Not Off To A Good Start Here…

Because I’m really not happy to hear this news…

LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers declined the 2009 option for backup catcher Gary Bennett, paying a $50,000 buyout instead of exercising a $900,000 option.

What? No, the hell with him. I’d basically forgotten he even existed. The chances of Gary Bennett getting $900,000 were so small that I’m surprised the Dodgers didn’t decline the option before the season even ended.

No, this is what I’m talking about:

The Dodgers declined the $9.25 million option for 2009 on pitcher Brad Penny and paid him a $2 million buyout, allowing the 30-year-old right-hander to become a free agent. After winning 16 games in both 2006 and 2007, Penny went 6-9 with a 6.27 ERA in 2008, spending three stints on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis and he missed the postseason.

pennysmall

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that I’m not in favor of this move, since I already advocated picking up his option in my 2009 plan, but I still think this is a huge mistake. This is what I said in that post:

Let me first say, if it turns out that he’s more seriously injured than we know and he does need surgery, then forget it, buy him out. I’m going on the assumption that he’s not that seriously hurt, because as I detailed after his last appearance, dudes with bum shoulders don’t hit 96 on the gun. Nearly all of his problems seemed to be easily chalked up to rust, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find out for sure that placing him on the DL was simply because they needed the roster spot and didn’t think Penny would have a chance to pitch enough to work his way back into shape during a playoff push. So why am I picking this up? Two reasons, the first of which being, he was excellent as a Dodger before 2008. His ERA+ was better than league average in every year since he arrived in LA, and 2007 was fantastic at 16-4 with a 159 ERA+. I have a hard time believing that he’s just “lost it” – again, barring a more serious injury we don’t know about. The second reason is, it’s cheap. Since the $8.75m option has a $2m buyout, we’re only talking about $6.75m here. Do you really think you could go out and find a pitcher with his track record for one year, $6.75m? Of course not. This is exactly the kind of gamble a large-market team like the Dodgers should be taking.

My post said $8.75m because that’s what Cot’s Baseball Contracts said; I’m not sure why there’s a discrepancy between that and the other story). But regardless of which salary number is correct, you’re just not going to be able to get a pitcher with his pedigree at that salary number. It’s really easy to forget with how bad Penny was for most of the year, but he got off to a very good start – 2.89 ERA in April. Then he got injured and admittedly tried to pitch through it, instead of telling the team. Imagine if he’d shut it down sooner – instead of having an ugly 6.27 ERA next to his name, maybe it’d only have been around 4.00 had he not been on the mound pushing through while injured. By comparision, look at Rafael Furcal. All we heard all summer was how great he was early in the season because he was still hitting about .366 when he went down. What if he’d tried to play through it and was down to .240 by the time he finally hung it up? I’m quite sure no one would be looking at Furcal the same way they are this offseason. To say that Penny can’t perform any more after several very good seasons is, in my opinion, a big mistake.

Also, it’s certainly not like the Dodgers couldn’t use the starting pitching depth. Right now, your starting rotation consists of Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and Clayton Kershaw, and all three come with their own questions of age and workload. With Derek Lowe and Greg Maddux likely departing, Jason Schmidt an eternal unknown, and James McDonald an untested rookie, you don’t think you could use a guy who as recently as last year, I was looking into whether or not he was having the best non-Koufax LA Dodger starting pitching season ever? Because if you don’t think he’s going to be able to go elsewhere and get more years and bigger paychecks than one year and $7.25m (forget the $2m buyout, he gets it regardless), you’re absolutely wrong – assuming doctors clear his arm. Meanwhile, the Dodgers could be short on starters and paying much more than that for a lesser pitcher.

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

I’ve Never Cared So Little About a Loss

Despite making Jake Peavy throw over 50 pitches in the 5th inning, the Dodgers were unable to beat back the Padres, as each of the LA pitchers allowed at least one… ah hell, who cares!

PARTY!!!

