Dec 26

Remembering 2011: Chad Billingsley


Alex Gallardo/APChad Billingsley (48)

Presenting the final entry in the Remembering 2011 series …

The setup: Billingsley rebounded from his struggles in the second half of 2009 to post a 3.57 ERA and 109 ERA+ in 2010, with 171 strikeouts in 191 2/3 innings. In his final 14 starts of 2010, he had a 2.45 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 92 innings, averaging 6 2/3 innings per start.

Two days before the season opener, Billingsley, who was paid $6.275 million in 2011, signed a contract extension guaranteeing him $32 million from 2012-14 plus a club option for 2015 ($14 million in salary or a $3 million buyout). A few months shy of turning 27, the expectations for Billingsley were the highest they had been since the first half of 2009, when he had a 3.38 ERA and 119 strikeouts in 125 1/3 innings and made the National League All-Star team.

The closeup: After an up-and-down April highlighted by eight innings of shutout ball against St. Louis with 11 strikeouts, Billingsley was encouragingly strong in May. In six starts that month, he had a 2.63 ERA while striking out 41 in 41 innings against 52 baserunners. That included eight innings of one-hit ball against Arizona in a May 14 game that Billingsley lost on an unearned run. The righthander went into June with a 3.46 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings.

He was complimenting that performance with a potential Silver Slugger season at the plate. After netting a home run, walk and double June 5 in Cincinnati, Billingsley had a .385 on-base percentage and .565 slugging percentage for a .950 OPS. He ended up going 2 for 33 for the remainder of the season – yet that, really, was the least of his problems.

In his first three June starts, Billingsley pitched 13 2/3 innings and allowed 43 baserunners and an 11.19 ERA. As in May, he rebounded with what might have been his best four-start stretch of the year: 27 1/3 innings, 29 baserunners and a 1.32 ERA in his final appearances before the All-Star break. But even here, Billingsley’s strikeouts (6.6 per nine innings) were off, and so while he had lowered his ERA back down to 3.87, there was still reason for concern.

During the season’s second half, Billingsley had four quality starts in 13 outings. It’s indicative of his struggles that in his best post-break performance, July 24 against Washington, he still needed 31 pitches to get out of the first inning before finishing with seven innings of two-hit, 10-strikeout ball. In 11 starts after that one, Billingsley had more than five strikeouts only once.

By the end of August, though he was still maintaining an ERA in the low 4s, it was hard not to worry about him.

… His strikeout rate has dipped for the fourth consecutive season, from 9.01 in 2008 to 8.21 in 2009, 8.03 last year and 7.46 this season – a figure that is neither bad nor great, but the trend is kind of discouraging. In the past year, his walk rate has gone up from 3.24 to 3.84, virtually as much as his strikeout rate has gone down.

What does it all mean?

In direct contrast to his reputation, Billingsley has repeatedly shown the ability to come back from adversity. From the 2008 postseason, from his broken fibula, from his 2009 slump, Billingsley has always found a way. But this, quietly, might be his biggest challenge of all. It might require nothing more than a tweak, or it might require something much more substantial. Can he do what Kemp did?

In the history of the Dodgers, only eight pitchers have had more strikeouts before turning 28 than Billingsley, and three of them are in the Hall of Fame. Only 13 pitchers have had a better park- and era-adjusted ERA before turning 28 than Billingsley. He is, objectively, one of the best young pitchers in more than 100 years of Dodger baseball.

Another one of those is Billingsley’s teammate Clayton Kershaw, who poses a standard that Billingsley probably won’t be able to live up to. But Billingsley’s inability to match Kershaw isn’t what will make or break him. He doesn’t have to be Kershaw-good to be good.

The question is not whether Billingsley has been a good pitcher for the Dodgers up to now. The question is whether he is slipping just as he’s entering what should be his prime…

September hardly offered a positive answer for Billingsley, to the extent that we were left with the following:

  • September 2009: 5.16 ERA, 29 2/3 innings, 1.483 WHIP, 8.8 K/9
  • September 2011: 5.16 ERA, 22 2/3 innings, 1.765 WHIP, 6.0 K/9

Yep, as down as many people were on Billingsley by the end of 2009, there was even more reason to be in 2011. Finishing the year one win shy of his third consecutive 12-11 season, Billingsley had the worst ERA (4.21) and ERA+ (88) of his career, and his worst WHIP, walk and strikeout numbers since he was 22.

Coming attractions: It’s my belief that Billingsley’s problems were mainly physical last year. Whether they’re the kind that are cured by an offseason of rest, or whether this is the setup for a 2012 like Jonathan Broxton had in 2011, I don’t know. But I don’t think that this is a coincidence:

  • 8.5 K/9 in April-May
  • 7.2 K/9 in June-July
  • 5.7 K/9 in August-September

As with Andre Ethier, a comeback season from this former All-Star could make a big difference in 2012 for the Dodgers, who can’t afford another year of two stars and 23 whatevers.

Dec 15

Remembering 2011: Dioner Navarro


Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesDioner Navarro (47)

The setup: The Dodgers’ pre-Russell Martin hope for the future at catcher, Navarro was traded in 2006 with Jae Seo to Tampa Bay for Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson.  He was 22 with a .759 OPS, but Ned Colletti found him expendable, thanks most apparently to concerns about his defense and excitement over Martin’s impressive debut. Coming back from a host of personal challenges, including near-death experiences for himself and his family, Navarro made the 2008 American League All-Star team but couldn’t break .600 in OPS the following two seasons, the last of which (2010) ended with his acrimonious exile from the Rays. It was not too much of a surprise that Colletti offered Navarro a return engagement in Los Angeles, but it was when Colletti guaranteed $1 million in the process.

The closeup: In the final week of Spring Training, Navarro suffered an oblique tear that kept him out until April 25, at which point he delivered a 2011 performance best described as sad, but not without its moments. He homered in his fourth game, went hitless in his next 18 at-bats, then had a 7 for 16 hot streak that included a walkoff RBI single in a 3-2 victory over Florida on May 27. (Don Mattingly had Navarro pinch-hit 10 times between May 14 and July 3; that was Navarro’s only hit.)

