Dodger Rotation Exceeding Expectations

Aaron Harang shut down San Diego for seven scoreless innings last night, allowing just four hits without a walk, and while there’s a pretty convincing argument to be made that “it was in Petco and against the terrible Padres,” Harang’s solid outing is yet another in a string of quality starting pitching from the Dodgers through the first quarter of the season. The five Dodger starters are currently second in baseball in ERA, batting average against, & OPS against, with only the outstanding Washington rotation fronted by Stephen Strasburg besting them in each of those areas.

While it’s fair to expect some regression, considering the Dodgers have spent most of the season playing either in the large parks of the NL West, against non-competitive offenses – and the fact that other than Harang, they’re all out-pitching their FIP by a considerable amount – it’s becoming clear that the Dodger rotation is looking a lot more effective than we expected it to be when Ned Colletti ended up with Harang & Chris Capuano rather than Hiroki Kuroda or someone else back in the offseason. Capuano, fully healthy for probably the first time in six years, has been very effective at the back of the rotation along with Harang, and despite Chad Billingsley‘s struggles, the only one I’m really worried about at the moment is Ted Lilly. Sure, 5-0 and 2.11 looks swell, but a decreased strikeout rate (5.17, which would be by far the lowest of his career), an increased walk rate (3.29, highest since 2006), and an absolutely unsustainable BABIP (.196) does concern me about what’s to come.

Still, on the whole the rotation has been great, even considering that we arguably haven’t seen Clayton Kershaw at his best yet, and that opens up a variety of options for the future. Though much has been made of the lack of depth in the minor league organization, if there’s anything the Dodgers have in spades, it’s young, right-handed starting pitching. We’ve already seen Nathan Eovaldi, who would already be in the bigs on many other teams, and Rubby De La Rosa, expected to make his way back from Tommy John surgery later this year. Coming behind them at Double-A Chattanooga (because let’s face it, Triple-A Albuquerque is no place for young pitching) are Allen Webster, Matt Magill, Chris Withrow, & Ethan Martin (plus lefties Chris Reed & Aaron Miller); behind them are Zach Lee, Garrett Gould, & Angel Sanchez. That’s in addition to a new ownership group expected to go out and spend where needed, putting free agents like Cole Hamels & Zack Greinke within reach for the first time in years – and don’t forget, the entire rotation is signed for next year as well.

While I just can’t imagine that we’re going to be speaking about these same five so favorably in May of 2013 – the odds of at least one of the older trio of Lilly, Capuano, & Harang either getting hurt or imploding performance-wise in the next year are astronomical – it’s a clear area of depth for the Dodgers to draw upon to fix more urgent needs, like first base. And third base. And possibly left field. And potentially shortstop. While we all get attached to our own prospects and envision them all in Dodger blue some day (hell, I still get regular questions from people wondering if the Dodgers can bring Blake DeWitt back) it’s important to be realistic and understand that not all of the guys I mentioned above are going to be on this team in the future; with the failure rate of pitching prospects, it’s probably likely that a majority will either not be successful major leaguers or not part of the Dodgers.

It’s here, of course, that I need to put out my regular reminder that I don’t mind trading prospects, as long as it’s in the right deal. People forget that the act of trading Carlos Santana alone wasn’t a mistake; trading him for a decent-but-not-great third baseman when the Indians were also selling C.C. Sabathia to Milwaukee for less was the mistake. Prospects exist to provide value. Sometimes that value is in being on your team, and sometimes it’s in being cashed out for other pieces.

Considering the threadbare offensive options on the free agent market next winter, with only Andre Ethier & Josh Hamilton real difference makers at the plate, the Dodgers are going to have to fill those needs through trade. Their deepest area as far as trade chips is clearly in starting pitching, so as the weeks go on and sellers become more clearly identified, it makes all the sense in the world to identify those opportunities. Maybe that’s Kevin Youkilis, or Paul Konerko, or Chase Headley, or Carlos Lee, or someone else. I know some fans will be turned off by the idea of sending a prospect for an older veteran like that, but as long as it’s someone productive – and dear lord, not someone like Aubrey Huff or Chone Figgins – it’s a move that makes all the sense in the world. Thanks, in no small part, to the surprisingly effective Dodger rotation.