I’ve never seen a Dodgers game with an atmosphere like that – it was like watching spring training, except with 50,000 people as opposed to 5,000. As it just so happened to be the last regular season home game of the season, Joe Torre really put a flourish on it with his lineup choices. Not only did we get to see Rafael Furcal and Jeff Kent start up the middle together for the first time in over four months, but the whole “send a guy out to his position, but replace him before the inning starts” idea – thus allowing the fans to give standing ovations to guys like Kent, Furcal, and Manny – was electrifying.

Now obviously there was quite the party after the game, and I’m not going to recap that all here, since that’s already been done pretty well across the Dodger web (Sons of Steve Garvey, as usual, comes up with the best pictures, and Andrew Kamenetzy from the LA Times’ Blue Notes blog was in the middle of the chaos). Although I will point out that Joe Beimel in his custom Dodgers robe, complete with uniform number, is probably one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

So now it’s off to San Francisco for three of the least meaningful games you’ll ever see, hopefully populated by heavy doses of Delwyn Young, Chin-Lung Hu, Jason Repko, and the like. And can we please get A.J. Ellis an at-bat? He’s caught in two games, but has yet to see the plate. You never know if he gets another chance in the bigs, so don’t let him go out like this. Free A.J. Ellis! More important, however, than anything that happens up by the Bay this weekend is how things shake out for the other two NL playoff spots, since there’s still three different opponents that the Dodgers could face - Chicago, New York, or Philadelphia.

Now all along, I’ve been saying “Let’s go Mets!” simply because their bullpen is a completely abysmal house of horrors, and I’d still like to see them in the first round. But I’ve now realized that there’s something way more important to cheer for this weekend, and it’s not any one team in particular: it’s time. Think about it – the Cubs have known they’d be in for weeks, and have been able to adjust their rotation accordingly. The Dodgers, now that they’ve clinched, have rearranged their staff so that Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley can pitch Games 1 & 2 on normal rest (extra rest, actually, for Chad). But the Mets, Phillies, and Brewers still need to claw for every last game, and if they should be forced to extend this through the weekend, all three have their aces lined up for what would likely be a do-or-die game on Sunday: Johan Santana, Cole Hamels, and CC Sabathia respectively. Forget Milwaukee, since there’s no way LA can play them, but what that effectively means is that neither the Mets or Phillies would have their ace available for Game 1, which would also make it more difficult to bring him back for a second start should the series go to four or five games. Who would you rather be facing in Game 1 as Shea Stadium rocks with the cheers of its final season: Johan Santana… or Mike Pelfrey?

So sure, root for the Mets. Root for the Brewers to collapse. But more than anything, root for the battle to go as long as possible. And hey, even though it’ll ruin my weekend, I don’t care: root for rain. It’s been raining in New York City all day, and it’s expected to last through the weekend. How great would it be to play a Mets team that just had to run through their top starters and most of their bullpen in a do-or-die Monday doubleheader?

It’s going to be an exciting weekend, folks. It’s really nice to have finished this off early and relax while watching prospective opponents kill each other just to get in.

* One other thing to discuss, and I hate to be a downer, but I can’t let this go by. What the hell is up with this?

The locker of Brad Penny was empty Thursday and Penny himself was nowhere to be seen.

The Dodgers’ opening-day starter, Penny was placed on the 60-day disabled list Wednesday to open up a spot on the 40-man roster for Furcal. Penny is ineligible for postseason play.

Torre said he had no idea about Penny’s whereabouts.

“I didn’t get a chance to say hello or goodbye,” Torre said. “He was here yesterday and he disappeared. I didn’t ask him to leave.”

General Manager Ned Colletti said he spoke Wednesday to Penny’s agent, Greg Genske, but refused to divulge the nature of their conversation. Genske did not return voice messages.

Penny, who has a $9.25-million option for next season that could be bought out for $2 million, said this month that he was disappointed that the Dodgers refused to extend his contract this spring.

Sounds like we’ve seen the last of him, but what a way to do it. Who clears out their locker on the day the team – of which you are the most senior member of – wins the division? I was still considering the possibility of picking up his option next year, which is really only a $7 million decision thanks to the buy-out. But if he’s just going to bail on the team during the playoff run, and not even tell anyone at that, then no thanks.

