Hold On, Ely’s Coming

(Update: Completely unexpectedly, I’ve been invited to be on Sirius/XM Fantasy Baseball tonight at 8:35p ET / 5:35p PT, so tune in.  XM 147 / Sirius 211.)

It’s an off-day, so at least the Dodgers can’t get shut out, right? Hey, it could be worse: the Red Sox are 0-6 and the population of Boston is about to plummet by 40% as half the inhabitants line up to leap off the Tobin Bridge. I joke, but so far we’re seeing exactly what we expected: relatively good starting pitching, a hit-or-miss bullpen, and just about no offense. Can’t say you’re surprised, right?

All indications are that John Ely will be recalled to make the Saturday start in San Diego, and I couldn’t agree with the decision more. If Ely’s going to succeed, there’s no better place than in Petco Park. Besides, as I laid out the other day, it makes no sense to DFA someone to recall Tim Redding, then risk losing him on his own DFA after one start. Since Jon Garland is all but certain to be ready the next time the spot comes up, it’s far, far easier to just call up Ely for one start and then send him back down immediately after. The question then becomes, of course, who loses their job on the 25-man roster; that would almost certainly be A.J. Ellis, simply because he has options left and the Dodgers are carrying three catchers. Ellis couldn’t be recalled for 10 days following his demotion (unless Hector Gimenez was injured), so you might see one of the rest of the usual grab-bag of roster fodder called up to sit on the bench before Garland is activated – Scott Elbert, Travis Schlichting, Russ Mitchell, or Jamie Hoffmann.

Speaking of the Isotopes, Chris Jackson of the Albuquerque Examiner kindly stopped by my comments section to lay out the early-season rotation. Dana Eveland starts the opener tonight, followed by Carlos Monasterios tomorrow, Randy Keisler (!) on Saturday, Alberto Bastardo in place of Ely on Sunday, and Redding on Monday.

On to other notes of the day…

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If you’ve been reading this blog for even a second, you know how little I think of saves, a statistic that tells you nothing about performance yet has completely changed the way the game is managed. Come on, the guy who comes into a bases-empty situation against the 6-7-8 hitters in the 9th is more valuable than the guy who gets out of a two-on, one-out jam against the meat of the lineup in the 8th just because of what inning it is? Please. In the same vein, blown saves are even worse offenders.

It’s with that in mind that I heartily recommend this look at “Shutdowns” and “Meltdowns” from FanGraphs, which even the article admits are nearly a year old but which I hadn’t known about until now. A quick definition:

Using Win Probability Added (WPA), it’s very easy to tell exactly how much a specific player contributed to their team on a game-by-game basis. If a player increased his team’s win probability by 6% (0.06 WPA), then they get a Shutdown. If a player made his team 6% more likely to lose (-0.06), they get a Meltdown. These cutoff points put Shutdowns and Meltdowns on a similar scale as Saves and Holds, meaning that 40 shutdowns is roughly as impressive as 40 saves. While the WPA aspect can take a bit to explain to saber newbies, having Shutdowns and Meltdowns on the same scale as Saves makes it much easier for new people to accept and understand.

This eliminates the difference between “closers” and “everyone else” and makes the 9th inning less important. As the article goes on to state, all-timers like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman still rank at the top (no one would buy the stat if they didn’t), but quality non-closing arms like Arthur Rhodes get their due as well. I recommend the full read; for the record, Jonathan Broxton‘s 2010 doesn’t appear on the noted leaders of either side, though Hong-Chih Kuo ranks 2nd in terms of highest ratio of Shutdowns to Meltdowns.

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As usual, I think T.J. Simers’ take on the ballpark violence issue is a bit over the top, because his schtick is well-known and his “data” consists of people emailing him to complain, as though anyone nutty enough to take Simers seriously was really going to write in to say “no, everything’s cool!” On the other hand, he’s taking the opportunity to turn this into yet another example of how the ownership of Frank McCourt has ruined the Dodgers – apparently Frank’s now even responsible for driving families away from games – so if Simers wants to take the approach of driving public opinion even further against Frank McCourt, that’s fine by me.

What happened to Bryan Stow (who is reportedly stabilizing) is no joke, of course, and we all hope not only for the best for him but also that his assailants are found and prosecuted. I suppose I’m just having a difficult time with the perception that this is some kind of Dodger Stadium-specific crisis, as though idiots don’t do awful things at football games in Philadelphia or basketball games in Miami. Yes, there should be more security, but you could have guards every 20 feet and you still couldn’t stop someone from randomly punching someone else. I’m all about personal responsibility, and the blame ought to be directed at the two animals who attacked an innocent fan.

Then again, when you’ve fired your head of security and neglected to replace him – as McCourt did last year – it’s hard to drum up a whole lot of sympathy for him, especially with his flaccid public statements on the matter. Just another black mark on the McCourt era, I suppose, and hardly the last. Yes, he hired former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton this week, which is nice, but that’s a move that can’t be seen as more than reactionary to this crisis.

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Speaking of McCourt, there’s a whole lot of talk lately that he’s close to making another deal with FOX about television rights, and if Bud Selig blocks the deal, McCourt would sue; the idea being that while his first proposed deal was denied based on FOX getting a below-market rate on rights, this deal would be more fair. I’ve even seen some people saying that Selig has no standing whatsoever to block the deal, since he’s approved similar deals in the past.

I prefer Buster Olney’s take, though:

Baseball’s biggest concern with the deal that Frank McCourt’s representatives are proposing is that it really doesn’t benefit the Dodgers franchise. The money that McCourt would receive wouldn’t be thrown into the baseball operations; it would be used to deal with McCourt’s debts.

Exactly. To put it in terms we’re all familar with, the Dodger television rights are a f’n valuable thing, man. Why should we want to let McCourt use them to bail out his own personal mess? This is the kind of thing that could hamstring the franchise for years to come.

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Lastings Milledge got DFA’d by the White Sox. The Dodgers won’t go after him, of course, and they’re overloaded with outfielders as it is. I’d prefer him to Jay Gibbons, though.

