Apr 06

Dodgers’ third loss in four games points out frailties

Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez robs Rafael Furcal of a potential game-tying double in the ninth inning of the Dodgers’ 7-5 loss to Colorado.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, though I don’t by any means rule out the Dodgers making a run for a division title, my feelings about this year’s team are about as pessimistic as I’ve ever had since I began Dodger Thoughts. The reason: Not only does the pitching have to meet high expectations for the team to succeed, but the offense and defense both have to exceed expectations. Los Angeles just looks too slight a horse to bet the big money on.

Today’s 7-5 loss to Colorado was but one game, one that will be forgotten as soon as the next one begins (two long nights from now), but it does illustrate my point. The great pitching faltered, as will happen, and the offense, despite home runs by James Loney and Rod Barajas and a triple by Casey Blake in his season debut, couldn’t make up the difference. Bad timing? Sure, and for that matter, the Dodgers nearly pulled the game out in the ninth inning. But over the course of 2011, I don’t foresee the Dodger offense exceeding expectations more often than the Dodger pitching falls short of them.

We heard a lot of talk about execution and aggressiveness in Spring Training, which is all well and good — being anti-execution is like being anti-breathing. But I tend to think that any team that is relying on execution to save its season is a team that doesn’t have enough talent to succeed.

The Dodgers next head to San Diego’s spacious Petco Park, where the pitching should flourish, to play a team that most of us feel will finish beneath the Dodgers in the standings. After that is a trip to San Francisco, to play a team that just lost three of four games to Los Angeles. So for all I know, the Dodgers will be back in first place in a week’s time, showing renewed signs of contendability. But this remains a prove-it-to-me Dodger team, one that perhaps will be looking for players like Rubby De La Rosa or Jerry Sands to save it.

Mar 31

De Jesus, Ellis, Cormier, Gimenez, Paul round out Dodger Opening Day roster

Here’s who’ll suit up for Opening Day (Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has the details and the quotes.):

Starting pitchers: Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda

Bullpen: Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Matt Guerrier, Kenley Jansen, Blake Hawksworth, Mike McDougal, Lance Cormier

Starting lineup: Rafael Furcal, Tony Gwynn Jr., Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Juan Uribe, James Loney, Rod Barajas, Jamey Carroll

Bench: Ivan De Jesus Jr., Aaron Miles, Hector Gimenez, A.J. Ellis, Xavier Paul, Marcus Thames

Disabled list: Jon Garland, Vicente Padilla, Jay Gibbons, Casey Blake, Dioner Navarro

Manager: Don Mattingly, interviewed by Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com

John Lindsey and Jon Link have been designated for assignment – I think the expectation is that Lindsey, if not both Lindsey and Link, will clear waivers and possibly end up in Albuquerque.

Most vulnerable to coming off the roster as the injured players return: De Jesus, Ellis, Cormier, McDougal and Paul.

Oh, and here’s a bonus for you:

June 2012 starting rotation: Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Rubby De La Rosa, Zach Lee

Mar 29

Dodgers and Giants tidbits and tattles

Some Dodger-Giant notes from ESPN Stats and Info:

  • Just 12 days after turning 23, Clayton Kershaw will be the fifth-youngest opening day starter for the Dodgers since moving to Los Angeles in 1958. He’s the youngest since Fernando Valenzuela in 1983. He’s also the first lefty since Valenzuela in 1988. Kershaw will be the Dodgers’ fifth different opening day starter in the past five years. It’s the first time in the last 90 years that the franchise has had five unique opening day starters in five seasons.

    Youngest Opening Day Starter
    Los Angeles Dodgers History (Yrs-Days)

    1981 Fernando Valenzuela      20-159
    1958 Don Drysdale             21-266
    1983 Fernando Valenzuela      22-155
    1959 Don Drysdale             22-262
    2011 Clayton Kershaw          23-12

  • Most Strikeouts Before 23rd Birthday, Dodgers History
    Fernando Valenzuela     584
    Clayton Kershaw         497
    Don Drysdale            488
    Ralph Branca            397
    Don Sutton              378
  • Kershaw’s 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings is the second-highest before turning 23 since 1900 (min. 400 IP):

    Sam McDowell      9.6         1961-65
    Clayton Kershaw   9.3         2008-10
    Dwight Gooden     8.7         1984-87
    Dave Boswell      8.4         1964-67
    Vida Blue         8.1         1969-72

  • Since 1900, no one has more strikeouts through his first four seasons than Tim Lincecum.

    Tim Lincecum      907   2007-10
    Dwight Gooden     892   1984-87
    Hideo Nomo        870   1995-98
    Tom Seaver        866   1967-70
    Bert Blyleven     845   1970-73

  • Among the Giants’ current rotation, Lincecum actually had the second-highest ERA last season. Much of that was due to an August in which he went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA. Some notes on that month:

    1) According to Elias, Lincecum became the first Giants pitcher to go at least 0-5 with an ERA of 7.80 or higher since Bud Black (0-6, 8.01 ERA) in September 1992.
    2) Opponents hit .388 with runners on base off Lincecum in August.
    3) Right-handed batters hit .362 in August against Lincecum. For the rest of the season, they hit just .210.
    4) When you eliminate August, Lincecum was 16-5 with a 2.84 ERA in 2010.

  • According to Inside Edge, the velocity on Lincecum’s fastball has declined each of the past three seasons:

    2008  94.1 mph
    2009  92.6 mph
    2010  91.2 mph

  • His swing-and-miss percentage also has gone down each year:

    2008  27.5%
    2009  26.2%
    2010  25.7%

  • The Giants are looking to be just the fourth NL team to repeat as World Series champs, and the first since the 1975-76 Reds.
  • The team finished with a 1.78 ERA in September, the fifth-lowest in a calendar month in the live ball era (since 1930). Opponents hit just .182 in September, the lowest since the Indians held opponents to a .174 average in May 1968.

    Lowest ERA in Calendar Month
    Live Ball Era (Since 1920)

    Indians      1.42         May 1968
    Dodgers      1.59         Sept. 1965
    Dodgers      1.71         May 1920
    Yankees      1.76         Sept. 1952
    Giants       1.78         Sept. 2010

  • Don Mattingly makes his managerial debut. According to Elias, only four people have won an MVP and managed a team to a World Series title: Joe Torre, Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch, Lou Boudreau. However, the latter three did so as player-managers.
  • Since 2008, Kershaw and Lincecum rank first and second in opponent batting average:

    Clayton Kershaw   .221
    Tim Lincecum      .223
    Jonathan Sanchez  .226
    Ubaldo Jimenez    .227
    Felix Hernandez   .232

  • This will be the 10th time since 1958 that these teams have met on Opening Day. The Giants have won six of the previous nine.
  • Though he had a reputation for overworking relievers, Joe Torre’s Dodgers were not generally among the top teams in using a pitcher on zero days rest.

    Dodgers relief appearances on zero days’ rest (NL rank)
    2010  66    (14th)
    2009  79    (6th)
    2008  69    (13th)

  • James Loney has 268 RBI over the past three seasons, but only 36 homers. Among the 43 players with 250 RBI since 2008, he has the fewest home runs.

    Name HR    RBI
    James Loney       36    268
    Joe Mauer         46    256
    Jhonny Peralta    49    253
    Bobby Abreu       55    281

  • Among current NL players, Loney has the third-highest career batting average with runners in scoring position (min. 500 PA):

    Albert Pujols     .345
    Todd Helton       .335
    James Loney       .326
    Freddy Sanchez    .320

Mar 21

2011 Dodgers: Optimism under the gun


Jeff Lewis/US PresswireJason Phillips played 19 games at first base for the 2005 Dodgers.

I believe that the 2011 Dodgers could win the National League West, and that after that, anything is possible.

That being said, I don’t know that I’ve been less optimistic about a Dodger team in quite a long time. That includes the 2005 Dodgers, who ultimately finished 71-91 in between 2004 and 2006 division titles. I had doubts about that team, but they were relatively minor.  For the Hardball Times, I predicted they would win at least 80 games and maybe many more, and for Baseball Analysts, I had them finishing a close second (to the Giants) in the NL West, ultimately won by the Padres with an 82-80 record.

Rightly or wrongly, that the 2005 team disintegrated to the extent it did took me by surprise. If the same thing happened to the 2011 Dodgers, I wouldn’t be caught off guard.

Again, I do think there’s all kinds of upside to this year’s team, because of the pitching and the potential of bounce-back seasons from Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Rafael Furcal and James Loney. A late-season infusion from Jerry Sands, Rubby De La Rosa or a midseason acquisition could put the Dodgers over the top. But the foundation of the team seems crepe paper thin:

  • The starting rotation tilts toward the older side, which means the potential for decline and disappointment looms — even before you consider the chance of growing pains for Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley.
  • There’s no guarantee that Kemp, Ethier, Furcal and Loney will be better this season than last.
  • Catcher, left field and third base/second base could be wastelands.
  • Relief pitching is inherently unpredictable, which relates not just to Jonathan Broxton, but also Kenley Jansen, Matt Guerrier and more.
  • An ill-placed injury or two could simply devastate this squad.

