Defending the Dodgers
Looking at the big picture
By Adam Hoff
Whenever you judge something, it is easy to ignore the many important factors lurking below the surface. When I talk about how bad "The Island" is and heaping criticism on everyone involved in the project, I am forgetting that the studio mistakenly put a thought-provoking, high concept movie in the hands of director Michael Bay. Remembering that important fact allows me to take it easy on everyone from the writer to the actors to the production assistants. After all, none of them really had any sort of chance. Same thing goes for Congressional bills, shuttle launches, and reality TV shows; everything is easier to evaluate by simply looking at the finished product and ignoring all of the uncontrollable things that happen on the road to completion. I'm guessing that is what is happening when members of the media pile on the Dodgers management team for a season that has turned out to be less than stellar. They are failing to consider all the factors and just dumping on the finished product. Consider this column a check on the tendency we all have to judge a book by its cover, so to speak.
The railing on DePodesta and other Dodger executives began last fall when LA moved Paul LoDuca, Guillermo Mota, and Juan Encarnacion to Florida for Brad Penny and Hee-Seop Choi. It was a move that was widely criticized at the time, due to Mota's excellent numbers, Encarnacion's many "tools" (baseball jargon for "this guy is athletic but his stats stink"), and LoDuca's productivity and clubhouse popularity. In the minds of skeptics, LA was giving up far too much for a solid starting pitcher and an underachieving first baseman. In some ways, the pundits were right, in others they were wrong. At the time of the deal, I wrote a column titled "LA Story" that defended this trade, and in that column, I explained that the Dodgers had to make the moves they did for a variety of reasons. Among those reasons, I cited the opportunity to trade a perceived stud (Mota was deemed one of the best setup men in baseball) with a cheaper version waiting in the wings (Yhency Brazoban), the common sense principal of trading what the market overvalues (LoDuca's batting average and intensity, Encarnacion's "tools," and Mota's stats), and the absolute necessity in gaining a top of the rotation starting pitcher. While the results haven't been perfect, I stand by each of those statements. Brazoban and Mota have both failed miserably as closers (and as setup man too, for that matter), so that whole situation is a wash, rendered nearly unreviewable by Eric Gagne's injury. LoDuca and Encarnacion continue to be overrated by the general baseball population. While Choi has been a relative disappointment, Penny is a significant upgrade over any other starting pitcher LA has to offer (no offense to Odalis Perez or Jeff Weaver). And it is when we arrive at an analysis of Penny that we come to the real problem with LA's moves: that everybody has been getting hurt.
Injuries have sabotaged this team like few squads I can ever recall. Injuries have turned the disabled list into a revolving door. And injuries make it all but impossible to truly evaluate what Dodgers' management has been doing over the past 12 months. They made the brilliant decision not to overpay for Adrian Beltre (sure he plays great defense, but you think Seattle is happy with that .260 batting average?), but get no credit for it because J.D. Drew is on the shelf. The solid decision to use Mota - a guy that was putting up peak stats, was much older than people realized, and once ran away from Mike Piazza like a scared little kid - as trade bait went up in smoke when Gagne hurt his knee, then his arm. The brilliant acquisition of Penny was obliterated when the former Marlin went on the shelf within two weeks of arriving in Los Angeles. It is kind of hard to spot positive decisions when injuries decimate the landscape.
(By the way, I still don't know why people aren't making a bigger deal out of the Gagne saga. The guy hurt his leg in training camp and then went out and pitched in a Spring Training game while his manager was out of town. Whoever was filling in for Jim Tracy - I think it was bench coach Jim Lett - decided to let him hobble around for 30 pitches in a meaningless game while the ESPN announcers were screaming to get him off the field. Everyone watching that game knew that he was going to hurt his arm doing that, yet nobody took him out. Sure enough, a few weeks later his season was over. What exactly happened down there? Can we get Stone Phillips on this investigation?)
Like the name of the website I write for, you can only imagine "what if?" when trying to determine whether the Dodgers made good moves or bad ones. We've already mentioned the savvy decisions to let Mota and Beltre walk in the face of heated criticism. Where are all the pundits now? Why haven't we had the "Dodgers Thankful They Passed on Ultimate Contract Year Player" story about Beltre yet? How come nobody mentions that Penny threw a two-hitter with 11 K's in his first start with the Dodgers last year – proving that he could fill the role of staff ace – before he felt something pop? If you are going to slam DePodesta for acquiring the likes of the absolutely wooden Hee-Seop Choi, at least be fair about it.
All in all, I still think the Dodgers have made solid moves with their player personnel. They unloaded Shawn Green's contract, got maximum value out of aging (relatively speaking) players LoDuca and Mota, didn't fall for the Beltre Contract Swindle, and let Steve "Dog Years" Finley get his social security check a few miles down I-5 in Anaheim. I know that points aren't awarded for the moves you don't make, but they could be sitting on some horrific contracts right now and be looking a whole lot like the 2002 Mets. Think that would be a fun team to root for? In exchange for those flawed players listed above the Dodgers added the uber talented (albeit injury-prone) J.D. Drew, the aforementioned Penny (one of 15 pitchers in the NL with legitimate Game Seven stuff and makeup), veteran run producer Jeff Kent, and a proven commodity in Derek Lowe to bolster the rotation. I'm telling you, the Dodgers made significant upgrades. But when only three players on your entire roster have over 300 at bats through mid-August, it’s a little hard to tell how things might have turned out.
In fact, here is how the Dodgers offense should look right now (projecting stats to totals through 119 games, factoring in days off and minor injuries):
SS Cesar Izturis. .265/59 runs/9 stolen bases
3B Antonio Perez. .330/.388
CF Milton Bradley .282/.817/17 HR//63 runs
RF J.D. Drew .286/.412/.931/21 HR
2B Jeff Kent .291/.896/22 HR/82 RBI
1B Saenz/Choi .270/.839/21 HR/71 RBI
LF Jayson Werth .250/11 HR/51 RBI
C Jason Phillips .241/10 HR/51 RBI
The bottom of the order would still be suspect and Izturis isn't really what you want from a leadoff hitter, but the Dodgers would have been a potent team 2 through 6. According to my calculations, if you give them normal game totals from their projected starters in place of their Bad News Bears replacements, their total runs scored on the season goes from 513 to 586, which would take them from 12th in the National League to third. Couple that improved offensive attack with decent starting pitching and a healthy bullpen, and this team would be running away with the NL West.
Obviously, any team could be saying "what if?" right now. The Cardinals haven't stopped to cry about Scott Rolen's injuries, or Reggie Sanders going down, or even the mysterious adventures of Rick Ankiel. The Astros aren't worried about losing Bagwell and the Phillies are playing well without Jim Thome. Teams do move on. However, while the team must proceed with that "play the hand you're dealt" mentality that competition demands, it is still helpful for observers to contemplate what might have been, particularly when evaluating the people who put the team together. When you look at the big picture, it becomes fairly obvious that the Dodgers are more snake-bit than horrible and that DePodesta has done more good than bad to the roster. In fact, I'm sure he tells himself that every night as a way of maintaining his vision for the organization and to bolster his confidence in the face of mounting losses and scathing criticism. I'm sure he tells himself that he's done the right thing and that when they get healthy and get a few breaks, he will be rewarded for thinking long term. He should tell himself that and he should believe it.
But good luck telling it to the "experts."
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.