The MSTI 16-Step 2010 plan

Remember last year’s never-ending Manny saga? Well, we look to avoid that particular brand of torture this time around, but this is going to be an incredibly busy offseason for the Dodgers. From the McCourt divorce mess to the cries for an ace to the fact that only two of the starting 9 are under contract right now (Rafael Furcal & Casey Blake) to the 13 free agents and 9 arbitration-eligibles, this winter’s going to be a laugh a minute.

Oh, and it’s the worst free agent class in years. So there’s that.

With all that in mind, here’s the official MSTI Plan for 2010. Just like last year, this is what I’d do if I were GM, not what I think they will do. This is always the longest article of the year, so strap in! Also remember, when some of these end being grossly wrong, that I don’t have access to the internal neogotations – and if anything was learned from last year, what the market looks like in October is often nothing like what it does in January.

According to the most excellent Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Opening Day payroll in 2009 was $100.4 million. That’s down from $118.5m in 2008, but much of that is simply due to how many roster spots were taken up by young players making the minimum. It remains to be seen what the impending McCourt situation will do to the payroll, but I do think they’d take a lot of heat if they dropped below $100 million. Given that they did exceed that with incentives and made some extra money off the playoff run, we’ll say $110m is the goal.

Currently, the Dodgers have $40.9m in obligations for 2010 between Hiroki Kuroda, Casey Blake, Rafael Furcal, and Juan Pierre. (Hooray! No more Jason Schmidt!). Assuming that Manny picks up his option (spoiler alert: he will) that’s $10m more due to the terms of his deferred contract ($5m of his 2009 salary, $5m of his 2010 salary). That’s $50.9m, plus about $4.6m in payments still due Andruw Jones, Nomar Garciaparra, & Orlando Hudson’s incentives. Add in another $4m or so for guys who are under team control and not yet arbitration-eligible (Clayton Kershaw, Scott Elbert, Ramon Troncoso, James McDonald, etc.) and that gets you to about $60m. Can you you fill out the team for the remaining $50m? Let’s see…

1) Start signing some young players to contracts!

This is an absolute must, and one I’ve been harping on for years now. Well, this is the year it comes back to bite you in the ass, because the core of this team is all arbitration-eligible: Chad Billingsley, Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, James Loney, Andre Ethier, George Sherrill, Hong-Chih Kuo, Jonathan Broxton, and Jason Repko.

It’s insane to think you can go year-to-year with these guys and not get killed. Besides, are we really waiting to see what Matt Kemp can do? Give the man a long-term contract. I know there’s some danger in saying that so callously, as I’d probably have said the same thing about Russell Martin two years ago, but still, Kemp has to be priority #1, with Ethier and Billingsley close behind.

Repko’s going to get cut loose, but the other 7 made approximately $13.3m this year. Guessing at what each will make in arbitration and/or long-term deals is a futile endeavor, so for now I’ll plug in the guesses made at Dodger Thoughts – that the 7 will be making $38.5m total next year after arbitration raises.
$60m + $38.5m = $98.5m

$98.5m already? This is going to be a short article.

2) Offer Orlando Hudson arbitration, expecting (and hoping) he’ll decline. Hudson’s going to be 32 in December, and after a mostly decent season, you have to figure he’s not going to pass up what might be his last chance to get a multi-year deal – in addition to any lingering bad feelings he might have over being benched in October. You might remember last year, when I wasn’t a big fan of handing over draft picks to the Diamondbacks for signing him in the first place. Well, we got an okay season out of him, so why not try to recoup the draft picks too? Even better, the worst-case scenario is that he does accept, and we can put off trying to plug the 2B hole for another year. But, he won’t.
$98.5m + $0m = $98.5m (with two picks!)

3) Offer Randy Wolf arbitration, expecting (but not hoping) he’ll decline. I think we’d all like to see Wolf back, but there’s no way he takes this offer. He’s 33, coming off the best season of his career, and might be the 2nd or 3rd best pitcher in a horrible free-agent market. You don’t think he’s going to try to get 3 years and $30+ million somewhere? Of course he is. At least we’ll pick up some draft picks.
$98.5m + $0m = $98.5m (with two more picks!)

