The MSTI 15-Step Plan for 2012

It’s time for another edition of the yearly plan, in which I put on my GM hat and try to piece together a competitive 2012 club using realistic payroll and player restrictions. Before we start, I have to be honest: this was so much harder to do than it’s ever been. In previous years, I’ve looked forward to putting on the GM hat and thinking up interesting and realistic ideas to improve the next year’s team, but doing it this time was a struggle. Though the uncertain budget thanks to the McCourt mess is part of it, an even bigger problem is that there’s just not much out there. The free agent list is sparse, and while there’s values to be had in the trade market, the Dodgers have little of interest that they can move without opening up a new hole.

I thought about all kinds of possibilities. Perhaps the #5 starter hole could be filled by buying low (extremely low) on previously-successful veterans who have fallen out of favor and would be heavily subsidized, like Derek Lowe or John Lackey (before it was announced he’d miss 2012). Maybe there was some way to get the Red Sox to give up Jed Lowrie or Will Middlebrooks to help stabilize second or third base. Perhaps a package including Chad Billingsley could be sent to Kansas City for Alex Gordon, though the Royals are unlikely to be interested in such a deal and that would just open up another rotation hole anyway. Maybe 2005 Jeff Kent could rise from the dead and return to the Dodgers, because the second base market is a total mess. Is it worth believing that Aaron Hill or Kelly Johnson can come back from down years to reclaim past glory at the keystone? Or maybe you could go cheap elsewhere and pray that Aramis Ramirez, nearing his mid-30s, is worth the ~$40m he’s likely to get to play third base?

In the end, little of it made sense, at least in any way that would be realistic for the other team, because I like to think this blog isn’t the home of “I’ll trade you Mike MacDougal for Ian Kinsler!” type solutions. The Dodgers are boxed in by criminal ownership, too much dead money owed to long-departed players, ballooning payments to poor investments like Juan Uribe & Matt Guerrier, and outside alternatives that are less than ideal. Perhaps Ned Colletti wasn’t that far off when he suggested that he was generally okay with the current roster, because he had done this work already and knew that there was unlikely to be much movement.

Then again, perhaps he’s just not being creative.

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The first question, of course, is how much do the Dodgers have to spend on payroll in 2012? It’s a question that’s almost impossible to answer right now, a problem Colletti has as much admitted to. In 2011, they spent about $98m on players, plus about $17m in “dead” money, for a total of ~$115m. Without revealing how much, this Tony Jackson interview with Ned Colletti claims that “all indications are it will be higher than the roughly $98 million it was this year.” Let’s guess that means an extra $5m, so that’ll put us to a $120m cap including the dead money. I’ve seen the arguments that the longer the ownership dispute drags on, the more likely it is that the payroll decreases by tens of millions of dollars, but I’m not buying it; it’s in no one’s best interest for the value of the Dodgers to go down any further than it already has, and MLB has been consistent about claiming it will be “business as usual” for the Dodgers this winter – whatever that means.

Of course, that doesn’t really mean there’s $120m available to spend. The Dodgers still have about $21m in deferred money committed to the dearly departed, including Manny Ramirez ($8m), Juan Pierre ($3m), Andruw Jones ($3.375m), Rafael Furcal ($3m), and Hiroki Kuroda ($2m), and also including the already-exercised buyouts of Casey Blake ($1.25m) and Jon Garland ($1.5m). So that $120m figure is already down to $99m.
Dead money: $120m – $21m = $99m

Then there’s the money already committed to members of the 2012 club, and here’s where the back-loaded contracts of Juan Uribe ($8m) & Matt Guerrier ($4.75m) really come back to bite us in the ass, making them look even more brutal than the day they were signed. While Ted Lilly at least finished 2011 strong, his salary increases from $7.5m to $12m in 2012, a whole more than I really want to pay him. That, plus the $9m owed to Chad Billingsley, eats up $33.7m of the $99m, leaving us with $65.3m to play with.
Committed money: $99m – $33.7m = $65.3m

But we’re not done yet, because several key members of the core are without contracts yet under team control in 2012. It’s sometimes difficult to guess what will come out of arbitration hearings, so for now we’ll go with Eric Stephen of TrueBlueLA‘s guesses that Clayton Kershaw will get $8m, Andre Ethier will get $12m, and Matt Kemp will get $13m. (The TBLA payroll sheet is an invaluable resource not just for this piece, but all year long.) I hate the idea of giving Ethier that much, but now, when his value is at a low, is no time to trade him. We’ll see about changing those numbers later, and there are definitely other arbitration decisions to be made, but the $33m we just said goodbye to means that with just seven spots on the roster set, we’ve already got $87.7m spoken for, leaving $32.3m to fill out 18 other spots. See how quickly $100m can go?
Arbitration money: $65.3m – $33m = $32.3m

Finally, let’s dedicate about $3m in minimum salary contracts to team-controlled 0-3 players who are almost certain to be on the roster next year – A.J. Ellis, Dee Gordon, Jerry Sands, Javy Guerra, Kenley Jansen, Josh Lindblom, Blake Hawksworth and Scott Elbert. Now we have fifteen spots at a cost of $90.9m, leaving us with $29.3m.
Controlled money: $32.3m – $3m = $29.3m

$29.3m, ten holes. What do you do? Here’s one man’s blueprint…

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1) Sign OF Matt Kemp to a long-term deal.

This should be obvious and in no way arguable. It’s the absolute #1 priority of the winter, no matter what else happens. You can argue how much and over how many years – that’s a conversation for another time - but don’t forget that he’s still under team control for 2012, so the Dodgers retain some leverage. We’ll assume that whatever deal he gets is somewhat backloaded and settle on $12m for next year, more than he made in 2011 but less than he’d probably get in arbitration, which should be fine considering he’ll have the security of a long-term deal.
$29.3m +$1m = $30.3m (since I already accounted for him as $13m above)

2) Sign 1B Prince Fielder to a six-year, $140m deal.

I went back and forth on this one – a lot. I even wrote about the likelihood of Fielder or Albert Pujols arriving a few weeks ago and concluded that it was neither likely or advisable, simply because I don’t like the idea of tying up so much money into one player, especially when that’s going to need to happen for Kemp and Kershaw as well. Even just theoretically talking about it makes me a bit uncomfortable, because it’s so risky. If you want to make the argument that this money is best spent elsewhere, I’m more than open to it.

