2011 Midseason Review: MSTI


We’re wrapping up this midseason review with a new focus: me. Regular readers of this blog know that nothing interests me more than big-picture roster mechanics, and so I’ve often put forth judgement on trades and signings, and occasionally offered suggestions of my own. It was pointed out to me on Twitter recently that if I was going to criticise the moves of others, it was only fair for me to turn the spotlight on myself. (It was also pointed out to me in the comments of a recent post that I get too much “told ya so!” sometimes, which, perhaps, but this post sure isn’t going to help change that perspective.)

Remember, this is just for fun on yet another off-day, because there’s no guarantee that a player who is doing well or poorly in one place would have had the same performance in another.

Matt Kemp

What I said at the time (03/24/11):

My positive feelings about him continued in his 2010 season in review piece later that month, where I noted that he had not only taken responsibility for his subpar year, he’d ended the season on a five-homers-in-five-games tear while ridding himself of the distractions that had derailed his season – Joe Torre, Larry Bowa, Bob Schaefer, and even Rhianna, if you believe in that sort of thing. (Rob Neyer had a great look at the shortcomings of the 2010 coaching staff, too.) Again, Kemp is not to be excused for being unable to work through all that, but nor should it be ignored that from all indications, he wasn’t getting a lot of support internally either.

I realize it’s spring, and that everyone has a nice, rosy outlook this time of the year. That’s fine, and it’ll take more than some spring dingers and saying the right things to prove Kemp right. But the signs are all there for a massive year – no one’s questioned his talent, but now he’s motivated to prove himself, with distractions gone and the right instruction in place.

Matt Kemp is still just 26. The two-year contract he signed after 2009 is up this year. He’s got a lot to prove – and mark my words, he’s going to do it.

How’d that work out?

Eh, he’s okay.

Juan Uribe

What I said at the time (11/29/10):

Now that we’ve got the positives out of the way… what in the hell is this team doing giving three years* and $22m to Juan Uribe?! (*standard caveat of “it’s just a report, and not an official deal yet” applies.) Uribe’s never had even a two-year deal in his life. He was quite good in 2005 with the White Sox (111 OPS+, 23 HR), but after four consecutive years of not having an OBP over .301, he was cut loose after 2008. The Giants got him for 1 year, $1m in 2009, and he was quite good again – 112 OPS+ – so they resigned him for 1 year, $3.2m in 2010. Other than increasing his HR, he completely regressed at he plate. His OPS fell from .824 to .749, and his wOBA fell from .351 to .322.

That doesn’t make him useless, but as I’ve said every other time I’ve talked about him, I like him for one year and I’d accept an option for a second. But now we’re giving a guy whose age 25-28 seasons were all basically a waste, had one good year at 29 and couldn’t quite keep it up at 30 three guaranteed years? Why? Because he was a Giant? Because he hit a homer in the World Series (despite doing little else in October)?

How’d that work out?

While everyone knew giving Uribe three years was a horrendous idea, it should be noted that I originally tossed out the idea of signing him weeks before it happened. I was only willing to give one guaranteed year with an option for a second, of course, but the point is that even Uribe’s most ardent detractors weren’t predicting as poor of a season as we’ve seen. But hey, two more years!

Ted Lilly

What I said at the time (10/19/10)

I guarantee that I’m going to be in the minority here, but I’m not thrilled with this. The casual fan is going to see this as some sort of sign that Frank McCourt is willing to spend, but there’s a big difference between spending and spending wisely, and spending big on a 35-year-old pitcher entering his decline years is not wise. Isn’t this how we ended up being stuck with Casey Blake next year?

So sure, I’m happy to see him back in 2011, but we can’t be short-sighted about this. Remember, Lilly just finished a 4-year, $40m contract, which is an average annual value of $10m/year. Somehow, despite being 4 years older, less than a year past shoulder surgery, and on the decline, the Dodgers saw fit to give him a deal which increases that value?

I’m not arguing that he wouldn’t have found a contract like that on the market, because he would have. I would have just preferred it be some other team to make a foolish investment. Spending money does not equal spending wisely, because while Lilly’s a good pitcher, he’s hardly a difference-maker, yet he’s being paid like one. Though I’m glad he’s back for 2011, I really think we’re going to regret this deal in 2012 and 2013 – which is basically exactly what I said about Blake’s deal after 2008.

How’d that work out?

If I was wrong here, it was in that I at least thought Lilly could be good this year before falling off the next two years. Instead, he’s been barely above replacement level this year, and that does not give me much hope for the next two years of the deal as he’s 36 and 37. The lesson, as always: big money deals to older pitchers, particularly one who had a completely unsustainable debut with your club, rarely work out.

Casey Blake

What I said at the time (9/21/10):

Unfortunately, history isn’t on Blake’s side either. There’s only been seventeen seasons since 1961 in which a third baseman 37 or older (since Blake will be 37 most of next year) has managed to even play enough to qualify for the batting title. Looking at that list, most of them are Hall of Famers (Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Brooks Robinson, Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken, Jr.), or about to be (Chipper Jones) – and even then there’s quite a few dreadful seasons on that list. Do we really expect that Casey Blake is the one who bucks that trend?

