Seven Reasons for Optimism in 2012

Nearly five months after the disappointing 2011 season ended when a Kenley Jansen-induced flyball off the bat of Arizona’s John McDonald landed in Tony Gwynn‘s glove, pitchers and catchers are finally getting back to work in Camelback Ranch. Hitters will join them later this week, though many, like Dee Gordon and Matt Kemp, are already there. No matter what your outlook is on the 2012 season, this is the time of year where everyone has hope. (Well, everyone who isn’t an Orioles fan, I suppose, because that situation is beyond repair.)

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that much like last year, I haven’t exactly been thrilled with the offseason. The good will engendered by signing Kemp to an eight-year extension (which looks better by the day) hasn’t completely overcome the disappointment of spending millions on backloaded two-year contracts handed out to aging veterans, or that the previously-added expensive veterans like Matt Guerrier, Ted Lilly, & Juan Uribe are unlikely to improve enough to earn their contracts, or the fact that the big bat which was so desperately needed never arrived – despite the late push for Prince Fielder. Just like last year, this team looks like it’s built to win around 83-86 games, with some small chance of pushing 90, though with a likely equal change of falling below .500. When you have two of the best players in the game and some interesting young players around them, that’s not exactly what you hope your expectations would be entering the spring.

Still, 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 seven reasons why 2012 is going to be great – and no, the return of Brent Leach is not among them.

1. The welcome end of the Frank & Jamie McCourt era. I just cannot overemphasize this enough, because there’s almost nothing that can happen on the field that is going to make us remember 2012 as anything but the year that we finally rid ourselves of these two vultures.

The first mention of their separation on this site came on October 15, 2009, just hours before Game 1 of the NLCS. (Which I’ll never forgive them for. Jackasses. Edit: okay, there may have been other reasons why that happened then.) In the nearly two-and-a-half-years since then, through dozens of sins and probably hundreds of posts on this site, they have bankrupted the team off the field, hindered it on the field, and dragged one of the crown jewels in American sport through untold miles of mud and embarrassment. (And let’s not forget, it’s hardly as though we all loved them right up until the news of their separation came out.)

We don’t know who the next owner will be, or how they’ll run the team. We all pray they’ll be the owner we all hope they will be, but we know that there’s no guarantees; the next owner could be just as bad as the current one. For the moment, it doesn’t matter, because come April 30, it won’t be Frank McCourt. That’s a sentence I’ve been dying to write for years. Soon, friends. Soon.

2. The pure joy of having Kemp & Clayton Kershaw. There’s a lot of fluff on this team. Old, backloaded, underwhelming, underperforming, overpaid fluff that at best will help you tread water, but isn’t going to really help you move forward. Yet in the midst of all that mediocrity, we’re lucky enough to have the best hitter and best pitcher in the National League, two elite talents who are either close to or in their primes, coming off seasons where they reached the potential we all knew they had.

The best part is, short of injury, there’s little reason to think that they won’t as productive in 2012 and going forward, because 2011 was hardly an out-of-nowhere fluke from either player. Kershaw was a top-ten pick who was successful basically from the day he arrived in the bigs and continued to improve through his breakout 2011; Kemp has been a productive player in each of his four full seasons, despite a (somewhat overblown) disappointing 2010. We should be careful not to get ahead of ourselves here, particularly with Kershaw not yet signed to a long-term deal, but it’s pretty hard not to think that we’re watching the early stages of two of the greatest careers in Dodger history. For that alone, we should be thankful.

3. A big rebound season from Andre Ethier. We keep going back and forth on Ethier. On one hand, I’ve been pretty clear that I don’t like the idea of investing big money in a moody, overrated player who isn’t a great defender, absolutely cannot hit lefties, and has dealt with nagging injuries as he moves into his age-30 season. (When you put it like that, he basically sounds like a platoon DH.)

Yet for all his shortcomings, everything is perfectly primed for Ethier to have a really, really big year. He’s finally healthy heading into 2012, and if you don’t think that matters, just check his pre- and post-injury stats from the last two years. He’s also in his final year before free agency, and he’s made his displeasure at not having been signed to an extension clear. Whether it’s to impress new ownership or potential suitors on the market, Ethier has a chip on his shoulder and plenty to prove in 2012. A healthy, motivated Andre Ethier is exactly the kind of Ethier that could put up a huge season… before convincing someone to wildly overpay him.

