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September 23, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Los Angeles Dodgers

by Steven Goldman, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the league division series, league championship series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski, and Kevin Goldstein's farm-system overview.

Today we show the door to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had to deal with their owner's ongoing divorce saga and couldn't compete for a playoff spot despite featuring two of the best players in baseball.

Baseball Prospectus' Take
Projected 2012 Lineup

The Dodgers might have to do something to help a lineup that has more holes than heroes. Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp will have to shoulder the load until help arrives, which could be a while.

Signs of hope: Despite finishing the season with a record around .500, a triumph in itself given the club’s constrained circumstances, the Dodgers might prove to have possessed both the NL MVP and Cy Young Award winner in Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. The latter evolved from “very good” to “ace,” while Kemp seems to have been freed by exchanging the critical Joe Torre and his coaches for Don Mattingly and, in particular, his first-base coach Davey Lopes. Andre Ethier had another solid season bracketed by injuries, and first baseman James Loney, after a thoroughly risible summer (.256/.301/.325 through the end of July), came alive in August and September, batting .359/.425/.627 in 44 games from August 1 to date. Loney is eligible for arbitration, so he changed the likelihood of his being non-tendered from “automatic” to “We’ll have to think about this.” In the bullpen, rookie Kenley Jansen threatened to tie or surpass Carlos Marmol’s year-old record for strikeouts per nine, but there was more in the rookie pitching department: promising showings by rookie pitches Javy Guerra, Nathan Eovaldi, and (prior to Tommy John surgery) Rubby De La Rosa showed the farm system had some little life in it. 

Signs of disaster: Almost everything else. The roster was a messy series of compromises mixing acquisitions from the club’s more ambitious pre-bankruptcy days of expensive vets and fresh-cut flowers in every room, young players trying to get established, and stopgaps who were brought in to fill out the clubhouse on the cheap. Thus the Dodgers gave the world vivid contrasts in the form of Jay Gibbons and Jerry Sands, Jamey Carroll and Dee Gordon, not to mention Casey Blake, Juan Uribe, and… Well, we’re still waiting on the “and” there (Ivan DeJesus, Jr? Justin Sellers?); the Dodgers system was not exactly equipped to cope with the major league club’s inability to supply itself from the outside, and general manager Ned Colletti trading off promising prospect Trayvon Robinson for a trio of lesser prospects didn’t help. With their ownership situation consuming all available oxygen, the Dodgers had a very quiet 2010-2011 offseason; another zombie-stroll through the winter seems likely this year, but the club is unlikely to come through it as well.

Signs you can ignore: The aforementioned Loney hot streak for one; he has been thoroughly mediocre since 2008, and while it’s nice to think that Mattingly or hitting coach Dave Hansen helped him turn over a new leaf, it’s not something to bet on, particularly when resources are so dear. Beyond that, it’s possible that almost everything about this season should be disregarded given the uncertainty surrounding ownership and the club’s finances. The Dodgers have few significant free agents (damaged goods Jonathan Broxton; Hiroki Kuroda, who might have his heart set on a return to Japan; 35-year-old catcher Rod Barajas; aging utlitymen Carroll and Aaron Miles; an $8 million club option on starter Jon Garland) but they also have few significant players. Three of them, Kershaw, Kemp, and Ethier, will be up for arbitration, and it this point it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Dodgers try to get out from at least one of the contracts. Recent reports have the Dodgers being able to spend this winter and retain their core, but we'll see how that plays out in actuality. Even if they can spend, this club has a long way to go. —Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
Before talking about any bold move the Dodgers should make, one must consider the background against which the team stands. Currently, the Dodgers sit in bankruptcy court and have a $150 million unsecured loan from Major League Baseball to finance the Chapter 11 reorganization.

Further, Fox currently has TV broadcast rights with the Dodgers through 2013. The contract has an exclusive negotiating window at the end of next year. But McCourt also has asked MLB to go back and approve the original extension from Fox he proposed in June and also has gone to the courts to void the current Fox contract to allow for the Dodgers' TV rights to be auctioned off in the event MLB continues to disapprove the original extension. Ironically, this comes after McCourt received a personal $30 million loan from Fox earlier this year to make payroll. McCourt is going through a very ugly and public divorce and is desperately trying to hold onto the Dodgers even though both divorce and bankruptcy courts are involved and MLB's preference is that the McCourts sell the team because of the damage being done to the public image of baseball and the Dodgers.

It is high drama in Chavez Ravine these days, and aptly, there is only one bold move for the Dodgers to make in order to restore their luster: sign either Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols. It is clear this is what the front office would like to do. The Dodgers' payroll is approximately $115 million, but they will have roughly $35 million coming off the books and non-arbitration-eligible players at no less than four positions. That would leave enough room for Fielder or Pujols. The Dodgers presently rank 10th in the NL in runs scored, 12th in homers, and 11th in OPS, much of that due to Kemp and Ethier. However, if the Dodgers were able to sign Fielder or Pujols, they would become one of the better offensive teams in the NL.

The question is, would MLB or the court systems allow a team in bankruptcy without an approved TV rights deal to sign a player to the type of contract that it would take to land Fielder or Pujols? There is an argument that a Fielder or Pujols signing would actually increase the value of the team if and when it is ever sold. This type of signing certainly would help improve attendance, change the perception of the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and augment the lineup and their chances of winning next year. However, the type of deal that both Pujols and Fielder eventually will receive might be industry-changing, and there are real questions whether MLB and or the court system would approve that type of transaction. —Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears
Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 87-75

Despite the ownership mess this season and some major holes in the lineup, the Dodgers still have been able to play respectable ball this season. Kemp's breakout came at the right time and right in his prime seasons. They'll need more of that from Kemp to be competitive in 2012. The infield doesn't have a whole lot of offensive upside in 2012. Juan Uribe still is young enough to have a comeback of sorts, with ZiPS projecting an OPS+ of 95 for him—enough to be above replacement level. To make some noise in the division, the scenario's going to have to include some overachieving in the Kershaw/Chad Billingsley/Ted Lilly/De La Rosa front four to go along with the solid outfield.

Worst-case scenario: 71-91
It's very hard to see the Dodgers putting together a balanced offense in 2012 with the players currently in the organization. Kemp is having an MVP-type year, but if he falls back to merely being a very good hitter in 2012, the Dodgers could rank lower than 10th (their current NlL ranking) in runs scored. The team has a few good prospects, but the minor league system isn't up to the Dodgers' historical standard, and there aren't any real impact bats in the infield coming up quickly. Los Angeles didn't commit enough time in a lost season to really see what it had in players like Trent Oeltjen, so it doesn't have as much information about what those players can contribute in the majors as it should. Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
The embarrassing ownership situation in Los Angeles began to have its effect on the standings in 2011, and the farm system as well. The big league club found some youth with a high-speed, empty-average shortstop in Dee Gordon, but overall, the system remains weak, and an inability to spend in the draft or internationally further dampens the club's future. There are a handful of young arms, highlighted by righties Zach Lee and Allen Webster, who could play future roles in the Dodgers' rotation, but an imbalanced system has left the club—which now ranks 13th in the NL in slugging—severely lacking in offensive prospects. Nothing will get better until the ownership situation is settled, and the longer Frank McCourt sticks around, the deeper the holes to dig out get in every aspect of the organization. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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