Let’s Get Older!

Before you look at this, it’s really important to note that it’s just a rumor from a “source”. 99% of these never turn into anything at all, and that’s why I don’t always want to post them. But then I realize that people are going to want to discuss them, so I might as well provide a forum for that. I just ask that you not completely destroy the front office over this until it, you know, actually happens.

Ken Rosenthal:

Two older free agents – outfielder Johnny Damon, 37, and catcher Jason Varitek, 38 – are among the players on the Dodgers’ radar, according to major-league sources. 

In fact, the Dodgers are in contact with virtually every free-agent catcher – Rod Barajas, A.J. Pierzynski, Miguel Olivo – as they try to determine their next step with Russell Martin.

Martin, 27, is at least a week away from running, sources say, and perhaps six weeks away from resuming baseball activities. He would be returning to the most physically demanding position on the field. And his offensive performance is in decline – he posted on-base slugging percentages of .680 and .679 the past two seasons, though he did not play after Aug. 3 last season due to his injury.

Damon seemingly would be a better fit in the American League – more than 75 percent of his plate appearances for the Tigers last season were as a DH. But with the Dodgers, he could replace free agent Scott Podsednik and hit second behind Rafael Furcal.

The Dodgers likely would want assurances that Damon was in good enough shape to play the outfield. But the team’s current left fielder, Jay Gibbon, also is below-average defensively, and Damon would carry added value as a positive influence for the club’s younger players.

Damon is all but unplayable in the outfield and had a .756 OPS last year. Varitek hasn’t been worth more than 1.0 fWAR since 2007.

Enjoy Clayton Kershaw While You Can…

…because Joe Torre is trying to kill him. Okay, okay, we’ll get to that. First things first, Kershaw was absolutely incredible tonight against the Portland Beav- ah, I mean, San Diego Padres. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this kid is just twenty years old, because there’s a case to be made that he is this team’s second best starting pitcher right now. The famous “public enemy #1″ curveball was in full effect, but even better, Kershaw seemed to have total control of his fastball, which touched 97. On top of that, it wasn’t just the minor leaguers and retreads the Padres threw out there tonight, because even first baseman Adrian Gonzalez – one of the better hitters in the league - looked completely lost and frustrated as Kershaw hit his spots and changed speeds.

#22 threw 6 shutout innings, allowing only 1 hit and needing just 74 pitches. James McDonald, making his major league debut in a pressure-free situation (thanks to the suddenly resurgent offense staking them to an 8-0 lead, led by homers from Manny Ramirez, Andre Ethier, and Blake DeWitt) pitched three effective innings to collect an unexpected save. The last three innings were caught by Danny Ardoin, giving Russell Martin a bit of a breather with this weekend’s huge series against Arizona looming.

Oh, right. That’s not what happened at all. Because that would have made all the sense in the world. Hey, the Dodgers won easily, and combined with Arizona’s loss it means they’re only 1.5 games out, so I don’t like to complain – I really enjoyed watching Kershaw dominate and Ethier nearly hit for the cycle. But have we not heard endless amounts of rhetoric this year about preserving Kershaw’s arm? Look, if it’s a big game at the end of the year or the playoffs and he still seems strong, I don’t mind taking a little bit of a risk with pushing him, but let’s make the bullets count, shall we? When you’re up 8-0 after 6 innings against the hopeless Padres, this is when you pat the kid on the back and say “great job”. This is not the time to keep him going – especially when you’ve acknowledged the game is in hand by replacing Manny and Casey Blake with Jason Repko and Chin-Lung Hu, and especially with expanded rosters meaning you’ve got more pitchers than you know what to do with. Instead, Torre puts Kershaw (and Martin) back out there for the 7th inning. Kershaw then gives up two hits, though allows only one run to score. Still, one run through seven innings is outstanding. With Kershaw up third in the bottom of the 7th, it’s the perfect opportunity to get Mark Sweeney or Delwyn Young or even Andruw Jones a token pinch-hitting appearance before turning the last two innings over to one of the non-essentials in your pen, like Jason Johnson, or Eric Stults, or especially McDonald.

Except in the bottom of the 7th, Blake DeWitt walked, followed by Angel Berroa popping out to first. And Clayton Kershaw… strode to the plate to hit for himself. Sure enough, he came out for the 8th inning, where he proceeded to walk the first two men that he faced and was finally pulled. Whether that’s a sign of fatigue or not is irrelevant; the fact is that Torre should have pulled him when the game was in hand – preferably after the 6th inning. Not letting him pitch the 7th, and especially not letting him pitch the 8th when he’d given up a run in the top of the 7th and had to hit for himself in the bottom of the 7th.

