The MSTI 15-Step Plan for 2012

It’s time for another edition of the yearly plan, in which I put on my GM hat and try to piece together a competitive 2012 club using realistic payroll and player restrictions. Before we start, I have to be honest: this was so much harder to do than it’s ever been. In previous years, I’ve looked forward to putting on the GM hat and thinking up interesting and realistic ideas to improve the next year’s team, but doing it this time was a struggle. Though the uncertain budget thanks to the McCourt mess is part of it, an even bigger problem is that there’s just not much out there. The free agent list is sparse, and while there’s values to be had in the trade market, the Dodgers have little of interest that they can move without opening up a new hole.

I thought about all kinds of possibilities. Perhaps the #5 starter hole could be filled by buying low (extremely low) on previously-successful veterans who have fallen out of favor and would be heavily subsidized, like Derek Lowe or John Lackey (before it was announced he’d miss 2012). Maybe there was some way to get the Red Sox to give up Jed Lowrie or Will Middlebrooks to help stabilize second or third base. Perhaps a package including Chad Billingsley could be sent to Kansas City for Alex Gordon, though the Royals are unlikely to be interested in such a deal and that would just open up another rotation hole anyway. Maybe 2005 Jeff Kent could rise from the dead and return to the Dodgers, because the second base market is a total mess. Is it worth believing that Aaron Hill or Kelly Johnson can come back from down years to reclaim past glory at the keystone? Or maybe you could go cheap elsewhere and pray that Aramis Ramirez, nearing his mid-30s, is worth the ~$40m he’s likely to get to play third base?

In the end, little of it made sense, at least in any way that would be realistic for the other team, because I like to think this blog isn’t the home of “I’ll trade you Mike MacDougal for Ian Kinsler!” type solutions. The Dodgers are boxed in by criminal ownership, too much dead money owed to long-departed players, ballooning payments to poor investments like Juan Uribe & Matt Guerrier, and outside alternatives that are less than ideal. Perhaps Ned Colletti wasn’t that far off when he suggested that he was generally okay with the current roster, because he had done this work already and knew that there was unlikely to be much movement.

Then again, perhaps he’s just not being creative.

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The first question, of course, is how much do the Dodgers have to spend on payroll in 2012? It’s a question that’s almost impossible to answer right now, a problem Colletti has as much admitted to. In 2011, they spent about $98m on players, plus about $17m in “dead” money, for a total of ~$115m. Without revealing how much, this Tony Jackson interview with Ned Colletti claims that “all indications are it will be higher than the roughly $98 million it was this year.” Let’s guess that means an extra $5m, so that’ll put us to a $120m cap including the dead money. I’ve seen the arguments that the longer the ownership dispute drags on, the more likely it is that the payroll decreases by tens of millions of dollars, but I’m not buying it; it’s in no one’s best interest for the value of the Dodgers to go down any further than it already has, and MLB has been consistent about claiming it will be “business as usual” for the Dodgers this winter – whatever that means.

Of course, that doesn’t really mean there’s $120m available to spend. The Dodgers still have about $21m in deferred money committed to the dearly departed, including Manny Ramirez ($8m), Juan Pierre ($3m), Andruw Jones ($3.375m), Rafael Furcal ($3m), and Hiroki Kuroda ($2m), and also including the already-exercised buyouts of Casey Blake ($1.25m) and Jon Garland ($1.5m). So that $120m figure is already down to $99m.
Dead money: $120m – $21m = $99m

Then there’s the money already committed to members of the 2012 club, and here’s where the back-loaded contracts of Juan Uribe ($8m) & Matt Guerrier ($4.75m) really come back to bite us in the ass, making them look even more brutal than the day they were signed. While Ted Lilly at least finished 2011 strong, his salary increases from $7.5m to $12m in 2012, a whole more than I really want to pay him. That, plus the $9m owed to Chad Billingsley, eats up $33.7m of the $99m, leaving us with $65.3m to play with.
Committed money: $99m – $33.7m = $65.3m