4) Don’t offer arbitration to any other of the free agents, and don’t pick up Jon Garland’s $10m option. This includes the obvious (Schmidt, Castro, Thome, Ausmus, Milton, Loretta, Mientkiewicz, Weaver, and Mota), the less obvious but still no (Belliard), and the already-cut (Ohman). You could make a case for Belliard, I guess, but I think there’s a decent chance he accepts, which I’m not that interested in.
$98.5m + $0m = $98.5m

5) Trade Juan Pierre to the Mets for 2B Luis Castillo, assuming Hudson turned down arbitration. Okay, hear me out on this. Does anyone here think that Blake DeWitt is just going to get handed the 2B job? No way. Ivan DeJesus is a good prospect, but he missed all of 2009 with a broken leg and hasn’t yet made it past AA, so he’ll need time to get back into the swing of things. With Tony Abreu in Arizona and Orlando Hudson unlikely to accept arbitration, you’ve got a huge hole at 2B, and with the payroll situation so tight, you just can’t have a $10m backup OF in Pierre. But the only way to move him is to either eat the whole contract, which doesn’t save any money and costs us the slight value he has on the field, or to move him for an equally bad contact.

luiscastilloThe numbers work out almost perfectly, as Pierre has $18.5m left on his deal, and Castillo has $18m. On the field, the Mets’ first year at spacious CitiField was a disaster, especially in the outfield. You know who played the most LF for the Mets last year? Gary Sheffield, and he was one of 9 left fielders who trotted out there. Plus, Carlos Beltran missed half the year in center with bad knee problems, which no one’s sure he can overcome. Their #1 leadoff hitter with Jose Reyes out? Angel Pagan. This is one situation where Pierre’s famous durability will help, because the Mets are dying for warm bodies. Since no one hits homers in that park anyway, his lack of power won’t hurt, and his speed can really help cut down on balls in the gaps.

For the Dodgers, well, I’ve never been much of a Castillo fan. At all. But if the goal is to dump Pierre’s contract, you can’t expect to get Chase Utley, right? And at least you can fill a hole in the lineup. Mets GM Omar Minaya got nearly as much flak for the 4-year deal he gave to Castillo before ’09 as Ned Colletti did for the Pierre deal, as he was 32 and coming off a dreadful (and injury-filled) 2008. However, Castillo did bounce back with a decent 2009, putting up only a 96 OPS+ but a very nice .387 OBP.

It’s not perfect. But would you rather spend $18m in the next 2 years on a lousy backup outfielder or on a mediocre starting second baseman who’d fill a need? Do it, Ned.

(Update: interesting discussion in the comments. A Mets fan believes this wouldn’t happen because it would leave a hole for the Mets at 2B… but favored commentator grabarkewitz points out that the Mets and Orlando Hudson expressed mutual interest in each other last season, and that could make sense again without Castillo around.)
$98.5m - $0 = $98.5m

6) Don’t go crazy with the idea that “you must get an ace”. I wrote a whole piece on this just the other day, so I won’t rehash the entire thing here. Just remember the take-home points: A) that there are very few – if any - ”aces” available, and B) that the Dodgers would hardly be the only team in the hunt for them. Besides, Clayton Kershaw was already a top-20 pitcher and can only be expected to improve. Remember, this doesn’t mean I don’t want an ace, just that there are limitations in the available supply of them and the Dodgers’ ability to spend prospects and money, and both Colletti and Torre are aware of that. If Roy Halladay becomes available and it doesn’t require giving up Kershaw or Chad Billingsley, then great. Otherwise, we have to live within the confines of reality.

One other thought on this; while the Dodgers may need an “ace” to win the World Series, they don’t necessarily need one to get to the playoffs. The best course of action might be to hold off until the trade deadline, see how Kershaw and Billingsley have developed, and see what teams out of the race are willing to talk then. Remember, pennants aren’t necessarily won by the winners of winter headlines.

That said, I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be any work done on the starting rotation, and there’s where we’re going with the next four steps…
$98.5m + $0m = $98.5m

7) Resign Vicente Padilla to a 1 year, $4m deal. Judging Padilla’s market value right now is nearly impossible, because I can’t think of any comparables. How do you judge a guy who was so hated in his own clubhouse that he was cut by a team in the pennant race in August, and then resurfaced with another contender to be fantastic down the stretch and dominant in 2 of 3 playoff starts?

On one hand, you’d think that a guy who pitched like he did would be in huge demand in a lousy pitching market. On the other hand, he’s 32 and has that horrible reputation. I can’t see anyone giving him a multi-year deal, and I’m maybe wearing slightly blue-tinted glasses when I read the articles that say he enjoyed his time in LA and was a model citizen, so perhaps he’d be more interested in staying with the Dodgers than wringing out every last cent.

If he stays, he’d be a nice addition to the rotation. He’s hit 200 IP three times and hasn’t had less than 115 IP since 2001. Hey, he’d hardly be the first guy to leave a small ballpark in the tougher league to come to a pitcher’s park in the NL and succeed, right?
$98.5m + $4m = $102.5m

8) Leave Chad Billingsley alone. I can’t believe this is even an issue, but the people who are on the “dump Billingsley” train are absolute fools. Yes, he was terrible in the second half of the season, I can’t deny that. But just remember the facts, here. We’re talking about a 25-year-old guy who’s shown all the signs of being a stud,who had a 2 month slump. In addition, he was fighting leg injuries for much of the time, and came back from a September trip to the bullpen to take a no-hitter into the 6th inning against Washington and then allowed just one hit into the 6th against San Diego, before getting hit in both cases.

