The New Dodgers: Yeah, That Kind of Rich

It probably doesn’t surprise most of you that I was a fan of former Dodger general manager Paul DePodesta, who – while certainly imperfect – generally saw most of his moves work out well. (I will defend the Paul Lo Duca / Hee-Seop Choi / Brad Penny deal until the day I die, and big-ticket signings like Jeff Kent, J.D. Drew, & Derek Lowe all provided value.) That’s mainly because I trusted his process to build a winning team (most of that 2006 playoff club was his roster even though he was gone) and partly because I was a big proponent of the “Moneyball” game within the game. Sure, you could go out and spend $20m/year on a five-win player, for example, but how much better would it be if you could develop that player from within or find a hidden gem on the free market to get 80% of that production for 10% of the cost. On-field wins were still paramount, of course, but winning the “value” game was important as well.

For most teams with a budget, and particularly the bankrupt McCourt-era Dodgers, it was difficult to have a winning team without winning the value game. To take one example, we all hated the Matt Guerrier contract, but not because Guerrier is a terrible pitcher; when healthy, he’s a perfectly adequate, if unspectacular, veteran to have in your bullpen. We hated the deal because you could have found similar production to Guerrier’s for the minimum or close to it, and the $12m+ he received is $12m that could have been used elsewhere. This oversimplifies it a little, but that’s money that could have been used to retain Hiroki Kuroda (having a good year in New York) rather than acquire Aaron Harang, and that’s where value becomes important.

…or at least it usually does, but as we’ve seen so far, there’s nothing “usual” about the new Dodger ownership. Hell, even this morning there’s reports coming out that they inquired on CC Sabathia & Mark Teixeira (which I don’t totally believe, by the way, because “Joel Sherman”), and more rumors swirling that they are willing to take on more expensive contracts to add another pitcher. (I am terrified that this means Mark Buehrle.) In theory, this is petrifying. Getting Carl Crawford & Josh Beckett absolutely doesn’t represent value, of course, even if part of the cost can be applied to the necessary price to acquire Adrian Gonzalez.

But “value”, if I can say this in today’s world without being too offensive, is for poor people, and the Dodgers are a new kind of rich. (There are a bunch of local ads for the lottery here that suggest that if you win, you won’t just be rich, you’ll be that kind of rich, which is where this post gets its title from. Yeah, that’s the Dodgers right now.) The only spending controls MLB really has in place is the luxury tax, and if Stan Kasten is to be believed, the Dodgers don’t care about that even a little. I suppose they really can’t, because they’re already up to nearly $200m for next year, and that’s without the megadeal that Clayton Kershaw is sure to receive and any other additions.

It can even be argued that the Dodgers aren’t really being absurd in what they’re doing and that the efforts by the Yankees & Red Sox to get under the luxury tax threshold are unnecessary, because they absolutely have the money. This morning, we learned that the new ESPN deal doubles the amount of money MLB will receive, and that’s just from ESPN, not other broadcast partners. As teams get more money, they’re more likely to keep players off the free agent market – we’ve seen this happen already – and so doing what the Dodgers are might just be the best way to get new talent.

It makes for an unexpected transition when writing about the team, because for years we’ve been talking about “value”. “Sure, Andre Ethier‘s talented, but was he really worth nearly $100m?” “Yasiel Puig‘s a big splash, but $42m for a guy no one’s ever seen?” If what we’ve seen about this club’s spending habits hold true – and with a group that controls $160 billion in assets plus a mammoth new TV deal coming, it’s easy to believe they will – then evaluating a deal is no longer about how much money it took to sign a player, but whether having that player in the fold is an upgrade.

So if budget isn’t limiting the Dodgers, what does? Simply enough, it’s roster spots. When I returned home on Sunday and dug into the details of the Boston trade, I was surprised to learn that Nick Punto isn’t just a replacement for the injured Jerry Hairston down the stretch, he’s also signed for 2013 as well. Just look at the guys in green on the payroll list for 2013. In addition to Punto, Hairston & Gonzalez, the infield alone has Mark Ellis, Hanley Ramirez, & Juan Uribe under contract – plus team-controlled guys like Dee Gordon, Luis Cruz, & Alex Castellanos.

All told, counting Puig and six starting pitchers, the Dodgers already have 17 players signed to MLB contracts for 2013. That doesn’t even count obvious team control guys who will be here like A.J. Ellis, Kenley Jansen, Shawn Tolleson, perhaps Gordon & Tim Federowicz, and a few others, so as things stand the Dodgers basically have a full roster for 2013 and it’s not even September yet. (Compare this to last year, when they had three starting pitchers, no left fielder, no second baseman, no catcher, and huge question marks at first and short.)

