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Dark days are over, Dodger Blue skies ahead
Los Angeles Dodgers
For Dodgers fans, the long nightmare is over. Last year was one of the darkest in the storied franchise’s long history. A Giants fan was brutally beaten in the parking lot outside Dodger Stadium. The team’s owners, Frank and Jamie McCourt, engaged in a tacky and embarrassing divorce battle. Frank also took the team into bankruptcy, battling with TV rights-holders and MLB hierarchy in the process. An organic boycott grew out of fans’ disgust with the franchise’s management, and attendance dipped below three million for only the second time in the past 16 years. McCourt eventually sold the team to a group headed by Magic Johnson and former Braves executive Stan Kasten, giving those fans hope for the future. The new owners inherit two very valuable assets in Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp — two of the best young players in baseball. Unfortunately in the short term, though, GM Ned Colletti has been handcuffed by the franchise’s financial problems and surrounded those two stars with cheap spare parts. The Dodgers’ biggest offseason acquisition was starter Aaron Harang, signed as a free agent for two years and $12 million. But the sleeping giant has been awakened. The dark days are over and good times are coming.
The Dodgers had hoped by now to have one of the best 1-2 punches in the National League at the front of their rotation. They’re halfway there. Kershaw has blossomed into one of baseball’s best pitchers. He won the NL’s pitching Triple Crown in 2011, tying for the lead league in wins (21) and leading the NL in ERA (2.28) and strikeouts (248) while running away with the Cy Young Award. However, righthander Chad Billingsley has yet to take his next step forward. Since winning 16 games back in 2008, the 27-year-old Billingsley has been basically a .500 pitcher (35–33) with a rising ERA (a career-high 4.21 last year) and slipping K-rate. The rest of the Dodgers’ rotation is an uninspiring group of middling veterans, placeholders for a wave of young talent led by injured Rubby De La Rosa. Harang and lefthander Chris Capuano were signed as free agents (at half the cost of departed free agent Hiroki Kuroda) to join Ted Lilly.
Jonathan Broxton’s four-year roller-coaster ride as the Dodgers’ closer ended with elbow surgery and free agency last year. In his place, Javy Guerra has stepped in as the last link in a young bullpen featuring only two veterans (Matt Guerrier and Mike MacDougal). Guerra was a godsend, making his major league debut in May and quickly laying claim to the closer’s role. As a rookie, he converted 21 of 23 save opportunities with a 2.31 ERA. He’ll team with hard-throwing Kenley Jansen as the finishers in the Dodgers’ bullpen. After a dynamic debut in 2010, Jansen got off to a rough start in 2011 before righting himself in a big way. From mid-June until the end of the season, Jansen retired 97 of the 120 batters he faced — 61 by strikeout. Though inexperienced, the Guerra-Jansen combo is a formidable hammer for manager Don Mattingly to wield at the back end of games. He’ll sort through a passel of young arms (including Josh Lindblom, Scott Elbert and Nathan Eovaldi) to build the rest of the pen.
Rookie shortstop Dee Gordon breathed some life into the Dodgers last season, batting .304 in 56 games after his big league debut in early June. Gordon was particularly dynamic in September, when he led all National Leaguers with 42 hits and stole 12 of his 24 bases (tied for the NL lead among rookies). The still-developing Gordon is a mixed bag (particularly defensively) at this point in his career. But the Dodgers will insert him at the leadoff spot and hope the spark he provides will outweigh the blunders. Alongside him at second base, meanwhile, will be a pair of veterans on the downside of their careers. Mark Ellis, 34, figures to get most of the playing time with Adam Kennedy in a utility role.
As he rose through their farm system, the Dodgers envisioned first baseman James Loney developing into a Mark Grace clone, providing defensive range at first with doubles power, high average and run production at the plate. Those visions have yet to be realized. Loney’s power has not emerged; he has driven in fewer runs each of the past two seasons, and his average seems stuck in the .280s. The Dodgers would like to see more punch from Loney to give them a complementary offensive piece behind Kemp. The other side of the infield was an even bigger disappointment in 2011. Casey Blake is gone, but Juan Uribe and his three-year, $21 million contract live on. Injured, out of shape and ineffective, Uribe hit just .204 in 77 games last season. With few alternatives, the Dodgers will give Uribe another chance to earn his salary at third in 2012.
Potential turned into reality with Kemp in 2011. The supremely gifted center fielder emerged as the best all-around player in the NL, just missing out on a 40-40 season and finishing second to Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun in the NL MVP voting while leading the league in home runs (39), RBIs (126) and runs scored (115), winning a Gold Glove, stealing 40 bases and batting .324. More of the same is expected after he signed an eight-year, $160 million contract extension. Simply more is expected from his outfield neighbors, particularly Andre Ethier in right. After a scorching start, Ethier finished the season with a .292 average, 11 home runs (matching a career-low) and 62 RBIs. If he rebounds, the Dodgers will have a robust 1-2 punch in the middle of their lineup. If not, the offense will continue to sag as it did in 2011. While Ethier and others were failing to support Kemp in the Dodgers’ 2011 lineup, Juan Rivera was a valuable midseason find, batting .274 with five home runs and 46 RBIs in 62 games with the Dodgers. That was enough to get him a new contract (one year with a club option for 2013). Tony Gwynn Jr. lurks, ready to take away playing time.
