If I was choosing which teams to write about for my spring previews, I would stay the heck away from the Dodgers. There are a lot of people who read this page who know way, way more about Dodger baseball than I do, and you can be most certain that they're not shy about letting me know when I screw up. But I'm not the one making the picks, the polyhedral dice are. And the dice today say Dodgers. They are indeed cruel masters.
Since I'm a fan of another team in the same division, I'm not exactly broken up about the Dodgers' mystifying disorganization. Speaking as a wholly impartial observer, though, you have to ask: What is this team doing? Why does Los Angeles owner Frank McCourt let ignorant blowhards like Bill Plaschke influence his decision-making while ignoring more qualified blowhards like the Dodger Thoughts crowd? I don't know why. Certainly McCourt's firing of the highly qualified Paul DePodesta was inspired by distorted media coverage, as was his hiring of the decidedly old-line Ned Colletti. Colletti and McCourt's record in free agency seems like the work of men who are trying to do what's expected of the Dodgers rather than what is most likely to lead them to championships. Jason Schmidt? Yeah, well, okay, I guess maybe. Juan Pierre? That seems like a bit of a stretch. But what on earth are the Dodgers, who have prospects coming out of their ears, doing messing around with the likes of Luis "O.G. Original Gonzalez" Gonzalez and Mike "I Totally Thought He Was Retired" Lieberthal? It's the Chewbacca Defense all over again, people. This does not make sense.
That said, with the power outage in San Diego, the obsolescence of the Giants, and the Rockies and Diamondbacks still marshaling their forces for 2008 runs, the Dodgers might get back to the playoffs in 2007. Their rotation looks all right, even Colletti's best efforts can't keep all of the kids down, and while their lineup doesn't have any obvious superstars it doesn't have any colossal weak spots either. The Dodgers don't have the power bats you like to see at the infield and outfield corners, but they're not trying to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. They seem terribly inefficient in terms of turning their obvious financial advantage over the other teams in the division into sustained dominance, but as the Cardinals proved last year, all you need to do is get into the playoffs. Anything can happen after that. And while I think the mainstream press has completely overstated Colletti's role in it, who had a more magical regular season in 2006 than the Dodgers? Nobody.
After years of reading about the Dodgers' incredible wealth of minor-league pitching talent, it's a little strange to take a look at their projected 2007 rotation and see retread city...Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Randy Wolf. I'm not yet prepared to label him as a retread, but Jason Schmidt seems no lock to earn the amount of money he's set to receive. For the moment the only up-and-comer is Chad Billingsley. As a consequence of Colletti's Proven Veteran fetish, Los Angeles has spectacular starting pitching depth. But that was never the problem here. Can Schmidt reclaim the ace's mantle he once wore in San Francisco? I think he's a better bet than the Giants' candidate to replace him, Barry Zito, but I wouldn't put money down on either. The Dodgers needed to either get guys who can go deep into games or lengthen their bullpen significantly, and they haven't done either. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, though, look at the other offenses in the division. Los Angeles can surely get away with staffing their middle relief corps with a bunch of frustrated starting prospects this season. Big financial commitments to the likes of Schmidt, Pierre, and Nomar Garciaparra seem like a poor read of the cost/benefit analysis charts, though.
I don't really feel like writing a paragraph about the Dodgers' lineup, since it seems like much the same thing I just wrote about with the pitching. Is it great? Not hardly. Is it good enough? More than likely. Only the chance to once again celebrate my deep abiding hatred for Jeff Kent keeps me powering through. I personally loathe Kent, but I've never undersold his abilities as a player. I'm never surprised even as old as he is when he continues to be the most reliable offensive contributor for whichever team he's on. This year Los Angeles is depending on Kent's annoying reliability more than ever. Who else is going to hit home runs for the Dodgers? This is where Garciparra's extension really handcuffs them, because with their system depth they either have a guy who can mash already (James Loney) or failing that can generate one through trade in a hurry. The Juan Pierre signing is another knee-jerk dumb move by a GM and owner who care way too much about what The Los Angeles Times thinks. These signings are so bad in fact that they might end up canceling themselves out when these bums either get hurt or play themselves out of the lineup. It's not that there are better players the Dodgers could have signed, it's that they already have better players right there in camp. That doesn't reflect real well on management, but on the other hand, unless Colletti has another one of his brilliant trade brainstorms, these better young options are still available.
Another season in the high-eighty-win range and another playoff appearance seem preordained, but the buzz around the Dodger organization that built up the last few years among brainy baseball types has dissipated and moved on to Arizona. (And maybe soon Colorado? Anybody? Anybody?) Only the anticipation of whiling away a few lovely summer afternoons heaping verbal abuse on Kent has me at all excited about the Dodgers' many trips to Denver this upcoming season. It didn't used to be like that, and it doesn't have to be still. Free Hong-Chih Kuo!
(Full disclosure: I was one of the loudest non-Dodger partisans when it came to the Free Hee Seop Choi! movement. Maybe I don't know what's best for Big Blue after all.)