Six Reasons for Optimism in 2011

I’ll be the first to say that this hasn’t exactly been the brightest offseason around here. We’ve been dismayed at the seemingly excessive contracts handed out to Matt Guerrier, Rod Barajas, and Juan Uribe. We’ve cringed at the impending disastrophe of the JaMarcus Gwybbons, Jr. situation in left field, wondered why they couldn’t find a righty partner for Andre Ethier, been disappointed over the inability to upgrade on Casey Blake, and resigned ourselves to another year of mediocrity from James Loney. We’ve been terrified at both how there’s no good option for a #2 hitter and how the lineup as a whole seems to have been assembled with no regard for OBP. We’ve worried about atrocious outfield defense and considered what things may have looked like if the near-misses for aging vets Aubrey Huff , Michael Young, and A.J. Pierzynski hadn’t been misses at all. We’ve fretted that minor-league deals or not, historically poor players like Juan Castro and Aaron Miles are in the mix and just may make the team, and we’ve wondered when and if proven young talents like Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley would see long-term deals

And that’s just a list of on-the-field concerns, because there’s still the ongoing McCourt embarrassment, the uncertainty around inexperienced new manager Don Mattingly, and yet another fun year of “will Ronald Belisario make it to camp?” (As a sidenote, I considered running an entire post about that, because while the official reporting date hasn’t arrived yet, with his history, how was he not planning to be back in the country by February 1st at the latest?)

So with all of the questions surrounding this team, it’s fair to say that my expectations for 2011 are tempered at best. I see this as a club that’s built to win around 85 games, and if everything breaks right maybe that can be 90. That’s a team that will have a say in the wild card race and possibly the division, though not a team I see as clearly being one of the three best in the league.

Still, a team that has the potential to win 85-90 games is hardly an unwatchable disaster, and as the weather starts to warm and the team reports to camp, there are reasons for optimism – and we’d be remiss to ignore them.

1) Clayton Kershaw. You hardly need me to revisit all the ways in which Kershaw is awesome; I did just that already in his 2010 Season in Review piece. He had a two-month stretch last season in which he was basically the best pitcher in baseball, and while that’s probably a bit too much to hang on his head right now, you can certainly make the argument that he’s already one of the best lefty starters in baseball. Forget what you hear about him still needing to do this or that to be an “ace”; if he made no further progressions, he’d still be worthy of being at the top of nearly any team’s rotation.

Yet, there’s still so much more there. Last year he made a marked improvement in his major weakness by walking 10 fewer batters despite pitching 30 more innings than in 2009. Don’t forget, he’s not even 23 yet. I’ve been arguing that he turned potential into performance last year, but the greater accolades haven’t quite come yet because of his mediocre (and pointless) win-loss record. This is the year that the greater baseball world recognizes Kershaw in his rightful place as one of the dominant starters in the game.

2) Overall pitching depth. Did Ned Colletti overpay for Ted Lilly? Yeah, probably. Did he go overboard on Matt Guerrier? No question. Is the “Jon Garland vs. Vicente Padilla for 5th starter or bullpen arm” thing going to go as smoothly as we hope? I’m not so sure.

Still, while the rotation may not be able to feature the four aces of Philadelphia, the depth from one through five (or six) is nearly unparalleled. Make all the arguments you like that Tim Lincecum & Matt Cain or Zack Greinke & Yovani Gallardo are better than Kershaw and Billingsley (I’m not convinced, but I can see it), but don’t forget that most teams use 7-10 starters throughout the year. While other teams will be like the 2010 Dodgers, picking through scraps of rejects and prospects to patch and fill, this year’s edition actually runs six deep, and that’s without even including John Ely, who filled in so ably last year.

Milwaukee blog The Brewers Bar put this theory to the test in their jubilation over adding Greinke and Shaun Marcum by trying to see what potential NL rotation compiled the most WAR last year. It’s not a perfect evaluation, since everyone clearly won’t have identical seasons in 2011 as they did in 2010, but it’s a fun exercise. How much respect did the Dodgers get? They didn’t even make the initial list. How did they look when added to the results? The overall WAR of their top five beats everyone in the league except for the Phillies. That’s without even counting Vicente Padilla, by the way; I can’t imagine how he compares to the potential 6th starter on most of those teams.