The Dodgers moved on from Russell Martin last season, trying to combine the talents of Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro to fill the vacancy at catcher. That didn’t work out very well. A.J. Ellis gets the chance now to lay claim to the primary catcher’s job with veteran Matt Treanor backing him up. The best asset Ellis has shown in his career is an ability to get on base — he has a career OBP of .406 in the minors and .360 in 87 major league games.
Colletti’s spare-parts approach to team-building (necessitated by the team’s uncertain finances) will be most evident on the bench, where the Dodgers’ roster thins out rapidly. It may take a year or so for the effect of new ownership to show here, but at least there are resources to add necessary parts during the season. Hairston Jr., a veteran utility man, and Kennedy offer versatility but little else. Treanor is a reliable backup at catcher. Only Gwynn threatens to be more than minimal role players.
In his first year as manager, Mattingly proved that he was up to a challenging situation, getting his team to finish strong (45 wins in the final 73 games) despite being out of the race. He proved to be a more hands-on presence than predecessor Joe Torre, getting the most out of the Dodgers’ best player, Kemp, who chafed under Torre and did not mesh well with his old-school coaching staff. If the Dodgers overachieved by finishing with a winning record (82–79) in Mattingly’s first season, he’ll have to milk more of the same out of a limited roster once again in 2012.
The NL West has been a difficult division to get a handle on. Four of the five teams have made the playoffs at least once in the past three seasons (the Padres being the only ones left in the cold) with a different division winner each of those years. The Dodgers’ best hope in 2012 might be for a similar open casting call extending deep into the season. That would allow time for new ownership to free Colletti’s hands for some midseason moves that could prove the difference in a close division race. Perhaps now the Dodgers can start performing like the big-market team they really are.
SS Dee Gordon (L)
Had more hits in September (42) than any hitter in the National League.
2B Mark Ellis (R)
OPS of Dodgers second basemen in 2011 (.627) was lowest in NL, 28th of 30 MLB teams.
CF Matt Kemp (R)
Monster year could herald arrival of mega-talented Kemp as MLB’s best all-around player.
RF Andre Ethier (L)
30-game hitting streak in April-May was one short of franchise record set by Willie Davis in 1969.
LF Juan Rivera (R)
Hit only two homers in final 28 games but still had 22 RBIs in September.
1B James Loney (L)
With settled ownership, Dodgers might have bid for free agent Prince Fielder.
3B Juan Uribe (R)
Three-year, $21 million contract given to Uribe looks like another costly mistake.
C A.J. Ellis (R)
Emerges from last year’s Rod Barajas-Dioner Navarro muddle to get first shot at every-day job.
UT Jerry Hairston Jr. (R)
Played five positions (second, third, shortstop, left field and center field) for Nats and Brewers in 2011.
INF Adam Kennedy (L)
Made 58 starts batting third, fourth or fifth for offense-starved Mariners last season.
C Matt Treanor (R)
Career .225 hitter better known for his defense — and his wife (beach volleyball star Misty May).
OF Tony Gwynn Jr. (L)
Could surface in left field again if Rivera reverts to 2010 form.
INF Justin Sellers (R)
Made 17 starts across three infield positions last season, but hit just .203.
LH Clayton Kershaw
Dodgers’ first 20-game winner since 1990 was 12–2 vs. NL West teams, 5–0 vs. rival Giants.
RH Chad Billingsley
Dodgers still waiting for Billingsley’s breakout season despite career 70–52 record.
LH Ted Lilly
Has averaged less than six innings per start — but WHIP is just 1.11 in season-and-a-half as Dodger. Will begin the season on the DL, but not expected to miss a start.
RH Aaron Harang
Cautionary note: ERA jumped from 3.05 to 4.70, WHIP from 1.21 to 1.65 away from Petco Park in 2011.
LH Chris Capuano
Went 11–12 with 4.55 ERA for Mets in 2011, his first full season after Tommy John surgery.
RH Javy Guerra (Closer)
Went from Double-A to Dodgers’ closer in 2011, but Jansen lurks as potential successor.
RH Kenley Jansen
Set major league record by averaging 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings last year.
RH Matt Guerrier
Lone veteran in young pen allowed 16 of final 28 inherited runners to score in 2011.
RH Blake Hawksworth
Had career-high 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings last year but let half his inherited runners score. He’ll miss at least two months nursing a sore elbow.
LH Scott Elbert
Held lefties to .191 average (13 for 68) with 18 strikeouts in 2011.
RH Josh Lindblom
23 strikeouts, 20 runners allowed in final 19 innings with Dodgers last year.
RH Mike MacDougal
Posted 2.05 ERA in first year wearing blue; re-signed to one-year deal with club option in offseason.
RH Jamey Wright
The 16-year vet is now playing for his ninth franchise.
RH Todd Coffey
Allowed only 55 hits in 59.2 innings with the Nationals last year.