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 1: Offense

Well, it’s that time of the year again. In what is annually my longest post of the year, it’s time to look close the book on the season (like we didn’t do that months ago) and start planning for next year.

Of course, this particular off-season is a little uglier than usual. As if the divorce case wasn’t making enough ugly headlines by itself, this is a team that failed on pretty much all fronts this season, is constrained by a tight budget – and has $17m of dead money committed to Jason Schmidt and the entire White Sox outfield. They’ve got just two starting pitchers, no catcher, no second baseman, no left fielder, and a bunch of under-performing incumbents. They need power, they need OBP, they need starters… and they have no money to help their rookie manager get those things. It’s not going to be a pretty winter, that’s for sure.

Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. With a little bit of creativity and a dash of luck, there’s moves to be made which can get this team back on the right track. Now, keep in mind that this is what I might try do, not in any way a prediction of what the team will do. How can you make any predictions about a team who thought trading James McDonald and Andrew Lambo for 18.2 innings of Octavio Dotel and a player to be named was a good idea, anyway?

By my calculations, the Dodgers have $43m in obligations for 2011 to the following six players: Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Jamey Carroll, & Jonathan Broxton. Add the $17m or so in “dead money”, and you’re up to $60m, before considering arbitration cases and filling out the roster.

The real unknown, of course, is how high the ceiling is for the 2011 club. And I’ll admit, I have absolutely no idea. Many think that the payroll could be cut drastically as the divorce case plays out, yet some (including Tony Jackson and Buster Olney) think there might be more to play with as Frank McCourt tries to repair his image. So for this exercise, I’ll say $95-100m is the goal. That may not be exact, but this is all for fun, anyway. With $60m already committed, I have $35-$40m remaining, and nineteen holes to fill. Let’s see what we can do.

This is the third year in a row I’ve done this, but the first time in which it’s become so big that I’ve felt the need to split it up between more than one post. So today we focus on the offense, and check back tomorrow for pitching.

1) Sign Adam Dunn to a 3 year, $33m contract (slightly backloaded)… but to play 1B, not to replace Manny Ramirez in LF.

Dunn’s an absolutely atrocious outfielder, yet he’s merely a pretty bad first baseman (though it should be noted he ranked better by UZR this year than Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Paul Konerko, and Miguel Cabrera). While I agree with you that he really ought to be a DH, he’s been very clear that he doesn’t want to sign with an AL team that would take his glove away. Besides, being a lousy first baseman doesn’t really mean as much as being a poor fielder elsewhere, as John Dewan of the Fielding Bible explains.

I’ll admit that I’ve coveted Dunn for years, and my hypothetical Dodgers have enough money to make one big splash. You could argue that finding a pitcher is more important, but pitching is always overpriced on the free agent market, and if you don’t do something to add some power and OBP, then it’s not going to matter anyway. Dunn’s not without his warts, but he’s also among the most consistent power hitters of the last generation – you know you’re getting 35-40 homers and an above-average OBP, and as he’s just turning 31, you should get him before his decline sets in. Besides, you saw what kind of difference Manny made on Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier when he was in the lineup, right? Nothing torpedoed the 2010 club more than lousy offense, and getting one of the top 3 bats available would be a huge step in the right direction.

While it may seem difficult to think that Dunn wouldn’t get more or the Dodgers could be in on a contract like this, remember that Dunn is limiting his own market by ignoring the AL, and teams like the Cardinals, Padres, Reds, Phillies, Mets, Astros, Marlins, and Rockies probably aren’t going to be in the market for a 1B. That limits the competition greatly, mainly to the Cubs and Nationals, and Washington has given indications they’d prefer the superior defense and lower cost of Carlos Pena. (The crowd at FanGraphs seem to agree with my 3/33 guess, as well). It’s not impossible, and I’m more concerned about the years than the money anyway. I’d rather give him 2, but I don’t think that’s doable; I’d live with 3, but wouldn’t go 4.