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the roster next April is going to be the same as it is now, of course. No one believes Uribe survives that long, and if there’s an infield upgrade to be had, I doubt the fact that Punto has a $1.5m contract makes him untouchable. It’s the same for the rotation; if they think that Zack Greinke or someone like him is an upgrade, then the mere fact that Aaron Harang & Ted Lilly are booked for over $20m next year isn’t going to be what stops them. (If Lilly can even pitch, that is; he’s so fragile that he’s now apparently injured his back while lifting weights.)

It’s a strange and wonderful time to be a Dodger fan, and the shock still hasn’t quite worn off. Can you believe that it was just over a year ago that we were talking about bankruptcy court and whether McCourt would default on player payroll? Yet here we are, watching the Dodgers take financial pity on the Red Sox, of all teams. I’m still not sure that this is exactly the right way to go about it, but I do know that this entire situation is fascinating and something that we’ve never seen in baseball before. For all of our sakes, after a string of crappy owners even dating back to the last decade of the O’Malley area, let’s hope that “spend like you have a bottomless wallet” is the strategy that finally works.

Up-And-Down Dodgers Continuing to Baffle

Think this team has been a little schizophrenic lately? Check out what’s happened over their last five series, also helpfully illustrated graphically by the baseball-reference chart at right (longer lines mean larger margins of victory or defeat):

@ NYM, 7/20-7/22: Dodgers sweep three games
@ STL, 7/23-7/26: Dodgers drop three of four
@ SFG, 7/27-7/29: Dodgers sweep three games
vs ARI, 7/30-8/1: Dodgers swept in three games
vs CHC, 8/3-8/5: Dodgers sweep three games
vs COL, 8/6-8/8: Dodgers drop two of three

Despite sweeping three series since that road trip began on July 20, the Dodgers are just 10-8 over their last 18 games, and even when they were sweeping the Cubs, people were panicking because Chicago is so bad that merely winning isn’t enough if you’re not dominating.

112 games into the season, we still have no idea what this team is; in the span of just one week, they’ll look like the best team in baseball when they go into San Francisco and destroy the Giants, then look totally disinterested when they get walked over by Arizona. They’ll take care of business by sweeping the Cubs, then look like the 2003 offense in getting shut down by Colorado. Of course, that’s what happens when you make so many trades at the deadline; at the start of the stretch outlined above, Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Randy Choate, Brandon League, & Joe Blanton were all playing elsewhere, and so a roster that is markedly changed due to trades and health from what it was in June is hard to compare against the completely different team that took the field back then.

So what is this team, really? I honestly have no idea, and while I lean towards “good, but not quite good enough” in large part to an infield that continues to be among the worst in baseball, I also know that the National League is so wide-open and without a dominant team that anyone who makes the playoffs could get hot at the right time and steamroll their way to the World Series.

Still, I go back to the question we asked nearly a month ago, two weeks before the trading deadline…

The Dodgers, as Jon Weisman astutely notes this morning at LA Magazine, find themselves in a very difficult position as the trading deadline nears. They’ve been in first place or close to it for basically the entire season, and that along with a new ownership group eager to impress and a general manager hoping to hang on to his job means that they have to continue trying to win this year. But the reality increasingly seems to be that the hot start to the season is just not backed up by a roster with the talent needed to compete, not with the worst corner infield situation in baseball, zero production out of shortstop, very little coming from left field, and a starting rotation that may actually need to send the unheralded Stephen Fife to make his major league debut against Roy Halladay tonight. Even if they could fill all of those holes in the next two weeks – and due to the quantity of them, I think it’s pretty clear that they can’t – they’re held back both by a minor league system which doesn’t have the top-end talent other teams desire and a new playoff system which will make the few clubs willing to sell ask for sky-high prices.

You have to compete, but you may not realistically be able to win. What do you do?

Weeks later, I think we can all agree that many of those holes remain unfilled. The infield, even with Ramirez, remains a disaster, and Blanton isn’t exactly the rotation upgrade we were expecting. Yet even if things don’t end well this year, as I’m increasingly thinking they won’t, it seems to me that they’ve done a good job of threading the needle. Heading into the deadline, you had to improve the team and make an effort to contend in order to keep those returning fans and season ticket orders coming, and they did – remaining holes aside, a team with Ramirez, Victorino, Choate, League, & Blanton is better than the early-July roster that did not have them.

But in making those upgrades, I think we all realized that the hot start to the season created unrealistically high expectations, and so it never seemed to make sense to toss out your entire farm system in an attempt to win with a roster that still has too much dead wood of the Juan Rivera / Juan Uribe / James Loney variety to make it realistic; that’s why it was so encouraging to see them stand their ground and refuse to include Allen Webster to Chicago for Ryan Dempster, who was unlikely to be the difference between a championship or not.

