MSTI.com’s 2008 in Review: Second Base

On to our second base review, and no, I didn’t forget Blake DeWitt – he’ll be included under third base, since that’s where he played most of the season.

Jeff Kent ()
(.280/.327/.418 12hr 59rbi)
What a wild year for Mr. Friendly, right? When summing up a season, I always like to look back and see what we thought about him at various points in time. But few players have had all of these things written about them in the course of the same season:

May 21: “Just in Case Jeff Kent Needs Some Motivation…

Think about that. If Jeff Kent keeps up his current pace and Joe Torre continues to bat him cleanup, he’s going to be the second worst cleanup hitter of the last fifty years – and as the THT article explains, Aramis Ramirez was only so bad in 2002 because he played all year on a destroyed ankle.

July 13: “Too Many Problems, Whatcha Gonna Do

Back to Joe Torre, I implore you to read this carefully, because it just might be the greatest thing ever uttered:

On Jeff Kent: “He’s the perfect example of a player. He’s struggling, but we know we’re going to get a professional at-bat every time he gets in the box.”

“He’s the perfect example of a player.” I love this sentence. I want to get it tattooed on my back. I want to take it out behind the middle school and get it pregnant. I want it to be prominently displayed on all forms of United States currency from now until the end of time. “He’s the perfect example of a player.” As opposed to, say, Russell Martin, who is the perfect example of a 1920s vaudeville singer, and Brad Penny, who is the perfect example of a hamster.

Aug. 30: “Eight is Enough

You would think that a knee injury so painful that he’s missing the biggest series of the year would explain why Kent’s having the worst season of his entire career, right? But Kent says that he’s been playing with pain for a month – a month in which he’s been excellent, hitting .357/.394/.439. Whether that’s Manny-aided or not, that’s impressive, but who gets hurt and then has their performance improve?

Aug. 31: “Jeff Kent’s Dodger Legacy” (Dodger Thoughts)

Jeff Kent, whose Dodger career began at age 37, is the greatest-hitting second baseman in Los Angeles Dodger history.

Sept. 2: “Are the Dodgers Better Off Without Jeff Kent?

This is hardly a solid cause-and-effect, but with Kent, the Dodgers had lost 10 of their last 11 games. As soon as he was out of town (and not just out of the lineup. The whole point here is the idea that just his presence may have been detrimental), they’ve ripped off four wins in a row, starting with Saturday’s game, since as the article notes, he left before it.

Sept. 21: “Sunday, Bloody Sunday

Say friends, did you also know that, yesterday, the Dodgers activated Jeff Kent?  You know, the one who just had knee surgery TWO weeks ago.

And so forth. I could go on, but I think you get the idea – Jeff Kent’s (likely) swan song was a wild ride of ups, downs, injuries, downs, postseason benchings, and downs. For the record, his 77 OPS+ out of the cleanup spot merely ties him for the third worst cleanup season of all time, and he’s still a lousy defensive second baseman (last of 16 qualified MLB 2B in range factor, 14th in fielding %, 12th in zone rating), although it’s not like anyone thought he’d be anything otherwise.

That said, 2008 wasn’t a complete debacle for Kent. Any discussion of his statistics has to of course begin with the standard age-related disclaimer: the man is 40 years old. In that light, putting up a seasonal 95 OPS+ isn’t that bad. Only five 40 year olds have managed to play most of a full season at second base since 1961, and the most productive of that group was Tony Phillips for the 1999 A’s, who put up a 108 OPS+, so Kent’s not that far off. Simply put, it’s pretty rare for anyone his age to still be a starting second baseman, and the fact that he very nearly was a league-average hitter is pretty impressive. Among all 2008 second basemen, his .745 OPS ranks him 16th, which is just about the middle of the pack, but still above names like Rickie Weeks, Robinson Cano, and Akinori Iwamura. And just like any old man, Kent was wildly unpredictable. Sometimes he’s fondly remembering his date with that cute nurse right after V-E Day (OPS of .750 or better in April, June, and August), and sometimes he’s wildly cursing at John F. Kennedy and the damn Demmycrats ruining the country (.551 OPS in May).

