The Best Team in Baseball…?

gwynn_dodgers_celebrateOver the last few days, Baseball Prospectus has been rolling out their yearly PECOTA projection updates,  and included in that is the initial take on the division standings. The system projects that three teams — Yankees, Tigers, & Reds — will tie for the second-best record in the majors with 92 wins.

Only one team is projected to beat that, with 93 wins. That team is the Dodgers. I’m not sure if that’s fantastic news or the outright kiss of death.

Just like any projection system, PECOTA is to be taken as an educated guess rather than anything set in concrete, although it did famously nail the 2007 collapse of the White Sox to within one game. Personally, I think it’s underselling Washington (88-74) and perhaps Toronto (85-77), though I’m glad to see that it agrees with me that Baltimore (74-88) is going to sink like a rock to the bottom of the AL East. (In Toronto’s case, at least, the entire existence of R.A. Dickey is understandably confounding to projection systems, which hurts the Blue Jay projection.)

Back to the Dodgers, I don’t think anyone here really sees them as being the “best team in baseball,” simply because there’s so many questions here — ones we’ve been over all winter, like health issues in the rotation and in the outfield, a weak bench, Andre Ethier‘s platoon issues, a giant black hole of mystery on the left side of the infield, and the need for comebacks from past superstars like Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, & Hanley Ramirez. In the NL alone, I don’t consider the Dodgers as being better than the Nationals or probably the Reds as well; the Braves & Cardinals each have a case to make there too, and as much as I hate to admit it, you can’t count out the Giants based on what they’ve done over the last three years. (Ken Rosenthal’s look at the NL West today, where he considers San Francisco the team to beat, is worth a read if only because it indicates that Scott Proctor wants to be a starting pitcher now. Please, please, please.)

What’s most interesting here to me is why it is the system likes the Dodgers so much. It expects the Los Angeles offense to be only middle-of-the-road, scoring 713 runs. That’s more than the 637 they actually scored in 2012 or the 644 they put up in 2011, but less than the projections for five other NL teams and every AL team other than Baltimore, Houston, Minnesota, & Seattle. Yet where it really likes this club is in run prevention, pegging them to allow only 601 opposing tallies. That’s within the range of what actually happened over the last two seasons (612, 597) but puts them as the best club in baseball in terms of preventing runs, with San Francisco’s 622 coming in second.

That’s because PECOTA really, truly loves the Dodger pitching, even with the expectation that Chad Billingsley is only going to throw 96 innings. It’s no surprise that Clayton Kershaw & Zack Greinke are highly rated, but I do find it surprising that it thinks Josh Beckett is going to bounce back to a 3.17 ERA. By this projection, the bullpen looks stellar — 11 pitchers are included, from excess starters like Ted Lilly & Chris Capuano down to the less likely guys like Mark Lowe & Shawn Tolleson, and only a single pitcher is projected to have an ERA above Scott Elbert‘s 3.68 — Javy Guerra, at 4.13. While I’m well aware that I’m using ERA here and there’s plenty of problems with that, that’s excellent. That’s on top of an offense that looks to have star level seasons from Matt Kemp, Gonzalez, & Ramirez, a bounce-back from Crawford, but is hurt by the usual projection of awfulness from Luis Cruz (.250/.276/.359).

Of course, there’s a lot of counter-arguments to be made here. It’s one projection system of many. PECOTA whiffed on Baltimore & Oakland last year — as, it should be noted, did everyone on the planet. Games are played on the field, not in spreadsheets, you nerd. Why don’t you go meet girls? …and so on.

As I said, I don’t consider the Dodgers the best team in baseball unless everything goes absolutely right, but you could really say that about every team in baseball. (Except you, Houston. Not you.) I expect them to be squarely in the playoff hunt with an equal chance of greatness as there is of falling apart, Lakers-style. Still, this time last year we were wondering just how mediocre a McCourt-deprived team could be. Even if PECOTA is way off, just the fact that we’re having this conversation is a massive step forward.

At This Point, I Don’t Even Care That It’s a Jinx

As I certainly don’t need to tell you, the Dodgers have won 10 of their last 13 – including sweeps of the Mets and Rockies – and are now 18-7 in May, 18 games over .500, and 8.5 games ahead in the division. All this, despite playing a good chunk of the season without their best hitter and just about all of it without one of their best pitchers. And really, what team is going to be picking up a better hitter/pitcher combination at the deadline than Manny Ramirez and Hiroki Kuroda?

