Stakeholders - Los Angeles Dodgers
We turn to Jon Weisman, the proprietor of Dodger Thoughts, to discuss the Los Angeles Dodgers in our Stakeholders series that has featured writers, analysts, and team executives giving us the inside scoop on each of the 30 teams in the Major Leagues. Jon and I met in 2003 and became colleagues at All-Baseball.com in 2004. His blog was subsequently hosted at Baseball Toaster and the Los Angeles Times, and it was moved to the ESPN Los Angeles earlier this year. He has been a regular member of our roundtables previewing division races and also served as a guest columnist in 2005.
Grab a cup of coffee and pull up a chair as we discuss all things Dodgers.
Rich Lederer: Let's give our readers an executive summary at the outset of our discussion. The Dodgers won 95 games, captured the NL West, and competed in the NLCS in 2009. Do you expect the team to be better, worse, or about the same this year?
Jon Weisman: I can't go enough out on a limb to say they'll be better, but I think they'll be closer to last year's level than a lot of people think. They have to replace Randy Wolf's production, but I think they can with a strong full season from Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw pitching deeper into games, Hiroki Kuroda avoiding line drives, and perhaps more help from the farm system in the rotation this year. I do think Vicente Padilla is a mirage waiting to be exposed, though. Charlie Haeger is an interesting wild card - he may be banished by April, but he might turn out to be a real boon. And then of course the lineup figures to be as solid as last year, if not more so with growth from Matt Kemp and James Loney and a potential comeback from Russell Martin. I'm not saying everything couldn't go wrong to leave us with another 2005, but I'm not betting that'll happen.
Rich: I think it is safe to say that the Dodgers will win more than 71 games this year. After opening the season with a 16-8 record, that team went into the tank and was victorious in only 55 of its final 138 games. Jim Tracy was fired by the Dodgers, then hired and fired once again by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but caught on with the Colorado Rockies early last summer and was named NL Manager of the Year. Do you anticipate that the Rockies will be the Dodgers' main source of competition within the division this year?
Jon: Yep. I don't think it's a flawless team, but they have a nice collection of players. The Giants still lack the bats to be considered a preseason favorite, and even though the Diamondbacks will be improved, I think they have a long way to climb. But there are always surprises.
Rich: Peter Gammons reported that the Dodgers have an $83 million payroll for 2010. He also said that the team spent the least amount of money on the MLB Draft and international signings the past two years. While it's clear that the Dodgers have been retrenching, I believe that payroll figure is a result of some Bernie Madoff-type accounting as the club has deferred salary to Manny Ramirez and obligations to many former players that may not be fully reflected in this reported total.
Jon: Nothing personal against Peter, since he's far from the only one doing it, but it's pretty disengenuous to ignore the deferred money or the money going to people like Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones when calculating what the Dodgers are spending, which is what that $83 million figure does. Isn't the big complaint against the Dodgers that they didn't go after a big-ticket free agent? Well, you don't often get those unless you take some risk or defer some money. The Dodger payroll is much closer to $100 million, which isn't sky-high but it's competitive enough. Furthermore, unless you believed the Dodgers should have handed John Lackey a guaranteed five-year, $80 million contract - the kind of contract that would typically blow up in their faces - there really wasn't a payroll issue to the offseason other than the non-arbitration offers to Wolf and Orlando Hudson.
Rich: Just who did the Dodgers add this year? How will the 2010 version differ from 2009?
Jon: They added very little - it's more about who they retained (i.e., the young core plus Manny) and their potential for growth. But there won't be a ton of difference - this is probably the most stable lineup the team has had in years.
Rich: How will the Divorce McCourt affect the Dodgers' ability to take on payroll during the season?
Jon: It's speculation, but I do think there's room for the Dodgers even in the current climate to make a decent midseason acquisition. But I'm not expecting Albert Pujols.
Rich: While every team could use an Albert Pujols, this Dodgers club should score a lot of runs. If Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Manny Ramirez hit like they have in the past, the Dodgers are set with one of the most dangerous 2-3-4 hitters in the game. That said, when it comes to Ramirez, should we expect him to be the Manny of August and September 2008, the post-drug suspension Manny of 2009, or somewhere in between?