Almost as importantly, Kent seems to have not ignited any clubhouse fires this season, although I’ve always felt that most of the “young immature guys” vs. “get off my lawn!” battles were hugely media-driven because they make for good copy. Hell, Matt Kemp even said that he and Kent listened to Lil’ Wayne before games to get pumped up, and while I’m not sold that that’s 100% true, Kemp probably wouldn’t have even joked about if it he was afraid Professor Kent was going to sit him down, rap his knuckles with a ruler, and educate him about the days when men were men and all we needed to toughen up the god damn hippies was to send them to ‘Nam.

You know, the more I write these things, the more I realize that I think of Jeff Kent as Red Forman from That 70′s Show.

Anyway, Kent doesn’t get a letter grade. You can’t give him an A or a B because he simply wasn’t all that great, but I can’t see giving him a C or a D because he’s doing things at his age and position that almost no one has done before. So Jeff, take your gold watch and ride off into the sunset of Texas on your motorcycle. We’ll miss you (his 2005 was excellent, he now holds the Dodger record for homers at ages 37, 38, 39, and 40, and as DodgerThoughts said, he might be the best LA 2B ever), but I can’t imagine that anyone is really pining for you to return next year - and we will respectfully stay far, far away from your lawn.

Luis Maza (inc.)
(.228/.282/.278 1hr 4rbi)
Ah, Luis Maza, the 2008 winner of the “Token Minor League Lifer Who Gets Called Up That Even MSTI Has Never Heard of Before”. Previous winners include Wilson Valdez, 2007, and Brian Myrow, 2005. Maza was only up for about two months from mid-May to mid-July, and to no one’s surprise, he didn’t really do much at the plate, which is basically what you expect from a middle infielder who’s making his major league debut at age 28. To his credit, Maza destroyed the PCL (.378/.450/.492) in 2008, but here’s the really odd thing about him: when you have a middle infielder who can’t hit big-league pitching, you really expect that he’s a plus glove. There’s been about a billion of these guys over the years, to the point that they really ought to start their own union like the backup catchers club. But Luis Maza may have had the worst throwing arm of any middle infielder I’ve seen in my entire life. This is what I said after his first game, a start at shortstop on May 16:

If you saw his start against Milwaukee yesterday, you’ll know that it won’t matter if he’s hitting .402 or .902 – we need him to never be at shortstop ever again. I’ve never seen a shortstop with such a weak arm, to the point that the Milwaukee broadcasters were trying to figure out what he was even doing in the majors.

Oh yeah. It’s always good when the opposing team’s announcers are making fun of your shortstop’s lollypop throws. I suppose the defining statement on the Dodger career of Luis Maza is that he was DFA’d not to make room for a returning injured player like Rafael Furcal or Nomar Garciaparra… but to get replaced by the equally dreadful Pablo Ozuna. Yikes. If that’s not a sign that it’s time to start working towards that carpentry degree, I don’t know what is.

Pablo Ozuna (inc.)
(.219/.242/.375 1hr 3rbi)
I’ll say this for Pablo Ozuna – I’ve never heard of a player making the playoff roster a month after getting DFA’d. And it wasn’t just a standard DFA, it was a “yeah, we could wait four more days until rosters expand and recall Blake DeWitt without losing you, but we’d rather just be rid of you right now.” I don’t want to be too harsh on Ozuna here, but let’s not mince words: he has no business being on the major league roster of a contending team. His career OPS+ is 76 (largely aided by his incredibly fluky 105 in 2006, since he never even hit 90 in any other season) and at 34, it’s not like there’s a lot of time for him to improve. Oh sure, he can play a lot of positions. Big deal, it’s not that hard to find a utility guy, and you could throw darts into the stands and hit at least twenty people who are better hitters.

At least we were consistent with him, though. I said his “continued presence blows my mind” on August 11th, called him “a stiff” and asked “what value he brings” on August 13th, “endlessly mediocre” on August 17th, and “completely useless” on August 27th.

