Winter Report Card: How Dodgers' messy off-season still worked
With less than two weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Los Angeles Dodgers. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
92–70 (.568), first place in National League West (Hot Stove Preview)
RHP Bronson Arroyo, RHP Zack Greinke, OF Chris Heisey, RHP Jim Johnson, RHP Juan Nicasio, IF Jose Peraza, RHP Joel Peralta*, OF Justin Ruggiano, SS Jimmy Rollins*, OF Scott Schebler, RHP Joe Wieland
RHP Joe Blanton, IF Micah Johnson, LHP Scott Kazmir, RHP Kenta Maeda, RHP Frankie Montas, OF Trayce Thompson
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
On the heels of a franchise-record third straight division title and then an abrupt first-round exit in the playoffs, it's been a busy but less-than-fulfilling winter for the Dodgers. Los Angeles' winter has been notable more for the departures of manager Don Mattingly (who joined the Marlins) and co-ace Zack Greinke—and for two deals that didn't get done, namely a trade for Aroldis Chapman (who went to the Yankees instead) and a three-year deal for Hisashi Iwakuma (who rejoined the Mariners)—than for those who have arrived in their stead. But despite the lack of flash, the team has stockpiled considerable depth among its position players and pitchers and retained long-term flexibility.
The big news, of course, pertains to the rotation, a topic I covered in depth in early January. The short version is that Greinke went to Arizona via a record-setting deal, and in his place, the team has signed both 31-year-old lefty Scott Kazmir and 27-year-old Japanese righty Kenta Maeda, retaining 28-year-old lefty Brett Anderson, too.
Kazmir, who split 2015 between the Athletics and Astros, threw 183 innings with a 3.10 ERA, 3.98 FIP and 7.6 strikeouts per nine en route to 3.3 Wins Above Replacement but faded in September. Even so, since falling out of the majors entirely in 2012, he's been fairly reliable, posting a 3.54 ERA, 3.61 FIP and 8.1 strikeouts per nine and averaging 31 starts and 177 innings per year. His three-year, $48 million deal includes an opt-out after the first year, allowing him to re-enter a much weaker free-agent market than that of this winter.
Maeda, who turns 28 on April 11, spent the past eight seasons with the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Central League, posting a 2.39 ERA with 7.4 strikeouts per nine for his career and a 2.09 ERA with 7.6 strikeouts per nine in 206 1/3 innings last year en route to his second Eiji Sawamura Award—Japan's Cy Young award, given to only one pitcher in either the Central or Pacific League. Maeda’s eight-year deal guarantees him just $25 million ($3 million per year plus a $1 million signing bonus), with incentives for innings, starts and Opening Day roster status pushing the maximum value to $106.2 million ($13.15 million each year); that amount doesn't include the $20 million posting fee the Dodgers paid.
From a financial standpoint, both deals carry some risk, albeit the kind that a high-payroll team can absorb. The structure of Maeda's is out of concern for the unspecified "irregularities" in his elbow that were revealed during his physical, hinting at a possible Tommy John surgery down the road, though both the pitcher and Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman expect him to be part of the 2016 rotation.
As for Anderson, who set a career high with 180 1/3 innings in 2015 (the first time since his '09 rookie season he had thrown more than 115 at the major league level): He accepted a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer. Again, that's somewhat risky, but it at least gives the Dodgers another solid mid-rotation starter out of the gate behind Clayton Kershaw and Alex Wood—and yes, that's a quartet of lefties.
Entering the picture at some point could be lefty Hyun-jin Ryu, who's coming off a season missed due to arthroscopic shoulder surgery; righthander Brandon McCarthy, who's slated to come back from Tommy John surgery in midseason; back-end types Mike Bolsinger and Carlos Frias; and prospects Julio Urias, Jose De Leon and the recently acquired Frankie Montas. A 22-year-old righty fire-baller who hit 101 mph during last summer's All-Star Futures Game, Montas made two starts and five relief appearances for the White Sox last year after posting a 2.97 ERA with 8.7 strikeouts per nine in 112 innings at Double A Birmingham. While he obviously throws hard, scouts are concerned about how straight his fastball is, and neither his slider nor changeup are true plus pitches yet, hinting at a future in the bullpen.
