|LOS ANGELES DODGERS|
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The Dodgers’ farm system is perhaps the most promising in the game. The team’s upper-echelon talent is thick enough–six prospects on the BP 2006 list and the best overall minor league talent stock per PECOTA–that Los Angeles might soon reestablish its chokehold on the National League Rookie of the Year award. (The Dodgers won the award five straight years from 1992-96 and four straight years from 1979-83, and overall have racked up 17 RoYs since the award was conceived in 1947, by far the most of any team’s rookies.) While the wave of young talent isn’t expected to fully take Dodger Stadium over until 2007, two prospects have played well enough this spring to put themselves in position to crack the majors even sooner:
- Russell Martin, C: Martin broke out for Double-A Jacksonville in his age-22 season last year, hitting .311/.430/.423 in 500 PA, good for an excellent .282 EqA. The performance was particularly impressive in context; the Southern League is an exercise in run prevention, and Jacksonville, with a 955 park factor in 2005, played as the best pitchers’ park in the 10-team circuit next to Mississippi, which had a 954 factor. Oddly, while his teammates as a whole hit far better on the road, Martin did most of his damage at home, with a .321/.455/.467 line and seven of his nine home runs. That split is likely more a fluke than anything else, but it does bode well for his introduction to the similarly run-suppressing Dodger Stadium (959 factor in ’05).
Martin has moved into the major league picture this spring in part because of the injury-related struggles of Dioner Navarro, the other young backstop on the Dodgers. Navarro, who received a red light in the Dodgers’ Team Health Report, strained his hamstring on May 15th and might not be fully ready by April 3rd, meaning Martin could potentially be in the Opening Day lineup. While Martin is certainly a strong prospect, it is important to keep in mind the cautions Nate Silver brought up in his article on catching prospects: Navarro, a year younger than Martin, put up a .354 OBP in the majors last year, while Martin has yet to play above Double-A.
Nevertheless, the Dodgers have a surfeit of riches behind the plate, an overwhelming positive in that finding and developing offensive talent at catcher is a team’s tallest task. The vicious attrition rate inherent to the position also makes it a good idea to have more than one quality option on hand. While most teams scrounge for a backstop that won’t prove a dead spot in the lineup, both L.A. catchers have shown the ability to get on base at an above average clip, which should provide a big lift to the bottom of the order. Having two catchers with such an advanced knowledge of the strike zone–Martin has 208 walks vs. 178 strikeouts in his minor league career, while Navarro put up a 58/45 BB/K ratio last year–maximizes the chance that one of them will develop enough power to become an elite young backstop, the kind of player in short supply in the Senior Circuit, especially west of Atlanta. Both should be given the chance to play every day–Navarro at the big league level and Martin at Triple-A Las Vegas–to see if either can take the next step.
- Joel Guzman, OF: Guzman came up as a shortstop, but the 6’6′ masher has since been moved to the outfield. He impressed in camp enough to nominally challenge for Jose Cruz Jr.‘s job in left field, but was optioned to Vegas on Tuesday. Guzman has risen to the top of the impressive Los Angeles prospect crop owing to his startling raw power (.186 ISO in 1594 minor league at bats through his age 20 season), but he could use a year in Triple-A to work on his outfield defense–he’s played nothing but shortstop and third base thus far–and his batting eye. Guzman is on nearly the opposite end of the spectrum as Martin and Navarro in terms of controlling the zone: he has struck out 434 times against 119 walks, a 3.6:1 ratio in the wrong direction. Those strikeouts wouldn’t be a big deal if they were combined with his power at the major league level, but there is increasing evidence that abnormally high K rates in the minors can act as a developmental barrier. Dodgers fans shouldn’t get flustered, though, given that Guzman’s been a couple years younger than the average minor leaguer at all the stops he’s made and still pummeled the ball, which is of greater significance than the strikeouts.