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Finally, and I’m a few days late on this, congratulations to Howard Cole of Baseball Savvy for his new gig blogging Dodgers over at the Orange County Register. He’s also selected the top ten Dodger blogs, and I’d say he’s chosen wisely.

There’s No Such Thing As Pitching Depth

For all the happy thoughts about the seemingly solid Dodger starting rotation, I never thought that the front five of Clayton Kershaw / Chad Billingsley / Ted Lilly / Hiroki Kuroda / Jon Garland was going to last through the entire season. You knew that Vicente Padilla would get some starts when injuries hit, and it wouldn’t stop there. John Ely was going to get a crack. Blake Hawksworth, perhaps, or Carlos Monasterios, or a retread like Tim Redding. That’s just a fact of life.

But if you really thought you’d be dipping into the extra guys a week before St. Patrick’s Day, raise your hand, because you’ve won a prize, inasmuch as watching Tim Redding pitch can be a prize.  That’s because Bill Shaikin, Ken Gurnick, and half of my Twitter feed are reporting that Jon Garland just left his start in the second inning clutching his side. As Shaikin notes, it for all the world looked like an oblique injury, and that’s generally a recovery that’s measured in weeks, not days. (Update: Shaikin is reporting that Garland says it is indeed his oblique.)

Let’s be clear right now that we don’t know yet the details are going to be, other than that he came out. So any speculation on who might replace him is far, far too premature… but that’s certainly not going to stop us from doing it anyway. Padilla was the obvious answer, yet he’s down with his own injury, so that leaves with Ely, last season’s short-lived hero, or Redding, who didn’t pitch in the bigs last year and had a 5.10 ERA in 2009. Each have had excellent starts to the spring, with Redding scattering six hits over eight scoreless innings, and Ely striking out seven against zero walks in six scoreless innings. There’s still plenty of camp left, but it’s hard for me to root against Ely.

There’s also another option, one that I was thinking about but was beaten to the Twitter punch about by Eric Stephen of TrueBlueLA. Since the Dodgers have several off-days in the first portion of the season, they could conceivably make it until April 10 or 12 without needing a fifth starter. If that’s the case, they could avoid Xavier Paul‘s out-of-options status by carrying him to start the year, with Garland on the DL. They could then make a move to either activate Garland or recall Ely/Redding for that game.

That probably wouldn’t do much to help Paul’s long-term Dodger fortune, though it at would at least allow him the opportunity to stick around for two more weeks in case another hitter comes up with an injury, and as we’ve seen this spring, that’s not altogether unlikely.

So while we wait for news on Garland, keep these two nuggets in mind. #1, if you didn’t like Garland, this might help have him not pitch enough innings to get that 2012 option to vest, and #2, rather than be disappointed that the extra depth didn’t last, just imagine what things would have looked like if the team hadn’t come to camp with six starters. Ugly, right?

Who Will Make Up the 2011 Albuquerque Isotopes?

Last weekend, my friends at River Ave. Blues took a stab at predicting what the AAA roster for the Yankee farm club in Scranton might look like in 2010. I found it interesting, and I liked it, so I’m going to shamelessly steal the idea and apply it to the Dodgers. 

Let’s be clear that it’s not even Christmas yet, and this is all subject to change. Trades could happen. Injuries could happen. Prospects who we expect to see in AAA could start the year in AA, or vice-versa. More veterans can (and almost certainly will) be invited to camp on non-roster contracts, and while some will end up in ABQ, some will wash out entirely.

All that said, I had a surprisingly easy time putting the 24-man (yes, 24) Isotope roster together, especially for a team that ran 66 players through town last year. Let’s check it out.

Offense

C: Seven players suited up behind the plate for the Isotopes in 2010, though the majority of the work went to Luke May, who’s now in Kansas City. With the signing of Dioner Navarro, A.J. Ellis likely starts his fourth AAA season as the main backstop. I like to think he has a chance of beating Navarro out with a good spring, but if the Dodgers were foolish enough to give Navarro a $1m MLB contract, they’re probably not cutting him short of disaster. Last year’s backup, JD Closser, was re-signed recently and is likely to fill the same role again. There’s a non-zero chance of Hector Gimenez, inexplicably added to the 40-man roster, pushing aside Closser, but we’ll stick with the veteran for now.

1B: John Lindsey‘s not DFA’d yet, but he soon will be to clear up badly-needed space on the 40-man roster. One would think that he’d be willing to sign a minor league deal to return, though it’s hardly a certainty. For now, let’s say that he will. Prospect Jerry Sands will see some time at first base as well.

2B: There’s still a chance that Ivan DeJesus forces his way onto the Opening Day roster in Los Angeles, moving Juan Uribe to 3B and Casey Blake to LF. I consider that to be less than a 50% chance, however, so it’s more than likely that DeJesus starts 2011 as the Isotope second baseman.

3B: Russ Mitchell made his Dodger debut in 2010, but he fulfilled low expectations by being pretty awful. Some may say that he’s in the running for a bench job in 2011; I just don’t see it, and there’s not really anyone behind him to play 3B in ABQ anyway. He starts here, at least in April.

SS: Here’s the first real question mark. Dee Gordon received an aggressive promotion to AA Chattanooga last year, and was good but not great. He noted on his Twitter recently that he had not yet been told whether he’ll start the year in AA or AAA. Much probably depends on his spring performance, and neither would surprise me; if I had to pick right now my guess is that he’ll probably start in AA and move up later in the year. That’d leave Justin Sellers, who hit an ABQ-fueled .867 OPS last year, to remain as the Isotope shortstop.

LF: Though he’ll play some first base as well, Jerry Sands likely sees the bulk of his time in left field. After his impressive tear through the minors last year, it’ll be fun to see what he can do at ABQ, and it’s not out of the question to think he can make it to Los Angeles by September.

