Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Perfect Pickup: Los Angeles Dodgers

The 2010-11 offseason presented an interesting opportunity for the Dodgers, but it was also somewhat unfortunate in that the Dodgers’ needs and the market’s stronger areas didn’t really match up at all. Ryan Theriot pulled a Bluto, putting up 0.0 WAR with the Cubs and Dodgers, and came into the offseason at the top of the second-base depth chart. The Dodgers sent him to the Cardinals and signed Juan Uribe to a three-year deal to replace him. That was really the best they could have done in a poor second base market, but Uribe isn’t exactly a game-changer.

The only real chance they had for an offensive upgrade was to move James Loney and sign a first baseman who can bat in the middle of the lineup. Loney’s been consistently mediocre, putting up 3.4 WAR in the last 3 seasons as LA’s starting first baseman. However, they seem as though they may be content to give Loney another go.

The rotation, however, provided ample opportunities for tinkering. Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, and Ted Lilly remain from last year, but Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla were both headed toward free agency. Kuroda was resigned on a one-year. $12 million deal, and I think that makes a lot of sense for the team. Kuroda’s an extreme groundball pitcher. Each of the Dodgers’ projected infield starters was an above-average defender at their position last year, according to UZR, so that should play right to his strengths.

They also signed Jon Garland for a year at $5 million. Garland put up a 51.9% groundball rate last season, which was the highest of his career. However, he also showed some troubling signs that make me doubt whether this was the right decision for Los Angeles. His 0.8 WAR was his lowest mark since 2001, which might be surprising considering his 3.47 ERA was the best mark of his 11-year career. His .267 BABIP (.288 career) suggests that he had some luck on balls in play, and his walk rate jumped from 2.69 BB/9 in 2009 to 3.92 in 2010. This was the fourth-worst walk rate in the league, besting only Jonathan Sanchez, Gio Gonzalez, and CJ Wilson. Sanchez, Gonzalez, and Wilson can somewhat offset their walks by putting up gaudy strikeout numbers. Garland doesn’t have that ability, and combined with a likely regression toward his career mark in BABIP, I’d be surprised if he repeats his performance from last season with regard to his “baseball card” numbers.

Finally, they resigned Vicente Padilla for one year on a $2 million, one year deal. Padilla provides another option as the 5th starter, and he does have the ability to strike out some batters, but unlike Kuroda and Garland, Padilla allows an extremely high flyball rate. His 42.5% last season was a career high, and a repeat will make it very difficult for him to have success in LA, as Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are among the worst defensive everyday left and centerfielders in baseball.

Instead of Garland and Padilla, I would’ve gone a different direction. For a fifth starter, I’m generally in favor of taking a bit of a risk, with the hope of getting strong production with a bit of luck, and the downside of turning a long reliever into a spot starter or calling up a prospect and giving him a shot if the risk doesn’t work out. With both Garland and Padilla, the Dodgers pretty much know what they’re going to get—nothing special, but a serviceable guy who can eat some innings. If I were the Dodgers, I’d prefer to go after Brandon Webb or Jeff Francis. Webb would be a little more expensive, but his world-class sinker consistently puts him among the top groundball pitchers in the league, and he’s the kind of guy who could pay off huge. Coincidentally, MLBTR just announced that Webb’s reached an agreement with the Rangers. My guess would be that this turns into a huge value buy for Texas.

Francis is a bit more under the radar, and after missing all of 2009 and the beginning of the 2010 season, he certainly has some question marks. However, I believe Francis showed last season after his return that he can get back to his pre-injury performance level. After his May 16 return, Francis started 19 games, and despite his ERA of 5.00, his 3.88 FIP and 3.94 xFIP were both career lows. He had the lowest walk rate of his career, with only 1.98 BB/9, and more importantly for the Dodgers he put up a career-high 47% GB rate. His traditional stats were hurt by his .322 BABIP and 64.5% strand rate, but assuming these regress to more normal levels, Francis could be a great value. He’ll need to stay healthy, which admittedly has been a huge problem for him, and retain the steps forward he’s taken in his underlying statistics, but Francis could have been the Perfect Pickup for the Dodgers. Instead, they’ll have to hope that either Garland or Padilla can stave off their continuing declines for at least another year.

Check back next time, when we’ll take a look at the Los Angeles Angels and look at additions that could help them supplement the return of Kendry Morales in improving a team that certainly underperformed expectations last season.

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