But we’re not done yet, because several key members of the core are without contracts yet under team control in 2012. It’s sometimes difficult to guess what will come out of arbitration hearings, so for now we’ll go with Eric Stephen of TrueBlueLA‘s guesses that Clayton Kershaw will get $8m, Andre Ethier will get $12m, and Matt Kemp will get $13m. (The TBLA payroll sheet is an invaluable resource not just for this piece, but all year long.) I hate the idea of giving Ethier that much, but now, when his value is at a low, is no time to trade him. We’ll see about changing those numbers later, and there are definitely other arbitration decisions to be made, but the $33m we just said goodbye to means that with just seven spots on the roster set, we’ve already got $87.7m spoken for, leaving $32.3m to fill out 18 other spots. See how quickly $100m can go?
Arbitration money: $65.3m – $33m = $32.3m

Finally, let’s dedicate about $3m in minimum salary contracts to team-controlled 0-3 players who are almost certain to be on the roster next year – A.J. Ellis, Dee Gordon, Jerry Sands, Javy Guerra, Kenley Jansen, Josh Lindblom, Blake Hawksworth and Scott Elbert. Now we have fifteen spots at a cost of $90.9m, leaving us with $29.3m.
Controlled money: $32.3m – $3m = $29.3m

$29.3m, ten holes. What do you do? Here’s one man’s blueprint…

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1) Sign OF Matt Kemp to a long-term deal.

This should be obvious and in no way arguable. It’s the absolute #1 priority of the winter, no matter what else happens. You can argue how much and over how many years – that’s a conversation for another time - but don’t forget that he’s still under team control for 2012, so the Dodgers retain some leverage. We’ll assume that whatever deal he gets is somewhat backloaded and settle on $12m for next year, more than he made in 2011 but less than he’d probably get in arbitration, which should be fine considering he’ll have the security of a long-term deal.
$29.3m +$1m = $30.3m (since I already accounted for him as $13m above)

2) Sign 1B Prince Fielder to a six-year, $140m deal.

I went back and forth on this one – a lot. I even wrote about the likelihood of Fielder or Albert Pujols arriving a few weeks ago and concluded that it was neither likely or advisable, simply because I don’t like the idea of tying up so much money into one player, especially when that’s going to need to happen for Kemp and Kershaw as well. Even just theoretically talking about it makes me a bit uncomfortable, because it’s so risky. If you want to make the argument that this money is best spent elsewhere, I’m more than open to it.

In the end, I settled on going for it in this exercise because the other options were simply so unattractive. Believe me, I had a whole lot of iterations of this article where I was trying to believe in James Loney and then working on other ways to upgrade. Since it’s hard to see any way to improve at 2B or 3B, your hopes for the infield were to either have to count on Loney to repeat the last six weeks of his season after four years of mediocrity, or overpay for a veteran like Derrek Lee or Lyle Overbay who is unlikely to be much better. There’s a big argument to be made that one year of Loney at $6m is a steal if he hits like he did to finish the season; there’s an even bigger argument to be made that if he doesn’t, you’re once again saddled with an infield that has almost no power whatsoever. If you’re going to try to contend in 2012, and I would argue that having Kemp & Kershaw means you are, then you need to make a move – in addition to the desperately needed positive PR that such a signing would bring.

Besides, it’s the perfect time to go after a Fielder because the traditional big spenders likely won’t be around to drive up the price. The Yankees and Red Sox are each heavily invested at first base and have bigger needs, especially in pitching. The Phillies are about to start a (hilarious) $125m extension with Ryan Howard; even though he’s hurt, their replacement there would be short-term, and the Cardinals will likely just retain Pujols. The Angels probably won’t jump in considering they already have both Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales on hand; the Rangers could be a fit but probably need to focus on pitching. You could definitely see the Cubs being interested, though it’s hard to know what their winter of transition will bring; the Braves definitely need a bat but seem happy with Freddie Freeman at first base. The best possibilities are probably Washington and Baltimore, but the Nats already have Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche under contract for first base and have been burned by the first year of Jayson Werth‘s massive deal; the O’s don’t even have a GM yet and probably have bigger concerns than first base. That’s not to say that Prince won’t get paid, because he will, just that it’s not likely to be the $200m+ figure I’ve seen thrown around.