Strangely, three times Navarro had the only RBI in a 1-0 victory, making him only the second Los Angeles Dodger to accomplish such a feat in one year. He hit a game-winning homer in the bottom of the eighth June 19 against Houston. He hit a gapper to right-center to drive home Juan Uribe on July 9 after the Padres had no-hit the Dodgers for 8 2/3 innings. And he hit a seventh-inning homer into McCovey Cove off Tim Lincecum, of all people, to give Clayton Kershaw a 1-0 win at San Francisco on July 20. Pretty amazing for a guy who had only 34 hits and 17 RBI all year. He also had some defensive highlights: On June 24, he became the first catcher with two pickoffs and two caught stealings defensively in the same game since 1986.

With Rod Barajas having his own injury woes, Navarro actually racked up some playing time – 188 plate appearances between May 14 and August 21. But with barely a week to go before rosters expanded, the Dodgers cut Navarro loose on August 23, amid reports that his professionalism was seriously lacking. He finished his second Dodger career with five home runs, a .276 on-base percentage and .324 slugging percentage.

Coming attractions: Navarro will still only be 28 next year, but he’s going to have to earn his way into a major-league contract if he wants one, probably through a non-roster invitation to Spring Training.

Dec 05

Remembering 2011: Remember Andre Ethier?


Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesAndre Ethier (46)

In an offseason dominated by kudos for Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, speculation about the future of James Loney, headscratching over some free-agent contracts handed out by Ned Colletti, mourning over the imminent departure of Hiroki Kuroda, fretting over the state of the starting rotation and the offense, and of course, cautious optimism about what we hope to be the final chapter in the McCourt ownership drama, you’d be hard-pressed to find many words written about one player integral to the Dodgers’ 2012 fortunes: Andre Ethier.

The 2009 Walkoff King, 2010 National League Most Valuable Player dreamer and 2011 challenger to DiMaggio has rather suddenly become something of an enigma, which makes me particularly interested in how he got to this point and where he goes from here – and whether that includes another organization.

The setup: Ethier made his major-league debut in 2006, the first of five consecutive seasons in which he had an on-base percentage of at least .350, slugging percentage of at least .450 and OPS of at least .800. In 2007, he was still earning respect, making 117 starts and sharing time with Matt Kemp in right field and Luis Gonzalez in left while Juan Pierre played every day in center field. The following year began the transition that made Pierre a fourth outfielder (at least until Andruw Jones proved a disaster), but you couldn’t say Ethier was the Dodgers’ undisputed starter in right until late August 2008.

The next year, 2009, brought Ethier’s finest full season. Starting 150 games, Ethier had a .361 on-base percentage, .508 slugging percentage, 31 homers and 42 doubles, finishing sixth in the voting for NL MVP at age 27. He produced with the spotlight off and with it shining bright, bashing four walkoff home runs in the regular season, then in the 2009 postseason going 11 for 31 with three doubles, three homers and three walks for a 1.235 OPS.

Chris Carlson/APEthier bit into a grand slam against the Padres on August 30.

That, one might have argued in the spring of 2010, was only a prelude to true superstardom. It seems like a long time ago to me now, but it’s been barely 18 months since the Dodgers’ best player was undoubtedly Ethier, who began the year on a legitimate Triple Crown and MVP run. Through May 14, Ethier had 11 home runs and 38 RBI in 33 games to go with a .392 batting average, .457 on-base percentage and .744 slugging percentage. A monster.

What happened next was like something out of a bastardized Aesop’s fable. Ethier’s full-on rush to brilliance ended with a fracture on the tip of the smallest finger on his right hand. He missed 15 games, and apparently rushed back too soon to keep it from being more. For the rest of 2011, he had 12 home runs in 105 games, a .338 on-base percentage and .418 slugging percentage.

Still, he finished 2010 as only one of three Dodgers since Pedro Guerrero (Gary Sheffield and Mike Piazza being the others) to have three consecutive seasons with an adjusted OPS of at least 130. As 2011 approached, many assumed Ethier would return to the level he established before the pinky injury – that is, not a Triple Crown place but to a place as one of the best hitters in the game. His struggles against left-handed pitching (.661 OPS lifetime, .625 in 2010) were a wild-card – something that could prevent him from maintaining elite status, but also room for improvement – in which case, look out.

In any event, optimism about Ethier’s performance this year and an understanding of his importance to the team was high. That’s what made it surprising when, days before a tranquil Spring Training ended, Ethier openly speculated (more than once) that 2011 would be his last season in Los Angeles.

The closeup: Ethier singled in four at-bats on Opening Day, then went 0 for 4 in game 2. Taking a .111 batting average to the plate against Matt Cain in the bottom of the fourth inning on April 2, Ethier got a single in that at-bat and his next two. And so his campaign to break the Dodger and major-league consecutive-games hitting-streak records began.

Overshadowing basically every other Dodger, including Kershaw and Kemp, Ethier and his streak were palpably exciting and dramatically deficient only in the fact that Ethier rarely waited until his final at-bat to extend the skein. He reached Halfway to DiMaggio status May 2 and his 30th consecutive game May 6, going 3 for 5 against the Mets one night after his only missed game during the streak.

That missed game brought with it some foreshadowing, because it turned out that Ethier was suffering from left-elbow inflammation, raising fears that his 2011 season might play out like 2010 did.

The hitting streak ended May 7, with Ethier striking out against Mets lefty reliever Tim Byrdak in the eighth inning to go 0 for 4 (with a walk). The game was tied at that point, but the Dodger bullpen gave up two runs in the bottom of the eighth to prevent Ethier from getting a chance to extend the streak in extra innings. Ethier did continue his streak of reaching base for another week, taking it to 37 games before going 0 for 4 against Arizona on May 15.

Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesEthier in September, days before his season ended because of knee problems.