Then there’s the bullpen. Sure, maybe Jonathan Broxton bounces back, and maybe he doesn’t. (I happen to think that he will.) You’ve still got the unhittable Hong-Chih Kuo. You’ve got the tantalizing potential of Kenley Jansen. You’ve got Guerrier, who’s certainly overpaid but still useful. You’ve got Padilla, in whatever role he ends up in. You’ve got Belisario, who I understand cannot be counted on but who most people don’t realize was actually pretty effective last year when he was able to put his problems aside. Then you’ve got a smorgasboard of useful arms fighting for the last spot, guys who in other organizations might very well have guaranteed spots - guys like Ron Mahay, Blake Hawksworth, Scott Elbert, Ramon Troncoso, Jon Link, Josh Lindblom, and Travis Schlichting. Understanding that many of them will start in AAA isn’t a disappointment as much as it is a boost, since there’s no question that depth will be tested as the year goes on.

A pitching staff is not one man, or two. It’s usually fifteen or more, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a team with equal or better depth that far down the line.

3) Matt Kemp. As with Kershaw, I’ve spent so much time talking about Kemp that I’m not going to rehash it in full here. Just know that he’s my top choice for a rebound this year, and before you accuse me of looking at it through Dodger blue glasses, realize how many other players I’ve criticized and don’t expect to have good seasons.

So why am I high on Kemp? It’s because all of the signs are pointing in the right direction. Remember, even though I’m not going to defend his 2010 production, you’d think by the way people talked about him that he hit like Garret Anderson. This is still a guy who set a career high in homers and had an OPS above league-average. If that’s his “disaster” year, that’s still a guy who’s pretty special. Besides, any and all excuses are now gone. Think that his troubles last year were due to work ethic issues? He’s taken responsibility. Think that he spent too much time with Rhianna? I don’t agree, but they’re split up now. Think that he didn’t get along with Joe Torre? He’s got a good relationship with Don Mattingly. Think that his issues with the rest of the coaching staff last year were reflected on the field? As you’ll see in a second, that staff has largely turned over. Instead of cranky Bob Schaefer and Larry Bowa, he has baserunning guru Davey Lopes.

Again, not defending Kemp’s reaction, but it’s hard to ignore that after his scorching April last year, he headed downhill at just about the time Ned Colletti oddly called him out in April. Then, as it became clear that Torre & crew wouldn’t be back in 2011, he ended the year by homering in five games in a row. That’s got to be a pretty nice taste in your mouth as you head into the offseason.

Kemp’s in his age-26 year this season, and in addition to playing for a contract, he’s got to know that many view this as a make-or-break season for him after his turbulent 2010. I think we all know that regardless of the moves the club has made this offseason, 2011 largely depends on Kemp’s resurgence. I won’t pretend I’m not at all biased here, but I’m squarely in his corner as far as expecting a breakout 2011.

4) Coaching staff turnover. You could almost consider this as a companion piece to Kemp, but the implications here are much wider. If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you know how happy I was when Joe Torre decided to leave. As I’ve said several times, he may have been the right manager for the 2008-09 “Manny-mania” crew, but he wasn’t the right man for 2010 and certainly wasn’t going forward. But it wasn’t just him. Bench coach Bob Schaefer not only was the man who caused some of the Kemp drama, he aired the dirty laundry on the radio before the season was even over. Larry Bowa was so old-school and despised that even though Mattingly may have wanted him back, Colletti didn’t. I can’t say I’m disappointed to see a single one shown the door. (Mariano Duncan left as well, though I can’t say I really had an opinion on him either way.)

Sure, there was – and still is – a lot of concern over choosing Mattingly over Tim Wallach. Mattingly will have to prove himself to be the right choice, but the new coaching staff seems like a massive improvement. Trey Hillman was a failure as a manager in Kansas City (though you can’t totally ignore the lack of talent he had), but his experience and relative youth (47) makes him a good choice as a bench coach. Getting Wallach to stay in the organization as 3B coach should be seen as a coup, and adding Davey Lopes is an absolutely great get, particularly for his baserunning prowess. Inasmuch as you can grade coaching staffs, this is a group I’m very satisfied with.

