2008 MLB Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

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2008 MLB Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

Manager: Joe Torre
Arrivals: C Gary Bennett, OF Andruw Jones, SP Hiroki Kuroda
Departures: OF Luis Gonzalez, SP Mark Hendrickson, RP Roberto Hernandez, 1B Shea Hillenbrand, SP David Wells*, SP Randy Wolf

Offseason grade: B+

Starting rotation

If Hiroki Kuroda turns out to be the pitcher the Dodgers think he is, he will shore up this rotation very nicely, making it one of the strongest in the National League.

Kuroda comes over from Japan, where he went 103-89 with a 3.69 ERA over 11 seasons with Hiroshima. While it's a stretch to think Kuroda will put up numbers like he did in 2006 (13-6, 1.85 ERA), he should settle in nicely as the Dodgers' No. 4, winning his fair share of games and posting a respectable ERA.

In front of Kuroda is the scary trio of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, and Chad Billingsley.

Penny was ridiculously good last year, earning the All-Star game start en route to going 16-4 with a 3.03 ERA. While those numbers may be far above Penny's career averages, there's no reason to think he can't still put up big numbers as Los Angeles' No. 1 starter.

He's won 16 games each of the last two years, and don't be surprised if he wins more in 2008 with an improved offense backing him up.

Derek Lowe has been very good since coming over from the American League in 2005, posting ERAs below 4.00 in each of his three seasons with the Dodgers. 

Lowe did struggle down the stretch last year, going 4-6 with a 5.23 ERA after the All-Star break last year. However, that may have been a product of the Dodgers' team struggles. Expect Lowe to be back as a solid No. 2 starter this year.

Billingsley is one of the best young pitchers in the game and could be the second-best pitcher on the Dodgers' staff. In 20 starts last year, the young right-hander went 8-5 with a 3.38 ERA. With a full season of starting ahead of him, look for Billingsley to take off and give Joe Torre another excellent starting pitcher.

Rounding out the Dodgers' rotation appears to be Esteban Loiaza. Loiaza was horrible in his five starts with Los Angeles in 2007, throwing 22.1 innings and allowing 21 earned runs (8.34 ERA). Despite Loiaza's numbers of 125-112 with a 4.64 ERA, it's not entirely likely that he'll have success this year as those numbers were bloated by one good season–2003–with the Chicago White Sox.

Jason Schmidt is still in the picture after missing much of 2007 following shoulder surgery. If healthy, Schmidt could be a real [expensive] surprise at the back end of Los Angeles' rotation.

At the best, Schmidt could join the team on Opening Day, but more than likely, he'll join the Dodgers sometime in mid-late April and assume the No. 5 spot if Loiaza can't get the job done.  

Keep an eye on Clayton Kershaw, though. Kershaw, who will turn 20 on March 19, is the prize of the Dodger farm system and a player the front office refused to part with when discussing a trade for former Rangers first baseman Mark Teixeira.

Remember, these trade discussions were happening when Los Angeles' offense couldn't score a run if Chan Ho Park was pitching.

Holding on to Kershaw was the right move in the long run. If Kershaw pitches well in the minors and Loiaza and Schmidt struggle or get injured, he could get the call around the All-Star break.

If they can get the No. 5 spot resolved, Los Angeles could challenge Arizona for the deepest starting rotation in the NL West. While Penny/Lowe aren't Webb/Haren, the rest of the rotation would set up nicely against a team like the Diamondbacks (or Rockies or Padres). 

Starting rotation grade: A-

The back end of the Dodger bullpen is excellent in Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton.

Saito may be getting up there in years, but he still throws in the low 90's with one of the best sliders in the game. Look for another 35-40 saves from a very reliable Saito this year.

Broxton is a guy who almost certianly will take over the closer's role when Saito leaves. An upper 90's fastball and a power slider are the reasons why Broxton has some of the best stuff of any reliever in baseball.

For now, Broxton should team with Joe Beimel to set up Saito in the 7th and 8th innings, giving the Dodgers a good bridge to one of the game's better closers.

Scott Proctor is a solid middle reliever who was brought over from the Yankees for Wilson Betemit last July. A full season out of the Bronx and in the National League could benefit Proctor, who will give the Dodgers some good depth in the middle innings.

An interesting name in the Dodgers' bullpen mix is Yhency Brazoban–and no, I don't mean interesting like his first name, I mean interesting as intriguing.

Brazoban underwent Tommy John surgery in 2006 and labrum surgery in 2007, a pretty hefty load for a pitcher to take. It's unlikely that he'll be ready for the start of the season and likely will rehab at AAA Las Vegas before or if he joins the major-league club. 

Before his surgeries, Brazoban had electric stuff and was tabbed to be the Dodgers' closer of the future. I'll see how the surgeries affected his stuff before making a judgment on him, but keepn an eye on Brazoban as the season progresses. 

Rudy Seanez is a solid reliever at the back end of the Dodgers' bullpen, posting an ERA of 3.79 over 76 innings last year.  

Jon Meloan, Eric Hull, Eric Stults, and Hong-Chih Kuo will compete for the final spot(s) in the Dodgers bullpen.  

Meloan put up nice stats at AA Jacksonville and AAA Las Vegas in 2007, posting a 2.03 ERA and a miniscule 0.95 WHIP.