Ethier fell into a brief slump after the streaks ended, but for the most part continued to reach base at a high rate thereafter, especially after taking three starts off to rest his aching body (and also chill out a bit). From May 27 through the remainder of his season, Ethier had a .358 on-base percentage, almost equal to his 2009 mark. But the problem was that his power from 2009 had all but disappeared. Ethier’s 11 home runs and 30 doubles in 2011 were his lowest totals since his rookie year, and his .421 slugging was by far the lowest of his career. In addition, his struggles against left-handed pitchers only grew worse, with a career-low .258 OBP, .305 slugging and .563 OPS.

Ethier’s season ground to a halt amid more injuries (his right knee the latest culprit) and controversy over how they were being treated, though he kept battling at the plate until the end. On September 6, Ethier matched a season high (established one week earlier) with four RBI against the Nationals; with that, he called it a year. He had arthroscopic knee surgery on September 14, with a scheduled recovery time of six-to-eight weeks. In other words, Ethier should be 100 percent right now.

Nothing, arguably, illustrates how unpredictable Ethier’s 2011 was than the fact that the right fielder, admired for his bat but often maligned for his defense, came away with one postseason honor: his first Gold Glove Award.

Coming attractions: Ethier, the pride of Ned Colletti’s trading resume, the kid with the sweet swing beloved by scouts, turns a wizened 30 in April. That will kick off what will be his last year before free agency save a contract extension that, given an October Colletti interview with Jim Bowden for ESPNLosAngeles.com, doesn’t seem likely to come. Nor, however, does there appear to be an Ethier trade on the horizon, though with a salary that should be somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million next year, the player who has battled injuries for two years projects as the highest-paid Dodger of 2012.

Ethier’s Dodger future, short-term and long, is uncertain. His on-field performance has to answer the larger questions of where his home-run power went and whether his production against lefty pitching will ever arrive. If those questions are answered sourly, 2012 will no doubt be his last in Dodger whites. More and more, people are wondering if the former MVP candidate is at best a platoon player extraordinaire. But a rebound year that ends with new ownership in place could set Ethier up for a renewed engagement in Los Angeles. Though few are talking about it now, Ethier will definitely be one of the Dodgers’ biggest stories next spring.

Dec 03

Remembering 2011: Jon Garland


Chris Carlson/APJon Garland (45)

The setup: After starting six games down the stretch for the Dodgers in 2009 (but then going unused that postseason), Garland ambled down to San Diego for 2010, pitching exactly 200 innings with 136 strikeouts and a 3.47 ERA (106 ERA+). The Dodgers then signed him as a free agent in November to a one-year contract with a $5 million base and $3 million in potential incentives. Durability was one of Garland’s claims to fame, though even Garland noted that the MRI associated with his physical raised concerns.

The closeup: March 9. That’s how quickly the injury bug bit Garland, leaving the mark of a left-oblique injury. That delayed his regular-season debut until April 15, a rather predictably shaky four-inning outing against St. Louis.

But in his follow-up, Garland threw a complete-game, four-hit, 6-1 victory over Atlanta, and he was off to the races. It was the first of five consecutive quality starts in which he had a 2.65 ERA over 34 innings (though only one was a victory, thanks to the Dodger offense averaging 2.6 runs per game behind him). Garland’s original team, the White Sox, hammered him May 21, but then two more quality starts followed. By June 1, Garland had made nine appearances and seven of them were quality starts – not bad for the team’s No. 5 starter.

Oh, and then his season ended. A right-shoulder injury that required arthroscopic surgery put Garland on the disabled list, and he never came off.

Coming attractions: On October 4, the Dodgers said they would pay $500,000 to exercise the buyout of Garland’s $8 million option for 2012, bidding farewell to the Granada Hills Robert Frost Middle School graduate for the second time in 24 months and helping pave the way for Friday’s Chris Capuano signing. In two stints with Los Angeles, Garland made a total of 15 starts with a 3.69 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 90 1/3 innings.

Ken Gurnick of MLB.com wrote in October that in September, Garland said “his recovery was ahead of schedule, and that he intended to begin throwing in November … (and) be healthy by Spring Training.” He should earn interest from some team willing to bet on his rebound.

Dec 02

Remembering 2011: Jerry Sands


Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireJerry Sands (44)

The setup: The Dodgers’ top minor-league hitter in 2010 (with a .395 on-base percentage, .586 slugging percentage and 35 homers in 590 plate appearances combined at Single-A Great Lakes and Double-A Chattanooga), Sands was in position to make his big-league debut in 2011. His timetable depended on his continued development in Triple-A and the effectiveness of the Jay Gibbons-Marcus Thames-Tony Gwynn Jr. left-field combo.

The closeup: Much sooner than expected, on April 18, Sands was called up as Xavier Paul was designated for assignment. That night, Sands had an RBI double in his first major-league at-bat, one of 10 doubles he had in his first 87 plate appearances. He had a three-hit game April 25, a four-hit game May 22 and a grand slam May 24, his second home run in four games. Following the slam, however, Sands slumped, going 3 for 33 with two walks and no extra-base hits. With Gibbons, Thames and Gwynn making a rare simultaneous appearance on the active roster, the decision was made June 9 to send Sands back to Albuquerque, where he could not only play every day but work on some long-term adjustments with his swing.

Sands did take a step back as he redeveloped himself, with his Isotopes OPS falling to .670 during July, but after August 1 he had a .900 OPS with 11 homers in 33 games in Triple-A. Then, when he came back to the Dodgers in September, Sands kind of caught fire, batting .342 (25 for 73) with a .415 on-base percentage, .493 slugging, .908 OPS, eight walks, five more doubles and two home runs.

He finished his rookie Dodger season on his 24th birthday, with a .338 on-base percentage, .389 slugging percentage and 15 doubles in 227 plate appearances.

Coming attractions: With only four home runs in the majors, Sands still has something to prove in the power department, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t right now the franchise’s third-best outfielder behind Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. Rivera, who received millions from the Dodgers this offseason, had an OPS in Los Angeles of .740 last year compared to Sands’ .727 – you tell me how you think those will trend next year.

Nevertheless, pending the official signing of a 2012 contract by James Loney, there’s no place in the regular 2012 Dodger lineup for Sands. At best, he could platoon against left-handed pitchers with Ethier or Loney, if the Dodgers had the cutthroat approach to play things that way with two of their longtime starters. Sands went 22 for 60 with seven walks, seven doubles and three homers for a 1.066 OPS against lefties for the Dodgers.