CF: Joining Sands in the outfield will almost certainly be Trayvon Robinson, who had a very good year in AA last season and has nothing left to prove in Tennessee. He’s already on the 40-man roster, and he could also be a candidate for an MLB callup at some point in 2011.

RF: Jamie Hoffmann may have a better chance at winning a big league bench gig than you think. He’s right-handed, has big-league experience, and he’s a plus defender, attributes which fit perfectly on the current roster. Still, while we’ll see him at some point, I’m doubting it’s to start the season. Trent Oeltjen, who played 41 games in RF last year before being recalled, and who recently re-signed with the Dodgers, will also get plenty of time.

Bench: Former Giant Eugenio Velez, signed to a minor-league deal which I surprisingly did not hate, will battle for an MLB job but likely fills the role of AAA utility guy. He can play 2B and all three OF spots. Whomever isn’t starting between Oeltjen and Hoffmann on a given day will fill one spot, as well. Then there’s Juan Castro, who you may remember as one of the worst hitters in the history of the big leagues. I cannot imagine he makes the big league team, yet as I noted when he was signed, he doesn’t generally end up in the minors. So I’m going to say that he doesn’t go to Albuquerque, and the spot is filled by either a veteran NRI we’re not aware of yet or Travis Denker, who has some MLB experience and ended last season in Albuquerque. My guess is that’ll last only until Gordon is recalled, and Sellers is pushed into a reserve role.

Others: Xavier Paul & Chin-lung Hu are no strangers to AAA, and neither seems to have a spot saved for them on the big club. However, both are out of options, so expect one or both to be traded. Paul would have almost no chance of slipping through waivers, so he wouldn’t be back in Albuquerque; Hu may make it through, but even that’s unlikely.

C – A.J. Ellis
C – JD Closser
1B - John Lindsey
2B – Ivan DeJesus
SS – Justin Sellers
3B – Russ Mitchell
IF – Travis Denker / NRI
LF – Jerry Sands
CF – Trayvon Robinson
RF – Jamie Hoffmann
OF – Trent Oeltjen
UT – Eugenio Velez

Pitching – Starting Rotation

I’ve given 12 spots to offense, and that leaves 12 left for the pitching staff.

The rotation is a little easier to peg than in previous years, because there’s not a mess of guys competing for the 5th starter role on the big club. So while I do expect we’ll see someone like John Ely at some point in the season, he’s definitely starting 2011 in AAA. The same goes for Carlos Monasterios, now that he’s finished his Rule V status and is Dodger property; though he was more effective as a reliever in the bigs, he needs innings more than anything and so likely slots into the Isotope rotation.

They’ll be joined by veterans Dana Eveland, who signed a minor-league deal in November, and I believe Tim Corcoran, who started 18 games last year. I can’t find evidence of Corcoran having re-signed, but the Albuquerque Examiner refers to him as a “returning veteran”, so I’ll take that as close enough. (Update: in the comments, Chris Jackson of the Examiner directs me to this Baseball America link confirming Corcoran’s re-signing. Thanks, Chris.)

For the 5th spot… well, who knows. This is a great spot for an NRI, or an injured big leaguer who starts the year on rehab. I’m going to start with Brent Leach, who you may remember as a reliever with the Dodgers in 2009. He spent 2010 transitioning to a starter, and it didn’t go particularly well. Still, he’s 28 now, so it’s now or never. (Commenter Jeromy points out that Leach signed in Japan yesterday. Oh well.) Or maybe it’s Antonio Bastardo, who’s seen AAA time in each of the last two seasons but has never been able to stick. Maybe it’s Rubby De La Rosa, who had a breakout year last year but probably needs more than 8 AA games, or Mario Alvarez or Jesus Castillo, who each will be 26 and started 19 games in AA last year. Or even Chris Withrow, who started more games at AA than anyone last year and is still just 22, but had a pretty disappointing year. Likely, it’s some combination of all of them.

Remember, though, as often as the 5th rotation spot tends to change in the big leagues, it’s even crazier in the minors. The Isotopes had 22 starting pitchers last year, though several were rehab one-offs, so whomever begins as the final starter certainly won’t end that way.

Pitching – Relievers

The bullpen’s even tougher to predict. Are Travis Schlichting, Jon Link, and Ramon Troncoso likely going to be squeezed out by the overstuff big league staff? Most likely, but they’ll all almost certainly get their chances in LA as well as injuries mount. Throw in Josh Lindblom to that mix, who seems perpetually on the edge of breaking through but just hasn’t been able to make it happen, and Oscar Villarreal, signed as a veteran free agent. I’m also going to include Scott Elbert here, because even though I do think he has a chance to be the second lefty in the big league bullpen, his disastrous and mysterious 2010 makes it not the worst idea in the world for him to start off in the minors.

For the last spot? Pick a name out of a hat. Maybe it’s another veteran NRI, like Justin Miller last season. Maybe Jesus Rodriguez, who pitched 27 not-very-effective games for the club last year. Maybe former first-round pick James Adkins, who struck out 9.9/9 in AA in 2010, or Javy Guerra, who impressed for the Lookouts, or Wilkin De La Rosa, who just recently signed from the Yankees. Like with the #5 starter, this is a spot which will rotate constantly. I’m going to start with a dark horse, 28-year-old Jon Huber, who pitched in AA last year and re-signed last month. He has some big-league experience with Seattle and had a fantastic 48/11 K/BB with Chattanooga; I doubt he would have signed without a decent chance to move up a level. Again, we’ll see plenty of guys there.

SP – John Ely
SP – Dana Eveland
SP - Tim Corcoran
SP – Carlos Monasterios
SP - Bastardo / Alvarez / NRI

RP – Travis Schlichting
RP – Ramon Troncoso
RP – Scott Elbert
RP – Jon Link
RP – Josh Lindblom
RP – Oscar Villarreal
RP – Jon Huber / NRI

I don’t consider myself a prospect expert, so feel free to disagree with me, and we all know there’s still going to be some movement around the edges, but I think this is pretty close. And honestly, it’s not a bad group. There’s some star potential in Robinson and Sands – more if Gordon makes it – some decent offensive depth in Ellis, Hoffmann, Velez, and Oeltjen, and a ton of relief options. Really, the only weakness here is in the rotation, where Eveland and Corcoran are disposable veterans and neither Ely nor Monasterios offer high-ceiling potential. That said, Ely & Monasterios have each had their moments in the bigs and are far superior to last year’s Ortiz buffet plate, and with the way Ned Colletti has put together the big league staff, you hopefully don’t need to dip into the minors that often.

