Baseball Prospectus’ Pre-season Projection: 93-69
Actual Record: 95-67

A young nucleus will keep LA in the driver’s seat in the NL West, but the Rockies are right in the rear-view mirror.

Buster Olney of’s Take

What went wrong: Not much, really. Despite an injury to Chad Billingsley and the drug-related suspension of Manny Ramirez, the Dodgers had an exceptional season, winning a NL-high 95 games and essentially standing as the wire-to-wire winner in the NL West. Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier took their next steps into stardom, and Clayton Kershaw provided more evidence that he could become one of the sport’s dominant lefties.

Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: Actually, there are a lot of lingering questions, and first and foremost is whether the marital problems of the team’s owner and its recently fired CEO-Frank McCourt and his wife Jamie-will paralyze the Dodgers in the same way that the divorce of John Moores devastated the financial planning of the San Diego Padres. It may be that the legal wrangling could affect the Dodgers’ effort to fill their most glaring hole, the lack of a ace-type starter who can lead a staff. In the aftermath of the Dodgers’ elimination, Joe Torre mentioned that his team had managed to plug along without having a clear ace, but if LA is to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1988, it needs someone like a Roy Halladay (the best pitcher likely to be available in trade) or a John Lackey (the best free-agent pitcher). It may not be clear for weeks whether GM Ned Colletti will be in position to either spend in prospects or in cash what would be required to land that type of talent. The bullpen and lineup should be strong, and eventually, Kershaw will become an ace-but he’s only 21, and the rotation needs help.

The Baseball Prospectus Take

When our initial PECOTA projections were unveiled in mid-February, the Dodgers’ overall chances at reaching the postseason only stood around 29 percent, with an eight-win gap separating them from the Diamondbacks. By the time the season opened, their odds were up to 57 percent (48 percent for a division title, nine percent for the wild card) thanks to the late-February addition of Orlando Hudson and the early March re-signing of Ramirez.

Those two deals, along with the early February signing of Randy Wolf, came at substantial discounts in a bad economy. This was a feather in Colletti’s cap, as he was able to reduce the Opening Day payroll by about $18 million relative to 2008.

As it was, PECOTA‘s 93-win forecast was pretty accurate, particularly given that it nailed both the Dodgers’ ranking as the league’s stingiest pitching staff (they tied with the Giants for the fewest runs allowed at 3.77 per game) and fourth-highest scoring offense (4.81 runs per game). While Billingsley didn’t live up to the system’s expectations due to a bad second half, Wolf put together a career year and Kershaw pitched well beyond his years, posting the league’s lowest hit rate (6.3 H/9), second-best homer rate (0.4 HR/9) and fifth-best strikeout rate (9.7 K/9) and ERA (2.79). Jonathan Broxton led the league with 4.9 WXRL while anchoring the circuit’s top bullpen.

As for the offense, its .273 EqA ranked second in the league. Ramirez was projected to rank seventh in the league with a .315 EqA, and while his 50-game suspension prevented him from getting enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, his .327 EqA would have ranked fifth. Ethier (.301) and Kemp (.298) both beat their projections slightly as well while becoming the first Dodgers to top 20 homers since 2005.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

Key Stat: .346

Despite playing in one of the league’s top pitchers’ parks, the Dodgers put up the NL’s highest OBP as well as batting average (.270), enabling them to overcome a meager .412 slugging percentage (seventh in the league) and the third-lowest percentage of runs scored via homers (30.1). There simply wasn’t an easy out to be had in their lineup; of their eight regulars, only leadoff man Rafael Furcal (.335) finished below .350, and even he came on strong late in the year. Though Ramirez (.418) cooled off after his suspension, he nonetheless set the tone, walking 71 times in 104 games; his 21 intentional passes ranked third in the league behind Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez despite his lengthy absence. Juan Pierre (.365) filled in admirably during that 50-game stretch and elsewhere off the bench. Blake (.363) set a career high. Kemp (.352) and Ethier (.361) set career highs in walks as well as homers, a sign of growing respect in the eyes of opposing pitchers. Russell Martin (.352) and James Loney (.357) kept the line moving despite mysterious power outages which raised questions about their future viability.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus Rumor Central

Trades: Halladay may be the biggest target on the trade market, as he’s all but a lame duck in Toronto, but what about Josh Johnson of Florida? As’s Jayson Stark told us, Johnson wants a multi-year deal from a team that gives long-term deals to pitchers about as often as it sells out its home park. Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla is arbitration-eligible and almost certainly will be available in a deal, as well-or how about a package?

Free Agency: It seems like the Dodgers have half the market for free-agent second basemen coming off their roster. Ronnie Belliard, Mark Loretta, and Hudson are all due for the open waters. But with arbitration raises for Martin, Ethier, Billingsley, Kemp, Sherrill, Broxton, and Hong-Chih Kuo about to make dents in LA’s payroll flexibility, the Dodgers won’t have a bundle to spend to fill the hole.

Who 2 Watch 4: People in other teams’ double-knits

One of the more disturbing aspects of the Dodgers’ postseason struggles is the price they’ve paid for them in terms of prospects. Last year’s Casey Blake deal and this year’s trade for reliever George Sherrill cost the team catcher Carlos Santana and third baseman Josh Bell, who would arguably be the organization’s top two prospects right now and, more importantly, their only nearly big league-ready talent. The Dodgers’ system isn’t as strong as it once was, and while there is a good amount of talent at the lower levels, there’s nothing close that will be able to make an impact for the team in 2010, other than the kind of players Dodgers fans have seen for a while. Infielder Blake DeWitt, for example, posts a career .257/.333/.384 line in the majors and doesn’t project to get much better than that.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

The Bottom Line

This will be a big winter for the Dodgers, as Kemp, Loney, and Billingsley will reach arbitration eligibility for the first time, and Ethier and Martin for the second time. There’s some talk of the Dodgers approaching Kemp and Ethier with multiyear deals, but such negotiations would take place against the backdrop of the club’s uncertain ownership situation, not to mention a sluggish economy.

While the team does have considerable cash coming off the books in the form of Jason Schmidt‘s desiccated remains, Colletti will have hard choices to make when it comes to free agents. At the very least, he’ll have to fill holes at second and in the middle of the rotation, though given his track record, that may not be a bad thing. Ultimately, the combination of an outstanding young nucleus and the league’s top attendance should keep LA in the NL West’s driver’s seat, though the talent gap between the Dodgers and Rockies has narrowed considerably.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

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

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Is there any potential for this McCourt thing to get totally ugly and force Colletti into dropping the payroll to say 60 million? I'm just not liking anything I am hearing so far in these divorce proceedings.
As nasty as things appear to be, it doesn't sound like there's an imminent threat of the McCourts being forced to sell the team to settle their divorce proceedings. Perhaps that scenario plays out a year from now a la the Padres, if it's clear that both parties need to divest themselves, but I would be very skeptical that you'll see such a scenario unfold this winter. Unless things take a very quick turn - unlikely given the threat of Jamie McCourt's claim on the team - I would expect the Dodgers' payroll to wind up somewhere between their 2008 and 2009 Opening Day payrolls.
Removing Jamie as team president (and the hunt for a new president) can be disruptive as well.
Let's hope you're right there Jay. That would put the Dodgers' payroll at $109 million, or a $9 million bump over 2009. With the money coming off the books for Wolf, Hudson, and Schmidt, that should leave plenty of flexibility to fill 2B (Belliard/DeWitt) and pursue a guy like Lackey.