Hull is a bit older than Meloan but still put up good stats at Las Vegas last year.

Stults and Kuo both have struggled in the last few years of their careers and are longshots to make the Opening Day roster.

The Dodgers have a solid bullpen that appears to be able to withstand a 162-game season without collapsing. Joe Torre should feel lucky that he finally has both a good starting rotation and deep bullpen after never having both in his last few years with the Yankees.

Bullpen grade: B+

Lineup

The best thing the Dodgers could have done to improve their lineup from 2007 was get a year older.

And since a device that can stop time hasn't been invented yet, the Dodgers will have a much-improved lineup.

Russell Martin, James Loney, Andy LaRoche, Andre Ethier, and Matt Kemp are all in their mid-20's and should be the keys to this Dodgers lineup.

Martin already is an All-Star catcher after hitting .293 with 19 home runs and 87 RBI last year. Martin, 25, has developed into one of the premier offenseive catchers in the game and should improve off what was already a great 2007 campaign.

Loney finally will get the chance to start for an entire season after proving his worth over his two seasons with the Dodgers.

In those two seasons, Loney played in 144 games, had 446 at-bats, and hit .321 with 19 home runs and 85 RBI. As a full-time starter, Loney should settle in and really take off this year.

LaRoche, brother of Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche, has been one of the more hyped prospects of the last five years.

He's hit everywhere he's gone in the minors, posting batting averages of .309 with 18 home runs at AAA Las Vegas in 2007, .315 with 19 home runs at Las Vegas and AA Jacksonville in 2006, and .305 with 30 home runs at A+ Vero Beach and Jacksonville in 2005. 

LaRoche will be given every chance to win the third base spot out of Spring Training, but if he struggles, the Dodgers have vetern Nomar Garciaparra to provide steady play. If Garciaparra wins the starting third base job, he'll should hit between .280-.290 with minimal power stats but will find a way to come through in the big spots.

A curious thing may happen this year: Ethier may not start in the Dodgers' outfield that already has Juan Pierre and his overpriced contract, Andruw Jones and his overpriced contract, and Kemp.

Too bad for Ethier, who has hit .295 over his two seasons with the Dodgers. While Pierre may still be a good base stealer (64 in 2007) and decent hitter (.293 BA in 2007), there's no shame in sitting Pierre and leading off Rafael Furcal–who, despite having a lower batting average in 2007, had a better OBP than Pierre. 

That's unlikely to happen, though, as Pierre isn't getting paid nearly $10 million a year to sit on the bench. Ethier could be a good trade chip if the Dodgers need pitching, but it would be best in the long run if they hung on to him.

Finally, Kemp is the last of the great young talent the Dodgers have. Kemp is a freakishly good hitter who will have no trouble adjusting to being a full-time starter at the MLB level. 

Generally, if you can hit well in the minors, the power will come to you at some point. So, while Kemp's power numbers in the minors haven't been great–his career high is 27 with Vero Beach in 2005 (followed by 10 between Jacksonville and Las Vegas in 2006)–his batting average has been through the roof.

Kemp his .346 between Jacksonville and Las Vegas in 2006 and .329 in just 39 games with Las Vegas in 2007 before getting recalled to the majors, where he hit .342 in 98 games for the Dodgers. Like the rest of these young hitters, once adjusted to being a full-time starter at the MLB level, look for Kemp to really take off.

The rest of the Dodgers' lineup is older but still productive. Jeff Kent managed to hit .302 with 20 home runs in 2007 but will turn 40 this March. If he can keep stave off Father Time for one more year and put up stats like that, it would be a huge boost to the Dodger lineup.

Andruw Jones comes over to the Dodgers after one of the worst offensive seasons of his career in which he hit just .222 with 26 home runs.

I think those numbers were an aberration and Jones will return to his career average of .263 and hit 30-40 home runs this year, which would give this lineup a veteran power threat to take some pressure of the younger players. Jones also brings with him his Gold Glove defense to center field which should aid the pitching staff. 

Furcal had a major down year in 2007, posting the lowest batting average of his career at .270. Still, he's an effective top-of-the-order hitter who should rebound a bit and hit around .275 or .280.

I really like this lineup. I think the young players will really come into their own and the veterans will hold the lineup together, giving Los Angeles one of the deepest lineups this side of Detroit. 

If the young players perform to their expectations and the veterans don't experience any significant dropoffs, this lineup does not have one significant weakness. So, pitchers of the National League: beware this lineup.

Lineup grade: A

Bench

If Nomar Garciaparra and Andre Ethier end up on the bench because Andy LaRoche and Juan Pierre start, Joe Torre will have two players worthy of starting on his bench. Both would be excellent pinch hitters or starters in case of an injury or drop in production.

Outside of those two, the Dodgers bench is not very deep. Delwyn Young should provide a decent bat off the bench, but Tony Abreu and Chin-Iung Hu are weak-hitting backup infielders.

Still, if this bench has Garciaparra and Ethier on it, it'll be one of the better ones in the league.

Bench grade: A-

I really like this Dodgers team. I think they have all the pieces to make a run at the World Series this year–good, young talent and some nice veteran leadership. 

If the young players on this team play like they should, don't be surprised if this is a Dodgers team that is playing deep into October. 

 

 

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