Taking early stock of the Isotopes

While Mike is on vacation, he asked me to offer up some thoughts about the Albuquerque Isotopes and how what amounts to the Dodgers’ reserve team is shaping up as the season begins. The ‘Topes have only been home for a total of eight days so far this season — they begin their fourth road series of the year tonight at New Orleans (Marlins) — so this is all a very, very preliminary analysis of the 25 players I have observed.

Catchers Tim Federowicz and Josh Bard

FedEx is the man on the spot, the lone Isotope ranked by Baseball America in the Dodgers’ top 10 prospects. While plenty of fans are still smarting about last year’s trade that sent Trayvon Robinson packing and brought Fed and two pitchers to the organization, so far the young backstop is showing promise. “He’s been a lot better this year, he’s a lot more patient,” manager Lorenzo Bundy said of Fed’s hitting (.292/.365/.477). The swing-first, pull-everything mentality from last season is all but gone. Defensively he has looked sharp, making strong throws to second, blocking the plate well and doing a good job of working with the pitching staff. As for Bard, as the Isotopes’ oldest player (34, which makes him the only player on the team older than me … yikes), he has not played much, but he has played well, batting .385 (10-for-26). “Obviously, Josh with his experience … it’s like having an extra coach floating around here,” Bundy said. “He takes the leadership role. He knows his role on this club and he’s ready at any time.”

First baseman Jeff Baisley

Jeff Baisley has been a good presence in the lineup. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes.)

The veteran slugger has played well so far, batting .313/.390/.531 with three homers and a team-leading 16 RBI. Though primarily a third baseman with Salt Lake (Angels) last season, he has handled first base well defensively and it clearly has not had an impact on his hitting. Personality-wise, he keeps it serious on the field and keeps it loose during batting practice and in the clubhouse. Though he is viewed as a leader, Baisley said he has not had to overly assert himself so far. He certainly continues the recent tradition of high-character veterans the Dodgers like to have in Albuquerque.

Second baseman Alex Castellanos

Though currently on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring (return date unknown), the converted outfielder has been solid so far at the plate (.366/.477/.746), while overcoming the defensive obstacles that come with returning to his old position. The big issue for Castellanos offensively lies with his ability to overcome his aggressive, swing-first mentality. In the field, throwing has been the biggest challenge, but after a week spent with Dodgers special instructors Juan Castro and Jody Reed (laugh about their hitting, but both were good in the field), Castellanos seems to be adapting quickly. Just calm down on the early promotion possibilities; Castellanos himself said he needs close to a full season playing every day at second base before he is ready for MLB.

Shortstop Luis Cruz

The wily veteran has been on “Cruz Control” since he arrived, smacking the ball around (.328/.343/.500) while making some sharp plays in the field. He is another veteran who keeps it loose; his imitation of teammate Trent Oeltjen‘s Australian accent is a sight to behold.

Third baseman Josh Fields

Nicknamed “QB” for obvious reasons, the former Oklahoma State football standout has gotten off to a quiet start (.289/.375/.526) when compared to his teammates. Nonetheless, he has been a solid contributor. This is no sign of the dreaded “jaded ex-big-leaguer stuck at Triple-A” disease that sometimes afflicts players. Much like Cruz, he seemed to be riding high off his strong spring that nearly saw him make the big-league roster. He has been a positive influence, playing good defense with (no surprise here) a very strong arm.

Utility man Elian Herrera

The versatile Elian Herrera has been a sparkplug atop the lineup. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes)

Bundy said the Isotopes’ turnaround, from a 2-6 road trip to their current record of 11-9, has been thanks in part to the ultra-versatile Herrera. A pure contact hitter (.340/.357/.566), he is Albuquerque’s fastest player and has done well out of the leadoff spot. Defensively, he has looked especially sharp at second base and third base, while also seeing time at shortstop and the outfield. He would strictly be a bench player at the next level, but with Jerry Hairston and Adam Kennedy not getting any younger, the Dodgers could do worse.

Reserve infielders Joe Becker and Lance Zawadzki

Becker is a favorite of Bundy’s especially with his ability to deliver big hits in the clutch, often as a pinch hitter. He is also a capable defender at second, though he lacks the arm for third and has not played much shortstop. Zawadzki joined the team from extended spring on the last day of the homestand. While I have yet to see him play for the Isotopes, he was a solid defender and a streaky hitter last season with Omaha (Royals).

Outfielders Scott Van Slyke, Jerry Sands, Trent Oeltjen, Matt Angle

Van Slyke, the Dodgers’ No. 21 prospect, has been the hitting star out of this group (.364/.437/.610). He has fared well defensively in both outfield corners, with a strong arm and more mobility than you would expect from someone who is listed at 6-5, 250. He made one start at first base during the homestand, looking a little out of practice there, so hold off on the “he can replace Loney” talk. Oh, and I will sit him down to talk about his life growing up around baseball with his father. His stories are hilarious. Sands’ struggles at the plate (.192/.310/.315) have been well-documented so far. Oeltjen has played all three outfield spots, serving more as a fourth outfielder than anything else. As such, his hitting (.250/.328/.350) has yet to get into a groove with such sporadic playing time. Angle has been the lost one of the bunch, looking all out of sorts at the plate (.146/.255/.268) and now finding himself on the DL with a strained hamstring.