In the end, I settled on going for it in this exercise because the other options were simply so unattractive. Believe me, I had a whole lot of iterations of this article where I was trying to believe in James Loney and then working on other ways to upgrade. Since it’s hard to see any way to improve at 2B or 3B, your hopes for the infield were to either have to count on Loney to repeat the last six weeks of his season after four years of mediocrity, or overpay for a veteran like Derrek Lee or Lyle Overbay who is unlikely to be much better. There’s a big argument to be made that one year of Loney at $6m is a steal if he hits like he did to finish the season; there’s an even bigger argument to be made that if he doesn’t, you’re once again saddled with an infield that has almost no power whatsoever. If you’re going to try to contend in 2012, and I would argue that having Kemp & Kershaw means you are, then you need to make a move – in addition to the desperately needed positive PR that such a signing would bring.

Besides, it’s the perfect time to go after a Fielder because the traditional big spenders likely won’t be around to drive up the price. The Yankees and Red Sox are each heavily invested at first base and have bigger needs, especially in pitching. The Phillies are about to start a (hilarious) $125m extension with Ryan Howard; even though he’s hurt, their replacement there would be short-term, and the Cardinals will likely just retain Pujols. The Angels probably won’t jump in considering they already have both Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales on hand; the Rangers could be a fit but probably need to focus on pitching. You could definitely see the Cubs being interested, though it’s hard to know what their winter of transition will bring; the Braves definitely need a bat but seem happy with Freddie Freeman at first base. The best possibilities are probably Washington and Baltimore, but the Nats already have Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche under contract for first base and have been burned by the first year of Jayson Werth‘s massive deal; the O’s don’t even have a GM yet and probably have bigger concerns than first base. That’s not to say that Prince won’t get paid, because he will, just that it’s not likely to be the $200m+ figure I’ve seen thrown around.

In addition, Fielder’s relative youth (he’ll still be just 27 on Opening Day of 2012) means that the back-end of a six-year deal would be his age 32-33 seasons, not 35-36. That’s still young enough that you’ll be purchasing most of his prime, not most of his decline, and that’s a big deal considering the concerns about his body type. While I’m admittedly loathe to give up first round picks for free agents, Fielder at least has the potential to be the kind of franchise changer that could make it worth it (and yes, I’m looking at you, Orlando Hudson). Whether the 6/$140m is close or not – I really just made it up without an overwhelming amount of research, so it could be something like 7/$160m instead - it’ll clearly be backloaded, so we’ll start with $13.5m in 2012 as we wait a year or two for other obligations and the ownership crisis to clear. While there’s certainly a very good argument to be made that adding another huge long-term contract to a team that will need to pay Kemp and Kershaw is dangerous, there’s a lot of money coming off the books after 2013, when Lilly, Uribe, and Guerrier (combining to make about ~$25m that year) all figure to be gone, in addition to being free of further payments to Manny. That’s on top of the money you get back assuming that Ethier is no longer with the team after 2012.
$30.3m - $13.5m = $16.8m

3) Trade RP Javy Guerra, SP Chris Withrow, and 2B Ivan DeJesus to Florida for LF/1B Logan Morrison.

This is another one I went back and forth on a lot, initially considering Morrison for first base rather than left field. Then, after getting Fielder, I figured, what the hell – why not try for both? Morrison’s spat with Marlins management is well-known, leading to a brief demotion this summer, and with reports that ownership is ready to take more control over player decisions, it’s not hard to see them wanting to be rid of the outspoken Twitter hero as soon as they can. That makes him an appealing buy-low target, since as he enters his age-24 season, he’s coming off a 2010 in which he had a .390 OBP and a 2011 in which he hit 23 homers. (The obvious comeback there is, “well, he hasn’t done both at the same time, since he hit just 2 homers in 2010 and had a .330 OBP in 2011.” Both true, however his age and his minor league track record suggest otherwise, especially considering that much of his power loss in 2010 can be put on a broken wrist, an injury notorious for sapping power for at least a year, and his 2011 BABIP was quite low before ending the year with a fantastic September.)

Of course, “buy low” does not mean “trade garbage or expensive contracts to Florida”, because he’s low-priced and productive, and so that’s why I’m taking the possibly unpopular route of trading last season’s surprise rookie closer, Guerra. It’s not that I don’t like Guerra, because he was an out of nowhere success story, but if you’re making a trade, you need to deal from depth – and nowhere do the Dodgers have more depth than in young, righty relievers. Besides, Guerra’s high on my list for regression in 2012; his .261 BABIP was on the low side this year, his 4.07 xFIP was a lot less impressive than his 2.31 ERA, and his minor league history doesn’t shout superstar. That’s not to say that he can’t succeed or that I’m desperate to be rid of him, because that’s not true – just that saves are almost always overrated in the marketplace and it might be the best use of Guerra’s value to trade him at the peak of his perceived attractiveness, especially when the Dodgers have Kenley Jansen able to step in and several other young relievers ready to come up.

On the Florida side, they have a big hole in the bullpen thanks to the identity fraud scandal of Leo Nunez (or Juan Carlos Oviedo, Armen Tanzarian, Theodore Donald Karabotsos, or whatever he’s calling himself these days), and the Fish have never been big players in the market, so five more cost-controlled years of Guerra should be appealing. They also get a lottery ticket in Withrow, showing signs of life with 9.1 K/9 in AA last year, though still struggling with his control, and DeJesus, who seems to have little future in Los Angeles but shouldn’t be written off completely since he’s still only 24 and shows good on-base skills in the minors. (As always, the prospects could be replaced by anyone of similar value – it doesn’t have to be exactly these guys – but you get the idea. If they prefer Brian Cavazos-Galvez or Ethan Martin or Kyle Russell or someone instead, fine.)
$16.8m – $0m = $16.8m (Morrison would take Guerra’s 0-3 slot for a similar salary)

4) Don’t try to trade Andre Ethier – at least not now.

Believe me, there’s plenty of good reasons to move Ethier. He’s a bit overrated. He’s cranky. He’s coming off surgery. He can’t hit lefties. He’s not a great defender. When he’s a free agent after 2012, he’s a lower priority than Kemp and Kershaw, and not someone I want to sign to an expensive long-term deal as he enters his decline phase. I totally agree with all of this. However, now’s not the right time to do it. For all of those reasons plus the ~$12m cost for one year before losing him to free agency, I really don’t think the return is out there that we’d want. Even if teams would take the one year of Ethier for that price with all of the issues, it’s unlikely that anyone would give a top prospect in return.