It’s with this in mind that I present to you the “Less Than 10% Chance to Make the Playoffs”
 club, presented on MLBtraderumors but pulled from Baseball Prospectus:

  • dodgerscelebrate.jpgPirates – 9.46%
  • Giants – 8.78%
  • Mariners – 6.14%
  • Rockies: 4.84%
  • Athletics: 4.36%
  • White Sox: 4.33%
  • Marlins: 3.20%
  • Orioles: 2.77%
  • Diamondbacks: 2.58%
  • Astros: 2.25%
  • Nationals: 0.52%

You may have noticed that three of the other four NL West teams are represented on that “no chance in hell” list – the Giants, Rockies, and Diamondbacks. What’s more, the Padres, even after their impressive win streak, have only pushed themselves up to an 11.94% chance. Meanwhile, the Dodgers are there at a 93.3% chance of taking the division, and a 95.8% chance of making the playoffs. No other team even sniffs 80%, though I will of course grant the wekaness of the rest of the NL West plays a large role in that.

Need any more proof that this is our year? We, of course, have all marveled at what Juan Pierre’s done since taking over for Manny. Now BP chimes in as well:

How discouraging must it be for National League teams to witness what the Dodgers are doing without Manny Ramirez in the lineup? You see a guy with Hall of Fame credentials sit for nearly two months, replaced by a speedy singles hitter and think maybe — just maybe — you’ve got a chance to gain some ground.

Then Juan Pierre goes out and forgets he’s not very good. No, he isn’t hitting like Ramirez — few people do — but he’s producing at a level (.404/.469/.544) that nobody could have anticipated. Granted, it’s a small sample, but Pierre has already covered more than one-third of Manny’s Surprise Vacation.

Even if he reverts to career norms tomorrow, Pierre has done enough damage to help keep opponents at bay. He is hitting like a legitimate big-league left fielder. That isn’t supposed to happen for any extended period of time, and when it does, it creates problems. What should be a weakness for the Dodgers isn’t.

One day you look up and realize that they are dominating with Pierre in the lineup. Then you remember that he’s just a temporary fix and that eventually Ramirez will return.

That can’t be a comfortable thought. I’m just sayin’.

We’re truly living a charmed life right now, aren’t we?

The Distant Future… the Year Two Thousand… (Nine.)

Finally, a bright point in this long, cold, and particularly boring offseason: Baseball Prospectus has released their 2009 PECOTA projections. There’s a lot of different projection systems out there, but BP‘s are almost always more accurate than anyone else’s. (I particularly enjoyed their predictions of the fall of the 2007 White Sox on the nose, and the larger amount of faith in the 2008 Rays than anyone else.)

Since this is a pay service, I won’t out-and-out post the spreadsheet here. But what I will do is point out some very interesting things that stand out related to the Dodgers.

Which Mediocre Starter Should Get Signed?
Wolf: 133 IP, 1.40 WHIP, 4.50 ERA, 14.1 VORP
Looper: 125.2 IP, 1.39 WHIP, 4.62 ERA, 9.2 VORP

And In the Outfield?
Dunn: .262/.396/.541 36hr 34.6 VORP
Manny: .295/.391/.538 30hr 49.0 VORP
Abreu: .282/.368/.436 13hr 20.8 VORP

More evidence that if we don’t get Manny, I strongly prefer Dunn over Abreu.

Notable MLB Position Rankings by VORP?
Martin: 5th, behind Wieters, McCann, Soto, Mauer
Loney: 17th, above Youkilis, C.Pena, Helton
DeWitt: 24th as a 3B. This score would get him 22nd at 2B, tied with Iwamura
Blake: 21st, above Rolen and Mora, but behind Mat Gamel and Brett Wallace
Furcal: 7th, above Jeter, Tejada, Young, Tulowitzki
Kemp: 5th among CF! above Hamilton, Granderson, Upton
Ethier: 3rd among RF! above Bruce, Pence, Markakis, Ordonez
Billingsley: 13th among SP, above F.Hernandez, Sheets, C.Zambrano, Lee, Cain
Kershaw: 38th, above Lilly, Slowey, Dice-K, Lester

Surprisingly Good!
Tony Abreu, after barely playing for two years: .261/.314/.377 7.6 VORP
Ivan DeJesus, despite not making it to MLB yet: .269/.338/.346 14.3 VORP

Surprisingly Bad!
Jason Repko, after a good year in AAA: .210/.284/.332 -14.4 VORP

Needs More Free Agent Signings

From the official email:

LOS ANGELES – The National League West Division Champion Los Angeles Dodgers today have offered salary arbitration to outfielder Manny Ramirez, starting pitcher Derek Lowe, and infielder Casey Blake. General Manager Ned Colletti made the announcement. 
The three players have until 9:00 p.m. PST on December 7 to accept the offer and doing so would ensure their spot on the 2009 roster. As “Type A” free agents, if Ramirez and Lowe do not accept arbitration and choose to sign with another team, the Dodgers will receive two draft picks apiece from that club. Blake, a “Type B” free agent, would net the Dodgers a supplemental draft pick if he elects to sign elsewhere.
The Dodgers did not offer arbitration to the following free agents: Joe Beimel, Gary Bennett, Rafael Furcal, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Johnson, Jeff Kent, Greg Maddux, Pablo Ozuna, Chan Ho Park, Brad Penny, and Mark Sweeney.