Thanks to the budget and his veteran status, I fully expect that Blake is going to be the regular third baseman in 2011, but it’s not what’s best for the team (and is exactly what I feared when they signed him back in 2008).

How’d that work out?

Blake hit just .243/.346/.386 around three disabled list stints and is on pace to play in fewer than 80 games. He gets a little bit older every day.

Rod Barajas

What I said at the time (12/03/10):

Barajas signed for $500k with the Mets last year, waiting until just before camp opened in February to even get that. He was then so bad that the woeful Mets, you know, let him go to the Dodgers on waivers for absolutely nothing. Granted, he had a great first week or so in Dodger blue – 4 homers, 1.458 OPS in his first 8 games. Yet in his remaining 17 games, he had just 1 homer and a .612 OPS, also known as “Rod Barajas being Rod Barajas“. On the season, he had a .284 OBP, which exactly matches his career mark, because he’s not very good.

Look at it this way – Barajas had never made more than $3.2m, which is what he got from Texas in 2006. He’s now five years older, coming off several lousy seasons bouncing from team to team – making less than $1m in two of them – yet somehow, coming off a year in which he was dumped on waivers and will be 35, he’s all of a sudden worth $3.8m. Seriously? In my 2011 plan, when I said he could come back I said that I thought he could be had for $800k. Is this all because of his one good week as a Dodger? I’ve had to deal with a lot of casual fans who got taken in by that, but I never expected the front office to do so.

How’d that work out?

As I noted, Barajas’ career marks aren’t great, and even still he’s been unable to match them. Since he does still have some pop (8 HR) this year, it’s not the fact that he was signed which bothered me, it’s just the sheer amount of money he received.

Dioner Navarro

What I said at the time (2/20/11):

So tell me, why is it that Navarro has a $1m contract for 2011, while Ellis has bus rides around the PCL to look forward to? Because of that one good year? That fluke year also isn’t fooling the latest iteration of Baseball Prospectus‘ PECOTA projections, pegging Navarro for .243/.304/.336  and Ellis at .256/.364/.321. The numbers just don’t support it, and that’s without even questioning the off-field issues brought up by Navarro refusing to remain with the Rays in the playoffs last year after not making the roster. It’s also without bringing defense into the equation, as that’s notoriously hard to evaluate for catchers, though it should be noted that Ellis has a very good repuation, and the DRaysBay quote above wasn’t exactly glowing towards Navarro. (Update: after this went up, BP colleague and DockOfTheRays blogger Jason Collette added, “enjoy that hot mess behind the plate.” So there’s that.)

Now as I said upfront, I get that Navarro has the prospect history and does have the one good year, and it’s worth it to see if he can recapture that magic and be useful going forward. I’m fine with that; in fact, I love the idea. I’d just have preferred to see it on a minor-league deal, and I don’t understand why he seemingly doesn’t have to fight for the job.

How’d that work out?

Ha. You’ve watched baseball, right?

Aaron Miles

What I said at the time (02/07/11):

I am constantly trying to reassure people that minor league contracts are never as big of a deal as they seem, and the inherent lack of risk makes them almost a no-lose proposition.

In this case, I’m not so sure, because Miles is atrociously bad. No, really; among players who have had as many plate appearances as Miles had since he debuted in 2003, only three players in baseball have been less valuable. It’s a special kind of “not valuable”, though. If you’re simply awful, you don’t get to stick around for that long. Miles has really hit the sweet spot of being bad enough to hurt his teams for years, yet not so bad that he gets outright drummed out of the game. It must be his A+ levels of “grit” and “scrap”.

How’d that work out?

I’ve offered a mea culpa on Miles more than a few times now. He’s been a very nice surprise this year.

Matt Guerrier

What I said at the time (01/19/11):

Why are we all having such a hard time remembering that Guerrier is a Dodger? Perhaps it’s because the signing, which most of us disapproved of at the time, isn’t looking any better as the winter goes along. In the last week, four free agent relievers signed multimillion dollar deals with teams that hope to contend in 2011. (I’m excluding Rafael Soriano from this conversation, as that deal wowed even Yankee fans used to excessive spending.) Jon Rauch left Minnesota to sign in Toronto, while the A’s snapped up both Grant Balfour and Rauch’s former teammate, Brian Fuentes. Earlier, the Rays signed Kyle Farnsworth, in part to replace both Balfour and Soriano.

All four signed deals that were less in total value than the Dodgers gave to Guerrier earlier this offseason. You can make the argument that all four are better pitchers, too.

How’d that work out?

Basically as I expected. Guerrier has been mediocre, despite being the highest-paid of the guys mentioned above. Love, love, love longterm deals for non-elite relievers.

