Five Questions: Los Angeles Dodgers

The 2003 Dodgers were one of the most extreme teams in baseball history. There are two ways you could look at them…

1) Despite featuring a pitching staff that allowed a major-league-low 556 runs, the Dodgers managed to win just 85 games.

2) Despite a punchless offense that scored a major-league-low 574 runs, the Dodgers somehow managed to win 85 games.

There have been a few major changes since the end of last season. Staff ace Kevin Brown was shipped to the Bronx. Ruppert Murdoch decided it was time to jump ship, selling the team to Frank McCourt (who has about as much money invested in the Dodgers as you do). McCourt’s first move as owner was to fire GM Dan Evans and replace him with A’s wunderkind Paul DePodesta.

Because of uncertainty about the ownership for most of the offseason, Dan Evans could do very little in the way of improving the ballclub. One thing we can be sure of is that this year’s pitching staff will be worse than last year’s. And the offense has to get better, right?

1) Can Jeff Weaver be a good pitcher?

Yes, he can. He was unspeakably awful in 2003, but…

1) He got jerked around between starting and relieving all year, and
2) His infield defense in New York was horrible, and his outfield defense wasn’t anything to brag about either.

He’s got a lot of points in his favor heading into 2004. Weaver is moving out of the DH league and into the Senior Circuit, so every ninth batter will be the pitcher’s spot in the lineup. And while Yankee Stadium reduced run-scoring by 8% in 2003, Dodger Stadium was even more of a pitcher’s park, suppressing scoring by 17%.

The Yankees’ middle infield in 2003 featured two great hitters who also happened to be butchers with the glove. Meanwhile, the Dodgers’ middle infield couldn’t hit a beach ball with a tennis racket, but they were arguably the best-fielding pair in the National League.

Weaver is still young (just 27 this season), he’s got a perfect health record, and before 2003 he appeared to be on his way to a successful career:

YEAR    AGE       IP    ERA    ERA+
1999     22    164.2   5.55     89
2000     23    200.0   4.32    111
2001     24    229.1   4.08    109
2002     25    199.2   3.52    121

I’ll be bold – Jeff Weaver will have a sub-4.00 ERA in 2004. He won’t replace Kevin Brown, but getting traded to the Dodgers will put Jeff Weaver’s once-promising career back on track.

2) Okay, so Weaver might work out. What about Darren Dreifort?

The word on the street is that Jim Tracy will be going with a rotation of NomoPerezIshii-Weaver-Jackson, meaning Big D will be coming out of the pen. If indeed that happens, Dreifort should finally provide the team with a full season of quality pitching (albeit nowhere near $11 million worth of quality pitching).

The man’s had two Tommy John surgeries, so nobody expects much, but he’s still got a nasty mid-90s four-seamer and a high-80s slider. Aside from being hurt more often than Ben Affleck makes a crap movie, Darren’s biggest problem has been the lack of a quality off-speed pitch. Thing is, a reliever doesn’t really need a third pitch, and Dreifort’s two should make him into a very solid middle man. Honestly, if the incumbent closer wasn’t named Eric Gagne, there might be a case for giving Dreifort a shot at that role.

There’s one other thing about Dreifort that I’d like to address – his hitting. A lot of people have heard about Dreifort being a pitcher-DH in college, and he also has had sporadic success in the major leagues.

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Midway through 1993, his final season at Wichita State, Dreifort began to DH on a regular basis. He finished with a .327 average and 22 homers in 199 at-bats, and had some huge hits in the postseason. The numbers look great, but the team as a whole batted .311, so .327 is nothing special.

In the major leagues, Dreifort has been a hair above average for a pitcher – a .185 career average, .215 OBP, and .303 slugging percentage. He hits for more power than most pitchers, but he’s nowhere near good enough to be used in a Brooks Kieschnick-style two-way role.

3) Will Adrian Beltre ever become a star?

On April 7, Adrian Beltre will celebrate his 25th birthday.

Doesn’t sound right, does it? It sure feels like he should be older. He first came up at 19, back in 1998. In ’99, he put up a .275/.352/.428 line in 152 games as a 20-year-old, and looked like he was about to emerge as a top-shelf player. Beltre kicked his game up another notch the next season, batting .290/.360/.475 with 20 homers – at the age of 21. Superstardom seemed imminent.

Of course, superstardom still hasn’t shown up. Before the 2001 season, Beltre almost died from a botched emergency appedectomy in the Dominican Republic. He’s been a shadow of his former self since then, batting .254/.300/.421 the past three years. Even his plate discipline, very solid early in his career, has disappeared.