While pondering the spring of Hector Gimenez this weekend, seeing him get more play at first base, it occurred to me that he could be the 2011 Jason Phillips — a player with a high-.600s, low-.700s regular-season OPS getting time at a key hitting position partly out of frustration with the incumbent (James Loney, meet Hee Seop Choi). Phillips actually didn’t play that much first base for the ’05 Dodgers, but some still consider him emblematic of a season gone wrong.

Let me reiterate that I’m not giving up on this team — as I’ve said before, I’m actually kind of looking forward to the start of the 2011 season more than 2010, when I was more confident. If nothing else, Spring Training 2011 has been noticeably tranquil, and maybe that’s a good sign.

I’m often accused, sometimes derisively, of being an optimist — in contrast to being a realist, a word that somehow the pessimists co-opted for themselves. I don’t think my optimism has even been unrealistic. The Dodgers teams that I have been optimistic about had real chances to perform well, whether they actually did or not, and I think I’ve sometimes been quite justified to preach patience and calm.

I believe in the potential of the 2011 Dodgers. I believe this will be a long season with many twists and turns. I don’t believe that, if things start to look grim, I’ll be out on the streets of Faber shouting, “Remain calm — all is well!”

Mar 16

State of the Opening Day roster: Update


Jake Roth/US PresswireDespite a 7.23 ERA last year with St. Louis, Mike MacDougal has taken advantage of Dodger injuries to carve out a chance at a roster spot.

On the last off day before the start of the season, this seems like a good time to check in on how the Dodger 25-man Opening Day roster is shaping up.

On track (18):

Starting pitchers (4): Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly

Relief pitchers (5): Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Matt Guerrier, Blake Hawksworth, Kenley Jansen

Catchers (1): Rod Barajas

Infielders (4): James Loney, Juan Uribe, Rafael Furcal, Jamey Carroll

Outfielders (4): Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Tony Gwynn Jr., Marcus Thames

Likely (3):

1) Casey Blake, 3B: The latest news on Blake sounds about as good as one might have expected – inflammation with no evidence of a muscle strain.  So while anything could happen, we won’t assume that he’ll be on the disabled list March 31.

2) Mike MacDougal, RP: A 0.00 spring ERA, veteran’s moxie and all the positive things people are saying about him in the press make MacDougal this year’s most likely prize off the scrap heap.

3) Dioner Navarro, C: A.J. Ellis can still be optioned to the minors, so we’ll put him aside. Though Hector Gimenez presents an alternative, Navarro seems safe.

Roster spot battles (4):

Norm Hall/Getty ImagesAn .847 spring OPS has helped make Hector Gimenez a longshot as opposed to a no-shot.

1) Jay Gibbons vs. Xavier Paul vs. Trent Oeltjen, OF, vs. Hector Gimenez, C/1B: Gibbons’ spring has been a nightmare, to the extent that Tony Gwynn Jr. might already have passed him in the pecking order for playing time. Xavier Paul, seemingly healthy and performing better as the month goes on, is now adding to the pressure while the eyesight-plagued Gibbons tries to solve his vision problems. A third-party candidate is Trent Oeltjen, who has been hitting all spring – and we’ll even leave open the possibility that Gimenez could take this spot instead of a sixth outfielder.  Chances: Gibbons 45%, Paul 35%, Oeltjen 10%, Gimenez 10%.

2) Aaron Miles vs. Ivan De Jesus Jr. vs. Justin Sellers vs. Juan Castro, IF: A veteran has the automatic edge when you’re talking backup infielder, so it seems safe to knock out De Jesus and Sellers, neither of whom have seized the day. Miles has had a better spring than Castro and is also centuries younger. Castro has that Brad Ausmus-like zen quality that Ned Colletti admires, but Miles has sufficient experience to fill the role. Chances: Miles 80%, Castro 10%, De Jesus 5%, Sellers 5%.

3) + 4) Ron Mahay vs. Scott Elbert vs. Ramon Troncoso vs. Lance Cormier, RP, vs. John Ely vs. Tim Redding, SP, vs. position player: These two final spots seem very much up for grabs at this point, compounded by the uncertainty over whether the Dodgers will start the year with four or five starting pitchers, and whether they’ll start with 11 pitchers overall or 12.

If they keep a fifth starter, it’s still an open battle. Both Redding and Ely can be sent to the minors, though the difference is if Redding is placed on the major-league roster, he would then have to clear waivers before he could go to Albuquerque (once, say, Vicente Padilla or Jon Garland was healthy). The Dodgers can yank Ely up and down this year at will.

Both Ely and Redding started the spring excellently, then faltered (like every other Dodger starter in the past week). Ely is on the upside of his career but with something to prove; Redding is on the downside of his career with something to prove. My guess is that even if Ely wins the job, the Dodgers won’t want him to lose his rhythm by pitching in long relief during the opening days of the season – meaning he would start the season in the minors and then come up April 12 when he is needed. I’m not sure they’d have those reservations with Redding.

Among the lefthanders, Mahay finally had a decent inning Tuesday, though the four batters he faced had 19 career major-league homers. Still, it’s hard to imagine that, short of a 180-degree turnaround, the Dodgers are ready to rely on Elbert, who has walked nine of 20 batters he has faced this spring.

Troncoso has outpitched both lefties, though I’m not sure the Dodgers are convinced he’s all the way back from his 2010 struggles. If he were, he and MacDougal would exchange places. Lance Cormier has gotten little attention while throwing four innings and allowing seven hits while striking out one, but he remains in the running.

And then there’s the chance the Dodgers go with an 11-man staff and keep six guys on the bench. Gimenez, anyone?

If the Dodgers were making their final cuts today, I’d predict they keep two relievers at the outset and fly Ely to San Francisco on April 12. Chances: Troncoso 45%, Mahay 45%, Cormier 30%, Ely 30%, Redding 25%, position player 20%, Elbert 5%.

Feb 15

The Dodger Thoughts 2011 Spring Training Primer

Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireRonald Belisario, International Man of Mystery

Here we go – our journey to the 2011 season begins with this single step. Here’s how the Dodger roster shakes out at the start of Spring Training. (Names below are either on the 40-man roster or have a non-roster invitation to major-league camp.)

Locks (20)
Definition of a lock: Only the disabled list or a trade can stop these guys from making the Opening Day roster. (We’ll discuss them more in an upcoming post.)

Starting pitchers (5): Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly, Jon Garland

Relief pitchers (4): Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Vicente Padilla, Matt Guerrier

Catchers (1): Rod Barajas

Infielders (5): James Loney, Juan Uribe, Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake, Jamey Carroll

Outfielders (5): Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Jay Gibbons, Tony Gwynn Jr., Marcus Thames

Jason O. Watson/US Presswire
Kenley Jansen

Most Likely to Succeed (5)
Kenley Jansen, RHP: I fully expect Jansen to be on the Opening Day roster after he allowed two runs in 27 innings while striking out 41 for the Dodgers in his surprising debut last season, but the bullpen does face a roster crunch of relievers who are out of options, while Jansen has ‘em to spare. If for some reason he blows up in Spring Training, he would be a candidate for more seasoning.

Blake Hawksworth, RHP: Here’s the opposite scenario of Jansen – he’s coming off a shaky 2010 (4.98 ERA, 61 strikeouts in 90 innings), but he came in the Ryan Theriot deal with no minor-league options remaining. That should be enough for a spot, but there is a scenario where others could force him off the team.

Ronald Belisario, RHP: It’s not an original thought to say that just arriving at Camelback on time will be half the battle, but it’s probably true. Coming off his inconsistent 2010, Belisario has something to prove, but any sign of his 2009 form and a half-decent approach off the field should be enough.

Dioner Navarro, C: Of all of Ned Colletti’s offseason moves, offering a million bucks to the guy he once traded away and had 24 hits last season might have been the most head-scratching. If Navarro looks terrible in March, the Dodgers could cut him loose without paying his full salary. But the expectation here is he does enough with his second chance to send A.J. Ellis to Albuquerque with a rock in his Halloween bag.

Aaron Miles, IF: The 25th spot on the roster is a true spin of the wheel. Logically, it should go to an infielder, but there you have candidates including Miles, Juan Castro, Ivan De Jesus Jr. and Justin Sellers. Or the Dodgers could decide to go with five infielders in order to buy more time with one of their outfielders, be it Xavier Paul, Jamie Hoffmann or Trent Oeltjen. Or they want to keep an extra lefty in the bullpen without sacrificing Jansen, Hawksworth or Belisario.  Without much conviction, I’m giving a small edge to Miles. My guess is they feel the need for a sixth infielder, and Castro is so far over the hill I think Mattingly might notice. Sellers and De Jesus can go to the minors. So can the 34-year-old Miles, but he has the major-league imprimatur (.281 batting average/.627 OPS for St. Louis in 2010), plus he’s expendable if they decide they want to cut him.

