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2012 Dodgers, As Currently Constructed, Need Breaks To Win

The Dodgers finished 82-79 in 2011.

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Attempting to forecast how the Dodgers will perform in 2012 is as difficult as knowing what the next ownership has in store for the franchise.

The 2011 squad barely finished over .500, at 82-79, and needed a late run to pull that off, by winning 25 of their last 35 games (note: their pythagorean, or expected record based on runs scored and allowed, was 84-77). To get those 82 wins, the Dodgers needed superhuman seasons from Matt Kemp (.324/.399/586, 39 home runs, 40 stolen bases) and Clayton Kershaw (2.28 ERA, 248 strikeouts, 21-5); seasons that no reasonable person has any right to predict will happen again.

The Colorado Rockies faced a similar dilemma in 2010, when great years from Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Ubaldo Jimenez produced just 83 wins. Gonzalez and Jimenez were unable to replicate that success in 2011 and the rest of the team imploded, leading to a 73-89 finish. For the 2012 Dodgers to avoid a similar fate, they need better production from those around Kemp and Kershaw, and the question is did general manager Ned Colletti add enough to make the Dodgers contenders?

Colletti made a stealth run at Prince Fielder, reportedly offering as much as $160 million over seven years to the first baseman. The Dodgers might have won the right to Fielder’s services were it not for a season-ending ACL tear to Victor Martinez that propelled the Detroit Tigers into the bidding for Fielder. Detroit blew everyone out of the water with a nine-year, $214 million offer and Fielder became a Tiger.

The Dodgers did not upgrade at first base.

Dodgers 2012 Average Projections
Pos Player BA/OBP/SLG
SS Dee Gordon .267/.300/.326
1B James Loney .279/.342/.410
CF Matt Kemp .287/.353/.510
RF Andre Ethier .280/.359/.455
LF Juan Rivera .259/.315/.404
3B Juan Uribe .243/.297/.393
2B Mark Ellis .253/.308/.359
C A.J. Ellis .242/.357/.312
Bench Jerry Hairston Jr. .254/.315/.365
Bench Tony Gwynn Jr. .255/.314/.342
Bench Jerry Sands .238/.308/.425

Pos Pitcher ERA, etc
SP Clayton Kershaw 2.80 ERA, 9.27 K/9
SP Chad Billingsley 3.78 ERA, 1.35 WHIP
SP Ted Lilly 3.58 ERA, 1.16 WHIP
SP Chris Capuano 4.26 ERA, 1.32 WHIP
SP Aaron Harang 4.44 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
CL Javy Guerra 3.98 ERA, 1.41 WHIP
RHP Kenley Jansen 2.08 ERA, 14.43 K/9
RHP Matt Guerrier 3.53 ERA, 1.25 WHIP
RHP Todd Coffey 3.95 ERA, 1.32 WHIP
RHP Mike MacDougal 4.47 ERA, 1.55 WHIP
LHP Scott Elbert 3.71 ERA, 9.99 K/9
RHP Blake Hawksworth 4.30 ERA, 1.37 WHIP

James Loney returns for his final season before free agency, and the Dodgers have to hope against hope that his second half resurgence in 2011 was real. Loney made changes to his swing and approach at the plate under new hitting coach Dave Hansen, and the results paid off as Loney hit .320/.380/.534 with 18 doubles and eight home runs in 67 games after the All-Star break, compared to a putrid .268/.311/.342 with four home runs in 91 games before the break. While the Dodgers hope second-half Jim Loney shows up in 2012, we have four years of pretty consistent performance - .281/.341/.411 over the last four seasons, with an OPS ranging between .732 and .772 - that suggests plain old James Loney will man first base for the Dodgers this season.

What was puzzling about the Dodgers’ pursuit of Fielder was that their transactions over the offseason suggested that the team had no room in the budget for such an addition. Starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda averaged 2.9 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) between Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus in 2011, but the Dodgers never even offered him a contract for 2012, and the right-hander signed with the New York Yankees for one year and $10 million. The Dodgers opted instead to fill the back of their rotation with Chris Capuano (1.7 WAR in 2011) and Aaron Harang (0.8 WAR), each of whom signed back loaded two-year contracts that will pay them just $3 million in 2012. This was the equivalent of former California Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi claiming he could replace Nolan Ryan, 16-14 in 1979, with two 8-7 pitchers. If the money was in the budget to pursue Fielder, the Dodgers should have found a way to bring back Kuroda, especially on a one-year deal.

To project how the Dodgers would perform in 2012, I averaged the projections of Bill James, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS, and the PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus. The Dodgers head into spring training with a nearly set roster, with essentially only a competition for one bench spot and one bullpen spot on the opening day roster.

I used Juan Rivera (.259/.315/.404 average projection) as the everyday left fielder in this scenario, which from a projection standpoint is fairly indistinguishable from any of his competition, specifically Jerry Sands (.238/.308/.425). To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, there is no savior to rise from these streets that would be significantly better than Rivera and provide the thunderous bat the Dodgers sorely need.

Using the lineup analysis tool at Baseball Musings, the Dodgers’ lineup as currently constructed would produce roughly 3.937 runs per game, which translates into approximately 638 runs scored over a 162-game season.
The 12-man pitching staff is projected, on average to produce a 3.70 ERA in 2012. Over a typical full season - the average team pitched 1,450 innings in 2011 - a 3.70 ERA would mean approximately 595 earned runs allowed. The average MLB team in 2011 had 91.6% of their total runs allowed as earned runs, so 595 earned runs allowed would suggest somewhere in the neighborhood of 650 total runs allowed by the Dodgers in 2012.

A team that scores 638 runs and allows 650 runs, to put it simply, would not be a very good team. Such a team would need to be incredibly lucky to contend, as the expected winning percentage for such a team is .491, or 80 wins over a 162-game season. Empirically, this seems about right, as the Dodgers were roughly a .500 team last year and did not add enough to make themselves appreciably different in 2012.

But there are two caveats that could provide a glimmer of hope for Dodgers fans.

The Dodgers open their season with an easy schedule, on paper. They face the San Diego Padres seven times, and the Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros three times in their first 16 games, three teams that combined for a .409 winning percentage in 2011, plus three games against a Milwaukee Brewers team with no Prince Fielder and likely no Ryan Braun as he serves his suspension. Through the end of May, the Dodgers play 30 of their first 51 games at home.

Frank McCourt’s ownership will officially come to an end on April 30, when his sale of the team is to close. If the Dodgers start out hot, perhaps ending their season as well as they ended last season, a new owner willing to make a few big moves to gain favor with a dwindling fan base could swing the pendulum for the Dodgers from a .500 team to one reasonably close to contention.

For more on the Dodgers, be sure to read True Blue LA.