5 Dodgers Predictions for the 2014 Winter Meetings
The Major League Baseball winter meetings are set to kick off in a week, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are likely to be active players in Southern California.
New president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi have already made several minor moves since taking over the front office in October, but there are still question marks facing the team in the midst of a culture shift.
Although the Dodgers are still one of the richest organizations in baseball, the tactic of throwing money at elite free agents has seemingly been replaced by a more analytical and cost-effective approach to improving the team.
Here are five predictions for what Los Angeles will ultimately decide to do at the upcoming winter meetings.
Roll the Dice with an In-House Shortstop
The biggest on-field personnel move for the Dodgers this winter was the departure of shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who declined Los Angeles’ qualifying offer and signed with the Boston Red Sox for $88 million over four years, per Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com.
With the decision, Ramirez ended his two-and-a-half-year tenure with the Dodgers and left a gaping hole at the shortstop position. Los Angeles must now make one of two realistic choices.
The team may fill the void with an established player like Alexei Ramirez, whose offensive production was extremely comparable to Hanley Ramirez’s last season. The current Chicago White Sox shortstop has recently been linked to the Dodgers, according to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, and he has one year left on a contract that will pay him $10 million in 2015. This means that Los Angeles would need to make a trade in order to acquire his services.
It’s the kind of move that last season’s management would have probably preferred to the alternative, which is rolling the dice on unproven in-house shortstops like Miguel Rojas, Erisbel Arruebarrena and even Corey Seager.
Rojas and Arruebarrena represent definite defensive upgrades at shortstop—but equally glaring offensive downgrades. As Hanley Ramirez’s primary backup last season, Rojas batted .181 in 149 at-bats with four extra-base hits. Los Angeles signed Arruebarrena for $25 million over five years last February, but he only batted .195 in 22 games.
Seager is the team’s top prospect, but up until recently, it was assumed that the 20-year-old would not be ready for full-time work in the big leagues until 2016. He has no experience above Double-A but will likely get a chance to prove himself in spring training.
Even if the Dodgers do not deem him ready, the team is probably not interested in paying $10 million for a potential one-year rental like Alexei Ramirez when it has a player like Seager waiting in the wings.
Look for Los Angeles to stand pat in the shortstop market while Rojas or Arruebarrena hold down the fort until Seager’s time comes, which may be as early as 2015.
Acquire More Bullpen Help
For the 2014 Dodgers, a blatant weakness that spelled the difference between division winner and championship contender was their bullpen.
As a group, the Los Angeles relief corps allowed more earned runs than 18 other bullpens around the league. Either a lack of trust in the relievers or a reluctant reliance on them could be blamed as the culprit for each of the Dodgers’ three postseason losses to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.
Shoring up the bridge between that night’s starter and closer Kenley Jansen should be a main focus for Los Angeles at the winter meetings.
Friedman has already gone back to his Tampa Bay Rays well and brought in veteran Joel Peralta along with minor league left-hander Adam Liberatore in exchange for Jose Dominguez and minor leaguer Greg Harris, per Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com. Still, there is surely more work to be done.
Brian Wilson exercised his player option for 2015, and Brandon League will also be back for the final year of his three-year, $24-million contract. But both relievers have proven to be shaky at best.
It’s why Los Angeles should continue to scour the market for some additional options in middle relief.
There are several free-agent relief pitchers the Dodgers would welcome as an upgrade over the majority of those involved in last year's shoddy bullpen corps.
One pitcher who makes sense for Los Angeles is Luke Gregerson, a right-hander who pitched for the Oakland A's this past season.
Gregerson was a key contributor to a top-three bullpen in terms of opponent batting average last season. His personal 2.12 ERA in 2014 was even lower than his fine career ERA of 2.88.
The former San Diego Padre has experience within the division and could help solidify a Dodgers bullpen that ranked second-to-last among playoff teams in ERA.
Trade an Outfielder
The most well-documented dilemma facing the Dodgers for the better part of the past two seasons has been the team’s surplus of highly paid outfielders.
With Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford establishing themselves in the starting lineup most nights last season, Andre Ethier became a bench player for the first time in his career. Scott Van Slyke is another quality hitter who was forced to ride the pine last year, which formed the ultimate barrier to entry for the team’s top-rated outfield prospect, Joc Pederson.
If the logjam wasn’t a big enough problem in itself, four of those six outfielders are still owed large swaths of money over the next few seasons. Kemp is due $107 over the next five years, Crawford will make $62.25 million over the next three years, Puig is owed $24 million over the next four years and Ethier is set to earn $53.5 million through the next three years with a team option for 2018.
Based on their minor deals so far this offseason, the Dodgers seem committed to making shrewd moves in order to save money without severely compromising talent—a strategy that Friedman and Zaidi employed brilliantly in Tampa Bay and Oakland, respectively.