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

Nothing Is F***ed Here, Dude

The Dodgers have won 16 out of their last 21. They’d won 6 series in a row before dropping 2 of 3 to San Francisco this weekend, and it could have very easy been 7 series in a row with just one well-placed groundball on Sunday.

So why’s everyone acting like the sky is falling? Just look at the headlines.

“Dodgers make pennant race interesting at the end”, Los Angeles Times.

“Dodgers lose game and precious ground”, Los Angeles Times.

“Dodgers’ NL West lead continues to shrink”, Los Angeles Daily News

“Any Dodgers pressing?”, Riverside Press-Enterprise

Yes, the Diamondbacks have played better lately. I get it, they’re not going to just completely give up and die. But let’s not act as though the Dodgers have reverted to the Little League outfit they became during that 8-game losing streak just yet, shall we? The odds are still squarely in the Dodgers favor – 94.7% to 5.3%, in fact, according to the latest Playoff Odds Report on Baseball Prospectus.

* Being as it’s an off-day, I’d like to continue what would be an epic jinxing by updating the playoff roster predictions I made earlier in the month. At the time, I included Brad Penny, Rafael Furcal, and Jeff Kent. We’ve got the latest news on the three, also from Baseball Prospectus and Will Carroll’s invaluable “Under the Knife” report:

The Dodgers seem ready to slide into the playoffs, but there’s as much work to be done by Stan Conte and his staff as there is for Joe Torre and his field staff. The Dodgers are waiting to see if they’ll have Kent and Furcal back, but putting either on the playoff roster would be a real gamble. Kent still can’t run, but can hit, giving LA scribes an easy comparison to Kirk Gibson. Torre, for his part, won’t commit to having Kent on the roster for the Division Series, with most indications being that Kent would be left off while continuing to rehab. The news isn’t as good with Furcal, who still has back problems, including pain shooting into his leg, after his back surgery. His addition to the lineup looks extremely unlikely, though he too will continue to rehab. A Kent/Furcal keystone combo is certainly better than what they had out there on Sunday (Blake DeWitt and Angel Berroa). The news is clearer on Penny—he’s done for the season after another cortisone injection in his pitching shoulder, and will be shut down.

The loss of Penny, combined with the news that Torre will in fact use 4 starters, means that I’m going to replace him with Greg Maddux, who I’d initially left off. I’m also going to say that either Furcal or Kent makes the roster, but not both, so as horrified as I am to entertain this possibility… you might actually see Pablo Ozuna out there. I know, I know. I just can’t see them going with Chin-Lung Hu over him, or ever allowing Delwyn Young to play second base again.

* Speaking of looking ahead, Cubs fans are already discussing who they might face in the playoffs. It’s starting to look almost certain that it won’t be the Dodgers, unless the Brewers turn it around and overtake the Mets for the wild card. The Chicago Tribune ranks the Dodgers #2 in terms of preferred opponents, harder than Arizona yet more preferable than New York or Philadelphia, saying:

Reasons to believe: Los Angeles was a sub-.500 team as recently as Sept. 2. For the season, the Dodgers rank 13th in the NL in runs and home runs. The injury to closer Takashi Saito unsettled the bullpen. Saito has returned, leaving Joe Torre to choose between Saito and Jonathan Broxton in save situations.

Causes for concern: No NL team has been hotter than the Dodgers, who have gone 16-4 since Aug. 30 as Manny Ramirez (above) and Andre Ethier have turned around a stagnant lineup. Derek Lowe is the hottest starter in the NL, going 5-1 over seven starts with a 1.14 ERA since Aug. 15. Torre’s teams have gone 16-9 in postseason series, winning four World Series.

Frankly, I’d rather play the Mets and their disaster-a-second bullpen than the Cubs, anyway. Cubs blog Wrigleyville23 looks at it another way

All of the teams have bats, but pitching wise:

1. The Brewers are what they are, which is CC and a bunch of nothing if Sheets is hurt.

2. The Mets are Santana, Pelfrey and … absolutely no bullpen?

3. The Phillies are Hamels, Myers, Lidge and a bunch of crap.

4. And the Dodgers are way out there on the West Coast. Long way to fly.

I’m not sure whether to be pleased that other people think the Dodgers offense is suddenly on par with bashers like the Phillies and Brewers… or insulted that “pitching wise”, the biggest strength of the team that’s still leading the National League in ERA is flight time.

