The Los Angeles Dodgers head into the 2012 season with a new ownership group led by Los Angeles icon Magic Johnson. Dodger fans are desperate for a contender, but a look at the farm system shows that internal help will not be coming. If the Dodgers are to return to prominence atop the National League, outside help will be necessary.
I, unlike most of the Dodger fanbase, actually like A.J. Ellis. He’s never gotten a full season of at-bats, and baseball is such a rhythm sport that it can be difficult to produce without consistent playing time.
That being said, he has been entirely underwhelming up to this point in his career. However, teams can win the World Series without an offensive force at catcher. There will be some pretty good players hitting free agency (Miguel Montero, for one), but catcher should be a low priority for the Dodgers.
James Loney is not a good first baseman. He is above average defensively but has the offensive profile of a shortstop, not a corner infielder.
His .128 ISO (a measure of raw power, calculated by subtracting AVG from SLG) ranked fourth from the bottom last year among qualified first basemen. It was even worse than the ISO posted by the stereotypical all-glove, no-bat shortstop Alex Gonzalez.
If the Dodgers are going to seriously contend, they need power from first base. Possible replacements include Kendrys Morales (who will be a free agent in two years) or Mike Napoli (after this season).
GM Ned Colletti signed Mark Ellis to a two-year, $8.75 million contract this offseason. Mark Ellis is 34 years old. He hasn’t played over 132 games since 2007. Somehow, an aging second baseman who hasn’t been relevant in years got a multi-year deal.
The Dodgers are now locked into Ellis when they could have given Justin Sellers or Ivan DeJesus, Jr. a shot at the everyday job. Neither may be the answer, but they would have been cheaper and allowed for more roster flexibility.
As it is, they may be unable to pursue guys like Brandon Phillips or Kelly Johnson, each of whom is a free agent after this season.
Third base is an issue that has been plaguing the Dodgers ever since Adrian Beltre left after the 2004 season. Right now, Juan Uribe is the starter, after Colletti signed him to a three-year, $21 million deal as he was coming off a career year with the San Francisco Giants. Despite only being one year into the deal, Dodger fans are already tired of him.
But again, with no farm help on the horizon, Magic Johnson & Co. may be forced to spend more money to upgrade the position in the near future. However, there aren’t many great options on the horizon.
David Wright may be a free agent after next season, but I’d caution against that. The Dodgers will be attempting to win quickly, and Wright has proven to be an injury risk and that much money would have the potential to be a sunk cost, which the team will be desperate to avoid.
The arrival of Dee Gordon in the big leagues last year is hopefully the answer to the shortstop question for the next several years. A slap-hitting speedster, Gordon flashes a tremendous glove to go with his base-stealing ability.
The question is if he can get on base enough to allow the speed to come into play, but his minor league track record suggests that he should be fine. It will likely be an empty batting average as Gordon has very little power, but a shortstop's baseline around the league is so low that he should have no problem being at least average at the position.
Juan Rivera, currently the Dodgers’ starter, is not a long-term solution. Jerry Sands was supposed to be, but Dodger management was clearly disappointed with his performance last year, despite the fact that it was a small sample size.
There aren’t any particularly exciting left field free agents coming up in the next couple years, and it would be nice for manager Don Mattingly to give Sands the job and see what he can do with a full season of at bats. He showed tremendous power in the minors, and the Dodgers should give him 500 at bats to see if the power plays in the majors.
At the very least, it’s a cheaper option than Rivera, and if it works out, the Dodgers will have found their left fielder of the future.
Matt Kemp should have won last year’s NL MVP and currently holds the title of best center fielder in the game. Any flaws he has are slight and, given his offensive production last year, immaterial. With the eight-year, $160 million extension that he agreed to this offseason, the Dodgers are set in center for the foreseeable future.
In right field, the Dodgers currently have Andre Ethier. Despite the flashes he has shown throughout his career, I’m not his biggest fan. I believe he will top out as a slightly above average right fielder.
He’s always been a streaky hitter and optimists have forever hoped that he would put it together for a full season. But at age 30 (which he will play this season at), it would seem that he is what he is: a streaky hitter that can carry a team for a few weeks at a time, but will never develop into the consistent middle-of-the-order threat the Dodgers need him to be.
With Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers have one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. At just 24 years old, he should have a bright future ahead of him and will hopefully anchor the Dodger rotation for the next decade. After him, though, questions arise.
Chad Billingsley has never reached his full potential and the team might be better off trying to trade him now and maximize whatever value he has left. The back of the rotation is just as questionable, with multi-year contracts being given to career journeymen Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly.
Hopefully, Mattingly turns some of their innings over to youngster Nate Eovaldi, as he will be more helpful down the line than the recently signed mid-30s starters.
Pitching is the one position that the Dodgers have decent talent at in their farm system. Zach Lee, Allen Webster and others are still several years away, but hold the highest upside. With any luck, they will be ready to contribute in a few years when the current contracts come off the books and the new ownership can begin to seriously spend.
In addition, Southern California native Cole Hamels is set to be a free agent after this season and rumors have already placed him with the Dodgers. The price tag will no doubt be enormous, but it would be a move in the right direction and would go a long way towards reassuring Dodger fans that the team is interested in winning.
Bullpens are the hardest to predict year in and year out, but so many young and talented arms coming through the system bodes well for the future. Undoubtedly, some of the pitchers won’t be able to start, and as the Cardinals proved last year, having power arms in the bullpen is a recipe for success.
In the short term, Kenley Jansen and Javy Guerra look to be a shutdown duo in the eighth and ninth innings, which is a positive for a team that will likely be in many close games given its lack of offense.