The MSTI 2011 Plan, Part 1: Offense

Well, it’s that time of the year again. In what is annually my longest post of the year, it’s time to look close the book on the season (like we didn’t do that months ago) and start planning for next year.

Of course, this particular off-season is a little uglier than usual. As if the divorce case wasn’t making enough ugly headlines by itself, this is a team that failed on pretty much all fronts this season, is constrained by a tight budget – and has $17m of dead money committed to Jason Schmidt and the entire White Sox outfield. They’ve got just two starting pitchers, no catcher, no second baseman, no left fielder, and a bunch of under-performing incumbents. They need power, they need OBP, they need starters… and they have no money to help their rookie manager get those things. It’s not going to be a pretty winter, that’s for sure.

Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. With a little bit of creativity and a dash of luck, there’s moves to be made which can get this team back on the right track. Now, keep in mind that this is what I might try do, not in any way a prediction of what the team will do. How can you make any predictions about a team who thought trading James McDonald and Andrew Lambo for 18.2 innings of Octavio Dotel and a player to be named was a good idea, anyway?

By my calculations, the Dodgers have $43m in obligations for 2011 to the following six players: Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Jamey Carroll, & Jonathan Broxton. Add the $17m or so in “dead money”, and you’re up to $60m, before considering arbitration cases and filling out the roster.

The real unknown, of course, is how high the ceiling is for the 2011 club. And I’ll admit, I have absolutely no idea. Many think that the payroll could be cut drastically as the divorce case plays out, yet some (including Tony Jackson and Buster Olney) think there might be more to play with as Frank McCourt tries to repair his image. So for this exercise, I’ll say $95-100m is the goal. That may not be exact, but this is all for fun, anyway. With $60m already committed, I have $35-$40m remaining, and nineteen holes to fill. Let’s see what we can do.

This is the third year in a row I’ve done this, but the first time in which it’s become so big that I’ve felt the need to split it up between more than one post. So today we focus on the offense, and check back tomorrow for pitching.

1) Sign Adam Dunn to a 3 year, $33m contract (slightly backloaded)… but to play 1B, not to replace Manny Ramirez in LF.

Dunn’s an absolutely atrocious outfielder, yet he’s merely a pretty bad first baseman (though it should be noted he ranked better by UZR this year than Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Paul Konerko, and Miguel Cabrera). While I agree with you that he really ought to be a DH, he’s been very clear that he doesn’t want to sign with an AL team that would take his glove away. Besides, being a lousy first baseman doesn’t really mean as much as being a poor fielder elsewhere, as John Dewan of the Fielding Bible explains.

I’ll admit that I’ve coveted Dunn for years, and my hypothetical Dodgers have enough money to make one big splash. You could argue that finding a pitcher is more important, but pitching is always overpriced on the free agent market, and if you don’t do something to add some power and OBP, then it’s not going to matter anyway. Dunn’s not without his warts, but he’s also among the most consistent power hitters of the last generation – you know you’re getting 35-40 homers and an above-average OBP, and as he’s just turning 31, you should get him before his decline sets in. Besides, you saw what kind of difference Manny made on Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier when he was in the lineup, right? Nothing torpedoed the 2010 club more than lousy offense, and getting one of the top 3 bats available would be a huge step in the right direction.

While it may seem difficult to think that Dunn wouldn’t get more or the Dodgers could be in on a contract like this, remember that Dunn is limiting his own market by ignoring the AL, and teams like the Cardinals, Padres, Reds, Phillies, Mets, Astros, Marlins, and Rockies probably aren’t going to be in the market for a 1B. That limits the competition greatly, mainly to the Cubs and Nationals, and Washington has given indications they’d prefer the superior defense and lower cost of Carlos Pena. (The crowd at FanGraphs seem to agree with my 3/33 guess, as well). It’s not impossible, and I’m more concerned about the years than the money anyway. I’d rather give him 2, but I don’t think that’s doable; I’d live with 3, but wouldn’t go 4.