Otherwise, it seems quite possible that Sands will begin 2012 as he began 2011 – in the minors, waiting for an opening – but with more confidence that he can handle the promotion once it arrives.

Nov 29

Remembering 2011: Jonathan Broxton


Jake Roth/US PresswireJonathan Broxton (43)

The setup: The polarizing pitcher whose mostly dominant career was marred by two notorious postseason setbacks entered his free-agent year hoping to recover from his biggest struggles yet – having allowed 62 baserunners and 26 runs in 29 2/3 innings dating back to his infamous 48-pitch outing against the Yankees on June 27, 2010.

The closeup: Both Broxton and general manager Ned Colletti asserted that health was not an issue with Broxton’s struggles, with Colletti saying a physical backed up their claim. But was something missed? Entering the year with 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings since his 2005 debut, Broxton fanned only one batter in his first five outings (4 1/3 innings) while allowing two home runs. Then, when his strikeouts increased, his runs allowed did as well. After he allowed two runs on three hits in an inning against St. Louis on April 18, we found ourselves here:

… I really think it’s important to be clear about this. For the longest time, the concern that Broxton’s detractors had was not that he couldn’t get anyone out, but just that he wouldn’t get the job done in October. The explanation offered the most was that he didn’t have the backbone, guts or other relevant body part to succeed under pressure.

I never bought into that argument, because I saw Broxton succeed too many times under pressure – including in the playoffs – to see a pattern, and that given another opportunity, there were more reasons to believe he would succeed than there were that he’d fail. Many more reasons. Baseball history is filled with onetime October failures who found redemption. …

… The problems of Jonathan Broxton today are different problems entirely.

Broxton is having trouble getting people out, period. He has retired the side in order once in eight outings. He has allowed 13 baserunners in 7 1/3 innings while striking out five. He’s being touched not just in save situations but in non-save situations. He’s allowing runs not in playoff games in October, but midweek games in April. …

Two scoreless outings brought some temporary relief for the reliever, but on April 25, Broxton was charged with a blown save thanks to two unearned runs at Florida, an outing that led to questions about whether he was still the Dodger closer or not. He allowed three hits and a run while picking up a save April 29.

Then came May 3:

Jonathan Broxton has given Dodger fans a lot of heartache this year, but tonight he looked as sickly as he ever has in my memory.

Broxton entered tonight’s game in the ninth inning of a 1-1 tie. After retiring Aramis Ramirez on two fouls and a popout, Broxton walked the next two batters on eight pitches, and few of them were close to the strike zone. According to MLB Gameday, the pitches were all fastballs, one reaching 93 miles per hour and the average at 91. That’s just not the Broxton of 12 months ago, and I’m not convinced it’s even the Broxton of 12 weeks ago.

People have been strangely fascinated with Broxton’s facial expressions and posture, but here’s a suggestion: Someone needs to look at his arm. Even if they’ve looked at it before, look at it again.

After the first walk, Blake Hawksworth began warming up in the bullpen, and after the second, Don Mattingly came to the mound. He talked to Broxton and the other assembled Dodgers, clearly stalling for time as Hawksworth raced to get ready, before finally telling home-plate umpire CB Bucknor to call for a rare mid-inning hook of the Dodger reliever.

Though I’ve always suspected Broxton’s been off physically since his serious struggles began in late June, this was possibly the first time I watched him and said to myself, “There’s a guy that’s headed straight for the disabled list.” Of course, what I observe from my seat far from the pitcher’s mound has no real relevance, but I just offer it as an impression. …

On the next day, Broxton was shut down to have an MRI, and he never pitched again for the Dodgers in 2011. Even after he went to the disabled list, the diagnosis (or at least the seriousness) of his condition seemed to keep shifting, punctuated by a rehab process that ended up being scrapped at the end of June. Not until September, more than four months after his last major-league game and 15 months after the series against the Yankees that seemed the source for all his problems, was Broxton finally scheduled for surgery.

His final numbers for 2011: 12 2/3 innings, eight earned runs, 24 baserunners, 10 strikeouts, 5.68 ERA, four inherited runners (all stranded).

Coming attractions: Broxton’s Dodger career ended with the news today that he had signed with Kansas City, pending a physical. Reports are that he will earn a $4 million base salary plus incentives.

Broxton leaves Los Angeles as its all-time leader in strikeouts per nine innings with 11.6 (minimum 300 innings), fifth in adjusted ERA at 132 and seventh in saves with 84.

Much virtual ink has been spilled on Broxton’s pros and cons, and it’s been months since I’ve felt the need to add anything new to the debate, a debate I am happy to put behind me. So with that in mind, I will close with something I wrote back in April:

There is one thing I will insist on, however. For nearly five seasons – an eternity for most relievers, longer than, for example, the elite tenures of Eric Gagne or Takashi Saito as Dodgers – Jonathan Broxton was a great, great relief pitcher. The NLCS losses were crushing – indeed, for many they were poisonous – but he’s hardly the first great hurler who has pitches he’d like to get back. He has truly been one of the best relief pitchers in Los Angeles Dodger history, whether his best days are over or not.

Nov 28

Remembering 2011: James Loney


Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireJames Loney (42)

The setup: Patience was wearing thin for the 2002 No. 1 draft pick after his offense declined for the fourth consecutive season at age 27. He actually took an .803 OPS into the 2010 All-Star break, but floundered to .616 thereafter. Adding to the disconcerting power drought was a walk/strikeout ratio that declined from 1.03 in 2009 to 0.55.

The closeup: What a strange year.

As early as April 9 came a short post with the headline, “The lowest moment of James Loney’s career?” after he was told to bunt with a runner on second base and none out in the 11th inning of a game against a right-handed pitcher. While we would come to learn that extraneous sacrificing was perhaps the biggest foible of Don Mattingly’s rookie season as manager, things actually sunk lower for Loney before they got better. With a .194 on-base percentage and .213 slugging on April 25, Loney caused us to begin ruminating about the future of the worst-hitting regular in major-league baseball.

