And while the Dodgers have a much different offense with Manny in the picture, let's not forget that last year's team had the 4th-lowest run output of any National League team and the 7th-lowest in baseball. Their offense figures to improve this year with a full season of Man-Ram, but it's hard to count on it as a team strength. If the offense isn't a team strength, the pitching isn't a team strength, and the defense isn't a team strength, what's left? Joe Torre? In a dilapidated NL West, Torre and a high payroll with which to acquire pitching in July might just be enough.
Okay, catcher is at least a position of strength. Russell Martin took a big step backwards last season in every aspect of catcher's defense and power, yet was still among the better all-around backstops in baseball. At just 26-years old, we can expect that he'll enjoy a bounce-back 2009 season. He figures to see more time at third base this season, as Brad Ausmus is actually an upgrade over last year's backups, Danny Ardoin and Gary Bennett. The extra break from the catcher's crouch should only improve Martin's offensive production, both short and long term.
Speaking of taking a step backwards, how about James Loney? He went from being one of the most exciting rookie first basemen this decade to an offensive liability last season. He watched his OPS slide nearly 150 points and grounded into an extra 19 double plays. Loney's also young, turning 25 in May, so he should at least improve on last season, even if matching his 2007 pace is a little unrealistic.
Orlando Hudson replaces Jeff Kent at second base. Kent's .745 OPS may not seem that daunting to eclipse, but O-Dog had just a .718 OPS away from Chase Field last year, .738 in his All-Star 2007 season, and .734 in 2006. He is also on the wrong side of 30 and is coming off his second consecutive season-ending hand injury. He will undoubtedly improve upon Kent's 14 runs below average defensively from last season, but he's no longer a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman and has never hit away from Chase Field.
Paying Hudson up to $8 million this year and surrendering the 17th overall pick in the draft to obtain him would not be so bad had the Dodgers not already possessed a better in-house replacement. 23-year old Blake DeWitt seems to be better defensively at third than at second, but it's hard to tell with his small sample size at second base. DeWitt had an .872 OPS in September after major league pitchers had adjusted to him in the summer months. He should either start over Hudson at second or Casey Blake at third base, but will likely be a bench player. Maybe that depth is not the worst thing in the world, since the Dodgers' old infielders tend to fall like dominoes to the injury bug every year.
Blake's contract might just be one of the worst things in the world, however. The Dodgers signed him in early December, before anyone realized what a buyer's market it would become. 3-years, $17.5 M plus incentives is not a great bargain for a 35-year old third baseman who has never posted an OBP higher than .356 and is below average defensively.
Speaking of ill-advised contracts, the Dodgers enjoyed overpaying for shortstop Rafael Furcal so much three years ago that they decided to do so again this year. I think they plan to decline his $12 M option in 2012 so they can sign him for another three years and $39 million. I think we'll call it Jeff Weaver Syndrome when a team overpays for a player based on his postseason performance, when said performance wasn't even all that great. Somehow, 8-for-21 with nine runs scored in the playoffs eliminated an abhorrent 2007 season and an injury-riddled 2008. I don't suppose those nine runs scored had anything to do with Manny Ramirez slugging 1.080 in that postseason, do you?
I recently heard Manny Ramirez dubbed as the greatest postseason hitter of our generation. While his 2008 postseason was indeed great, his overall postseason numbers are noticeably worse than his regular season stats. Still, Manny is worth every penny the Dodgers spent on him if he is healthy, and there is little reason to doubt his health. Ramirez has averaged 144 games per season for the past five years, hasn't appeared in fewer than 120 games since his rookie season, and wasn't one of those American League outfielders who only stayed healthy because he leaned on the designated hitter position. As weak as the team around him is, Manny gives these Dodgers a legitimate shot at the division. Him over Juan Pierre is about as big of an upgrade as it gets.
No Dodger appeared to benefit as much from Manny's presence in the lineup as Andre Ethier did. He hit seven home runs and posted a .961 OPS in August, then accumulated a .462 batting average and 1.249 OPS in September. Unfortunately, while Ethier hit like Manny for two months, he's played defense like Manny for two seasons in right field. Actually, since Ramirez actually does have a string throwing arm, it would be wise to swap the two. Ramirez has played over 900 major league games in right field, after all.
