Bold Predictions for the Los Angeles Dodgers' Latest Acquisitions

Geoff Ratliff@@geoffratliffContributor IIIFebruary 11, 2013

Bold Predictions for the Los Angeles Dodgers' Latest Acquisitions

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    The Los Angeles Dodgers have been MLB’s busiest team over the past seven months. The expectations for their newest players are the only thing bigger than the news of their arrivals.

    A series of high-profile trades and free agent signings since last July leaves the Dodgers with seven players beginning their first full season in Los Angeles. 

    Hanley Ramirez kicked off the excitement when he was acquired from the Miami Marlins before last year’s July 31 trade deadline. The Dodgers completed the last of five in-season trades last August, acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford from the Boston Red Sox, but the fireworks didn’t end there.

    Of the three free agents the Dodgers signed this winter, two of them continued the team’s recent habit of going hard or going home. 

    Los Angeles signed the best available starting pitcher on the market, signing right-hander Zack Greinke to a six-year, $147 million contract last December. Less than 24 hours later, the Dodgers landed South Korean lefty Hyun-jin Ryu with a six-year, $36 million deal after winning his negotiating rights with a $25.7 million posting fee.

    As one might expect based on their salaries, all seven players will be heavily depended upon this season to help the Dodgers reach the World Series for the first time since 1988. Given that a championship would be the ultimate payoff for L.A.’s bold moves, here are bold predictions for each of the newest Dodgers’ 2013 season.

J.P. Howell Becomes National League's Best Left-Handed Relief Pitcher

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    J.P. Howell becomes the latest member of the Dodgers after joining the team on a one-year, $2.85 million contract (plus incentives) in January. The 29-year-old relief pitcher becomes L.A.’s primary lefty out of the bullpen after Randy Choate joined the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent.

    Howell spent the first seven years of his career in the American League, the last six with the Tampa Bay Rays. He posted a 3.04 ERA and struck out 42 batters in 50.1 innings in 2012, after missing all of 2010 and part of 2011 recovering from shoulder surgery.

    While pitching in the bright lights of Los Angeles is very different than toiling in anonymity in Tampa Bay and Kansas City, Howell may enjoy pitching in his home state (he is from Modesto, just east of Oakland). Chavez Ravine is a pitcher’s dream and he will have a very strong defensive outfield behind him.

    Howell’s 22 walks are a bit of a concern, but expect him to be more aggressive in a pitcher-friendly park, with stellar defense, greater run support and another year removed from shoulder surgery. 

    Howell should post numbers similar to his best year in Tampa Bay (2008), where he posted a 2.22 ERA while striking out 92 batters in 89.1 innings pitched. He will also improve on last year’s batting line against lefties of .200/.306/.306, numbers that are already very impressive.

Hyun-Jin Ryu Wins National League Rookie of the Year

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    Left handed pitcher Ryu managed to grab a bit of the spotlight when he joined the Dodgers in December, even though Greinke had signed with Los Angeles within the last 24 hours. The 25-year-old from South Korea joins the team after seven seasons with the Hanwa Eagles of the Korean Baseball Organization.

    The Dodgers hope that the logjam in their rotation will work itself out during spring training, but they fully expect Ryu to earn a spot as the No. 4 or No. 5 starter this season. If that is the case, he would instantly become one of the better back-of-the-rotation starters in the majors.

    Former Asian stars Hideo Nomo (Japan) and Chan-ho Park (South Korea) made successful transitions to the majors as members of the Dodgers. There’s no reason to believe that Ryu will not continue that tradition.

    If he opens the season in the rotation and remains there throughout the year, expect 14 to 16 wins, 160-plus strikeouts and an ERA in the 3.20 to 3.50 range. Those are not eye-popping numbers, but they are very good for a first-year, No. 4 starter, and will earn Ryu NL Rookie of the Year honors.

Zack Greinke Wins at Least 20 Games and Becomes a Top-Five Cy Young Award Candidate

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    Zack Greinke has put together strings of starts over the past two years that indicated that he was close to returning to his 2009 form. This is the year he puts it all together again, this time over the course of a full season. 