Jon: I'm more worried about Rafael Furcal than Ramirez. Furcal may or may not be healthy; either way, I think his skills are aging and I don't know how much effectiveness he has left. I don't have any idea what Ramirez will do this year, but I do think it's very relevant that he was hitting after the suspension but before his injury, and I think one might take his media silence this spring as an indication of his determination.
Rich: Moving down the lineup, is there reason to expect James Loney to fulfill his potential or is the Loney we've seen the past few years who he is?
Jon: I expect Loney to improve - maybe even reach his potential - but of course I don't think many people define his potential as that of a serious power hitter.
Rich: What's going on with Russell Martin? He added muscle and gained a bunch of weight during the offseason but strained his groin in early March and has been working his way back into shape. Do you see him bouncing back from his worst season ever and returning to his 2006-2008 form or is it possible that he could surprise us all by putting up career numbers in his age-27 season?
Jon: I expect a bit of a rebound from Martin, because it's hard to imagine him doing much worse, but it would be something if he had career numbers. Right now, if he can just maintain the good on-base percentage he has typically had, even as his power and speed have declined, I'd be happy. Even if he's in the Opening Day lineup, though, this might be the first year that Martin goes on the disabled list.
Rich: On the run prevention side, can a rotation with Vicente Padilla as its Opening Day starter and Charlie Haeger as its fifth compete for the NL West title?
Jon: Certainly. First of all, whether Padilla pitches in the first or fourth game of the season is pretty irrelevant. As for the fifth spot, the other NL West teams certainly have question marks there as well - most teams rotate guys through that slot no matter what. In no way does the Dodger starting rotation disqualify them from competing. It might simply come down to health across the board - does Brandon Webb recover it, does Jeff Francis maintain it, does Tim Lincecum keep it? And so on...
Rich: Let's talk about the bullpen. It was one of the best in the majors last year, yet Joe Torre will be without Ronald Belisario and Hong-Chih Kuo for most of April. Belisario finally made it to camp after missing the first five weeks of spring due to visa problems. He was a huge positive surprise last year as a rookie but will begin the season on the restricted list. Kuo, who was the Belisario of 2008, is on the DL. Do you think Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill, and Ramon Troncoso can nail down the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings with little or no help from what otherwise looks to be a mediocre group of relievers?
Jon: It's similar to the rotation question. Say what you will about the Dodger bullpen, I don't see a whole lot of teams that have great fourth and fifth relievers. At least in the case of the Dodgers, they might have them by the end of April. And the team has a great number of candidates to try to help things out. Relief pitching is very volatile and unpredictable - just look at Brad Lidge, for example. But I don't see the Dodgers at a disadvantage on April 5 compared to other teams. For one thing, their top divisional rival will start the season without its closer.
Rich: How do you feel about the team's defense?
Jon: I'd like to feel better. The infield to the left of Loney is shaky, and I include Furcal in that. And Kemp is really going to be worked in center field covering for Ramirez and Ethier. One of the more interesting decisions the Dodgers might face this year is, for example, if Blake DeWitt slumps, do they call up a defensive-minded infielder like Chin-Lung Hu to plug that hole and at least improve the defense, rather than resort to Ronnie Belliard or Jamey Carroll.
Rich: Are there any minor leaguers who may contribute this year?
Jon: Among others, I expect we'll see Scott Elbert and Josh Lindblom, and since James McDonald again qualifies as a minor-leaguer, him too. Don't know that we'll see as much from the farmhands in the lineup, which looks more stable. But if the team loses an outfielder for any length of time, Xavier Paul is in line to help.
Rich: Do you think Joe Torre and Vin Scully will both be back in 2011?
Jon: You know, I have no idea. I'll admit I was a tiny bit surprised (and relieved, of course) Vin returned for this season - and I took that as a sign that he might want to do it until he physically can't anymore. Torre might simply come down to dollars, but I think he generally has liked managing the Dodgers.
Rich: Thanks, Jon. I know that I can speak for millions of Dodgers fan in hoping that Vin stays around forever. He *is* the Dodgers to most of us. It's hard to fathom following the team without him.
A native of Los Angeles, Jon Weisman has been writing about the Dodgers at Dodger Thoughts since 2002. He is the author of 100 Things Dodgers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. Weisman began covering sports professionally in 1985, complemented by adventures in writing for and about the screen that have culminated in his current position as a features editor at Variety. Any downtime he can muster will be happily spent with his wife and three young children.