2011 Record: 82-79, 3rd NL West
2011 Prediction: 90-72, 1st NL West
Impact Player: CF Matt Kemp
Impact Pitcher: LHP Clayton Kershaw
Best Reliever: RHP Kenley Jansen
Top Prospect: RHP Zach Lee
The Los Angeles Dodgers had two very different seasons in 2011. By the All-Star Break, they were 41-51 and left for dead in the NL West. After the break, they equalled their first-half win total in 23 fewer games, going 41-28. They managed to finish with a less-than-embarrassing 82-79 record and wound up third in the division. They were led on the field by two superstars in CY Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and MVP-candidate Matt Kemp who combined for a staggering 15.5 fWAR between them.
Off the field, the Frank McCourt ownership scandal dominated the headlines and while an end to the drama appears to be in sight with the team finally being sold, it looks as though it will continue to be the focus of attention in LA for another season. Still, the Dodgers were better last season than most people think and if they can continue their second half surge into 2012, they could make some noise in the NL West.
The Dodgers gave up the fifth-fewest runs in the NL last season and had four pitchers make at least 32 starts. Three of them return for 2012 in Kershaw, Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley. The Dodgers also went out and signed free agents Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano to round out the rotation.
Kershaw has emerged as one of the best pitchers in baseball putting up staggering numbers in 2011. He finished the year with an NL-leading 2.28 ERA and pitched 233.1 innings to go along with a 4.61 K/BB ratio and a 6.8 fWAR. It’s amazing to think that he’s still just 24 years old. Barring injury, the Dodgers should have Kershaw atop their rotation for several years to come.
The crop of talent after Kershaw does drop off, but Billingsley and Lilly are solid mid-rotation pitchers. Billingsley saw his strikeout rate fall to a career low 7.28 last year despite no loss in his fastball velocity and he’ll look to rebound slightly in 2012. He still posted a 2.1 fWAR in 188 innings. Lilly, meanwhile, gives up too many home runs, but posts solid peripherals. It’s clear that, at 36, he’s not the pitcher he once was, but the Dodgers could do worse.
Harang and Capuano had nice rebound years in San Diego and with the Mets respectively, but neither should be counted on for more than decent back end options. If the Dodgers want a repeat in the runs allowed category in 2012, they’ll need to get better performances from at least two of their non-Kershaw starters. One potential bright light is Rubby De La Rosa, who won’t be back until at least mid-season after Tommy John’s surgery. He was terrific in 13 appearances last year before succumbing to the injury and he could provide a nice boost down the stretch.
The Dodgers have the potential for one of the best bullpens in the NL with the return of their dominating late-inning core. Javy Guerra will start the year as the closer after achieving some manner of success in the role last year. He posted a 2.31 ERA, but also had a 4.07 xFIP and a suspiciously low HR/FB rate. He’ll need to improve his walk rate and continue to keep flyballs in the ballpark if he wants to keep his job.
Kenley Jansen may eventually leapfrog Guerra as the closer, especially if he puts up another year like he had last year. Jansen led the universe in K/9 rate at a sublime 16.10. He does walk a lot, but his strikeout rate and his ability to induce weak flyballs makes him one of the best relievers in the game. If Guerra slips, even a little, look for Jansen to take over as closer.
In middle relief will be Matt Guerrier who struggled at times in his first year as a Dodger and Mike MacDougal who put up an excellent 2.05 ERA, but had middling peripherals. Joining them will be lefty Scott Elbert who was converted to full-time relief last year and was very good in that role. He strikes out a ton and posted a solid 3.22 xFIP against lefties. The Dodgers also brought in veteran Todd Coffey who should provide decent value on his one-year deal. Last year with Washington, he had a 3.62 ERA in 59.2 innings of work. Josh Lindblom, Ronald Belisario, Scott Rice and Ramon Troncoso will battle for the final spot.
Just like in their pitching staff, the Dodgers are top-heavy in their lineup as well. Outside of Kemp in centerfield, there’s not much to talk about. Kemp probably should have won the NL MVP last season, but lost out to Ryan Braun. He led the NL with 39 homers and posted a .419 wOBA and an NL-best 8.7 fWAR. His defensive reputation far exceeds his actual ability, but he’s not a total embarrassment in center. He signed an eight-year extension in the offseason and should continue to put up the type of numbers to justify the deal.
In rightfield is Andre Ethier who had a solid 119 wRC+ last season. He’s by no means a star, but the Dodgers could do a lot worse. Unfortunately, after Kemp and Ethier, things get dire. James Loney is not the worst hitter in the world, but considering he’s a first baseman, his perennially average numbers simply don’t cut it. He did have his best year last season and is still just 28, so there may still be a glimmer of hope.
Joining Loney on the right side of the infield is Mark Ellis who split last year with the Oakland A’s and Colorado Rockies. He was, for many years, a highly underrated player, perennially posting above-average offensive numbers while being solid with the glove, but he is entering his age-35 season and appears to be in rapid decline. His double play partner is expected to be Dee Gordon who stole 24 bases in just 56 games last year. His ability to hit is still up for debate, but there’s no questioning his game-changing speed. He won’t hit .300 over a full season and he doesn’t draw a walk, which could eventually relegate him to a utility role at some point in his career. Still, he may steal 80 bases over a full year.
Two major trouble spots for the Dodgers in 2012 will be third base and leftfield where Juan Uribe and Juan Rivera will get far too much playing time. Rivera is a well-below-average player in every respect at this point in his career and Uribe was one of the worst position players in baseball last season. If the Dodgers can’t upgrade in those two areas, it will be very hard for them to truly contend.
A.J. Ellis and Matt Treanor will split the catching duties in 2012 and although neither of them are great, they both have patient approaches at the plate and are decent defensively. Prospect Tim Federowicz may eventually surpass them as the season goes on.
Veteran infielders Adam Kennedy and Jerry Hairston Jr. will be joined by defensive wizard and quietly excellent fourth outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. on the bench. The final spot will go to either Justin Sellers or Ivan DeJesus Jr. who can both provide depth in the infield.
It’s hard to tell if the second-half Dodgers were the real deal, but it’s doubtful that they’re as bad as the first half version of the team was. The top-end talent is enviable as Kershaw and Kemp could easily be in the running for the league’s top awards again in 2012, but the talent pool beyond them is questionable to say the least. If they can get rebound seasons from Billingsley, Lilly and Uribe, there’s at least a slight chance they could contention in the weak NL West.
2012 Prediction: 81-81, 2nd NL West