Now tell me you don’t feel better about the offense with just this one move? But wait! There’s more…
$60m + $8m = $68m

2a) Trade Russell Martin to Detroit…

I went back and forth about Martin about a million times. On one hand, I hardly need to remind you that he followed up his horrendous 2009 with more or less the same year in 2010, except that he set a career high with a 18.4% K rate. On the other, the state of catching is so dreadful right now that he actually managed to put up a 2.1 WAR this year, thanks to the replacement level being so low.

Martin never looked so good as right after he was injured, when Brad Ausmus and A.J. Ellis combined to hit about .020 and go six months without throwing out a runner. (Those numbers may be slightly exaggerated, but probably not as much as you’d think). Sure, Rod Barajas had a fantastically hot start and Ellis even caught fire in September, but if Martin wasn’t the rising star he saw in 2007, nor was he the total failure we’d all become accustomed to thinking of him as. Neither Barajas (and his .284 career OBP) or Ellis have the skill to be anything like peak-level Russell Martin.

However… peak-level Martin isn’t walking through that door. Martin made over $5m last year, and he would probably make at least $6m in arbitration. Plus, he’s coming back from a broken hip, and while he avoided surgery, it’s still a broken hip, not exactly a common injury for catchers to be coming back from. You could make the argument that he’s worth that kind of salary if he’d had a great year or if he wasn’t coming off that injury; you could take the risk on the injury if you had a hefty payroll. That’s not something my hypothetical team is willing to do next year, and I’d probably non-tender him if a trade isn’t an option.

As for Detroit, Alex Avila had only a .674 OPS himself, and Gerald Laird was even worse as he heads into free agency. The Tigers have a ton of money to spend, and they could use a veteran backstop to pair with the 23-year-old Avila. There’s an added bonus here, because other than Toronto, this is the closest place to home you can send Martin.
$68m + $0m = $68m

2b) …for Ryan Raburn.

I first noted Raburn in my Jonathan Broxton post last week, and thought that Broxton was too high a price to pay for him. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been interested in him for a while as a multi-positional asset who bashes left-handed pitching, and the Dodgers reportedly looked at him in July. They ended up with Scott Podsednik. They chose poorly.

That might be underselling him, actually; he had OPS of .891 and .826 the last two seasons, with 16 and 15 homers. He really shined against lefties though – .931 OPS this year, .976 last year. The Tigers never saw him as an every-day player and instead let him start at six different positions, everywhere but SS and C. Overall, he was worth 2.1 WAR this year. While I briefly considered putting him at 2B to fill the Theriot-sized hole, Raburn is by all accounts a below-average infielder, so we’ll use him in the outfield here. The infield experience is nice to have for double-switches and extra-innings affairs, though.

For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll say that no money changes hands and each team is responsible for the arbitration case. Raburn will probably get about $1m.
$68m + $1m = $69m

3) Punt on the left field problem by platooning Raburn with Jay Gibbons.

Everyone seems to think that getting a big-time outfielder is a must just because Manny is gone, but beyond Carl Crawford (who the Dodgers can’t afford) and Jayson Werth (who they probably also can’t afford, and who would never come back), there’s nothing all that exciting out there. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have Trayvon Robinson and Jerry Sands each about a year away from contributing. There’s no need to overpay for someone mediocre who would just end up blocking one of those two, and since we’ve replaced Manny’s bat with Dunn’s, going lower-cost here is okay.

Raburn crushes lefties. Gibbons has a 60-point OPS advantage against righties in his career. His outfield defense is.. well.. better than Manny, right? You make do with what you can on a limited budget, and if used properly these two could make for a very productive combo. Gibbons has made it clear he badly wants to be back. We’ll take advantage of that and give him $800k.
$69m + $800k = $69.8m

4) Don’t make the disastrous July trades any worse by hanging on to Ryan Theriot or Scott Podsednik just to save face.