No-brainer decisions on Manny, Lowe, and Blake, for sure. Most of the guys who didn’t get offered aren’t really problematic either, and before you protest, Furcal doesn’t return any draft picks due to his being injured all year, and if the team really wanted Penny back, they’d have just picked up his option. (Which I still believe they should have). The one question I do have is on Joe Beimel. It’s rare that a non-closer reliever is able to pick up a multi-year contract, and all indications are that he’s going to pick up at least two years and possibly three from someone. That being the case, why not extend arbitration? The worst thing that could happen is that he accepts and you have to pay him a little more than you wanted, but it would only be for one year. Besides, we all know there was no way he was going to take it. Might as well take the free draft pick.

(I love that it was even theoretically possible that guys like Mark Sweeney and Pablo Ozuna could have been offered arbitration. What were they going to say? “No, no, we don’t need to have an independent arbiter! You really want to give me a job? I’ll take whatever you want! I’ll take the minimum! In pesos!”)

Seems like it’s time for a tour of the blogosphere…

* At Baseball Prospectus, Joe Sheehan pretends he’s the GM of the Dodgers. I assume this means he neglected to include the picture of himself with a mustache and cowboy boots. I won’t copy the whole article here, but let’s look at the takehome points…

Sign Derek Lowe for four years and $62 million. He’s the best fit for this team and this payroll, and there should be some value to Lowe in not having to relocate. If there’s not, ply him with additional money.

WeeksLove it. It’s unfortunate that Lowe’s already told just about everyone that he’s not interested in staying on the West Coast and sounds almost certain to end up back with the Red Sox, or at least another Eastern team.

Trade Xavier Paul and Victor Garate to the Brewers for Rickie Weeks; then make Weeks a center fielder. It’s a low bid, and honestly, I’m skeptical enough of DeJesus’ power and ability to play shortstop than I might deal him if that’s what it took to get Weeks.

First of all, the fact that the first name I see when I type in “Weeks” into baseball-reference is “Charlie Manlove” makes the twelve-year-old in me laugh endlessly. I’m not so sure about this one on two fronts, though. First of all, I’d have to think that Paul and Garate aren’t nearly enough to get Weeks; second of all, I’m just not sure how much I’d want him. Let’s just say you can turn him into a center fielder, which is of course questionable at best. I know he’s only 26, but his 2008 line (.234/.342/.398) and the fact that he basically got benched for Ray Durham are hardly positives in my eyes. I wouldn’t mind taking him, but I just don’t see enough productivity with the bat to bother making him learn a new position. He seems like a younger Juan Pierre with a little more power and a little less speed, and don’t we already have Juan Pierre? Speaking of Ray Durham, though…

Sign Ray Durham for two years, $8 million. The extra year is designed to get this over with quickly, as the falloff from Durham to the next option is steep enough to want to avoid the question. If Durham is done, this is an easy contract to eat. Speaking of which…

This is not actually as terrible of an idea as I would have thought. Though I’d prefer DeWitt at 2B since his bat plays better there than at 3B, there’s a lot fewer options at the hot corner than the keystone. Besides, despite his age, Durham can still hit. With the exception of his dreadful 2007, he hasn’t had a below-average OPS since 1997. Not that it was unfair to wonder if 2007 was the beginning of the end, with how bad he was. But anyone who can bounce back with a .380 OBP as he did this year has to have something going for him. Yeah, his range at 2B isn’t great anymore – though it’s hard not to be an improvement over what we saw with Jeff Kent.

Release Andruw Jones. Ideally, you could get him to agree to a buyout, where he takes 60 cents on the dollar and gets to hit the market again, choosing that ahead of a season in which he bats 125 times as the Dodgers’ fifth outfielder. There’s no place for him on this roster. A year ago, I loved this signing; I was very, very wrong.

Yes, yes, a million times YES! I know and you know that this will never happen, so I’m not even going to look at logically. There’s just so much YES in this idea.

Sign Javier Valentin. He starts 30-35 games against good right-handed pitchers and is a very good pinch-hitter the rest of the time.

Not bad, though the first step before needing a good backup catcher to spell Russell Martin is making sure Joe Torre will actually use a backup catcher. Valentin’s a switch-hitter who’s been pretty decent against righties and pretty awful against lefties in his career, meaning he’ll never be a starter, but could be a pretty good backup for a guy like Turtle who’s never sitting against a lefty anyway. It makes sense, so it’ll never happen.

