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March 26, 2007

Hope and Faith

How the Los Angeles Dodgers Can Win the World Series

by Jay Jaffe

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Will talks with Jay about the Dodgers' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

As you've seen throughout the past month here at Baseball Prospectus, hope and faith is not distributed evenly among major league baseball clubs. Some teams' shots at October are relatively straightforward, while for others, the fine writers who have graced this series have often need to wax creative or even wander in the desert under the influence of peyote-like substances to summon the requisite visions of champagne-soaked glory.

The Dodgers would appear to fall into the former category. In General Manager Ned Colletti's first year at the helm, the team won the NL Wild Card despite a wildly up-and-down season. But for a few bad breaks (such as the beer glass that sliced up Joe Beimel's hand) and assorted aches (Nomar Garciaparra's hamstring, Brad Penny's back), they might have played ball deep into October. Salve a few wounds, spackle a few dings and cracks, paint liberally with Dodger blue and--voilą--contender, right?

Not so fast. As has been the case since the moment he took over, Colletti spent the past winter confounding both admirers and detractors with his wheelings and dealings. One minute he was overcompensating for J.D. Drew's abrupt departure by re-upping Garciaparra to a two-year deal, drawing ridicule for dishing out one of the winter's worst contracts to Juan Pierre, and signing a Luis Gonzalez so long in the tooth he could be mistaken for Bugs Bunny. The next minute, he was earning kudos for inking Jason Schmidt to the kind of short-term, big-dollar deal that has served the team's interests well with regards to Rafael Furcal and Jeff Kent. Other good news? Non-tendering Toby Hall, and... um... avoiding the temptation to trade Matt Kemp, Andy LaRoche, and Chad Billingsley to the Devil Rays in a package deal for the bleached bones of Doug Waechter and a pair of unwashed Mark Hendrickson lederhosen (the Rays won't accept a return to sender on Hendrickson himself).

Sigh.

Still, the Dodgers won 88 games last year thanks in large part to the emergence of a handful of homegrown youngsters--Russell Martin, Jonathan Broxton, Billingsley, and acquired-by-trade Andre Ethier--and they've got more on the way to augment this year's model. They lost Greg Maddux--after Lowe, their second most-reliable pitcher in the second half--to the division rival Padres, waved goodbye to Kenny Lofton, and threw a hissy fit when Drew skipped town, but despite PECOTA's initial hunches, they've got a solid base to build upon, and considerable depth and flexibility at every position. Ultimately, hope and faith for the success of the 2007 Dodgers rests on only a few sets of shoulders:

  • 1. Brad Penny : Penny has been an enigma ever since he arrived in DePodesta's most controversial deal and subsequently went on the shelf with a nerve irritation after just three starts. The team coaxed nearly a full season out of him in 2005, and while they got 33 starts out of him last year, the results were decidedly uneven. Penny went 10-2 with a 2.91 ERA in the first half, earning the starting nod in the All-Star Game, but his second half was a debacle with a 6.25 ERA. He ran out of gas quickly in-game as well as in-season, putting a major strain on the bullpen for a putative frontline starter; of the 92 pitchers who made at least 24 starts, Penny ranked 80th in innings pitched per start at 5.72.

    Worse, manager Grady Little pitched Penny through lower back tightness late in the year, yet didn't skip his turn until the postseason, when he split the difference by using Penny in relief during Game One of the Division Series. Penny blew the lead and took the loss, helping send the Dodgers to their first-round defeat.

    At the outset of spring training, the Dodgers were one of the few teams who could credibly claim a surplus of rotation candidates, with Schmidt, Derek Lowe, Penny, and Randy Wolf holding guaranteed spots, and Billinglsey, Hong-Chih Kuo, Brett Tomko, and Mark Hendrickson duking it out for the fifth spot barring injury. Given that surplus, the Dodgers could have afforded to trade a healthy Penny for some offense, though it's particularly unlikely Colletti would immediately paper over the "upgrades" he just made in the outfield. Meanwhile, Penny was rocked for a 12.86 ERA and 17 hits in seven innings this spring before being scratched from his March 21 start due to shoulder stiffness. He had a 78-pitch full-arsenal bullpen session two days later, and is slated to start again on March 26. Track record for injuries be damned, Penny needs to continue bouncing back, pitching to about his 75th percentile PECOTA projection (3.74 ERA, 180 IP, 39.5 VORP) for the Dodgers to have a chance at winning it all.

  • 2. Nomar Garciaparra : Signed by the Dodgers after being limited to just 143 games in 2004 and 2005, Garciaparra hit a jaw-dropping .358/.426/.578 in the first half last year, reeling off a 22-game hitting streak along the way. Knee and quad strains exacerbated an extended second-half slump that included a stint on the DL, though a pair of dramatic walk-off homers mitigated the performance. The Dodgers could have let Garciaparra walk at season's end, but Drew's decision to opt out of his contract necessitated a PR-driven signing; evidently, Colletti felt that the team needed to return at least one hitter who racked up 20 home runs and more than 68 RBI.

    The problem, besides Garciaparra's proclivity to injury, is that the Dodgers had an in-house solution ready to go. Twenty-two-year-old James Loney hit .284/.342/.559 in 102 at-bats last year after leading the minor leagues with a .380 batting average at Las Vegas. Somewhat underpowered (that .559 is a product of one big day in Colorado) and obviously still developing, Loney nonetheless offers a slightly more sanguine PECOTA than Garciaparra:

             PA   AVG  OBP  SLG  MLVr  VORP
    Nomar   484  .289 .346 .461  .045  18.1
    Loney   585  .295 .351 .470  .072  23.0
    

    That still doesn't make first base a winning proposition for the Dodgers, given that the NL first-sackers averaged .290/.372/.507 last year. Having a capable backup to allow for resting Garciaparra or replacing him in case of injury is a necessity, not a luxury, and the Dodgers still need one of these two to reach the upper deck of his PECOTA. At their 75th percentiles, Garciaparra's .303/.362/.496 and Loney's .310/.367/.506 effectively match Nomar's 2006 line. If they can both manage that, the athletic Loney could find additional at-bats as an outfielder, where he's also been working this spring.

