Team Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

It’s not exactly high times to be a Dodgers fan right now. Sure, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, but most of the bitterness of the 2010 season is directed at the divorce battle between Frank and Jamie McCourt. General Manager Ned Colletti hasn’t exactlybeen  given the complete freedom to make whatever transactions necessary for the good of the big league ballclub, being hamstrung by financial constraints and all. But he was able to tack on to the starting rotation of homegrown Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley by re-signing Hiroki Kuroda and Ted Lilly, while adding Jon Garland, giving L.A.’s rotation a well-rounded staff.

But if you think the additions and re-additions of Jay Gibbons, Marcus Thames, Juan Uribe, and Rod Barajas will bolster an offense with several holes, think again. A left field and backstop sans Manny Ramirez and Russell Martin are the biggest questions for the boys of Chavez Ravine. A lesser question that will be just as publicized is the performance of current closer Jonathan Broxton, backed by an eclectic but mostly capable bullpen. The single most important X-factor that first-year manager Don Mattingly could use? A Matt Kemp revitalization, whose upside could be the difference between a third-place NL West team and a playoff contender.

The Projected Starting Lineup
1. SS Rafael Furcal
2. 3B Casey Blake
3. RF Andre Ethier
4. CF Matt Kemp
5. 1B James Loney
6. 2B Juan Uribe
7. LF Jay Gibbons / Marcus Thames / Tony Gwynn Jr.
8. C Rod Barajas

A few years ago, the top five of this lineup looked unmatched when set up against the normally pitching-heavy NL West. The upside for the 3-4-5 hitters Ethier-Kemp-Loney is still there, but the new additions in the rest of the lineup don’t instill confidence into an offense that was 11th in runs scored and 15th in home runs in the NL last season. The health of Rafael Furcal and the age of Casey Blake are concerns. For Furcal, he hit a solid .300/.366/.460 at the top of the lineup, but the 33-year-old just needs to stay healthy as the Dodgers’ middle infield bench would be a downgrade. Though 41 doubles is encouraging, James Loney was supposed to be a solid power-hitting first baseman by now, and his glovework won’t make up for his lack of offense if he continues hitting .267/.329/.395. Andre Ethier began the season as a potential Triple Crown candidate before he broke his finger and should continue to be the heart of this lineup. I’d expand on my love-hate relationship with Kemp’s superstar talent combined with underwhelming production, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

In a vacuum, to throw a three-year, $21 million contract at Juan Uribe is only slightly forgivable if you look past his low OBP and toward his power as he can field shortstop well should Furcal go down. He should be able to handle his less natural position at second base, and overall, Uribe is a slight upgrade from Ryan Theriot. The situations in left field and catcher, however, are somewhere between bewildering and inexcusable. Somehow, Rod Barajas forked $3.25 million from the Dodgers after compiling a .310 wOBA, 10th among NL catchers with at least 300 PA. A.J. Ellis would have been a cost-effective alternative with better plate discipline and albeit no power. The left field debacle will be something to watch this spring training. Jay Gibbons is the slight favorite, while Marcus Thames, Tony Gwynn Jr., and Xavier Paul should all be in the mix.

The Pitching Staff
LHP Clayton Kershaw
RHP Chad Billingsley
LHP Ted Lilly
RHP Hiroki Kuroda
RHP Jon Garland

RHP Jonathan Broxton
LHP Hong-Chih Kuo
RHP Matt Guerrier
RHP Kenley Jansen
LHP Ron Mahay
RHP Ramon Troncoso
RHP Blake Hawksworth

One of the big questions early in the Dodgers’ offseason was how the rotation would turn out. Once you get past that the team was never really in the mix for a Cliff Lee or a Zack Greinke, give credit to the front office for bringing back Hiroki Kuroda and Ted Lilly while adding Jon Garland. This rotation leads off with the left-handed Clayton Kershaw and right-handed Chad Billingsley, both achieving about a 3.00 FIP attributed to greatly improved control and walk rates while still maintaining low home-runs-allowed rates (both on the road and at home). Kershaw hasn’t exactly reached superstar ace status just yet, but the sky is the ceiling for the 23-year-old entering his fourth MLB season. Unfairly criticized at times, Billingsley, while not an ace, will give the Dodgers 200 innings as a solid No.2.