Dodgers Start Fast But Barely Escape Coors With a Win

On June 27 of last year, the Dodgers crushed the Twins 15-0 in Minnesota, with homers from Matt Kemp, Trent Oeltjen, & Casey Blake leading the charge among 25 hits. Coming as it did just hours after Frank McCourt steered the team into bankruptcy, this led to one of the more memorable quotes of the entire debacle:

This was, of course, laughably ludicrous lawyer-talk, and it earned a rightful place on the long list of McCourt-related sins. Yet it was all I could think of early in today’s game as the Dodgers got off to a fast start in Colorado. Hours after the paperwork was official and McCourt no longer had a claim to the club, the much-maligned Dee Gordon stepped to the plate and hit the fourth pitch he saw from Colorado starter Jhoulys Chacin out of the park for his first big-league home run. After singles from Mark Ellis (the first of four for him tonight) and Kemp, Andre Ethier also took Chacin deep, and four batters into the Guggenheim era, the Dodgers were up 4-0. If it wasn’t the official coming-out party that we’ve yet to see, it sure felt like the start of something special.

That wasn’t even the end of it from the offensive side of things. In the third, A.J. Ellis doubled in Tony Gwynn for the 5th run, then added two more by driving in Gwynn again on a two-run blast off Chacin in the fifth. Look, I know it’s Coors Field and magical things happen there, but this was a game where Gordon (7 HR in 1814 minor-league PA, and while I can’t back this up with facts, we all know at least one was inside-the-park) and Ellis (19 HR in 2119 minor-league PA) both homered. Meanwhile, Albert Pujols is still looking for his first. Life is awesome sometimes.

Yet while it sure seemed like this would be a party atmosphere to usher in the new ownership, life in Coors is never, ever that simple. Ted Lilly breezed through 5.2 scoreless, but then things went downhill quickly as soon as he served up a meatball that was crushed by Carlos Gonzalez for a bomb in the sixth. Oddly, the last homer Lilly allowed was also by Gonzalez, last August, and once he completed the inning, he left after just 79 pitchers after being seen talking to trainer Sue Falsone in the dugout. For the first time this season, Josh Lindblom was completely ineffective in allowing four hits and three runs in 2/3 of an inning; Scott Elbert cleaned up his mess, but Kenley Jansen allowed the Rockies to get within one after letting Troy Tulowitzki lead off with a triple. Despite allowing the tying run to get to third, Javy Guerra bounced back from recent troubles to nail down the save.

By the way, I can’t help but touch upon a somewhat bizarre sequence in the top half of the ninth. Ethier led off with a hit. James Loney then bunted… terribly… in a one-run game. It appeared that Don Mattingly made that call, based on his reaction when Loney returned to the dugout, and while that’s an awful call on his part, it also really speaks to how little confidence you must have in your first baseman to actually get a hit when you’re asking him to bunt. Yet even odder was that against lefty Greg Reynolds, the Dodgers sent up four straight lefty hitters – Ethier, Loney, Gwynn, then Adam Kennedy – without once calling on Juan Uribe. I have to imagine he was unavailable for some reason (especially since it was Justin Sellers who came out to play third for the ninth), but we haven’t heard anything to that effect yet, and if he was available but just not called upon, well, that says a whole lot about him as well. (Kennedy struck out to strand Ethier. Of course he did.)

Get some sleep, because tomorrow is going to be a memorable day; the ownership press conference is at 10am PT, and Clayton Kershaw goes in the series finale at 12:10 PT. If you’re not skipping work, you’re doing it wrong.

Padres @ Dodgers April 14, 2012: Lilly Returns, Lindblom Remains

As expected, Ted Lilly was activated off of the disabled list to make tonight’s start against the Padres. Todd Coffey was placed on the DL with right knee soreness to make room, and whether that’s the true cause of his early season struggles or something a little more convenient, I do not know. What matters is that Josh Lindblom remains on the roster, and with three shutdowns without a single meltdown, while several other members of the bullpen continue to struggle, there was absolutely no way you could justify sending him down – option status be damned. With Coffey being swapped out for Lilly, the depth chart page has been updated.

Lilly will be opposed by 22-year-old righty Joe Wieland, making his major-league debut. Wieland was obtained by the Padres last summer in the deal that sent reliever Mike Adams to Texas; in 438 minor-league innings over parts of five seasons, Wieland has exhibited fantastic control, walking just 80. (And somehow had a 96/4 K/BB in 14 games at High-A ball last year, which is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever seen.) Since 2000, the Dodgers have faced 12 starting pitchers making their big-league debuts, and are just 3-9 in those games. That’s somewhat misleading, though, because in two of those losses they scored six earned runs off the rookie but still ended up losing anyway.

For the Dodgers, they’re really trotting out the B-team behind Loney in attempt to load up on lefties against the righty Wieland. Dee Gordon returns to the lineup after a day off, as does James Loney, but Jerry Hairston, Tony Gwynn, Adam Kennedy, and Matt Treanor also are all starting tonight. Even with the welcome respite from Juan Uribe, that bottom half of the lineup… yikes. Could make for some quick innings.

