2011 Los Angeles Dodgers: They have to be better than 80 wins right?

2010 Record: 80-82, 4th NL West
2010 Prediction: 92-70, 1st NL West
Diff: 12
2011 Prediction: 1st NL West

Impact Player: CF Matt Kemp
Impact Pitcher: LHP Clayton Kershaw
Best Reliever: RHP Hong-Chih Kuo
Top Prospect: SS Dee Gordon

General Manager: Ned Colletti
Manager: Don Mattingly (1st Season)

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Jon Garland, RHP Matt Guerrier, RHP Blake Hawksworth, 2B Juan Uribe, OF Marcus Thames, C Dioner Navarro, OF Tony Gwynn Jr.

Significant Departures:
INF Ryan Theriot, OF Reed Johnson, 2B Ronnie Belliard, OF Garret Anderson, OF Scott Podsednik, C Brad Ausmus, LHP George Sherrill, RHP Jeff Weaver, RHP Charlie Haeger, RHP Ramon Ortiz

The LA Dodgers were coming off a 95-win season where they appeared in the NLCS for the second straight year, they had a young core of players who looked to be hitting their prime and then the wheels fell off.  Owners Frank and Jamie McCourt filed for divorce and have since been tied up in a legal battle over who owns the team.  This has led to a tightening of the financial belt which has prevented the team from aggressively bidding on players on the open market.

On the field, things went just as badly.  The Dodgers posted their first losing season since 2005 and just their third since 1992, finishing fourth in the much improved NL West with 80 wins.  Budding star centerfielder Matt Kemp had a disastrous year which mirrored many of the players.  Pundits blamed it on everything from poor chemistry, to no leadership, to the McCourt’s divorce proceedings, but the fact was that many of the team’s top players simply underperformed.

With no impactful changes coming for the 2011 season, the Dodgers can either cement themselves as a mediocre team or bounce back into contention.

Starting Rotation
The top of the rotation has two of the best young pitchers in the game at its head.  Left-hander Clayton Kershaw cemented himself as an elite talent in 2010 posting a 2.91 ERA and 3.12 FIP.  He still walks a few too many, but makes up for it by posting terrific strikeout numbers and not giving up the long-ball.  The best part is that Kershaw is only 23-years-old which means he could actually get better.  It won’t be long before he has a Cy Young trophy or two in his possession.

Chad Billingsley had a career-best 4.6 WAR rating last year after posting a 3.57 ERA and a team-best 3.07 FIP due mostly to his ability to keep the ball in the yard.  What’s most amazing about that is that he actually had a better HR/9 rate away from pitcher friendly Dodger Stadium.  At 26, he’s entering his prime and with Kershaw forms a scarily good 1-2 combo.

The Dodgers aren’t just top-heavy either; veteran left-hander Ted Lilly was re-signed to a three-year, $33-million extension in the offseason and although the Dodgers will eventually regret that deal, he’ll fit in nicely as a solid number three pitcher this season.

36-year-old Hiroki Kuroda is a criminally underrated pitcher.  He’s advanced in age which certainly raises a red flag, but he has been a remarkably consistent pitcher in his three seasons on this side of the ocean.  He has a career 3.60 ERA and a 3.46 FIP while averaging 3.3 WAR per year.  He may start his decline this season, but if he doesn’t he’s an excellent number three or four pitcher.

Jon Garland played for the Dodgers in 2009 and has returned on a one-year deal after one season in San Diego.  While pitching his home games in cavernous Petco Park for the Padres, Garland posted a 3.47 ERA which was exposed a bit by his 4.41 FIP.  He has proven himself to be very durable making only one trip to the DL in his career; however he’ll make his second trip there to start the year after straining his oblique this spring.

Potential sixth starter/swingman Vicente Padilla will also start the year on the DL with a forearm strain that will keep him out for most of April.  Neither him nor Garland are expected to miss more than a month of the season so the Dodgers will have plenty of depth come May.

In the meantime, veteran Tim Redding who tried and failed to catch on with a team in South Korea or Japan could get a shot at the fifth spot to start the year.  Other hopefuls are Blake Hawksworth, Scott Elbert, and John Ely who also have shots at the bullpen.
Jonathan Broxton went from being one of the most feared closers in the game to an erratic setup man in a matter of months.  Or did he?  After some horrid misuse by manager Joe Torre about mid-season where he threw far too many pitches in a matter of a few days, Broxton’s season tanked.  Still, despite a 4.04 ERA, Broxton was still able to put up insane strikeout numbers and rarely let the ball leave the yard.  His FIP was still an outstanding 3.01 as a result and if he finds the control that left him after those few games mid-season, he’ll be back to his old dominant self.  The fact is, Broxton is one of the best relievers in baseball.

Joining Broxton in that category is left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo who was literally the best reliever in the NL last year.  He posted an insane 10.95 K/9 rate and 4.06 K/BB ratio which led to a surreal 1.81 FIP.  As with all relievers there’s a chance for regression, but even a regressed Kuo is a dominant setup man.

23-year-old right-hander Kenley Jansen came up from AA last year and began completely dominating major-league hitters.  He struck out 41 batters in only 27 innings of work and didn’t give up a single homerun.  Again, there almost certainly will be regression here, but Jansen has the potential to form one of the best bullpen back-end trios in baseball with Kuo and Broxton.