Update: Per MLBtraderumors, the Dodgers have signed someone named Scott Nestor to a minor-league deal. He’s got a high strikeout rate but walks approximately one billion per nine, and yep, he was in the Giants system last year. Toss him into the Isotopes bullpen mix as well.

MSTI’s 2010 in Review: Starting Pitchers, Part 2

Note: I don’t want to make a new post and shove this review down the page for the sake of lousy Scott Podsednik, so I’ll share it here: Dylan Hernandez reports that Podsednik has declined his option and will be a free agent. Hooray!

John Ely (A)
5.49 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 6.8 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, -1.0 WAR

I bet you’re dying to know how a pitcher with a 4-10 record, 5.49 ERA and a -1.0 WAR pulls an A, right? Well, before the season started, who the hell was John Ely, as far as Dodger fans were concerned? Even Andre Ethier didn’t know who he was. He was just one of the unknowns who came back in return for Juan Pierre, and that was about the extent most people bothered to even think about him. (Or as Chad from MOKM said about the return at the time, “Whatever, they could be dead for all I care.”)

He didn’t do much to change that impression with a lousy debut on a cold, wet April day in New York, allowing five earned runs in six innings, particularly damaging at a time when Vicente Padilla was injured, Charlie Haeger was imploding, and Chad Billingsley was off to a slow start. With James McDonald battling a broken fingernail in AAA, if Ely couldn’t hang in there, there no were other good options. Josh Towers? Seth Etherton? Yeeesh.

In Ely’s second start, he allowed Milwaukee just one earned run over 6.2 IP, striking out 7 without walking any. Then he allowed just two earned runs against Arizona, again not walking a man, and repeated the feat against Houston. From April 28 – May 22, he faced 89 batters without issuing a single walk, helping him go six straight games (the first six after his debut) without once allowing more than two earned runs.

Coming out of nowhere as he did at the most critical time in the season, you might say we’d found a new hero:

John Ely put up yet another quality start against Houston, going seven innings while allowing just two runs, striking out eight – a new career high – and walking zero. However, he achieved even more than you think he did tonight.

John Ely can sing God Bless America in three seconds. #ElyMania (@chadmoriyama)

Cy Young never won a John Ely award #ElyMania (@truebluela)

Even more impressively, John Ely can change Juan Pierre into a useful starting pitcher. (@jay_jaffe)

It’s been just four starts, but Ely is quickly becoming somewhat of a folk hero among Dodger fans. Of course, that’ll happen when you’re a guy who 98% of Dodger fans hadn’t heard of (including your own right fielder, and let’s face it, the left fielder didn’t know who you were either), and you come up with the rotation falling apart and immediately contribute, all the while doing it completely opposite from how the other young starters are doing it.

Of course, it didn’t last forever. His next three starts were rough, and though he rebounded with back-to-back 7 IP, 1 ER outings in late June, he failed to get out of the 3rd inning in either of his next two starts and was sent back to the minors until September. I’d worried that this was coming even back in May:

Let’s be clear here; Ely is not going to keep this up. He’s not a 0.94 WHIP pitcher over a full season, especially not when he wasn’t close to that in the minors. There’s going to come a day, probably soon, where he doesn’t have his pinpoint control, or batters don’t flail at his looping curveball, and sit on his mid-80s fastball.

And that’s exactly what happened, both after his great start and in four mediocre September/October outings. Look at it this way; in Ely’s first nine starts, he had a 41/13 K/BB ratio, helping him to hold batters to a .640 OPS and a 3.38 ERA. But in his last nine starts, that ratio skyrocketed to 35/27, and it’s no surprise that he got rocked in that time – .999 OPS and 8.18 ERA. Or this: he gave up 12 homers on the year, and after going eight starts in a row without one, every last one came in his last ten starts.

Ely’s never going to be more than a #4/5 starter, and in his second half he wasn’t even good enough to be a major league pitcher. If the Dodgers start off 2011 with him in the rotation, that’s probably not a good sign; you can do much worse than having him as the 6th or 7th best guy, ready to step in when injuries hit, but if you start off the year with him then that means you’re almost certainly going to have to suffer starts from pitchers worse than him. But he keeps the A, if only because the Dodger rotation was teetering on the brink, and he stepped in from nowhere with a run of outstanding starts.

ElyMania, indeed.

Vicente Padilla (C+)
4.07 ERA, 4.20 FIP, 8.0 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 0.7 WAR

I’m not even sure where to start here. How about the completely unexpected Opening Day start?

Thanks to the magic of Twitter, let’s see the immediate reaction from several people I have a lot of respect for:

jay_jaffe Why, did he shoot Kershaw and Billingsley?

craigcalcaterra This has to be a joke, right?

injuryexpert RT @jay_jaffe: Why, did he shoot Kershaw and Billingsley?

truebluela What the hell?

DodgerDivorce You’ve got to be kidding me.

Padilla repaid that trust by being awful on Opening Day (7 ER in 4.1 IP) and pitching just 4.1 IP in his second start as well. He was better in his next two starts before landing on the disabled list with a forearm injury, a malady which knocked him out for two months until late June, returning with an unremarkable start in Boston.

On the morning of June 25, Padilla had made just five starts, allowing 40 baserunners in 27 innings, helping him post a 6.67 ERA – not exactly the kind of performance you’d expect to see from your Opening Day starter. But on June 25, the Yankees came to town, and were held to two runs over seven innings. On June 30, he held the Giants to one run over seven innings, and Padilla and his “soap bubble” were off and running.