So sure, he’s got issues to work out. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe his off-season broken leg put a cramp in his conditioning, maybe it’s mental – who knows. It’s just that the idea that a bad slump should kick him from “future ace” to “not worthy of employment” is insane.

Also, don’t forget, the two “aces” that everyone wanted to go get this summer? Cliff Lee was so bad in his age-28 season that he got sent to the minors. Roy Halladay was so bad in his 4th major league season that he got shipped back out to the minors, too. How do you think Blue Jay fans would feel if they’d given up on Doc in 2001? Exactly how we’d feel if Billingsley was moved now. Just leave the kid alone, and let him pitch. Jesus.
$102.5m + $0m = $102.5m

9) Take a chance on one of the four injured veteran pitchers trying to make a comeback – Ben Sheets, Erik Bedard, Justin Duchscherer, or Rich Harden. Just because I want to leave Billingsley be and don’t think there’s a chance to get a real “ace” doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be improvement in the rotation. But given payroll concerns and the lousy free agent market, you’re going to have to be a bit creative.

That being the case, taking a crack at one of these four – while risky – could prove to have huge rewards. All four have proven to be outstanding pitchers when healthy, and while the “when healthy” part is always an issue, that’s also going to help keep their prices down. So which one?

erikbedardWell, Sheets seems like he’s going to be the highest in demand, and is already drawing interest from several teams. Since the idea is to do this on the cheap, getting into a bidding war over him isn’t a great idea. Duchscherer missed the entire season not only with an elbow injury, but with depression, and I can’t find any information on his status.

So do we like Bedard or Harden? Bedard will be 31 next year and made just 30 starts for Seattle over the last two seasons, though he did have a 3.24 ERA and strike out a man per inning. Harden, 28 next year, was healthier (26 starts last year) and struck out more (nearly 11 per 9) but his WHIP and ERA were each higher than Bedard’s. Plus, he asked to be shut down in September, before the end of the season.

It’s really all kind of a crapshoot. I suppose I’d rather the lefty than the righty, so I’ll pick Bedard. As for contract, I have no idea what’s right here. 2 years, $15m?
$102.5m + $7.5m = $110m

10) Give Charlie Haeger a chance. I’m not saying to just hand the guy a starting gig, but he does seem to be completely invisible around the Dodgers, and it’s foolish to write him off. We’ve been running a “free Charlie Haeger!” campaign around here all summer, and he’s done nothing to change that.

The guy was one of the top pitchers in AAA last year, despite being in the high-altitude deathpad of Albuquerque. Then when he came up to the bigs, he was more than adequate – 19 IP in 6 games (2 starts), allowing a WHIP of just 1.053 and an ERA of 3.32.

With all of the complaints we heard all year about how the Dodger starters weren’t going  deep into games, why wouldn’t we want to see a knuckleballer who could soak up innings? Even if he’s “just” league-average, there’s still a lot of value in that. So give him a chance to crack the bullpen as a long man and spot starter, available to step in if/when someone gets hurt. Besides, don’t let the knuckleball die!
$110m + $0m = $110m

11) Sign Troy Glaus to a 1 year, $5 million deal to be a power threat off the bench. There’s a reason the Dodgers went out and got Jim Thome for the stretch run, and that’s because the main foursome on the bench (Ausmus, Loretta, Castro, Pierre) combined for a grand total of two homers all year. That’s just not acceptable. But the way this team is put together, if you need power off the bench, it has to be from the corner infield positions – you’re never hitting for Manny/Kemp/Ethier, and you can’t find power in the middle infield.

troyglausSo why Glaus? Well, if you look at the list of free agent corner infielders, you see a lot of guys who either don’t fit the bill (Rich Aurillia, Geoff Blum, Mike Lamb, etc.) or guys who won’t accept a backup role (Adrian Beltre, Mark DeRosa, etc.) Glaus is 33 and coming off a season almost entirely lost to various injuries, and he hit just .172 in 14 games – so no one’s dying to give him a starting job. That said, he’s hit 20 homers or more 8 times and would fit well on a team that has a 3Bman in Casey Blake who’s not exactly a stud and a 1Bman in James Loney who’s not known for his power. Plus, he’s a Southern California native who might enjoy the chance to go home.

