Opening Day


At Baseball Prospectus this morning, my weekly fantasy article about relief pitchers went live, and I noted the beginning of the season thusly:

It’s Opening Day! Or, as I like to think of it, “the equivalent of Christmas plus your birthday multiplied by ten Super Bowls”–not to overstate it, of course. It really ought to be a national holiday, no?

That’s the toned-down version, because in reality, it’s more like “Christmas plus your birthday multiplied by ten Super Bowls but if the Super Bowl teams were comprised of puppies that paid out rare coins and had the answers to all of history’s greatest mysteries.” Not enough? Throw in some zombie strippers wielding chainsaws then, too. Whatever fantastic situation you can come up with, that’s how great Opening Day is to baseball fans. After a long winter that started with wondering who would fill 3/5 of the rotation but quickly turned into hand-wringing over the offense and left field in particular, we finally get to see the results on the field. It’s the day we’ve been waiting for for months.

Here’s the lineup you’re likely to see today:

1. Rafael Furcal SS
2. Tony Gwynn, Jr. LF
3. Andre Ethier RF
4. Matt Kemp CF
5. James Loney 1B
6. Juan Uribe 3B
7. Rod Barajas C
8. Jamey Carroll 2B
9. Clayton Kershaw P

In addition, the final roster has now been set, and as I’d hoped, A.J. Ellis did make the squad, sparing us the worry of having Hector Gimenez being the only backup catcher to Barajas. Non-roster players Aaron Miles, Mike MacDougal, and Lance Cormier all made the club, requiring two 40-man moves. John Lindsey was DFA’d, which we’d widely expected, but so was Jon Link, which came as something of a surprise. Lindsey’s almost certain to pass through waivers and report to Albuquerque, but I’m not as sure that Link makes it through – particularly because I’m not all that convinced that either Cormier or MacDougal are better than he is.

Finally, also at BP, I took part in pre-season predictions. While I did pick the Dodgers third in the NL West, I was also one of the few who took Kershaw as the NL Cy Young winner. We didn’t go into wins, but I believe I’ve said before that this is a club that’s built for 85 wins, and one you could just easily see winning 80 or less as you could 90 for more.

Is that a championship team? Probably not. But that is a team that looks to be in contention all year, and that alone makes for a fun season. Can’t wait – let’s get to it.

How Many Problems Can Tony Gwynn Solve?


All winter, we’ve been wondering exactly how the outfield quagmire would play out, beyond just in terms of playing time. We’ve wondered if Marcus Thames‘ defense would make us fondly remember the days of Manny Ramirez, and we’ve wondered if Tony Gwynn would hit enough to carry his glove. We’ve wondered if Jay Gibbons could do anything at all, and we’ve wondered if Xavier Paul really had any prayer of making the team, though accepted that he probably didn’t. We’ve wondered how atrocious Andre Ethier would be against lefty pitching, and we’ve wondered if putting Gibbons or Thames in left alongside Matt Kemp and Ethier might make the pitching staff revolt as ball after ball fell in for hits. Stepping beyond the outfield for a second, we’ve wondered not only who would hit second in the orderCasey Blake‘s Bunting Extravaganza hardly thrills – but who might lead off if and when Rafael Furcal is unavailable.

As spring training goes on and the season looms, it’s becoming more and more clear that the best possible scenario to fill all of those answers – and more – is Tony Gwynn claiming a starting job, and that might be exactly what’s happening.

When Gwynn was signed back in December, I’ll admit that I wasn’t fully on board, openly questioning if he was really better than Paul. It’s not hard to see why – Gwynn hit just .204/.304/.287 for the Padres in 2010. As I said when I wrote about him on Baseball Prospectus earlier this week, usually “a .591 OPS in your age-27 season would earn you a one-way ticket to the finest buses in the Pacific Coast League.” But there’s some reason for hope, because Gwynn did put up a .350 OBP in 2009, and his 2010 was marred by a wrist injury and the news that his father was battling cancer. Despite the poor stat line, he did both increase his ISO and decrease his K/BB from 2009 (which he’d in turn increased from 2008). So while expectations must be kept low, you could at least see how he could bounce back from “unbelievably horrendous” to “merely mediocre” at the plate. Remember, you’re never expecting power from him, just hoping for on-base percentage.