From June 25 – August 9, Padilla was simply sublime:

Padilla took a no-hitter into the 7th in throwing his fourth career shutout (and first as a Dodger), baffling the Padres with painfully slow “soap bubbles” scattered among 90+ mph heaters, with James Loney just inches away from snaring a liner that may have kept the no-no going.

That, amazingly, is Padilla’s eighth straight start without having allowed more than two earned runs. No, really: look at his game log since his return from the DL:

As I mentioned on Twitter earlier, I can’t wait to see what the free agent market does for him. He missed two months with arm trouble, accidentally shot himself in the offseason, has a long reputatation as a jerk… and is pitching like an absolute ace.

But that’s where the magic ended. Padilla had a mediocre start in Philly on August 10 (4 ER over 5 IP) and a disaster start in Atlanta on August 15 (8 ER in 4.1 IP) before heading back to the DL with a neck injury. He came back for one forgettable start in September (3 ER over 4 IP) in San Diego, and was back on the shelf due to the neck.

At the end of the day, Padilla threw just 95 innings, though he did end up with career bests as far as K/9 and WHIP. He seems to have finally found a comfort zone in Los Angeles – no small feat given his well-known personal history – and the run of injuries this year should keep his price down. Yet he’s also proven that he’s effective when he’s healthy, so if he’s willing to come back for one year, ~$4m? I’d have no problem trusting one of the two spots at the back end of the rotation to him.

Ted Lilly (B)
3.52 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 9.0 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 1.4 WAR

I feel like we’ve been talking about Ted Lilly quite a lot lately, so I’m going to get through this one quickly.

When he arrived, I was incredibly unhappy at the deal, though this was far more because the deal was unnecessary than because I didn’t like Lilly:

Even if it is an improvement, is it one worth making? Lilly’s the 5th starter. You’ll never convince me he’s better than Kershaw, Billingsley, Kuroda, or Padilla right now, and the problems we’ve seen lately have been caused by non-existent offense and unreliable bullpen work, not poor starting pitching. Other than Ely’s poor last two starts, the most recent outings by #5 guys (Monasterios/James McDonald/Ely before those starts) have been overall a soup of mediocrity, no different than any other team. So if you’re using some of your trade chips, you really ought to be doing it on an area that’s a big problem, not to mildly improve an area that’s not desperately in need of it.

Again, I don’t mind seeing Lilly as a Dodger, but trading anything more than a non-prospect for him makes it completely not worth it. Ted Lilly is not the piece that propels you into October. And since he’s making $12m this year, you know he won’t be offered arbitration, so you can’t even look forward to any draft picks. If you were going to trade for a middling lefty who won’t really help that much this year, it might as well have been for Paul Maholm, who’s at least signed for 2011.

He started his Dodger career by being amazing for a month, but as the team fell further out of contention, I thought there was a better way he could contribute, by swapping him to a contender:

He’s been about a thousand times more effective than even the most optimistic among us would have ever hoped for, and for that he’s to be commended. Now if you remember, when he was acquired, I didn’t like the trade. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Lilly, who I acknowledged was an upgrade to the rotation, but that the the rotation wasn’t the problem as much as the offense was, and that the Dodgers weren’t good enough this year to be trading the future for 2010 anyway.

Think about it – Lilly’s good, and has been for a long time, but he’s not this good. His BABIP as a Dodger is just .138, and that’s not going to last forever. If he keeps this up for the rest of the season, that’s great, but it’s not going to put the Dodgers in the playoffs and it’s only going to price him out of their league should they wish to retain him in the offseason. Much more likely, he is at the absolute peak of his value right now, because with the performance he’s shown, there’s really nowhere to go but down.

The point is, Ted Lilly‘s been awesome for the Dodgers, and there’s two ways to extract value from him for the remainder of the season; let him make 6-7 more starts for LA and help you finish 7 games out, or let him go to the playoffs with another team and possibly bring back prospects, while finishing 10 games out.

I know which route I’d take.

Lilly then went out and gave up 7 runs in 4 innings in Colorado to kick off a streak where he lost four of his last five starts, with the sinking Dodgers declining to trade him to the Yankees after they had claimed him on waivers.

After the season, I hoped that the Dodgers would offer him arbitration, arguing that his declining velocity, advancing age, and increasing homer rate might make a longer deal an untenable risk, as I outlined here:

To be 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.

I’ve softened on this somewhat since, as a large part of my concern was the idea that the Dodgers would be able to make only one big signing this offseason, and if Ted Lilly‘s the best they can do, that’s not going to be enough. As signs point to both the payroll being larger than anticipated and the free agent market being more expensive than in recent years, the deal doesn’t look quite as bad. I’m still not looking forward to paying him $13m (it’s backloaded) in 2013, of course.

******

Next! Carlos Monasterios lives the dream! Charlie Haeger fails miserably! Ramon Ortiz gives up another homer! And MSTI regrets sorting pitchers into threes, because a post with those three is miserable! (Trust me, though, the picture on Ortiz’ card will make it worth it.) It’s starting pitchers, part three!

The MSTI 2011 Plan, Part 2: Pitching

Lots of good comments on the Offense post yesterday – thanks. Of course, you can’t have a team without a pitching staff, and today we try to do some reconstructive surgery on the arms. I’ll be honest up front and say that it’s not going to be pretty. Filling three rotation spots isn’t easy even when you do have a ton of free cash, and the available starters are less than awe-inspiring. Other than Cliff Lee, the jewel of the market who’s never coming to the Dodgers, the best free agent starter is… Carl Pavano? Jorge de la Rosa? Ted Lilly, maybe? It’s not a great group, and the always-large demand plus that lack of supply means that some team is going to get silly and give those guys 3-4 years at big dollars. This is the one time that the payroll restrictions are actually a good thing, because Ned Colletti likely won’t have the chance to go out and be the one to make that mistake.

That said, you still have to put together a staff, and here’s one man’s crack at it.

1) Sign Clayton Kershaw to a 5 year, $30m contract…

…if you can even still get him that cheaply. I’d go into this in greater detail, except I already did just that in August. Basically, based on recent deals signed by comparable pitchers like Ricky Romero, Yovani Gallardo, and Jon Lester, this is about the going rate for a quality young starter with a pre-arbitration year left.

Sure, you could wait another year. You could enjoy the fact that he’s making just $500k or so in 2011, but that’s only going to cost you more down the road. He’s increased his WAR in each of his three years in the bigs, at the same time as he’s decreased his WHIP and K/BB. What happens when next year is the year he truly blows up? The cost is going to get astronomical. Better to do it now.

Fortunately, deals like these are rarely paid out evenly over the length of the contract, so we don’t have to worry about fitting in $6m into the 2011 budget. Doubling his 2011 salary ought to be enough to start, and the dollars increase over the remainder.

This is probably my highest priority of any move this entire winter.
$72.5m + $1m = $73.5m

2) Offer Ted Lilly arbitration, expecting he’ll decline.

As detailed here, I think it’s more likely that Lilly would decline rather than accept. If he does accept, you can make it work, of course. For this exercise, we’re assuming he signs a Randy Wolf-like three-year deal elsewhere.
$73.5m+ $0m = $73.5m (plus two draft picks)

3) Don’t offer Hiroki Kuroda arbitration, fearing he’ll accept.

As detailed here. I love Kuroda, and he could command a big free-agent contract, but the danger that he’ll want to commit to only one more year of American baseball and end up with a $16m+ arbitration judgement is far too risky, especially for an older pitcher with an injury history.
$73.5m+ $0m = $73.5m

4) Deal with the arbitration cases of Chad Billingsley and Hong-Chih Kuo.

Guessing arbitration prizes can be notoriously difficult, so I’ll go with Eric Stephen’s predictions on the TBLA payroll sheet for Chad Billingsley & Hong-Chih Kuo, which are $5.5m and $2.5m, respectively. I’d just as soon sign Billingsley to a long-term deal as well, but it’s probably pushing our luck to think that even Kershaw would get signed this winter, much less both.

As for the others… say “smell you later” for the moment to George Sherrill , Jeff Weaver and Vicente Padilla.
$73.5m + $8m = $81.5m

5) Trade James Loney to the Cubs for Tom Gorzelanny.

Loney’s an interesting case, because I think he’s one of those guys where there’s a massive divide between what regular fans and media types think of him as opposed to the impression the hardcore stat types have. We of course know that Loney’s a decent enough MLB hitter, yet subpar among his first base peers, especially in a league stacked with Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Aubrey Huff, and Adam Dunn (and that’s only the NL!). Sure, the RBI totals are somewhat shiny, but he finished 19th among 24 qualified MLB 1B in WAR. That was fine when he was an 0-3 player making $500k; it’s becoming a lot less fine as he ascends the arbitration scale without making a lot of progress on the field.

That doesn’t mean he’s without value, of course. I think a lot of other people see a guy who’s only 26, has a sweet swing and a smooth glove, and nearly drove in 90 runs for the third year in a row. It’s not enough to get you an ace starter, but it should be enough to get you a decent enough pitcher – and it just so happens the Dodgers have rotation holes to fill.

Meanwhile, the Cubs need a first baseman with Derrek Lee in Atlanta and Xavier Nady headed to free agency. Though it didn’t work that way in 2010, Loney’s always been more successful away from Dodger Stadium – more than 140 points of OPS better, in fact, with a career line of .309/.362/.495. That’s a lot more like it, and I worried back in the 2010 Maple Street Press Annual that he might need a change of scenery. The Cubs have most of their rotation set with Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Silva, Randy Wells, and Ryan Dempster, and could probably manage to fill the #5 spot elsewhere in order to take a chance on Loney.

As for Gorzelanny, he’s a 28-year-old lefty who’s been a bit up-and-down, but has FIP of 3.91 and 3.92 the last two years, good for 2.1 WAR this year (you can safely ignore the 5.55 ERA from 2009). Joe Pawlikowski of FanGraphs was pretty high on Gorzelanny back in July:

In fact, Gorzelanny has enough going for him that he can be expected to continue pitching well. I’m not even sure exactly why Pittsburgh, a team desperate for pitching, traded him in the first place. He was quite excellent in the high minors prior to his full-time MLB promotion, and even when the Pirates demoted him in 2008 and 2009 he pitched very well in the minors.

Like Perez, Gorzelanny’s resurgence could be a temporary thing. His control still isn’t where it needs to be, and that will be an important component of his game going forward. Yet Gorzelanny’s peripherals, both in the minors and the majors, make him look like a better case for permanent recovery. The Cubs, to their benefit, have three more years of team control, so they’ll get a long look at what Gorzelanny can do in the long run. Considering the state of the Pirates’ pitching, I’m sure Hungtington would love to get backsies on this one.

Gorzelanny’s probably not much more than a 4th starter, but he’s also going to make just about $1m next year in his first year of arbitration. Besides, Loney would probably make between $4-5m in arbitration, so moving that means you’re only paying an extra $3m or so for Dunn, assuming you backload his contract a bit.

I also considered trying to move Loney to Tampa for Matt Garza here, but the Rays are in serious cost-cutting mode and don’t seem like the type to pay $4-5m to a player like Loney who doesn’t get much love from the statistical community.

(Note: I’ve had this part written for nearly three weeks. I only just now realized that a few people in the TBLA comments suggested this deal as well on Friday, and then more than one person did so in my own comments yesterday. Great minds, right?)
$81.5m + $1m = $82.5m

6) Sign Vicente Padilla to a one year, $4m deal.

What a bizarre year for Padilla. After coming off the offseason shooting incident, he got a totally unexpected Opening Day start, which he turned into an underwhelming April and then nearly two months on the DL with a forearm injury. Yet when he came back, he was sublime, going eight consecutive starts without allowing more than two earned runs – before missing the last month with a bulging disc in his neck.