… The problem is not that Loney will hit this poorly forever – he won’t. The problem is that it seems less and less unlikely that, after three consecutive seasons of decline from 2008-10, he’ll take the step forward that the Dodgers have been counting on him to take.

If Loney can’t offer better than the league-average hitting that has defined his past three years – and now he has even further to go to reach that goal – there’s little chance the Dodgers can continue using him as their starting first baseman, whatever you think of him as a defensive player or RBI man. They will part ways with him after the season, if not sooner.

It pains me to say it because I’ve always liked Loney. As I said earlier this month, my theory is that the bid to coax more homeruns out of Loney has had the opposite effect, messing him up to the point where not only is he not hitting home runs, he’s not hitting doubles either. Loney, who had 41 doubles in 161 games last year, has just one in 24 games this year, to go with his sole home run three weeks ago. …

With a .534 OPS by mid-May, he was still on his way to one of the worst starts in post-1988 Dodger history, though by this time the rebound had begun, and the countdown to his being non-tendered was put on hold. In a reversal of 2010, Loney’s offense shot up in this year’s second half to a .914 OPS that, unadjusted for park effects, was 14th in the National League. A popular theory was that new hitting coach Dave Hansen helped; though the timing might have been mostly a coincidence, Loney’s mechanics had changed by the season’s latter months.

The sum total of it all was another substandard season for a first baseman. Finishing 2011 with a .339 on-base percentage and .416 slugging percentage, Loney was 19th offensively among MLB first basemen with at least 502 plate appearances according to Fangraphs, though his defense bumped him up a few slots. Though he hit seven home runs in his final 40 starts, he ended 2011 with only 12, failing again to reach his career high of 15, set in 96 games in 2007.

Coming attractions: With the Dodgers’ elimination from the Prince Fielder-Albert Pujols festivities etched in everything but stone, Loney is set to get at least one more shot at first base before becoming a free agent at the end of 2012.  No one would dare guarantee greatness from him at this point; the safe bet, after four straight years with OPSes in the .700s, is more of the same.

Nevertheless, I don’t find it outlandish to suggest that the form he displayed after his season-opening slump in 2011 could continue throughout 2012. In fact, his OPS from April 26 to the end of this past season was .828 – get him to the starting gate quicker in 2012, and he’ll have what for him will be a career year. That the Dodgers need even more than a career year from him is a larger issue.

Nov 20

Remembering 2011: Mike MacDougal


Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesMike MacDougal (41)

The setup: After a 4.31 ERA with 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings in 2009, MacDougal all but pitched himself out of the majors in 2010 by allowing 15 runs in 18 2/3 innings for St. Louis. When the Dodgers signed him to a minor-league contract at the end of January, I set up his challenge thusly: “Since 2007, MacDougal has allowed more than 16 baserunners per nine innings in the majors. In trying to make the major league bullpen for the Dodgers, MacDougal will have competition from such righties as Jonathan Broxton, Kenley Jansen, Vicente Padilla, Matt Guerrier, Ronald Belisario, Blake Hawksworth and Ramon Troncoso.”

The closeup: MacDougal not only ended up pitching more innings for the Dodgers than all but one of those names, he finished the year with the lowest ERA on the entire staff: 2.05. Now, if you were paying attention, you’ll know that latter figure is tainted: He allowed 17 of 51 inherited runners to score. It was actually much worse before the All-Star break, when he allowed 13 of 33 inherited runners to come home – nearly 40 percent. His second-half numbers (4 of 18) were respectable. He struck out 6.5 batters per nine innings but allowed 13.1 baserunners. So, he was effective, but then again he wasn’t, but considering his $500,000 salary, then again he was.

MacDougal got his only save of the year in the Russ Mitchell game. After the Dodgers took a 6-3 lead in the top of the 10th inning against the White Sox, Matt Guerrier allowed two leadoff singles. Two outs later, MacDougal entered the game with the tying run at the plate, threw three pitches and retired Paul Konerko on a grounder to second.

Coming attractions: Inherited runners or not, this was a rebound season for MacDougal, one that should modestly increase offseason interest in the free agent. From the Dodgers’ standpoint, it’s again a numbers game. Javy Guerra, Jansen, Guerrier,  Hawksworth and Josh Lindblom are righties who should nail down spots on the roster, leaving at most one opening. But of course, things always get wacky in the bullpen. No doubt Ned Colletti would be interested in retaining MacDougal for depth, but price could be an object.

Nov 19

Remembering 2011: Russ Mitchell


Tony Medina/Getty ImagesRuss Mitchell (40)

The setup: With a .363 on-base percentage and .535 slugging percentage at Albuquerque in 2010, Mitchell was promoted in September to the Dodgers, for whom he put up this unusual line: 43 plate appearances, 37 outs (including a sacrifice fly), no walks, four singles, two home runs. In fact, his first two major-league hits were homers.

The closeup: Mitchell started 2011 with the Isotopes but came to Los Angeles much more quickly, receiving an April 29 callup when Casey Blake went on the disabled list. Mitchell ended up with two separate one-month stints with the team, each except for walks mirroring what came before. In 58 plate appearances, he made 43 outs with seven walks, five singles, a double and two home runs. His career numbers now total a .208 on-base percentage and .290 slugging percentage with four home runs in 101 plate appearances.

His most dramatic game by far came May 20: Against Sergio Santos, who had a 0.00 ERA in 20 2/3 innings for the White Sox, Mitchell (batting .067) hit a two-out, ninth-inning, game-tying homer that opened the door for the Dodgers to win in extra innings.

When he wasn’t with the Dodgers, Mitchell had a .372 on-base percentage and .503 slugging percentage in 392 plate appearances with Albuquerque. In general, his on-base skills showed improvement in 2011.

Mitchell’s season ended with wrist surgery on September 27, to address torn cartilage he had been playing with since May. Expected recovery time, according to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, was up to eight weeks; currently we are at the 7 1/2-week mark. He signed up to play winter ball, with Tiburones de La Guaira in Venezuela, but he has not shown up in the stats yet as having appeared in a game.