Adam Dunn

What I said at the time (10/11/10):

I’ll admit that I’ve coveted Dunn for years, and my hypothetical Dodgers have enough money to make one big splash. You could argue that finding a pitcher is more important, but pitching is always overpriced on the free agent market, and if you don’t do something to add some power and OBP, then it’s not going to matter anyway. Dunn’s not without his warts, but he’s also among the most consistent power hitters of the last generation – you know you’re getting 35-40 homers and an above-average OBP, and as he’s just turning 31, you should get him before his decline sets in. Besides, you saw what kind of difference Manny made on Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier when he was in the lineup, right? Nothing torpedoed the 2010 club more than lousy offense, and getting one of the top 3 bats available would be a huge step in the right direction.

How’d that work out?

Woof. Huge whiff there, since Dunn is hitting just .160/.292/.305, though I’ll try to semi-defend myself by saying that plenty of analysts thought he was a great fit in Chicago, and that absolutely no one saw this coming. Still, yikes.

Russell Martin

What I said at the time (12/02/10:)

Where do you start? We’ve talked about this ad nauseum. He’s not nearly what he was, yet that’s still better than most catchers. He’s coming off a serious injury and stands to get about $6m in arbitration, yet the options to replace him are terrible. I don’t know if there’s a right answer here; I’d probably try to sign him to a two-year deal at less per year than he’d get in arbitration, but there’s probably not enough time left to do that today.

How’d that work out?

Martin got off to a ferocious start in New York, hitting 9 homers in the first month of the season. He’s been atrocious since then, battling a knee injury and hitting only .184/.296/.282 since April 25. I thought the Dodgers made the right move by letting him go; this is still a point of contention for many since the LA catchers have been so bad, but other than those first three weeks, I’m not seeing much that says they made a mistake here.

Michael Morse

What I said at the time (12/20/10):

Still, even if he’s not perfect, a righty-power bat is exactly what the Dodgers need, and shouldn’t they be in the business of taking a low-cost chance instead of the assured mediocrity of a Scott Podsednik or Jerry Hairston? Don’t take this as anything more than a fun comparison of stats, but Morse has an .810 OPS with a HR every 29.4 at-bats through his age-28 year. At the same age, Werth had a .793 OPS with the same HR rate. In parts of 5 AAA seasons, Morse’s line is .292/.354/.461; Werth, in parts of 4 AAA seasons, had .268/.355/.472. I’m not saying it’s definite or even moderately likely that Morse will become the next Werth (Werth is a far better fielder) but it seems like a chance worth taking, and at the least he could fit as the righty platoon bench bat the Dodgers don’t currently have.

How’d that work out?

Morse shook off a slow start to bash 15 homers and join Andre Ethier on the NL’s final man voting for the All-Star team with a line of .306/.351/.535 while playing 1B and LF. In retrospect, I probably undersold what it would have taken to get him, but, yeah – I liked him for a reason. Would have been nice to have him instead of, say, Marcus Thames.

Jeff Francoeur

What I said at the time (10/11/10):

Jeff Francoeur, for all his ridiculous portrayals in the media, has two strengths and one extremely large weakness. He’s a very strong defensive outfielder with a good arm, and he can hit lefty pitching (.823 OPS career). What Francoeur cannot do, under any circumstances, is hit righty pitching (.639 OPS this year, .699 career). However, it just so happens that the Dodgers have an outfielder in Andre Ethier who’s a mediocre defender and even worse against lefties (.625 OPS this year, .681 career) than Francoeur is against righties. Do I have to spell out the fit here? It’s basically the Reed Johnson role, except that Johnson is 7 years older, couldn’t stay healthy, and had less upside.

How’d that work out?

vs RHP this year: .248/.294/.385
vs LHP this year: .321/.352/.630

I would not be interested in “Jeff Francoeur, starting left fielder”, and as I mentioned later in the article the idea depended on having a manager who could manage a platoon properly, but would I take that as a platoon partner for Ethier and/or Tony Gwynn? You’re damned right I would.

Eric Chavez

What I said at the time (01/06/11):

So what makes him interesting? Chavez is the rare lefty-hitting third baseman, and he has a pronounced platoon split over his career – .873 against RHP, .697 against LHP. You’ve probably noticed that I’ve spent much of the offseason insisting that although Casey Blake mashes against LHP, he’s simply unplayable against RHP. Unfortunately, nothing’s changed there; while you could theoretically bench him against righties and push Juan Uribe to 3B while Jamey Carroll plays 2B, that’s not an option I really see Don Mattingly choosing a lot in his rookie season, so I’ve become resigned to watching Blake flail against righty pitching. If Chavez has anything left, that’s a perfect fit for this team.

How’d that work out?

Okay, you got me. Chavez was very good for the Yankees (127 OPS+ in 39 plate appearances) before once again injuring himself. There was pretty much no question that would happen at some point.