Starting pitchers Michael Antonini, John Ely, Stephen Fife, Fernando Nieve, Mike Parisi

John Ely has pitched well at home, not so well on the road. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes)

Before his call-up to the big leagues, Antonini made one start in Albuquerque he would like to forget (3.1 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 2 BB, 3 HR allowed). Like many young pitchers, the 26-year-old lefty learned the hard way you have to keep the ball down in Albuquerque if you want to have a prayer of succeeding here. He certainly throws a lot of strikes, but he left too many up in that game. Despite being back for his third season with the Isotopes, Ely has remained upbeat and continues to work hard. He has been a completely different pitcher at home (13 IP, 4 ER) than on the road (7.1 IP, 11 ER). Fife has just plain struggled wherever he has pitched this year (1-2, 9.92 ERA). The big righty is a finesse pitcher and so far the PCL is chewing him up. Nieve went from horrible at Omaha (1.2 IP, 11 H, 9 ER) to solid at home (6 IP, 7 H, 3 ER) to then getting ejected in the third inning of his third start for hitting a batter. It has been a very bizarre season for the former Astro and Met, who throws hard but does not strike a lot of people out (8 total in 10.1 IP). Parisi has been the most consistent and effective starter to date. It should come as no surprise, since there always seems to be one veteran who puts together a solid campaign in ABQ (e.g. Dana Eveland last year).

Right-handed relievers Josh Wall, Ramon Troncoso, Will Savage, Francisco Felix

Wall has looked sharp while sharing closing duties. He throws in the mid-90s and looks like another potentially solid addition to LA’s young bullpen down the line. There is still some wildness (4 walks in 8.1 IP) that needs to be smoothed out. Troncoso has looked like a man determined to get back to the big leagues (1.08 ERA in 8.1 IP), while Savage has been lights out (4-0, 2.41) in the long relief/spot starter role, keeping the ball down and utilizing his cutter, fastball and curveball to their fullest extent. Felix, well, somebody has to take it on the chin, and so far he is doing just that (10.13 ERA in 13.1 IP). As the Dodger bullpen fluctuates, his head would seem to be the first on the chopping block down here.

Left-handed relievers Brent Leach, Wil Ledezma, Derrick Loop, Scott Rice, Cole St. Clair

Rice has been the star of the southpaw collective, sharing the team lead with four saves. He is at his most effective not when he is getting strikeouts, but rather when is able to get hitters to try and pounce on strikes, causing them to ground out and pop up early in the count. Leach (0-1, 6.57) has alternated between looking good and taking it on the chin; personality-wise he has not changed from his year in Japan, remaining the same funny, witty southerner who graced the clubhouse in 2009-10. St. Clair has been similar to Leach in terms of pitching, looking good one outing and struggling to throw strikes the next. Poor Ledezma was walloped in his first two home appearances (10 runs total), but has since settled down and regained his confidence. Loop has yet to appear in a game in Albuquerque.

Overall

This is a better team than it looked after losing six of eight on the opening road trip. The Isotopes pulled off their first four-game sweep since 2009 when they took Iowa apart. As long as the pitching stays at least somewhat consistent, the lineup is more than capable of scoring enough runs. What looked like a pack of spot starters, middle relievers and bench players actually has some players with enough talent (Van Slyke, Castellanos, Federowicz, in particular) to help the Dodgers out in the future. Rice and Wall can be both be part of a big-league bullpen, as well. This team may lack the star power when Gordon, Sands (the good version) and Robinson were here last year, but it is still a fun bunch to watch.

As always, you can find all the ‘Topes news and notes you can handle here and you can now follow me on Twitter as @TopesWriter for quick updates, anecdotes, breaking news and even some play-by-play during home games.

— Chris Jackson

Winter Meetings Day Three: The Search for Offense

For about five minutes last night, the Dodger corner of the internet exploded into panic when Jon Heyman reported that they were about to sign soon-to-be-34-year-old catcher Josh Bard, owner of a .217/.282/.332 cumulative line over the last four years, to a $750k deal. The questions were immediate: another terrible veteran? Another catcher? Was A.J. Ellis about to be traded? Were they really going to try to set the all-time record for backstop futility by pairing Bard with Matt Treanor? Were my jokes about trying to assemble 2006′s best team suddenly not jokes?

And then Dylan Hernandez reported it was to be a minor-league deal, one that’s not even completed yet. So, crisis averted. For now.

Bard-gate aside, there was actually some juicy news coming, as Molly Knight reported the Dodgers might have interest in Chase Headley, and Tony Jackson & Ken Gurnick expanded on Hernandez’s tweet that the Dodgers were persuing offense via trade.

Jackson:

Tamin said two of those were the Dodgers’ hitting against lefties and what Tamin referred to as “ballpark effect.” By that, Tamin explained, he meant the fact the Dodgers play almost 100 games each year in three pitchers’ parks, those being Dodger Stadium, San Diego’s Petco Park and San Francisco’s AT&T Park.

