Five questions: Los Angeles Dodgers

Where will the power come from?

Last year, Los Angeles compiled a meager 120 home runs, with only lowly Houston’s 108 round-trippers keeping the Dodgers out of the National League basement in the category. Only outfielders Matt Kemp (with 28 in a “down” year) and Andre Ethier (with 23), topped 20 homers. They were followed by third baseman Casey Blake and catcher Rod Barajas, with 17 apiece (though Barajas hit a dozen of his as a Met). To add insult to injury, LA also was third-to-last in extra-base hits.

So who will provide the power in 2011? Well, if Kemp can recover from his Rihanna-induced stupor of last year, he could surpass 30 homers for the first time in his career, and Ethier has already reached that mark once before, in 2009. A full year with Barajas on the roster will help, too, as will new second baseman Juan Uribe. Plus, Marcus Thames and his all-or-nothing swing should provide a solid number of souvenirs for fans in the outfield.

But the player who really needs to turn up the juice (no, not that kind of juice) is the one playing the classic slugger position, first base. James Loney has never surpassed 15 home runs and barely reached double digits last season. A sub-.400 slugging percentage from his position is embarrassingly weak, a problem Loney needs to remedy if he wants to remain a first baseman for the Dodgers—or anyone else—for several more seasons.

Loney is only 26 years old entering this season (as is Kemp), so there still is time for his power to develop, but he’d better find it soon. His team’s success and his hopes for long-term employment depend on it.

How much influence will Davey Lopes have?

Sabermetric orthodoxy says stolen bases are fairly trivial. However, a team stealing 138 bases at an 87.9 percent success rate will add significant value to its bottom line, while another swiping 92 bags at a 64.8 percent rate will cost itself several runs. Those two performances belong to the 2007 Phillies and 2010 Dodgers, respectively.

What common thread ties these two squads together? Well, the ’07 Phils had Davey Lopes as their first base and baserunning coach. Now Lopes brings the skills and knowledge that helped him steal 557 career bases at an 83.0 percent success rate to assist those woeful Los Angeles base stealers.

Will Lopes’ influence mean the Dodgers will become the new 1980s St. Louis Cardinals? Certainly not, but maybe Kemp, Loney and a few others can swipe some more bases while shedding some caught-stealings from their stat lines. Maybe Rafael Furcal, 22-for-26 on the basepaths last season, can become an old-school burner like his coach and approach 50 steals once again. And if new part-time left fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. can’t hit better than last year’s .204, perhaps he’ll be a one-trick pony pinch-runner supreme. (If Lopes wants to show he’s a miracle worker, he’ll get Blake and Barajas to steal a base or two apiece.)

Who will close?

Despite the potential for improvements in both power and speed cited above, this still looks to be a decidedly average offense, at best. But with Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda as their top four starters (and either Jon Garland or Vicente Padilla as the fifth), there should be plenty of low-scoring games for the bullpen to lock down.

Jonathan Broxton has been the team’s closer since mid-2008, but he suffered a meltdown last fall that left some wondering if he was healthy. Broxton’s plummeting strikeout rate and rising walks and hits-allowed numbers certainly seemed to indicate something was wrong.

With no definitive cause for his second-half slump, Broxton has been installed as the closer to kick off the 2011 campaign. However, if things go wrong early in the year, will Hong-Chih Kuo once again assume the ninth-inning duties, as he did late last season? Kuo’s 2010 clearly was a career year, as he allowed only 29 hits and 18 walks in 60 innings, while recording 73 strikeouts. Combined with a .139 batting average allowed, this performance yielded a 1.20 ERA. Now those are the numbers of a dominating closer.

Still, if Broxton is back to normal, having these two stud relievers finishing off games will be a bounty for the Dodgers regardless of who gets the high-profile saves and which one gets the lowly-regarded holds. Fantasy owners would be best served to put their money on Broxton, while also being ready to drop him and pick up Kuo at a moment’s notice.

How will the ownership saga impact the team?

The story of Dodgers owners (well, at least one is the owner) Frank and Jamie McCourt’s nasty divorce has made plenty of headlines over the last few months. First it was the announcement they were divorcing, then there was Frank firing his wife. Next were the multiple, conflicting copies of the pre-nup the McCourts signed, and recently the revelation that Commissioner Bud Selig blocked an agreement in which the Dodgers would borrow $200 million from previous owner Fox/News Corp.

This shameful saga has not only given one of baseball’s most storied franchises a black eye, it has also cast the team’s financial stability in doubt. Can Frank McCourt afford to buy out his wife and retain ownership of the team? That concept looks less and less likely as more and more details leak out. Will Selig push for a new ownership group to take the reins in Chavez Ravine, hoping to put this sordid mess behind the franchise while bringing financial stability to the team?

At this point the Houston Astros are probably at the front of the line in terms of team sales, so an ownership change wouldn’t occur for at least several months. This means McCourt will continue to call the shots in 2011, a situation that could handcuff the team if it is in contention and in need of a talent infusion.

Will McCourt sign off on a deal that adds significant payroll after this winter’s tight-fisted moves? Perhaps Billingsley’s new three-year, $35 million contract extension is an indication of looser purse strings, or maybe it’s simply a savvy move that makes the team that much more appealing to potential buyers. Unfortunately for Dodgers fans, it seems a wait-and-see attitude will be required for the time being.

What help can the farm system provide?

If ownership will not pony up to add a key player or two, is there assistance in the minor leagues to call up? The top prospects in the system generally play positions at which Los Angeles likely doesn’t need immediate upgrades.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Shortstop Dee Gordon would not be an upgrade over Furcal, though an injury could provide Gordon an opportunity to show what he can do. Pitcher Rubby De La Rosa had a strong enough spring to indicate he’s ready to help in the fifth starter’s slot, but Garland and Padilla both would have to flop or break down (Garland got a head start on that) for him to get a chance.

Two bush leaguers who could possibly help out in positions of need are outfielder Trayvon Robinson and outfielder/first baseman Jerry Sands. Robinson is a solid-average, high-OBP burner who could be a table setter for the thumpers in the lineup, and left field is far from anchored as Opening Day arrives. Sands is even more intriguing, as he could be one of those thumpers while also providing a dose of speed.

It’s unlikely, but Robinson and Sands in left field and at first base could be just what the Dodgers ordered—maybe not in 2011, but possibly in 2012, and well into the future.

Greg has been a writer and editor for The Hardball Times since 2010. In his dreams, he's the second coming of Ozzie Smith. Please don't wake him up.
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13 years ago

@Deborah: I think it’s pretty clear that the author of the piece was joking regarding the Rhianna/Kemp line. Maybe you should look into getting a sense of humor instead of upping your sensitivity quotient.

Also “leave Hondo alone”? I’ll just assume that “Hondo” is a nickname for Broxton? Are you a child? Is no one allowed to criticize or, more correctly, critique your team’s players? Please, girl, get a grip.

13 years ago

Let’s see how much a sense of humor men have when women start comparing parts of men’s anatomy to their brain.  Simons remark is not accurate.  It’s not funny.  You go grip yourself. 

I’ve been following the Dodgers a lot longer than you.  I’m older than you.  Maybe you ought to pick on someone your own age and size.

13 years ago

This is the point where you just stand back and don’t interrupt the other person’s digging.

13 years ago

I wonderful… does that mean you’re going to be bidding Kemp and Ethier in your fantasy auction?

13 years ago

I agree with your question of where the power will come from.  Please refrain from infering that Kemp’s batting issues stemmed from a woman.  Give me a fricken break.  Are men’s egos that fragile?  It makes you sound like a neanderthal replete with your own cave.  Matt’s issues last year began with Ned—and Ned drew first blood.  Point the finger there and leave it there.  Uribe is all that Ned could muster up to be the ‘big bat’ for 2011 and Juan needs lessons from Davey on baserunning.

Lopes will be an intregal asset to the 2011 Dodgers—every last one of them need coaching on baserunning.  Davey has got the Blue depth—I have faith in him

Forget about closing—we need to think about replacing Furcal NOW.  His performance last night was paltry—He either still has back issues or he’s past his prime for that position.  He’s lead off—He’s supposed to be the wheels to start things going.  He can’t start anything unless he gets on base, right?  He’s toast.  He’s done.

Leave Hondo alone—He’s “The Man”  He’s the closer.  Have faith.  But closers were not our problem last year.  Lack of bats were—offense was non-existent—DOA—DNR.  If offense gave pitchers help, we wouldn’t have overused the bullpen—so back off Broxton.  This year will make him or break him.

I’m afraid that the Dodgers will only improve when every marking of the word “McCourt” and “Coletti” have been removed and an edict issued never to verbally use those words ever again—So shall it be written; So shall it be done.  Only then, when the Dodgers break free of that mess, will they improve, including their farm club.  And while we’re at it, get rid of Honeycutt and bring in “Nando”!!!!!!!!

Patrick Corkery
13 years ago

Greg, that was a nice piece on the Dodgers. My concerns are defense, Broxton and stranded runners. Last night against the Giants, Furcal made that first inning error. Thankfully, Kershaw was brilliant. I think he may sew up the Cy Young this year. Broxton seems to have the yips. The LOB’s are a painful problem. I miss those Furcal/Pierre days. Manny disrupted so much chemistry. Anyway, I am starting a blog on WordPress. If you have any advice, I would love the feedback. Thank You-Patrick

Greg Simons
13 years ago

@Deborah: Kemp’s 2010 performance could have been due to Coletti, Torre, Rihanna, his $11 million contract extension, a bad attitude, an off year, and/or a number of other factors.  I was just trying to have a little fun with the hype regarding his celebrity girlfriend.

I’m not sure who they could get to replace Furcal at this point in time.  As I said, Gordon isn’t ready yet.

Broxton’s 9.00 ERA after one day is a tiny snapshot, but he couldn’t have instilled much confidence in Mattingly with his performance.  But it’s a long season, and one mediocre game doesn’t mean much.

@AcmeWidgets: we’ll find out soon…

Andrew Faris
13 years ago

Whatever else there is to say about the Dodgers this year, their problem will not be power. I think it’s possible (if unlikely) that they get 15 homers a piece from every one of their top 8 guys who stays healthy. Here’s a fun fact: all 8 have at some point in their career done it, and most of them quite recently. So the power, to answer the question, will come from everywhere, with Kemp and Ethier being the closest things to true middle of the order threats they have.

Actually, I did the math. Most people would put the Yankees lineup in the upper half of major league offenses, right? Well, if you take their top 9 (including Jorge as the DH) and average out their SLG% from 2010, then you take the Dodgers top 8 and do the same, the Dodgers end up about 4 points higher. The primary difference is that guys like Barajas, Thames, Blake, and Uribe aren’t as flashy as the names on the Yankees.

So whatever problems the Dodgers have this year, I suggest that power will not be one of them.

Andrew Faris
Brothers Who Like Sports

13 years ago

Move Back To Brooklyn??

Todd Bellm
13 years ago

Nice writeup, Greg.