Chris Davis

What I said at the time (03/07/11):

This is a Dodger team that badly needs offense, has no future at 3B, and may or may not have a present at 1B. (In case you didn’t see, Don Mattingly claims that if Loney were to miss an extended period of time, his replacement would likely not be Blake or Jay Gibbons, but Russ Mitchell. Yikes.) Davis may not field well enough to handle 3B full-time, and he may not hit well enough to play 1B full-time. But if you think the 2011 Dodgers, as constructed, are good enough to contend but not good enough to win, as I do, then you need take a gamble now and then, and Davis offers hope and possible longer-term solution – if the trade price is right, that’s worth giving him a shot in my book.

How’d that work out?

Davis has an .814 OPS in 57 MLB plate appearances this year, and 20 homers to go with a 1.255 OPS in 167 AAA plate appearances. I’d still love to get him.

Wilson Betemit

What I said at the time (10/11/10):

We can do better, and Betemit had a pretty monstrous half-season for Kansas City this year: .297/.378/.511. Almost as important, he’s a switch-hitter who’s been more successful against RHP than LHB over his career, which fits into our scheme here (though this year he’s done very well against both).

Now, I can hear the objections to this already. “It was half a season. He spent much of the last two years in the minors. And haven’t we seen this movie before?” All fair points. But I’ll argue that Betemit’s been pretty underrated. In parts of 8 seasons, his career line is .267/.335/.449, which works out to a 103 OPS+, even though much of that came when he was far too young (he made his MLB debut at 19, and saw significant time at 22). Before being traded in 2007, he had a .359 OBP and .474 SLG in 84 games for the Dodgers. How was production like that a problem again? Oh, right, it’s because people put far too much stock in a low batting average.

How’d that work out?

Betemit got off to a solid start to the season, hitting .306/.370/.438 through the first two months as the everyday third baseman. His playing time took a dip when the Royals promoted rookie Mike Moustakas, and so did his numbers at that point, but he clearly would have been a big upgrade on the Dodger 3B situation. 

Michael Young

What I said at the time (02/07/11):

You’ve heard me talk about how I think Blake is at the end of the line in the past, but I’m having a hard time seeing how Young would be any sort of upgrade – and that’s without even considering that Young is due $16m in each of the next three seasons, while 2011 is likely Blake’s last season in blue, or that the Rangers would want some sort of talent in return. It just doesn’t make sense.

How’d that work out?

Well, Young is having a resurgent season with the Rangers, hitting .323/.358/.482, and clearly outperforming the broken down Blake. My bad on that one. However, he is once again a creation of Arlington, hitting 200 points of OPS better at home than on the road. With how lousy the 2011 Dodgers have hit everywhere, that would still be an upgrade, but not enough of one to make it worth it considering the talent and dollars it would have taken.

Russell Branyan

What I said at the time (05/23/11):

But I wouldn’t be bringing Branyan in as the everyday first baseman, or even to replace Loney on the active roster. Branyan is 35 and a poor defender, and only three times has he received 400 plate appearances in a season. He’d be here because he can murder a baseball, and on a team with the weakest bench in baseball – remember, this is the club that had to throw Castro up with the bases loaded last week – that’s an incredibly valuable skill. Branyan’s role would be as a bench power bat who gets a start at first base once a week or so.

How’d that work out?

Not too great. Branyan has hit just .210/.290/.339 in Anaheim, rarely playing as Mark Trumbo has taken hold of the first base job.

Felipe Paulino

What I said at the time (05/23/11):

His xFIP is actually just 3.36, as he got a little unlucky with homers in the early going. He’s still throwing 95 MPH heat, and his starting experience could make him an ideal longman out of the pen, a role this team desperately needs right now. Remember, the idea here isn’t “is this guy going to propel me to a championship?”, because Paulino certainly will not. It’s “is this guy better than the guy I currently have?” and a 27-year-old power arm with strikeout stuff who had trouble in Coors Field is absolutely a better bet than Lance Cormier, particularly when Paulino can go multiple innings if needed.

How’d that work out?

Paulino got scooped up by the Royals and has been excellent in 7 starts, putting up a 45/12 K/BB mark, with Rany Jazayerli going so far as to refer to him as the club’s “best starter”. That one would have been nice to have for sure.

******

All in all, not too bad. There were a few misses – Dunn chief among them – but I’m pretty sure we’d all be happier with a team that included Morse, Davis, Betemit, Francoeur, and Paulino, right?

The MSTI 2011 Plan, Part 1: Offense

Well, it’s that time of the year again. In what is annually my longest post of the year, it’s time to look close the book on the season (like we didn’t do that months ago) and start planning for next year.

Of course, this particular off-season is a little uglier than usual. As if the divorce case wasn’t making enough ugly headlines by itself, this is a team that failed on pretty much all fronts this season, is constrained by a tight budget – and has $17m of dead money committed to Jason Schmidt and the entire White Sox outfield. They’ve got just two starting pitchers, no catcher, no second baseman, no left fielder, and a bunch of under-performing incumbents. They need power, they need OBP, they need starters… and they have no money to help their rookie manager get those things. It’s not going to be a pretty winter, that’s for sure.

Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. With a little bit of creativity and a dash of luck, there’s moves to be made which can get this team back on the right track. Now, keep in mind that this is what I might try do, not in any way a prediction of what the team will do. How can you make any predictions about a team who thought trading James McDonald and Andrew Lambo for 18.2 innings of Octavio Dotel and a player to be named was a good idea, anyway?

By my calculations, the Dodgers have $43m in obligations for 2011 to the following six players: Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Jamey Carroll, & Jonathan Broxton. Add the $17m or so in “dead money”, and you’re up to $60m, before considering arbitration cases and filling out the roster.

The real unknown, of course, is how high the ceiling is for the 2011 club. And I’ll admit, I have absolutely no idea. Many think that the payroll could be cut drastically as the divorce case plays out, yet some (including Tony Jackson and Buster Olney) think there might be more to play with as Frank McCourt tries to repair his image. So for this exercise, I’ll say $95-100m is the goal. That may not be exact, but this is all for fun, anyway. With $60m already committed, I have $35-$40m remaining, and nineteen holes to fill. Let’s see what we can do.

This is the third year in a row I’ve done this, but the first time in which it’s become so big that I’ve felt the need to split it up between more than one post. So today we focus on the offense, and check back tomorrow for pitching.

1) Sign Adam Dunn to a 3 year, $33m contract (slightly backloaded)… but to play 1B, not to replace Manny Ramirez in LF.

Dunn’s an absolutely atrocious outfielder, yet he’s merely a pretty bad first baseman (though it should be noted he ranked better by UZR this year than Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Paul Konerko, and Miguel Cabrera). While I agree with you that he really ought to be a DH, he’s been very clear that he doesn’t want to sign with an AL team that would take his glove away. Besides, being a lousy first baseman doesn’t really mean as much as being a poor fielder elsewhere, as John Dewan of the Fielding Bible explains.

I’ll admit that I’ve coveted Dunn for years, and my hypothetical Dodgers have enough money to make one big splash. You could argue that finding a pitcher is more important, but pitching is always overpriced on the free agent market, and if you don’t do something to add some power and OBP, then it’s not going to matter anyway. Dunn’s not without his warts, but he’s also among the most consistent power hitters of the last generation – you know you’re getting 35-40 homers and an above-average OBP, and as he’s just turning 31, you should get him before his decline sets in. Besides, you saw what kind of difference Manny made on Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier when he was in the lineup, right? Nothing torpedoed the 2010 club more than lousy offense, and getting one of the top 3 bats available would be a huge step in the right direction.

While it may seem difficult to think that Dunn wouldn’t get more or the Dodgers could be in on a contract like this, remember that Dunn is limiting his own market by ignoring the AL, and teams like the Cardinals, Padres, Reds, Phillies, Mets, Astros, Marlins, and Rockies probably aren’t going to be in the market for a 1B. That limits the competition greatly, mainly to the Cubs and Nationals, and Washington has given indications they’d prefer the superior defense and lower cost of Carlos Pena. (The crowd at FanGraphs seem to agree with my 3/33 guess, as well). It’s not impossible, and I’m more concerned about the years than the money anyway. I’d rather give him 2, but I don’t think that’s doable; I’d live with 3, but wouldn’t go 4.

Now tell me you don’t feel better about the offense with just this one move? But wait! There’s more…
$60m + $8m = $68m

2a) Trade Russell Martin to Detroit…

I went back and forth about Martin about a million times. On one hand, I hardly need to remind you that he followed up his horrendous 2009 with more or less the same year in 2010, except that he set a career high with a 18.4% K rate. On the other, the state of catching is so dreadful right now that he actually managed to put up a 2.1 WAR this year, thanks to the replacement level being so low.

Martin never looked so good as right after he was injured, when Brad Ausmus and A.J. Ellis combined to hit about .020 and go six months without throwing out a runner. (Those numbers may be slightly exaggerated, but probably not as much as you’d think). Sure, Rod Barajas had a fantastically hot start and Ellis even caught fire in September, but if Martin wasn’t the rising star he saw in 2007, nor was he the total failure we’d all become accustomed to thinking of him as. Neither Barajas (and his .284 career OBP) or Ellis have the skill to be anything like peak-level Russell Martin.

However… peak-level Martin isn’t walking through that door. Martin made over $5m last year, and he would probably make at least $6m in arbitration. Plus, he’s coming back from a broken hip, and while he avoided surgery, it’s still a broken hip, not exactly a common injury for catchers to be coming back from. You could make the argument that he’s worth that kind of salary if he’d had a great year or if he wasn’t coming off that injury; you could take the risk on the injury if you had a hefty payroll. That’s not something my hypothetical team is willing to do next year, and I’d probably non-tender him if a trade isn’t an option.