Next in Line (5)
Ron Mahay, LHP: Mahay will probably wear a Dodger uniform this season – it’s only a matter of when. It could be March 31, if just one of the seven relievers ahead of him is traded, has to start the season on the disabled list or is generally deemed unworthy. But even at age 39, his relative skill at throwing from the left (.520 OPS allowed against lefty batters) just seems too right.

A.J. Ellis, C: The Dodgers probably like Ellis as a person – they just have a roundabout way of showing it. To be fair, you have to respect the Navarro signing in how it shows the Dodgers didn’t buy into Ellis’ red-hot final month (15 for 36 with eight walks) as the sign of something permanent. On the other hand, Ellis was better than Navarro last year, so you have to feel a little for the longtime minor-leaguer having to wait things out again.

Justin Sellers, IF: Sellers was my original first choice for Miles’ spot, based on his solid showing for Albuquerque in 2010 (.867 OPS, 14 home runs), but then I figured the Dodgers would lean toward the veteran for the bench. He’s not considered a serious prospect, but he’s no old-timer – he turned 25 this month. Look for him to make his major-league debut this year.

Ramon Troncoso, RHP: Will Troncoso complete his final journey to Cory Wade-Land?  An indispensable member of the pen less than a year ago – by May 1, he had pitched in a rather stunning 16 of the Dodgers’ first 24 games with a .601 OPS allowed – Troncoso was rocky the rest of the way, ultimately splitting time between the majors and the minors. His strikeout rate declined from 9.0 per nine innings in 2008 to 5.7 last year, but if his arm rallies in 2011, he could convince the Dodgers to, say, part ways with Belisario. And certainly, he could be the first righty reliever resolutely recalled.

Ron Vesely/Getty Images
Xavier Paul

Xavier Paul, OF: The leading candidate for the Delwyn Young Pat on the Butt – Here’s Your Ticket to a Central Division Team Award for Out-of-Option Players, Paul missed his best chance to establish himself as a Dodger when he OPSed .591 as part of the Committee to Replace Manny Ramirez. In theory, there’s no reason why Paul couldn’t emerge triumphant in the Hit and Play Defense in the Same Game Outfielder Challenge, but after all his health and hitting struggles, it would help if he could avoid his annual escapades with the Murphy’s Law Musketeers.

See You by September? (17)
Scott Elbert, LHP: His personal problems are, until we hear otherwise, last year’s story – as is confusion about his role. The Dodgers view him purely as a reliever and are asking him just to get three outs, maybe six, and call it a night. If he can find a clear head and figure out his control, a multiyear career with the Dodgers may yet be his. But in the short term, Mahay’s presence will force Elbert to dazzle to make the initial 25.

Juan Castro, IF: You can’t count Castro out of the Opening Day discussion, but his shaky offensive resume has dissolved completely. If he’s willing to go to the minors at age 38, there could certainly be a moment that would find the Dodgers dialing his number.

Ivan DeJesus Jr., IF: Ned Colletti specifically said that DeJesus is a candidate to be the backup infielder, which probably reflects both his ascension to the top of the farm system and a lack of concern about him getting everyday playing time. But is there a Catch 22 at play here? The better he plays in Spring Training, the harder it will be to see him ride the bench. The logic bet is that DeJesus is in the minors, earning a callup if and when a starting infielder goes on the disabled list. The longshot is DeJesus winning the second-base job outright, pushing Uribe to third base and Blake into a utility role.

Mike MacDougal, RHP: Last year was brutal at the major-league level for the 2003 All-Star, but the year before wasn’t. That speaks to the inconsistency of his career (not to mention his profession). He’s got the kind of name value that would allow him another chance.

Travis Schlichting, RHP: The 26-year-old’s 2010 major-league campaign began with that heroic four-inning relief effort in the 1-0, 14-inning victory over Arizona. Schlichting kept his ERA in healthy form the rest of his time in Los Angeles, though he could be careless with inherited runners. In addition, lingering health concerns remain. Buried behind the right-handed relief corps, Schlichting nevertheless should be a midseason candidate.

John Ely, RHP: Elymania II? Ely could be the first starting pitcher called up from the minors in 2011, after Padilla is pressed into service from the bullpen (if not before). Ely will want to show that he’s learned something from his second-half struggles in 2010 — he had an 8.00 ERA in 54 innings after June 1.

Jamie Hoffmann, OF: Lost in the Rule 5 draft a year ago and then found, Hoffmann led Albuquerque with 169 hits and also comes with a better defensive reputation than any third-outfielder candidate besides Gwynn. But the signing of Thames all but killed Hoffmann’s chances of making the premiere roster without fate intervening.

Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
Carlos Monasterios

Carlos Monasterios, RHP: Monasterios is free from the Rule 5 shackles, which has everyone assuming he’ll spend the bulk of the year in New Mexico. Turning 25 in March, he actually brings back better relief numbers from 2010 than several of the guys ahead of him (2.06 ERA, .620 OPS allowed), so maybe he’ll surprise, but he has a lot of men to leapfrog.

Jon Link, RHP: Let’s see, Link is the … 18th pitcher we’ve listed so far. How long will it take the Dodgers to get to pitcher No. 18?  Should we place the over-under in June?

Trayvon Robinson, OF: We talked last month about Robinson’s accelerating development and the chance he could go from Double-A in 2010 to the majors by the end of 2011. The Dodgers would rather postpone that last step until ’12, but I’m finding it hard to believe that things will go so well for the veterans or so poorly for Robinson that he won’t get his first taste of the bigs in the months ahead.

Jerry Sands, OF-1B: The inaugural entry in the “How close is he?” series, Sands will be right on Robinson’s tail. He could become another left field alternative by midseason, or challenge Loney at first base if the incumbent continues to falter. We’ll be keeping an eye out for any midseason position switches.

Trent Oeltjen, OF: At some point, the Dodgers might well face a choice between calling up a Robinson/Sands prospect, or short-terming it with Oeltjen, who played in 14 games with the big club in September after OPSing .979 in 226 plate appearances with Albuquerque. I’ve listed Oeltjen below Robinson and Sands, but he should very possibly be above them.

Eugenio Velez, OF: With a lifetime .300 on-base percentage and .388 slugging percentage as his 29th birthday approaches, there’s not much reason to think the ex-Giant would make a dent at the major-league level, but far stranger things have happened.

Hector Gimenez, C: Ever since the Dodgers signed Gimenez in November, I’ve mentally dismissed him as irrelevant, but when you look at his ledger (peaking with 16 homers, .384 on-base percentage, .533 slugging percentage in 392 plate appearances at Double-A), there’s no reason to think the 28-year-old couldn’t surpass Ellis as the No. 3 catcher – or, if Navarro flames out, No. 2. Baseball America once rated Gimenez the best defensive catcher in the Houston Astros’ farm system, though that was six years ago. As of this writing, 180 people like Gimenez’s Facebook page.

Russ Mitchell, 3B: When he’s wasn’t moonlighting for CBS News, Mitchell was putting together one of the more unusual Septembers for a Dodger rookie: 43 at-bats, four singles, two homers. He was second at Albuquerque in home runs (23) and plays a position in which the Dodgers lack depth, so that keep him alive for another cup of coffee this year – he’s the first available third baseman after Blake, Uribe and Carroll (well, except for Miles, Sellers or Castro).

Dee Gordon, SS: The Dodger organization’s most prolific Twitterer – closing in on No. 2,000 –  has been talked to and talked about this winter. Though many say his ceiling is higher than Robinson or Sands – or because of it – the Dodgers might be inclined to let him percolate the longest. With DeJesus and other transients available to fill in as middle infielders, I’m thinking September 1 is the absolute earliest that Gordon arrives, as he works on his fundamentals offensively and defensively. He turns 23 in April.

John Lindsey, 1B: Lindsey’s big hurdle this offseason was sticking on the 40-man roster amid the Dodgers’ quantity of acquisitions. He’s close to making it through the winter unscathed, though the fact remains that there’s no spot for him on the Opening Day roster. If he doesn’t head off to Japan, Eric Stults-style, he could return to Albuquerque and wait for another opportunity to wear those major-league togs again.

Check Back in a Year or Two (5)
Javy Guerra, RHP
: The one-time blogger Guerra, who struck out 27 in 27 innings for Chattanooga last year, would have been a more likely contender for a 2011 callup if a) he didn’t also walk 22 and b) he wasn’t slowed down by offseason surgery to repair a gash from a kitchen accident.

