MLB Quarter Pole Team Capsules: the Los Angeles Dodgers
Heading into the 2012 season, the LA Dodgers suspected they would pitch well (they have always pitched well), and hoped they would hit well enough to make noise in the NL West. They were right about the pitching. But Don Mattingly’s lineup production has been impressive in it’s own right.
In many ways, the Dodgers have gotten very fortunate. With a team of their stature and payroll, the number of mistakes it would take for them to not be a consistent competitor is staggering. And yet, when the Dodgers bottomed out last year underneath the weight of an awful ownership situation, and a GM who quite frankly wasn’t doing his job very well, it was fair for fans to wonder if the Dodgers could return to prominence at any point in the near-term future. Now what we’ve seen is that pretty much any team that isn’t in full on fire sale mode is close enough to compete within a calendar year if they can make a series of good moves. And it also helps when two teams in your division enter a free fall at the same time, as the Rockies and Padres have.
I’ll touch on the role of good fortune here in a moment, but I’d rather focus first on where the Dodgers were right. The Dodgers really needed to cut payroll out of necessity, and did so to the tune of almost $15 million. Under Frank McCourt, the Dodgers were not operating as a true large market team. At the turn of the century, the Dodgers were (along with the Cubs and Mets and Mariners) one of the premier large market baseball teams. But ownership changed hands three times since then, and through the methods of the fiscally responsible Paul Depodesta into the more market-based approach of Ned Colletti, the Dodgers have impersinated a mid-to-upper market club instead of a heavyweight. Last year, fans got fed up with McCourt (for good reason) and attendance bottomed out.
It was critical that the Dodgers rebound from this, and the 2012 season has been a blessing in so many ways. The Dodgers have pulled many of the right strings. LF Bobby Abreu was an intelligent pickup from the Angels, and with the currently-injured Matt Kemp (the NL MVP co-frontrunner, along with Joey Votto of the Reds), and the freshly extended Andre Ethier in the outfield, the Dodgers sport perhaps the strongest run production outfield in the National League.
The other place the Dodgers deserve a ton of credit was with the catching situation, where the Dodgers somewhat reluctantly turned the keys over to 31-year old career minor leaguer AJ Ellis, whose .307/.435/.472 batting line leads all MLB catchers. Ellis isn’t a complete surprise, though no one expected those kind of numbers from him. The Dodgers also deserve credit for making a shrewed $1 million commitment to backup catcher Matt Treanor, who really improved his offensive approach last year with Kansas City, but became expendable when KC promoted prospect Salvador Perez after Treanor sustained a concussion last August on a collision at the plate. Treanor has just 47 PAs because of Ellis’ effectiveness, but he’s hitting .300/.362/.550 in those 47 PAs. The Dodgers hold a very affordable option on Treanor for next year, and if Ellis continues to impersonate Joe Mauer, the Dodgers don’t need to make a move at catcher before the end of the 2013 season.
The infield has been a source of concern for the Dodgers, who may need to be buyers at the deadline for relief help and infield help. Journeyman Jerry Hairston has been the Dodgers top infielder, and he can play any position in the infield. Mark Ellis is still a quality player at the keystone when healthy. And…this team needs help. They have the luxury of being able to work rookie SS Dee Gordon through a tough offensive year because the Dodgers have strong offensive production up the middle, with the exception of shortstop, and can swallow a .284 OBP from their shortstop. But the production on the infield corners must get better. Even if the Dodgers shift Hairston to the hot corner when they are healthy enough to do so, the Dodgers will at the very least need a RH platoon partner for the perennially disappointing James Loney. And at best, the Dodgers could look to make a huge splash by going after Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox or Billy Butler of the Royals, two highly-valued AL sluggers who are expendable to their current clubs, clubs that need pitching badly.
The Dodgers can sit tight in their rotation at the deadline, but will likely be in the market for relief help. They have two hard throwers in Kenley Jansen and Javy Guerra, but not a lot else, as evidenced by giving 57 relief innings to journeymen like Jamey Wright, Scott Elbert, and Todd Coffey. The good news is that you can usually get relief help for a live minor league arm, which the Dodgers have plenty of. Trading for a first baseman is going to be much more difficult.
How do the Dodgers stack up against the rest of the NL West? Pretty well, actually. I have to think the Diamondbacks are going on a run at some point here, but the Dodgers nine game buffer and ability to make deadline moves should be enough to stave off Arizona. The Giants are more of a concern to the Dodgers, because they are within five games. The Giants and Dodgers are remarkably similar teams. The Giants have a huge advantage in the adeptness of their relievers, but I’d favor the Dodgers’ advantage in the standings because it is just so easy to acquire relief help at the deadline. The Giants big issue is trying to fix Tim Lincecum while hoping Barry Zito maintains his good fortune. The Dodgers have cruised to a large lead in the NL West specifically because they haven’t had any hiccups in the rotation.
The Dodgers have been a pleasant surprise, although they’re more a product of design than good fortune, which isn’t to disparage the role of fortune in the Resurrection of the Dodgers. The fortune is in the timing. The Dodgers were on the verge of falling into oblivion in a non-premier division, but when you take AJ Ellis, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier, and you add them to that rotation, and add a couple of shrewd midseason pickups in, well, that’s a formula that will lead to .600 baseball more likely than not.