Besides, I expect big things from Ethier in 2012. He’ll be healthy for the first time in a while, and headed into a contract year he should be especially motivated – and Ethier is exactly the type of “chip on my shoulder” player who really responds to that sort of thing. If he’s playing well and the Dodgers are out of it in July, you might be able to get a good prospect in return then (like the Mets getting Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran). If the Dodgers are still in it, you ride it out, try to win, and then collect two draft picks when he leaves.
$16.8m – $0m = $16.8m

5) Sign 3B/UT Wilson Betemit to a one-year, $1.5m deal.

Unfortunately, Uribe is going to be the starting third baseman in 2012. There’s just no way around it. Even if we didn’t have Fielder eating up a huge part of the hypothetical payroll, third base is just a black hole on the market, unless you want to overpay Ramirez or risk a ton of prospects on David Wright. Since Uribe’s going to get paid, he’s going to be the man, but you also can’t risk not having an alternative in case he repeats his 2011.

That’s a tough spot to fill. No one who thinks he’s a full-time starter is going to come to LA for a small contract and the possibility of riding the bench, but most of the available bench types are like Aaron Miles, stopgaps who provide little value. That brings us to Betemit, who I advocated acquiring in the 2011 plan. All he ended up doing was hit .285/.343/.452 for Kansas City and Detroit, albeit with subpar defense. But that’s kind of a perfect fit, isn’t it? Uribe may or may not be able to hit, but even in his lost 2011 he was a solid defender, and Betemit provides the yin to that yang. Besides, the switch-hitting Betemit has a massive platoon split (vs RHP, .865 OPS in 2011, .817 career; vs LHP, .607 OPS in 2011, .684 career) which makes him an intriguing bench piece and/or part-time replacement for Uribe. In emergencies, he can play first and second as well, nice flexibility even if it’s hopefully not needed. Betemit made $1m last year, so let’s give him a slight raise. (An alternative here is Eric Chavez, who I liked last season, if he chooses to play in 2012.)
$16.8m – $1.5m = $15.3m

6) Bring back C Rod Barajas on a one-year, $1.5m deal.

Let’s start with this: you absolutely cannot enter the season with A.J. Ellis & Tim Federowicz as your backstop duo, no matter what Ned Colletti says. Federowicz isn’t ready now (if he will be at all) and needs to play regularly at AAA. Even if you’re a bigger fan of him than I am, you still can’t get by with only two catchers who have combined for less than a full season of MLB play.

Now, I thought about Ramon Hernandez here, though I eventually decided against him because he’s a Type A free agent and may get a two-year deal. I thought about Ryan Doumit to add some switch-hitting pop, but was turned off by his atrocious defense and possible salary demands since he made over $6m last year. In the end, there’s no available difference maker who is really likely to matter, so even though I don’t really want to, we’ll take advantage of Barajas’ stated preference to remain a Dodger and let him do so at a discounted rate. It’s not sexy, and he’s not all that good, but he’s at least got power and the state of catching is so poor that a Barajas/Ellis duo could actually be slightly above average. On this team, Ellis starts 4-5 days a week, not Barajas.
$15.3m – $1.5m = $13.8m

7) Bring back 2B Jamey Carroll for two years and $4m.

This actually scares the hell out of me, and I don’t really like doing it, much as I like Carroll. He’s got absolutely zero power and he’ll be 38 in February; to be honest, I hate everything about this. That said, the second base market is absolutely god awful. My version of the Dodgers can neither afford nor count on Hill or Johnson, and Carroll at least offers on-base skills and decent enough defense. Along with Sellers, he’s also a fallback position in case Gordon flails or is injured; I don’t want to give Carroll two years, yet that’s probably what the market will demand. Ideally, he could get through one more year as a solid OBP guy, and then a better 2B option emerges for 2013, allowing Carroll to spend the second year as the utility guy he really ought to be.
$13.8m – $2m = $11.8m

8) Hedge your bets with Jerry Sands.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve acquired a first baseman and a left fielder, which doesn’t leave a spot for Sands, who finished 2011 so well. In reality, when the Dodgers don’t get a player at either position, I’m more than fine with Sands getting first crack at left field. That said, he’s not enough of a slam-dunk prospect that you simply hand him the job with no backup plan better than a Tony Gwynn, so in this scenario he’ll be able to get playing time in both outfield corners, since Morrison and Ethier are both lefties (even moreso if Morrison is needed to fill in at first base from time to time), and as the main bat off the bench. If he continues to prove himself worthy, you let him step in for Ethier in right field when Andre is traded in July or moves on after 2012. Or, if that makes you uncomfortable, you let him play every day in AAA until injuries pile up.
$11.8m – $0m = $11.8m

9) Round out the bench with minimum-salary deals for IF Justin Sellers and OF Jamie Hoffmann.

Here’s where the big deal for Fielder bites you a little bit, because you no longer have the flexibility to carry much more than minimum salary types on the bottom of the roster. I would really have liked to have gone out and found some intriguing buy-low types like David DeJesus here; unfortunately, it’s just not feasible now. I’ve been pessimistic of Sellers’ ability to hit at the big league level, but he has a solid glove at both middle infield positions, and entering his age-26 season, he’s not enough of a prospect to worry about needing to play every day. Hoffmann is someone I’d like to do better than, yet he’ll be useful because this roster would desperately need a plus defender, and I’d prefer Hoffmann over Gwynn because he hits righty, which is preferable when you’ve got two starting lefty corner outfielders.
$11.8m – $0.8m = $11m

10) Bring back SP Hiroki Kuroda for one year and $9m ($2m deferred).

This is a bit risky, because Kuroda will be 37 years old in February and was slowed by neck pain for the last few weeks of the season. But he’s also coming off the best year of his career, and the Dodgers have a special gift here in that he’s almost certain to favor them over any other team (assuming he chooses to come back, of course). There’s also no one on the market likely to give the type of production we’ve seen from Kuroda for just a one-year deal, either, so if he’s willing to return, we should be happy to have him for one more season.
$11m – $7m = $4m

11) Sign SP Erik Bedard to a one-year, $2m deal, with the opportunity to add a good deal of incentives.