Even better, if he does regain his old form (he did hit 27 homers with an .856 OPS in 2008) and forces his way into the lineup, it’s hardly the worst thing in the world if he takes the 3B job for himself and pushes Blake into the 4-corners bench bat that he’s really more suited for anyway. At the least, you’d have a nice three-way time-share between Glaus, Blake, and Loney at 1st and 3rd. Anything’s better than Mark Loretta, right?
$110m + $5m = $115m

12) Realize that you have to stick with Russell Martin for lack of any other options, but sign a better backup. No one was more disappointed with Martin’s failures this year than I – as you’ll see in our positional reviews later this week – but the sad fact is, you have to stick with him in 2010. The only thing harder to get than an ace pitcher is a solid catcher, and a quick look around the list of available free agents is a study in depression. You’re not going to get one via trade either, because not every club has a good catcher and if they do, they’re not likely to give him up. So all you can really do is hope that as Martin enters his age-27 season, that his career isn’t over before it starts. Hey, wouldn’t Carlos Santana look good right about now instead of Casey Blake? Yeah, I thought so.

However, that doesn’t mean that you have to just accept the hand Martin has dealt you. While I expect that if Brad Ausmus wants to return, the Dodgers will happily take him back, I’d rather have a guy who’s able to share the load a little more with Martin should #55 completely falter again. Unfortunately, the list of available catchers is worse than I thought. Jason LaRue? Sal Fasano? No thanks.

So we’re going to do a little wishful thinking and sign former Red Ramon Hernandez to a 1 year, $1m contract. Hernandez will be 34 in 2010 and coming off a mediocre season interrupted by injury, so he’s hardly anyone’s starter next year. That said, he’s had his moments (7 double-digit homer seasons), including 15 in 2008, and while his ’09 OBP of .332 isn’t great, nor is it in the .200′s like so many of these other guys. I don’t like this move all that much, but there’s just not a lot of options here.
$115m + $1m = $116m

13) Don’t mess with the bullpen. The 2010 bullpen looks to be nearly the same as 2009′s, as the big cogs (Broxton, Sherrill, Kuo, Belisario, & Troncoso) are all under team control. On top of that, you still have Scott Elbert, James McDonald, and Charlie Haeger in the mix as long men/spot starters, Cory Wade trying to recapture the magic in AAA, and young guys like Josh Lindblom nearly ready to make an impact. It’s unreasonable to think that everyone repeats their great 2009 performances, but there’s also so much talent and depth here that it’s not worth it to go out and spend big money on an import.
$116m + $0 = $116m

14) Give Chin-Lung Hu first crack at being the backup middle infielder. I have no idea what to make of Hu anymore, following a dreadful 2006 (.660 OPS) with a superlative 2007 (.871 OPS) and decent 2008 and ’09 seasons (.708 and .725) in the minors.  So he’s probably never going to hit enough to be an everyday big leaguer for a contending team. However, he is by all accounts a Gold Glove level defender. If you can put up with Juan Castro’s awfulness all season, why not upgrade the glove and take at least a chance of offensive upside with it? There’s no reason to stick Hu back in AAA yet again.
$116m + $0 = $116m

15) Give Xavier Paul first crack at being the 4th outfielder. Assuming that you have in fact dealt Juan Pierre, you’re going to need a backup outfielder. Of the many issues that bothered me about Pierre, near the top was that he didn’t fit the role very well; a 4th outfielder on this team is basically going to be a defensive caddy for Manny, and with Pierre’s horrible throwing arm, that wasn’t a great fit for him.

Paul’s going to be 25 in 2010, so if he has any future, it’s now. Not only is he known as a terrific outfielder with a strong arm, he’s got nothing left to prove in AAA (.841 OPS in 2008, .878 in 2009) and got a taste of the bigs (with a homer and a double among 3 hits in 14 at-bats) before being sidelined with a nasty leg infection. Time to see what he can do.
$116m + $0 = $116m

16) So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye… to a group of veterans that were here in 2009, but shouldn’t be in 2010 for a variety of reasons – some financial, and some performance-related. Jim Thome, Jon Garland, Ronnie Belliard, Doug Mientkiewicz, Jeff Weaver, Brad Ausmus, Guillermo Mota, Jason Repko, Mark Loretta, Juan Castro, and Will Ohman.
$116m + $0 = $116m

So after all of that, we have a roster that’s almost exactly at our budget goal. This leaves your 2010 Opening Day Dodgers as…

ethierlooksathomerSP Kershaw
SP Bedard
SP Billingsley
SP Kuroda
SP Padilla
RP Broxton
RP Sherrill
RP Troncoso
RP Kuo
RP Belisario
RP Elbert
RP Haeger

SS Furcal
RF Ethier
LF Ramirez
CF Kemp
3B Blake
1B Loney
C Martin
2B Castillo

BN Hernandez
BN Glaus
BN Paul

With guys like DeWitt, McDonald, Lindblom, and Lucas May in the minors ready to step in as needed or be used as trade bait for an in-season deal.

Go ahead. Tear it apart, you jackals.