Colletti also said, when asked if the player he is trying to acquire is an everyday player, “He has been.”

That would seem to suggest a veteran in the twilight of his career, a right-handed hitter and a guy who is more of a gap-to-gap, line-drive hitter than a power hitter. Colletti specifically said he wasn’t looking for a flyball hitter. The player likely would be a corner outfielder who could fill in for right fielder Andre Ethier against certain left-handed pitchers.

Okay, so righty outfielder, good against lefties, more of a doubles type than a homer bat, not named “Jerry Sands“. We can do some investigative work on that, right? Let’s fire up the list of outfielders with at least 100 plate appearances against lefties in 2011, an admittedly arbitrary bar. That gets us 93 results, so let’s remove lefties, free agents, players who have never been everyday starters, and the guys who obviously aren’t available – Jose Bautista, Ryan Braun, Justin Upton, etc. Now we’re down to 14, and wouldn’t you know it, the three guys who I had in my head at the start of this exercise are all on the list. We’ll cut out the bottom five, all of whom were terrible against lefties last year (so long, Marlon Byrd!) and that leaves us with 9 names, sorted here by wOBA against LHP in 2011:

Carlos Lee
Jason Bay
Jeff Francoeur
Torii Hunter
Vernon Wells
Ryan Raburn
Alfonso Soriano
Delmon Young
B.J. Upton

A list that mostly comprises over-the-hill, expensive veterans? Well, now I know we’re on the right path. (If you’re wondering who the three I had guessed at were, it was Lee, Bay, and Young.) But we can do better. Eliminate Hunter & Wells, since the two Los Angeles teams haven’t paired up on a trade since 1993, and that gets us down to seven. Francoeur is someone I’ve expressed interest in in the past for exactly this role, though he signed a two-year extension last year and Dayton Moore loves him, so I find that unlikely. I also doubt Raburn, generally a utility player, is the kind of move Colletti is looking to make, and that leaves us with a final five:

Carlos Lee
Jason Bay
Alfonso Soriano
Delmon Young
B.J. Upton

My lord, that list is the most Ned thing that ever Ned’d. Can we go further? Upton’s in his prime and would take a massive haul to acquire, whereas this sounds like more of a complimentary piece. Soriano is a noted flyball type, which doesn’t seem to fit… and that leaves us with Lee, Bay, and Young. (I swear I didn’t rig this to end up with those three.) The obvious issue with Lee & Bay is that they’re both very expensive, since Lee still has $18.5m coming to him in the final year of his contract, while Bay has $16m in each of the next two years, plus a vesting option for 2014 – though each team is awful and should clearly be very motivated to move those salaries. Young is arbitration-eligible and will probably make $6-7m in 2012, though he’s a very un-Ned-like 26. Despite the negative connotations all bring, they all did well against lefties last year, so as long as we’re talking about “platoon player” and not “everyday starter”, there’s some chance of value there. Obviously, this is all far from scientific on my part; I’ve assumed that James Loney is staying put, and that the bat being looked at isn’t an infielder like a Placido Polanco. If Loney is potentially traded or non-tendered, then that opens up discussions to players like Mark Reynolds and others.

Since we’re talking about salaries, now’s an ideal time to bring in Gurnick’s contribution:

Without offering a name, he said one player he is targeting has been a starter at his position and would be “payroll neutral,” indicating that either the player he would send would be of similar salary or the other club would pick up part of the incoming salary. Colletti said he didn’t expect a deal while at the Meetings, which end Thursday.

Now things get interesting, and let me be clear – what follows is rampant speculation on my part, as this entire post has been. The Dodger roster is constructed in such a way that there’s not a whole lot of money that can be moved. None of the recent free agent signings are eligible to be traded before June, and of the players making big money, you’re obviously not moving Matt Kemp or Clayton Kershaw – and I’d argue that the club has no interest in moving Ted Lilly or Andre Ethier, either. That leaves players with very little trade value (Juan Uribe, James Loney, Matt Guerrier)… and Chad Billingsley. As infuriating as he can be sometimes, I’d argue that he’s underrated by Dodger fans, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that Colletti just locked up two more veteran starters through 2013. Just a thought, of course, and you’d have to do better than Lee or Bay or Young to make it worthwhile.

As for Headley, if it’s at all true, I love it. He’s a good defender who is under team control through 2014 and made just $2.3m last year, though he hit only four homers while putting up a .289/.374/.399 line. Of course, he’s one of the players who is greatly affected by Petco, putting up an .864 OPS at road and just a .674 OPS at home. He’s not a superstar, and I don’t know what the Padres would want in return, but remember: all you have to do is pass the “is he better than Juan Uribe” test, and that’s not a high bar to clear. I suppose a dream scenario here would be to package Uribe and a mid-level young pitching prospect to Houston for Lee, thus saving the Astros a few million and opening up a spot for Brett Wallace, and then acquiring Headley to play third. Even that’s not perfect though, because Lee’s money is all due in 2012 while Uribe has two more years, though I’m sure some financial shenanigans could make it work.

Of course, there’s no way any of that is happening. Aren’t the winter meetings fun…ish?