Padilla made $5.025m in 2010, and his summer stretch had him positioned for a possible multi-year deal. But the multiple injuries and his well-documented personal issues combine to make that unlikely, and he seems to have found a home in LA. You’re taking a risk on his health, but when he is healthy he’s quite good – and that’s worth the $4m to me.

Besides, I want another season of Vin Scully saying “soap bubble”.
$82.5m + $4m = $86.5m

7) Don’t rely on John Ely to be your 5th starter.

I was one of the few who supported Ely even after his season headed south, because the bar for 5th starters is so low. He had a FIP of 4.38; from a 5th starter, that’s fine with me.

The problem here is that teams almost never use only five starters, due to injury and poor performance. The Dodgers this year used ten starters, from Clayton Kershaw‘s 32 to James McDonald‘s 1. If Ely is your 6th or 7th best option, then you can still be reasonably confident that he’ll get a few shots to prove himself next year, but you won’t be totally dependent on “good Ely” to appear instead of “bad Ely”. If you do rely on him to win the 5th spot, then as soon as someone gets injured or faltered, you’re already relying on someone who’s worse than Ely. And that’s not a good situation to be in.

Of course, if Ely’s not rounding out the rotation, someone else needs to, and we’re going to handle that when we…
$86.5m + $0 = $86.5m

8) Trade Chin-lung Hu to Atlanta for Kenshin Kawakami.

In a vacuum, I’d prefer Hu to Kawakami. However, Hu’s out of options headed into 2011, and there’s no room for him on my Opening Day roster, so I need to turn him into something, and Kawakami’s my ultimate buy-low idea this winter. Just look at his stat line for the last two seasons..

2009: 6.04 K/9, 3.28 BB/9, 4.21 FIP, 4.61 xFIP
2010: 6.08 K/9, 3.30 BB/9, 4.35 FIP, 4.56 xFIP

Two basically identical seasons, right? Sure, except that in 2009 he was 7-12 with a 3.86 ERA, getting him at least a mention in NL ROY articles… and in 2010 he was 1-10 with a 5.15 ERA, getting him banished to the bench as insurance, as he pitched only 3 times after June and badly damaging his relationship with the team. He was more hittable than in 2009 for sure, but this definitely looks like another case of far too much stock being put in a pitcher’s W-L record and ERA (in addition to the Braves having plenty of quality starting options). It seems impossible that he’ll be back in Atlanta, and the Braves could use another shortstop option with Yunel Escobar in Toronto and Alex Gonzalez headed to free agency, even if Hu isn’t the starter – and his slick-fielding may appeal to a team that just saw their defense implode in the NLDS.

As for Kawakami, I’m not pretending he’s anywhere near as good as Hiroki Kuroda, because he’s not. I just can’t help pointing out that they each spent their final season in Japan in the Central League, and Kawakami (2008: 1.06 WHIP, 8.59 K/9, 1.92 BB/9) outpitched Kuroda (2007: 1.21 WHIP, 6.16 K/9, 2.10 BB/9).

It clearly hasn’t worked out as well in America for Kawakami, but it seems like a gamble worth taking. Kawakami is due $6.67m in the final year of a three-year deal. We’re going to say that the Braves will eat much of it in order to save $2m and get Hu in exchange for a pitcher they have no use for.

If it works out, great, you get a decent 5th starter. If not, all it cost you was $2m and a backup infielder who wasn’t going to make the roster anyway.
$86.5m + $2m = $88.5m

_____________________________________

Now that the starting rotation is set, it’s time to look at the bullpen. I’m sure a lot of people would love to keep Kuo and Kenley Jansen and blow up the rest, but it’s just not realistic, either from a financial or a talent standpoint. In the same way that it was hard to imagine that Jonathan Broxton and Ronald Belisario and Ramon Troncoso and George Sherrill would all have blown up together in 2010, it’s hard to imagine that not a single one is going to recapture that 2009 magic in 2011.

That’s not to say that we need to bring back the exact same crew, of course, but spending big money on relievers isn’t an option with the Dodger payroll, nor is it a good idea even if you did have that money. Big dollar investments in non-closer relievers rarely ever work out, as the Boston Herald does a good job of displaying here.

Kuo and Jansen ($88.5m + $0.4m = $88.9m) are no-brainers, and in this age of the seven-man bullpen, we have five more spots to fill. Here’s how we’re going to do it.

9) One of five: Give Jonathan Broxton a chance to rebound.

Broxton’s second-half nosedive really killed my plans, because I wanted to trade him. I wouldn’t want to pay any closer $7m, and that money can be put to better use elsewhere. If Broxton had just made it through another three months performing like he had for the previous three years, he could have been a great trade chip to bring back a bat or a starting pitcher.

Of course, his implosion changes all that, and as I detailed last month, I don’t see much of a trade market for him. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do a deal if the right offer were made, just that I wouldn’t give him away for nothing. Don Mattingly claims that Broxton goes into 2011 as his closer, which I don’t totally agree with, but that’s obviously the best possible outcome. If he can come back from whatever took him down, then you get back a top closer, take pressure off Kuo and Jansen, and have a great piece to trade in July if the Dodgers are out of it. Really, I just want to extract the most value from Broxton, whether that’s on-the-field performance or return via trade, and moving him now isn’t the way to do that.

Besides, all the people you hear saying he’s “mentally weak” were saying the same thing about Chad Billingsley last winter, and you saw how well that worked out. If Broxton’s late-season disaster proved anything, it’s that the 9th inning wasn’t the source of his problems. Whether it was bad mechanics, overuse by Joe Torre (don’t forget that he was asked to throw 99 pitches in five days, and that’s where his troubles began), or an unknown injury (Josh Suchon on DodgerTalk claimed he saw Broxton’s ankle heavily taped after a late-season game), there’s a lot of viable reasons for his downfall. The hope is that a winter of rest can help him come back and regain that value, and giving him that chance – even if he’s not the closer initially – is the right move.
$88.9m + $7m = $95.9m

10) Two of five: Sign Justin Duchsherer to a one year, $1m deal.