4. The breathtaking speed of Dee Gordon. I don’t know if Gordon has enough plate discipline to allow his zero-power game to work on the major league level. I don’t know if he can hone his defensive chops enough to stop making the errors on easy plays that occasionally hurt more than his flashy, outstanding plays help. And I especially don’t know if his slight frame can hold up to the rigors of a full season. But I do know this: in just 56 games last season, Gordon and his speed made more jaw-dropping plays on both offense and defense than I think we’ve seen over the last ten years.

Gordon’s done all the right things this winter to improve his game, from working out with Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin to being one of the first to arrive at camp. It remains to be seen what kind of player he’s actually going to be, but no matter how much he progresses (or not) this year, his entertainment value alone is worth the price of admission. Considering the rest of the infielders that’ll be around him, that’s a stat which might even be more important than his on-base percentage.

5. More young pitching on the way. Last year, we were excited to see the next wave of Dodger hitters, since Gordon, Jerry Sands, and Trayvon Robinson were all starting together at Triple-A. All three saw big league time – though not exactly in the way we expected – and Gordon & Sands are poised to be big parts of the Dodger core going forward.

This year, it’s the youthful pitching that demands our attention. Other than Nathan Eovaldi, I’m not even really talking about what we saw in the bigs last year, because Scott Elbert & Josh Lindblom finally proved themselves as big leaguers after having been close for years, and Javy Guerra really came out of nowhere to take over the closer’s job – at least until Kenley Jansen takes it. If you look at all of the various top prospect lists that came out over this offseason, you’ll find an Alfredo Silverio here and a Joc Pederson there, but what you’ll mostly see is a Dodger list that is full of quality pitching, most of which is ready to make their Los Angeles debuts in 2012 and 2013. This year alone, you could see Eovaldi, or Allen Webster, or Shawn Tolleson, or Chris Withrow, or Steve Ames or others, plus the return of Rubby De La Rosa; after them, it might be Zach Lee, Chris Reed, Garrett Gould, Ethan Martin, Aaron Miller, Angel Sanchez and more.

ESPN’s Keith Law summed up the feeling well in a recent chat:

Mike (CT)
After really digging into this did any farm systems surprise you in a good or bad way??

Klaw
Rockies came out better than I expected. Dodgers too. I love that collection of arms, and now it’s close enough to potentially impact the ML club this year.

We all know the failure rate of pitching prospects, and you can guarantee that some of the names on that list will either never make the bigs or do so unsuccessfully. But there’s so much talent there that we’re almost certain to see a few of them make big contributions to the Dodgers over the next few years (whether in blue or via trade), and they’re close enough that it’s worth keeping a close eye on them as they try to advance another level in 2012.

6. Improved infield defense. You can make a good argument that the Dodger infield might be the worst offensive group in baseball. (A really good argument, especially with the durability issues around Gordon, Mark Ellis, and Juan Uribe, and the complete unknown that is James Loney. But hey, at least Adam Kennedy is in reserve!) Who knows what you’ll get out of Uribe – though the fates aren’t on his side – and Ellis is coming off an age-34 season with a .288 OBP.

But what you should get out of this group is some fancy glovework, superior to what we saw last year. For all of his failures, Uribe was a plus defender at third base when he played, and Ellis has long been one of the better defensive second basemen in the game. Assuming health, they’re replacing 970 innings of Aaron Miles (who was merely passable at second and atrocious at third) and about 1050 innings of Jamey Carroll, who was rated as slightly below-average at each of the middle infield spots. As mentioned above, you hope that Gordon can get to enough balls with his incredible range to make up for the easy ones he’ll boot, and it’s easy to see how this group of infielders could potentially be a big step forward over last year. Even when they go down, the glovework may not suffer; for all of my problems with the Kennedy signing (and there are many), he’s still a good second baseman, though one who should never play elsewhere, and Jerry Hairston offers a decent glove at a few spots. Beyond them, playing solid defense might be the only thing Justin Sellers can do.

Is this group going to hit, at all? Well, uh, this is the optimism post, so we’ll stick to what works. At the least, they’ll pick it, and that can only help the questionable starting staff beyond Kershaw.

7. Vin Scully. No matter what happens off the field, no matter how many games are lost on the field, as long as there’s Vin, there’s reason to watch. Well, home games, at least. No year with Vin can be a bad year, and it’s comforting to know that he’ll outlast Frank McCourt at Dodger Stadium.

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