    Greinke, is arguably the best No. 2 starter in MLB. He will pitch well enough in 2013 to push Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in their unofficial race towards Cy Young award No. 2.

    Greinke is comfortable pitching and living in Los Angeles, having spent the last three months of last season pitching for the Angels in the heat of a playoff race. He was also successful in the National League during his one-and-a-half seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers.

    At 29 years old, Greinke is poised to have the best season of his career on the best team he has ever played for. The Dodgers will easily surpass the 89 wins of the 2012 Angels and have a chance to eclipse the 96 wins earned by the 2011 Brewers.

    For the first time in years, Greinke will start a season with certainty about his contract and the uniform he will be wearing at the end of the season. 

    While his new contract will undoubtedly heighten the expectations surrounding his performance, the Dodgers do not need Greinke to be the staff or the franchise savior. Kershaw and outfielder Matt Kemp are the faces of the franchise, so Greinke can be at ease as just one of many $100 million players in the clubhouse (yes, I appreciate how ridiculous the previous sentence sounds, but it happens to be true).

    With a pitcher-friendly park to call home, certainty about his future and a lineup that will provide plenty of run support, Greinke will shine in 2013. Expect him to win more than 20 games, while posting a sub-3.25 ERA and striking out more than 230 batters. 

    Greinke may not win the NL Cy Young, but he will be among the leading candidates when the final ballots are cast. He and the Dodgers would gladly sacrifice the personal hardware in exchange for a trip to the World Series.

Josh Beckett Wins 18 Games with a Sub-3.50 ERA

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    As much as a change in scenery helped Ramirez last year, Beckett could be the biggest beneficiary of a trade to the Dodgers this season. The talented right-hander had clearly worn out his welcome in Boston, and he was targeted as one of the Red Sox’s biggest clubhouse cancers.

    Fair or not, Beckett pitched well enough during his seven starts with Los Angeles to suggest that he did not miss Boston. If that attitude carries over to 2013, Beckett will be in line for another big season.

    Beckett was written off once before after an injury-plagued 2010 season, easily the worst of his career. But he bounced back with a very strong 2011.

    In 30 starts that year, Beckett struck out 175 batters in 193 innings while posting a 2.89 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. He posted similar numbers with the Dodgers last season, delivering a 2.93 ERA and striking out 38 batters across 43 innings.

    At 32, a properly motivated Beckett will be one of the most important piece on a team with championship aspirations. As a two-time World Series winner, he is the only Dodgers player with championship pedigree.

    Something tells me the allure of being a part of something great will bring out the best in Beckett. Los Angeles could also provide his last good shot at putting together a resume worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.

Carl Crawford Steals 30 Bases, Scores 100 Runs and Plays in 145 Games

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    Given Crawford’s recent injury woes, predicting those types of numbers are about as bold as you can get. He has played in only 161 games combined over the last two seasons—including a career-worst 31 games last season—drawing the ire of unsympathetic Red Sox fans.

    Crawford’s inability to stay on the field—and his lackluster performance when he has played—makes him the most intriguing player on this list. However, his small 31-game sample from 2012 provides the Dodgers with reason to be optimistic.

    Before being shipped out of Boston, Crawford hit .282 with three home runs, 19 RBI, 23 runs scored and five stolen bases. Extrapolated over a 155 games—perhaps an ambitious target for Crawford at this point in his career—that amounts to 15 home runs, 95 RBI, 115 runs scored and 25 stolen bases.

    While the stolen base total is far below Crawford’s career norm, the Dodgers would be ecstatic with something close to that level of production.

    The one benefit of Crawford’s season-ending Tommy John surgery is that the rest of his body has had almost an entire year to heal. He could effectively be a young 31, possibly giving the Dodgers greater value over the final five seasons of his contract than Los Angeles ever dreamed of getting.

Adrian Gonzalez Leads the NL in RBI and Emerges as an MVP Favorite

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    While Gonzalez’s days as a 30-home run threat may be behind him, he is still one of the game’s best run producers. With a healthy Crawford and Kemp reaching base ahead of him, and Ramirez and Ethier protecting him in the fifth and sixth spots, Gonzalez will put up the best RBI numbers of his career for the Dodgers.