In addition, Fielder’s relative youth (he’ll still be just 27 on Opening Day of 2012) means that the back-end of a six-year deal would be his age 32-33 seasons, not 35-36. That’s still young enough that you’ll be purchasing most of his prime, not most of his decline, and that’s a big deal considering the concerns about his body type. While I’m admittedly loathe to give up first round picks for free agents, Fielder at least has the potential to be the kind of franchise changer that could make it worth it (and yes, I’m looking at you, Orlando Hudson). Whether the 6/$140m is close or not – I really just made it up without an overwhelming amount of research, so it could be something like 7/$160m instead - it’ll clearly be backloaded, so we’ll start with $13.5m in 2012 as we wait a year or two for other obligations and the ownership crisis to clear. While there’s certainly a very good argument to be made that adding another huge long-term contract to a team that will need to pay Kemp and Kershaw is dangerous, there’s a lot of money coming off the books after 2013, when Lilly, Uribe, and Guerrier (combining to make about ~$25m that year) all figure to be gone, in addition to being free of further payments to Manny. That’s on top of the money you get back assuming that Ethier is no longer with the team after 2012.
$30.3m - $13.5m = $16.8m

3) Trade RP Javy Guerra, SP Chris Withrow, and 2B Ivan DeJesus to Florida for LF/1B Logan Morrison.

This is another one I went back and forth on a lot, initially considering Morrison for first base rather than left field. Then, after getting Fielder, I figured, what the hell – why not try for both? Morrison’s spat with Marlins management is well-known, leading to a brief demotion this summer, and with reports that ownership is ready to take more control over player decisions, it’s not hard to see them wanting to be rid of the outspoken Twitter hero as soon as they can. That makes him an appealing buy-low target, since as he enters his age-24 season, he’s coming off a 2010 in which he had a .390 OBP and a 2011 in which he hit 23 homers. (The obvious comeback there is, “well, he hasn’t done both at the same time, since he hit just 2 homers in 2010 and had a .330 OBP in 2011.” Both true, however his age and his minor league track record suggest otherwise, especially considering that much of his power loss in 2010 can be put on a broken wrist, an injury notorious for sapping power for at least a year, and his 2011 BABIP was quite low before ending the year with a fantastic September.)

Of course, “buy low” does not mean “trade garbage or expensive contracts to Florida”, because he’s low-priced and productive, and so that’s why I’m taking the possibly unpopular route of trading last season’s surprise rookie closer, Guerra. It’s not that I don’t like Guerra, because he was an out of nowhere success story, but if you’re making a trade, you need to deal from depth – and nowhere do the Dodgers have more depth than in young, righty relievers. Besides, Guerra’s high on my list for regression in 2012; his .261 BABIP was on the low side this year, his 4.07 xFIP was a lot less impressive than his 2.31 ERA, and his minor league history doesn’t shout superstar. That’s not to say that he can’t succeed or that I’m desperate to be rid of him, because that’s not true – just that saves are almost always overrated in the marketplace and it might be the best use of Guerra’s value to trade him at the peak of his perceived attractiveness, especially when the Dodgers have Kenley Jansen able to step in and several other young relievers ready to come up.

On the Florida side, they have a big hole in the bullpen thanks to the identity fraud scandal of Leo Nunez (or Juan Carlos Oviedo, Armen Tanzarian, Theodore Donald Karabotsos, or whatever he’s calling himself these days), and the Fish have never been big players in the market, so five more cost-controlled years of Guerra should be appealing. They also get a lottery ticket in Withrow, showing signs of life with 9.1 K/9 in AA last year, though still struggling with his control, and DeJesus, who seems to have little future in Los Angeles but shouldn’t be written off completely since he’s still only 24 and shows good on-base skills in the minors. (As always, the prospects could be replaced by anyone of similar value – it doesn’t have to be exactly these guys – but you get the idea. If they prefer Brian Cavazos-Galvez or Ethan Martin or Kyle Russell or someone instead, fine.)
$16.8m – $0m = $16.8m (Morrison would take Guerra’s 0-3 slot for a similar salary)

4) Don’t try to trade Andre Ethier – at least not now.