Damn, I had no idea I laid so much hate on Pablo Ozuna in August. Nothing personal, Pablo. It’s just that I find you useless as a baseball player, and you’re the early lead for my “least favorite Dodger of 2008 (human division)”, and while I know what you’re thinking, what Andruw Jones accomplished this season was so monumentally awful that I don’t think any human could have done that if they tried.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illnessmsti-face.jpg

Welcome to the Playoff Roster, Jeff

Just in case there was any question left about whether Jeff Kent (or, as Vin likes to call him, “Anakent Baseclearer”, and since Vin made this excellent Photoshop, he can call him whatever he likes) was going to make the playoff roster, I’d say that’s about answered. Let’s do some math.

Kent playing the field on back to back nights + Kent crushing a ball into the left field seats + Torre being unlikely to let a veteran star go out on the sidelines = this man’s going to be a part of the final 25.

Speaking of the playoff roster, I’m going to make my final prediction from the original one I had made weeks ago. I’m making three changes – Brad Penny’s obviously not going to be there, I no longer have faith in Hong-Chih Kuo being there, and with both Kent and Nomar likely coming off the bench, that hopefully alleviates the “need” for Mark Sweeney.

Replacing Penny is going to be Greg Maddux. He was the hardest to leave off my list originally anyway, and that was before Torre said he’d “probably” use four starters if it went that far. Replacing Kuo? Believe it or not… Scott Proctor has probably forced his way onto the roster, because he’s been excellent since his return from the DL. I know – I was surprised too. But he was unscored upon in his first 7 outings (striking out 10 in 6.1 IP) until giving up one of the most bizarre home runs you’ll ever see tonight in San Francisco, and we all know he’s a Torre favorite. So he’s in too. As for the last spot… well, it’s anyone’s guess. Chin-Lung Hu or Pablo Ozuna for further infield depth? Delwyn Young for a switch-hitting bat off the bench? Sweeney for “veteranness”? I tend to think in such a short series, a 6th middle infielder isn’t really that important, and Sweeney just simply cannot hit. So it’s Young, right?

Well, not so fast, says Diamond Leung, and avert your eyes, because this is going to be horrifying:

Ozuna is now schedule to play in the outfield tomorrow, as he’s under consideration for the playoff roster due to his versatility.

You know, I was all ready to go into an epic rant about how bad Ozuna is and how much I’d rather see Young on the roster… but I just can’t. Contrary to what I had thought, Ozuna’s not just an infielder who’d made an emergency appearance in the outfield – he’s made 63 career appearances out there. And while I do think Ozuna is a big zero at the plate (career OPS+ of 76, and only 66 for LA), Young hasn’t been much better this year, with only a 71 OPS+. Now don’t get me wrong, because we’re still huge fans of Young’s around here (check out his crazy minor league stats in a post we made on him in June) and I think a huge reason for his lack of productivity is his sporadic at best playing time. But the playoffs are no time to work out the hitting kinks, and clearly he’s not a plus with the glove.

On the other hand, the fact that we’re even contemplating Ozuna for the postseason roster is completely mind-blowing considering that they thought so highly of him, they DFA’d him less than a month ago rather than waiting 4 more days for the rosters to expand. So who knows.

Which would make the roster like so:
C: Martin, Ardoin
IF: Loney, DeWitt, Furcal, Blake, Nomar, Kent, Berroa, Ozuna
OF: Manny, Kemp, Ethier, Pierre
P: Lowe, Billingsley, Kuroda, Kershaw, Maddux, Park, Beimel, Proctor, Wade, Broxton, Saito

As for where that team might be going… it’s really starting to look like Chicago, thanks to the Mets reprising their 2007 death spiral. The Phillies’ magic number is now down to 1, and the Brewers have won 5 straight to grab a 1 game lead in the Wild Card. So instead of getting to face a tired Mets or Phillies team, it looks like the Blue are going to have to face the well-rested best team in the League. Thanks, Mets!

I’d also like to ask a question: which scenario do you find more surprising? Blake DeWitt being the 2008 Opening Day third baseman… or Blake DeWitt (likely) being the starting second baseman in Game 1 of the NLDS?