Re-sign Takashi Saito. Offer him a high-upside deal. It’s not likely there’s much guaranteed money available for him, and he’s one of those “good or unavailable” guys

I’m not entirely convinced that he’s not either A) going back to Japan or B) going to need surgery, because you don’t just tough out a torn elbow ligament. That said, he’s got very little bargaining leverage because of the injury and the fact that he’s not a free agent, so the price should be right. I’d say it’s worth the $3m or so it’d probably cost.

Offer arbitration to Ramirez. I can’t fathom him taking it, and almost no team uses draft picks as well as the Dodgers do.

Done and done. However, while the Dodgers might use their picks correctly, you almost wonder if the McCourts are afraid of having too many picks, because then they’d have to pay them – and isn’t there something monumenally wrong with that?

Loretta* Via MLBtraderumors, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick is reporting that at least four teams are interested in Astros infielder Mark Loretta, and the Dodgers are one of them. The Santa Monica native is 37 and is what he is – an veteran whose decent on-base skills and little power add up to a slightly below-average hitter (dig the career 99 OPS+ and 7 different years with OPS scores between 89 and 95). He can play all four infield spots, and in 2008 was a below-average 2B and an above-average 3B. Considering he only made $2.75 million last year, I don’t have a problem with the Dodger interest – depending on what that interest is. As a starter at 2B or 3B? Oh, hell no. But as a veteran backup who can fill a lot of spots in the infield with a decent bat, there’s certainly value in that, especially considering he’s a righty hitter and James Loney and Blake DeWitt (assuming DeWitt starts somewhere) are lefties. Continuing in that thought, Loretta crushes lefties (.903 OPS in 2008; .390 OBP career) while being markedly weaker against righties, so that really could work. The only thing is, it would almost certainly mean the end of Nomar in Blue, because they’d be filling almost exactly the same role.

* Via BlueNotes, ESPN has a list of the most notable Scott Boras signings. To no one’s surprise, most of these didn’t work out too well for the teams. On the other hand, didn’t we all see the deals for Park and Zito (and the size of A-Rod’s deal) being bad ideas from the very start?

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg

Draw Your Own Conclusions

Some random stats – both good and bad – for you to chew on on this fine summer Friday…

Clayton Kershaw, 2008
Age: 20
ERA+: 119 (19% better than average pitcher)
Age: 20
Runs in last 19 IP: 1
Age: 20!!!

Chad Billingsley, 2008
ERA: 3.01, 12th in MLB
ERA since May 1: 2.48
K: 4th in MLB (behind Lincecum, Sabathia, Burnett)
Walks allowed on 3-0 counts: 9 for 9
Last 28 days: 1.83 ERA in 5 starts

Manny Ramirez w/ Dodgers
6 games, 13-23, 4 HR, .565/.615/1.130

OF starts since Manny’s arrival
Manny: 6
Kemp: 6
Pierre: 3
Ethier: 2
Jones: 1

Juan Pierre, seasons ranked by OPS+
1. 2004 (107)
2. 2003 (94)
3. 2001 (89)
4. 2005 (84)
5. 2006 (82)
6. 2007 (75)
7t. 2002 (68)
7t. 2008 (68)
Consecutive seasons in decline: 5 (2004-08)
2008 ranked by OBP: worst season of career
2008 ranked by SLG: worst season of career

NL win leaders since July 1
Brewers: 20
Rockies: 20
Dodgers: 19
Cubs: 19
Mets: 19

Russell Martin, OPS by month
April: .888
May: .851
June: .802
July: .738
August: .488
Innings caught: 884.1, 3rd among all MLB catchers
Total innings fielded: 937.1, 1st among all MLB catchers

Dodger VORP ranks in MLB by position
C: Martin 27.0 (4th)
1B: Loney 20.1 (13th, ahead of Ryan Howard)
2B: Kent 5.5 (27th)
SS: Furcal 26.8 (4th - and this is a counting stat!)
SS: Berroa -4.1 (63rd)
LF: Pierre 1.6 (42nd)
LF: Manny 11.6 (21st – that’s as a Dodger only!)
CF: Jones -15.2 (52nd, dead last at CF, 3rd worst overall)
CF: Kemp 24.7 (9th)
RF: Ethier 9.1 (23rd)

MLB Players with at least 75 plate appearances: 422
Mark Sweeney’s VORP rate: -0.535/game (422nd)

Also, over at Baseball Prospectus they’ve got a nice Q&A with Dodgers prospect Andrew Lambo, currently tearing up the Midwest League. It’s not behind their pay wall, so feel free to enjoy. Besides, you’ve got to a love a guy who says,

I got drafted by my hometown team – I grew up about an hour out of L.A., so my whole life I’ve been a Dodgers fan; I grew up going to Dodgers games.  So I guess it’s pretty cool.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg