MSTI’s 2009 in Review: First Base

85toppsjamesloneyJames Loney (C)
(.281/.357/.399 13hr 90rbi)

Check this out. In 2008, Loney had 651 plate appearances. In 2009? 651. In 2008, he had 13 homers, 90 RBI, and 7 steals. In 2009? Exactly the same. Not only did the mainline numbers on the back of his baseball card (you know, if anyone still collected baseball cards) describe what’s becoming an exactly average James Loney season, he ended up with a 100 OPS+, making him a league-average hitter. So what we have here is pretty much exactly what we said about him last year; he’s not been bad (ludicrous home/road splits aside), but nor has he been all that spectacular. He’s been average, hence the average grade.

Of course, having a first baseman who hits for a 100 OPS+ isn’t exactly a good thing, because first basemen are expected to provide big offense. In a league with mashers like Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez, Todd Helton, etc., being “average” for the league actually means you’re one of the lesser lights at that position. The numbers bear that out; his .756 OPS was 13th of 14 qualified NL 1B, ahead of only Mets injury replacement Daniel Murphy. In VORP, he was the 25th best 1B in all of baseball. Clearly the bar is set pretty high here, but merely being “okay” puts the Dodgers behind the curve at the position as compared to nearly every other team.

So it’s no surprise that his name has come up in possible trade rumors to get more power at first base, occasionally for guys like San Diego’s Gonzalez. Still, there is some reason for optimism here. Starting in mid-August (possibly after Bob Schaefer made him stop wearing his mouthguard) Loney ended the year on a scorching hot streak, hitting .317/.391/.455 in September before hitting .353 with 2 homers in the NLCS – which, by the way, continues his history of being outstanding in October. In 70 PA across 5 playoff series, his line is .349/.414/.540.  That’s performance you can live with.

But it’s more than just his playoff history that gives me hope. When I noted that his stats in 2009 looked almost identical to 2008, I purposely didn’t mention one aspect that changed immensely, and that’s his K/BB ratio. In 2008, he struck out 85 times and drew 45 walks, which in an era where some guys strike out 200+ times is actually pretty good. This year? He actually drew more walks than K’s, 70 to 68. Considering that he’s still just going to be 25 when Opening Day 2010 rolls around, what that says to me is we have a young player who’s still improving his command of the strike zone. I’ll admit that the fact that his SLG dropped 35 points from ’08 to ’09 is worrisome, but when you have a guy with his pedigree who’s showing such improvement in pitch recognition – and is still so young – I think he really could be in line for a huge breakout next year, especially with how hot he ended the year.

That’s a great sign, because while I think the Dodgers will poke around to find a power upgrade at 1B, between the tight payroll situation and bigger holes at 2B and the rotation, I don’t really see much of a chance for them to acquire a superstar first baseman. Loney probably gets one more chance to prove that he’s still got more to offer, and the stars are aligned for him to take that step forward.

85toppsdougmientkiewiczDoug Mientkiewicz (inc.)
(.333/.400/.389 0hr 3rbi)

Joe Torre favorite and noted Twitter enthusiast ”Eyechart” Mientkiewicz didn’t really get much of a chance to contribute this year, getting just 20 plate appearances before and after missing five months after destroying his shoulder in mid-April. So, that puts him at somewhere around “37th most important Dodger of 2009″.

Which is about right, and that’s fine. Mientkiewicz is a nice player, but just not for this team. As I said when Delwyn Young was traded:

No, the mistake here is in allowing a talented young player to be pushed off the roster for the sake of keeping superfluous older veterans. Do we really think that Juan Castro and Doug Mientkiewicz are going to help this team more than Delwyn Young? And the thing is, I actually like Doug Mientkiewicz, but the fact is that he’s completely unneccessary on this team. It’s not just the two strikeouts in his three hitless at-bats, it’s the fact that he’s a good-fielding first baseman – something this team already has. It’s not even that important to have him around as a backup in case James Loney goes down, because you could simply move Casey Blake across the diamond and install Blake DeWitt at third base.

It’s been six months since I said that, and I basically feel the exact same way right now – except now he’s going to be 36 and coming off a lost year. Since Torre likes him so much it wouldn’t completely surprise me to see him get at least a token invite to spring training, but hopefully not much more.

85toppsjimthomeJim Thome (inc.)
(.235/.235/.235 0hr 3rbi)

Yeah, I know. Thome didn’t actually play any first base. But I have to stick him somewhere, right? And it’s appropriate that the picture I have of him on the card is “bench”, because that’s exactly where he spent most of his time in Los Angeles. That said, when the Dodgers went out to get Thome, you could probably say that I approved…

Survey says… Giving up zero talent and (presumably) paying less than $2m for a massive improvement to your bench headed into the playoffs? Oh, you better believe that’s a win.

Of course, it didn’t really work out, as Thome – hobbled by a sore foot – managed just 4 singles in 17 regular season pinch-hitting tries, and then just 1-5 in the postseason. But that’s okay. A big situation never really presented itself to him (he’d surely have been the DH if the team had advanced to the World Series), and I give the Dodgers a lot of credit for taking the chance and making the outlay.

As for Thome? Back to the AL next year, no doubt. I guess we won’t be seeing him enter the Hall of Fame with an LA cap, will we?

Next up: Orlando Hudson! Ronnie Belliard! Saying so long to Tony Abreu! It’s second base!

NLCS Game 2: How Quickly Things Change

And by “quickly”, I of course mean the 8th inning that took about 6 weeks to play. I could watch that 8th inning over, and over, and over again. Intrigue, strategy, failure and pressure – what more could you want from a playoff game?

After 7.5 innings of a very surprising pitching duel – see below – this game just went off the rails in the bottom of that fateful 8th inning. If you were following the brand new MSTI Twitter feed, you’d have noticed that I said this as Pedro Martinez mowed down Dodger hitters:

The only saving grace for the #Dodgers is that Pedro is 140 years old and the #Phillies crappy bullpen has to step up soon.

That is, of course, exactly what happened. But before we even get into that, let’s award a nice slice of the playoff shares to Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, doing his best to match Joe Torre’s Game 1 mistake, just in the exact opposite way. While we all grilled Torre for leaving in Clayton Kershaw too long when the Dodgers have such a great pen, Manuel went to the other extreme. Regardless of what sort of smoke and mirrors he was using, Pedro was killing the Dodgers and the Phillies bullpen is lousy; why in the hell would you pull him after 7? At least let him start the 8th and see what he can do. Just an unspeakably bad decision, turning the game over to the Philly bullpen.

EthierGame2NLCSSo in comes Chan Ho Park, sporting a fancy new beard, and after giving up a single to what used to be Casey Blake, the game quickly turned… into an epic bunt-a-thon. First, Ronnie Belliard displays the worst bunting technique I’ve ever seen, before putting one down far too hard… but perfectly placed in between Park and Ryan Howard for a hit. Then, Russell Martin tries the same, except Park can’t get one over – getting a gift strike on what should have been ball four – and Martin finally puts a perfect double play ball to third base… except Chase Utley airmails his second throw to first in two days to allow the tying run to score.

With Martin on first, Scott Eyre enters to allow pinch-hitter to Jim Thome finally become an actual Dodger, and not just “theoretical big bat off the bench,” with a single to right field, moving Martin to third. After Ryan Madson walks Rafael Furcal and a strikes out Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier comes up against Scott Eyre J.A. Happ – the 4th Phillies pitcher of the inning.

Now, we all know Ethier’s penchant for coming through in the clutch… and a walk isn’t quite “a walkoff dinger”, but as it gives the Dodgers the lead, we’ll happily take it. In comes J.A. Happ Chad Durbin – that’s right, the FIFTH pitcher of the inning, who quickly retires Manny on a pop to third.

Jonathan Broxton comes in to save the 9th, and just like that, a series – and a season – that was all but over is tied, headed back to Philadelphia.

*****

utleyerrorWow. Just wow. Manuel’s going to get a lot of heat, as he should. And the various members of the Phillies bullpen who didn’t get the job done are going to hear it, as they should.  But there’s no bigger goat in this game than Chase Utley. If he turns that double play, that inning plays out entirely differently. Worse, that’s the second one he botched in two days! If I’m a Phillies fan, I’m wondering just what in the hell is going on with him right now – and I’m worried. Very, very, worried.

*****

How bad was that 8th inning for the Phillies? Just look at the FanGraphs win chart:

fangraphs-nlcsgame2

*****

As for the 7.5 innings that preceded that…

Pedro Martinez is 48 years old! His fastball tops out at 89 MPH! His bones might literally be made of dust! Didn’t he kill a midget? He hadn’t pitched in three weeks!

pedrophilliesWas there ever any doubt?

It’s exactly when there’s every reason that something shouldn’t work that it does work, and so it was that the old man made the team he’s been torturing for 15 years look foolish, allowing just two hits over seven innings.

I don’t take anything away from Pedro here (what’s the over/under on articles tomorrow that call him “gutsy” or “wily”? 50? 100?), because he’s one of the best ever and he was clearly outstanding. But come on, guys. 2 hits, and neither hit all that hard? (One was a bloop to center by Russell Martin, one was an infield single that Matt Kemp beat out.) From what was supposed to be one of the most dangerous lineups in the league, that’s just embarrassing. If you can’t make solid contact on Corpsey McPedro, then what the hell is going to happen against Cliff Lee on Sunday?

On the other side, let’s not gloss over what Vicente Padilla did through 7.1 IP, matching Pedro save for one pitch that Ryan Howard deposited into the left-field stands. As he’s pitching for a contract this offseason, you could almost hear the “ka-ching! ka-ching!” sound effects each time he got an out, couldn’t you? With how horrified everyone – yes, us too – was about the fact that he was starting Game 2, he was fantastic, again. It’s almost as though he’s figured out that if you just tone down the whole “being a giant dick” thing slightly, your fantastic stuff can really help you succeed.

*****

Hey, between Pedro and Chan Ho Park, how about seeing (nearly) 8 innings of two elderly former Dodgers? Couldn’t they have brought back Rudy Seanez to finish it off? Or Kevin Gross? Where was Roger McDowell?

Well, Now That I’ve Regained Conciousness…

I write a weekly Dodgers fantasy recap for Heater Magazine, and last night before I went to bed I wrote a short piece about how Ronnie Belliard was the big late-August trade acquisition. Hey, he even hit a homer in his first at-bat last night! Well, talk about having that shoved aside, because I nearly had a heart attack when I woke up to read the headlines and saw that the Dodgers had picked up both Jim Thome and Jon Garland. Say what you will about these deals – and we will – but no one can ever say that Ned Colletti’s not working his ass off to get things done, ever again.

Big splashes aside, these trades come with two completely different reactions. Remember, every trade now has to be judged not only on the talent given up but how much money was or was not taken on, in addition to how much it helps the club . So let’s start with Thome.


thomewhitesox.jpgDid we need him?
Hah. You think? Thome may not be the player he once was, but save for an injury-shortened 2005, he hasn’t hit less than 20 homers since 1993, when he got into just 47 games as a 22-year-old Indian. His OPS+ hasn’t been less than 120 since 1992, again excepting 2005. So yeah, the man can hit. Even at 38 years old this year, he’s got 23 homers and an .864 OPS. As the 12th-leading homer hitter of all time who’s almost completely avoided the taint of the steroid era, he’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer.

It’s true that he’s been almost exclusively a DH in recent years, so unfortunately he won’t be taking his 130+ OPS point advantage to replace the disappointing James Loney. Though Ned Colletti says that he won’t be a first baseman, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him get at least a few innings throughout September just to see if he’s passable, with Loney in reserve for defense. Whether or not he can play there in October is TBD (probably not), but either way the bench just got a huge boost. And if you don’t think a power pinch-hitter is worthwhile, just ask Jonathan Broxton how he felt about Matt Stairs last October. Besides, if the Dodgers do make it to the World Series, we just replaced Juan Pierre at DH with Jim Thome. How’s that for improvement?

But the money… Thome’s only got about $2.4m left on his deal before he’s a free agent this winter, and the Chicago Tribune reports that the White Sox are picking up at least part of it. So the financial obligation shouldn’t be a huge issue here.

So the talent going back… I use the word “talent” loosely here, because no offense to Justin Fuller, but guys who are 26 and hitting .254 as a backup in A-ball aren’t exactly top prospects. I can honestly say I’d never heard of him before today, and now that I’ve researched him I don’t even feel a twinge of loss. It’s basically a free pickup.

Survey says… Giving up zero talent and (presumably) paying less than $2m for a massive improvement to your bench headed into the playoffs? Oh, you better believe that’s a win

Moving on to Garland…

garlanddbacks.jpgDid we need him? Well, last winter this would have been a “yes”, when we all saw inning-eating issues in the future and I advocated signing him for just that reason. So, yeah, we needed him in January. We needed him in April. We probably needed him in July. But now, when it’s already September? What’s he going to have, 5 starts? Maybe? That’s nice and all, but with the division lead back up to 5.5 games and Colorado imploding, the playoffs seem safe. Vicente Padilla and Charlie Haeger aren’t All-Stars, but they’re serviceable to get through the month, and Hiroki Kuroda might return as soon as this weekend.

It’s not like Garland’s starting in the playoffs; Wolf, Billingsley, and Kershaw are your obvious top three, and if Kuroda’s as healthy as he seems to be you can’t see Garland getting the call over him for a Game 4. So this is just “September depth”.

Jon Garland’s not a guy who makes a difference in the short term. He’s a guy who can reliably take the ball every 5th day and provide average or slightly above performance over the long haul. I’m not saying there’s not value in that – there definitely is – but he’s also not someone you should be targeting in the late part of the season. But, okay, he’s not terrible, so let’s see what was given up to get him…

But the money… Well, the Diamondbacks are picking up every last penny. Hooray! A free pitcher! Wait a second. Aren’t the DBacks cash-strapped? And isn’t this how the Indians ended up with Carlos Santana for Casey Blake – because the Dodgers didn’t want to pick up any salary, so they give up a better prospect than they had to? Uh oh…


abreuwalksaway.jpgSo the talent going back…
It’s officially still “a player to be named later”, though Steve Gilbert of MLB.com is reporting that Dodger players believe it’s Tony Abreu. That’s hardly a confirmation, so I’ll withhold judgement until we hear that it’s actually the case. However, it would make sense; if it’s a PTBNL, it’s likely because the player would have to clear waivers first, and with the Dodgers needing to make the deal before the deadline to have Garland playoff-eligible, they made the deal this way until the player clears (or until after the season, if he does not.)

Look, if it’s Abreu, I’m going to be really unhappy. He’s a 24-year-old with a .991 OPS in AAA this year, and looks to finally have put his career back on track after two years of injuries. With Orlando Hudson headed back into free agency this offseason, I was strongly in favor of letting him walk and giving Abreu a crack at the second base job. Now – again, if it’s him – the Dodgers have just handed a division rival an excellent prospect for 5 mediocre starts of Jon Garland?  

Survey says… We’ll of course have more to say on this once we know who the player is going back to Arizona. Right now, the feeling is more “worried” with a good chance of “horrified“. 

Holy Toledo Batman!: Dodgers Acquire Thome And Garland!

Thome20092.jpg
Garland20092.jpgThe analysis will come later, and we’re not sure yet who was involved in the deals, but just to getthe news up, according to MLBTR, the Dodgers have just acquired Jim Thome from the Chicago White Sox and Jon Garland from the team we’re trying to beat, as we speak. 

No, those moves weren’t shocking, were they? 

- Vin vinscully-face.jpg