Friday, January 18, 2013
The Price of Contention: Paying for power
By Mark Saxon
The Dodgers’ new owners have spent more than $600 million in acquiring players since they bought the team less than one year ago. They will enter the 2013 season with the highest payroll, at more than $220 million, in baseball history.
Now, the only question is whether they can turn money into wins.
We’ll take a look at some of the issues facing the Dodgers as they enter a season filled with promise, but as always, fraught with peril. What are the costs — and what are the opportunities — inherent in such a high-stakes gamble?
Part two: Will last season's big-money trade translate into the power they have so badly lacked?
If the Dodgers get through the spring in good health, they will have made the following changes to their opening day lineup in a 12-month span: replace Dee Gordon, Juan Rivera, James Loney and Juan Uribe with Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Luis Cruz.
Sounds like a significant upgrade, doesn’t it?
Crawford has comparable speed to Gordon’s. Gonzalez plays equally strong defense at first base as Loney.
Those are nice touches, but what has the Dodgers so excited about their new lineup -- which they, of course, paid rather handsomely for -- is the possibility of some actual, bona-fide power with which to surround Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. Ah, at long last.
The Dodgers slugged .374 last year, 28th in the majors ahead of only Houston and Seattle. That, we can safely say, is kind of bad.
Catcher A.J. Ellis finished third among Dodgers regulars in slugging last year and he hit a whopping 13 home runs. It’s a wonder -- and a testament to their pitching staff -- that the Dodgers finished 10 games over .500 with a lineup that soft.
How much more power can the Dodgers expect from full seasons of Gonzalez, Ramirez, Crawford and Cruz? That’s the tough part, but the short answer is, “some, perhaps just enough to make them a World Series contender.” They hired a hitting coach, Mark McGwire, who has a pretty good notion of how to hit home runs.
Gonzalez is the fulcrum. He is the reason the Dodgers agreed to take on $260 billion in salary from Boston last August. They valued him highly enough that they were able to accommodate Boston’s desire to reboot by taking on the bloated salaries of Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto.
There’s a lot to like about the smooth-swinging lefty, even after a season in which he set full-season career lows in on-base percentage, slugging and home runs. He hit 47 doubles, second in the majors to Albert Pujols. Of course, you could argue that, in previous seasons, a dozen or more of those doubles would have been home runs. Gonzalez hit .392 with runners in scoring position, best in the majors.
Late in the season, he told ESPNLosAngeles.com his swing had been “a wreck” all year and that, the reason he performed well with runners on base, is that he simplified his approach. So, there’s hope that an off-season of tweaks and a spring in a comfortable environment will help Gonzalez rediscover his 40-home run power. Or, that he can keep up his steady run production without clearing many fences.
And, remember, Loney and Juan Rivera were the other options readily at hand. This winter’s free agent pickings for first basemen were slim, with Adam LaRoche the top guy on the market.
What to expect from Crawford is more of a mystery still. He’s never been a home run hitter -- his career high is 19 -- but he can be electric when he lines one in the gap. In part because he led the league in triples in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2010, Crawford has a more-than-respectable career slugging percentage of .441. And, again, consider his predecessors : the lumbering Rivera, the punchless Bobby Abreu. You could, of course, argue that, had the Dodgers not taken on Crawford in the Boston trade, they -- not the Angels -- would have landed Josh Hamilton. But they did what they did and Crawford is still young enough, at 31, to suggest he can be as good as he was three seasons ago in Tampa Bay.
Hanley Ramirez is a steady 20-plus home run guy. On the other hand, he hasn’t hit 40 doubles since 2009 and, since batting .342 that year, he has batted .269 since. Who knows if Cruz, who revamped his swing last year, can continue his late-career surge, but it’s a fairly good bet that, if he doesn’t, the Dodgers will find a way to trade for a power-hitting third baseman or will move Ramirez back to third and find a shortstop.
And, just remember, if you’re not happy with the Dodgers’ new look, just go back and take a look at the boxscore from April 5, 2012. Ask yourself if you’d like to see that rolled out there for six months.