk of the starts.

That leaves third base. Juan Uribe is still, inexplicably, under contract for another year, and will make $8 million whether he plays or not. (And I’m expecting it’s likely “not.”) Luis Cruz has performed admirably in a utility-infielder role since being called up in early July, putting up a .300/.335/.469 line (.288 TAv) in 171 PA. That’s not good enough for a corner infielder on a first-division club, however, and he’s probably playing above his abilities right now. A quick look at Cot’s for available third basemen in 2013 shows the Dodgers have few free-agent options, so it’s unclear how they’ll proceed. They could always move Hanley to 3B again and try Dee Gordon at SS or target a free agent shortstop like Stephen Drew, if the A’s buy out his option year ... but this is starting to feel like a draft board on Day 2: too many moving pieces and too many variables to predict much of anything.

2013 and Beyond
With its purchase of the Dodgers and its subsequent personnel moves, Guggenheim Baseball Management has changed the entire profile of the NL West. But even with the blockbuster moves they’ve made, there are still holes to be filled: third base is a complete unknown, and Mark Ellis is no. 1 on the depth chart at second base. Of course, with potential All-Stars at 1st base, shortstop, and center field, you can get away with a Mark Ellis (or a Nick Punto or a Luis Cruz) at second base. And if Crawford busts out or breaks down, the Dodgers might be able to call up Alfredo Silverio, a stud outfield prospect who himself is recovering from Tommy John.

The new ownership group may not even be done making moves. They could target a starting pitcher, or they could roll the dice on the rotation they have now. Will it be enough? The Giants always manage to hang around, mostly thanks to their stellar starting pitching. The Diamondbacks have studs of their own and the makings of a legendary rotation (if everything breaks their way). And hell, the Padres just won eight games in a row, and the Rockies still have a good young core that includes Tulo and CarGo.

Ultimately there’s only one signing that we can call a clear and decisive victory for 2013: thank goodness Vin Scully will be back.

Special thanks to Jay Jaffe for his help on this story. 

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

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