As outlined here for Theriot, he’s one of the worst second basemen in baseball, and certainly not worth the $3.5m or so he’d get in arbitration. If you can fool some team into giving up any sort of a useful bullpen arm for him, I’d do it in a heartbeat, though I don’t think it’s all that likely. Podsednik’s going to be 35, had a .313 OBP for the Dodgers with so-so defense, and missed the last month with a foot injury, therefore putting the only skill he actually has in jeopardy. Uh, no thanks.
$69.8m + $0.1m Podsednik buyout = $69.9m

5) Sign Juan Uribe to a 1-year, $5m deal to play 2B with an option for 2012.

Yes, he’s a Giant, and one with a .310 OBP at that. But the Dodgers are probably going to pay Theriot $3.5m to play decentish defense while being a black hole at the plate. If you’re going to pay that much for a 2B without much of an OBP, why not pay just a bit more for better defense and more power?

Theriot has 16 homers in his big-league career. Uribe has hit at least 16 in six of the last seven seasons; his .440 SLG this year and .431 SLG career is nearly 100 points better than Theriot’s ever had. On defense, Uribe (10.9 UZR/150 at 2B) is better than Theriot is (4.3 UZR/150 at 2B), plus he’s above average at SS and 3B – and provides excellent insurance for another Rafael Furcal injury, as he started 96 games at SS this year with Edgar Renteria ailing.

Uribe’s not perfect. But for $4-5m, would you rather a low-OBP guy with zero power and decent defense, or a low-OBP guy with good power and plus defense? Now, it’s possible I’m short-changing the contract Uribe would get here, but he was horrendous in 2007 and ’08, to the point where he had to take a minor-league deal before 2009. That, plus the fact he’s turning 32 next spring and that he entered 2010 as a backup to Renteria and Freddy Sanchez, means I can’t see anyone investing a bunch of years.
$69.9m+ $5m = $74.9m

6) Turn Casey Blake into the lefty-mashing bench bat he ought to be.

I worried weeks ago that Blake was nearing the end of the line, putting up some of the worst numbers of his career. Since then we’ve seen Joe Torre say that Blake needed more rest, and Blake mention that he would accept a reduced role if it were put upon him. Making sure he’s not the everyday guy in 2011 is a must.

However, Blake’s not completely without his uses. While he was just the 30th-best 3B against RHP this year (min. 150 PA, by OPS), he was the 6th-best against lefties (.895 OPS). That’s a difference of more than 220 points of OPS, and at his age it’s clear that both selective use and more rest could be a huge boon to him.

It lines up nicely, too, since Dunn’s far weaker against fellow southpaws at 1B. Blake would make an outstanding backup corner IF / designated LHP-crusher, and can even serve as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency corner outfielder as well.

Of course, if you’re pushing Blake to the bench, that means you need a primary 3B who can hit righties, and that’s why we’re going to welcome back a former Dodger 3B (no, not that one) when we…
$74.9m + $0m = $74.9m

7) Trade Xavier Paul and Scott Elbert to Kansas City for Wilson Betemit and Tim Collins.

I’m anticipating that this is going to be the most unpopular move I propose – perhaps on both sides – but that’s okay.

A replacement for Blake was by far the hardest hole to fill. I don’t think I fully realized this until I started researching, but only 12 3B had even an .800 OPS against righties this year, and most of them are guys like Evan Longoria, Alex Rodriguez, and Ryan Zimmerman – i.e., not even worth discussing as viable options. The more I looked at the list, the more I became convinced that Blake really will still be the Dodger 3B in 2011.

But that’s not good enough for my hypothetical team. We can do better, and Betemit had a pretty monstrous half-season for Kansas City this year: .297/.378/.511. Almost as important, he’s a switch-hitter who’s been more successful against RHP than LHB over his career, which fits into our scheme here (though this year he’s done very well against both).