John Rieger/US Presswire
Jon Huber

Jon Huber, RHP: In May, almost exactly 10 years after he was drafted, Huber was released by the Braves organization and landed with the Dodgers. He then pitched his best ball in quite some time for Double-A Chattanooga: 2.23 ERA, 48 strikeouts and only 47 baserunners in 44 1/3 innings. However, the 29-year-old, whose reached the majors in 2006-07, has a non-roster invite to Spring Training and a long line of relievers to navigate before he would get his contract purchased.

Luis Vasquez, RHP: He was added to the 40-man roster in November, after striking out 39 in 40 1/3 innings against 54 baserunners with Single-A Great Lakes.

Rubby De La Rosa, RHP: The Dodgers’ minor-league pitcher of the year shot onto the radar with a 2.37 combined ERA at Single- and Double-A, but with only 28 professional starts in his career and never more in a season than last year’s 13, he needs to show he can do it for longer stretches.

Wilkin De La Rosa, LHP: In his first three seasons in the Yankee farm system, this De La Rosa posted ERAs of 2.62, 2.11 and 3.17 with more than a strikeout per inning. But after a 5.33 ERA at Double-A Trenton in 2010, the Yankees designated him for assignment, and the Dodgers grabbed him in December. He’s a lefty, so there’s always a possibility of something happening sometime.

Fodder (7)
Roman Colon, RHP
: Neither a Roman column nor a roamin’ colon (Note: I’ve been asked what a roamin’ colon is, and I don’t have a good answer), the 31-year-old showed some promise in his younger days but has a 5.12 ERA in 179 1/3 career innings since 2004, with 117 strikeouts against 272 baserunners.  Last year brought a detour to the Kia Tigers in Korea.

Oscar Villarreal, RHP:  Last seen in the majors with a 5.02 ERA in 37 2/3 innings for Houston in 2008, Villareal had Tommy John surgery in 2009 before beginning a comeback in 2010 with the Phillies’ Triple-A team (4.40 ERA, 42 strikeouts in 57 1/3 innings. He had an unusual debut in the majors, winning 10 games in relief before turning 22 in 2003.

Jason O. Watson/US Presswire
Gabe Kapler

Gabe Kapler, OF: The unretired manager’s .578 OPS with Tampa Bay last year doesn’t hint at much of a remaining major-league career, hometown ties or not.

Tim Redding, RHP: A year or two ago, Redding might have contended for shot as the No. 5 starter, but unless things go very wrong with the deepened Dodger pitching staff, the 33-year-old won’t see his way to Los Angeles. His last major-league action came in 2009, with a 5.10 ERA in 120 innings for the Mets. Last year, he had a 2.46 ERA in 84 innings for the Yankees’ Triple-A farm team, but his next stop wasn’t the Bronx but rather Korea.

Dana Eveland, LHP: The 28-year-old has slung a 6.96 ERA the past two seasons with 204 baserunners allowed in 98 1/3 innings against 46 strikeouts. Last year, he sucked Toronto in by allowing four earned runs in his first three starts, only to finish the year back in the high sixes. In short, like many professionals, he’s capable of a solid outing every now and then, but it’s a roulette wheel you don’t want to spin. If you ever wanted to read about Dana Eveland and Jack Taschner in the same paragraph, here you go.

JD Closser, C: Batted .319 in 124 plate appearances as a rookie in 2004, but he hit .213 in two seasons after that and hasn’t been seen in the majors since. Now 31, for two years he’s been in the Dodger organization, but OPSes of .761 and .671 in Albuquerque offer little promise.

Damaso Espino, C: Eleven seasons into his pro career, Espino hasn’t progressed past Triple-A, and a conversion from the infield to catcher hasn’t helped. Last year, he had an OPS in the low .600s for Cleveland’s Double-A and Triple-A teams – leaving it unclear, given the presence of Ellis, Gimenez and Closser where he even fits in as a minor-league backup for the Dodgers.

Feb 07

The Dodgers according to Ned Colletti


Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesNed Colletti is beginning his sixth season as Dodgers general manager. The team has averaged 86 regular-season victories during his tenure.

Ten days.

The Dodgers rose from the basement of the National League West in May to the best record in the league in June, then sat only two games out of first place in the division at the All-Star Break.

Yet as far as Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti was concerned, it was almost a mirage. During an interview at his Dodger Stadium office last week, Colletti fully acknowledged that the Dodgers’ second-half fade, as much as he and everyone else tried to reverse it, came as disturbingly little surprise to him.

Ten days. In Colletti’s view, that’s how long the Dodgers played championship-quality baseball in 2010.

“I think the second half, in a lot of ways, was the result of the first half and the spring,” Colletti said. “I can’t say I had more than a 10-day period where I thought we were truly playing as well as we could play. In ’09, we had a pretty good defense, and we executed, played well in clutch situations, found a way to win games. We really hadn’t done that very much in the first half of the season. And I think it caught up with us in the second half.

“And what I did last year wasn’t acceptable. How I prepared for last year didn’t meet the results that I have for myself.”

The Dodgers will arrive to spring training later this month, in many ways, a different team than a year ago, starting with a greater emphasis on starting pitching that represents Colletti’s most visceral response to his roster concerns from 2010. At the same time, Colletti said the experience the returning core gained from last year’s disappointment has the potential to play a significant, positive role in 2011.

“They’re professional, and this is their livelihood,” he said. “And you believe there’s enough pride and adjustment and education from this past year. A lot of guys haven’t gone through what they’ve gone through in the past year. That will put them in the right place coming in to know it’s got to be better and it’s got to be more focused.

“Because they’ve (succeeded) before, I’m confident. But then, last year was what it was. I’m cautious by nature. I take nothing for granted, at any point in my life at any stage. So I don’t take it for granted that it’s just gonna happen. I think it has to be prepared in order to happen.

Translated, Colletti believes the talent is there but the effort, focus and confidence need to return. He said the offseason preparation “is done to some point, and when you get to camp now it’s going to be up to Don [Mattingly] and his staff to have certain procedures in place and certain accountability set forth. And I obviously have to support that, and they have to buy into it.”

Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
Matt Kemp had homered once in 31 games prior to hitting one out in each of his final five games of 2010.

Comeback kids?
Despite leading Dodgers regulars on offense, Andre Ethier never fully seemed to recover from the pinky injury he suffered in May and fed doubts about his long-term ability to hit left-handed pitchers (.625 OPS against them in 2010, .681 for his career). James Loney went from decent before the All-Star Break (.803) to disastrous after (.616). Jonathan Broxton’s second-half collapse is as well-documented as anyone’s, and Matt Kemp … well, let’s just say his season could have been the inspiration for what made Linda Blair’s head spin in “The Exorcist.”

The question, Colletti agreed, is which of the players will hit a hurdle in their development in 2010, and which have hit a wall. And it’s a question that’s due for an answer. Mulligans that were handed out last year won’t be found so easily or at all in 2011.

“In the past, I’ve been more patient than open-minded,” Colletti said. “I think that one of the toughest characteristics you have to have in these jobs is patience because everybody expects everything to turn overnight. … It doesn’t work that way. Everybody’s human; these guys are all human. They take maturation, physical maturation, all kinds of processes.

“I won’t be able to be just completely patient with it [this year]. We’re not an old team, but we’re not a team overwhelmed with rookies, either. We have experience, and a lot of our players have been to the postseason at least twice and sometimes three times in the last five years. So it’s there, it’s really kind of going back to that point and being focused about it and passionate about it and tough-minded about it.”

It might surprise people to learn that Colletti seems particularly bullish about Kemp, the target of a radio critique by Colletti in April.

“I think probably from middle of August on, things became a little bit more focused for him,” Colletti said. “He and I had a conversation, probably in August, that was really a man-to-man, heart-to-heart, one-on-one conversation. And I was trying to take some of the weight off. I think he understands it; I think he understands what transpired last year. I think from my conversations this winter, from the last month of the season and this winter, I think he understands more than he did a year ago about himself and about the game, about preparation. So I think he’s got a chance to really have a great year.”

It’s possible Colletti might have said the same thing about Russell Martin, except Martin is no longer around. The circumstances of the Dodgers’ decision to let Martin go rather than offer him salary arbitration weren’t discussed, but Martin’s recent offseason comments about “distractions” that affected him led to a broader comment from Colletti about the difficulty of playing in Los Angeles.

“Sometimes, it’s commitment, prioritization and commitment,” Colletti said. “I read what Russell said, but I don’t know what the true context was or what his underlying thoughts were as to why he said it. … There are a lot of distractions in this city. There’s a lot of different things to be doing, a lot of places your mind can wander off to, but if you’re a professional baseball player, if you’re a Dodger, you’ve got to figure out life. … And it’s not easy to do it.”