Now tell me you don’t feel better about the offense with just this one move? But wait! There’s more…
$60m + $8m = $68m

2a) Trade Russell Martin to Detroit…

I went back and forth about Martin about a million times. On one hand, I hardly need to remind you that he followed up his horrendous 2009 with more or less the same year in 2010, except that he set a career high with a 18.4% K rate. On the other, the state of catching is so dreadful right now that he actually managed to put up a 2.1 WAR this year, thanks to the replacement level being so low.

Martin never looked so good as right after he was injured, when Brad Ausmus and A.J. Ellis combined to hit about .020 and go six months without throwing out a runner. (Those numbers may be slightly exaggerated, but probably not as much as you’d think). Sure, Rod Barajas had a fantastically hot start and Ellis even caught fire in September, but if Martin wasn’t the rising star he saw in 2007, nor was he the total failure we’d all become accustomed to thinking of him as. Neither Barajas (and his .284 career OBP) or Ellis have the skill to be anything like peak-level Russell Martin.

However… peak-level Martin isn’t walking through that door. Martin made over $5m last year, and he would probably make at least $6m in arbitration. Plus, he’s coming back from a broken hip, and while he avoided surgery, it’s still a broken hip, not exactly a common injury for catchers to be coming back from. You could make the argument that he’s worth that kind of salary if he’d had a great year or if he wasn’t coming off that injury; you could take the risk on the injury if you had a hefty payroll. That’s not something my hypothetical team is willing to do next year, and I’d probably non-tender him if a trade isn’t an option.

As for Detroit, Alex Avila had only a .674 OPS himself, and Gerald Laird was even worse as he heads into free agency. The Tigers have a ton of money to spend, and they could use a veteran backstop to pair with the 23-year-old Avila. There’s an added bonus here, because other than Toronto, this is the closest place to home you can send Martin.
$68m + $0m = $68m

2b) …for Ryan Raburn.

I first noted Raburn in my Jonathan Broxton post last week, and thought that Broxton was too high a price to pay for him. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been interested in him for a while as a multi-positional asset who bashes left-handed pitching, and the Dodgers reportedly looked at him in July. They ended up with Scott Podsednik. They chose poorly.

That might be underselling him, actually; he had OPS of .891 and .826 the last two seasons, with 16 and 15 homers. He really shined against lefties though – .931 OPS this year, .976 last year. The Tigers never saw him as an every-day player and instead let him start at six different positions, everywhere but SS and C. Overall, he was worth 2.1 WAR this year. While I briefly considered putting him at 2B to fill the Theriot-sized hole, Raburn is by all accounts a below-average infielder, so we’ll use him in the outfield here. The infield experience is nice to have for double-switches and extra-innings affairs, though.

For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll say that no money changes hands and each team is responsible for the arbitration case. Raburn will probably get about $1m.
$68m + $1m = $69m

3) Punt on the left field problem by platooning Raburn with Jay Gibbons.

Everyone seems to think that getting a big-time outfielder is a must just because Manny is gone, but beyond Carl Crawford (who the Dodgers can’t afford) and Jayson Werth (who they probably also can’t afford, and who would never come back), there’s nothing all that exciting out there. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have Trayvon Robinson and Jerry Sands each about a year away from contributing. There’s no need to overpay for someone mediocre who would just end up blocking one of those two, and since we’ve replaced Manny’s bat with Dunn’s, going lower-cost here is okay.

Raburn crushes lefties. Gibbons has a 60-point OPS advantage against righties in his career. His outfield defense is.. well.. better than Manny, right? You make do with what you can on a limited budget, and if used properly these two could make for a very productive combo. Gibbons has made it clear he badly wants to be back. We’ll take advantage of that and give him $800k.
$69m + $800k = $69.8m

4) Don’t make the disastrous July trades any worse by hanging on to Ryan Theriot or Scott Podsednik just to save face.

As outlined here for Theriot, he’s one of the worst second basemen in baseball, and certainly not worth the $3.5m or so he’d get in arbitration. If you can fool some team into giving up any sort of a useful bullpen arm for him, I’d do it in a heartbeat, though I don’t think it’s all that likely. Podsednik’s going to be 35, had a .313 OBP for the Dodgers with so-so defense, and missed the last month with a foot injury, therefore putting the only skill he actually has in jeopardy. Uh, no thanks.
$69.8m + $0.1m Podsednik buyout = $69.9m

5) Sign Juan Uribe to a 1-year, $5m deal to play 2B with an option for 2012.