  • 3. Matt Kemp : As a 21-year-old, Kemp came up at the end of May last year and bashed seven home runs in his first 18 games. Alas, pitchers soon discovered he couldn't hit breaking balls: .167 against curves and .212 against sliders, compared to .357 against fastballs, according to ESPN's Inside Edge). Kemp hit just .202/.233/.275 the rest of the way, including a seven-week return to Las Vegas and a role as an innocent bystander in September.

    PECOTA still loves Kemp for his power and his athleticism; his projected .507 SLG ranks second to only part-timer Olmedo Saenz on the Dodgers, and his 157.1 Upside ranks fourth behind Grady Sizemore, Chris B. Young, and Felix Pie among center fielders under 25, according to Nate Silver's roundup. Hence the extra layers of insult and injury brought by the Pierre contract--why sign a mediocrity for five years when a star-caliber solution is on the horizon?

    The Dodgers' initial plan was to send Kemp back to Las Vegas to work on his plate discipline at the outset of the season. That's understandable given his final 53/9 K/BB ratio, though it's also worth noting that his minor-league ratio improved from 92/25 in 2005 to 64/37 last year. Jason Repko's latest injury may tempt the team to scrap that plan, particularly since they're thin in center without Repko. Having Kemp start the year with the big club isn't essential, but as Nate pointed out, his 25th percentile PECOTA is an improvement on Gonzalez's weighted mean projection. The Dodgers need the 22-year-old to force his way into the outfield picture to have a legitimate shot at winning this year.

  • 4. Chad Billingsley : Promoted to the big leagues last June, the #24 prospect on last year's list struggled initially, but he soon ran off an 11-start string--interrupted by an oblique strain--where he managed a 2.44 ERA. Overall, he walked a disconcerting number of hitters (58 in 90 innings, against just 59 strikeouts), and generally ran out of bullets after five innings. Stil, he showed plenty of moxie, gumption, poise, or what have you by pitching exceptionally well with runners on base (.191/.311/.255), thus keeping his ERA under 4.00. Not a horrendous rookie season at all.

    Two weeks ago, the Dodgers announced that Billinglsey would start the year in the bullpen. That's not a horrible idea. In fact it's straight from Weaver on Strategy, Weaver's Eighth Law ("The best place for a rookie pitcher is long relief.") with a little extra credit for Billingsley's previous experience, since the Dodgers would likely work him into higher-leverage roles than your typical mop-and-bucket man.

    But with Tomko winning the five spot, Kuo being shut down for two to three weeks due to shoulder soreness, and the uncertainty around Penny, Billingsley's path to the rotation may have gotten considerably shorter in recent weeks. PECOTA doesn't love his 2007 prospects, foreseeing a 4.61 ERA in 181 innings, but again, a 75th percentile performance (3.96 ERA) would add about 1.5 wins to the team's bottom line. To hear the scoutier talk about him, a 90th percentile performance (3.47 ERA) should be within his grasp somewhere along the line; if it comes this year, that adds about three wins to the team's total.

  • 5. Ned Colletti: By far the biggest fear that followers of the Dodgers had when Colletti was hired was that he'd take a page from the book of his former employers, the Giants, and trade away the team's rich trove of prospects in an attempt to win now. Sure enough, in procuring the Wild Card, Colletti shed the likes of Edwin Jackson, Joel Guzman, Willy Aybar, Dioner Navarro--all of whom had placed on our Top 50 Prospect lists in recent years--as well as Chuck Tiffany, Sergio Pedroza, and Justin Ruggiano for very little. Thus far, only since-traded Danny Baez netted the team more than 1.0 WARP in Dodger blue, though Hendrickson and Wilson Betemit might yet manage that Herculean task.

    At the same time, Colletti held onto the bluer blue chips-Kemp, Billingsley, Martin, Loney, LaRoche, Scott Elbert, Clayton Kershaw, Jonathan Meloan. He's better off doing so again, particularly the way the NL West is headed. Though the Padres certainly look like the stronger team on paper this year (especially if you believe in shower power), their farm system is nearly barren (Kevin Goldstein ranks them #29th), and the grizzled Giants, aside from Tim Lincecum, have few impact players in theirs. On the other hand, the Rockies rank #2 and the Diamondbacks #6 in those Organizational Rankings. Both have integrated farm-fresh youngsters into their lineups since last year's All-Star break, and PECOTA and Joe Sheehan have such mancrushes on the latter that they expect the Diamondbacks to win more games than any other NL team. In that company, the Dodgers need Colletti to avoid his "Stupid Flanders" tendency to trade high-upside youngsters for the next Hendrickson/Hall package, because that won't get them closer to winning a World Series in 2007 or beyond.

For all of those caveats, last year Colletti and manager Grady Little showed that they both recognize that the organization's true power base is what's coming out of the prospect pipeline on Scouting Director Logan White's watch. The Dodgers gave their youngsters every chance to snag jobs from their veterans, and they're likely to do so again. Winning in 2007 will require a bit of luck, but not a ridiculous amount, and so long as the team continues to excel at developing talent from within, it takes even less hope and faith to see them winning it all sometime in the years to come.

---

Will talks with Jay about the Dodgers' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.


Click to download mp3

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

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