* This isn’t Dodger-related, but I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read it, regarding the Mets signing up with Buffalo to be their new AAA affiliate:

“Of all the organizations, I don’t know of one that is more baseball-oriented than the Mets,” Bisons president and owner Bob Rich Jr. said.

Because while the Mets focus on baseball, the Dodgers spend 20% of their time on their indoor volleyball team? The Cubs worry about their used-car dealership?

No game tonight. Let’s go Cardinals! Especially because I really like the picture I found for what would be magic number 4.

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

I Am Really Going to Miss Derek Lowe

Derek Lowe, last 7 starts:
W-L: 5-1
IP: 47.2
ERA: 1.13
OPS against: .458
K/BB: 28/7

It gets better. He’s 5th in the National League in WHIP this year, ahead of some names you might recognize – Johan Santana, Brandon Webb, Tim Lincecum, and Jake Peavy. Most of what I’ve liked about Lowe in his Dodger career is how consistent and reliable he’s been; in his four years here, his ERA has been within a 0.40 range every season, and as he’s never been on the disabled list in his career, he makes every start. You know what you’re going to get from Derek Lowe, and that’s 30+ starts, 200+ innings, an ERA about a run or so better than the league average, and a surprisingly mediocre record because he never gets any run support. Plus, if you should be lucky enough to make it to October, he’s battle tested from his days in Boston. With all the volatility and injuries you see in an average starting rotation, having a guy like that is unbelievably valuable. Paul DePodesta really ought to be getting a Nobel Prize for that 4 year, $36 million deal he signed Lowe to after 2004. Instead, he got a swift kick in the ass. Oh well, nearly as good.

Except that this year, consistency be damned. Lowe’s had 4 months with an ERA of roughly 3 (April, June, July, and August), 1 month where he was absolutely horrible (0-4, 6.11 in May), and now a month where he’s been untouchable (0.89 in 3 September starts). It all adds up to the second-best year of his career as a starter, behind only his 2002 campaign in which he finished 3rd in the AL Cy Young voting. 2008 has seen Lowe set non-2002 career highs in WHIP and ERA+ (as a starter; remember, he was an All-Star closer in Boston first). Since all signs point to the Dodgers making it to October (*notajinxnotajinxnotajinx*), how bad-ass does a 1/2 of Billingsley/Lowe look? It might not be Sabathia/Sheets or Zambrano/Harden, I suppose. But I’d certainly take it over Santana/Pelfrey or Hamels/Myers.

We’ll have a lot more on Lowe’s impending free agency after the season. However, today we’ve also got to discuss another veteran starter who has a contract decision coming up: Brad Penny. He’s been pretty bad in his first two appearances out of the bullpen, but I think a lot of people (okay, me) chalked that up to the rust accumulated by not being able to go on a minor league rehab stint. But now there’s this from ESPN’s Buster Olney:

Heard this: Brad Penny‘s season is likely over, after he threw in the ball in the 83-84 mph range the other day.

I thought that was interesting, because we haven’t seen the possibility of his season “likely” being over from any of the local guys, and it’s unusual for a national guy to pick up on something like that first. Besides, in his first time back, velocity was not the problem. Against San Diego on Sept. 10, Penny threw fastballs on 16 of his 17 pitches, nearly all of which were between 93-96 MPH. Now I’m no doctor, but if you can still hit 96, it seems to me like there’s not a major injury there. No, Penny didn’t get an out, but he didn’t get hit all that hard either. He walked one, gave up a single to left, and an infield hit. It’s hardly surprising that his control would be off after his layoff, and besides, if you’re throwing almost entirely fastballs, you can’t expect to be fooling anyone.

In his second time out against the Pirates on Sept. 15, Penny threw only 13 pitches. Granted, he gave up an asbolute bomb of a home run to Adam LaRoche, and that’s not good. That said, getting 3 outs on 13 pitches generally is pretty good. More importantly, however, is Olney’s assertion that he was only getting up “in the 83-84 mph range.” According to MLB gameday, Penny threw only 5 fastballs against 5 curveballs and 3 changeups. His fastball was down from the first time out, staying in the 87-91 range (though still above what Olney said; was he counting the changeups?) Even so, he was able to induce three groundouts (I know, I know, and a single and a homer.)