Now, I can hear the objections to this already. “It was half a season. He spent much of the last two years in the minors. And haven’t we seen this movie before?” All fair points. But I’ll argue that Betemit’s been pretty underrated. In parts of 8 seasons, his career line is .267/.335/.449, which works out to a 103 OPS+, even though much of that came when he was far too young (he made his MLB debut at 19, and saw significant time at 22). Before being traded in 2007, he had a .359 OBP and .474 SLG in 84 games for the Dodgers. How was production like that a problem again? Oh, right, it’s because people put far too much stock in a low batting average.

What that means is that despite the fact he’s been around forever, he’s still only turning 29 next month, and he’d hardly be the first guy to take a little longer to figure it out. Besides, in one of the very first posts on this blog – way back in July of 2007 – I argued that he should be given more playing time at 3B. Why not rectify that four years later? It’s not a perfect solution, and his defense may be suspect, but I do believe he’ll outperform Blake in 2011. In what’s become a running theme, he’s also received starts at 1B, 2B, and LF this year, adding more versatility along with Raburn.

As for Paul to the Royals, they have a ton of minor-league talent, but it’s still probably at least a year or two away, and 3B is about to be taken by Mike Moustakas, one of the brightest stars in the minors. They’re not going to contend in 2011, so if they need someone to cover for a few weeks before Moustakas arrives, Josh Fields can do that. Paul’s proven all he needs to prove in the minors (.882 OPS in AAA), but just needs some regular playing time in the bigs. He’s unlikely to get that in LA, especially since the Dodgers already have two lefty outfielders in Andre Ethier and Jay Gibbons, and as he’s out of options they’ll need to do something with him. The KC outfield is unsettled beyond David DeJesus, who’s coming off injury and may be a trade candidate, with Alex Gordon and his .664 OPS likely to have a spot as well. Paul’s got talent, and could find opportunity in KC.

Then we swap Elbert for Collins and… well, look. Elbert’s probably the most talented of the four, and the former 1st-round pick has produced in the minors, striking out 10.4/9 (and has even struck out more than a man per inning in his brief MLB time). I don’t want to move him, but of course you’re not going to get Betemit for nothing, and after his strange 2010 season it’s not hard to think that a change of scenery is a good idea for him. He’s originally from Missouri, anyway.

Collins is fun because of his absurd strikeout numbers; at only 20, he’s averaging 13.3 K/9. He’s not seen as a top prospect, however, because of his height (5’7″, which may be generous), and he was actually traded twice in 2010. He went from Toronto to Atlanta as part of the Alex Gonzalez/Yunel Escobar deal, and then to KC in the deal which sent Kyle Farnsworth and Rick Ankiel to Atlanta. Clearly, his trade value hasn’t been particularly high, considering the names there.

I’m guessing that Dodger fans will think this is giving up too much, and Royal fans won’t think it’s enough. That probably means it’s about right. Either way, I don’t pretend to be a prospect expert. If it’s not exactly these names, but something similar that gets the deal done, that’s fine too.
$74.9m + $2m = $76.9m

8) Sign Jeff Francoeur to a 1-year, $1.5m deal once he inevitably gets non-tendered by Texas.

I know, I know. I hate myself for even suggesting it, and if any of my Met fan or baseball writer friends see this here they’ll die laughing and unfollow me. But hear me out; we’re trying to build a team on a limited budget, and sometimes that means working around a player’s limitations in order to take advantage of his strengths.

Jeff Francoeur, for all his ridiculous portrayals in the media, has two strengths and one extremely large weakness. He’s a very strong defensive outfielder with a good arm, and he can hit lefty pitching (.823 OPS career). What Francoeur cannot do, under any circumstances, is hit righty pitching (.639 OPS this year, .699 career). However, it just so happens that the Dodgers have an outfielder in Andre Ethier who’s a mediocre defender and even worse against lefties (.625 OPS this year, .681 career) than Francoeur is against righties. Do I have to spell out the fit here? It’s basically the Reed Johnson role, except that Johnson is 7 years older, couldn’t stay healthy, and had less upside.