Without going into many specifics, Colletti indicated that the ability to play in Los Angeles is a factor in some trades of young players he has made. He called Carlos Santana the prospect he regrets parting with “probably more than anybody” before he added that there were a couple of other guys he would have to wait and see on.

“Again, Los Angeles isn’t for everybody,” Colletti said. “Sometimes we make a move on a player because we know in this environment here, they’re not going to be very good in it.”

Chris Williams/Icon SMI
Jonathan Broxton issued 25 of his 28 walks last season after June 23.

Pitching paradoxes
As for Broxton, count Colletti among those who see his second-half crumble as an issue of confidence, rather than health problems that might have been caused by his 48-pitch tar-and-feathering against the Yankees last June.

“He never complained,” Colletti said. “And at the end, he wasn’t thrilled with it, but I said, ‘Jonathan, I need you to take a complete physical — your arm, your shoulder, your elbow.’ A week to go in the season. And he said, ‘I feel great. I don’t need to do it.’ And I said, ‘I need you to do it.’ So he said, ‘I’ll do it,’ and everything came back clean.”

Colletti is aware of the volatility of relief pitchers, comparing them to great goaltenders who can go through “a month or two where they can’t stop anything.” But this awareness cuts both ways. It leads Colletti to give relievers who have performed in the past long leashes, and it compels him to have as many alternatives on hand as he can, as seen through the acquisitions of set-up men Matt Guerrier and Blake Hawksworth and oblique references to No. 6 starter Vicente Padilla’s potential to close games.

Again, however, Colletti believes that at rock bottom you can often find a trampoline. Look no further than Chad Billingsley, banished from the Dodgers’ starting rotation by the end of 2009 before rising anew last season.

“Most of our young players did not experience a lot of failure as young players, minor leagues [or] early in the big leagues,” Colletti said. “They really didn’t struggle. And when it finally hits you, and you do struggle for whatever reason and you’re doing it in front of 45,000 people in Los Angeles all the time, on television every day, that’s a tough time to struggle for the first time, for the really first time, and be able to come out of it.”

Interestingly, Colletti’s faith in failure recovery played a partial role in what many believe is the Dodgers’ greatest weakness heading into this season: the lack of a bona fide left fielder.

Angst in the outfield
This winter, the Dodgers didn’t bid on the two marquee outfield free agents, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, and you can safely conclude that was a reflection of their overall contract demands and the Dodgers’ budget. But when it came to alternatives, Colletti was wary of blocking two Dodgers outfield prospects who could each be major league ready a year from now, Trayvon Robinson and Jerry Sands, especially after the experience Robinson had in Jacksonville last summer.

“Robinson last year started off slow in Double-A, and we stayed with him and he figured it out,” Colletti said. “That to me was huge. Because he’s gonna have to figure that out. Because everybody struggles up here.”

There is the caveat that it’s not as if the current Dodgers never struggled in the majors or minors before 2010 – one could easily make the case that they did, but that their subsequent triumphs blotted out the memory. In any event, if he had found a signable veteran outfielder worthy of a multiyear deal, Colletti no doubt would have pulled the trigger. But he does feel optimistic over the long term about what he has.

“If I would have signed a left fielder for three years, who was again not one of those robust guys — I’m not sure there was a guy out there — then I’m really kind of blocking one of those two kids, and I’ve got faith in both of them,” he said. “Hopefully, not this year. Hopefully, it’s a year from now, but I have faith in both that they’ll be able to play and contribute. And actually I told them both that, too, in the fall — I told Trayvon way back in the summertime, ‘It’s important for me to know who you are and how you play. Because you know what, Manny’s not gonna be back next year. And I’ve got to make a decision whether I’m gonna go and tie up his spot for three or four years, or be patient and mix and match for a year and wait for you.’”

Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesCasey Blake had an .895 OPS against lefties last year, .663 against righties.

In the interim, Colletti is under no illusion that he has gold in the third outfield slot, so the Dodgers will essentially play it by ear in the outfield, with Mattingly looking at matchup opportunities for Tony Gwynn Jr., Marcus Thames, Jay Gibbons and Xavier Paul (if he makes the squad), and on an infrequent basis, Casey Blake or Jamey Carroll.

“Right now Matty’s the center fielder,” Colletti said. “Andre’s the right fielder. I want to see what Tony can do offensively. He’ll play as much as the offense allows him, I think … using the whole field, bunting more, figuring out ways to get on base, because his on-base percentage isn’t high even when he hits .270. See if he can become more disciplined at the plate, use his speed more to get on. I don’t expect power out of him. I don’t expect gap power out of him, but I would like to see him get on base a lot more, because if he does it perhaps changes the dynamics in the outfield.

“And in the meantime, I’ve got two guys that can hit, one from the left side and one from the right side — actually two from the left side with X. Paul and Gibbons, and then Thames. … And perhaps they’re five- or six-inning guys, and then you go defense later. But you’ve got two guys that might be able to hit 20 homers between them.”

Third base offers a secondary question for the Dodgers because, while Blake is sure to start against lefties and some righties, no one seems to be beating the drum for him to play 146 games like he did last season. With the Dodgers’ minor leagues fairly thin at second and third base, this time Colletti took the plunge on a multiyear stopgap in Juan Uribe.

“Our system’s produced a lot of guys,” Colletti said. “But except for really [Ivan] DeJesus, we don’t really have a second baseman that’s on the verge of being here. We have a shortstop coming probably in Dee Gordon and after him [Jake] Lemmerman, and right now third base is a bit of an open spot too — we had [Pedro] Baez in the Cal League last year. So Uribe, while the on-base percentage isn’t Moneyball-ish or whatever, the run production is still pretty good, in that he can play second, short or third, and we don’t have anybody that’s going to press him at third for a while, and really De Jesus is trying to transition to play second. I needed somebody I can run out there who’s a big league guy.”

Because of what he sees as a potential benefit to have Uribe play some at the hot corner, Colletti emphasized that De Jesus has a legitimate chance to make the Opening Day roster as a backup infielder. Obviously, someone like Carroll could also make several starts to allow Blake to rest.

In any case, Colletti is aware of how much a juggling act the Dodgers’ everyday lineup has become. Though he has in one sense traded last year’s lack of a fifth starter for this year’s lack of an everyday left fielder or third baseman, Colletti sees the two situations as apples and oranges.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Matt Guerrier, 31, has allowed 11.5 baserunners per nine innings in his career.

Never enough
“You really didn’t have in my mind many choices that were going to be able to play every day,” Colletti said. “We had to fix the pitching first, and we had to upgrade the bullpen if we could.

“You can’t finesse pitching. Maybe a day here or there, but you need to have it. And the list [of available pitchers], we were kind of picking near the top of the list, even though it isn’t sexy to say you signed Ted [Lilly] or Hiroki [Kuroda], it’s not necessarily ‘wow,’ but it’s solid. It gave us a little bit of depth. So we had to start there. The kid from Minnesota, Guerrier, is gonna be a good add for us. He’s pitched in a lot of big games; he’s always had positive results.

“It’s the most volatile group, but once [Joaquin] Benoit got three years and [$16.5 million], that’s what people expect to get … and if you really need a guy, sometimes you have to go the extra distance to go and get him.”

Add together the total commitments the Dodgers made to their free-agent signees of this past offseason, and you barely pass the total value of Adrian Beltre’s deal by itself, while falling short of the Crawford or Werth contracts. And like it or not, Colletti was not going to enter another season shy on pitching or dependent on unproven rookies such as James McDonald or Scott Elbert.

“I was apprehensive all winter long last year” Colletti said of the starting pitching. “I knew we were short going in; I knew we weren’t going to be able to rally it. In the spring, J-Mac and Scotty both struggled. We may have sent them both out early, in fact, because they couldn’t throw strikes; they were all over the board. So right from the beginning, I knew we were going to be short. I didn’t know how we were gonna mix and match, and we couldn’t afford an injury certainly.”

If there’s an ongoing concern on everyone’s minds, it’s how the Frank McCourt ownership crisis is affecting spending on the team on the field. You can argue that different owners might have allowed Colletti to sign one big-ticket free agent in addition to shoring up the pitching, but Colletti doesn’t contend that the divorce itself is having an impact on personnel.

He also makes the case, as McCourt did a year ago, that the Dodgers are aiming to spend more money to deepen their prospect population.

Farm aid
“We’ve had basically the same [major-league] payroll,” Colletti said. “Though we dipped a little bit last year, we’re coming back this year. It’s not really how much you have, it’s where you spend it. We do have to get better at international signings; we have to reinvest there. I think we’ve let Venezuela slip for a few years, and we’ve made some changes in the staffing.

“We’ve done a decent job in the D.R. [Dominican Republic] — not what we did 25 years ago, but with all due respect, 25 years ago there wasn’t 30 teams down there, either. So, it’s not like we could just cherry-pick the players we want like we probably did at the outset of the country opening up to having players signed. But we do have to get better at that to support our player development system. It’s been fruitful. Obviously, a lot of players are in the big leagues now that we drafted, but we have to keep flowing, and they have to keep getting better. I know we’ve hit a touchable lull right now and I think we’re probably a year or two away from having another group come forward.”

[+] EnlargeZach Lee

Chris Carlson/APLogan White escorts newly signed Zach Lee in his Dodger Stadium visit in August.

Colletti didn’t rule out the Dodgers’ top draft choice of 2010, Zach Lee — whose signing shocked most baseball observers — being part of the Dodgers’ graduating class of 2012. Amid the height of McCourt tensions, Lee received a $5.25 million signing bonus, a record for a Dodgers’ draft pick. The previous record-holder, Clayton Kershaw, reached the majors less than two calendar years after he was picked, and Lee could do the same.

“We really liked this kid,” Colletti said. “We really liked his makeup, his demeanor, his abilities, athleticism, his toughness. … Not only are the physical skills different than most kids you see, but the way his mind works is different … probably from playing at the highest levels at a couple of sports, including going to LSU for a summer and having that experience, which as long as he didn’t get hurt it didn’t bother me.”

Colletti’s hope is that the Dodgers’ minor league pitchers drafted in previous years allow Lee as much time as he needs to develop. There was an epidemic of setbacks among the farm system’s arms in 2010 — so many that if Colletti wants to see who can overcome hurdles, wish granted.

“It’s concerning to me,” he said. “Probably a lot of the guys that we could both probably name should be a year farther along than they are. They’ve all struggled with command. … Some are converted players, some weren’t pitchers necessarily in high school or college. So they’re still learning that.

Curing the epidemic
And to circle back to the beginning of our piece, in some ways, older players never stop learning and developing. Witness Colletti’s additional assessment of the contagion that struck the Dodgers’ offense in 2010:

“I think hitters sometimes without results start to get impatient, so they start to chase out of the zone,” he said. “They’re trying to build more offensive numbers in a quicker period of time and so they’re not as diligent to work the count, and all that stuff starts to compound through the course of it. … When people are starting to slump, sometimes it produces more guys that go in that direction than less. And that’s what started to happen. It started to spiral where one guy struggled and then two. And then the third guy saw the other two and then he struggled, and it continued to mount.”

Alex Gallardo/APDavey Lopes will switch to a Dodgers’ uniform for the first time since Game 6 of the 1981 World Series.

When you take Colletti’s view of what went wrong with the Dodgers last year and what’s needed to make it right, it makes sense that he sees one of the most promising offseason moves as one that even some jaded Dodgers fans embraced: the hiring of Davey Lopes as a coach.

“I’ve known him a long time and I’ve admired him,” Colletti said. “You know, I was with him in Chicago when he was still a player and I’ve certainly watched him from the other side of the field when he managed and when he was coaching. And I think what he brings here is — you’re talking about first — someone who was an iconic Dodger who understands Los Angeles and understands the Dodgers and was here during one of the greatest periods in our franchise’s history. That’s important.

“What he did in Philly with baserunning and defense and fine-tuning that position, the first-base coaching position, to make it a far more valuable position to the organization, is something we noticed. And I think he’s going to have a great impact on our club. I think there are some players that could turn their game up a notch with his instruction, with his thought process. I think, while it’s a coaching position, I think it’s a huge addition for this franchise.”

Will a new manager, new coaches, new players and new spirits be enough to right the Dodgers’ ship? It’s too soon to say, but if the Dodgers are to play more than 10 days of great baseball in 2011, Colletti will expect to see strong signs of it before Opening Day arrives.

Jan 24

The 2011 National League West: A first look


Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesIn 2011, Juan Uribe will be trying to bring at least a division title south to Los Angeles from San Francisco.

With so much attention locally focused on what the Dodgers are or aren’t doing, it’s easy to lose perspective of where they stand relative to their rivals in the National League West. Realizing that we all have higher goals than a division title, let’s nonetheless check in on the coming division race and see where the competition stands heading into spring training.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Brad Mangin/MLB Photos/Getty Images
Justin Upton

On Aug. 30, 2008, Arizona hosted the Dodgers with a 4 1/2-game lead in the NL West and the combination of Dan Haren and Brandon Webb starting the next two games. Since that moment, the Diamondbacks have gone 152-204 and have been by far the worst team in the division. Arizona had a flat-out ugly 2010, finishing 65-97, 15 games behind the fourth-place Dodgers and 27 behind the division-winning Giants. The offense was mediocre, punctuated by 9.4 strikeouts per game. The pitching was worse, with an adjusted ERA of 89 (100 being average) that was 14th in the National League.

Hopes for a turnaround in 2011 are pretty limited, based on an offseason that has only brought names the caliber of Henry Blanco, Willie Bloomquist, Geoff Blum, Zach Duke, Aaron Heilman, Melvin Mora, Xavier Nady, Willy Mo Pena and J.J. Putz. Plus, at least last year they had Haren (and Edwin Jackson) for more than half a season, not to mention 57 homers (and 383 strikeouts) from departed corner infielders Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche.

Putz, though he’s about to turn 34, should help last year’s disastrous bullpen, and at age 23, Justin Upton (like his Bison-like counterpart in Los Angeles), could easily bounce back from the setbacks of last season, when his OPS dropped from .899 to .799. Daniel Hudson, acquired at midseason, will try to build upon his 11-start, 1.69-ERA debut. But overall, it’s going to take more than strategically placed eyeblack to make Kirk Gibson a winning manager in his first full season at the helm.

Colorado Rockies

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Troy Tulowitzki

A popular pick to win the NL West entering the 2010 season following their spirited near-miss in 2009, Colorado fell out of the lead on the second day of the season and never returned. They did make a late charge, pulling within a game of the division lead after making up 10 games in the standings in 26 days, capped by a 12-2 thumping of the Dodgers on Sept. 18. They then took a 6-1 second-inning lead against Clayton Kershaw the next afternoon. But if you’ll recall, the Dodgers rallied to win that game in 11 innings, handing the Rockies the first of a stunning 13 losses in their final 14 games of 2010.

That tailspin doesn’t rule out a pennant pursuit in Denver this year. The Rockies return four budding stars in Troy Tulowitzki (26), Carlos Gonzalez (25), Ubaldo Jimenez (27) and Jhoulys Chacin (23, with a second-half ERA of 2.44 and 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings) and complements in Dexter Fowler (25 in March) and Ian Stewart (26 in April). But you also haven’t had much of an offseason when your biggest acquisitions are arguably infielders Ty Wigginton and Jose Lopez.

This is a team that will contend for the division title, and Rockies management has enough faith in it that their main expenditures, at least thus far, were to richly extend the contracts of Tulowitzki and Gonzalez rather than bring in big outside talent. That might well be the right strategy, especially if last year’s stretch crawl was a fluke, but with 37-year-old Todd Helton at first base and question marks elsewhere, Colorado didn’t make itself an obvious favorite this time around.

San Diego Padres

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Mat Latos

Last year’s guide against wasting your time making predictions, San Diego sat in first place at the end of April, May, June, July and August. Then came the Giants, but even so, the Padres had a chance to tie San Francisco in the 162nd game of the season.

So San Diego was the big surprise team — with Adrian Gonzalez. Can it be without him? Unlike Colorado, San Diego will have lots of new faces, potentially starting Brad Hawpe at first, Orlando Hudson at second, Jason Bartlett at shortstop and Cameron Maybin in center field, almost making July 31 pickup Ryan Ludwick seem like an old-timer. Meanwhile, ex-Cincinnati Red pitcher Aaron Harang will try to help returning starting pitchers Clayton Richard, Wade LeBlanc and most importantly, 23-year-old Mat Latos (2.92 ERA in 2010) absorb the losses of Jon Garland and Kevin Correia.

I’m not going to be the one to argue that the Padres will be better in 2011 after trading Gonzalez for three minor-leaguers and outfielder Eric Patterson (.652 OPS in 179 career games), or that they’ll maintain any of their 10-game advantage over the Dodgers. But I’m also not ready to say they won’t be a thorn in the Dodgers’ side.

San Francisco Giants

Rich Pilling/MLB Photos/Getty Images
Buster Posey

Seven-and-a-half games out of first place and one game over .500 at the midpoint of the 2010 season, San Francisco went 51-30 in the second half to rally to the title and start what I think can objectively be said was a surprising postseason stomp to the World Series title. The Giants went 9-3 against the fading Dodgers in the second half to emphasize their superiority.

Are they still superior? To date, their lone offseason addition of note has been to sign Miguel Tejada (36 in May), and that effectively only supplants the loss of Juan Uribe to the Dodgers. Much like Colorado, San Francisco is putting its faith in the status quo. That status quo, of course, includes their top-flight starting rotation, superb young catcher Buster Posey and third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who has been tweeting photos showing how much weight he has lost this winter. It also includes 30-and-over position players Cody Ross, Andres Torres, Mark DeRosa, Aaron Rowand, Freddy Sanchez and Aubrey Huff.

Much of the Dodgers offseason has seemed an unspoken bid to emulate the Giants’ path to the top: Build a starting rotation that’s competitive every night, and try to sneak by with limited offense. For all the concern about who takes residence in Mannywood, Los Angeles still seems to have the better outfield. But the potential of superstar in Posey and a comeback from Sandoval (not to mention a promotion for minor-league first-baseman Brandon Belt) might give San Francisco the edge elsewhere.

Summary
Eight months from October, the Giants look like the main roadblock for the Dodgers, with the Rockies close behind. With serious questions about a) what kind of production the Dodgers will get at catcher, third base and left field, b) the ongoing health issues of Rafael Furcal and c) the bounce-back potential of Matt Kemp and James Loney, it doesn’t seem inappropriate to pencil the Dodgers in for third place at this time, but they should be in the thick of the race for the division title.

Jan 18

Not much room at the inn

Kirby Lee/US PresswireJay Gibbons will be among several Dodgers vying for playing time in left field.

Can’t recall when so many spots on the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster seemed locked up by Martin Luther King Day:

Starting pitchers (5): Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly, Jon Garland

Relief pitchers (7): Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Vicente Padilla, Kenley Jansen, Blake Hawksworth, Ronald Belisario, Scott Elbert*

Starting lineup (8): Rod Barajas, James Loney, Juan Uribe, Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Jay Gibbons**

Bench (5): Jamey Carroll, Tony Gwynn Jr., Marcus Thames, Dioner Navarro or A.J. Ellis, Juan Castro***

* The last bullpen job is up for grabs. In fact, I wouldn’t necessarily call Hawksworth or Belisario locks, but they have the great advantage of not having any remaining options. Or instead of going to a seventh reliever, because of the deep starting rotation, they go with a sixth position player reserve like Xavier Paul.

** Gibbons is listed as a starter because someone had to be.

*** Castro or some other infielder.  Maybe the still-unsigned Eric Chavez, or maybe Justin Sellers or another nonroster player sneaks in, or a longshot like Ivan De Jesus, Jr.

But overall, I would say that barring injury or trade, 22 of the 25 spots seem taken, with the 23rd going to the backup catcher, potentially leaving as few as two spots to battle for in Spring Training.

Update: I completely forgot about Matt Guerrier. That takes Elbert’s theoretical spot, and tightens the noose on the roster even more. Thanks to Dodger Thoughts commenter BLUE4life MK27 for the reminder.

Dec 05

Amid the flurry on the mound, quiet times in left field (for now)


Jeff Roberson/APAre the Dodgers sincere when they say Xavier Paul is a contender to start next season?

Overall, I’m satisfied – even impressed – with how Ned Colletti has pulled together the 2011 Dodger starting rotation over the past month.

I was worried about how the Dodgers would fill their three offseason vacancies in the rotation. Then, thanks in part to Hiroki Kuroda’s agreeability, the Dodgers got their front four. As in the past, I would have been prepared for the team to enter Spring Training with a combination of youngsters and journeymen battling for the No. 5 spot. But the Dodgers didn’t even make us wait until December before filling that spot with a solid (though not spectacular) starter in Jon Garland.

There was another shoe to drop: Garland admitted to AM 710 that there are concerns about his health. Whether this means shades of Jason Schmidt remains to be seen, but it’s hard to get too worked up when the salary commitment to Garland is about 90% less than what the Dodgers paid Schmidt (are still paying, in fact). Garland figures to give the Dodgers something, and perhaps more than something.

There have been rumors that the Dodgers aren’t done with the pitching, that they are contemplating also bringing back adding Vicente Padilla as a swingman, a super-utility pitcher. The addition would further increase the Dodgers’ chances of presenting a smothering pitching staff next season, led by Clayton Kershaw in the role of Tim Lincecum, only wholesomer.  Yes, my friends, the Dodgers have their ace – or rather, their king and his court.

All that being said …

The left-field situation resembles what we expected the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation to look like. Journeymen, kids and babies. Jay Gibbons is Jeff Weaver, Xavier Paul is John Ely, Jamie Hoffmann is Carlos Monasterios, Trayvon Robinson and Jerry Sands are Chris Withrow and Rubby de la Rosa. I’m not losing sleep over it – certainly not in December. Should it remain this way until April, I’ll admit I’ll be surprised.  But also fascinated.

If the Dodgers don’t make any big additions in the outfield – and it could be months before we know – they will be doing exactly what they did when they handed four April starts to Charlie Haeger.  That they did so once means they could do it again, but I have trouble believing the Dodgers have invested all this money in catcher, second base and the starting rotation, just to let left field twist in the wind.

On the other hand, they might sign Scott Podsednik and think they’ve done something useful, and simply be wrong.

* * *

Following the news that former Dodger outfielder Jayson Werth had signed a remarkable seven-year, $126 million contract with Washington, I tweeted the following:

At Matt Kemp’s current age (26), Jayson Werth hit .235/.338/.374 before sitting out his age-27 season because of injury.

Through 2009: Matt Kemp career 116 OPS+, Jayson Werth career 115 OPS+. Kemp is 5 1/2 years younger.

The point, I hope is clear, is not to say that Matt Kemp is better than Jayson Werth (though he might be, sooner than people think). Rather, it’s to remind people that it’s a wee bit early to be giving up on Kemp because he had a disappointing season at age 25.

If we stipulate that Kemp has some issues to address going forward, let’s remember that they are not insurmountable.

* * *

I was very satisfied with the season finale of “Boardwalk Empire,” both in how it wrapped up this season’s threads and set up Season 2. We haven’t had any formal TV chat here in a while, so if anyone wants to share their thoughts, please feel free.

Sep 16

The Big Blue Wrecked Crew: 2010-11 Dodger offseason primer


Kirby Lee/US PresswireRussell Martin: Just one of the many questions the Dodgers face this winter.

The Dodger roster heading into the 2010-11 offseason, and I don’t say this lightly, is a mess.

It’s not a hopeless mess. But it is a mess, and it’s going to take some skill from the crew in charge to clean up. It’s a goop of oil and water, an unsightly combination of having to fill holes while also figuring out which rising salaries to jettison and which to risk holding onto.

Oh, and when the 2010 season ends, the No. 5 starter on the 40-man roster, at least by major-league experience, will be someone who hasn’t pitched in a professional game in four months: Scott Elbert.

The Dodgers have one absolute jewel on the team: Clayton Kershaw. The team’s top player won’t be arbitration eligible for one more year and only figures to earn approximately $500,000 in 2011.

Then, there are a few players whose higher salaries the Dodgers won’t mind paying. Chad Billingsley, who will command somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million, knocked down many of the questions others had about him with a resurgent 2010 season. Hong-Chih Kuo will draw low seven figures, and after the way he has persevered and performed, no one should begrudge him. Kenley Jansen will make people swoon, and only receive the major-league minimum pay and meal money in return.

So much for the good news. Now, the concerns:

  • Rafael Furcal surely remains talented, but the Dodgers have $12 million going to a player who has averaged fewer than 100 games per year since 2008.
  • Slumping reliever Jonathan Broxton’s final season before free agency is tagged with a $7 million salary.
  • Coming off an injury that ended his second straight disappointing year, arbitration-eligible Russell Martin would also get as much as $7 million if the Dodgers don’t non-tender him.
  • Andre Ethier looked like an MVP at the start of the year; by the end, his $9.25 million 2011 salary for an outfielder who struggles against lefties didn’t seem like quite as much of a bargain.
  • Lightning Rod Award-winning outfielder Matt Kemp has $6.95 million coming next year.
  • Casey Blake, game but aging, gets $5.25 million in the final chapter of his three-year deal.
  • By now, James Loney should have developed enough that the $4.5 million he is projected to earn next year should have seemed closer to a bargain than a burden, but his second-half disappearance hasn’t helped matters.
  • Incumbent second baseman Ryan Theriot and his sub-.700 OPS will bring home about $3.5 million if the Dodgers hang onto him.

In sum, that’s about $55 million committed to a series of question marks, some small, some large. In addition, Los Angeles owes approximately $17 million of its 2011 budget to (swallow hard) Manny Ramirez, Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones and Jason Schmidt — the price for turning past mistakes into the playoff teams of the previous two years.

Overall, the Dodgers on paper have close to $100 million – a figure that might well be at or above their budget limit – committed before they make a single offseason move.

Now, all is not lost. The Dodgers can and probably will gain roughly $12 million in breathing room if and when they bid farewell to George Sherrill, Octavio Dotel, Scott Podsednik and Brad Ausmus (who has said he will retire). Meanwhile, free agents Jay Gibbons and Rod Barajas should start to help shore up the bench for under $2 million combined. And it should be noted that not all of the above question marks will have negative answers.

Nevertheless, that still leaves the Dodgers at about $90 million in payroll, with John Ely as their No. 3 starter and serious questions about most of their offense. As shaky as their lineup now looks, and however aggressive the Dodgers might want to be with the latest crop of prospects, the Dodgers absolutely have to add at least two more starters, whether through free agency or trade, whether Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda or outsiders.

It’s for this reason that unless the team salary budget goes up, the Dodgers almost certainly will trade or non-tender a 2011 contract to at least one from the group of Broxton, Kemp, Ethier, Loney and Martin. Loney, because he has the lowest salary, might be most likely to stay – he’s finishing the year as a disappointment at first base, but he’s not finishing the year alone as a disappointment. In any case, all of them have something to offer other teams that might be, as hard as it is for some to digest, more willing to spend than the Dodgers are.

An Ethier trade would be a shock, for example, much more than a Kemp trade, but who can say it’s out of the question now?

However this plays out, the Dodgers may well bring back many of the same players next year who boosted them to National League Championship Series appearances in 2008-09 and sunk them in 2010. In one respect, nothing will have changed: You’re always hoping players move forward, like Kershaw and Billingsley, and not backward, like Kemp and Loney and Broxton and Martin and so on. Good does sometimes follow bad, after all. But still, it’s going to be a nervous offseason for a lot of us.

Sure, BP had it tougher. But as cleanup goes, this is as thick a goop as Chavez Ravine has seen in quite some time.

Apr 04

NL West race shapes up as Rockies-Dodgers dogfight


US Presswire
Ubaldo Jimenez, 26, is coming off a banner 2009 season for the Rockies, while Jeff Francis is back on the disabled list after a setback in his attempt to return to game action for the first time since September 12, 2008.

First, here are the 25-man Opening Day rosters (along with a few names of players lurking underneath) for the five National League West teams, followed by some thoughts on the division.

Arizona Colorado Los Angeles San Diego San Francisco
SP Dan Haren Ubaldo Jimenez Clayton Kershaw Chris Young Tim Lincecum
SP Edwin Jackson Aaron Cook Chad Billingsley Jon Garland Matt Cain
SP Ian Kennedy Jorge De La Rosa Hiroki Kuroda Kevin Correia Barry Zito
SP Rodrigo Lopez Jason Hammel Vicente Padilla Clayton Richard Jonathan Sanchez
SP/RP Jordan Norberto Greg Smith Charlie Haeger Mat Latos Todd Wellemeyer
RP Chad Qualls Franklin Morales Jonathan Broxton Heath Bell Brian Wilson
RP Juan Gutierrez Rafael Betancourt George Sherrill Mike Adams Jeremy Affeldt
RP Bob Howry Manuel Corpas Ramon Troncoso Luke Gregerson Sergio Romo
RP Aaron Heilman Matt Daley Jeff Weaver Edward Mujica Guillermo Mota
RP Esmerling Vasquez Matt Belisle Carlos Monasterios Tim Stauffer Dan Runzler
RP Leo Rosales Randy Flores Ramon Ortiz Sean Gallagher Brandon Medders
RP Blaine Boyer Esmil Rogers Russ Ortiz Cesar Ramos Waldis Joaquin
Bench Chris Snyder Miguel Olivo Brad Ausmus Yorvit Torrealba Eli Whiteside
Bench Gerardo Parra Melvin Mora Jamey Carroll Jerry Hairston, Jr. Nate Schierholtz
Bench Rusty Ryal Ryan Spilborghs Ronnie Belliard Scott Hairston Andres Torres
Bench Tony Abreu Jason Giambi Garret Anderson Matt Stairs Travis Ishikawa
Bench Augie Ojeda Seth Smith Reed Johnson Oscar Salazar Eugenio Velez
C Miguel Montero Chris Iannetta Russell Martin Nick Hundley Bengie Molina
1B Adam LaRoche Todd Helton James Loney Adrian Gonzalez Aubrey Huff
2B Kelly Johnson Clint Barmes Blake DeWitt David Eckstein Juan Uribe
SS Stephen Drew Troy Tulowitzki Rafael Furcal Everth Cabrera Edgar Renteria
3B Mark Reynolds Ian Stewart Casey Blake Chase Headley Pablo Sandoval
LF Conor Jackson Carlos Gonzalez Manny Ramirez Kyle Blanks Mark DeRosa
CF Chris Young Dexter Fowler Matt Kemp Tony Gwynn, Jr. Aaron Rowand
RF Justin Upton Brad Hawpe Andre Ethier Will Venable John Bowker
DL/Minors Brandon Webb Huston Street Hong-Chih Kuo Joe Thatcher Freddy Sanchez
DL/Minors Clay Zavada Jeff Francis Ronald Belisario* Adam Russell Fred Lewis
DL/Minors Billy Buckner Greg Reynolds James McDonald Chris Stewart Emmanuel Burriss
DL/Minors Ryan Roberts Taylor Buchholz Xavier Paul Wade LeBlanc Madison Bumgarner
DL/Minors Zach Kroenke Eric Young, Jr. Scott Elbert Chris Denorfia Buster Posey

When compelled to do so by ESPN.com, I picked the Dodgers to win the NL West, but not with any conviction. I definitely respect the talent in Colorado – shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, for one, has become an MVP candidate at age 25 – and feel that, at a minimum, the difference between the two teams is small enough at this point that either team makes sense as a favorite.

In my darker moments, I can envision an everything-goes-wrong scenario for the Dodgers that condemns them to a repeat of the 2005 nightmare. (Yes, I can get that dark.) But you could dream up doomsday scenarios for any team.

The return of Colorado pitcher Jeff Francis to the disabled list this weekend was yet another reminder that McCourts or not, just because the Dodgers have problems doesn’t mean other teams won’t have them too. Colorado begins the coming season without its top reliever (Huston Street) and someone who was formerly their top starter. The Rockies obviously aren’t dependent on Francis, whose last good year was 2007 and who sat out in 2009 when Colorado won 92 games. But his absence is another sign that the Rockies won’t be immune to depth issues. Both the Dodgers and Rockies have the talent to win the NL West, but both need things to go right.

By comparison, however, Arizona, San Diego and San Francisco need many more things to go right.

A year ago at this time, it was easy to find predictions that the Giants would finish in last place because of their poor hitting, but I didn’t see such a dire result happening with the strong pitching they had. Now, San Francisco is, for those who don’t believe in Colorado, a trendy pick to win the division. Considering the Giants have hardly improved their offense in the past 12 months, I’m not seeing this happening either. The Giants surely have the ability to stay in almost any game they play – although the strength of a rotation that has the once-great Barry Zito and the inconsistent Jonathan Sanchez has probably been overrated by those who judge entire pitching staffs by their aces – but San Francisco still lacks a lineup that makes me think they can score sufficiently. I might even rather suffer through the indignity of Vicente Padilla as an Opening Day starter than get worked up over the John Bowker vs. Nate Schierholz Spring Training battle to start in right field for San Francisco. You have to love Pablo Sandoval and pay a healthy respect to some of the others (including minor-league catcher Buster Posey), but this still looks like a third-place team on paper.

Ed Andrieski/AP
Edwin Jackson had a 5.45 ERA in the final two months of 2009.

The Diamondbacks are led by the one player who might make Matt Kemp fans jealous – 22-year-old rightfielder Justin Upton – but the state of Arizona’s starting pitching should make Dodger supporters feel more secure about theirs. After Dan Haren, Arizona has Edwin Jackson (a sentimental favorite of mine whose 2009 second-half resembled Chad Billingsley’s), Ian Kennedy (6.03 career ERA in 59 2/3 career innings) and Rodrigo Lopez (5.49 ERA in 298 1/3 innings since 2006) – before they even get to figuring out who will fill out their rotation. A first-rate second-half comeback from Brandon Webb could turbo-boost the Diamondbacks, but it’s hardly anything to feel certain about. Though there are some great players in Arizona, I see a team as likely to return to last place as it is to ascend to first.

San Diego is a fairly universal choice for last place, and though it’s not set in stone, I don’t see enough in the organization right now to be the one to make the case otherwise. I’ll just expect that no matter where they are in the standings, they’ll give the Dodgers problems.

Anything can happen in 2010, but if Fate doesn’t get crazy, there’s a two-team race in the NL West between the Dodgers and Rockies. Neither team should feel insecure or overconfident; both should gear up for a wall-to-wall battle.