My point is, we’re talking about a guy who missed a month and had no chance to go on a rehab assignment.  His first time back, it’s almost entirely fastballs – doesn’t that sound exactly like what pitchers do in spring training, working on their pitches regardless of the results? His second time out, he started working on the other pitches too, and while giving up a homer isn’t a good thing, it wasn’t a total disaster either.

Hey, it’s more than possible that Buster Olney knows something that I don’t. I just find it hard to believe he’s found out something that none of Dodger beat writers know.

That said, I’m posting this at 8:42am PST. I fully expect to receive the press release saying that Penny is on the 60-day DL by 9am.

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

Now Serving Number 42…

I’m out at dinner tonight with some friends from MLB.com.

One checks his phone, and seeing the press release, says to me, “Brad Penny and Cory Wade to the DL.”

I reply, “no surprise on Penny. Too bad about Wade, he’s been really good. Who’d they call up?”

He says, “Eric Stults… and a former Yankee.”

Me, racking my brain for the AAA roster: “Scott Proctor? Mike Myers?”

Him: “Worse… Worcester’s own…”

Me: “Oh my god! Not Tanyon Sturtze! Really?!”

Sturtze is 37 years old, and he actually had to start his 2008 at Jacksonville this year, which is an experience I can’t even imagine for a non-rehabbing pitcher of that age. Look, we all know why he’s here; he’s another one of Joe Torre’s unexplained relief pitcher mancrushes, despite the fact that he was never even very good for the Yankees. In his 3 seasons in New York (2004-06), he was reliably below average, posting ERA’s of 5.47, 4.73, and finally 7.59 in 18 games in 2006 before being shown the door. Sturtze hasn’t been even league average since 2001, and suffered through a brutal 4-18 campaign for the 2002 Devil Rays. Last year, he didn’t even get to taste the majors. He somehow spent time at four different levels of the Atlanta system and put up a glowing 9.53 ERA. He’s at least been better than that this year with a 4.70 ERA at Jacksonville and a 4.13 at Las Vegas, but it’s like that’s very good either. Why him to be the 42nd Dodger we see this year rather than, say, Matt Riley, who’s outperforming him in AAA by a good margin? Why not Mike Myers, who had a 166 ERA+ in 55 games for the Yankees last year and is outperforming Sturtze in the minors this year? It’s not really that I think the last man in the bullpen is going to change the course of the season; it’s that, as we’ve seen with Scott Proctor and Brian Falkenborg, when Joe Torre gets one of his security blanket guys, he tends to put them into high-pressure situations no matter who else is available. And that does worry me.

Speaking of Falkenborg, former Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta - now working in the Padres front office - blogs about him today:

Fortunately for Brian, he has had stints in the big leagues in each of the past five seasons with the Dodgers, Padres, and Cardinals. Brian has always had a good fastball/curveball combination, but his stuff has really exploded in the past year. Typically armed with a 91-93 mph, Brian has been regularly touching 95, 96, and even 97 mph this season out of the bullpen.
Always showing solid command along with his stuff, this year he walked just 2.1 per nine innings and struck out 10.5 per nine innings before getting the call to the big leagues. So far he had pitched just 11.2 innings in the big leagues, giving up 11 hits, four walks, and striking out nine before being placed on outright waivers.

Our scouting reports from both Chris Gwynn and Randy Smith indicate that he has become an aggressive reliever whose fastball has been overpowering at times. We’re excited to have him back in San Diego and anticipate giving him a good look between now and the end of the season.

This blog wasn’t around during the DePodesta holy wars, but if we had been, we’d have been squarely on his side (how anyone can still say that the Penny/LoDuca trade was a bad one is beyond me). But in this case? Sorry Paul. If Falkenborg really had “solid command” and stuff that “has exploded”, he probably wouldn’t have, you know, sucked so much over his career. He’s all yours. But if you want to send us Greg Maddux, that’s fine by me.

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