Bedard is almost never healthy for a full season (missed 2010, hasn’t thrown more than 129 innings since 2007), yet is almost always effective when he is. We saw that again this year, where he missed 45 days with two separate injuries (both to his knee, rather than his arm) but put up a 3.62 ERA that was matched by the advanced stats and a 125/48 K/BB for Seattle and Boston, making $1m while doing so.

As he reaches his age-33 season, and with his history, it’s unlikely that anyone is offering him big guaranteed money this winter, so he could be available for a low base price plus incentives. (It’s also possible that I’m completely low-balling this.)

If we accept the fact that he absolutely will miss some time and don’t get disappointent when it happens, I’d rather spend $2m guaranteed to get ~15 good starts from him and ~10 starts from fill-ins rather than ~30 mediocre starts from the 6th-8th starters.
$4m – $2m = $2m

12) Sign SP Rich Harden to a one-year, $1m deal.

I can hear the hesitation now. “Harden is constantly hurt, to the point where a proposed deal that would have sent him to Boston this summer fell apart over concerns about his medicals. He threw just 174.2 innings over the last two seasons combined, and his ERAs the last two years have been 5.58 and 5.12. Why in the hell would you want him?”

Well, I always like a lottery ticket, and as Harden enters his age-30 season, he seems like a perfect candidate to fill the relief ace/spot starter role that Vicente Padilla was supposed to have in 2011. Despite Harden’s ugly ERA last year, his xFIP was merely 3.68, with a 91/31 K/BB in 82.2 innings. His home run rate is admittedly troubling, but hey, we’re talking about a guy on a $1m deal here. If Bedard & Harden can combine for 25-30 decent starts for $3m plus incentives at the back of your rotation, that’s value even if they combine for 100 days on the disabled list. And if they both blow up? Well, at least you took the chance on talent over assured mediocrity, and it’s only $3m.
$2m – $1m = $1m

13) Buy a coach-class ticket to non-tender city for Loney and Hong-Chih Kuo.

Loney made this a pretty tough call with his hot end to 2011, and let me say that in the real world, the one in which the Dodgers aren’t really going to get Prince Fielder, I think he’s going to be tendered a contract to give him one more chance to prove his worth. Though I’d be positive that he’d succeed if he landed somewhere else, there’s no room for a $6m pinch-hitter on this club. (Obviously, trading him would be preferable to non-tendering, though I’m not sure any other club is taking that $6m gamble either.)

Kuo is the longest-tenured Dodger and I’d hate to see him go, but his 2011 struggles, long injury history, and yet another elbow surgery last week mean that risking a raise on his $2.73m salary in arbitration is foolish. If he does want to play and doesn’t want to risk turning his arm over to a new training staff who doesn’t know him well, he might be willing to come back on a reduced contract; you could argue that he should get Harden’s $1m allotted above, or you might even get lucky and get him back on a non-guaranteed deal.

14) Say goodbye to 2011 free agents Juan Rivera, Casey Blake, Tony Gwynn, Jay GibbonsAaron Miles, Eugenio Velez, Jon GarlandDana Eveland, Vicente Padilla, Mike MacDougal, and Jonathan Broxton.

Let’s caveat that by saying that if you can get any of these guys back (except Velez, who should be extradited from the country) on a minor-league deal to fight for a job in camp, then by all means do so – particularly Padilla, who has always been surprisingly effective as a Dodger when healthy. I’m guessing that’s unlikely to happen for most of them, who will merit at least a small major-league deal. In reality, I expect that Rivera, MacDougal, and Miles will all return, but there’s just no room for them on my hypothetical team.

15) Turn Pedro Baez into a pitcher. Come on already.

Yeah, I said this last season too, arguing that Baez’ rocket arm wasn’t going to be enough to get him to the bigs as a third baseman, especially considering that despite being old for the competition in the offensively-oriented California League, he managed just a .306 OBP and six homers in 2010. So what did he do this year to follow it up? He played in just 32 AA games, hitting .210/.278/.381, and missed the entire season after May with an injury. (Which, to be honest, I have not been able to identify.) I’m not saying it’s any sort of guarantee that such a conversion works out like it did for Jansen, but it basically is a guarantee that Baez never becomes a big leaguer as a third baseman. It’s worth a shot for both sides.

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So what does this leave us with? A lineup that could look like this…

2B Carroll-R
LF Morrison-L
CF Kemp-R
1B Fielder-L
RF Ethier-L
3B Uribe-R
C Ellis-R
SS Gordon-S

BN: Barajas-R, Betemit-S, Sellers-R, Sands-R, Hoffmann-R

Though I know the real team would never actually let Carroll lead off and put Gordon 8th, that’s where I’m putting them due to their respective OBP skills. It’s amazing how much Fielder and Morrison lengthen that lineup, isn’t it, and how much better does that look than last year when we were forced to depend on Uribe, Dioner Navarro, Casey Blake, Marcus Thames, and Jay Gibbons? While the bench is less than sexy, that’s what you have to live with if you dedicate so much payroll to one or two expensive players. However, Sellers and Hoffmann are each excellent defenders, and could really come in handy replacing Gordon/Carroll and Morrison/Ethier for defensive purposes in the late innings. Betemit & Barajas would provide offense, if used correctly, and protection. At AAA, you’d still likely have Federowicz, Russ MitchellTrent Oeltjen, Alex Castellanos, Scott Van Slyke and whatever NRIs you pick up (Andy LaRoche, anyone?) along with others for depth.

Then your pitching staff would look like this…

1) Kershaw
2) Kuroda
3) Billingsley
4) Lilly
5) Bedard

CL Jansen
R Lindblom
R Guerrier
R Hawksworth
R Harden
L Elbert
NRI / Kuo / Padilla / Troncoso

I’d be a whole lot more comfortable with another ace in that rotation, but I guess that’s what happens when you give $33m to Ted Lilly. If and when Bedard breaks down, you could either move up Harden or bring up Nathan Eovaldi, John Ely, or your yearly veteran non-roster guy like Dana Eveland – if not Eveland himself. (I kind of like Dontrelle Willis as an NRI; look past his W/L record for Cincinnati and he actually had a decent year.) Later in the year, a younger starter like Allen Webster could be a factor, or even Rubby De La Rosa depending on the progress of his recovery. The bullpen could look forward to possibilities like Shawn Tolleson, Cole St. Clair, Steve Ames, and whatever random veteran NRI shows up in camp.