Yes, he’s a Giant, and one with a .310 OBP at that. But the Dodgers are probably going to pay Theriot $3.5m to play decentish defense while being a black hole at the plate. If you’re going to pay that much for a 2B without much of an OBP, why not pay just a bit more for better defense and more power?

Theriot has 16 homers in his big-league career. Uribe has hit at least 16 in six of the last seven seasons; his .440 SLG this year and .431 SLG career is nearly 100 points better than Theriot’s ever had. On defense, Uribe (10.9 UZR/150 at 2B) is better than Theriot is (4.3 UZR/150 at 2B), plus he’s above average at SS and 3B – and provides excellent insurance for another Rafael Furcal injury, as he started 96 games at SS this year with Edgar Renteria ailing.

Uribe’s not perfect. But for $4-5m, would you rather a low-OBP guy with zero power and decent defense, or a low-OBP guy with good power and plus defense? Now, it’s possible I’m short-changing the contract Uribe would get here, but he was horrendous in 2007 and ’08, to the point where he had to take a minor-league deal before 2009. That, plus the fact he’s turning 32 next spring and that he entered 2010 as a backup to Renteria and Freddy Sanchez, means I can’t see anyone investing a bunch of years.
$69.9m+ $5m = $74.9m

6) Turn Casey Blake into the lefty-mashing bench bat he ought to be.

I worried weeks ago that Blake was nearing the end of the line, putting up some of the worst numbers of his career. Since then we’ve seen Joe Torre say that Blake needed more rest, and Blake mention that he would accept a reduced role if it were put upon him. Making sure he’s not the everyday guy in 2011 is a must.

However, Blake’s not completely without his uses. While he was just the 30th-best 3B against RHP this year (min. 150 PA, by OPS), he was the 6th-best against lefties (.895 OPS). That’s a difference of more than 220 points of OPS, and at his age it’s clear that both selective use and more rest could be a huge boon to him.

It lines up nicely, too, since Dunn’s far weaker against fellow southpaws at 1B. Blake would make an outstanding backup corner IF / designated LHP-crusher, and can even serve as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency corner outfielder as well.

Of course, if you’re pushing Blake to the bench, that means you need a primary 3B who can hit righties, and that’s why we’re going to welcome back a former Dodger 3B (no, not that one) when we…
$74.9m + $0m = $74.9m

7) Trade Xavier Paul and Scott Elbert to Kansas City for Wilson Betemit and Tim Collins.

I’m anticipating that this is going to be the most unpopular move I propose – perhaps on both sides – but that’s okay.

A replacement for Blake was by far the hardest hole to fill. I don’t think I fully realized this until I started researching, but only 12 3B had even an .800 OPS against righties this year, and most of them are guys like Evan Longoria, Alex Rodriguez, and Ryan Zimmerman – i.e., not even worth discussing as viable options. The more I looked at the list, the more I became convinced that Blake really will still be the Dodger 3B in 2011.

But that’s not good enough for my hypothetical team. We can do better, and Betemit had a pretty monstrous half-season for Kansas City this year: .297/.378/.511. Almost as important, he’s a switch-hitter who’s been more successful against RHP than LHB over his career, which fits into our scheme here (though this year he’s done very well against both).

Now, I can hear the objections to this already. “It was half a season. He spent much of the last two years in the minors. And haven’t we seen this movie before?” All fair points. But I’ll argue that Betemit’s been pretty underrated. In parts of 8 seasons, his career line is .267/.335/.449, which works out to a 103 OPS+, even though much of that came when he was far too young (he made his MLB debut at 19, and saw significant time at 22). Before being traded in 2007, he had a .359 OBP and .474 SLG in 84 games for the Dodgers. How was production like that a problem again? Oh, right, it’s because people put far too much stock in a low batting average.