(If I can take a total sidebar for the moment, this Webster update from Baseball Prospectus yesterday is phenomenally encouraging:)

While only Ethan Martin was dealt, heading to the Phillies in the Shane Victorino deal, nearly every team talking to the Dodgers inquired about right-hander Allen Webster, and with good reason, as the 22-year-old right-hander, after a tough first half, has a 2.13 ERA in nine starts since the All-Star break. “It’s all there,” said a National League scout who was taken off his coverage to see the team. “When everything is going, he has three average-to-plus pitches and knows what to do with them.” The scout noted that Webster’s game has matured, as well. “He knows he has a really good—and potentially special—changeup, but he’s not over-relying on it anymore,” the scout explained. “It’s like he finally figured out that setting that pitch up with 92-94 mph heat is the best way to go about it, and his curveball has improved as well. He used to get over the ball and it wouldn’t finish, but now it’s breaking through the zone much better.”

So in the interest of continuing this year’s push, upgrades were made, but not at the price of any prospects we’re likely to miss desperately; Martin seems like the most highly-touted of those who left, and even he probably wasn’t going to be in the top 5 of what is not a strong system. (Off the top of my head, Zach Lee, Webster, Chris Reed, Yasiel Puig, & Joc Pederson are all above him, and you can make cases for Matt Magill, Corey Seager, and others as well.)

When it comes down to it, this is an incredibly frustrating team to watch right now, just because you have absolutely no idea what team is going to show up on a given night. But when I think back to how we expected this season would play out as something of a transitional year between ownership groups and how few of us thought there’d be any playoff excitement at all, what we’ve been given – without mortgaging the future to do it – seems kind of like gravy. Hey, maybe this team gets hot and makes the playoffs; maybe they flame out and we torch Uribe in effigy in the parking lot. (Then again, these two things may not be mutually exclusive.) Either way, the future seems brighter than it has in years, and I’m not going to let the ups and downs of a surprising 2012 season change that. If the worst we can say right now is that the chronological order in which the dreck at the bottom of the roster is being eliminated doesn’t seem optimal, well, maybe that’s not so bad.

Of course, we’ll see what our tune is when they go get swept in Miami by a poor Marlins team before crushing the surging Pirates in Pittsburgh.

Trade Deadline Passes… Quietly?

It’s somewhat amazing to me to think that in the last 24 hours the Dodgers have made two trades – and three in the last week – and the prevailing reaction among fans as the deadline passes is “…that’s it?” That says more about the new reality we find ourselves living in with a post-McCourt glow than anything, I think.

There’s no Chase Headley, or Justin Morneau, or Josh Beckett, or Ryan Dempster – who’s going to Texas, of all places, and good luck with that, Ryan – and in fact, there’s no starting pitching coming at all. That’s tough to swallow, because it’s difficult to see this as a championship rotation right now, and in fact you now have to count on Stephen Fife contributing and Ted Lilly returning. On the offensive side, James Loney & Juan Rivera are still going to be your primary first basemen, which is hardly optimal.

That said… look at the entirety of the Dodger moves over the last week.

Incoming:
SS/3B Hanley Ramirez through 2014
RP Randy Choate, FA after 2012
OF Shane Victorino, FA after 2012
RP Brandon League, FA after 2012

Outgoing:
SP Nathan Eovaldi
RP Scott McGough
RP Josh Lindblom
RP Logan Bawcom
SP Ethan Martin
OF Leon Landry

At first glance, it’s scary – four veterans for six prospects. But it’s hard to say that the 2012 club isn’t a better team than it was last week, right? We loved the Ramirez deal at the time and he’s done nothing but make a great impression. Victorino is iffy, but a definite improvement over the awful left fielders we’d been seeing before. Choate fills a lefty bullpen need. League is… well, he’s not a downgrade, anyway, and it was that deal which facilitated the Victorino move.

Meanwhile, all six of the young players headed out have promise, but none are irreplaceable, and with the possible exception of Eovaldi, none are really “top ten” Dodger prospects. Zach Lee? Still here, as are Chris Reed and Allen Webster and Garrett Gould and Joc Pederson and so on. We can kill the Dodgers all we want for failing to get that starting pitcher that they claimed they so badly needed, but did anyone really want to give up Webster’s career for two months of almost-certain-to-regress Ryan Dempster? I sure didn’t. I don’t know yet what Texas gave up, but if it’s less than what the Dodgers were asked to, it doesn’t matter, because that’s not the deal the Dodgers would have had.

So while I see and understand disappointment here, because this isn’t a roster that’s suddenly a behemoth like we’d had in our wildest dreams, what I see is a team that’s improved for 2012, improved for the next two seasons thanks to Ramirez, and mostly having done so by dealing second-tier prospects from positions of depth.