Matt Kemp will use his excellent speed to help get to balls in the left-center gap that Manny decides aren't worth his effort and ones in the right-field gap that Ethier can't reach for whatever reason. Like Loney and Martin, Kemp is young and will be a star in this league one day. But he strikes out nearly twice as frequently as those two do, and is particularly susceptible to flyball pitchers who don't let him pound the ball into the ground and utilize his legs (.667 OPS in 131 AB last year). Fortunately for Kemp, there are lots of groundball pitchers in the NL West, but nevertheless, pitchers have a much better idea of how to handle Kemp now than when he first hit the scene and the onus is on Kemp to make the adjustment. Still, anything he does will be infinite improvement over Andruw Jones' disastrous 75 games there last year.
Compounding the issue is the fact that Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw are slated for the front of the rotation. Counting on a 24 and 21 year old in those roles is dicey enough, but Billingsley's workload increased by 65.1 innings from 2007 to 2008 while Kershaw's increased by 49. An increase of more than 30 is usually a red flag for a young pitcher. Billingsley has already been limited by a groin injury this spring and was ineffective in the few innings that he has pitched. Kershaw has looked good this spring, but had command issues last year and, frankly, was rushed to the majors.
Thank goodness for Hiroki Kuroda. He did not strike out many batters last year, but he provides solid, low-stress innings and shouldn't endure the inevitable JIF (Japanese Import Flameout) for another year or two yet. He is also a groundball pitcher (51.3%, 9th-best in baseball) who should benefit from the upgrade of Jeff Kent to Orlando Hudson.
Problematically, Randy Wolf, Eric Stults, James McDonald, Claudio Vargas, Eric Milton, and Jason Schmidt are each extreme flyball pitchers. They will not benefit much at all from the Hudson upgrade and will struggle with Juan Pierre's excellent range being utilized on warming the bench while Ethier and Man-Ram flail away at fly balls.
More problematically, these are the half-dozen chumps competing for the final two spots in the rotation. Randy Wolf's 190.3 innings last year were his first over 103 since 2004 and his first over 137 since 2003. It should go without saying that he is hardly a stabilizing force for the rotation. Schmidt has only made a half dozen starts since signing a 3-year, $47 M deal two years ago. Vargas and Milton are simply among the worst pitchers in baseball even under favorable conditions. The 24-year old McDonald is their best bet here, but he has never made a major league start, so counting on him would be a mistake. Eric Stults is a fine swingman to have behind your #5 starter, but he could easily find himself in the #3 or #4 slots at some point this year, and that's not going to cut it for a team with designs on making the postseason.
The bullpen was the strength of the Dodgers team last year, as their 3.34 ERA ranked third in all of baseball. They take a hit not only from the extra workload they will receive this year due to the paper-thin rotation, but from the departures of Takashi Saito, easily their best reliever since the days of Eric Gagne, and Joe Beimel, a serviceable southpaw who had a fluke 2.02 ERA last season.
Jonathan Broxton, Corey Wade, and Hong-Chih Kuo still comprise a fantastic trio, but the depth behind them is completely gone. 23-year old Scott Elbert could effectively replace Beimel as second southpaw if he suddenly commands his pitches. Unlikely. Guillermo Mota tries to win the Chan Ho Award for returning to the Dodgers and rekindling his past success after failing to enjoy even fleeting success away from Dodger Stadium. Beyond them, you find guys you've never heard of (Ramon Troncoso, Brian Mazone, Erick Threets) and guys you wish you'd never heard of (Tanton Sturtze, Jeff Weaver, Brad Halsey).
Usually, the Dodgers field a seemingly deep, talented team that gets beset with injuries, forcing them into the mid-80s win range. This year, the team appears thin even before the injuries, and he injuries look unavoidable given the roster composition. The Dodgers are loaded with youngsters who are being asked to do too much too soon and declining veterans with injury histories. The handful of bona fide stars that survive the inevitable plague of injuries should keep this team afloat in the paltry NL West, but they certainly have no better shot at taking the crown than the Rockies or the Diamondbacks do.