What that means is that despite the fact he’s been around forever, he’s still only turning 29 next month, and he’d hardly be the first guy to take a little longer to figure it out. Besides, in one of the very first posts on this blog – way back in July of 2007 – I argued that he should be given more playing time at 3B. Why not rectify that four years later? It’s not a perfect solution, and his defense may be suspect, but I do believe he’ll outperform Blake in 2011. In what’s become a running theme, he’s also received starts at 1B, 2B, and LF this year, adding more versatility along with Raburn.

As for Paul to the Royals, they have a ton of minor-league talent, but it’s still probably at least a year or two away, and 3B is about to be taken by Mike Moustakas, one of the brightest stars in the minors. They’re not going to contend in 2011, so if they need someone to cover for a few weeks before Moustakas arrives, Josh Fields can do that. Paul’s proven all he needs to prove in the minors (.882 OPS in AAA), but just needs some regular playing time in the bigs. He’s unlikely to get that in LA, especially since the Dodgers already have two lefty outfielders in Andre Ethier and Jay Gibbons, and as he’s out of options they’ll need to do something with him. The KC outfield is unsettled beyond David DeJesus, who’s coming off injury and may be a trade candidate, with Alex Gordon and his .664 OPS likely to have a spot as well. Paul’s got talent, and could find opportunity in KC.

Then we swap Elbert for Collins and… well, look. Elbert’s probably the most talented of the four, and the former 1st-round pick has produced in the minors, striking out 10.4/9 (and has even struck out more than a man per inning in his brief MLB time). I don’t want to move him, but of course you’re not going to get Betemit for nothing, and after his strange 2010 season it’s not hard to think that a change of scenery is a good idea for him. He’s originally from Missouri, anyway.

Collins is fun because of his absurd strikeout numbers; at only 20, he’s averaging 13.3 K/9. He’s not seen as a top prospect, however, because of his height (5’7″, which may be generous), and he was actually traded twice in 2010. He went from Toronto to Atlanta as part of the Alex Gonzalez/Yunel Escobar deal, and then to KC in the deal which sent Kyle Farnsworth and Rick Ankiel to Atlanta. Clearly, his trade value hasn’t been particularly high, considering the names there.

I’m guessing that Dodger fans will think this is giving up too much, and Royal fans won’t think it’s enough. That probably means it’s about right. Either way, I don’t pretend to be a prospect expert. If it’s not exactly these names, but something similar that gets the deal done, that’s fine too.
$74.9m + $2m = $76.9m

8) Sign Jeff Francoeur to a 1-year, $1.5m deal once he inevitably gets non-tendered by Texas.

I know, I know. I hate myself for even suggesting it, and if any of my Met fan or baseball writer friends see this here they’ll die laughing and unfollow me. But hear me out; we’re trying to build a team on a limited budget, and sometimes that means working around a player’s limitations in order to take advantage of his strengths.

Jeff Francoeur, for all his ridiculous portrayals in the media, has two strengths and one extremely large weakness. He’s a very strong defensive outfielder with a good arm, and he can hit lefty pitching (.823 OPS career). What Francoeur cannot do, under any circumstances, is hit righty pitching (.639 OPS this year, .699 career). However, it just so happens that the Dodgers have an outfielder in Andre Ethier who’s a mediocre defender and even worse against lefties (.625 OPS this year, .681 career) than Francoeur is against righties. Do I have to spell out the fit here? It’s basically the Reed Johnson role, except that Johnson is 7 years older, couldn’t stay healthy, and had less upside.

The danger here is having a manager who gets fooled by Francoeur’s lefty-bashing tendencies and wants to play him every day, a trap we saw Jerry Manuel fall into this season. It remains to be seen whether Don Mattingly can handle that, but in my hypothetical 2011 world, we have a manager who can.
$76.9m + $1.5m = $78.4m

9) Suck it up and go with A.J. Ellis and Rod Barajas behind the plate.