Given the health of the Dodgers’ position players, Guzman might end up roaming Chavez Ravine for a significant chunk of 2006 despite his rough edges. There aren’t a whole lot of green lights on the Dodgers, and none at all in the outfield (with all that yellow and red, you’d think L.A. was trying to coordinate its THR with the hue of southern California’s fire-scorched chaparral). Last year’s decimation of L.A.’s outfield corps–projected starters Jayson Werth, Milton Bradley and J.D. Drew were collectively felled for most of the season–was of course not solely due to bad luck. Should Drew go down again, 39-year-old center fielder Kenny Lofton feel his age, and Werth continue struggling to overcome his lingering left wrist injury, management might be tempted to overlook Ricky Ledee and Jason Repko to call on Guzman, especially if he’s burning up the desert in Las Vegas. Given Cashman Field’s reputation as one of the best hitting parks in all of the minors (1089 factor last year in the offense-heavy Pacific Coast League), such a scenario wouldn’t be surprising. As stressed in the team’s chapter in this year’s annual, the Dodgers have traditionally proven incapable of seeing past the extreme environment of Las Vegas in promoting their prospects, the curse of having a high minors affiliate with an offensive context antithetical to that of the big club.
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Last fall at the press conference to announce his hiring, new Phillies GM Pat Gillick declared that his goal for the off-season was to find five more wins for the team. Many in Philadelphia expected this to happen via the acquisition of one big-named star, most likely a top starting pitcher. However, such a move never happened. If the Phillies are to pick up those additional five wins, they’re likely to be patched together from a variety of sources. Here’s a list of players who could contribute to that gain, listed more or less in decreasing order of likelihood of occuring.
- Ryan Howard: It seems a bit strange to list Howard here given that he’s coming off a Rookie of the Year season. However, he won the award based on only half a season in the majors, having not reached the majors to stay until July 1st. For the first half of the season the Phillies had an injury hobbled Jim Thome at first base whose performance was certainly below position average, and approaching replacement-level badness. The Phillies don’t need Ryan Howard to do anything more than he did in the second half last year. If he repeats that performance for a full season, that alone may represent a couple wins above the production they saw at first base over the whole of 2005.
- Ryan Madson: Last season the final two spots in the Phillies rotation were in a constant state of flux due to a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness. This year Madson has moved out of the bullpen into the rotation, retaking the starting role he had throughout his minor league career. Between his mix of three good pitches and his tendency to get worn down when pitching on consecutive days, he is likely to be more effective as a starter than he was as a reliever. He should be at the very least a solid league-average pitcher, and is a dark horse candidate to have a breakout season. Even if he were to stay at the average level he’d represent an improvement over the merry-go-round they had last year.
- Jimmy Rollins: For most of his career Rollins has been very susceptible to the high fastball, regularly trying to upper-cut it out of the park. In the last couple months of last season he seemed to finally learn to lay off of it, instead switching towards a swing designed to create line drives into the gaps so he could use his speed. One of the most important questions of the year for the Phillies is which version of Rollins will show up this year; the post All-Star Break version who hit .308/.363/.470 is more valuable the pre-break version who hit .273/.316/.398. As is the case with Howard, if Rollins can carry his second half performance over into a full season, that will be a substantial improvement for the team. Unlike Howard, there are reasons to worry that he might not.
- Gavin Floyd: A few days ago, in his PECOTA preview of the season, Nate Silver commented “Replace Ryan Franklin with a league average pitcher, and the Phillies are the unambiguous division favorites.” Well, Franklin has already been replaced, but the question is now whether or not Floyd can reach league-average level. His track record up through 2004 would have suggested that he was a reasonable candidate for reaching that level, but his 2005 was a disaster, starting in about the second week of the season. He earned a spot in the rotation by pitching extremely well in spring training, an improvement he credits to channeling Nuke LaLoosh: “Don’t think, just pitch.” Floyd represents the biggest variable for the Phillies. If the improvement he showed during the spring is real and he can routinely go fairly deep into games while keeping the team in the game, that would go a long way to preventing the sort of bullpen overuse which plagued the team last year. If he returns to last year’s disastrous form, Franklin may represent an improvement, which would be a bad sign for the team’s chances.
- David Bell/Alex Gonzalez/Abraham Nunez: There is no way to describe the offensive production the Phillies got from the third base spot that is kinder than awful. No third baseman who played the whole season put up worse numbers than Bell did. While Nunez and Gonzalez are not going to set the world on fire with their production, they would still represent an improvement if Bell starts the season like he did last year. It remains to be seen whether manager Charlie Manuel will be willing to sit Bell down in that circumstance.
There are other areas where change has happened, including some where some slippage can be anticipated, such as in the bullpen, but these five are the key areas for the the Phillies. Given the nature of the National League this year, with many good teams but no obvious great ones, the Phillies should not be counted out. The performance of the players listed here could spell the difference between a playoff berth and yet another near miss in south Philadelphia.