Also, and I don’t know why this even surprises me anymore… but Russell Martin caught all nine innings. Again. The day after pulling up running into third base grabbing his lower back. And people wonder why he’s not performing up to par.

Let’s not let this overwhelm the more important story, which is that Kershaw was excellent, the offense was deadly, and most of all, that the Dodgers are just 1.5 games back of Arizona. I just worry about what’s going to happen at the end of the season (and hopefully in October) when this team really needs guys like Kershaw and Martin, and we look back and think about 8-0 games with expanded rosters against lousy opponents where we still had them out there competing.

* I had vaguely heard Peter Gammons mention this on the Sunday night telecast in Arizona the other night, but I could never find it in print. Until now. Ladies and gentleman, a new contender for The Dumbest Thing I’ve Ever Heard, and a hat tip to MLBtraderumors for finding it:

Russell Martin may have slid backward, and had his attention to the defensive preparation called into question, but he remains a tremendous talent who wants to play every day, and his workload may have impacted his attention to game preparation. There has been some talk that the Dodgers may go after a Varitek or a pitcher-oriented catcher, which would free Martin from behind the plate and take his athleticism to third base, where the coaches feel he could also be an All-Star, a move Torre, Todd Zeile and Craig Biggio all made successfully.

Let’s put this out here plain and clear: Jason Varitek is cooked. Toast. Done. Finished. I don’t know how else to say it. He’s going to be 37 next April, and his age-36 year has hardly been something to write home about (completely ludicrous All-Star selection aside) with a line of .226/.316/.375, for an OPS+ of 79. Let me put it this way: His VORP of 2.0 ranks him 36th among all MLB catchers, and to put that in perspective for you, even I’ve never heard of two of the guys right ahead of him (Ryan Hanigan, CIN & Stephen Holm, SF). Do we really expect him to get better at his age? Not only that, the Red Sox have almost nothing at the position behind him, so if they’re still willing to let him go, that says a lot. NO, no, no.

Martin, on the other hand, is the 5th highest catcher in MLB in terms of VORP. Now, I don’t disagree that he’s taken a step backwards this season. It’s hard enough to quantify defensive stats in the first place, and doubly tough for catchers, so this one’s going to have to go under the category of “because I’ve watched enough Dodger games this year to know, damn it”. He hasn’t been the same behind the plate – though he’s hardly become a liability. He’s also not having as good of a year at the plate as last season. While his BA and OBP are nearly identical, his SLG and power numbers have taken a pretty big step back. All of this leads me to four pretty obvious thoughts:

1) He’s not been as good this year because he’s been overworked. We’ve been over this point ad nauseum around here lately, so I won’t go through it again. Basically, he can still be a good catcher. He just needs to have his workload decreased a little so that he can get the rest he obviously needs.

2) He’s not nearly as valuable as a third baseman. An enormous part of Martin’s value is the simple fact that he’s got a useful bat coming from a position where it’s incredibly difficult to find one. His bat simply does not play as well at third base as it does at catcher. So instead of having the 5th-best catcher in baseball, we’d have what, a middle of the pack offensive third baseman? You can’t use VORP to compare the two since that’s position-specific, so let’s use Marginal Lineup Value, which is not position-based and, as defined by Baseball Prospectus, is “an estimate of the additional number of runs a given player will contribute to a lineup that otherwise consists of average offensive performers.” Martin’s .079 is 7th among catchers with at least 200 at-bats, but is only 15th among similar third baseman. How’s that an upgrade?

3) It makes the Casey Blake deal even worse. Not that he would have been ready to jump to the bigs in 2009 anyway, but one of the only saving graces about the terrible Casey Blake deal is that it might have been okay to lose Carlos Santana since we were already going to have Martin at the position for years to come. All of a sudden the great depth you have at a thin position is down to… Lucas May, who’s hitting .230 with a .294 OBP in AA Jacksonville. Now what was once a strong position is totally barren, which leads us to the next point…

4) Who are you going to replace him with at catcher in 2009? The free-agent catching prospects are a barren wasteland of the elderly and infirm, registered members of the International Fraternity of Backup Catchers, and journeymen Quad-A types who never panned out. Seriously, who are we looking at here? 37-year-old Ivan Rodriguez, currently dying a slow death in the Bronx? Jason LaRue? Old friend Paul LoDuca?

No, friends, no. Martin is not without his flaws. But moving him to third base weakens the team greatly at two positions. So let’s just hope that this is nothing but the rantings of a reporter who so dearly misses Manny-time.

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