I can’t believe I’m saying this either, because I’ve been driving the “Barajas was never that good and Ellis isn’t a major league hitter” train. I’ll admit I’m not thrilled about this. Unfortunately, you’re dealing with a very tight budget, and there’s not a lot of other choices out there. Victor Martinez isn’t an option, and John Buck‘s likely to get a lot more than he deserves. Do you really want Bengie Molina? Jason Varitek? Yeccch.

So if you’re going to have to skimp somewhere, this is probably the place to do it, and Ellis and Barajas could be a decent combo as two total opposites. Ridiculous intro to LA aside, Barajas is still a guy with a career .284 OBP, but he’s definitely got pop, hitting double-digit homers in six of the last seven years. Meanwhile, Ellis would kill to have Juan Pierre‘s power (no, really; he hasn’t hit a pro homer since 2008) but he does have a .398 career OBP in the minors and managed .363 in the bigs this year, with a nice 18/14 K/BB mark in limited time. Barajas even has a reverse-platoon split, dealing with RHP better than LHP, so you could schedule starts around that.

Neither’s a long-term solution, but each has a decent defensive reputation, and for just over $1m, it could be worse. I guess. I can easily see regretting this by May.
$78.4m + $0.4 (Ellis) + $0.8 (Barajas) = $79.6m

10) Don’t guarantee Russ Mitchell a job.

I’ve seen it mentioned in several places that Mitchell’s all but certain to have a bench spot on the 2011 club, because of his low cost and positional versatility. To that I say, why? I didn’t have very high hopes for Mitchell when he was recalled, and he didn’t do much to change that perception by getting just six hits in the bigs without a single walk. He’s got options left. Send him back to ABQ, let him provide depth should injuries happen, but do not start the season with him on the bench.

___________________________________

So here’s the Opening Day roster you’re looking at..

C Ellis (R)
1B Dunn (L)
2B Uribe (R)
SS Furcal (S)
3B Betemit (S)
LF Raburn (R)
CF Kemp (R)
RF Ethier (L)
Bn Barajas (R-C)
Bn Blake (R-1B/3B)
Bn Carroll (R-2B/SS)
Bn Francoeur (R-OF)
Bn Gibbons (L-1B/OF)

Four of the five guys on the bench have the chance to put the ball out of the yard, four more than the Dodgers usually have. Actually, 11 of these 13 (all but Ellis and Carroll) could put up double-digit homer numbers. There’s great platoon plays, if used properly, in Blake, Francoeur, and Gibbons in place of Dunn, Ethier, and Raburn. Two switch-hitters give you great lineup flexibility, and the addition of players who can play multiple positions really helps you out in the field as well.

The main weakness here is the lack of a true backup CF, but Kemp plays every day and Raburn & Francoeur can each cover in a pinch. I suppose I’m also a bit concerned about the corner infield defense, but Furcal and Uribe are both quite good in the middle, and again there’s only so much you can do when you’re as constrained budget-wise as this team is.

If we take the platoon idea to its full extent and put together some quick lineup ideas, you’ll really see how this would improve the offense. (Yes, Kemp should probably be batting lower, that’s a discussion for a different time.) The MLB average for wOBA in 2010 is about .325, meaning that everyone here save for Kemp against RHP was at least a tick above-average this year – and no matter what other moves you make, success in 2011 is largely dependent on his bouncing back. And how much fun is the idea of sitting both Dunn and Ethier vs. a LHP, just daring the other manager to start bringing in righty relievers?

Of course, a good year in 2010 doesn’t guarantee that Betemit isn’t a fluke, or that Ellis didn’t just have a well-timed hot streak, etc. There’s no guarantees about any of this for next year… but on a team that regularly rolled out Theriot (.301 vs LHP, .280 vs RHP), Blake (.295 vs RHP), Loney (.256 vs LHP, .340 vs RHP), and Martin (.304 vs RHP), it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a team which is better poised for success – and all it’s cost us so far is Paul, Elbert, Martin, and about $15m.

“But where’s James Loney,” you’re probably asking. Well, our friend James is on his way to the Midwest in a trade for a starting pitcher…. but who? You’ll have to check back tomorrow to find out about the pitching side, where I’ve got about $20m to put together a pitching staff around the $7m already committed to Broxton. Can I do it? Come back to see.

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