Believe me, there’s plenty of good reasons to move Ethier. He’s a bit overrated. He’s cranky. He’s coming off surgery. He can’t hit lefties. He’s not a great defender. When he’s a free agent after 2012, he’s a lower priority than Kemp and Kershaw, and not someone I want to sign to an expensive long-term deal as he enters his decline phase. I totally agree with all of this. However, now’s not the right time to do it. For all of those reasons plus the ~$12m cost for one year before losing him to free agency, I really don’t think the return is out there that we’d want. Even if teams would take the one year of Ethier for that price with all of the issues, it’s unlikely that anyone would give a top prospect in return.

Besides, I expect big things from Ethier in 2012. He’ll be healthy for the first time in a while, and headed into a contract year he should be especially motivated – and Ethier is exactly the type of “chip on my shoulder” player who really responds to that sort of thing. If he’s playing well and the Dodgers are out of it in July, you might be able to get a good prospect in return then (like the Mets getting Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran). If the Dodgers are still in it, you ride it out, try to win, and then collect two draft picks when he leaves.
$16.8m – $0m = $16.8m

5) Sign 3B/UT Wilson Betemit to a one-year, $1.5m deal.

Unfortunately, Uribe is going to be the starting third baseman in 2012. There’s just no way around it. Even if we didn’t have Fielder eating up a huge part of the hypothetical payroll, third base is just a black hole on the market, unless you want to overpay Ramirez or risk a ton of prospects on David Wright. Since Uribe’s going to get paid, he’s going to be the man, but you also can’t risk not having an alternative in case he repeats his 2011.

That’s a tough spot to fill. No one who thinks he’s a full-time starter is going to come to LA for a small contract and the possibility of riding the bench, but most of the available bench types are like Aaron Miles, stopgaps who provide little value. That brings us to Betemit, who I advocated acquiring in the 2011 plan. All he ended up doing was hit .285/.343/.452 for Kansas City and Detroit, albeit with subpar defense. But that’s kind of a perfect fit, isn’t it? Uribe may or may not be able to hit, but even in his lost 2011 he was a solid defender, and Betemit provides the yin to that yang. Besides, the switch-hitting Betemit has a massive platoon split (vs RHP, .865 OPS in 2011, .817 career; vs LHP, .607 OPS in 2011, .684 career) which makes him an intriguing bench piece and/or part-time replacement for Uribe. In emergencies, he can play first and second as well, nice flexibility even if it’s hopefully not needed. Betemit made $1m last year, so let’s give him a slight raise. (An alternative here is Eric Chavez, who I liked last season, if he chooses to play in 2012.)
$16.8m – $1.5m = $15.3m

6) Bring back C Rod Barajas on a one-year, $1.5m deal.

Let’s start with this: you absolutely cannot enter the season with A.J. Ellis & Tim Federowicz as your backstop duo, no matter what Ned Colletti says. Federowicz isn’t ready now (if he will be at all) and needs to play regularly at AAA. Even if you’re a bigger fan of him than I am, you still can’t get by with only two catchers who have combined for less than a full season of MLB play.

Now, I thought about Ramon Hernandez here, though I eventually decided against him because he’s a Type A free agent and may get a two-year deal. I thought about Ryan Doumit to add some switch-hitting pop, but was turned off by his atrocious defense and possible salary demands since he made over $6m last year. In the end, there’s no available difference maker who is really likely to matter, so even though I don’t really want to, we’ll take advantage of Barajas’ stated preference to remain a Dodger and let him do so at a discounted rate. It’s not sexy, and he’s not all that good, but he’s at least got power and the state of catching is so poor that a Barajas/Ellis duo could actually be slightly above average. On this team, Ellis starts 4-5 days a week, not Barajas.
$15.3m – $1.5m = $13.8m

7) Bring back 2B Jamey Carroll for two years and $4m.

