Mar 06

Torre talks about going without lefty on bench – isn’t this unthinkable?

Dodger manager Joe Torre says he is contemplating going without a left-handed hitter on the bench, according to Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com.  I can’t believe it. I can’t believe any manager would do it. It puts your team at such a disadvantage, by allowing opponents to throw their best right-handed relievers against you at will.

But it’s true that the Dodgers have basically put themselves behind the right-handed 8-ball by signing non-southpaws Jamey Carroll, Nick Green, Ronnie Belliard and Reed Johnson this offseason. And with the latest news that Anderson won’t be ready to face live pitching for at least a week, according to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com – along with ongoing health concerns about Brian Giles and Doug Mientkiewicz, and the team’s reluctance to make the inexperienced Xavier Paul their lefty off the bench – the Dodgers have to at least plan for the possibility that come Opening Day, they will have no lefty options better than their righty ones.

Torre faces a problem because, as was noted when the team was signing Johnson, the Dodgers don’t have room for 12 pitchers and a lefty bench player unless a) Blake DeWitt starts the season in Albuquerque or b) the team does something it went out of its way to avoid in 2009, by making a non-shortstop the backup to Rafael Furcal. (Remember, the Dodgers kept Juan Castro as a backup basically all of last season, and that was with Mark Loretta having more shortstop experience than Jamey Carroll has.)

Even though DeWitt is off to a nice start after two Spring Training games, he’s still got a ways to go before the starting second base job is his.  But if he wins it, the Dodgers would face such a roster crunch that the next most logical choice might be to cut Belliard, rather than go without a lefty pinch-hitter. After all, Belliard (whose contract isn’t officially guaranteed yet) is really only with the team in case DeWitt needs more seasoning.

If Giles or Mientkiewicz were healthy, I’d recommend keeping them over Belliard. However, Belliard projects to be better against righties than the over-the-hill Anderson, so choosing Anderson over Belliard is a bit unsavory.

A different solution would be to go with 11 pitchers, but as I said all last year, the Dodgers really do have a pitching staff that benefits from a 12th man. Maybe someone should run the numbers, but I think the cushion the seventh reliever provides helps the team more than a sixth bench player would.

The Dodgers are going to have to bite one of these bullets, and after shooting through all the different options, the best one might be to go without a true backup shortstop. With Furcal looking much healthier this year, backup shortstop will be one of the team’s lower priorities come Opening Day. If Furcal gets hurt, I’d much rather see Carroll at shortstop at the end of a close game than see a righty batter against a tough righty reliever. Neither Green nor Chin-Lung Hu would be likely to help the team more than even Anderson would.

The question is whether Green or Hu’s defense makes either a better choice for the roster than Belliard. I do think, if DeWitt starts at second base, that’s where the choice would be.

If the Dodgers do the heretofore unthinkable and keep an all-righty bench, I’d bet the house it doesn’t last more than two weeks. A team should have more than one left-handed hitter on the bench. Having none, strategically, is just a nightmare.

Feb 24

Dodgers’ ability to get on base keeps team in pennant race

Often forgotten about the 2009 Dodgers is that they were a good on-base percentage team – tops in the National League at .346. They say pitching wins championships, but being able to put runners on base, time and time again, plays a pretty big role, too.

The individual OBPs will fluctuate this season – in ways we can’t really predict – but with an even split of players above and below the age of 28, the team’s OBP might be very much the same.

Scanning the offense:

Russell Martin, C (.352 in 2009): Despite his ’09 power outage, Martin maintained an OBP within shouting distance of his .373 career mark entering the year, and reflective of his .025 drop (compared with 2008) in batting average on balls in play. Even in September, by which time his season was all but lost offensively, Martin drew 13 walks (nine unintentional). He OBPed .327 in the month, despite his BABIP being an unlucky .200.

Even if stays a worse slugger than Juan Pierre, Martin hasn’t lost the ability to work his way to first base. I know there’s a lot of cynicism about Martin at this point – and his new physique only adds to the mystery – but you still have a 27-year-old player who underperformed for one year but has been historically strong in this area.

James Loney, 1B (.357): Loney walked more than he struck out for the first time in his career last year, indicating a better handle of the strike zone. If he decides to swing more for the fences, that could change, but the odds are better that, at age 26 in May, he will improve. His OBP in the second half of 2009 was .366.

Ronnie Belliard, Blake DeWitt and Jamey Carroll, 2B (.325/.245/.355): No surprise that this appears the most tenuous spot of the offense. Last year, Orlando Hudson on-based .357 and Belliard, in his short stint out West, .398. That’s going to be tough for this trio to match, despite Carroll’s ability here. A breakout season for DeWitt, who OBPed .344 in ’08, would help – as would better work off the bench to replace the 204 plate appearances given to Mark Loretta (.309).

Rafael Furcal, SS (.335): I won’t make any bold predictions for the 32-year-old Furcal to improve, despite his better look in September. There’s potential for an uptick if he stays healthy this year, but that’s a big if. Furcal’s backup, whoever it is, figures to be OBP-challenged – though perhaps no worse than Juan Castro (.311) was.

Casey Blake, 3B (.363): Blake’s OBP soared unexpectedly last year to a near-career-high .363 at age 35, compared to a .338 career mark. He’ll slide.

Manny Ramirez, LF (.418): Ramirez OBPed .492 before his suspension – we won’t see that player again. But in the period from his suspension return to his Bobbleslam, his OBP was still .429, and so the overall 2009 figure he posted last year still seems mostly within reach.

