The Dodgers are the reigning champions in the West and, as such, are obviously the team to beat. Howver, what was said last time about the Giants, and improving a position of strength, applies even more so to the Dodgers. They saw their pitching staff decimated, with 629.2 innings of, in total, above-league average work needing to be replaced, through the departures of Lowe, etc. The biggest name signed as a replacement was Randy Wolf, who hasn't been above 100 ERA+ in the past four years, with a 94 figure over that time.
But let's save that for later, shall we, and start with the offense. Even before the final installment in the soap opera which was the Mandy contract negotiations, the Dodgers' offense was shaping up very nicely, with the addition of Orlando Hudson at second. [And, just as helpfully, the removal of Andruw Jones] Only one NL team in the past twenty years has had eight regular (300+ AB) players with an OPS+ of 100 or better: the 2005 Reds. However, the likely starting eight for Los Angeles - Furcal, Hudson, Ethier, Ramirez, Martin, Kemp, Loney and Blake - all did so last season, albeit over less than 300 ABs in a couple of cases.
It will be a very good offense, even if Mandy's hamstring snaps like a perished rubber-band the first time he exerts himself. However, the question of how much his contribution will be is less certain. His stats last season for LA were staggering: .396/.489/.743, an OPS of 1.232, driving in a run per game. And yet, the Dodgers only went 30-24 after Mandy arrived: good, but I'd have expected better behind such a powerhouse. He won't be anywhere near those numbers in 2009 - probably a hundred points off OBP and 200+ worse on SLG. According to Baseball Prospectus, his projected contribution is 44.5 VORP and 3.8 WARP - that's less, over an entire year, than he gave them in one-third of the 2008 season (49.8/4.6).
The Dodgers probably were wise to give Mandy a one-year contract, which should help keep him lean, mean and keen to impress free-agent suitors for the 2010 season. However, there was hardly a bidding war for his services this season, with LA the only people seriously interested, and one wonders if/how much of a grudge is going to be held as a result. Going by the comments emanating from Boston - and I note few on the 2008 Red Sox have exactly contested Papelbon's claims - the difference between a happy and unhappy slugger is one that can poison an entire clubhouse. Add in the problems with his hamsters, which have already taken him out of action, and I'm optimistic Mandy won't be quite the D-backs killer he was last year, when he hit .512 against Arizona in 12 games with five homers. Certainly hope not, anyway...
However, I don't think he'll be a difference maker; the LA offense will be strong with or without him, and I'm just glad the Dodgers didn't spend Mandy's $20m on their pitching, or they'd have been nigh-unbeatable. Fortunately, hitting alone won't get you into the playoffs - just ask those 2005 Reds mentioned above. They led the league in offense, but gave up 5.45 runs per game, and Cincinnati finished 27 games back If I don't think the Dodgers' arms will be that bad, their pitching - best in the league last season - still takes a severe hit. The main loss is Derek Lowe, who gave the team 211 innings at a 131 ERA+. However, the team is now also without Takashi Saito, Joe Beimel and Chan-Ho Park, who combined for 191.1 innings at a 2.82 ERA last season. Admittedly, some other departures (Brad Penny) will be easier to replace, but that's over 400 very high-quality innings they need to find from somewhere, and Randy Wolf is not the answer.
The load at the front of the rotation shifts to Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda, and they should be fine, though the increase in Billingsley's workload from 147 to over 200 innings is cause for some concern. Beyond that, however, a lot will depend on their young phenom, Clayton Kershaw giving them 150 innings as a full-time starter. But know how many 21 year-olds had 150 IP in the NL last year? That'd be 'none at all,' Bob. What about 2007? Zero. Indeed, in the past decade, there's been only three: Rick Ankiel (2000 Cardinals), Dontrelle Willis (2003 Marlins) and Matt Cain (2006 Giants). Apart from not auguring well for Kershaw's long-term future, this short list suggests - while not impossible - it's unlikely he'll be able to deliver.
Fourth will be Randy Wolf, who has averaged less than 115 innings per season over the past five years. The fifth starter isn't even known yet, with barely two weeks left until Opening Day, but it won't be Jason Schmidt, and the other candidates are led apparently by the stellar Eric Milton, whose last major-league start was in May 2007, with Eric Stults, Claudio Vargas and Shawn Estes among the other names being mentioned. All four men combined had just nineteen starts in 2008. Coming up with a couple of better names than all these for the back of the rotation should have been a far higher priority for Dodger management this off-season than pursuing the dreadlocked tumor. Even Pedro Martinez has been mentioned, despite being 37 and coming off a 5.61 ERA for the Mets.
This rotation re-enactment of a Sergio Leone Western - and despite Mandy's presence, I don't mean A Fistful of Dollars - is going to put a lot of stress on the bullpen, and I'm not convinced they will be up to it either. I defer to one local LA scribe who wrote, "The Dodgers propose to close with Jonathan Broxton, in whom they had such supreme confidence that they offered a contract to Trevor Hoffman," and that says a good deal about the wobbliness of the Dodger relief corps. The Biggest Man in the World (TM) has exactly four more career saves than Chad Qualls, so is hardly a proven quantity. Beimel finally signed with the Nationals yesterday, so that option has gone, though Hong-Chih Kuo was just as effective a left-hander last season. But if Broxton is unable to close fulltime, it could be a stack of dominoes waiting to topple. [I also note that Yhency Brazoban - previously described by 'Hacks as "possibly very effective" - was released by the Dodgers. Not so effective really, eh?]
Overall. A good chunk of what was said above was already debated after Hudson signed with the Dodgers, but nothing much has happened to change my opinion overall. Los Angeles are a legitimate threat, no question at all about that, and I venture to suggest, whoever wins the season series between us and them, will likely win the division. However, the pitching rotation is half question-marks of one form or another; it will take a few things to break their way, for them to be an adequate back up to an offense likely in the top three of the league. Prediction: 88-74, second place. What? You expected anything different?