July 20, 2005
Can Of Corn
Writing the Dodgers' Blues
So the Los Angeles Dodgers are eight-and-a-half games behind the division-leading Padres and 10 1/2 games out of the NL wild-card slot. Given the bold off-season moves of GM Paul DePodesta and the team's 12-2 start, expectations were lofty in Chavez Ravine. However, when a club loses the left side of its infield and two hard-hitting outfielders to injury, hopes are tempered in a hurry. So this year's model, barring a stunning change in fortunes, won't be going anywhere.
It's a stretch to say that the recent failures have made DePodesta a lightning rod for criticism; after all, he was a lightning rod from the moment he was hired to replace Dan Evans. The L.A. print media was skeptical of DePodesta, not because of any nuanced understanding of his management style, but rather because of his prominent role in that bete noir of the mainstream, the Oakland A's front office. When DePodesta jettisoned beloved catcher Paul Lo Duca as part of the trade that landed Brad Penny and Hee Seop Choi, the animus toward his decidedly non-humanist lever-pulling increased. In the coming months, Shawn Green was traded away and Adrian Beltre was allowed to walk after the team made only a perfunctory effort to re-sign him. Suffice it say, many among the print media haven't warmed to, as they see it, DePo's treating the franchise like his personal erector set.
Do the critics have a point? Would the Dodgers be better off if DePodesta had largely left the team intact and endeavored to retain free-agent emigres like Beltre?
Let's compare the VORPs of the departed Dodgers to those of the players DePodesta brought in as replacements. Not all of these new Dodgers were acquired directly in the trades mentioned above; however, it was such resulting vacancies that allowed (or "forced," depending on your partisanships) DePodesta to acquire players like Jason Phillips and J.D. Drew. In somewhat oversimplified terms, here's the chain of events that led to the current Dodger "ingredients label":
The trade of Lo Duca, Juan Encarnacion and Guillermo Mota brought in Choi and Penny. The trade left a hole at catcher, which Phillips (acquired from the Mets for Kazuhisa Ishii) now fills, and the loss of Beltre opened up a job for Jose Valentin and provided the budget latitude to sign Drew, which in turn made Shawn Green expendable. Now, here's how the two groups compare:
Ex-Dodgers 2005 VORP Adrian Beltre 7.7 Juan Encarnacion 18.0 Shawn Green 22.5 Kaz Ishii -2.5 Paul Lo Duca 18.2 Guillermo Mota 2.5 Total 66.4
Current Dodgers 2005 VORP Hee Seop Choi 9.5 J.D. Drew 30.2 Brad Penny 25.9 Jason Phillips 5.0 Jose Valentin 2.0 Total 72.6
DePodesta's moves have been better in the near-term, but by a rough margin of a little more than half a win this season. However, the advantage could shift to the ex-Dodgers, what with Drew and Valentin still out. Valentin could be back by month's end, but Drew will be out until early September. Some of that could be offset by Lo Duca' standard last-season fade, but the ex-Dodgers still figure to have the higher total by year's end. Enough to drastically alter the team's fate this season? Of course not. Chances are, DePodesta will wind up costing his team less than one win over the course of the '05 season. So, despite the mighty hue and cry raised by his detractors, it's been more wheel-spinning than self-laceration.
If we narrow the focus to the much-reviled Lo Duca trade, we find that the former Dodgers/current Marlins hold a narrow VORP lead of 38.7 to 35.4. Again, basically a wash.
It's premature to make any lasting judgments on these moves, but it's clear that DePodesta's most notable moves, which have been the subject of countless column inches in Southern California, have made very little difference in the Dodgers' 2005 season. This team would basically be in identical straits right now even if he'd made none of these trades and acquisitions. If it weren't Drew's injury, it would've been Beltre's headlong decline. If not Penny's ace-level bestowals and Choi's quasi-adequate production, then it would've been solid seasons from Lo Duca and Encarnacion. And so on and so on.
The only trade that was incontrovertibly damaging in the present--at least in non-monetary terms--was the Green swap. The Dodgers traded Green away for a handful of mid-grade prospects (yes, Dioner Navarro is a mid-grade prospect). This season, according to VORP, Green has been the fifth-best right fielder in the NL. Had he stayed in L.A., Green likely would've played left in deference to Drew. So it's worth noting that Dodger left fielders this season have authored a fairly miserable collective batting line of .231/.286/.361.
No space in the Dodger outfield this year for Green? That's only if you placed too much stock in Jayson Werth's perhaps aberrant work in 2004. Last season, Werth's SLG, while playing half his games in Dodger Stadium, bested his career minor-league SLG by almost 60 points. Absent additional information, that smacks of fluke. PECOTA envisioned vaguely good things for Werth in 2005, projecting a weighted-mean batting line of .253/.335/.469. To me, the power projection, as modest as it might seem, is nevertheless a reach. Werth spent part of eight seasons in the minors, and at only one stop did he slug better than .500, that in a 14-game stint at Las Vegas, which is a veritable launching pad even by PCL standards. Also, in only one other stop did he slug better than .450, and that came at hitter-friendly Tennessee in his third-straight extended stay at the Double-A level. In other words, it strikes me as unreasonable to expect Werth to replicate his 2004 power numbers.
So in a vacuum, trading Green was a mistake in the near-term. However, by parting with Green, the Dodgers were able to clear $16 million in payroll off the books for 2005, and that's certainly to be considered. If L.A. winds up within a game or two of a playoff spot this season, then the Green trade may prove to be a substantial mis-play on the part of DePodesta. Of course, it's highly unlikely they'll end the year within spitting distance of a postseason berth. So if the likely course unfolds, then all DePodesta's efforts and the residual hand-wringing over those efforts will amount to very little in the final analysis; the Dodgers were bound for mediocrity no matter what path they took.