No. 4 outfielder Juan Pierre had a surprising .365 on-base percentage – not as good as Ramirez’s even in August and September, but higher than Reed Johnson and friends will probably have. The Dodgers’ OBP should still be strong in left field, if not quite as strong.

Matt Kemp, CF (.352): Kemp’s OBP wasn’t a career-high – in fact, it was only .010 higher than his 2007 batting average. This is a 25-year-old who was rapidly growing but wasn’t maxing his on-base potential last year. While the .266 OBP he had in September gives pause, bet on Kemp to step it up.

Andre Ethier, RF (.361): Since his major-league debut in 2006, Ethier has simply been a strong OBP man. His career-low is .350, and he’s been above .360 in three of four years. The fact that he has had some slumps underscores just how hot he gets the rest of the time. If pitchers decide to challenge Ramirez more, Ethier’s the guy they might be most careful with – I’m not sure a .400 OBP is out of the question.

So, second base, shortstop, third base and left field figure to slide. Catcher, first base, center field and right field figure to rise. Obviously, things won’t all go according to plan, but with any kind of luck at all, the Dodgers should be able keep innings going like they did last year. That’s one reason why they still should be taken seriously in the 2010 pennant race.

* * *

  • Post of the Day honors go to Memories of Kevin Malone for its great interview with Dodger minor-leaguer and major-blogger Brian Akin. It offered great insights into the minor-league experience and really is a must-read for any baseball fan.
  • Today was Dodger organist Nancy Bea Hefley’s birthday. Her age: timeless.
  • In the daily attempt to rehabilitate himself as a viable pitcher, Eric Gagne told Ken Gurnick of MLB.com that Dodger pitching coach Ken Howell has found flaws in his release point that are correctable. Here’s a video feature on Gagne’s workouts.
  • Relive Alex Cora’s 18-pitch home run from 2004 with this video recap at Dodgers.com.
  • Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness feels that the Manny Ramirez backlash and Juan Pierre forelash has gotten out of hand – at least on Facebook. I’m not surprised that people have turned on Ramirez, but I remain taken aback by how many have no fondness at all for a player who carried the team to the 2008 playoffs.
  • It was Kemp day for the guys on the beat: Tony Jackson, Dylan Hernandez, Ken Gurnick and to top things off, The Associated Press.
  • Former Dodger farmhand Sergio Pedroza, sent away in the Julio Lugo trade, has returned to the organization, and he is being joined by 27-year-old Dustin Yount, son of Robin. Both played most recently in the independent Golden Baseball League.
  • Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez probably will get traded before he becomes eligible to leave the team as a free agent after the season. Gonzalez was forthright in telling Corey Brock of MLB.com (via Hardball Talk) that he wouldn’t give San Diego a discount on a new contract.
  • Maury Brown of the Biz of Baseball and Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus discussed the proposed testing of minor leaguers for human growth hormone. Money quote from Carroll: “It’s going to be difficult to fight public opinion. Facts don’t work – look, HGH studies have shown conclusively that it’s not effective and can actually reduce performance. OK, it makes bones stronger – not a benefit! The detectable period is laughably short. Still, Bud will wave something at Michael Schmidt and ESPN and they’ll jump.”
  • Jerry West biographer Roland Lazenby gave Mark Medina of the Times an extremely lengthy interview. Lazenby’s “Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon” looks like something we can’t miss.
Feb 22

Manny Ramirez begins his farewell tour

Manny Ramirez confirmed — as much as he is capable of — what every interested party on Earth and neighboring celestial bodies already surmised: 2010 will be his last season as a Dodger. From Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com:

… He said he hasn’t been told by club officials that the Dodgers aren’t interested in re-signing him, but he added that it probably isn’t realistic to expect them to do so.

“I’m just speculating but I’m not 23 anymore,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said he would wait until after the season to determine if he wants to play in the major leagues for what would be a 19th year. His options might be limited to the American League, which uses the designated hitter, because of his defensive limitations in left field.

“The game is still fun, but I think I have to wait until the season ends and see where my family is at before I make a choice,” Ramirez said. “I will just wait and see how my body reacts.”

After working out for most of the winter near his South Florida home, Ramirez said his legs feel fine entering spring training.

“From the waist down, I feel 15,” he said. “From the neck up, I feel 43. I feel good.” …

This is creating a lot of headlines from Los Angeles to Boston, but it doesn’t really change anything. There’s still exactly the same doubt about his physical condition there already was. Mentally, there’s certainly a chance he might mail in the season, or try to orchestrate a midseason trade to an American League team with an opening at designated hitter — a move the Dodgers might be quite happy to accommodate, depending on the circumstances. But the fact that Ramirez voiced aloud what everyone was suspecting is hardly a turning point.

The main thing is that we’re still looking at a 38-year-old slugger with idiosyncrasies but also something left to prove. It was going to be an interesting ride before today, and it figures to stay that way.

Ramirez’s OPS by month in his final season in Boston: April 1.029, May .714, June .930, July 1.060.

Other notes:

  • Dylan Hernandez of the Times wrote that Ramirez “refused to talk in detail about problems at the plate last season, but he acknowledged that (the Dodgers) made him change his off-season training regimen.”
  • Joe Torre said that he plans to give Ramirez two or three days off every two weeks. If you translate that as a game off per week, on average (factoring in off days), Ramirez would be on tap to play about 140 games if he doesn’t go on the disabled list.

Previously on Dodger Thoughts: “Tracing the Citizen Rebellion in Mannywood.”