Padres
Dodgers
CF
Maybin
SS
Gordon
RF
Denorfia
LF
Gwynn
3B
Headley
CF
Kemp
LF
Guzman
RF
Ethier
1B
Alonso
1B
Loney
C
Hundley
2B
Hairston
SS
Bartlett
3B
Kennedy
2B
Hudson
C
Treanor
P
Wieland
P
Lilly

Andre Ethier, Comeback Player of the Year

I’m pretty sure I’ve been saying – in bits & pieces, perhaps – that Andre Ethier is going to have a big 2012 around here for nearly six months now. I don’t know if I ever put it all together into one coherent thought, so for my debut at FanGraphs today, that’s exactly what I’ve done. A snippet:

Ethier’s reputation has been further damaged by what can kindly be described as a salty attitude, including complaining about his contract status & suggesting that he might be non-tendered just before Opening Day 2010 and getting into a very public spat with the team about whether he was being forced to play through a knee injury late last season. Beyond that, his total inability to hit left-handed pitching and his less-than-impressive defensive performance (despite a laughable Gold Glove in 2011) led FanGraphs’ own Mike Axisa, writing at River Ave Blues this winter, to label him as essentially a platoon designated hitter, a description I couldn’t really find much to argue with.

All of which is to say that the outlook on Ethier heading into 2012 isn’t exactly what it was following 2009, and that’s reflected in fantasy drafts so far this season. His ADP at MockDraftCentral is 135th overall and just 35th among outfielders, behind Nick Markakis and just barely ahead of Peter Bourjos. At both MDC and in CBS’ auction values list, he’s seen as being only slightly more valuable than Melky Cabrera, who A) had a career year (.349 wOBA) last year which was only slightly better than Ethier’s sub-par 2011 and B) seems about as likely to repeat that performance as McCourt is to go into business with Bud Selig on a nice little bed-and-breakfast.

Here’s the thing, though: absolutely everything is falling into place perfectly for Ethier to have a huge comeback season, and that potential along with his lessened public profile makes him a very valuable commodity.

As you can probably guess, I go on to point out that his lessened productivity over the last two seasons can largely be attributed to the broken finger he returned from too quickly in 2010 and the bad knee he tried to play on for most of 2011. Fully healthy and motivated in his walk year, he’s showing early in camp that if the Dodgers go anywhere this year, he’s going to have a lot to do with it. (And as I’m about to hit publish, he drives in two more with yet another double. Go, Andre, go!)

Notes on the other 24 men who will try to join Ethier as we head into the final weekend of spring training…

*** Ted Lilly hasn’t pitched in over a week due to a sore neck, though he reportedly made it through a bullpen session today withonly some stiffness and no pain. That’s a good sign, though the layoff may yet land him on the disabled list to start the season. Due to April off-days, he would likely not be replaced by another starter – sorry, Nathan Eovaldibut instead by an 8th reliever. Much as I like Josh Lindblom, who would almost certainly be that reliever, I’m not so sure that’s the right way to play it. We’ll wait and see what happens with Lilly before we get too deep into that, though.

*** Speaking of the elderly, Adam Kennedy is recovering from a groin strain and may also start the season on the disabled list… and I’m trying and failing to figure out why that’s a bad thing in any way whatsoever. Keep in mind that the disabled list does not start on Opening Day, but is retroactive to a player’s last appearance, so if Kennedy doesn’t play in another big-league spring game and starts the season on the DL, he’d be eligible return just a few days into the season.

*** Josh Bard and Cory Sullivan were cut yesterday, and that’s only notable for the fact that Luis Cruz was not. (Well, that, and the fact that apparently one of my readers is Cory Sullivan’s biggest fans.) With Jerry Sands gone, we’ve all been expecting the battle for the last spot to come down to Justin Sellers versus Josh Fields, and while I still think that’s what it’ll be (bet on Fields), Cruz keeps on sticking around and is even picking up supporters. I’m not exactly sure why; he’s been awful in the minors (AAA OBP last three years of .274, .309, .301), and it’s not even like he’s a spring sensation, because he’s hitting just .259 with no walks and two extra base hits in spring (entering today’s game, because oddly enough he just did the same thing Ethier did, driving in a run on a double). So he can play shortstop; big deal, so can Sellers. Just say no, okay?

Ted Lilly Already in Midseason Form

I know, I’m usually the first to say that spring training results rarely count, especially in the first week of games, and particularly so for veterans who are just trying to get into shape, so take this with the Juan Uribe-sized grain of salt that it deserves.

