Something about the Dodgers doesn't add up. This is one of the marquee franchises in all of sports, one that should print money in much the same way the Yankees do. But something's amiss. For every argument pushed about big markets and small markets, I point to the Dodgers. A team with the means to give $105 million and $55 million contracts to pitchers should know better than to give them to old or injury-prone pitchers.
Perhaps some slack should be given to the Dodgers for signing Kevin Brown. He'd been healthy and productive for several years, and there were no obvious signs that he was heading for a collapse. It's the length of the contract that was the biggest problem. As baseball executives are learning, predicting performance in the coming year is hard, but predicting performance five years down the line, let alone seven, is nearly impossible. Adding in the recent actuarial notices that no contract should be insured for a period greater than three years, it becomes harder and harder to defend the large signings of Kevin Malone.
Jim Tracy was something of a surprising hire, but it's quickly becoming clear that he's one of the biggest strengths the Dodgers have. His pitching usage patterns are getting better, especially after murmurs surfaced last year when he rode Odalis Perez hard early in the season. Tracy's strength seems to be spotting players into situations where they'll best succeed, as he did with Eric Gagne and the now-departed Omar Daal. There are few managers I would believe could get effective use out of Brown and Darren Dreifort while still keeping them healthy, but Tracy may be able to turn the trick.
The pitching staff's health situation may look worse than it is, with Brown and Dreifort tied out front like thoroughbreds headed for the glue factory. While those two will hurt the bottom line while offering limited returns, the staff as a whole isn't worrisome. Perez started the year throwing some tough starts — including a 129-pitch bonanza at Coors Field of all places — while still not far removed from Tommy John surgery. But his exceptional control and good eye for his fatigue point kept him going well. The same held true for Andy Ashby, another name pitcher with an extensive injury history. Both Perez and Ashby escape yellow lights — just barely — due to their tightened usage patterns and the great medical team the Dodgers have put together. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that Tracy has been watching velocity data to decide when to pull pitchers. Throughout the season, he consistently pulled pitchers as their velocity dipped below the 95% mark. This is just slightly lower than initial research on V-Loss indicates. Kazuhisa Ishii bears some watching coming off his head injury, but his control is much more of a concern for me than his psyche.
Brown appears to be traumatically breaking down. He aggressively pushes himself back without the benefit of proper rehabilitation after any injury. While some will praise him for his courage, Brown also has a tendency to re-injure himself. After back surgery, he rushed back and relapsed late in the season. Back surgery is notoriously failure-prone in a normal population, but the stress of pitching makes it even more risky. Still, one must look at the full picture to understand how serious this injury is. Brown may not be able to get a full hip and shoulder turn, nor be able to fully flex his back through his pitching motion. This will lead to a change in mechanics and further stress on his arm. His arm is already suffering from elbow problems. If he compensates by flying his elbow open, he'll stress the rotator cuff further. It's a vicious circle, summed up by a red light.
Dreifort is an odd case and a lesson in the damage caused by poor mechanics. Two Tommy John surgeries later, his potential is long gone, yet he's still being paid for things people thought he would do long ago. His best role might be as closer, but Gagne has put a hammer lock on that role. If the contract weren't quite the albatross that it is, Dreifort would be a good fit for an organization like the Reds or Cardinals, teams with success at reclaiming pitchers left for dead. Dreifort, like Sandy Alomar and David Segui, is the personification of red light.
Brian Jordan demanded a trade, but somehow, no one stepped up to claim an overpaid, oft-injured outfielder. Amazing how those new economics work. In addition to knee problems, Jordan has a long history of chronic disc problems in his back. He had one epidural injection last season and missed much of the end of the season. His power numbers didn't seem to suffer, but any chronic back problem has to give at least a yellow light.
Paul LoDuca is one of the yellow lights that I just stare at, wondering if I got it right. Yes, he makes it into the yellow area based on age, position and comparables, but I'm honestly not that worried. He's shown no real downtrend in performance — sure, he didn't match his amazing 2001 last season, but he was still among the best in the game behind the plate. Late-blooming catchers don't tend to have long careers as starters. Catchers with speed don't tend to have careers without severe downturns. Somehow, despite the yellow, LoDuca seems like the type that could beat both those precedents. One cautionary note: LoDuca's performance has suffered badly down the stretch the last two years, as Tracy has run him out almost every day. The Dodgers hope Todd Hundley can keep him fresh into the home stretch. With the capable Dave Ross also kicking around the high levels of the system, there's no reason for Lo Duca to burn himself out by August.
Overall, the Dodgers are caught on the fence between young and old, looking to both win now and build for the future. They claimed to have so much salary tied up in Brown, Dreifort and others that they couldn't add the big bat to complement Shawn Green — sorry, Crime Dog — even after shaving $7 million off the books by flipping Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek for Hundley. Cheapskateism aside, there's little coming from the farm system to give them hope for the next couple of years either. To succeed, the Dodgers will need to stay healthy, something they've been unable to do for years.
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