Coming attractions: Right now, the Dodgers have seven infielders on their roster and figure to keep six. Mitchell and Justin Sellers would probably be the backups if the season started today, but you can expect increased competition by the time March arrives. There has been talk that Mitchell, who will turn 27 in February, would work on catching to increase his value as an all-purpose backup, but his wrist problem has at a minimum slowed those plans.  He has options remaining with the Dodgers, so if he does not hold down a roster spot, he’ll return to the Isotopes.

Nov 17

Remembering 2011 and looking beyond: Clayton Kershaw


Getty ImagesBrothers in arms …

Baseball is a team sport that honors individual accomplishments like no other, so much so that when I ask this question …

Who is more revered in Los Angeles, the 1963 and 1965 world champion Dodgers, or Sandy Koufax?

… the answer, I believe, is surely Koufax.

It’s a choice between heaven and nirvana, a hypothetical beyond the heretical, one you need not fret over. You never have to have one without the other. But while those Dodgers were angels, Koufax is a god.

So when Clayton Kershaw draws comparisons to Koufax, it is no small matter. It is a very large matter, larger in some ways than the Dodgers’ passing another year without becoming world champions, and larger certainly than Kershaw’s fate in the 2011 National League Cy Young Award balloting.

Don’t misunderstand me — Kershaw winning today’s award is a big deal, a wonderful, rip-roaring accomplishment, and yet at the same time, the celebration of his victory is about 1/1,000,000,000th of how nuts Dodger fans will go the next time they’re the last team to leave the field at the end of a season. But if Kershaw turns about to be another Koufax, a living, breathing Zeus throwing lightning bolts from his pitching Olympus, that’s going to resonate through history even more.

Koufax is a Los Angeles Dodger who is honored like no other, so much so that when I ask this question …

Is Kershaw going to be even better than Koufax?

… the answer, I believe, may cause heart palpitations across an entire Dodgers universe.

Through age 23, Kershaw has 716 1/3 innings, 745 strikeouts, a WHIP of 1.173 and a
park/era-adjusted ERA, according to Baseball-Reference.com, of 135.

Through age 23, Koufax had 516 2/3 innings, 486 strikeouts, a WHIP of 1.461 and a
park/era-adjusted ERA, according to Baseball-Reference.com, of 100.

At the age that Kershaw became a Cy Young Award winner, Koufax had a 4.05 ERA in 153 1/3 innings in which he walked 92. Koufax didn’t have a significantly above-average season until he was 25 and wasn’t ever mentioned on a Cy Young ballot until he won the award for the first time at age 27.

Comparisons are never perfect — Jane Leavy’s Koufax biography is one of several sources that describes manager Walter Alston’s ambivalence about using the young Koufax, leaving open the possibility that Alston hampered Koufax’s early development. And surely, there’s no guarantee that even though Kershaw is better than Koufax was at age 23, he’ll still be better from ages 26-30, when Koufax, at the height of his astonishment, pitched 1,377 innings, struck out 1,444 with an ERA+ of 167.

Who knows if Kershaw will ever reach a World Series, let alone pitch in four of them with a 0.95 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 57 innings, including back-to-back shutouts with 10 strikeouts apiece with only two days in between?

But in the race across time between Koufax and Kershaw, Koufax is the tortoise, and Kershaw is the hare, except that he’s a hare with a head on his shoulders, not to mention better medical.

Scouts told Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com all the different ways Kershaw can still improve. “That change[up] is still a work in progress,” one scout said. “The curveball has a chance to be really good. I had his fastball from 89 [mph] all the way up to 96. So I don’t think he is where he is going to be yet, not anywhere near it.”

Koufax won three Cy Young Awards and finished in third place for another. Already, Kershaw is more than a quarter of the way there. He’s 23, and should remain a Dodger past Koufax’s age of retirement, 30. Kershaw is the kind of pitcher who people will make pilgrimages to see for decades after he has left the playing field, who can carry a franchise’s legacy even if the franchise itself is too weak to build upon its own.

It could all go haywire in an instant, so easily that when I ask this question …

Can Kershaw do it over the long haul?

… the answer, I believe, is let’s see. Yes, please, let’s see.

* * *

We saw this coming. Looking ahead to the 2011 season in February, we could say the following:

… He’s not a Fernando or a Sandy. Not even a Piazza or (for that brief, baggage-heavy moment) a Manny. He’s not a “Bulldog” or a “Game Over.”

He’s still a plain old guy with two plain old names, with a humble personality to match — a wolf in sheepish clothing.

If you say Clayton Kershaw is the best player on the Dodgers, you won’t necessarily get an argument, but you might get a shrug. With disappointment still dripping from the team’s 2010 season, “best player on the Dodgers” won’t earn you much more than a patronizing pat on the head, maybe an extra juice box after practice. For now, anyway.

Sometimes it happens practically overnight, the way it seemed to with Fernando Valenzuela and Mike Piazza. Other times — more often, really — it’s years in the making, as with Sandy Koufax, Orel Hershiser and Eric Gagne.

Either way, there’s an explosion within reach for Kershaw — oh, you better believe there is. He turns 23 on March 19, and soon after, he might turn Dodger Stadium back into a place where fans are racing through the crowds for their seats, the way they did for those transcendent heroes of the recent or distant past, for no other reason than to drool over his next pitch or exult in his supremacy. …

Kershaw’s 2010 season had been very, very good — a 2.91 ERA and 212 strikeouts in 204 1/3 innings — so good that if he had regressed in 2011, he still could have had a very good season. Despite shutting out San Francisco over seven innings on Opening Day, Kershaw’s first month of 2011 looked like it would fall into that groove. Even with 41 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings, inconsistency left him holding a 3.52 ERA at the end of April.

May was our first sign that something really special was within reach. He started six games and allowed eight runs, pitching 40 2/3 innings with a 1.77 ERA and 46 strikeouts, finishing the month with a two-hit, 10-strikeout shutout of Florida in which neither hit was a hard one.