The danger here is having a manager who gets fooled by Francoeur’s lefty-bashing tendencies and wants to play him every day, a trap we saw Jerry Manuel fall into this season. It remains to be seen whether Don Mattingly can handle that, but in my hypothetical 2011 world, we have a manager who can.
$76.9m + $1.5m = $78.4m

9) Suck it up and go with A.J. Ellis and Rod Barajas behind the plate.

I can’t believe I’m saying this either, because I’ve been driving the “Barajas was never that good and Ellis isn’t a major league hitter” train. I’ll admit I’m not thrilled about this. Unfortunately, you’re dealing with a very tight budget, and there’s not a lot of other choices out there. Victor Martinez isn’t an option, and John Buck‘s likely to get a lot more than he deserves. Do you really want Bengie Molina? Jason Varitek? Yeccch.

So if you’re going to have to skimp somewhere, this is probably the place to do it, and Ellis and Barajas could be a decent combo as two total opposites. Ridiculous intro to LA aside, Barajas is still a guy with a career .284 OBP, but he’s definitely got pop, hitting double-digit homers in six of the last seven years. Meanwhile, Ellis would kill to have Juan Pierre‘s power (no, really; he hasn’t hit a pro homer since 2008) but he does have a .398 career OBP in the minors and managed .363 in the bigs this year, with a nice 18/14 K/BB mark in limited time. Barajas even has a reverse-platoon split, dealing with RHP better than LHP, so you could schedule starts around that.

Neither’s a long-term solution, but each has a decent defensive reputation, and for just over $1m, it could be worse. I guess. I can easily see regretting this by May.
$78.4m + $0.4 (Ellis) + $0.8 (Barajas) = $79.6m

10) Don’t guarantee Russ Mitchell a job.

I’ve seen it mentioned in several places that Mitchell’s all but certain to have a bench spot on the 2011 club, because of his low cost and positional versatility. To that I say, why? I didn’t have very high hopes for Mitchell when he was recalled, and he didn’t do much to change that perception by getting just six hits in the bigs without a single walk. He’s got options left. Send him back to ABQ, let him provide depth should injuries happen, but do not start the season with him on the bench.

___________________________________

So here’s the Opening Day roster you’re looking at..

C Ellis (R)
1B Dunn (L)
2B Uribe (R)
SS Furcal (S)
3B Betemit (S)
LF Raburn (R)
CF Kemp (R)
RF Ethier (L)
Bn Barajas (R-C)
Bn Blake (R-1B/3B)
Bn Carroll (R-2B/SS)
Bn Francoeur (R-OF)
Bn Gibbons (L-1B/OF)

Four of the five guys on the bench have the chance to put the ball out of the yard, four more than the Dodgers usually have. Actually, 11 of these 13 (all but Ellis and Carroll) could put up double-digit homer numbers. There’s great platoon plays, if used properly, in Blake, Francoeur, and Gibbons in place of Dunn, Ethier, and Raburn. Two switch-hitters give you great lineup flexibility, and the addition of players who can play multiple positions really helps you out in the field as well.

The main weakness here is the lack of a true backup CF, but Kemp plays every day and Raburn & Francoeur can each cover in a pinch. I suppose I’m also a bit concerned about the corner infield defense, but Furcal and Uribe are both quite good in the middle, and again there’s only so much you can do when you’re as constrained budget-wise as this team is.

If we take the platoon idea to its full extent and put together some quick lineup ideas, you’ll really see how this would improve the offense. (Yes, Kemp should probably be batting lower, that’s a discussion for a different time.) The MLB average for wOBA in 2010 is about .325, meaning that everyone here save for Kemp against RHP was at least a tick above-average this year – and no matter what other moves you make, success in 2011 is largely dependent on his bouncing back. And how much fun is the idea of sitting both Dunn and Ethier vs. a LHP, just daring the other manager to start bringing in righty relievers?