Sure, he’s pitched in just five MLB games over the last two seasons due to injury, but what fun would this be without a lottery ticket? Unlike other “pie in the sky” guys like Brandon Webb, Ben Sheets, and Rich Harden, Duchscherer likely won’t require a big base salary, as he made just $1.75m with Oakland in 2010.

Duchscherer missed most of the last two years with injuries to each hip, but he’s proven that he can be effective if healthy. It’s of course the “if healthy” part which is a problem, and here’s how we make that work. Unless he comes into camp and blows everyone away, you make him your 6th-starter/bullpen ace. Before Oakland converted him into a starter in 2008, he was a bullpen weapon, appearing in 53, 65, and 53 games in 2004-06. We’ll do that again here, leaving the option of him being a spot starter available – basically, it’s the Jeff Weaver role.

The idea here is that if you can get 25 or so basically-average starts combined from Kawakami and Duchscherer, along with some bullpen value out of JD, that’s a great return on $3m.
$95.9m + $1m = $96.9m

11) Three of five: Accept that Ronald Belisario is going to have a spot next year.

I don’t want to gloss over Belisario’s extreme unreliability, but assuming nothing else happens, he’s basically assured of a spot. Why? Because his value is low enough that it’s not worth trading him, but since he’s out of options, you can’t send him to the minors and you’re not just going to cut him loose for nothing.

It’s also worth nothing that his 2010 wasn’t just a giant pile of suck, as many would have you believe. After his late arrival to camp, Belisario was reasonably decent through July: .608 OPS, only 2 HR allowed in 35 games. Then he disappeared for a month, and in August and September he fell apart: .856 OPS against, 4 HR allowed in 24 games (though to be fair, he gave up 9 ER in his first three games back and was much better after that).

We still don’t really know what happened to cause his month away from the team, but it’s not hard to infer that it was some sort of personal problem which took his focus away from baseball. That, plus the two long absences, could easily have thrown his timing and conditioning off. If he’s able to avoid such issues in 2011 – which, I admit, is far from certain – he’s my best choice for a rebound.

This assumes he can make it to camp on time, of course. Third time’s the charm?
$96.9m + $0.4m = $97.3m

12) Four of five: One spot goes to one of the up-and-down righty relievers we saw this year.

That’d be Ramon Troncoso, Jon Link, and Travis Schlichting. Hell, even toss Josh Lindblom in there. I imagine all four will see time in LA in 2011, and the first three have all had their moments. Whichever one breaks camp with the team is largely irrelevant, but you know at least one will. For the moment, I’ll say… Link.
$97.3m + $0.4m = $97.7m

13) Five of five: Insert veteran non-roster invite here.

It happens every year, so while I’d love to go out and sign Koji Uehara, Joaquin Benoit, Hisanori Takahashi or someone similar, we all know that this is going to be filled by your obligatory Jeff Weaver or Chan Ho Park-type. Perhaps literally Jeff Weaver or Chan Ho Park, which is fine, just as long as it’s no one named Ortiz.

I’ll actually propose something pretty unpopular, and that’s to bring George Sherrill back for the minimum after he gets non-tendered. I know the fans would revolt if that happened, and Sherrill might not want to come back himself, but it’s worth noting that even in his horrendous 2010, he was still dominant against left-handers: .192/.286/.288. It’s going to be hard to find anyone else who can do that, and Sherrill at least comes with the slight chance that he finds the performance he brought with him to LA. You really think Weaver or Park has that upside?
$97.7m + $0.8m = $98.5m

14) Just turn Pedro Baez into a pitcher already.

This doesn’t really impact the 2011 team, and I realize that every light-hitting, strong-armed minor league hitter isn’t going to be the next Kenley Jansen. I also realize that Baez has absolutely no hope of making the big leagues as a third baseman. He’ll be 23 next spring, yet had just a .306 OBP and 6 HR despite playing against kids 3-4 years younger in the Inland Empire launching pad. The one thing he does have going for him is a rocket for an arm. Why not take that 0% chance of him being a 3B and turn it into a 5% chance he makes it as a reliever? I’d be shocked if DeJon Watson hasn’t already begun those conversations already.
$98.5m + $0 = $98.5m

_____________________________________

Here’s your 2011 pitching staff:

SP L Clayton Kershaw
SP R Chad Billingsley
SP R Vicente Padilla
SP L Tom Gorzelanny
SP R Kenshin Kawakami

RP R Justin Duchscherer
RP R Jon Link
RP L George Sherrill / NRI
RP R Ronald Belisario
RP L Hong-Chih Kuo
RP R Kenley Jansen
RP R Jonathan Broxton

Then you have John Ely, Carlos Monasterios, Travis Schlichting, Ramon Troncoso, Josh Lindblom, Brent Leach, and a cast of thousands in reserve behind them.

Unlike the offense, where I think I was able to clearly improve it, I guess I can’t say the same about the pitching – though I do think it has more depth. It’s just important to remember that having Kuroda and Lilly in your rotation was never more than a short-term solution, because having them both for next year is totally unrealistic – unless your offense was full of rookies making the minimum. So while this rotation may not seem as good as the one that ended 2010 (and I don’t argue otherwise), you’re not working from that rotation. You’re working from one that has only Kershaw and Billingsley right now.

What you hope for here is that Kershaw continues his ascent, giving you a solid 1-2 with Billingsley. You pray that Broxton figures it out and that Kuo holds together for one more season, and you realize that what your team looks like in April is never what it looks like in July. If the team is in contention, adding a 3rd top pitcher could really do wonders.

Either way, I was able to do all of this for about $98.5m and cashing in Scott Elbert, Xavier Paul, James Loney, Russell Martin, and Chin-lung Hu, while adding two draft picks for Lilly. I won’t say this team is suddenly a World Series contender, but I do think the offense and pitching I’ve presented the last two days are definitely superior to the team we saw fall apart in 2010.