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So that’s it. I’ve been staring at this for weeks and I’m still not sure I’m happy with it. Is it foolish to think that signing Fielder is even possible? Perhaps. Am I unintentionally low-balling what Bedard or Betemit might actually get, because I don’t want to give them more? Maybe so, and I didn’t get Kershaw signed long-term (though I suppose you could also do that and structure it so that it doesn’t affect 2012 that much). Either way, this is a team that could be built, in theory, for something close to what the Dodgers can spend, and it’d likely be a lot more competitive and interesting than what they have now. Compare this to some of the fantastic plans you all thought up over the weekend, and then let’s not try to be too disappointed when the big moves in reality are to bring back Rivera and sign Yuniesky Betancourt.

Open Thread: 2012 Rosterbation


Now that the 2011 season is officially over, I’ll finally post my 2012 plan on Monday, which I’ve been going back and forth on for weeks. (Last year, I think I posted it before the reviews even started.) I’m putting that out there partly to motivate myself to actually finish and publish it, because as you can imagine, this year’s has been incredibly difficult, and that’s not just because of the ownership situation – the free agent market just looks to be deeply barren beyond the obvious big two first basemen. I can’t even say it was fun to do, but I’ve done it, and you’ll get a look at it on Monday.

But before we get to that, here’s a fun weekend exercise: what would you do if given the chance to play GM? Taking into account 2012 money committed to players like Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley, Matt Guerrier, & Juan Uribe, minimum salaries for eight likely young players like Dee Gordon, Kenley Jansen & friends, dead money to those long gone, and expected arbitration hits for Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, and Andre Ethier, the Dodgers could have something like $30m remaining to spend on ten holes. That’s a team with three starting pitchers, no first baseman (you’ll notice I didn’t include James Loney in the arbitration list, because that decision is up to you), no second baseman, and question marks at third base, left field, and behind the plate.

So have a try in the comments. Sign free agents. Make trades to fill holes. Sign contract extensions to reallocate 2012 dollars. There’s only one rule – it’s got to be at least somewhat based in reality. The payroll isn’t suddenly going to be $200m. Trent Oeltjen isn’t getting traded for Robinson Cano. Albert Pujols isn’t signing for two years and $5m. And for crying out loud, Loney isn’t playing third base. The goal is to come up with a 25-man roster that’s within reasonable budgetary limits, which I’m setting at $100m not including dead money.

Whomever gets closest to my actual plan wins the usual prize of absolutely nothing. Have at it.

A Look Back At Matt Guerrier’s Contract


As I go through the pitching staff for the 2011 Review series, I’m usually writing a few days ahead of what’s being posted, just because it takes so much work to go back through the full season of posts for each player. Though you probably won’t be seeing Matt Guerrier‘s review (grouped with Jonathan Broxton and Blake Hawksworth) until next week, this morning I started writing it, and it’s filled with basically what you’d expect it would be – “not bad, generally decent, wildly overpaid, hate his contract.” No surprises there.

But what I’d forgotten about until I started doing the research was that not only did we dislike the Guerrier contract simply because of the time-tested rule of “multi-year deals to non-elite relievers never, ever work out well” – which remains true - but because other free agent relievers like Grant Balfour, Kyle Farnsworth, Brian Fuentes, and Jon Rauch ended up signing elsewhere for less years and money, and in most cases they were pitchers we considered better than Guerrier at the time:

All four signed deals that were less in total value than the Dodgers gave to Guerrier earlier this offseason. You can make the argument that all four are better pitchers, too.

No, really.

Guerrier’s the only one who hasn’t managed a FIP below 4 in either of the last two years, and he’s also got the highest tERA (which is similar to FIP, but includes weights based on batted ball types) as well. He’s next to last as far as K/BB ratio goes to Fuentes; however, Fuentes was superior in OPS allowed in 2010 (.607 to .625) and is also absolute murder on lefties, which is exactly the need I was contemplating in my post about lefty relievers.

If you have to sign a reliever, and you hand out the most years and dollars amongst a group of rough comparables, shouldn’t you be confident that you got the best of the group? And if not the “best”, at least not “possibly the worst”?

Now that we’ve got a year of data, we can check back and see how accurate that assumption was. But then, why stop at four names I somewhat randomly chose to compare Guerrier to before the offseason was even over when we can look back upon the entire collection?

In the winter of 2010-11, 32 relievers signed MLB deals that took them to a new team, with the average contract length being 1.6 years for $3.08m per year. (Once I remove Rafael Soriano from that, which I’m going to do because his insane 3/$35m contract is a massive outlier that completely skews the results, almost certainly came down from ownership and not Brian Cashman, and was hated by most smart Yankee fans at the time, those averages drop to 1.59 years and $2.8m per.) Of the remaining 31, only three other than Guerrier received three-year deals (Joaquin Benoit in Detroit, Scott Downs in Anaheim, Jesse Crain in Chicago), and only those three exceeded the $12m total that Guerrier recieved (though Bobby Jenks matched it on a two-year deal in Boston).

For Guerrier’s contract to have made any sort of sense, he’d need to have given a performance that ranked him among the top 10-15% of the 31 relievers from last year we’re looking at. (I will grant this is somewhat unfair because Guerrier still has two more years left to prove himself, but that’s sort of the point; if an equal or superior reliever could have been had on a one- or two-year deal, it makes his deal look even worse.)

So let’s peruse FanGraphs for Guerrier’s ranking among those peers in some of the stats more relevant to relievers, and no, there’s no mention of holds or saves here.

