There’s Still Some Good News Here

Sons of Steve Garvey has a link to an article by Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports complaining about the NL West’s offseason, mostly focusing on inactivity by the Dodgers (ooh, Jamey Carroll!) or baffling decisions by the Giants (Aubrey Huff, really?)

Morosi’s complaints about the moves (or lack thereof) from the Giants and Dodgers aren’t really off-base, but his closing argument really caught my eye:

The Dodgers will probably add another starting pitcher soon, but I doubt that they will be as good in 2010 as they were in 2009. As a result, the Giants have pulled even with their rival — something that would have been a great achievement one year ago. But at the end of an off-season that started with such optimism, it qualifies as a letdown.

I won’t pretend that the offseason hasn’t been basically a mess so far; it has, and I’ve often been the one leading the negativity train. Fine. But I also subscribe to Jon Weisman’s theory (see last paragraph) that the divorce isn’t going to have a huge impact on 2010. The real problems are going to come in the next few years when the young core all hits free agency at the same time and can’t be retained, and then when there’s no reinforcements coming thanks to an underfunded draft budget and ridiculous decisions to forego draft picks by not offering arbitration to Orlando Hudson and Randy Wolf.

But is it fair to say that the Dodgers won’t “be as good in 2010 as they were in 2009″? I don’t know that it is. I wouldn’t say they’re better than they were last year, as I sit here on January 16th, of course. That said, there’s a fair point to be made that they’re no worse than last year, either. Not getting a top starting pitcher (“ace”, if you must) may be enough to stop them from taking the next step to the World Series in 2010, but that has nothing to do with the divorce situation – as I’ve been saying for months, there just wasn’t an ace to be had. You can talk all you want about Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee being traded, but the fact is that the Dodgers did try for Halladay (who may not have waived his no-trade to come to a team that doesn’t train in Florida anyway) and it’s incredibly unlikely that the Phillies would have traded their best pitcher to their main rival for National League superiority.

Besides, since the Dodgers didn’t have an “ace” in 2009 either, it’s hard to say that the lack of one in 2010 makes them worse than last year. I mean, is it unfair to expect that there might be improvement in areas like…

The outfield. The Dodger outfield was arguably the best in the majors last year, so it may sound odd to expect 2010 to top it, but I think it’s fair to expect an even better performance. Does anyone not think that Matt Kemp is on the fast path to stardom? Let me put it this way: he could have the exact same year in 2010 as he did in 2009, and he’d be one of the most valuable center fielders in baseball, yet it would probably be seen as a failure by Dodger fans. That’s how confident we all are in him to keep improving as he enters his age-25 year.

Then, take Manny Ramirez. For all of the garbage you heard about him supposedly being useless after his return from suspension last season, he still put up a year that would have ranked him in the top 10 in OPS if he’d had enough at-bats to qualify. I still don’t buy the idea that he was terrible without the junk (check out my season review – I stand by the idea that he was injured) and going into a contract year, you have to figure he’ll have some extra motivation. Besides, even a slightly subpar Manny is still ten times better than Juan Pierre at his best, so not having Manny replaced by Pierre for 50 games is a huge win – without even considering the extra value guys like Jason Repko or Xavier Paul will add by being superior defensive replacements.

Andre Ethier is probably at his peak right now and I don’t think it’s fair to expect any more out of him than he’s already shown – but he’s also not even 28 yet, so there’s no reason to expect a huge decline over the next few years. 2009 Ethier + improved Kemp + more Manny – Pierre sucking up outs = better outfield.

The returning starting pitchers. Similar to Kemp, just about everyone thinks Clayton Kershaw is mere moments away from turning his unlimited potential into full-fledged production. Remember, he’s still not even 22, yet spent last year being the hardest pitcher in baseball to hit and was arguably the best pitcher in baseball for a two-month span. No question that he has room to improve, but that’s exactly the point – barring injury, his 2010 should be better than his 2009 (and may actually end the ‘ace’ talk for good, but that’s besides the point).

Don’t forget Hiroki Kuroda, who was very effective when healthy, but just wasn’t healthy enough. I realize he’s about to be 35, but you also have to think he’s not going to take another line drive to the head. If the time off has helped him heal, he’s likely to be more productive than in 2009.

Then you’ve got Chad Billingsley, who I’ve defended here ad nauseum. The fact that people are so willing to throw a guy this young who was an All-Star last season under the bus so quickly because of a few bad starts is mind-blowing to me.

I don’t deny that the back of the rotation is a mess, but it’s not unreasonable to think that all three of your main returning starters will be improved over last year.