Of course, a good year in 2010 doesn’t guarantee that Betemit isn’t a fluke, or that Ellis didn’t just have a well-timed hot streak, etc. There’s no guarantees about any of this for next year… but on a team that regularly rolled out Theriot (.301 vs LHP, .280 vs RHP), Blake (.295 vs RHP), Loney (.256 vs LHP, .340 vs RHP), and Martin (.304 vs RHP), it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a team which is better poised for success – and all it’s cost us so far is Paul, Elbert, Martin, and about $15m.

“But where’s James Loney,” you’re probably asking. Well, our friend James is on his way to the Midwest in a trade for a starting pitcher…. but who? You’ll have to check back tomorrow to find out about the pitching side, where I’ve got about $20m to put together a pitching staff around the $7m already committed to Broxton. Can I do it? Come back to see.

You Can’t Win Em All…

…but you especially can’t win any when Garret Anderson is batting second in the lineup. I get that he has to get a start every now and then if he’s going to be here, and circumstances don’t get much more favorable than against a junkballer righty in Coors Field. But hitting him second? Well, why wouldn’t you want to make sure that he gets more at-bats then Kemp and Manny? Predictably, he struck out twice without getting a hit.

It’s time for the Steve Dilbeck response lightning round!

1) No, I’m not worried about Hiroki Kuroda. Not yet. He was so solid to start the season – and really, whenever he’s been healthy since arriving in LA – that I won’t panic over a few lesser starts. Especially not when this one was in Colorado, where he’s never been successful.

2) I get questioning the Charlie Haeger decision, but not for the same reasons. Joe Torre’s insistence that John Ely needs an extra day of rest means that you’re using the 5th starter sooner than you need to, regardless of who that is. I haven’t seen anything in Ely that suggests he’s tiring already, so shouldn’t the goal here be to use offdays to minimize the use of starter #5 until Vicente Padilla returns in a few weeks?

As for Haeger himself, you know I’ve always been a big fan, though I do wonder why they’re showing him such dedication this year when he hasn’t been great after not giving him any rope last year when he was killing it. So I’m happy to see him get a shot on the off-chance his foot “injury” was legit, because this team still badly needs a viable starter option out of then pen when Padilla returns, and as nicely as Carlos Monasterios filled in, I’m not sure I’m ready to put that on him yet.

That said, I do wonder if Haeger isn’t being set up to fail. Who brings an injured pitcher off the DL to start on TWO days rest?

******

Ugly outing by Scott Elbert last night. Then again, he couldn’t get the ball over the plate in AAA, so I’m not sure what made anyone think that’d magically change in Coors Field. I bet he doesn’t get a chance to redeem himself before getting shipped out, and we don’t see him again until September.

******

I’ve seen some suggestions that the Dodgers ought to go after Dontrelle Willis, who clearly could use a change of scenery after getting DFA’d by Detroit. He hasn’t shown anything in about three years, so I can’t really see the interest. That said, the AAA rotation has Tim Corcoran & Seth Etherton in it (plus whomever is temporarily filling in with Elbert in the bigs and James McDonald on the DL), so it’s not like giving him a crack would bump anyone important. If he really wanted to try to make it back home to California, and was willing to sign a minor-league deal at the minimum, I don’t see the harm. I’d just consider it extremely unlikely.

Nick Green Heads to the Great Beyond

Per everyone, Scott Elbert was recalled and Nick Green was DFA’d. With James McDonald tweaking a hammy in ABQ, Elbert was the obvious choice. His control has been iffy at best, but he’s done a good job at keeping runners off the board.

With Ramon Ortiz getting shipped off yesterday, that’s 66% of the deadwood getting chopped off the roster in just over 24 days, so no complaints here.