So far, we’ve seen Gwynn taking advantage of his opportunity, hitting .344 with an OBP of nearly .400 in spring, and a perfect 6-6 in steals. Meanwhile, Paul hasn’t distinguished himself by leading the club in strikeouts, and Gibbons has had a totally nightmarish camp. He’s missed time due to the flu and with vision issues, and collected just his third hit (all singles) today, though he hopes his new contact lenses put the eye problems behind him. Gibbons’ spring has been so lousy that it’s not even a given that he’ll make the team at this point, if you read Don Mattingly’s quote at the end of the Ken Gurnick article:

“I’d like to see him healthy,” manager Don Mattingly said when asked if Gibbons was a “lock” to make the club as a platoon left fielder. “If the vision thing isn’t right and you can’t swing a bat, you know the plan going in, but you want to see him with clear vision. If you can’t see, you can’t hit. I’m telling you that right now.”

We’ll get back to Gibbons and his place in a second, but let’s say for the moment that Gwynn’s winning the job and ends up with the majority of the playing time as the third outfielder, providing decent OBP and excellent fielding. Think about how many of the previously-mentioned issues that solves:

1) He massively improves the outfield defense. Gwynn’s one of the best outfielders in the game, while we all know about the issues of Kemp and Ethier. Regardless of whether that would push them to the corners while Gwynn plays in center – which would probably be for the best, though Mattingly seems to be against it – having a plus defender like Gwynn rather than the subpar (at best!) Gibbons and Thames is a huge improvement.

2) He fits the batting order. This only works if he’s actually getting on base at a good clip, of course, but rather than Blake, I’d much rather have a guy with good speed and better contact skills – a full 10% fewer whiffs than Blake last year. That’d probably push Blake down to 6 or 7, which is where he really belongs anyway. If Gibbons gets the majority of the time, then Blake stays at #2, which is less than ideal.

3) He improves the bench. As pessimistic as I’ve been about Gibbons and Thames, they could potentially make a pretty decent lefty/righty duo off the bench with some power. They’re better bench options than Gwynn because you generally prefer power off the bench later in the game, and that again allows you more time in the field with Gwynn than with those two.

4) He gets Ethier out against lefties. You’re going to have to bear with me on this one for a second. For much of the offseason, I’d been saying that the Dodgers needed to sign not one but two righty outfielders, since neither Gibbons or Ethier are productive against them. (Ethier, in particular, has been declining terribly every year against LHP.) The obvious problem here is that Gwynn isn’t great against lefties either, but that’s a flaw in the construction of the roster. Barring the increasingly unlikely option of Casey Blake playing LF, you’re going to have to start at least one lefty outfielder all the time anyway. So if none of your options can hit them, and you’re playing Thames at the further expense of the defense, you’d rather Gwynn’s plus defense rather than Ethier’s mediocre defense. I know it seems odd to say you’d ever want to play Gwynn rather than Ethier, but you need to avoid the scenario of a Thames / Kemp / Ethier outfield whenever possible.

It says a lot about the construction of this team that I just wrote about 900 words on why Tony Gwynn may be the best choice they’ve got, but it just might be true. The way things are currently configured, nothing could work out better for this team than for Gwynn to keep up his hot spring and grab the job. Besides, it’s only until Jerry Sands is ready in the second half, anyway, right? (By the way, he, along with Justin Sellers, were sent to minor league camp today. No surprise there.)

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When Jon Link got shipped back to minor league camp the other day, I was surprised to see that the team had apparently fully committed to using him as a starter. As Christopher Jackson of the Albuquerque Examiner reports, Link doesn’t seem to be fully on board with the idea either:

“The only thing I enjoy about starting is getting to hit,” said Link, who only started once in 45 appearances with the Isotopes last season (3-2, 3.71 ERA, four saves). “That’s the one thing I enjoy. I don’t have the patience to start. (But) I’ll do whatever the club needs me to do, I’ll make the best of it, make the best I can.”

Link said starting takes an entirely different kind of mentality than the one he has had throughout his career.