To that end, the Dodgers’ new brass seems willing to trade any of those outfielders not named Puig, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. There was talk at last July’s trade deadline that the team was ready to move Kemp, but it never transpired and the eight-year veteran was able to re-establish his value after two injury-riddled seasons. Now, that trade may actually come to fruition, and Rosenthal reported that the Dodgers and Padres have recently discussed a deal involving the outfielder.
While Crawford experienced somewhat of a resurgence in 2014, Ethier had the worst statistical season of his eight-year career. Extended periods of time on the bench—where he was unable to develop a rhythm as an everyday player—may have contributed to Ethier’s subpar performance.
Still, as left-handed batters not far removed from elite campaigns, Crawford and Ethier should field significant interest on the trade market this winter, and it would not be surprising to see them dealt.
Rather than using the exorbitant amount of money they inherited when arriving in Los Angeles to woo big-name free agents this winter, Friedman and Zaidi might instead reach into their pockets in order to help create roster flexibility—agreeing to eat the millions still owed to Kemp, Crawford or Ethier when at least one of them is inevitably traded.
Pass on a Front-Line Starting Pitcher
There are several high-profile starting pitchers on the market this winter, with Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields headlining the group.
Typically, the Dodgers would be entrenched in the bidding for these difference-makers, confident in their ability to reel one in due to their deep pockets.
While it’s conceivable that Los Angeles has the resources to make an offer that one of these coveted hurlers can’t refuse, the recent business dealings taking place in the Dodgers’ new-look front office indicate that the team may opt to scale back its cash-wielding strategy of recent years.
Los Angeles has already acquired pitchers Mike Bolsinger from the Arizona Diamondbacks and Juan Nicasio from the Colorado Rockies in low-risk deals. The hope is that by removing these pitchers from hitter-friendly parks in Phoenix and Denver, respectively, perhaps they will be able to find more success in spacious Dodger Stadium.
The Dodgers’ starting rotation as currently constructed is arguably one of the best in the league with 2014 NL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw at the top, followed by Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu—both of whom could be aces on other clubs.
Sure, Lester as a No. 3 would be dreamy in the eyes of Dodgers fans. But the money required to bring in a pitcher of his caliber may be better spent elsewhere, especially considering that the team’s starting rotation is already sufficiently equipped for a postseason series.
After all, there are other ways to acquire the services of a talented starting pitcher.
Trade for a Big-Name Starting Pitcher
Los Angeles engaged the Phillies for Hamels during the trade deadline last season, but Philadelphia's general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., demanded the Dodgers' prospect trifecta of Pederson, Seager and pitching phenom Julio Urias. The high asking price scuttled the deal, but the fact that talks are reopening seems to indicate that Amaro Jr. has perhaps tempered his wish list.
Hamels, 30, is owed $90 million over the next four seasons ($110 million if his 2019 option is picked up), which means he probably won't seek the long-term contracts that free-agent pitchers Lester and Scherzer are due to receive. The southpaw compiled a 2.46 ERA in 204 innings last season and has been one of the most consistently successful pitchers over the past five years.
Now that Hanley Ramirez is out of town, Seager has probably become untouchable in the eyes of Dodgers brass. That leaves Pederson and Urias as the team's two best prospects to include in a potential deal for Hamels. If Los Angeles is unable to move Kemp, Ethier or Crawford in a timely fashion, Pederson becomes that much more expendable.
Pederson would almost certainly need to be included in a package for Hamels, considering the Phillies' outfield situation last season. John Stolnis of thegoodphight.com provides some context:
The Phillies got 1.7 Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) from the outfield this year, 14th out of 15 NL teams. Their 49 homers were 9th, as was their OBP and SLG, their OPS was 11th, and their wOBA and wRC+ were both 12th. They also played the worst outfield defense in the National League, dead last in Fangraph's Def numbers, Defensive Runs Saved (-39) and UZR (-21.6)
Pederson is considered an above-average defensive center fielder, and he became the Pacific Coast League's first player since 1934 to hit at least 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season, according to Mike Axisa of CBSSports.com. Overall, Pederson slashed .303/.435/.582 with 135 hits and 78 RBI in 121 games at Triple-A before his September call-up.
The Dodgers could use Hamels, not only because he is one of the better pitchers in baseball, but because he could also provide some nice insurance in the event that Los Angeles loses Greinke when he inevitably opts out of his contract following the 2015 season.
More importantly, the Dodgers still need to fill out the back end of their starting rotation since it will be difficult to rely on the likes of Dan Haren, Juan Nicasio, Carlos Frias or Zach Lee in 2015.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com, unless otherwise linked/noted.