K/BB
Best: J.J. Putz, 5.08
Worst: Sean Green, 1.17
22nd of 31: Guerrier, 2.00

Swinging Strike %
Best: Benoit, 13.7%
Worst: Arthur Rhodes, 6.2%
4th of 31: Guerrier, 11.8%

LOB%
Best: Balfour, 89%
Worst: Green, 60%
30th of 31: Guerrier, 67.6%

FIP
Best: Putz, 2.54
Worst: Rhodes, 5.90
12th of 31: Guerrier, 3.43

tERA
Best: Putz, 2.40
Worst: Jeremy Accardo, 5.82
7th of 31: Guerrier, 3.28

WPA
Best: Putz, 3.51
Worst: D.J. Carrasco, -1.16
28th of 31: Guerrier, -0.96

Shutdowns (definition)
Best: Putz, 35
Worst: Green/J.C. Romero, 1
15th of 31: Guerrier, 17

Meltdowns (definition)
Best: Jose Contreras, 1
Worst: Guerrier, 18

As you can see, Guerrier ranks all over the place. He missed a surprising amount of bats for someone without that kind of reputation, which is nice, as was his decent placement in the advanced run metrics. Of course, being one of the worst at LOB% and the absolute worst at “meltdowns” (if you didn’t read the definition, it’s when a reliever makes his team at least 6% more likely to lose) isn’t exactly what you hoped for when spending the money.

And that’s really the entire point, isn’t it? Guerrier had his uses, and he’s deserving of a place in the Dodger bullpen – no one’s arguing that he needs to be dumped or shipped off immediately, that he was some sort of Juan Uribe in the relief corps. But as I continue to struggle with my 2012 plan (which I’m probably on iteration #76 of right now), the backloaded ~$4.7m for Guerrier sticks out, particularly when he’s likely no better than the 4th best reliever in the bullpen.

Considering how many relievers were as successful or moreso than Guerrier for less years, dollars, or both, it’s safe to say that this is one we should all wish we had back, perhaps even more so than we initally felt when he first signed it.  Now let’s just try to not repeat that mistake this year, could we?

MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Starting Pitchers, Part 2

Chad Billingsley (C-)
4.21 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 7.3 K/9, 4.0 BB/9

Billingsley just never makes it easy on us, does he? When he signed a new contract just before Opening Day that ties him to the Dodgers through 2014, most of us roundly applauded it as being a reasonable deal for both sides which give the Dodgers some degree of stability in their starting rotation. Through the first half of the season,that seemed to be working out well for all involved, as Billingsley threw out mostly consistent starts with a few outstanding ones (11 Ks over 8 scoreless against St. Louis in April, for example), though the medicore Dodger offense meant he was rarely repaid with victories, picking up just two in his first ten starts. That meant I was dropping lines like this on a consistent basis:

(Obligatory: 11 K’s, 8 shutout innings, and no win. This is why he’s going to end up 13-11 and people are going to say he was just okay this year.)

Billingsley began June with a bit of a rough patch, failing to go more than five innings in any of his first three starts, allowing four, six, and seven earned runs, though he still got a W in the first one because he homered, doubled, and walked. He turned it around by allowing just four earned runs over his next four outings – just about the time A.J. Ellis started catching more of his starts, though I’m loathe to put too much credit there – and by the time our midseason reviews rolled around, we were relatively happy with him:

Chad Billingsley (B) (8-7, 3.87 ERA, 3.41 FIP)
Over at Baseball Prospectus this morning, Geoff Young of DuckSnorts offers the opinion that Billingsley “should be a star, but isn’t”. And that’s true. 26-year-old Billingsley is walking more and striking out less than 23-year-old Billingsley did in 2008. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because he’s still a very valuable asset and the extension he signed over the winter was welcomed, but he’s also not going to be a Kershaw-level star like we’d once hoped he would be. Again, that’s not to get on Billingsley, it’s just seemingly who he’s going to be – a durable #2 or 3 type who will be consistently inconsistent (3 starts this year of at least 8 IP and 1 ER or less, 3 starts allowing 5 ER or more). That’s not a star, but it is a quality pitcher we should be happy to have.

But in his first start after the break, he allowed five runs in San Francisco. He bounced back by striking out 10 Nationals in next start, yet he bottomed out by not striking out a single hitter on August 10 against Philadelphia as the Dodgers blew a huge lead to lose, 9-8:

As for the bad news, let’s start at the top: Chad Billingsley never had it today. You’ll almost certainly read stories about how Billingsley “can’t pitch with a lead”, but that’s BS: he threw 30 pitches while struggling through the first inning, before the Dodgers even came to the plate. This is the fourth time in Billingsley’s career that he’s failed to strike out a single batter, and the first time this year, but it continues a disturbing trend: he’s struck out just six over his last three starts, after whiffing 10 Nationals on July 24.

While seven runs should always, always be enough for a starting pitcher, it’s also not like Billingsley got a whole lot of support from his defense. In the top of the fourth, he had two outs and Michael Martinez up; Martinez grounded to first, where it went off of Loney’s glove and putting Martinez on second. Worley, the next batter, singled home Martinez for the third Philly run. Should Billingsley have been able to retire the opposing pitcher? Absolutely he should have, but he’s also out of the inning if Loney fields the ball.

The same situation happened in the fifth, as with one out and two on, Billingsley got Hunter Pence to hit a soft grounder to Casey Blake at third – the kind of ball that turns into an inning-ending double play 99 times out of 100. The ball kicked off of Blake’s glove into the outfield, and rather than getting out of the inning without any damage, Billingsley saw a run score on the error and then another when Kuo got Ryan Howard to ground out. None of this absolves Billingsley; nor should it be forgotten.

His seasonal inconsistency wasn’t limited to various starts, however; he would show it even within games, such as in his next time out on August 16:

All that being said, let’s not ignore the performance from Chad Billingsley, who got off to a rough start by allowing five baserunners in the first two innings (one, granted, on a Juan Rivera error), generally throwing a lot of pitches, and looking for all the world like he wouldn’t last beyond 3.2 innings. He then turned it around to retire nine in a row in the third, fourth, and fifth innings, ending up allowing just one run over seven innings. Coming off last week’s “99 pitches, no strikeouts, and unable to hold a 6-0 lead in 4.1 innings” disaster against the Phillies, being able to come back from an uneven start to keep the club in the game against a tough opponent was a pretty nice accomplishment.