“I don’t like waiting five days to pitch again, especially if you have a bad start and you have to sit on it,” Link said. “If you have a good start you obviously want to keep things rolling, so you’re really anxious to get into a game.

I’m open to the idea, but Link seems like an odd choice for the conversion. He’s never started before, and the team is pretty deep in starting candidates. What’s more likely, that you’ll need to get to your 11th starting option (which Link would be), or that you’ll need him to pick up a few bullpen innings this year? Especially if he’s not into it.

******

Hey, Hector Gimenez hit another homer today! That can’t hurt his chances. Jonathan Broxton struck out two in a scoreless inning. But why didn’t he strike out five??!

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One year ago yesterday, we were discussing who would be the 5th starter. Names in the mix? Eric Stults, James McDonald, Carlos Monasterios, Charlie Haeger, and the Two Ortizii of the Apocalypse. My, how far we’ve come.

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: Relievers, Part 1

Slight change of plan here. I was originally going to have this first threesome of reliever reviews be devoted to Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, and Ronald Belisario. But each of those are going to be pretty long, so they should probably be split up; besides, who’s going to want to read the piece I’d then have to post in a week that’s just Travis Schlichting, Russ Ortiz, and Jeff Weaver? No thanks. So for relievers, we’re going to completely randomize it, three at a time.

Jonathan Broxton (D)
4.04 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 10.5 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 0.0 WAR

Oh, look, Jonathan Broxton. Nothing interesting happened with him this year, right? Reliable as usual. Let’s just thank our lucky stars for that and move on.

Ah, crap.

Before we get into Broxton’s meltdown, it’s important to remember how awesome he was in the first half. He’s got the All-Star card there for a reason, and that’s because he was nails. You want to know why the quotes I’m about to show are almost entirely from the second half? Because no one talks about the closer when he’s getting the job done, and Broxton most certainly was for the first three months. Other than occasional complaints about Joe Torre’s bizarre usage of him, bringing him into blowouts rather than the lesser arms, my main mention of him came on June 14, when I pointed out this stat:

Jonathan Broxton, last calendar year: 74 games, 4-2, 37 saves, 6 blown, 74.1 IP, 2.42 ERA, 106/21 K/BB, .212/.269/.282 line against.

After shutting down the Yankees on June 26, Broxton’s 2010 line was asburd. He’d held batters to just a puny .217/.254/.258 line, with an amazing 48/5 K/BB. Say that he wasn’t dominating at that point, and be wrong. And before we get into what happened against the Yankees on June 27th, we’re tossing out the “failed in a big situation” argument immediately, because it’s just not true. Broxton’s previous seven games came against St. Louis (2), the Angels (3), Boston (1), and the Yankees (1). He struck out eight while not allowing a run. Those are the top teams in baseball most years, and he was just fine against them. How’s your argument now?

Then came the disaster against the Yankees on Sunday Night Baseball on June 27th, where he faced nine batters and allowed six to reach and four to score. Though it was fueled in part by James Loney botching what could have been a game-ending double play, it was a meltdown so bad that it didn’t even get him a blown save because the lead was so big. Still, I didn’t absolve Broxton, but my main issue at the time was with Torre’s usage of him:

In the 9th, Broxton was brought on to pitch for the 4th time in 5th days, two of which were for more than one inning, despite the Dodgers having a four run lead. As Eric Stephen will happily tell you, “the last 3 [games were] with win expectancies of 95.5%, 98.8%, and 98.8%” when he entered. The point being, those are the kinds of situations in which you bring on your lesser relievers, at least to start. Even if you don’t trust them – as Torre clearly doesn’t, other than Hong-Chih Kuo – if they run into trouble, then sure, bring on the big man. And no, I’m not suggesting that Broxton should only be brought into save situations (which he hasn’t seen since June 9) but you have to measure his usage a little more carefully, especially in all of these non-vital situations.

So when the lead was pushed to four on Rafael Furcal‘s 8th inning double, that’s when you pick up the phone to the bullpen and say, “you’ve pitched enough lately, Jonathan, especially yesterday. Sit down and we’ll let the other guys pick you up, and only bring you in if there’s a disaster.”