As for Detroit, Alex Avila had only a .674 OPS himself, and Gerald Laird was even worse as he heads into free agency. The Tigers have a ton of money to spend, and they could use a veteran backstop to pair with the 23-year-old Avila. There’s an added bonus here, because other than Toronto, this is the closest place to home you can send Martin.
$68m + $0m = $68m

2b) …for Ryan Raburn.

I first noted Raburn in my Jonathan Broxton post last week, and thought that Broxton was too high a price to pay for him. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been interested in him for a while as a multi-positional asset who bashes left-handed pitching, and the Dodgers reportedly looked at him in July. They ended up with Scott Podsednik. They chose poorly.

That might be underselling him, actually; he had OPS of .891 and .826 the last two seasons, with 16 and 15 homers. He really shined against lefties though – .931 OPS this year, .976 last year. The Tigers never saw him as an every-day player and instead let him start at six different positions, everywhere but SS and C. Overall, he was worth 2.1 WAR this year. While I briefly considered putting him at 2B to fill the Theriot-sized hole, Raburn is by all accounts a below-average infielder, so we’ll use him in the outfield here. The infield experience is nice to have for double-switches and extra-innings affairs, though.

For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll say that no money changes hands and each team is responsible for the arbitration case. Raburn will probably get about $1m.
$68m + $1m = $69m

3) Punt on the left field problem by platooning Raburn with Jay Gibbons.

Everyone seems to think that getting a big-time outfielder is a must just because Manny is gone, but beyond Carl Crawford (who the Dodgers can’t afford) and Jayson Werth (who they probably also can’t afford, and who would never come back), there’s nothing all that exciting out there. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have Trayvon Robinson and Jerry Sands each about a year away from contributing. There’s no need to overpay for someone mediocre who would just end up blocking one of those two, and since we’ve replaced Manny’s bat with Dunn’s, going lower-cost here is okay.

Raburn crushes lefties. Gibbons has a 60-point OPS advantage against righties in his career. His outfield defense is.. well.. better than Manny, right? You make do with what you can on a limited budget, and if used properly these two could make for a very productive combo. Gibbons has made it clear he badly wants to be back. We’ll take advantage of that and give him $800k.
$69m + $800k = $69.8m

4) Don’t make the disastrous July trades any worse by hanging on to Ryan Theriot or Scott Podsednik just to save face.

As outlined here for Theriot, he’s one of the worst second basemen in baseball, and certainly not worth the $3.5m or so he’d get in arbitration. If you can fool some team into giving up any sort of a useful bullpen arm for him, I’d do it in a heartbeat, though I don’t think it’s all that likely. Podsednik’s going to be 35, had a .313 OBP for the Dodgers with so-so defense, and missed the last month with a foot injury, therefore putting the only skill he actually has in jeopardy. Uh, no thanks.
$69.8m + $0.1m Podsednik buyout = $69.9m

5) Sign Juan Uribe to a 1-year, $5m deal to play 2B with an option for 2012.

Yes, he’s a Giant, and one with a .310 OBP at that. But the Dodgers are probably going to pay Theriot $3.5m to play decentish defense while being a black hole at the plate. If you’re going to pay that much for a 2B without much of an OBP, why not pay just a bit more for better defense and more power?

Theriot has 16 homers in his big-league career. Uribe has hit at least 16 in six of the last seven seasons; his .440 SLG this year and .431 SLG career is nearly 100 points better than Theriot’s ever had. On defense, Uribe (10.9 UZR/150 at 2B) is better than Theriot is (4.3 UZR/150 at 2B), plus he’s above average at SS and 3B – and provides excellent insurance for another Rafael Furcal injury, as he started 96 games at SS this year with Edgar Renteria ailing.

Uribe’s not perfect. But for $4-5m, would you rather a low-OBP guy with zero power and decent defense, or a low-OBP guy with good power and plus defense? Now, it’s possible I’m short-changing the contract Uribe would get here, but he was horrendous in 2007 and ’08, to the point where he had to take a minor-league deal before 2009. That, plus the fact he’s turning 32 next spring and that he entered 2010 as a backup to Renteria and Freddy Sanchez, means I can’t see anyone investing a bunch of years.
$69.9m+ $5m = $74.9m

6) Turn Casey Blake into the lefty-mashing bench bat he ought to be.

I worried weeks ago that Blake was nearing the end of the line, putting up some of the worst numbers of his career. Since then we’ve seen Joe Torre say that Blake needed more rest, and Blake mention that he would accept a reduced role if it were put upon him. Making sure he’s not the everyday guy in 2011 is a must.

However, Blake’s not completely without his uses. While he was just the 30th-best 3B against RHP this year (min. 150 PA, by OPS), he was the 6th-best against lefties (.895 OPS). That’s a difference of more than 220 points of OPS, and at his age it’s clear that both selective use and more rest could be a huge boon to him.

It lines up nicely, too, since Dunn’s far weaker against fellow southpaws at 1B. Blake would make an outstanding backup corner IF / designated LHP-crusher, and can even serve as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency corner outfielder as well.

