(NOTE FROM GREY: Last week I sent out feelers to the top baseball team blogs to see if they would be generous enough to write a quick preview for their favorite team. So over the course of the next two weeks, mixed in with your daily fantasy info, you will get some of the most astute, in-depth coverage of teams around the major leagues for the upcoming 2008 season from the people that know these teams best. Each post will include a link to their site, please take time to visit these bloggers’ sites, because these posts are truly the tip of the iceberg for their team knowledge. Now enjoy the 2008 Los Angeles Dodgers preview.)
By the end of last year, the big story with the Dodgers veteran players versus the young talent that the Dodgers were stocked with. This culminated in the completely absurd story that Matt Kemp wasn’t immature because he moved a trash can in front of his locker. In the end though, the kids won. At least four of the Dodgers starters on opening day this year will have less than two years of big league service time, and it looked like it was going to be five until Andy LaRoche was injured in Spring Training. Juan Pierre likely starting over Andre Ethier is still being used as an example of the Dodgers veteran fetish, but is there any team in the world that would bench a guy when they still owe him 36 million dollars? I wasn’t sure if the Dodgers were really committed to their youth movement at the end of last season, but after an offseason where no valuable young players were traded away, I believe that the Dodgers front office is on the right track.
Now, the Dodgers problem isn’t finding play time for their young players, it’s about knowing how the team will perform. Close to every starter for the Dodgers carries some major baggage with him, all of which has season ruining potential. Rafael Furcal was absolutely terrible last year after never really recovering from colliding with Jason Repko in Spring Training. Can he be a top level shortstop again? Jeff Kent is being expected to be a middle of the order run producer yet again this year, but only 10 players have ever had an OPS over .800 in 500 plate appearances at age 40. James Loney is almost a lock hit over .300 this year, but does he have enough power for a first baseman? You can point to his home run every 23.47 at bats in his big league career and say yes, but you could also look at his home run every 66.55 at bats in the much more hitter friendly AAA Las Vegas and say no.
Matt Kemp is seen as the Dodgers biggest hitting prospect, but his batting average last year was a fluke, a .411 batting average on balls in play is completely unsustainable, and his power is almost entirely hypothetical. Outside of Vero Beach, the most home
run friendly park in all of baseball, Kemp has never hit more than 17 home runs in a full season. Without much plate patience, Kemp can hit .280 and be a below average hitter. You can still probably pencil him in for close to a 20-20 season, but he hasn’t shown you can count on him to carry team.
The pitching staff faces similar questions. Brad Penny had a miracle season last year that saw his strikeout and walk rates plummet from his career norms, but was still one of the most valuable pitchers in the NL because he allowed only nine home runs last year. Since it’s very difficult for even extreme ground ball pitchers to keep the ball in the park like that, Penny’s numbers will probably take a huge step down last year and ruin more than one fantasy team. Derek Lowe has been very consistent in his three seasons with the Dodgers, but he didn’t throw 200 innings for his first time as a starter and could be the sign that he’s starting to age. Can Esteban Loaiza bounce back from injury and pitch effectively without Oakland’s spacious outfield? Will Jason Schmidt and Hong-Chih Kuo be able to ever throw a pitch while healthy? Much like the offense, almost every member of the Dodgers pitching staff has a huge question mark around him.
The Dodgers major acquisitions this offseason continue the trend. Andruw Jones has almost wrapped up his spot in the Hall Of Fame at age 31, but last year he was less valuable offensively than Juan Pierre last year and reported to camp looking like he misinterpreted his doctor’s instructions to drink nothing but milkshakes. Hiroki Kuroda received the highest annual salary out of any pitcher in this year’s free agent class, but he lacks the numbers in Japan that Daisuke Matsuzaka, or even Kei Igawa had. There’s a good chance that he won’t be all that effective here in the states. These questions keep adding up and a little bad luck can easily break the team.
Despite all of the belief that proven veterans provide stability the only consistent players the have this year all fall under the less than two years of service time umbrella. Dodgers this year will be part of the Dodgers young core. Russell Martin has already established himself as one of the top four catchers in baseball and shows no sign of stopping. Chad Billingsley solved the control problems that plagued his rookie season and could very well be the Dodgers best starter this year. If Andre Ethier can get playing time, he can provide average numbers for a corner outfielder with strong defense. Jonathan Broxton is arguably the most dominant setup man in baseball and would probably be the closer on 25 other teams. The Dodgers need to ride players like these to get through some of the issues that are sure to crop up this year.
The Dodgers have so many players with upside that it’s almost impossible for them to all fail at once. If a few of them succeed, the team will put up a win total in the high 80s and have a good shot at the NL West pennant. However, it wouldn’t shock me at all if the team finished under .500 or won a 100 games, it all depends on how the ball bounces.
Andrew Grant writes about the Dodgers at truebluela.com. He’s a stat dork and is very bad at promoting himself in a two sentence blurb.