5) The next wave of young players. After the much-hyped group that arrived between 2006-08, including Kemp, Loney, Ethier, Kershaw, Billingsley, and Russell Martin, the last two seasons have been something of a dry spell as far as impact prospects are concerned. Ivan DeJesus got hurt and hasn’t recovered his lost luster. James McDonald showed promise, but couldn’t hang on and was shipped out. (Foolishly, in my mind, as you might know.) Scott Elbert still has a chance, yet has proven little and probably won’t make the club out of camp. The same goes for Xavier Paul, who has potential but is a third outfielder at best, and likely to end up elsewhere anyway. There was also Russ Mitchell, who many tried to sell as “the next Casey Blake” but whom I see as a bench piece at best. The only young player who debuted over the last two years who really made any impact is Kenley Jansen, and his ascendence was something of an out-of-nowhere story, considering his catching conversion.

That’s not so much an indictment of the farm system as much as it is a cyclical fact of life; if you graduate as many quality players as the Dodgers did several years ago, you’re almost certainly going to have a gap until the next class is ready. But while we’re probably still at least a year away from seeing the next group push through to the majors, 2011 is a notable year because many of the names we’ve been hearing about are likely to make the move to AAA, putting them just one step away from the bigs. That includes Jerry Sands, a late-round pick who has destroyed every stop of the minors. It includes Trayvon Robinson, who had a breakout 2010 and is probably the closest to being big-league ready of this group. At some point during the season, it’ll include Dee Gordon, who’s unrefined but undeniably exciting. It may even include Rubby De La Rosa, the organization’s 2010 minor league pitcher of the year who turned heads with his exciting 2010.

Again, it’s probably premature to expect much big-league impact from them this year, other than possible September cameos by Sands and Robinson, but 2011 will go a long way towards seeing if the answers of the next few years can come from within or not.

6) Vin Scully is still here. No explanation required. It doesn’t matter if this team wins 10 games or 100, as long as Vin’s calling them, it’s worth listening to.

******

What have I missed? What causes for hope are exciting you for the upcoming season?

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  1. [...] don’t quite understand why guys like this bother with the Dodgers this year, though. As I mentioned the other day, the pitching depth is excellent – something like fifteen deep, and maybe only one spot open [...]

  2. [...] blogs go, Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness is tops in my opinion.  This week they look at the six reasons to be optimistic about the [...]

  3. [...] on Valentine’s Day, no less, so I must have been feeling particularly forgiving – I listed six reasons for optimism in 2011. I don’t think I’d get much of an argument right now if I said that five of the six [...]

  4. [...] Back in February, I included him among the six reasons for optimism headed into the season: Last year he made a marked improvement in his major weakness by walking 10 fewer batters despite pitching 30 more innings than in 2009. Don’t forget, he’s not even 23 yet. I’ve been arguing that he turned potential into performance last year, but the greater accolades haven’t quite come yet because of his mediocre (and pointless) win-loss record. This is the year that the greater baseball world recognizes Kershaw in his rightful place as one of the dominant starters in the game. [...]

  5. [...] with Ned Colletti) putting together a coaching staff including Wallach & Davey Lopes that we felt far, far better about than the old-school curmudgeon types like Larry Bowa and Bob Schaefer that Torre had the previous [...]

  6. [...] Reasons for Optimism in 2011″, February 14, 2011: So why am I high on Kemp? It’s because all of the signs are pointing in the right direction. [...]

  7. [...] how highly we thought of him even before the season, recall that he was #1 on my list of “Six Reasons for Optimism in 2011“: 1) Clayton Kershaw. You hardly need me to revisit all the ways in which Kershaw is awesome; [...]

  8. [...] way, Kershaw wins the award and is absolutely deserving of the honor. Before the season, I noted that his pedestrian win/loss record over the previous two seasons had somewhat held him [...]

  9. [...] that? Good. Now let’s recall how we felt about the 2010-11 offseason back in Februrary: I’ll be the first to say that this hasn’t exactly been the brightest offseason around here. [...]

  10. [...] it’s not all doom & gloom around here, so with a nod to last year’s attempt at finding some hope ahead of what looks like it could be an uninspiring season… here’s [...]

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