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

Nothing Is F***ed Here, Dude

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

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

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

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

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

“Any Dodgers pressing?”, Riverside Press-Enterprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of the teams have bats, but pitching wise:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are the Dodgers Better Off Without Jeff Kent?

I’m not saying just yet that they are or aren’t; but it seems to be a discussion worth having. Check out these comments from Joe Torre to MLB.com:

Kent is always a focal point of sorts, even when he’s gone. Manager Joe Torre said that the dugout mood was especially loose during Sunday’s win (Kent had returned to Los Angeles before Saturday night’s game) and, responding to a question, acknowledged that Kent’s serious demeanor might intimidate his younger teammates.

“With me, when I was a young player, nothing meant more to me than my brother Frank’s opinion,” said Torre. “Now, maybe, the shadow of big brother is not around. Maybe that frees them up to do other things. That’s what comes to mind for me. I still think there’s an air of respect for that person, but sometimes you’re a little hesitant to be outgoing if someone’s there to correct you.”

This is hardly a solid cause-and-effect, but with Kent, the Dodgers had lost 10 of their last 11 games. As soon as he was out of town (and not just out of the lineup. The whole point here is the idea that just his presence may have been detrimental), they’ve ripped off four wins in a row, starting with Saturday’s game, since as the article notes, he left before it.

Again, I’m not saying any of this is more than just a coincidence. But it’s really not all that hard to believe that as what is most likely Kent’s last season began circling the drain during a brutal losing streak, that he might have become even more difficult to be around in the clubhouse. It’s hard to play well when you’re tight and not having any fun, and as prickly as Kent always is, I can only imagine what he was like when no one could hit. I mean, it’s not as though replacing him on the field has helped all that much, because while Blake DeWitt’s definitely been an improvement on defense, he’s only managed three singles in the five games he’s played since returning. Maybe a happier, looser clubhouse is what turned things around? No one can say for sure, of course, but if you’ve got a better idea for how a team can suck so awfully against the worst team in baseball (Washington) and somehow come back to take out two Cy Young contenders on back-to-back nights starting the exact game Kent was out of the locker room, please let me know.

On another note, Giants blog El Lefty Malo is already taking a look ahead at what you might be seeing from San Francisco in 2009. (Sidenote: woof! I almost feel bad for these guys. Almost.) In discussing what they might have in right field, they say:

(The ideal right fielder for Mays Field is a guy with plus speed, a great arm, and a right-handed bat whose home runs don’t die on the right-center field warning track. Like this guy.)

In case you don’t want to click on their link… they’re talking about our very own Matt Kemp. Is there anything better than having your oldest rivals drooling over your young talent? I think not.

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

Happy Labor Day

…during which I will celebrate the working man by spending my day at the Bohemian Beer Gardens. If you don’t think the Dodgers are part of what’s making me tip one back today, you haven’t been watching the team lately. Who gets swept in Washington, comes in on an eight-game losing streak… and then takes down two of the best pitchers in baseball on back-to-back nights? How does this team get up 8-0 on Brandon Webb? San Diego’s up next, so let’s hope they don’t revert back to playing down to the competition again.

Quick post today due to the holiday, but there’s still news to report – Jeff Kent is, to no one’s surprise, going to have surgery on his injured left knee.

Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent will undergo surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee on Tuesday.

 The 40-year-old Kent can begin rehabilitation soon after the operation and might return by the end of the season, manager Joe Torre said.

“We’ll see what happens,” Torre said. “I know one thing: If there’s a chance he’ll come back, he’s going to come back.”

The timeframe part is surprising, though. I’d be shocked if he makes it back by the end of the month. Perhaps if the Dodgers make it into October, though. There’s a slogan for you – “Send Jeff Kent out on the field rather than on the operating table!” Not very catchy, I guess. Over at DodgerThoughts the other day, Jon detailed Kent’s legacy in Blue – including the surprising revelation that in the short time he was in LA (all after age 37) he was already the best-hitting second baseman the Dodgers have ever had on the west coast. Incredible.

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