The underwhelming trio of Russell Martin, James Loney, and Rafael Furcal. I actually don’t have much faith in Martin to rebound at all, and my fears that he’s the present-day Jason Kendall are starting to look all too real. Still, the bar here is not “can the Dodgers be better than 2009″, but “can they be at least as good”, and you have to figure that Martin couldn’t possibly be any worse than he already was, right? Right?

As for Loney, I actually have high hopes about his ability to improve in 2010 (you can read my full explanations on the futures of Martin and Loney in the upcoming 2010 Maple Street Press Dodgers Annual - much more on that to come). The problem with Loney is that he’s a below-average first baseman in a league that’s full of guys like Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Adrian Gonzalez. That doesn’t make him a useless player, though, and it’s hard to believe that a former first-round pick with a career 112 OPS+ doesn’t have a little more to offer when he’s still just 25 and ended 2009 on a huge tear.

With Furcal, who the hell knows what you’re going to get from him. His 2009 was slightly below his career averages and he’s another year off back surgery, so there’s at least a chance he’ll rebound, but like Martin you don’t expect he’ll be any lousier than he was.

The young pitching. Some of the talented young Dodgers got their feet wet in the bigs in 2009, and it’s not unrealistic to expect them to play larger roles in 2010. Most people remember James McDonald’s huge failure as the #5 starter (as I said in our review pieces, he “was so bad – in 13.1 IP over 4 starts, allowed 13 ER and 14 BB against just 6 K – that he was out of the rotation by the end of the month and back in the minors by mid-May”), but don’t forget how good he was when he returned as a reliever – a 2.72 ERA with twice as many K as BB.

The same goes for Scott Elbert, who didn’t have a huge amount of success in 2009 but certainly showed flashes, enough to be included on the NLCS roster, and Charlie Haeger, who threw a few gems after finally getting a shot. I’m not saying all or any of them are locks to improve in 2010, just that the experience they got in 2009 could prove to be a valuable stepping stone.

The bullpen. Like the outfield, it may seem crazy to expect improvement from a unit that was already one of the best in the bigs last season, and it wouldn’t totally surprise me to see Ramon Troncoso fall apart (his peripherals last year don’t match his sparkling ERA). That said, barring an upcoming trade, George Sherrill will be in the ‘pen for the entire year. Forget whether or not you think giving up Josh Bell was worthwhile, and don’t be swayed by the homer he gave up in the NLCS; Sherrill was utterly dominant as a Dodger, and now you’ll have him for the whole year rather than just two months. That’s an improvement right there, plus there’s still young talent like Josh Lindblom and possibly guys like Elbert and McDonald, if they don’t start.

The bench. The bench in 2009 was, to put it mildy, horrible. You know your bench wasn’t good when the four main participants are all likely to be replaced the following season, partially because they combined for two homers all year. Yes, yes, I know, everyone thinks Juan Pierre saved the season. Jesus, even Michael Phelps didn’t get as much credit for two good weeks as Pierre seems to have received from his May burst. Anyway, as we said before, having Repko or Paul is going to help the outfield defense immensely.

Pierre wasn’t the only problem, though. While we love Mark Loretta for his game-winning hit in NLDS Game 2, let’s not let that one moment make us forget his season-long Mark Sweeney impression (.276 OBP’s are the stuff nightmares are made from). Say what you will about Jamey Carroll, but he looks to at least be better than Loretta.

It’s hard to accurately say that Juan Castro’s replacement will be better, simply because we don’t know who that’s going to be yet. But just re-read my post from November when I found out that there was actually competition for him and… well, it’s safe to say that the 2010 replacement will be an improvement.

Finally, there was Brad Ausmus as the backup catcher. Ausmus was fine, so I won’t say that A.J. Ellis or whomever it ends up being will be a huge improvement, but unless Martin gets hurt it’s not going to really matter either way.

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That’s six areas in which you could reasonably expect to see improvement in 2010. It’s not all roses, of course; you’re likely to see less production from Blake DeWitt at second base (though don’t forget that Orlando Hudson’s Gold Glove came more from reputation than production, and his offense was so bad in the second half that he lost his job). And of course, you still need to replace Randy Wolf, though I’d be surprised if the Dodgers didn’t end up landing at least one of the Ben Sheets/Erik Bedard/Joel Pineiro crew for that role.

It’s not going to be an easy year, plus you have to be wary of the future thanks to the divorce fallout. With the court battle looming, it might not even be a fun year. But to say that the Dodgers are going to be an appreciably worse team in 2010 than 2009? No, I don’t believe you can say that at all.

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