But no, Torre brings in the clearly overworked Broxton, and we’re supposed to act surprised that one of the best teams in baseball fouled off pitch after pitch, dropped in hit after hit, and patiently drew walks.

It capped off a long week for Broxton:

If there’s any takeaway from this, it’s this: Broxton has thrown 99 pitches since June 23rd. By comparison, the Dodger starting rotation since then has these counts: Kershaw 101 (tonight 6/27), Kuroda 110 (6/26), Padilla 111 (6/25), Haeger 102 (6/24), Ely 97 (6/23). Because apparently, Broxton is a starting pitcher now.

The impact didn’t start immediately – Broxton converted his next three save situations – but after getting the save in the All-Star Game, things started to head south. In the first series after the break, the Dodgers went into St. Louis and got swept, with Broxton blowing the final game. That was a team effort – the blown save seemed bigger than it was because the Dodgers had lost the first three games, none of which Broxton was in, and two relievers couldn’t get through the 8th, forcing Broxton into a bad situation – but it was still his fault. That’s fine, but just as long as you realize what exactly the problem was.

All I ask is to be fair about this. Broxton didn’t blow the game last night because of some garbage you’ll hear about not seeing the killer instinct when you look into his eyes, as though any one of us has a real personal relationship with him. That’s ridiculous, and it’s unfair of anyone to even speculate what goes on inside his head, because you just don’t know.

No, Broxton lost last night because he dicked around against rookie Jon Jay, who has all of 75 career at-bats. He tried to nibble rather than challenging him, and issued him a free pass. He lost because he threw 27 pitches in the 9th inning, and all but three were fastballs. I don’t care how hard you throw; unless your fastball has some movement on it, which Broxton’s largely doesn’t, guys are going to be able to get around on it if they know it’s coming. (This, by the way, is exactly the same thing I said when I was analyzing last year’s botched NLCS game against the Phillies in the Maple Street Annual.) He threw, according to MLB.com, 17 fastballs in a row to Brendan Ryan, Felipe Lopez, Jay, and Allen Craig.

That’s not lack of intestinal fortitude; that’s just being stupid, bull-headed or both. Broxton has a decent slider. He just needs to mix it in more, because as hard as it may be to hit 99 MPH heat when you know it’s coming, it’s downright impossible when you have the worry of a knee-buckling breaking pitch in the back of your mind.

As much as Broxton may have deserved that blown save, he didn’t deserve the one that got hung on him two nights later – the infamous Don Mattingly “double visit” game:

When I looked at the box score on my phone and saw that Jonathan Broxton picked up the loss after walking two and allowing three runs in 1/3 of an inning, it got even worse. Had he really blown a second game in a row? Was I going to have to deal with all of this again?

Well, not quite. Because it turns out that one of those walks was intentional, the one hit he allowed was an infield single and not a single one of the runs scored while he was on the mound. Not that he’s blameless – but that the line score is horribly misleading.

After sandwiching a few good outings around blowing a game by allowing a Pat Burrell longball, he had yet another rough outing in Philadelphia. By this time even I was starting to sour, though I felt it was important to remember that he was hardly the only one who’d contributed to that loss:

You’re probably coming here expecting me to defend Jonathan Broxton, as I’ve done so often. But you’re not going to find that tonight. He was crap, loading the bases with no outs (on a hit batter and two walks), and eventually blowing the three-run lead that was handed to him on a game-winning double by Carlos Ruiz. So if you want to tear apart Broxton, you go right ahead, because you’ll get no pushback from me, and I’ll need to be devoting an entire post to his recent failures soon. I don’t want to hear any crap about how “he’s scared of the Phillies,” because that’s just amateur psychiatrist BS. He’s been lousy against everyone lately, and that points towards a larger issue.

All I ask is this: while you burn him in effigy, you don’t ignore the fact that Ronald Belisario faced five men in the 8th and got zero outs, and that Broxton induced a perfect double-play ball that went right through Casey Blake‘s legs. Broxton’s going to get the lion’s share of the blame here, and probably rightfully so. But he’s not alone in this loss, and that’s important to remember.