It’s a great start to the holiday weekend, anyway. And as I’m writing this on my phone in a bar, I’m going to get back to celebrating – and I’ll be sure to tip an extra one back in honor of Green’s departure. Discuss.

Now Taking Applications…

In my frustration over the horrendous yet predictable outing by Ramon Ortiz last night, I said that I didn’t know who should start the next time around, but that it couldn’t be him. That’s a little unfair of me; if I’m going to say there’s a problem, I should at least offer a solution, right? Well, in the comments of that post, I got to discussing alternatives to Ortiz and… well, it’s ugly.

First, the good news.  The next time the 5th starter spot comes up again is Monday, which is conveniently an offday. So long as Joe Torre doesn’t do something stupid like push everyone back a day and just lets the Ortiz spot be skipped, we can avoid the issue for another turn through the rotation. The bad news is, that spot would next come up on May 29th, in Colorado of all places. So not only is no one beating down the door to get the job, it’s in the worst possible location. You’d think that with well-regarded prospects like James McDonald, Scott Elbert, and Josh Lindblom in AAA, at least one would be worthy of the job, but a quick look at their recent appearances says otherwise.  Granted, ABQ is a hitter’s park, but that’s not enough to excuse numbers so ugly that McDonald’s 5.77 ERA is the best of the top four starters.

McDonald did throw five scoreless in the outing before this. But damn, these trends are not going in the right direction.

Elbert’s done a better job at keeping runs off the board, for sure… but look at the walk numbers and tell me that’s not terrifying. On the season he’s walked 28 batters in 32.1 innings. No wonder he’s not getting past five innings.

Lindblom’s interesting, because while his season stats look lousy (6.05 ERA), he’s got a nice 39/14 K/BB ratio. That said, he’s coming off two lousy starts himself (including walking six in four innings), so it’s not like he’s forcing the Dodgers’ hand here.


Ha! And to think I was worried about him getting a callup when I saw the team in New York. What an absolute disaster he’s been; if anything, he should be worried about sticking with the Isotopes, much less making it to the bigs.

The remaining starts in ABQ were split between John Ely, who we already know all about, and Tim Corcoran, who hasn’t been in the bigs since 2007 and has made just three starts in AAA. So there’s no help coming from there, and there’s no one in AA worth calling up (sidenote: all spring, I had my “NRI invite list” on the sidebar, and I’d cross names out as they got cut or shipped out. I could never figure out what happened to John Koronka, who I disliked even the non-roster signing of, and then never heard from again. At the time, I wrote, “Man, he sounds unqualified to even try out for the Isotopes.” So what happened to him? He’s in AA ball, allowing a 1.500 WHIP. It’s time to find a new career, I think.)

Granted: the start is still over a week away, so it’s possible that McDonald, Elbert, or Lindblom rip off a nice start or two and get back in the team’s good graces. Possible, but extremely unlikely, so help isn’t going to be coming from AAA.

That being the case, you’re left with two options. First, there’s Charlie Haeger, who will be nearing the end of his rehab stint by then. He’s been good but not great in his two starts for Inland Empire, and it seems that his “injury” has healed. That said, even I’m not dying to see him back in the rotation, and especially not in Coors Field.

So there’s only one right answer here, and it’s the answer Joe Torre dreads the most. You have to start Carlos Monasterios. The Rule 5 pick has been surprisingly effective as the team’s longman, not allowing more than one earned run in any of his twelve appearances. With the bullpen rounding back into form and Jeff Weaver back, Monasterios’ role as a reliever has lessened, and he already showed he could survive as an emergency starter, allowing one run in four innings against Pittsburgh.

Does anyone really think that Ortiz can outperform Monasterios right now? Of course not. With the limited options, it’s the only right choice – and then what you do is DFA Ortiz as soon as Haeger’s rehab stint is up, pushing Haeger to the bullpen and perhaps using him as a tag-team partner assuming that Monasterios won’t go deep into the games.