MLB March Reports: Los Angeles Dodgers

The Los Angeles Dodgers may have been turned into a dysfunctional mess by owner Frank McCourt, but the team on the field managed to overachieve last year, play well down the stretch and sneak a winning season, at 82-80, out from under the rubble. Can manager Don Mattingly perform similar magic this time around, or do the Dodgers have too many flaws? TheSportsNotebook evaluates the 2012 edition on the basis of the ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: If it’s possible for a more hopeless collection of talent to be assembled in a big market, I can’t imagine what it is. Yes, the Dodgers have some clear stars, as we’ll cover in the next section. When you have money, that’s going to happen. But whoever is making the decisions on how to fill in the crucial role pieces that win and lose playoff berths, needs to have a performance review undertaken of their job and not for the purpose of giving them a raise.

I look at this lineup and just see aging veterans who maybe had a couple good years in their career and whose reputation exceeded their actual performance several years ago. I’m talking about 34-year-old Mark Ellis at second base, or 36-year-old fallback Adam Kennedy. Juan Uribe is 32 years old, been an on-base liability his entire career and is now going to try and be an everyday third baseman. Juan Rivera has never been effective at getting on base, and hasn’t even hit for power in two years, plus he’s 33 years old. Jerry Hairston was halfway decent for Milwaukee as a midsummer pickup last year, and has versatility, but his greater value to the club is probably being shipped to a contender again this July. Maybe this sums up the Dodger woes in this part of the game the best—the shining hope for a guy who can get on base is at catcher. It’s A.J. Ellis, whose 30 years old and getting his first real shot at the bigs. But in 206 career at-bats, he does have an OBP of .360, all of those at-bats within the last few seasons. Oh, and he’s slated to hit eighth. That’s the best news I can give you outside of the stars.

POWER: Now we can say some nice things and they start with centerfielder Matt Kemp. He got TheSportsNotebook’s vote for NL MVP a year ago. Playing in a pitcher’s park, Kemp hit .324 and took his walks. He slugged .586 thanks to 39 home runs. Perhaps most amazing, given the woeful lineup support, is that he drove in 126 runs and scored 115. When no one around you hits, you have to be putting yourself out there a lot to be involved in that many run-scoring plays. Rightfielder Andre Ethier has seen his power slip the last couple years as he struggles with some back and knee injuries. If nothing else, he can contribute to the OBP part of the game, but the Dodgers do need him healthy and driving the ball into the alleys and out of the park the way he can when his 29-year-old body is at full speed. Perhaps the biggest disappointment in this area is first baseman James Loney. He’s still only 27, and he is a modest contributor to the OBP area, but his power disappeared after the team’s 2008 run to the NLCS and has yet to return. Is that long enough to call off the search party and assume it’s gone for good? Normally I’d say yes, but given how young he came up to the majors, I’ll stay on wait-and-see mode for another season. Ultimately, the bigger problem is that Kemp has to be a superstar again, Ethier has to be healthy and Loney has to improve his power, or this offense is going to be completely inept. That’s a lot to ask go right, considering that even if it does, we merely upgrade from inept to mediocre.

STARTING PITCHING: Clayton Kershaw took the bull by the horns at age 24 and ran off with the NL Cy Young Award, blowing away veteran contenders like Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee in Philadelphia. Kershaw won 21 games, dazzled with a 2.28 ERA and logged 233 innings. Is it realistic enough for him to repeat that performance? Probably not, so let’s just look at 2010’s numbers, when he still worked over 200 innings and had a 2.91 ERA. Bottom line is that Kershaw is a #1 starter every year and will make more than his share of charges at the Cy Young throughout his career. The organization has to be less sanguine about Chad Billingsley. You can look at his 4.21 ERA and say it’s not bad. But that doesn’t factor in how pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium is. You can say that it’s just one bad year. Sure, but he’d been moving in this direction in 2009-10 as well. I think 2012 is a big year for the 27-year-old, to show that the 16-win campaign of 2008 was no fluke and that he can be a viable #2. If he does, the veteran support in the rotation is pretty good. Ted Lilly won’t dazzle you, but he does chew up 190-200 IP a year, and as long as he’s not asked for more than back-end support, he fits in well. And Aaron Harang found career rejuvenation in a pitching environment in San Diego last year, lowering his ERA to 3.64 after it exceeded 5 in his last year in Cincinnati. He now comes to Los Angeles and can be a quality #3. The fifth spot is up for grabs. Veteran Chris Capuano will get first shot, but he hasn’t done anything since winning 18 in Milwaukee back in 2005. Ideally, the Dodgers would give the ball to 22-year-old Nate Eovaldi, but his big-league time is so limited it’s tough to know if he’s ready. Either way, Capuano is just there to keep the seat warm.

RELIEF PITCHING: Javy Guerra got his chance to close last year after Jonathan Broxton’s career in Hollywood finally fell apart. The 26-year-old Guerra closed 21 saves in 23 chances with a 2.31 ERA, so Mattingly can feel good about the ninth inning. There’s an array of options in front of him. Whether they’re good options is a tough call, but we can split them into the young kids and the veterans. The former are 24-year-old Kenley Jansen, undeniably solid last year with a 2.85 ERA, and Scott Elbert. The latter had a 2.43 ERA, although he was used in more situational spots rather than just being handed the ball at the start of an inning and told to get three outs (apparently pitchers who can do that these days are serious workhorses. What a country we live in). On the veteran side of the equation, Mattingly’s best choices are Matt Guerrier, Todd Coffey and Mike MacDougal. Guerrier struggled last year, but he’s only two years removed from solid work in Minnesota. Coffey did a nice job a year ago—nothing spectacular, but in middle relief you just need steady. MacDougal’s anything but steady, but if he gets a hot hand, he can be as good as anyone discussed here. The longshot vets are Blake Hawksworth, who at 29 has never done anything to suggest he can be more than the last man out of the pen. And John Grabow has pitched poorly the last two years after a couple seasons in Pittsburgh that suggested he might be ready to break out.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 81—This is really optimistic, because I can’t see how any rational person thinks the Dodgers again get 82 wins and takes the Over. I suppose this grants a basic respect to what the team did a year ago, which I can understand. And the Dodgers are a popular team to bet, especially in Las Vegas, so bookmakers may have shared the number a bit to prevent too much money from coming in on the Over and exposing the house. Either way, I’m taking the Under without any hesitation.