Montas was one of three players acquired from the White Sox in exchange for infielders Jose Peraza and Brandon Dixon and outfielder Scott Schebler, all of whom wound up in Cincinnati. Of that group, the only one who might be missed is Peraza, a going-on-22-year-old who was a top-100 prospect and was acquired from the Braves in last July's three-way deal; he hit a combined .293/.316/.378 in two Triple-A stops with 33 steals but just 17 walks in 521 plate appearances. Incoming from Chicago are going-on-25-year-old outfielder Trayce Thompson (son of former NBA big man Mychal Thompson and brother of current Warriors guard Klay Thompson) and 25-year-old second baseman Micah Johnson. Despite the fact that he hit a sizzling .295/.363/.533 in 135 PA for the White Sox after being recalled in August, the righty-swinging Thompson's .256/.301/.433 line in 437 PA at Triple A in 2015 and .241/.319/.429 mark in seven minor-league seasons suggest that he's a fourth outfielder. He could work as part of a platoon with leftfielder Carl Crawford or centerfielder Joc Pederson if backup outfielder Scott Van Slyke or utility man Kiké Hernandez were needed elsewhere. Thompson could also start the season at Triple A, as could Johnson, who hit just .230/.306/.270 in 114 PA as a rookie while struggling at second base to the tune of -7 Defensive Runs Saved.
Johnson will have to cool his heels in Oklahoma City because the team retained both Howie Kendrick and Chase Utley. The 32-year-old Kendrick, who received a qualifying offer, wound up signing a two-year, $20 million deal last week, one whose annual value is even lower because $5 million per year is deferred without interest. He's coming off a slightly unsettling season in which he hit .295/.336/.409 for a 107 OPS+ but missed five weeks due to a left hamstring strain, the second time in three years he's missed substantial time with a leg injury. By baseball-reference.com's version of WAR, Kendrick plunged from 5.3 WAR in 2014 to 1.1 last year as his DRS plummeted from +7 to -12; via FanGraphs' WAR, the falloff was from 4.7 to 2.1, with his Ultimate Zone Rating swinging from +7 to -5, which is still not good. The lost draft pick that would have come with him signing elsewhere smarts a bit, but dial back a couple of months and the Dodgers were prepared to retain Greinke and punt their first-round pick by signing Iwakuma, whereas now they own three of this year's first 36 picks.
As for Utley, the 37-year-old finished the year batting a career-worst .212/.286/.343 with eight homers in 423 plate appearances, experiencing only a slight uptick after being acquired from the Phillies. After declining his $11 million option, the Dodgers re-signed him to a one-year, $7 million deal with the expectation that he'll spell Justin Turner at third base and Adrian Gonzalez at first in addition to backing up at second.
Speaking of aged ex-Phillies, Jimmy Rollins remains a free agent after a dreadful year in Dodger blue (.224/.285/.358 with 13 homers, 12 steals and -0.1 WAR), with Corey Seager—who has topped both the MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus Top 100 Prospects lists, with perhaps more to come—taking over. Also gone are outfielders Chris Heisey (.182/.347/.327 in 72 plate appearances), who signed a minor-league deal with the Nationals, and Justin Ruggiano (.291/.350/.618 with four homers in 60 PA), who signed a one-year, $1.65 million deal with the Rangers.
The remaining turnover concerns the pitching staff. Gone are starter Bronson Arroyo, relievers Jim Johnson, Juan Nicasio and Joel Peralta and minor leaguer Joe Wieland. Arroyo, who never pitched but provided salary ballast in a three-way deal with the Braves, signed a minor-league deal with the Nationals. Johnson, who also came over in that deal but was lit up for a 10.13 ERA in 18 2/3 innings after posting a 2.25 ERA in 48 innings for the Braves, returned to Atlanta on a one-year deal. Peralta is still looking for a home after the Dodgers declined his $2.5 million option; he managed just 29 innings and a 4.34 ERA and was laid low by a pinched nerve in his neck. Wieland, who made two starts for the team and spent most of the year at Triple A, was dealt to Seattle for 21-year-old middle infielder Erick Mejia, a switch-hitting speedster who hit a combined .282/.346/.339 in 195 plate appearances spread across four stops, with the bulk of that coming in Class A.