And then again in his next start, on August 21:

Of course, all this focus on Loney obscures the bizarre day Chad Billingsley put forth in picking up his tenth loss of the season. With the bullpen in shambles, Billingsley absolutely, positively had to put up innings, something which has traditionally been tough for him in Colorado. When he allowed a Mark Ellis single and a Carlos Gonzalez homer within the first three batters of the game, you could almost hear the wheels turning to get Loney out to the bullpen. But Billingsley got Troy Tulowitzki and Jason Giambi to end the first, and then faced just one batter over the minimum through the next five innings. In fact, Billingsley went 7.2 innings, and allowed just one hit after the first frame; unfortunately, it was a Seth Smith homer to right, following a walk to Giambi, in the 7th inning. The non-Loney Dodgers managed just four hits against the corpse of Kevin Millwood, and that’s how Chad Billingsley allowed just three hits while going into the 8th inning in Colorado, yet still came away with the loss.

And that’s how it went. Billingsley managed to end the season by not allowing more than three earned runs in four of his final five starts, which is good, but never managed to look good doing it. With his velocity down and his strikeout rate heading in the wrong direction, many of us wondered if he was injured – he claimed it was “mechanical issues” – and even Don Mattingly called him out to continue to improve following the season.

Yet as unsatisfying as it all seemed, Billingsley’s 3.83 FIP ranked comfortably alongside names like Jon Lester, Derek Holland, Ryan Dempster, Shaun Marcum, and Hiroki Kuroda. I don’t know if Billingsley will ever be more than he is – if he can’t curb the declining whiff rate, he might even be less – yet nor was this season the disaster that many will think.

Billingsley remains a conundrum, consistently inconsistent.

 Rubby De La Rosa (A-)
3.71 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 8.9 K/9, 4.6 BB/9

Remember, while Rubby De La Rosa was the 2010 Dodger minor league pitcher of the year, he also had all of 8 AA games under his belt entering the season, so needless to say, we weren’t expecting a whole lot from him. But de la Rosa got off to such a good start in Chattanooga (52/19 K/BB in 40 innings) that he started to seem like a viable option as the injuries mounted in Los Angeles, to the point that we actually wondered why Scott Elbert got the call over him in May.

At the time, Ned Colletti claimed that RDLR would be the next man up if a starter was needed, but that he was not likely to be recalled to work out of the bullpen. Less than two weeks later, RDLR was indeed called up to join the relievers, reminding us once again that the public comments of any GM (not just Colletti) are never to be trusted. RDLR’s debut, May 24 in Houston, was notable because it featured Javy Guerra‘s first save and Jerry Sands‘ first grand slam. But let’s not forget how we felt about RDLR that night, when asking who had the best evening:

Rubby De La Rosa, who not only was recalled to make his major league debut, but held a one run lead in the 8th by blowing away the heart of the Houston order in Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee, and Brett Wallace?

RDLR made his first three appearances out of the bullpen, allowing just four of the 18 batters he faced to reach base, before being asked to join the rotation with a start in Philadelphia on June 7, which just so happened to also be the debut of Dee Gordon. As you might remember, we were excited:

Tonight in Philadelphia, Rubby De La Rosa will make his first MLB start. (As Joe Block notes, it’ll be just his 24th professional start since arriving in America.) Dee Gordon will likely make his first start at shortstop, though that’s not confirmed yet. (Update: now confirmed. He’s leading off, and Jerry Sands is in there too.)It’s a momentous day for both, and I’m trying to remember the last time we’ve looked forward to a Dodger game with such high anticipation. Ignoring Opening Day or other special events, when was the last otherwise nondescript regular season Dodger game that drew such interest? I suppose we have to mention Clayton Kershaw‘s debut in 2008 – “Like Christmas in May“, as I referred to it at the time. There’s also Manny Ramirez‘ Dodger debut later that year, or his return from suspension in May 2009. Other than that, though? Seeing Gordon and de la Rosa appear at the same time has to rank pretty high. This is all totally unscientific, of course, so tell me where this ranks for you.

His starting debut wasn’t the smoothest thing in the world, since he walked five of the first eleven Phillies and missed the plate with 11 of his first 19 pitches, but with some good luck and good defense he managed to make it through five innings allowing just one earned run. He continued that pattern of wildness over his first four starts, striking out 22 in 20.2 innings, yet also walking 15 and allowing 14 earned runs.

On June 29, something seemed to click, and sure, that “something” may very well have been the atrocious Minnesota offense:

The first batter Rubby De La Rosa faced in the bottom of the first inning of today’s matinee in Minnesota, Ben Revere, hit a triple to the right-center gap. The next batter, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, grounded out to score Revere and put the Twins up 1-0… and that was it. In what was unquestionably the most effective outing of his young career, de la Rosa pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings following Nishioka’s out (7 innings total), scattering just six hits over the day. Most impressively, de la Rosa issued just two free passes. It was both the first time in his career that he went more than six innings or walked less than three, and he did it against an American League lineup. (Yes, I know, the Twins are one of the worst offensive teams in the AL, but still.) Even better, he improved as the game went on. After escaping from danger in the second after allowing three men to reach, he set down 16 of the 20 remaining Twins he saw – one of which was an intentional walk to Revere.

Of course, he still collected a loss, as the Dodger offense was shut out. RDLR then walked just one Met on July 4, followed that up with six one-hit scoreless innings against San Diego on July 9, and then didn’t walk a single Giant on July 19. In the midst of that stretch, we started wondering about how many innings the Dodgers should let the young starter collect; two weeks later, we’d learn it didn’t matter.

On July 31, the Dodgers played a day game against Arizona, a game that few paid attention to as it came in the midst of the trading deadline craziness and the fallout of the Trayvon Robinson / Tim Federowicz deal. De la Rosa left after four innings, complaining of elbow tightness. We immediately thought the worst, and a few days later it was confirmed that he’d need Tommy John surgery and would likely miss most or all of 2012. At the time, we looked into whether this could have been avoided, and concluded that it probably couldn’t have been.

A few weeks ago, I looked at how far the club would let de la Rosa go, considering he was nearing his career high for innings pitched. At 100.2 combined this year, he didn’t even match 2010′s 110.1, though there’s evidence that MLB innings are more stressful than MiLB frames. Either way, I find it hard to blame the Dodgers for their handling of the young pitcher. He threw 100 pitches or more just three times, and only once did he go above 113; even on Sunday, he was still hitting the upper 90s and got six of the twelve outs he  managed via strikeouts. Though we probably will never know for sure, the injury likely happened during de la Rosa’s tough outing on Sunday, and there wasn’t really anything that anyone could have done about it. Young pitchers get hurt, unfortunately. It happens.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that Tommy John surgery is nearly routine at this point, with an overwhelming success rate. Just to cherry-pick two recent examples from Washington, Jordan Zimmermann had his procedure in early August of 2009, returned to the bigs in late August of 2010, and has been one of the club’s best starters this year; Stephen Strasburg went under the knife in late August of 2010, and has reportedly been hitting 95 in bullpen sessions with a small chance that he sees MLB time in September. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s in no way the death of a career like it was for decades, or even the risky procedure it was up until the last 10 years or so.

Remember, the Dodgers hadn’t yet started their second-half rebound yet and had just lost Kenley Jansen to his cardiac concerns, so this seemed like an unnecessary kick in the pants from the baseball gods. While it’s likely that RDLR returns intact, his loss opens up another hole in the 2012 rotation.

Dana Eveland (B)
3.03 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 4.85 K/9, 1.89 BB/9

As I probably said one too many times in September, “Dana Eveland… doing Dana Eveland things.” You remember how we felt when he was signed to a minor-league deal last November, right?

Eveland’s not, you know, good. His fastball doesn’t top 90 often, and if he was that valuable he wouldn’t have ended up on 19 different teams before his age-27 year. Still, it’s a no-risk deal, and the Dodgers have had good success with guys like Chan Ho Park, Jeff Weaver, and Aaron Sele in the past on signings like that. For the low, low price of almost nothing, they’ve managed to bring in a guy who’s entering his prime, has seen action in 95 major league games, and does a good job of keeping the ball in the park (0.65 HR/9) and on the ground (50%). More than likely, he’s ticketed for depth in AAA rather than the rotation, but it’s depth worth having, and a deal worth making.

And that’s exactly what happened. After hurting himself on the first day of big league camp, Eveland had a decent enough year in AAA, getting named to the PCL All-Star team and eventually getting called up when rosters expanded to start the September 1 rainout makeup in Pittsburgh. With de la Rosa injured, John Ely ineffective in ABQ, and Nathan Eovaldi at his innings limit, Eveland stuck around to make five starts of varying quality in September, the first four coming against the offensive powerhouses of San Francisco and Pittsburgh. When I say “varying quality”, I mean it, since the first two were excellent (1 ER over 15 IP), the next two were brutal (9 ER in 9 IP), and his final was solid (5.2 shutout innings in Arizona).

Eveland’s not unfamiliar with getting off to good starts, of course, because his first three starts for the 2010 Blue Jays comprised 4 ER over 18.2 IP. He then followed that up with 28 ER over 26 IP in his next six starts, leading to him losing his job. But that’s really what you expect from a guy like Eveland, isn’t it? There’s a reason he’s bounced around on four teams in the last three seasons, unable to even stick with the Pirates, and that’s because he’s got flashes of talent sandwiched around a whole lot of just not being good enough, as reflected in his career marks of striking out too few (5.94 K/9) and walking too many (4.50 BB/9). You always need guys like that to come up and eat up a few starts every season, and that’s fine. But it’s not fine to start your season off with Eveland or someone like him in the rotation, because if he’s one of your five best options, you’re in big trouble when you inevitably need to use your 6th, 7th, and 8th best options.

******

Next! Ted Lilly gave up a stolen base while you were reading this! Hiroki Kuroda loves the Dodgers to a disturbingly large extent! And John Ely looks for Ely-mania at the salad bar of the local Albuquerque Sizzler! It’s starting pitchers, part 3!

So There’s Good News & Bad News

Good news, maybe, from Bill Shaikin:

MLB, McCourt trying to see if there is a deal to be made. McCourt would agree to sell. Long way to go.

This would jive with Molly Knight’s report from earlier today that Frank McCourt was in New York, since that’s where the MLB offices are. It might also explain this morning’s news that the major bankruptcy court hearing originally scheduled for October 31 has been pushed back to November 29 – it would seem that either one side or both signaled to the court that settlement was enough of a possibility that more time would be worthwhile.

Of course, Shaikin is absolutely correct that there’s a long way to go, and I would caution everyone not to expect any sort of imminent deal. But if this report is correct, it does signal that McCourt is at least willing to discuss the possibility of selling the team, an idea he’s always refused to entertain. If that’s the case – and remember, this is all hypothetical, since we don’t have all the facts – I would imagine this means that he’s the one who is backing down, not MLB. All the cards do seem to be stacked against him, and as the odds continue to get lower that he’ll actually win the case, it would be in his best interests to settle. That goes for MLB as well, of course; even if they’re confident they’ll win the case, there’s a lot of dirty laundry there I’m sure they’d rather keep hidden.

So while that’s possibly a reason for optimism, there’s also really, really bad news, from Steve Dilbeck:

Hong-Chih Kuo is headed to elbow surgery, again.

Kuo was examined Wednesday by Dodgers physician Neal ElAttrache, who found a “loose body” of enough significance in his left elbow that arthroscopic surgery has been scheduled for Friday.

That would be elbow operation No. 5 for Kuo.

This one is hardly as significant as the two Tommy Johns that were included in those four previous surgeries, but total number is staggering.

ElAttrache estimates this procedure will prevent Kuo from throwing for the next six to eight weeks, which would put him past the Dec. 12 deadline when teams must tender contracts to players –- like Kuo –- who are eligible for arbitration.

Kuo almost certainly wasn’t going to get tendered a contract anyway, so this might actually work in the Dodgers’ favor, since it makes it more likely that no one else will give him a guaranteed deal and that he might be willing to return to the medical staff that knows him so well for a minimum, or even a minor-league, contract.

Of course, that’s not what I’m focusing on right now, because mostly I just feel so bad for Kuo. His injury struggles have been well-documented, and few stories were more gratifying in 2010 than his absolute domination out of the bullpen. After his tough 2011, he mentioned he might not want to come back, and we’ve heard him say in the past that he might retire rather than undergo another surgery. Since he was originally planning on pitching next week in Taiwan against a team of major leaguers – it was his reported arm soreness while training for that which led to the cancelation of his trip and the examination that resulted in today’s diagnosis – I’m guessing that is no longer the case, and Dylan Hernandez reports that Kuo’s agent says he will do his best to return in 2012.

We don’t know yet if that will be with the Dodgers, but I have to say, I hope it is. I just don’t know how you can root against Kuo after all he’s been through.