Yet, Beltre is still young. I decided to look for other players in baseball history with similar value patterns to Adrian Beltre through age 24, to see how players like him turned out.

Beltre has compiled 84 Win Shares in his career, so we’ll limit our study to non-pitchers with between 74 and 94 Win Shares before their age-25 season. Of the remaining 91 players, four were primarily catchers, so we’ll leave those out of the study. Twenty-nine of the remaining players had value pattern similarity scores of 900 or better, making them all solid comparables to Adrian Beltre. Below are Beltre’s Win Shares totals for ages 20-24, as well as the average of his top 29 comparables:

          19    20    21    22    23    24    <25    25+
Beltre     4    15    22    12    16    15     84      ?
Comps      1     9    17    18    18    18     81    115

The column titled "25+" is the average value of Beltre's comps after age 24, and I think that's the most reasonable expectation for the rest of Beltre's career. And no, 115 Win Shares after age 24 isn't a particularly good total. Guys around 115 post-age 24 Win Shares include Garry Templeton, Mickey Morandini, Jerry Priddy, and Bibb Falk - all decent players, but none of them real stars.

Here are the possible futures of Adrian Beltre, from best- to worst-case:

Level A: Alan Trammell/Bobby Doerr
Level B: Buddy Bell/Joe Tinker
Level C: Bill Mazeroski/Richie Hebner
Level D: Fred Merkle/Delino DeShields
Level E: Bob Horner/Tony Kubek

At this point, Level D is Beltre's most-likely course.

4) What will the short-term effect of the Paul DePodesta hiring have on the major-league team?

Other than tweaking the roster here and there, rookie GM DePodesta doesn't seem to have a whole lot of options just yet. The Dodgers' obvious need is a big bat to complement Shawn Green, and DePodesta will surely be in full-on Beane mode from the beginning, in search of a great trade. Odalis Perez-for-Magglio Ordonez has been discussed before, but I could also see a midseason move for someone like Jose Vidro or Jacque Jones.

This isn't all that relevant to the question above, but I want to mention that Dan Evans didn't really do a bad job as GM of the Dodgers. He was hamstrung by bad contracts from the Kevin Malone era, so while the payroll was in excess of $100 million, Evans didn't have nearly that much to actually work with. In his short tenure, Evans oversaw the rebirth of a once-great L.A. farm system, and even his worst big-league moves (the Sheffield-to-the-Braves trade, I suppose) were at least defensible. As a Dodger fan, I was happy with Dan Evans at the helm.

So as excited as I am to have Paul DePodesta running the show, I'm disappointed with the way new owner Frank McCourt made the move. Dan Evans deserved a lot better.

5) Which Shawn Green will be playing in 2004?

In 2001-2002, Shawn Green hit .291/.379/.579 with an average of 45 homers 120 RBIs, and 32 Win Shares per season. Thanks to a season-long shoulder injury that didn't become public until September, Green's 2003 was a major step down. He batted just .280/.355/.460 (with a mere 19 homers) in his worst season since 1997, though his 20 Win Shares were still a reasonable figure. The difference of 12 Win Shares from his previous average equals four wins - wins that would have put the Dodgers right in the thick of the NL Wild Card race.

Green had shoulder surgery in October, and the latest word from Dodgertown is that Green is improving, but he's not yet 100%. A return to stardom for Green is almost mandatory if the Dodgers are going to contend this year. If he can get back to a 30-Win Share level, the team should be able to sustain the loss of Kevin Brown.

What will happen? Well, there are two things that jump out as positives amid Green's disappointing '03 stats - his batting average of .280 was nearly identical to his career mark of .284, and while he lost 23 home runs from '02-'03, he partially compensated by adding 18 doubles to his total. If Green can turn those 18 doubles into homers, we'll get a Shawn Green just a notch below his prime. The most likely course, to me, is an average in the .280s with a slugging percentage around .510.

In Closing...

Overall, the Dodgers are probably a .500 team right now. In this year's NL West, though, that puts them in contention. Both the Giants and the Diamondbacks have glaring weaknesses, and the Padres are probably another year away from 90 wins. I don't expect to see the Dodgers in October, but the first bold move by DePodesta could change all that. Jim Tracy remains one of the best managers in baseball, and the farm system is starting to bear fruit. This year's upside might be 88 wins, but it's beginning to get exciting to be a Dodger fan. Again. Finally.

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