Predicting the NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers

Mar 13, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp (27) stretches before a spring training game against the Colorado Rockies at Camelback Ranch. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE

It has been almost 50 years since a team has seen a player win the Cy Young and another finish in the top two of MVP voting, yet still not make the post-season. Back in 1962, Don Drysdale took the Cy Young and Maury Wills won MVP honors, as the Dodgers won 102 times, but still lost the National League pennant by one game to the Giants. Of course, back then, only two teams made the playoffs, so the 2011 Dodgers failure is all the more "impressive". Despite having Cy Young winner in Clayton Kershaw and, many would say, the legitimate MVP in Matt Kemp; Los Angeles only reached 82 wins..

With both returning for 2012, might it be a better year in Chavez Ravine?

2011 Production
While they subsequently went in different directions, you could argue that the turning point in the Dodgers season came on the same day, May 14, as the team they faced on that day. Going in to the contest against Arizona, Los Angeles were 2.5 back of the lead in the NL West, and were facing an opposing pitcher who was making his first start in the major leagues. However, Josh Collmenter was up to the task, blanking the Dodgers for six innings, and the D-backs prevailed, despite managing only a single hit. The defeat started a streak where Los Angeles lost eight out of ten games, and never got within striking distance thereafter.

That said, the Dodgers didn't exactly fold: far from it. Indeed, over the second-half of the season, they went 41-28, the fourth-best record in the National League after the All-Star break, behind Milwaukee, Arizona and Philadelphia. And they finished even stronger, winning 17 games in both September and October, and it could have been more, as they outscored their opponents there 251-177, which projects to a Pythagorean record in the final two months of 35-19. That strong second-half showing will help them in our weighted numbers: a first-half Pythag of .458 was followed by a very solid .608 after the break, working out to 90.4 wins.

Off-season moves
Despite that impressive total, you didn't exactly get the feeling that Los Angeles were interested in making a big push this winter. It probably was at least partly the case that the ongoing ownership saga prevented them from being players for the top free-agents, but autumn predictions that had LA signing three of the top 30 free-agents on the market proved severely optimistic - they ended up with none of them. The main focus was on retooling their rotation, with the departures of Hiroki Kuroda and Jon Garland; Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano joined as replacements, and will start alongside Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Ted GloveSlam.gif.

With the departure of Jonathan Brozton, a new closer needs to be found: Kenley Jansen will get the job, despite a total of nine career saves, on the basis of his 2.12 career ERA and incredible strikeout rate, 15.3 per nine innings. The Dodgers also lost both front-line catchers from 2011, in Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro: they'll be looking to A.J. Ellis and the newly-signed Matt Treanor as replacements. Middle-infielder Jamey Carroll is gone too, with Mark Ellis getting a two-year deal (plus a club option) to play second-base; Jerry Hairston Jr. also inked a deal that will take him through 2013.

Arrivals WAR Departures WAR
Jose Ascanio -0.1 Rod Barajas 1.4
Josh Bard 0.2 Casey Blake 0.6
Chris Capuano 1.7 Jonathan Broxton -0.6
Alberto Castillo 0.3 Jamey Carroll 1.8
Todd Coffey 0.4 Jon Garland 0.5
Mark Ellis 0.6 Jay Gibbons -0.5
John Grabow -0.6 Hector Jimenez -0.1
Jerry Hairston 1.6 Hong-Chih Kuo -1.4
Aaron Harang 1.0 Hiroki Kurodo 3.7
Adam Kennedy 0.4 Aaron Miles 0.1
Will Ledezma -0.4 Dioner Navarro -0.3
Shane Lindsay
-0.2 Vincente Padilla 0.0
Matt Treanor 0.2 Marcus Thames -0.7
Ryan Tucker -0.1 Eugenio Velez -0.7
Jamey Wright 1.2
Total 6.2 Total 3.8

Despite no "big" signings this winter, the Dodgers do come out ahead as a result of their moves, if everyone involved was to repeat their 2011 performance. The biggest single change is the 3.7 wins lost by the departure of Kuroda. But the poor pitching performance of Broxton and Kuo in 2011, as well as Thames and Velez on the position player side, won't be missed and combine almost to balance Kuroda's absence. Capuano ahd Hairston should prove adequate signings, though Jamey Wright has only reached one WAR a couple of times since 2004, so may not repeat last year's performance. But qualms aside, it's 2.4 wins added for LA.

Aging
The Dodgers are certainly one of the older teams in the division on both sides of the dugout. Last year, their hitters averaged 29.8 years in age, a number beaten only by the Phillies and Giants. Signing the 35-year old Ellis and 37-year old Wright won't help. Los Angeles are a little closer on the mound, mostly thanks to the youth of Kershaw and Billingsley; Capuano (33) and Harang (who looks a lot older than his 34!) aren't exactly spring-chickens, however. All told, they are 1.3 years older than the NL median in hitting, and 0.4 years older in pitching, which works out to a total of -3.4 wins due to aging in 2012.

Fudgecicles
The Dodgers were pretty unlucky with disabled list trips in 2011. Indeed, they had most DL days in the National League, with only the Yankees surpassing them in the majors. This is likely not unconnected to the...er, maturity of the team - the same link plots DL days against age, and there does appear to be a significant correlation. Part of me wants to give the Dodgers the benefit of the doubt and expect a boost, as their DL days return to a more normal level. But that's mitigated, especially at the plate, since they're going to remain one of the oldest teams in baseball, and with much wisdom comes much sorrow [so sayeth Ecclesiastes 1:18, anyway].

Any remaining boost is likely to be washed out by the weakness of the Dodgers farm system, which is unlikely to offer much help in the coming season. They have one player ranked higher than #70 in MLB's Top 100 Prospects, and #45 RHP Zech Lee was in A-ball last season. There's a reason John Sickels of Minor League Ball ranked the Dodgers' farm system down at #22 of the 30 franchises, earlier in the year. I'm inclined to reckon these two things will more or less balance each other out, and don't see sufficient justification to change the numbers.

Summary
Particularly in the second-half, the Dodgers were not bad: indeed, after the break, they were arguably the best in the division, with a run differential of +65, compared to the Diamondbacks' +60. Any team with both a Cy Young winner and MVP #2 should be a lock to compete, and Kershaw and Kemp were worth 17 WAR between them last year. Seventeen. The problem is, after that, it was a very steep drop in terms of production - Ted Lilly's two WAR was next, among players with LA this season. If they are to compete, they need better production from the rest of the roster, but if K&K reproduce their form of 2011, and the second-half surge is for real... Final projection: 89 wins.

That's a good deal more than anyone else, with the other projection systems sitting in the range from 75 (CAIRO) to 79 wins (MORPS). I can see that as a possibility: will K&K be as outrageously good as they were in 2011? After all, Kemp's WAR there was not much more than from 2008-10 combined. Let's just say, Los Angeles will go as far in 2012 as those two carry them.

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