Nicasio, who pitched his way into late-inning duty last year, delivered a 3.86 ERA and 2.83 FIP with 10.0 strikeouts per nine in 58 1/3 innings, but was surprisingly nontendered. The Pirates snapped him up on a one-year, $3 million deal, and he could turn out to be another example of Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Searage's magic touch. Speaking of which, the Dodgers have bet $4 million on one of Searage's late-2015 pupils, Joe Blanton, based largely on his 1.57 ERA and 39/5 strikeout-to-unintentional-walk-ratio in 34 1/3 innings after being picked up by Pittsburgh in late July. All told, the 35-year-old righty posted a 2.84 ERA and 2.92 FIP with 9.4 strikeouts per nine in 76 innings for the Pirates and Royals, a robust showing for his first extended stint in the bullpen.
Speaking of surprises: Returning to a late-game role is lefty J.P. Howell, who exercised a $6.25 million player option. He likely could have received a more lucrative multi-year deal based upon his career-low 1.43 ERA in 44 innings and his 1.97 ERA/3.14 FIP in 155 innings over three years with the Dodgers.
Unfinished Business: Trading Andre Ethier, adding to the bullpen
The overcrowded outfield was long the bane of Mattingly's existence, but via USA Today's Bob Nightengale, the team is looking to trade Ethier, who is coming off a career-high 136 OPS+ (.294/.366/.486 with 14 homers) but is owed $38 million over the next two seasons, his age-34 and age-35 years, and will gain 10-and-5 rights in mid-April, allowing him to veto deals after that point. The combination of the fragile hamstrings of Crawford and rightfielder Yasiel Puig and the second-half disappearing act of Pederson makes jettisoning Ethier simply for the sake of making a move inadvisable. But if Los Angeles can find a match that improves the roster in other ways, then between Hernandez, Thompson, Van Slyke and utility man Alex Guerrero, it has ample depth to cobble together a platoon or two.
Given their seemingly limitless finances, it's easy to hammer the Dodgers for not outbidding the more cash-conscious Diamondbacks for Greinke, or for not landing another big-money free agent such as lefty David Price or righty Johnny Cueto. Friedman and company have made their choice, however, and by midseason, the rotation could have a very different look from the one that starts the year. It's easier to find fault with the plan for the bullpen, where Mattingly was consistently hamstrung by a lack of viable options; aside from Howell and closer Kenley Jansen, he rarely found other relievers he could trust for long, whether they came from a pool of ex-closers (Brandon League, Brian Wilson, Chris Perez and Johnson, all long gone) or of untested minor leaguers (Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia, the since-traded Chris Withrow). Baez, Garcia and Chris Hatcher all enjoyed dominant stretches last year but were pounded at other points, and the work of ex-Braves lefty Luis Avilan wasn't much to write home about. Blanton could help, but it's worth remembering that his success last year consists of a small sample of lower-leverage work.
Perhaps some of the runoff from the rotation—Wood or Montas, most likely—winds up in the bullpen for an extended stay. Perhaps Garcia and Baez build on their considerable promise; after all, each whiffed more than 10.0 per nine and walked less than 2.0 per nine in 50-plus innings in 2015, which ain't hay. Still, it's not asking too much for the Dodgers to consider adding another arm. There's no shortage of relievers looking for work, including righties Tyler Clippard, Burke Badenhop, Ryan Webb, Tommy Hunter and Casey Janssen and lefties Matt Thornton and Franklin Morales. Webb and Badenhop make particular sense for a unit that has lacked a ground-ball machine from the right side.
Preliminary Grade: B-
Between the managerial search that ended with the hiring of Dave Roberts and the deals that didn’t get done, it took some time for the Dodgers’ off-season plan to come into focus. It has, and while it’s not to everybody’s taste, the team still has a wealth of assets and no less flexibility than when the winter began. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the team deals from their depth to pull off a blockbuster before Opening Day, but even now, it’s a squad that should again contend.