Ted Lilly‘s thirteen batters today:

1. Melky Cabrera homers to left
2. Emmanuel Burriss doubles to left
3. Nate Schierholtz grounds out 6-3
4. Brett Pill homers to left
5. Hector Sanchez strikes out swinging
6. Mike Fontenot walks
7. Conor Gillaspie grounds out to first base
(Second Inning)
8. Brandon Crawford singles to right
9. Eli Whiteside flies out to left
9a. Crawford advances on wild pitch
10. Cabrera grounds out, 5-3
11. Burris doubles to left (arguably an Uribe error)
12. Schierholtz doubles to right
13. Pill pop to catcher

That’s two innings, six hits, five runs (all earned), two dingers, one strikeout, and one walk. Hey, at least he didn’t allow any stolen bases, though I suppose that’s hard to do when five of the six hits were homers or doubles. Again, is this meaningful? Not in the least. Is it inspiring? Well.. no. Tony Jackson was chatting live during the game and caught up with Lilly soon after he hit the showers:

Lilly said he had no fastball command, which forced him to throw way more breaking balls than he had intended to in his first spring-training start. Two different times, he said, “even though it’s spring training,” which was followed by him saying he definitely wasn’t happy with the result of this start.

At least Andre Ethier crushed a homer off a lefty, an event that is so rare and momentous (it happened just once in 2011) that it should be noted no matter what time of year it happens, though as many people were quick to remind me on Twitter, it came against Barry Zito and therefore barely counts. Still, I’ve been saying all winter that Ethier’s going to have a big year as he prepares for free agency (or perhaps the July trade deadline), and the first two games have been very promising in that regard.

Out of the bullpen, Ronald Belisario actually appeared in a Dodger uniform for the first time since October 1, 2010, even if MLB.com refuses to believe he still really exists (at right). The simple fact that he appeared is notable enough in itself, though it was a bit jarring to see him in Jonathan Broxton‘s old #51 rather than his regular #54 – which now belongs to Javy Guerra – but even though he allowed two hits in one inning, he didn’t break any state or federal laws. Progress! Josh Lindblom, Michael Antonini, and Josh Wall each pitched scoreless innings along with Belisario, while Jamey Wright, Ramon Troncoso, and Matt Chico all allowed one run in their sole innings of work. (As Charley Steiner noted regarding Chico, seeing a lefty wearing #56 who wasn’t Hong-Chih Kuo is going to take some getting used to. Or at least it would, if Chico had the slightest prayer of making the club, which he doesn’t.) Troncoso probably didn’t do much to help his long-shot bid to avoid a DFA by allowing Cabrera’s second homer of the day.

******

Speaking of progress, we all bemoaned the Dodgers’ last-place finish in FanGraphs‘ catcher positional rankings series, and it’s not any better at second base, where they also finish dead last…

Mark Ellis is still capable of providing stellar defense, but he cannot be relied on to stay healthy. When he eventually succumbs to an injury, the Dodgers don’t great backups. Adam Kennedy and Jerry Hairston Jr. should pick up at-bats when Ellis is on the shelf, but the team also has Justin Sellers waiting in the wings. At 25, Sellers isn’t particularly young, but there’s a good chance he would be as good as — if not better than — the Dodgers current reserve options.

…but at least first base finally gets out of the cellar to finish a relatively lofty 22nd:

Given the continued hilarity of James Loney, it is amazing that Dodgers are even this high on the list. The brilliant plan to back him up apparently involves two outfielders and Adam Kennedy, a classic aging utility man without utility. Loney still will get most of the at-bats, I think, as Rivera can only platoon for one guy at once. No word on what Ned Colletti offered Juan Pierre.

I feel like I’m not going to enjoy this series until it gets to center field.

******

We’ve been talking a lot about the potentially record-breaking sale price the Dodgers might fetch, and many have had trouble reconciling the fact that it might double the previous price that the Cubs went for a few years ago. CNBC’s Darren Rovell asks the same question today:

And yet, no one I talk to can figure out how there’s money to be made if the Dodgers are sold for more than $1.3 billion, as has been speculated.

The team itself is worth about $800 million and the land is worth another $200 to $300 million. One insider who has seen the financials confirmed that valuation.

But former owner Frank McCourt is intent on keeping that land.

So where is the additional $500 to $700 million coming from? There’s sponsorship money and ticket money and in good years, that could mean a $50 million swing in revenue.

Some will say it’s in the TV money, but it’s not there either. A deal with a network would yield about $150 million a year, but if the Dodgers start a regional sports network, they’ll likely be sharing at least 25 percent of the overall revenue, which would affect the rights fee.

I would argue you could also kick in an “ego” fee, in which a potential owner would like to be seen as the white knight riding in and rescuing a crown jewel of the sport which has fallen into terrible disrepair. Still, it’s a question we’ve been wondering about for a while; at what point does a ludicrous sale price impact the amount of additional money available to put back into the team?