But June started with two absolutely carking games. (Note: “Carking” is both archaic and a bit inaccurate, but it sounds exactly like the word I want.) On June 4 at Cincinnati, Kershaw had faced the minimum number of batters in the sixth inning, only to have things slip away for six runs over the next two innings. Five days later, Kershaw virtually repeated himself in Colorado. His ERA zipped back up to 3.44, and “learning experience” again elbowed its way into the picture.

Now here’s where things really get fun.

Over his final 19 starts of the year, Kershaw allowed only 24 earned runs. He pitched 141 2/3 innings with 146 strikeouts and a 1.52 ERA. Opponents had a .236 on-base percentage and .285 slugging percentage.

Over his final nine starts of the year, Kershaw allowed only seven earned runs. He pitched 65 2/3 innings with 64 strikeouts and a 0.96 ERA. Opponents had a .225 on-base percentage and .274 slugging percentage.

There were pitches he would have liked to have had back, but not many, not many at all.

He pitched another two-hit shutout June 20. He need only eight pitches for a perfect fifth inning with a strikeout in the All-Star Game. He struck out 12 in eight shutout innings on July 20 to beat Tim Lincecum for the second time in 2011, struck out nine in eight innings while allowing only an unearned run to beat Lincecum again Sept. 9, then earned his fourth win over Lincecum (and 20th of the season) on Sept. 20 by allowing one earned run in 7 1/3 innings.

With a triumphant final outing against San Diego on Sept. 25, Kershaw (21-50 ended his year with a league-leading 248 strikeouts, 0.977 WHIP and 2.28 ERA and an adjusted ERA of 163 that was a hair behind Roy Halladay’s 164.

Should Halladay, who pitched home games in a more challenging park, have won the Cy Young? If you think so, I won’t try to dissuade you. I’ll just relax with this.

Halladay, 34, is a true Hall of Fame candidate, practically the gold standard for pitching over the past four seasons with by far the best adjusted ERA during that span. When Halladay was 23, he allowed 80 earned runs in 67 2/3 innings for a 10.64 ERA.

It was a close call for who should be called the best pitcher in the NL today. But one, just one, is so amazing at such a young age, that when I ask this question …

What pitcher in baseball would you most like to have right now?

… only one answer should come to your mind: Clayton Edward Kershaw.

Nov 16

Remembering 2011: Trent Oeltjen


Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesTrent Oeltjen (38)

The setup: Oeltjen made his Dodger debut in September 2010, starting out 4 for 11 before ending up 5 for 23 with a double, triple and four walks (.705 OPS). He was re-signed in December to a minor-league contract and batted .421 in Spring Training, but he began the season, as most expected, in Triple-A.

The closeup: Before his June 9 promotion to Los Angeles, Oeltjen batted .339 in 56 games for Albuquerque, which is interesting because of another fellow who batted .339 in 55 games for Albuquerque until his promotion: Eugenio Velez. And while Oeltjen did not sink to the lows of Velez in a Dodger uniform this year, he didn’t exactly have a whole lot of success, especially in the second half.

On June 27, Oeltjen had a career game with a walk, two singles, a triple and a home run in five plate appearances. When he singled as a pinch-hitter two days later, the 28-year-old had a .481 on-base percentage and .667 slugging percentage in 28 plate appearances as an ’11 Dodger.

But from July 1 on, Oeltjen went 6 for 50 with one extra-base hit (a home run at Colorado) and eight walks for a .250 on-base percentage and .180 slugging in 63 plate appearances. In other words, during Velez’s hitless tenure with the Dodgers that began July 4, Oeltjen had only five more hits. So while Velez was basically wasting one roster spot for July and August, Oeltjen was arguably wasting another.

Of course, thanks to what came before, Oeltjen’s final 2011 numbers – 322 on-base percentage, .324 slugging – look wonderful compared to Velez’s.

Coming attractions: Oeltjen remains on the 40-man roster for now, and will compete to stick as a backup outfielder in 2012. He is an incumbent, after all. But with a career .299 OBP and .384 slugging in 194 plate appearances, he’ll be looking over his shoulder.

Nov 13

Remembering 2011: Kenley Jansen


Andy Hayt/Getty ImagesKenley Jansen (37)

The setup: The convertee from catchering came to Spring Training with a cornucopia of confidence, following a stunning second-half 2010 debut in which he had a 0.67 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 27 innings against 28 baserunners. With allowances for how inexperienced he was, Dodger fans expected the 23-year-old Jansen to be a major part of the Dodger bullpen in 2011.

The closeup: Cold water was splashed on hopes for Jansen starting with his very first game, when he allowed four runs in his only inning of a 10-0 loss to San Francisco. Later that month, he faced six Atlanta Braves on April 19 and five of them came around to score, leaving Jansen with an 11.42 ERA despite 13 strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings. He was sent to the minors May 1 to work on a secondary pitch, recalled less than a week later when Jonathan Broxton went to the disabled list, then went to the DL himself at the end of May after frustrating manager Don Mattingly by hiding right-shoulder inflammation. Jansen had 35 strikeouts in 21 innings, but he had also allowed 35 baserunners and 15 runs. The season that Hong-Chih Kuo ended up having looked in many ways like the season Jansen was going to have.

And then, insanity.

Jansen returned to active duty June 18. From that moment on – and if you aren’t aware of this already, you’d better be sitting down – he faced 120 batters, retired 97 of them and struck out 61. Yes, more than half of all batters Jansen faced after coming of the disabled list took a U-turn back to the dugout. Jansen allowed 12 walks, nine singles, a double and two runs for an opponents’ .094 batting average, .192 on-base percentage, .104 slugging percentage, .295 OPS and 0.55 ERA. He inherited 11 runners – none of them scored.

He struck out four batters in 1 2/3 innings against Detroit on June 22, struck out the side at Arizona on July 17 and struck out all four batters he faced against Washington July 22. He was just warming up.

From August 30 through September 27, Jansen faced 54 batters and got 42 of them out, and 34 of those 42 outs were strikeouts.  In that stretch, he struck out 63 percent of the batters he faced, and 81 percent of his outs were strikeouts.

The surge helped Jansen set a major-league record: 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings (96 in 53 2/3), to go with a 2.85 ERA while stranding 20 of 21 inherited runners.

These are man-against-boys Little League numbers.

For all of that, Jansen won’t win the National League Rookie of the Year Award, for which he is eligible, because of the presence of Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel, who himself averaged 14.8 strikeouts per nine innings and didn’t wait until June to become dominant. Jansen might not even appear anywhere in the vote, to be announced Monday, given the competition among rookie pitchers alone.

But man. What a season.

Coming attractions: Jansen, who turned 24 the final day of September, will enter 2012 with even higher expectations than he had this past season. He might not begin the year as the closer – and I very much hope he doesn’t, because he can be more valuable if not tied to a specific inning. But you can be sure that right now, he’s the most-feared reliever in the Dodger bullpen, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he became the most-feared reliever in the NL in 2012.

I mean, what happens if he masters that secondary pitch?

Nov 12

Remembering 2011: A.J. Ellis


Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireA.J. Ellis (36)

The setup: In fits and starts through 2010, his final season before turning 30, Ellis got his first extended time on the Dodger roster, backing up Russell Martin after Brad Ausmus was hurt and then sharing catching duties with Ausmus and  Rod Barajas after the season-ending injury to Martin in July. He struggled at first before going 3 for 3 on August 22 against Cincinnati, a game that kicked off a season-ending stretch in which he went 18 for 39 with three doubles and eight walks for a 1.101 OPS. Nonetheless, the offseason signings of Barajas and then, most painfully, Dioner Navarro set the stage for Ellis to return to Triple-A for the fourth year in a row.

The closeup: Because of an early injury to Navarro, Ellis began 2011 on the Opening Day roster after all, but played in only six games (with a .421 on-base percentage in 19 plate appearances) before reaching his intended destination of Albuquerque. In Triple-A, he proved nearly half-impossible to get out – for 2011 with the Isotopes, he had a .467 on-base percentage in 248 plate appearances. When Barajas went down with a midseason injury, Ellis came back, started hot, but went 2 for 17 with two walks in six July starts over eight days, and headed back to Triple-A.

On August 23, the Dodgers decided they had had enough of Navarro, and recalled Ellis for the remainder of the year. In his first game back, Ellis hit his first major-league home run along with an RBI single in a Dodger victory that seemingly buried the St. Louis Cardinals’ postseason hopes. (Things change.) Ellis hit his second homer 10 days later and once again finished the year strong, with a .976 OPS over his final five weeks.

Overall in 2011 with the Dodgers, Ellis had a .392 on-base percentage and .376 slugging percentage in 103 plate appearances, while throwing out four of 15 runners attempting to steal.

Coming attractions: For the first time, Ellis has a position on the Dodger Opening Day roster dedicated to him, as well he should – a catcher with a career .360 OBP in 244 plate appearances should be no worse than a backup. As things stand now, Ellis would share time with rookie Tim Federowicz, but it’s impossible to believe the Dodgers won’t acquire another catcher that would allow them to put Federowicz in the minors to start the 2012 season if they desired. The question, then, is how much time that catcher-to-be-named-later would take away from Ellis – a little or a lot.

Nov 09

Remembering 2011: Blake Hawksworth


Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireBlake Hawksworth (35)

The setup: After signing Juan Uribe a year ago, the Dodgers were looking to unload aribtration-eligible infielder Ryan Theriot, their midseason acquisition from Chicago who had OPSed .606 for them but stood to earn more than $3 million in 2011. Theriot was traded on November 30 for Hawksworth, who in 2009 had a 2.03 ERA in 40 innings (all in relief) despite striking out only 4.5 per nine innings, then faltered as a swingman in 2010 with a 4.98 ERA (5.83 in eight starts).

The closeup: As a reliever in 2010, Hawksworth had a 4.25 ERA with a .822 opponents’ OPS while allowing 45 percent of inherited runners to score. As a reliever in 2011, Hawksworth had a 4.08 ERA and allowed 50 percent of inherited runners to score – but with a .651 opponents’ OPS and a career-best 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Go figure.

Hawksworth had hot and cold runs like that ERA would suggest. Coming back from nearly a month on the sidelines with a groin strain, Hawksworth had a 1.69 ERA in 10 2/3 innings in June with eight strikeouts against seven baserunners and six of eight inherited runners stranded, twice striking out the side in an inning. But from July 27 through September 4, he was only good for an 8.40 ERA in 15 innings with 12 strikeouts against 25 baserunners.

Coming attractions: Hawksworth, 29 in March, won’t be eligible for arbitration for one more year, so he should be back in the Dodger bullpen at a modest salary (no more than $500,000).

Nov 01

Remembering 2011: Tony Gwynn Jr.


Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesTony Gwynn Jr. (34)

The setup: Gwynn’s defense and speed have never been in question, but his bat always has been, especially after a .591 OPS with San Diego in 2010 at age 27. The Dodgers risked only $675,000 on the possibility that he could help the team nonetheless. Reasons for optimism included his recovery from a broken hand and his dad’s recovery from cancer.

The closeup: It was a season of ups and downs for Gwynn, who could have two extra-inning hits in one game, then go for a month without a hit to the outfield. He entered June with a .230 on-base percentage, .277 slugging percentage and the threat of an early release, but he went .377/.389 with 10 steals over the next two months, including a 7-for-11 batting spree over two days in late June, followed by a July 1 game in which he reached base in all six plate appearances.

He finished 2011 with a .308 on-base percentage, a career-high .353 slugging percentage and 22 steals in 28 attempts. The guy whose biggest worry was his bat ended up sixth on the Dodgers in plate appearances. Though he was forced to play out of position, he provided in left field the best defense of any Dodger player, subjectively if not statistically.

Coming attractions: Gwynn’s future as a Dodger has been little-discussed. Though he was signed on the open market, that came after San Diego non-tendered him in December 2010, and he is eligible for salary arbitration with the Dodgers and won’t be a free agent unless they choose to let him go. Working off such a relatively low 2011 base salary, Gwynn’s 2012 figure doesn’t project to be much more than $1 million. With the Dodgers’ 2012 bench wide-open at this point, it seems logical that he could return in the same role.