Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Grading the Dodgers offseason
By Tony Jackson ESPNLosAngeles.com
A glance at the Los Angeles Dodgers' offseason moves before the start of spring training:
The Dodgers added depth to their rotation with Jon Garland.
Seldom has the addition of one starting pitcher -- a guy who probably will be slotted at the back end of the rotation -- made such a difference in the look of a staff. But with the offseason signing of Jon Garland, coupled with the re-signings of free agents Hiroki Kuroda and Ted Lilly, there is no question the Dodgers are not only better, but deeper. There will be no battle for the fifth spot in the rotation this year because, barring an injury, the rotation is set at all five spots.
New manager Don Mattingly can pick 'em in terms of how the five starters -- Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Lilly, Kuroda and Garland -- will line up. Garland figures to be the fifth guy if only because he is the newcomer. Any of the other four could legitimately get the ball for Opening Day.
Is there a Tim Lincecum or a Ubaldo Jimenez among this group? Not yet. But this is a solid, experienced quintet, and if somebody gets hurt, Vicente Padilla or newly acquired reliever Blake Hawksworth could step in.
It remains anyone's guess whether Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo or perhaps even Padilla will ultimately wind up as the Dodgers' closer, but the middle relief got a major boost with the signing of veteran Matt Guerrier. The durable right-hander, who until now has spent his entire career with the Minnesota Twins, led the American League in appearances in 2008 and 2009 and has made at least 70 in each of the past four seasons.
Beyond that, the Dodgers signed two veterans to minor league contracts in lefty Ron Mahay and righty Mike MacDougal. General manager Ned Colletti said this week the Dodgers could open the season with three left-handed relievers in Kuo, Mahay and Scott Elbert, a longtime prospect whose stock within the organization has risen dramatically after his performance in the Arizona Fall League.
Other than crossing their fingers and hoping James Loney, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier return to form after down years, the Dodgers didn't do a whole lot to soup up their offense -- unless you count the signing of Juan Uribe to a three-year, $21 million contract after he had a season for the San Francisco Giants that dwarfed anything else he had done in his career, slamming 24 homers and driving in 85 runs.
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The club also signed outfielders Tony Gwynn Jr. and Marcus Thames, but neither is expected to play every day. The Dodgers re-signed Rod Barajas after he hit as many home runs (five) for them in the final two months of the season as Russell Martin hit in the first four months. But while Martin, at least when he was healthy, could be counted on to start six games a week behind the plate, Barajas needs to split time.
The guy the Dodgers brought in for that role is Dioner Navarro, who was so bad offensively for the Tampa Bay Rays last year (he hit .194 with one homer and seven RBIs) that he was left off the playoff roster.
Uribe's best position is third base, but the Dodgers signed him to primarily play second. Still, he's likely a big improvement there over Ryan Theriot, who played second for the Dodgers the final two months of last season and at times appeared to have the mobility of an anvil.
The new left fielders are a mixed bag -- Gwynn is a superb defensive outfielder, Thames not so much -- but whoever is out there will be better than Manny Ramirez.
Martin won a Gold Glove behind the plate in 2007 but his defense slipped after that, so the switch from Martin to the new combo might be basically a wash.
Overall, this is a decent lineup defensively. Furcal is still one of the best shortstops around, Loney is a potential Gold Glover, Blake is surprisingly dependable despite his age (37), and Uribe will move to third base on days when Blake rests, allowing Jamey Carroll's more-than-adequate glove to get some reps at second. Veterans Juan Castro and Aaron Miles and longtime prospect Ivan De Jesus Jr. will compete for the utility role. Even as he nears the end of an otherwise nondescript career, Castro is still a sight to behold with the leather.
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It's better, but it isn't clear how much better.
Gwynn, who is a left-handed hitter, and Thames, who bats right, have accomplished track records as pinch hitters. Gwynn has a career on-base percentage of .357 in that role; Thames has a .402 OBP as a pinch hitter, along with a .297 average, five homers and 15 RBIs in 87 such plate appearances.
One problem with the bench, though, is that Gibbons would be the primary left-handed guy in key situations because, unlike Gwynn, he hits with power. But in 63 career pinch-hitting appearances, Gibbons has a .143 average with one home run and six RBIs.
If Miles makes the club, he also could be a key addition to the bench. In two-thirds of a season with the St. Louis Cardinals last year, he raised his batting average 96 points from the year before, when he hit .185 for the Chicago Cubs. He also is a switch hitter. But his history as a pinch hitter is less than eye-popping (.209 average and a strikeout-to-walk ratio slightly worse than 4-1).
Longtime prospect Xavier Paul is out of minor league options and thus could begin the season on the Dodgers' bench. He has never proved that he can produce at the major league level, but he is a left-handed hitter, and that alone could be worth something.
It was a busy winter for Colletti, which is to be expected after a disappointing season in which the Dodgers missed the playoffs and finished below .500 for the first time in five years. But the Dodgers didn't make a single move that would qualify as a "big splash." Instead, they seemed to amass a collection of spare parts. On the one hand, a certain team up the coast managed to win a world championship last fall with what was largely a collection of spare parts. On the other hand, that team had a starting rotation that was peerless and arguably the game's best closer. The Dodgers have a starting rotation that is pretty good and a closer who wound up losing the job in August.
On paper, the Dodgers probably are a better team than they were at the start of 2010 and are definitely a better team than they were at the end of it. Whether they're good enough to compete in a division that appears wide open remains to be seen.
Grade: BTony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.