This actually scares the hell out of me, and I don’t really like doing it, much as I like Carroll. He’s got absolutely zero power and he’ll be 38 in February; to be honest, I hate everything about this. That said, the second base market is absolutely god awful. My version of the Dodgers can neither afford nor count on Hill or Johnson, and Carroll at least offers on-base skills and decent enough defense. Along with Sellers, he’s also a fallback position in case Gordon flails or is injured; I don’t want to give Carroll two years, yet that’s probably what the market will demand. Ideally, he could get through one more year as a solid OBP guy, and then a better 2B option emerges for 2013, allowing Carroll to spend the second year as the utility guy he really ought to be.
$13.8m – $2m = $11.8m

8) Hedge your bets with Jerry Sands.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve acquired a first baseman and a left fielder, which doesn’t leave a spot for Sands, who finished 2011 so well. In reality, when the Dodgers don’t get a player at either position, I’m more than fine with Sands getting first crack at left field. That said, he’s not enough of a slam-dunk prospect that you simply hand him the job with no backup plan better than a Tony Gwynn, so in this scenario he’ll be able to get playing time in both outfield corners, since Morrison and Ethier are both lefties (even moreso if Morrison is needed to fill in at first base from time to time), and as the main bat off the bench. If he continues to prove himself worthy, you let him step in for Ethier in right field when Andre is traded in July or moves on after 2012. Or, if that makes you uncomfortable, you let him play every day in AAA until injuries pile up.
$11.8m – $0m = $11.8m

9) Round out the bench with minimum-salary deals for IF Justin Sellers and OF Jamie Hoffmann.

Here’s where the big deal for Fielder bites you a little bit, because you no longer have the flexibility to carry much more than minimum salary types on the bottom of the roster. I would really have liked to have gone out and found some intriguing buy-low types like David DeJesus here; unfortunately, it’s just not feasible now. I’ve been pessimistic of Sellers’ ability to hit at the big league level, but he has a solid glove at both middle infield positions, and entering his age-26 season, he’s not enough of a prospect to worry about needing to play every day. Hoffmann is someone I’d like to do better than, yet he’ll be useful because this roster would desperately need a plus defender, and I’d prefer Hoffmann over Gwynn because he hits righty, which is preferable when you’ve got two starting lefty corner outfielders.
$11.8m – $0.8m = $11m

10) Bring back SP Hiroki Kuroda for one year and $9m ($2m deferred).

This is a bit risky, because Kuroda will be 37 years old in February and was slowed by neck pain for the last few weeks of the season. But he’s also coming off the best year of his career, and the Dodgers have a special gift here in that he’s almost certain to favor them over any other team (assuming he chooses to come back, of course). There’s also no one on the market likely to give the type of production we’ve seen from Kuroda for just a one-year deal, either, so if he’s willing to return, we should be happy to have him for one more season.
$11m – $7m = $4m

11) Sign SP Erik Bedard to a one-year, $2m deal, with the opportunity to add a good deal of incentives.

Bedard is almost never healthy for a full season (missed 2010, hasn’t thrown more than 129 innings since 2007), yet is almost always effective when he is. We saw that again this year, where he missed 45 days with two separate injuries (both to his knee, rather than his arm) but put up a 3.62 ERA that was matched by the advanced stats and a 125/48 K/BB for Seattle and Boston, making $1m while doing so.

As he reaches his age-33 season, and with his history, it’s unlikely that anyone is offering him big guaranteed money this winter, so he could be available for a low base price plus incentives. (It’s also possible that I’m completely low-balling this.)

If we accept the fact that he absolutely will miss some time and don’t get disappointent when it happens, I’d rather spend $2m guaranteed to get ~15 good starts from him and ~10 starts from fill-ins rather than ~30 mediocre starts from the 6th-8th starters.
$4m – $2m = $2m

12) Sign SP Rich Harden to a one-year, $1m deal.

I can hear the hesitation now. “Harden is constantly hurt, to the point where a proposed deal that would have sent him to Boston this summer fell apart over concerns about his medicals. He threw just 174.2 innings over the last two seasons combined, and his ERAs the last two years have been 5.58 and 5.12. Why in the hell would you want him?”