    When the San Diego native arrived in Boston before the 2011 season, he slightly altered his swing to take advantage of Fenway’s famous Green Monster. With Dodger Stadium’s short porch in right field, Gonzalez may want to start pulling more balls to improve on his 18 home runs in 2012—the lowest total of any of his seven full seasons.

    Whether he does it via doubles or home runs, A-Gon will have no trouble driving in baserunners in Los Angeles.

    Gonzalez’s five-year run with the San Diego Padres proved that he is comfortable playing close to home. While he struggled hitting in Dodger Stadium while a member of the Padres, Gonzalez hit an impressive .312 at home during his brief time with the Dodgers last season.

    While that is a small sample, it demonstrates his ability to make the necessary adjustments at the plate.

    Gonzalez is only 30, and there have been no signs of his immense skills deteriorating. If he can return to even his 2011 form, while continuing to play Gold Glove-caliber defense, Gonzalez will challenge Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds as the best first baseman in the National League.

Brandon League Records 40 Saves

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    When Brandon League first arrived in Los Angeles following a July trade with the Seattle Mariners, he initially struggled as a setup man. But after Kenley Jansen’s irregular heartbeat forced League into closing duties, he was nearly unhittable.

    In his final 15 appearances of 2012, League was six-for-six in save opportunities with a 0.56 ERA. He struck out 13 batters in 16.1 innings pitched, allowing a paltry .137 batting average against.

    The Dodgers rewarded League in the offseason by quickly re-signing him to a three-year, $22.5 million contract. He will open the season as L.A.’s primary closer, a role that could result in a 45-save season on a team that could win more than 100 games.

Hanley Ramirez Rejoins the 30-30 Club

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    I’m about as certain that Ramirez will regain his status as MLB’s best offensive shortstop as I am that Beyonce sang live during halftime of Super Bowl XLVII. Such is the case with one of baseball’s most enigmatic players, but let me make a strong case in favor of the 2009 NL MVP runner-up:

    • Ramirez is less than three calendar years removed from becoming one of the Top Five players in Major League Baseball.
    • The end of Ramirez’s 2010 season and most of 2011 were effectively wiped out due to a nagging shoulder injury that eventually required surgery.
    • Ramirez managed to steal 32 bases in just 142 games in 2010.
    • Ramirez hit a combined 24 home runs in 2012, despite playing two-thirds of his home games at Miami’s Marlin's Park, a stadium where home runs go to die.
    • Ramirez has a problem with authority. His last two managers in Miami, Freddy Gonzalez and Ozzie Guillen, are not considered players’ managers. Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly is very much a players’ manager.
    • Ramirez just turned 29 in late-December, so he is very much in his peak years as a player.
    • If Ramirez is the best player on your baseball team, your team is not going to win the World Series.
    • Ramirez might be the Dodgers’ fifth-best player, sixth-best if Crawford returns to 90 percent of the Tampa Bay model.
    • Ramirez is a diva. Divas like shiny new contracts. Ramirez will be a free agent following the 2014 season. The Dodgers hand out shiny new contracts like Kleenex.

    I really like Ramirez. I think he received too much of the blame when things went south in Miami last year. But even a Ramirez supporter such as myself has to admit that he is a bit self-absorbed and cannot be trusted as a team leader.

    The thing is, I don’t think it matters in Los Angeles.

    If Ramirez’s agent has half of a brain, he knows that his client has one more big contract left in him. Even if he reaches free agency after his current contract expires in two years, Ramirez will likely sign a new deal before his 31st birthday.

    Ramirez also has to know that he is one more so-so season away from killing his market value, so he cannot wait until the proverbial walk-year to begin auditioning for a new deal. This is especially true when you consider that he now plays for the Dodgers, one of the few franchises that can afford to overpay him.

    The bottom line is this: Even if you think Ramirez is the most selfish, most obnoxious major leaguer since Barry Bonds, do you really think he is dumb enough to blow his last good shot at getting another $70-90 million dollars (assuming he gets a five-year deal worth $14-18 million per)?

    Even if it is for completely selfish reasons, Ramirez will have a big year in 2013. He may do it again in 2014, if the Dodgers are smart enough not to extend him before the season.