The Dodgers were supposed to be poor, remember. Their owner was a billionaire who spent like a multi-billionaire, and though we can all empathize because we've all been there, his resulting fiscal problems didn't do a lot for the Dodgers' financial forecast.
But the Dodgers didn't sit the offseason out. They were aggressive, signing players early and often. The offseason ledger:
Aaron Harang - two years, $12 million
Chris Capuano - two years, $10 million
Jerry Hairston, Jr. - two years, $6 million
Mark Ellis - two years, $8.75 million
Juan Rivera - one year, $4.5 million
Adam Kennedy - one year, $800,000
It's a list to study, to walk around like it's a sculpture in the MOMA, your hand on chin, studying and analyzing. It's a list of players most of us have heard of. They were worth a combined 15 wins above replacement in 2006! But as a group of reinforcements, that's just about the most boring group of players imaginable in 2012.
All of them make sense in isolation. Need a fourth starter? Aaron Harang's peripherals have been in decline for a few years, but he should do just fine. Need a fifth starter? Chris Capuano returned from injury purgatory for a decent season with the Mets. You can do that for every player on the list, justifying why they're on a major-league roster, with good chances of doing exactly what the Dodgers want them to do.
But it's a list devoid of upside. What's the upside of Capuano, Ellis, and Rivera? How good could they possibly be? Probably not a whole lot better than they were last year. And what's the downside? Injuries, plague, pestilence. Juan Rivera is a three-win player, according to Baseball Reference. For his career. Three wins above replacement in his 11-year career. Capuano and Harang have been fighting injuries of all sorts for several years, and neither of them is a great bet for 30 starts.
The Dodgers had the best hitter and pitcher in the National League last year. The Dodgers barely finished over .500. Those things don't match up. It was almost as if the other 23 players on the roster didn't … help. Some of them helped more than others, but the Dodgers had the best two-player head start of any team in the league, and they needed a late surge to squeak over .500. The reinforcements brought in to help that team are completely underwhelming. Considering that the Dodgers lost Hiroki Kuroda and Jamey Carroll, it's not too much of a stretch to suggest that they got worse this winter.
That's $42 million that the Dodgers committed to those six players over the next two years. That's less than it would have taken them to get someone like C.J. Wilson or Mark Buehrle, but for that kind of money, they could have built a more interesting batch of free-agent help. Edwin Jackson, Carlos Peña, and re-signing Jamey Carroll would have left them about ten million to burn, and it probably would have made for a better team. That's just one permutation. You can mix and match the players as you like, but if the Dodgers were really willing to spend a little bit, they could have rustled up some better players.
This isn't to suggest that the Dodgers are hopeless. Again, they have the best hitter and pitcher in the league. That's how they'll fill the first two spots of their 25-man roster. Clayton Kershaw cut his walk rate dramatically last season. One of the things I've harped on in this series of season previews is that when a player has a magical, amazing season, it's probably not a good idea to expect it again. But considering that Kershaw is just 24 -- and his control has already snapped into place, three full seasons before Sandy Koufax figured out how to throw strikes -- I don't think it makes sense to be surprised by anything he does going forward. Kershaw is amazing.
I'd be a little more suspicious of Matt Kemp's transcendent year, but not by much. The only kinds of players who can keep up 10-win seasons are players like Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantle, and it's probably a good idea to ask Kemp to do it again before we quietly lump him in with that class. But he had a superlative year last season, and even if he's just 80 percent as productive, he'll be an MVP candidate.
If the Dodgers are going to contend again, they'll have to get help from their young players and their sorta kinda not really young (but inexperienced) players. If Juan Pierre played a fantabulous defensive shortstop, he'd be Dee Gordon. Snicker if you want, but imagine what Pierre's 2004 season would have looked it if it were grafted onto Omar Vizquel. That's the upside, and it's real and insane. The downside is that every average-dependent player is going to have seasons of iffy luck and general wretchedness, but as long as the speed and defense stay true, Gordon should be a nice player.
Jerry Sands : Juan Rivera :: Brandon Belt: Aubrey Huff. Except Huff has actually had several good seasons in his career, while Rivera wasn't even that good for the Dodgers before they extended him. That was a curious decision, and I have a feeling that the Dodgers will figure out the right outfield alignment by June.
The "sorta kinda not really young" crack had to do with Justin Sellers (26) and A.J. Ellis (30!), who could both be average to above-average players if given the opportunity. If Mark Ellis continues his struggles from last year, Sellers should get a crack before Kennedy and Hairston (though that scenario is unlikely).
But at least A.J. Ellis is getting his first starting gig; his strikeout-to-walk ratios in the minors were obscene, and he translated them into fantastic on-base percentages in brief major-league trials. He'll be one of the surprise players in baseball this year.
So if you play up the best-case scenarios, the Dodgers could contend. Maybe. With Kershaw and Kemp doing things that mortals usually don't do, it wouldn't be the biggest surprise in baseball this season.
But the team spent a lot of money to get weaker, most likely. Neither Capuano or Harang will flirt with an ERA around 3.00, like Kuroda; no one in the middle infield will flirt with an OBP around .360 or so, like Carroll. It's a team that needed a moderate amount of help, but one that got a lot of players to act as a little help. They'll be watchable. But it's hard to see them making a push for 90 wins.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Hole they didn't fill)
So we're on Year 5 of the James Loney Experience, and he's still the starting first baseman, making a not-insignificant amount of money. It's pretty rare to remain a starting first baseman when you are as punchless as Loney. And the Dodgers made a small run at Prince Fielder, which would have been a huge improvement. But they also decided to forsake the modest improvements. In the last two months of the season, Loney was something like Albert Pujols, and it probably saved his job. But it sure would have been an easy position to upgrade, if it turns out that the last two months were a fluke.
Andre Ethier didn't hit for power last year, ostensibly because of his balky knee. He's just a year removed from three straight seasons with an OPS+ over 130, and he could provide a lot of the offense the Dodgers were missing last year. Or he could keep hitting as many homers as Shelley Duncan and Jason Varitek.
Chad Billingsley could also qualify for this spot, as he had his worst season. His walks went up, his strikeouts went down, and he continually failed to pitch deep into ballgames. He has more talent than this.
Some ninny will accuse me of bias even though I tried my best to be fair. A.J. Ellis is a revelation. Dee Gordon doesn't hit .300 this year, but he will soon. Clayton Kershaw finishes in the top three for the Cy Young and finishes in the top three of the Reverse Beard Cy Young in the same year.