Well, I always like a lottery ticket, and as Harden enters his age-30 season, he seems like a perfect candidate to fill the relief ace/spot starter role that Vicente Padilla was supposed to have in 2011. Despite Harden’s ugly ERA last year, his xFIP was merely 3.68, with a 91/31 K/BB in 82.2 innings. His home run rate is admittedly troubling, but hey, we’re talking about a guy on a $1m deal here. If Bedard & Harden can combine for 25-30 decent starts for $3m plus incentives at the back of your rotation, that’s value even if they combine for 100 days on the disabled list. And if they both blow up? Well, at least you took the chance on talent over assured mediocrity, and it’s only $3m.
$2m – $1m = $1m

13) Buy a coach-class ticket to non-tender city for Loney and Hong-Chih Kuo.

Loney made this a pretty tough call with his hot end to 2011, and let me say that in the real world, the one in which the Dodgers aren’t really going to get Prince Fielder, I think he’s going to be tendered a contract to give him one more chance to prove his worth. Though I’d be positive that he’d succeed if he landed somewhere else, there’s no room for a $6m pinch-hitter on this club. (Obviously, trading him would be preferable to non-tendering, though I’m not sure any other club is taking that $6m gamble either.)

Kuo is the longest-tenured Dodger and I’d hate to see him go, but his 2011 struggles, long injury history, and yet another elbow surgery last week mean that risking a raise on his $2.73m salary in arbitration is foolish. If he does want to play and doesn’t want to risk turning his arm over to a new training staff who doesn’t know him well, he might be willing to come back on a reduced contract; you could argue that he should get Harden’s $1m allotted above, or you might even get lucky and get him back on a non-guaranteed deal.

14) Say goodbye to 2011 free agents Juan Rivera, Casey Blake, Tony Gwynn, Jay GibbonsAaron Miles, Eugenio Velez, Jon GarlandDana Eveland, Vicente Padilla, Mike MacDougal, and Jonathan Broxton.

Let’s caveat that by saying that if you can get any of these guys back (except Velez, who should be extradited from the country) on a minor-league deal to fight for a job in camp, then by all means do so – particularly Padilla, who has always been surprisingly effective as a Dodger when healthy. I’m guessing that’s unlikely to happen for most of them, who will merit at least a small major-league deal. In reality, I expect that Rivera, MacDougal, and Miles will all return, but there’s just no room for them on my hypothetical team.

15) Turn Pedro Baez into a pitcher. Come on already.

Yeah, I said this last season too, arguing that Baez’ rocket arm wasn’t going to be enough to get him to the bigs as a third baseman, especially considering that despite being old for the competition in the offensively-oriented California League, he managed just a .306 OBP and six homers in 2010. So what did he do this year to follow it up? He played in just 32 AA games, hitting .210/.278/.381, and missed the entire season after May with an injury. (Which, to be honest, I have not been able to identify.) I’m not saying it’s any sort of guarantee that such a conversion works out like it did for Jansen, but it basically is a guarantee that Baez never becomes a big leaguer as a third baseman. It’s worth a shot for both sides.

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So what does this leave us with? A lineup that could look like this…

2B Carroll-R
LF Morrison-L
CF Kemp-R
1B Fielder-L
RF Ethier-L
3B Uribe-R
C Ellis-R
SS Gordon-S

BN: Barajas-R, Betemit-S, Sellers-R, Sands-R, Hoffmann-R

Though I know the real team would never actually let Carroll lead off and put Gordon 8th, that’s where I’m putting them due to their respective OBP skills. It’s amazing how much Fielder and Morrison lengthen that lineup, isn’t it, and how much better does that look than last year when we were forced to depend on Uribe, Dioner Navarro, Casey Blake, Marcus Thames, and Jay Gibbons? While the bench is less than sexy, that’s what you have to live with if you dedicate so much payroll to one or two expensive players. However, Sellers and Hoffmann are each excellent defenders, and could really come in handy replacing Gordon/Carroll and Morrison/Ethier for defensive purposes in the late innings. Betemit & Barajas would provide offense, if used correctly, and protection. At AAA, you’d still likely have Federowicz, Russ MitchellTrent Oeltjen, Alex Castellanos, Scott Van Slyke and whatever NRIs you pick up (Andy LaRoche, anyone?) along with others for depth.