The next day, Broxton was removed from the closing role in favor of Hong-Chih Kuo, a move I supported. It’s hard not to see that Yankee game as a major turning point in his season; while he was the best reliever in baseball to that point (don’t forget the 48/5 K/BB), from that game on he was horrendous: .915 OPS against, 7.58 ERA, 25/23 K/BB.

The one bright side of that is, any statements about whether the 9th inning had gotten the best of him were simply not grounded in reality; he was awful against everyone in every inning in the second half of the year.

So what caused it? It’s worth noting that he was extremely unlucky, because even just in addition to poor defense by Blake and Loney directly leading to two of the worst blown saves, his BABIP was a career-high .369. That’s why his FIP of 3.01 looks a lot better than his ERA of 4.04, not that ERA means anything for relievers anyway.

Mere random luck certainly doesn’t explain all, or even most, of his issues, though. His velocity was down, though he claimed no injury, but I think the loss of movement on his fastball was the primary culprit – just look at how much the vertical movement on his heater declined this year. So what can you do with him? I looked at trade possibilities and determined that between his $7m salary and his value being at his lowest that it just didn’t make sense. Don Mattingly claims that Broxton heads into next season as his primary closer, and whether that makes sense or not, it’s simply foolishness to ignore the 3+ years of excellence. As I said in my 2011 plan…

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.

Even if Broxton does return to his former status, god help us all the first time he has a rough outing, because he’s either perfect or he’s garbage. That’s a fair standard, right?

Scott Elbert (inc.)
13.50 ERA, 16.58 FIP, 0.0 K/9, 40.5 BB/9, 0.0 WAR

If you thought Jack Taschner‘s 2010 stint with the Dodgers was brief, then you probably missed Scott Elbert‘s time with the club entirely. Elbert faced six batters on May 29 in Colorado, walked more (three) than he retired (two), was almost immediately optioned back to ABQ and was never heard from again.

No, really. Not only did he not return to the big leagues, but he walked away from the organization entirely due to an unknown personal issue, eventually returning to pitch at the club’s spring training home in Arizona, but not getting back into any real games. It was almost as well; in the nine games he did pitch for ABQ this year, Elbert flashed the strikeout stuff we’ve seen from him previously (9.3/9), but was undone by an absurdly high walk rate (7.1/9).

While that may sound bleak in terms of his career, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Since he’s pitching in the Arizona Fall League, he’s got the dual benefit of pitching for new manager Don Mattingly in addition to playing in a league largely composed of players several years younger. Though Elbert’s been almost exclusively a starter, he told Tony Jackson that he’d like to be a reliever, and that’s likely his quickest path to the bigs:

Although he was a starter at Albuquerque this year before his departure, all indications are that the Dodgers now view him as a reliever, and given the bullpen issues the team had this year, that could bode well for Elbert in his effort to secure a spot on the Opening Day roster.

With George Sherrill almost certainly not returning, there’s a big hole in the bullpen for a second lefty behind Hong-Chih Kuo. Who’s to say it can’t be Elbert?

Jon Link (inc.)
4.15 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 4.2 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, -0.1 WAR

How many times did Link get shipped back and forth between LA and ABQ this year? Despite pitching in just nine MLB games, he appeared for the Dodgers in every month but May and August.

Still, he pitched just 8.2 innings for the big club, so there’s not a whole lot to say about his performance, especially when you look at how low-leverage they were. No, really; other than his last outing of the year (three runs), Link never once pitched in a game that had a margin of four runs or fewer.

That said, as long as he didn’t get arrested, it was going to be a great season; the simple fact alone that the Dodgers got someone who looks like he might actually have a big league future for Juan Pierre (in addition to John Ely) is a big win. Link’s big concern headed into the year was his control, yet he managed to knock down his BB/9 from 4.3 in back-to-back years down to 3.1 this year. He’ll be 27 in the spring, and he’ll be squarely in the mix for a bullpen role, fighting for a spot with guys like Travis Schlichting. He’ll surely be seen at some point next year even if he’s not on the Opening Day roster.

******

Next! Hong-Chih Kuo cannot be destroyed! Holy crap, remember Jack Taschner?! And Justin Miller keeps the seat warm for the other Justin Miller! It’s relievers, part 2!

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.