Of course, if you’re pushing Blake to the bench, that means you need a primary 3B who can hit righties, and that’s why we’re going to welcome back a former Dodger 3B (no, not that one) when we…
$74.9m + $0m = $74.9m

7) Trade Xavier Paul and Scott Elbert to Kansas City for Wilson Betemit and Tim Collins.

I’m anticipating that this is going to be the most unpopular move I propose – perhaps on both sides – but that’s okay.

A replacement for Blake was by far the hardest hole to fill. I don’t think I fully realized this until I started researching, but only 12 3B had even an .800 OPS against righties this year, and most of them are guys like Evan Longoria, Alex Rodriguez, and Ryan Zimmerman – i.e., not even worth discussing as viable options. The more I looked at the list, the more I became convinced that Blake really will still be the Dodger 3B in 2011.

But that’s not good enough for my hypothetical team. We can do better, and Betemit had a pretty monstrous half-season for Kansas City this year: .297/.378/.511. Almost as important, he’s a switch-hitter who’s been more successful against RHP than LHB over his career, which fits into our scheme here (though this year he’s done very well against both).

Now, I can hear the objections to this already. “It was half a season. He spent much of the last two years in the minors. And haven’t we seen this movie before?” All fair points. But I’ll argue that Betemit’s been pretty underrated. In parts of 8 seasons, his career line is .267/.335/.449, which works out to a 103 OPS+, even though much of that came when he was far too young (he made his MLB debut at 19, and saw significant time at 22). Before being traded in 2007, he had a .359 OBP and .474 SLG in 84 games for the Dodgers. How was production like that a problem again? Oh, right, it’s because people put far too much stock in a low batting average.

What that means is that despite the fact he’s been around forever, he’s still only turning 29 next month, and he’d hardly be the first guy to take a little longer to figure it out. Besides, in one of the very first posts on this blog – way back in July of 2007 – I argued that he should be given more playing time at 3B. Why not rectify that four years later? It’s not a perfect solution, and his defense may be suspect, but I do believe he’ll outperform Blake in 2011. In what’s become a running theme, he’s also received starts at 1B, 2B, and LF this year, adding more versatility along with Raburn.

As for Paul to the Royals, they have a ton of minor-league talent, but it’s still probably at least a year or two away, and 3B is about to be taken by Mike Moustakas, one of the brightest stars in the minors. They’re not going to contend in 2011, so if they need someone to cover for a few weeks before Moustakas arrives, Josh Fields can do that. Paul’s proven all he needs to prove in the minors (.882 OPS in AAA), but just needs some regular playing time in the bigs. He’s unlikely to get that in LA, especially since the Dodgers already have two lefty outfielders in Andre Ethier and Jay Gibbons, and as he’s out of options they’ll need to do something with him. The KC outfield is unsettled beyond David DeJesus, who’s coming off injury and may be a trade candidate, with Alex Gordon and his .664 OPS likely to have a spot as well. Paul’s got talent, and could find opportunity in KC.

Then we swap Elbert for Collins and… well, look. Elbert’s probably the most talented of the four, and the former 1st-round pick has produced in the minors, striking out 10.4/9 (and has even struck out more than a man per inning in his brief MLB time). I don’t want to move him, but of course you’re not going to get Betemit for nothing, and after his strange 2010 season it’s not hard to think that a change of scenery is a good idea for him. He’s originally from Missouri, anyway.

Collins is fun because of his absurd strikeout numbers; at only 20, he’s averaging 13.3 K/9. He’s not seen as a top prospect, however, because of his height (5’7″, which may be generous), and he was actually traded twice in 2010. He went from Toronto to Atlanta as part of the Alex Gonzalez/Yunel Escobar deal, and then to KC in the deal which sent Kyle Farnsworth and Rick Ankiel to Atlanta. Clearly, his trade value hasn’t been particularly high, considering the names there.

I’m guessing that Dodger fans will think this is giving up too much, and Royal fans won’t think it’s enough. That probably means it’s about right. Either way, I don’t pretend to be a prospect expert. If it’s not exactly these names, but something similar that gets the deal done, that’s fine too.
$74.9m + $2m = $76.9m

8) Sign Jeff Francoeur to a 1-year, $1.5m deal once he inevitably gets non-tendered by Texas.

I know, I know. I hate myself for even suggesting it, and if any of my Met fan or baseball writer friends see this here they’ll die laughing and unfollow me. But hear me out; we’re trying to build a team on a limited budget, and sometimes that means working around a player’s limitations in order to take advantage of his strengths.

Jeff Francoeur, for all his ridiculous portrayals in the media, has two strengths and one extremely large weakness. He’s a very strong defensive outfielder with a good arm, and he can hit lefty pitching (.823 OPS career). What Francoeur cannot do, under any circumstances, is hit righty pitching (.639 OPS this year, .699 career). However, it just so happens that the Dodgers have an outfielder in Andre Ethier who’s a mediocre defender and even worse against lefties (.625 OPS this year, .681 career) than Francoeur is against righties. Do I have to spell out the fit here? It’s basically the Reed Johnson role, except that Johnson is 7 years older, couldn’t stay healthy, and had less upside.