The rest of the rotation in Lilly, Kuroda and Garland brings a solid back-end. Lilly was able to make it work as a fly-ball pitcher at Wrigley Field for a few years and should continue to do so over a full season at Dodger Stadium. Kuroda and Garland are both more ground ball pitchers than anything — they and the infield defense will be helped by the addition of Uribe and a full season of Furcal. But the most value that the back-end of the rotation could bring is health and consistency. All three pitchers, particularly Lilly and Garland, should bring 180-200 innings each. Still, if any of them are to go down, the hope is that Vicente Padilla will be back in the mix after he recovers from surgery by May.

Jonathan Broxton may have gotten the most flack out of any Los Angeles player. The fastball speed issues and the tendency for former manager Joe Torre to overwork Broxton to an inconsistent schedule are factors. Even after all that, Broxton should still start out in the closer role and was able to strike out 10.54 batters per 9 innings. Hong-Chih Kuo serves as one of the best non-closer relievers in the league, somewhat like a left-handed Broxton. His high K rates and low walk rates suggest that he’s a potential Broxton replacement, but being left-handed and elbow injury-prone doesn’t make this scenario ideal. Colletti signed Matt Guerrier to a three-year deal, whose ability to appear in many games over a season will be useful for Mattingly to handle. Kenley Jansen, Ramon Troncoso, and Blake Hawksworth are all young and capable arms, with Jansen being a dark horse future closer candidate. The bullpen will move on without Ronald Belisario — his character and visa issues have pushed their limits.

Key Player
The development and success of Matt Kemp, I would argue, is the most important for the success of the Dodgers. His baserunning gaffes continued, highlighted by getting caught stealing 15 times on 34 tries. His center field play was absolutely atrocious in 2010. Sure, he led the team with 28 HRs and 89 RBIs, but that’s not enough of an excuse to hit .249/.310/.450 for a kid with as much upside as Kemp has. His strikeout rate was the worst of his career, and he consistently whiffed on fastballs that he used to crush. Take a look at Kemp’s swinging strike percentage against fastball height:

The lines represent the top (right on the graph) and bottom (left) of the rulebook strike zone while the grey line shows the league average. In 2009, Kemp whiffed on slightly more fastballs than the average hitter no matter the pitch height. But in 2010, Kemp swung and missed at many more fastballs, particularly high fastballs in the zone.

For more literature on what happened to Kemp, feel free to revisit my Rihanna-less posts on Kemp’s struggles against the fastball here and here. For an in-depth look at his mechanics, I will point you to Chad Moriyama’s post here.

The Dodgers should expect improvement from a year ago with new additions to the starting rotation. Still, a lot will have to go right for the offense if they want to offset the well below-average 7-8-9 hitting enough to hit well against NL pitching. Kemp will be a key player to watch to turn around his lackadaisical defense — I am harsh but only because the kid has the potential to hit .300/.375/.500. L.A.’s rotation, though, I would pit up against any in the NL West besides the Giants. Kershaw can develop into a true ace and Lilly/Kuroda/Garland provide a good back-end. The bullpen is led once again by Broxton and should he continue to struggle, the arms of Kuo, Guerrier, and Jansen could step in. Furcal’s health, Blake’s age, the Left Field (Pavilion)- these other pieces will have to fall toward the Dodgers’ way if the team wants to challenge the Giants for the NL West crown in 2011.

Albert Lyu (@thinkbluecrew, LinkedIn) is a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but will always root for his beloved Northwestern Wildcats. Feel free to email him with any comments or suggestions.

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And of course for those fans looking more at the Rhianna side of the Matt Kemp struggles can go here for Jon Weisman’s nice animated clip.