I don’t know if that’s good enough to contend for a World Series title, though I feel a lot better about their chances of even making it to the playoffs than I did just a week ago. Sure, the Giants got Hunter Pence, but is anyone afraid of their lineup, especially with Tim Lincecum not nearly what he was? Arizona’s big deals were for Chris Johnson & Scott Podsednik, and even Johnson can’t face Aaron Harang every night.

I do know that there’s not a single prospect headed out that I’m going to lose any sleep over. Knowing what the prices were for the flawed players out there – honestly, was Dempster really the difference maker? Can you count on Matt Garza or Josh Johnson? – it’s hard for me to say that I’m not pleased that improvements were made while ground was stood. (In this case, anyway. Still can’t believe they were willing to send Gould for Carlos Lee before.)

Besides, it’s not necessarily over yet. Trades can be made in August, it’s just far more difficult because of the waiver process. So the team we see now still may not be the team we see going down the stretch. For today? I’m somewhat melancholy, but satisfied.

The Difference One Month Can Make

Of the many things I love about baseball, it’s that no matter how much you think you know, you can always learn something new. If there’s anything I’ve learned so far in 2012, it’s that it almost seems foolish to look at a team’s overall record and think that this alone shows you who they are. For example, one month ago tomorrow, the Dodgers welcomed the Mets to Dodger Stadium. At the height of their injury crisis, with  this is the lineup they rolled out, along with OPS at the time:

1. Dee Gordon SS .556
2. Elian Herrera 3B .685
3. Juan Rivera LF .661
4. James Loney 1B .634
5. Scott Van Slyke RF .509
6. Adam Kennedy 2B .607
7. Matt Treanor C .759
8. Tony Gwynn CF .625

That’s simply atrocious. Loney is hardly even a major-league quality hitter at this point, and he was hitting cleanup. You could look at that list and argue that not a single one of those players belongs in the lineup for a contending team, much less all eight at the same time. That’s three young players who probably still need to be in the minors, two old-and-busted veterans, a backup catcher, an all-glove backup outfielder, and whatever it is we’re referring to Loney as these days. The only OPS mark there that isn’t a total embarrassment belonged to Treanor, and all he’s done since then is go 3-31, bringing his OPS down to a more realistic .635. Predictably, they lost, scoring twice in the fourth inning against Chris Young but otherwise being shut down on their way to a fifth loss in a row.

That was only a month ago, and so much has changed. Gordon & Kennedy are injured; Herrera & Van Slyke are in Albuquerque. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, & Mark Ellis are all back from injury, Hanley Ramirez is now a Dodger, and I don’t think any of us believe that there won’t be at least one more bat (and a starter, of course) coming before Tuesday. While I admit that I cherry-picked that game somewhat by selecting a day where both A.J. Ellis & Jerry Hairston didn’t start, the active offensive roster one month ago as compared to the one we’ll have in a few days is so markedly different that it can barely even be considered the same club.

This is still a very flawed team, of course. They still have three big holes at first base, left field, and whichever one of shortstop or third that Ramirez doesn’t up at; even if they fill one of those, you’re still looking at a lineup that could have two of Loney, Rivera, Gordon, Gwynn, Luis Cruz or Juan Uribe in the lineup on a daily basis. Still, this is a new club as we head down the stretch. They’re probably not the team that miraculously was 17 games over .500 in late May, and they’re definitely not the same team that lost 11 of 12 while being shut out basically every night in late June.

I’m not sure what kind of team we’re looking at now, but I do know that there’s no changing the games that have already been played. That a various collection of players have managed to go 53-47 to this point isn’t quite as relevant as it seems; what matters is that the players we see now (along with anyone who arrives by Tuesday afternoon) are three games out of first place as they head into San Francisco for a huge series starting tonight. Can this group hang? It’s hard to say, but I know I feel a lot better about that question that I did just one month ago, even though the Dodgers have a worse winning percentage now than then.

Another Dodger Collapse Getting Increasingly Difficult to Swallow

Stephen Fife, well done, and welcome to the bigs. And by “bigs,” I do of course mean the current collection of Dodgers which could manage only two runs off four consecutive hits in the second inning and just three more hits over the rest of the game.

Oh, sure, Kenley Jansen is going to get roasted for a “blown save”, and he’s not without blame. But after the mess Ronald Belisario left him, after another night of an offense which scares no one but Dodger fans, it’s pretty hard for me to get up in arms over Jansen.

Though the Dodgers went quietly in the bottom of the ninth, that’s the inning that really hit home for me. Down one, in a game that would be brutal to lose, and the best you can send up is Adam Kennedy, James Loney, and Juan Rivera? That’s not on Don Mattingly, since his options are so limited, but there’s not really one major league quality hitter in the bunch there.

Sorry, Stephen. You deserved better. See you in September.