The danger here is having a manager who gets fooled by Francoeur’s lefty-bashing tendencies and wants to play him every day, a trap we saw Jerry Manuel fall into this season. It remains to be seen whether Don Mattingly can handle that, but in my hypothetical 2011 world, we have a manager who can.
$76.9m + $1.5m = $78.4m

9) Suck it up and go with A.J. Ellis and Rod Barajas behind the plate.

I can’t believe I’m saying this either, because I’ve been driving the “Barajas was never that good and Ellis isn’t a major league hitter” train. I’ll admit I’m not thrilled about this. Unfortunately, you’re dealing with a very tight budget, and there’s not a lot of other choices out there. Victor Martinez isn’t an option, and John Buck‘s likely to get a lot more than he deserves. Do you really want Bengie Molina? Jason Varitek? Yeccch.

So if you’re going to have to skimp somewhere, this is probably the place to do it, and Ellis and Barajas could be a decent combo as two total opposites. Ridiculous intro to LA aside, Barajas is still a guy with a career .284 OBP, but he’s definitely got pop, hitting double-digit homers in six of the last seven years. Meanwhile, Ellis would kill to have Juan Pierre‘s power (no, really; he hasn’t hit a pro homer since 2008) but he does have a .398 career OBP in the minors and managed .363 in the bigs this year, with a nice 18/14 K/BB mark in limited time. Barajas even has a reverse-platoon split, dealing with RHP better than LHP, so you could schedule starts around that.

Neither’s a long-term solution, but each has a decent defensive reputation, and for just over $1m, it could be worse. I guess. I can easily see regretting this by May.
$78.4m + $0.4 (Ellis) + $0.8 (Barajas) = $79.6m

10) Don’t guarantee Russ Mitchell a job.

I’ve seen it mentioned in several places that Mitchell’s all but certain to have a bench spot on the 2011 club, because of his low cost and positional versatility. To that I say, why? I didn’t have very high hopes for Mitchell when he was recalled, and he didn’t do much to change that perception by getting just six hits in the bigs without a single walk. He’s got options left. Send him back to ABQ, let him provide depth should injuries happen, but do not start the season with him on the bench.

___________________________________

So here’s the Opening Day roster you’re looking at..

C Ellis (R)
1B Dunn (L)
2B Uribe (R)
SS Furcal (S)
3B Betemit (S)
LF Raburn (R)
CF Kemp (R)
RF Ethier (L)
Bn Barajas (R-C)
Bn Blake (R-1B/3B)
Bn Carroll (R-2B/SS)
Bn Francoeur (R-OF)
Bn Gibbons (L-1B/OF)

Four of the five guys on the bench have the chance to put the ball out of the yard, four more than the Dodgers usually have. Actually, 11 of these 13 (all but Ellis and Carroll) could put up double-digit homer numbers. There’s great platoon plays, if used properly, in Blake, Francoeur, and Gibbons in place of Dunn, Ethier, and Raburn. Two switch-hitters give you great lineup flexibility, and the addition of players who can play multiple positions really helps you out in the field as well.

The main weakness here is the lack of a true backup CF, but Kemp plays every day and Raburn & Francoeur can each cover in a pinch. I suppose I’m also a bit concerned about the corner infield defense, but Furcal and Uribe are both quite good in the middle, and again there’s only so much you can do when you’re as constrained budget-wise as this team is.

If we take the platoon idea to its full extent and put together some quick lineup ideas, you’ll really see how this would improve the offense. (Yes, Kemp should probably be batting lower, that’s a discussion for a different time.) The MLB average for wOBA in 2010 is about .325, meaning that everyone here save for Kemp against RHP was at least a tick above-average this year – and no matter what other moves you make, success in 2011 is largely dependent on his bouncing back. And how much fun is the idea of sitting both Dunn and Ethier vs. a LHP, just daring the other manager to start bringing in righty relievers?

Of course, a good year in 2010 doesn’t guarantee that Betemit isn’t a fluke, or that Ellis didn’t just have a well-timed hot streak, etc. There’s no guarantees about any of this for next year… but on a team that regularly rolled out Theriot (.301 vs LHP, .280 vs RHP), Blake (.295 vs RHP), Loney (.256 vs LHP, .340 vs RHP), and Martin (.304 vs RHP), it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a team which is better poised for success – and all it’s cost us so far is Paul, Elbert, Martin, and about $15m.

“But where’s James Loney,” you’re probably asking. Well, our friend James is on his way to the Midwest in a trade for a starting pitcher…. but who? You’ll have to check back tomorrow to find out about the pitching side, where I’ve got about $20m to put together a pitching staff around the $7m already committed to Broxton. Can I do it? Come back to see.