Veteran Matt Guerrier was signed to a three-year deal this offseason from the Twins and figures to the middle-inning reliever capable of eating a lot of innings out of the bullpen this season.  He doesn’t strike out enough batters to be dominating and is definitely not worth the $12-million investment the Dodgers have made in him, but as a sixth-inning guy in front of Jansen, Kuo, and Broxton, the Dodgers could do much worse.

The rest of the ‘pen will be a battle between the potential fifth starters who lose out and the likes of Ramon Troncoso, Ronald Belisario, Jon Link, Carlos Monasterios, Travis Schlichting, and non roster candidates like Lance Cormier, Dana Eveland, Mike MacDougal, Ron Mahay, and Oscar Villarreal.

With Russell Martin and his old-man hip off to the Bronx, the Dodgers re-signed former Jay Rod Barajas to split time with another free agent addition in Dioner Navarro.  Barajas managed a .310 wOBA to go along with 17 homeruns last season between the Mets and LA and although he’s not a good defensive catcher, he works well with the pitching staff and calls a good game.

Navarro, on the other hand, came over from Tampa where he was a big part of the team’s 2008 pennant-winning team.  He was at one time a Dodger and will get a chance to do right by the organization.  He was terrible last year posting an anaemic .194/.270/.258 slash line, but is amazingly still just 27-years-old and has much more upside than Barajas.

A.J. Ellis will provide depth in case one gets hurt or is ineffective.  He was actually far more productive in limited time in 2010 than Navarro.

Rafael Furcal had a nice bounce-back year in 2010 after an ineffective ’09.  Despite only playing in 97 games due to injury, Furcal accumulated a position-player team best 4.1 WAR with an impressive .300/.366/.460 line.  He also demonstrated that he can still field with 4.3 UZR and still run with 22 stolen bases.  At 33 and coming off more injuries, Furcal may take a step back, but considering the league-wide shortage of quality shortstops, the Dodgers could do much worse.

I was once a big believer in James Loney.  I always thought his ability to make solid contact and his projectable frame made him a great candidate for big season after big season, but I’ve given up on that.  He’s not a bad player, but he’s essentially Lyle Overbay with slightly less homerun power and more speed.  If the McCourt’s sort out their issues and Albert Pujols hits the open market next fall, I would not be at all surprised to see the Dodgers make a run at signing the best player in baseball.

The Dodgers decided Ryan Theriot wasn’t the answer at second base and dealt him to the Cardinals for Hawksworth and then signed veteran Juan Uribe away from the rival Giants.  Uribe was a revelation for San Fran last year posting terrific fielding numbers and a 3.2 WAR to go along with 24 homeruns in a pitcher-friendly park.  Uribe is a very difficult player to project from year-to-year and is very streaky, but is ultimately due for a regression in 2011.

Casey Blake was to be the Opening Day third baseman again in 2011, but the 37-year-old is hurt and will miss some time at the start of the year.  Blake is still a very good defensive player who can contribute enough with the bat to provide value, but until he returns it’s likely that Uribe slide to third while veteran Jamey Carroll will move into second base.

Carroll posted a higher WAR rating than Loney, Andre Ethier, and Kemp last season with a .291/.379/.339 slash line and a 2.6 UZR rating at all three infield positions.  Ivan De Jesus Jr., Russ Mitchell, and non-roster invitees Aaron Miles and Juan Castro are also in the mix for bench spots.  Mitchell may also get a crack at the Opening Day third base job.

Kemp and Ethier in center and right respectively have the ability to be elite players, but neither showed it last year.  Ethier was good at the plate with a .292/.364/.493 slash line and 23 homeruns, but he was one of the worst defensive rightfielders in the game with a -15.4 UZR rating.

Kemp was terrible at the plate and in the field posting a major-league worst -24.0 UZR in center.  Although he hit 28 homeruns and stole 19 bases his .249/.310/.450 slash line coupled with his defence made him a barely above replacement player.  Still just 26, Kemp has too much talent to that bad for too long.  He’s probably best suited for a corner outfield spot, but his bat should come around and that will go a long way to getting the Dodgers back in to contention.

In leftfield, LA plans to use a platoon of left-handed-hitting Jay Gibbons who has a career .787 OPS against righties and right-handed-hitting Marcus Thames who has a career .838 OPS against lefties.  The Thames-half of this platoon is solid (at least offensively), but he needs a better partner than Gibbons who is equally as bad defensively.

Xavier Paul and Tony Gwynn Jr. are also around and may find their way onto the team.  Paul is out of options and the acquisition of the defensively gifted Gwynn could signal the end for him with the Dodgers.  Both, however, may be more suitable to platoon with Thames than Gibbons.

A chart for the Dodgers detailing their roster can be found here.

With a deep and talented rotation and a lineup that can pull their weight if Kemp and Ethier have rebound seasons, the Dodgers should not be nearly as bad as they were last season.  Broxton, Kuo, Jansen and Guerrier form a potentially dominant bullpen and role players like Furcal, Uribe, and Blake still have value despite their advanced age.  With the McCourt’s legal battle handcuffing the team financially, this could be their last kick at the ol’ playoff can.
Final Prediction: 90-72, 1st NL West


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