Then your pitching staff would look like this…

1) Kershaw
2) Kuroda
3) Billingsley
4) Lilly
5) Bedard

CL Jansen
R Lindblom
R Guerrier
R Hawksworth
R Harden
L Elbert
NRI / Kuo / Padilla / Troncoso

I’d be a whole lot more comfortable with another ace in that rotation, but I guess that’s what happens when you give $33m to Ted Lilly. If and when Bedard breaks down, you could either move up Harden or bring up Nathan Eovaldi, John Ely, or your yearly veteran non-roster guy like Dana Eveland – if not Eveland himself. (I kind of like Dontrelle Willis as an NRI; look past his W/L record for Cincinnati and he actually had a decent year.) Later in the year, a younger starter like Allen Webster could be a factor, or even Rubby De La Rosa depending on the progress of his recovery. The bullpen could look forward to possibilities like Shawn Tolleson, Cole St. Clair, Steve Ames, and whatever random veteran NRI shows up in camp.

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So that’s it. I’ve been staring at this for weeks and I’m still not sure I’m happy with it. Is it foolish to think that signing Fielder is even possible? Perhaps. Am I unintentionally low-balling what Bedard or Betemit might actually get, because I don’t want to give them more? Maybe so, and I didn’t get Kershaw signed long-term (though I suppose you could also do that and structure it so that it doesn’t affect 2012 that much). Either way, this is a team that could be built, in theory, for something close to what the Dodgers can spend, and it’d likely be a lot more competitive and interesting than what they have now. Compare this to some of the fantastic plans you all thought up over the weekend, and then let’s not try to be too disappointed when the big moves in reality are to bring back Rivera and sign Yuniesky Betancourt.

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 Hu
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.

Winter Meetings: Day 2

Short on time today, but I really wanted to address today’s newest hot rumor: WFAN in New York City, probably going off this ESPN blog, is reporting that the Dodgers are hot on the trail of Orioles LHP Erik Bedard, with Matt Kemp and Jonathan Broxton rumored to be amongst the players headed East.

First, lets address: do we want Bedard? Well. Yes. Sure, there’s the 5th-place finish in the AL Cy Young race this year, and the best K/9ip ratio in the entire league at 10.93, despite having to face the Sox and Yankees and Rays (who have a pretty solid lineup) more than anyone else.

But when I evaluate a player, what I really like to see are trends. This is how we could be pretty sure that Luis Gonzalez was going to be a bust, because his OPS has been going down steadily for about 6 years now. Trends are a good sign that a player is still improving, or has peaked and is declining.

So what are Bedard’s trends, in his 4 full seasons of starting (04-07)?

Damn good.

bedard.jpg

ERA+: 100, 108, 121, 146
WHIP: 1.602, 1.384, 1.350, 1.088

He’ll be 29 on Opening Day. He did get hurt last season and missed the last month – though at least it was with a strained oblique, not arm issues. Adding him to our current rotation? A front 4 of Bedard/Penny/Lowe/Billingsley is mighty mighty tasty. And then if Schmidt can come anywhere close to what he had been as the #5 starter.. well, that ain’t not half bad.

As for paying the price? I’m torn. On one hand, if it’s Broxton/Kemp/lesser pieces, it sure is refreshing to see that a deal can be made without having to give up Kershaw, Loney, or LaRoche.

On the other hand, if Kemp’s out the door, something has to be done about the offense. Perhaps signing Rowand, or Jones.

I’m really torn. I know this post is less about stats, and more stream-of-conciousness, but that’s what happens when I try to sneak these in at work.

Final analysis: if this happens, I won’t be horribly upset about it. And I will love watching this pitching staff. But a big part of me wonders if we shouldn’t just sign Kuroda, and keep Kemp and/or go after another bat.

Then again. Erik Bedard in Blue. Tasty, tasty thoughts.

What’s your thoughts?

Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg