Almost in spite of themselves, the Los Angeles Dodgers enter the 2012 season with a ray of hope. With the team coming up for auction at the end of January, the Dodgers seem positioned to emerge from the McCourt Era stronger than ever, after enduring the sort of terrible seasons that occur when your owner uses the team as his own personal ATM machine. Led by the Â NL MVP runner-up and Cy Young Award winner, the Dodgers turned their terrible 2011 first half into a semi-respectable 82-79 record.
They even had a little money to spend this winter (unlike the Mets, who are about to experience the greatest single-year payroll drop off in MLB history. Instead of signing an impact free agent or even saving his money for another day, GM Ned Colletti signed his usual array of overpriced, past-their-prime veterans to multi-year, backloaded contracts. Their 7 year offer to Prince Fielder failed to bring the slugger to Chavez Ravine, but it signaled brighter days ahead.
Beyond their obvious top-tier talent, the Dodgers hold many interesting fantasy possibilities, and could be a great source of value for the discerning owner. Here are 5 questions about the Dodgers for fantasy baseball owners going into 2012:
Are Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw the best players in the universe?
2011 MVP runner-up Matt Kemp and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw took home all the hardware, and they’ve deservedly rocketed up draft boards. What’s more, they’re even solid bets to repeat. With the number of slugging first basemen available compared to nearly-40/40 outfielders (one homer shy), it’s no wonder Kemp will go #1 overall in many 2012 fantasy drafts. His 21% HR/F (home run/fly ball) rate may not be sustainable, but blazing speed, prodigious power and an improving batting eye will keep a possible regression to a minimum. Entering his age 27 season, look for Kemp to maintain and even possibly improve on his 2011 numbers as he enters his prime. Considering how few guarantees the outfield holds in 2012, as well as the scarcity of players with 40/40 in today’s game, no one will blame you if you pass up Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera or Jose Bautista in favor of Kemp.
As for Kershaw, he has few rivals entering 2012. Kershaw went 21-5 with a 2.28 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 248 strikeouts on his way to winning a Cy Young at 23. Kershaw benefits from killer stuff, an excellent home pitching environment, a weak division and decent run support, and he is still learning the finer points of becoming a major league ace. Only Justin Verlander topped Kershaw’s fantasy value among pitchers in 2011. Verlander’s magical 2011 stats seem ripe for a bit of regression (as suggested by his 2.99 FIP compared to a 2.40 ERA), though, while Kershaw only shows signs of continued growth and improvement. Don’t be shocked if Kershaw out-performs Verlander, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in 2012. Even the most pitching-adverse owners might find themselves spending their second round pick on the best young pitcher in baseball.
Can Andre Ethier return to form?
That all depends on what you mean by “form.” Ethier never had a reputation as a big-time power hitter, and before his 2009 breakout, the most HR he hit at any level was 18, at Double-A Midland in 2005. 2009’s gaudy power numbers look like an anomaly, but a healthy Ethier entering a contract year and hitting next to Kemp for an entire season should not be underestimated.
For fantasy owners who can stomach a little risk, Ethier could represent 30/100/.300 upside. The cautious should temper their expectations when it comes to his power, expecting closer to 20 HR than 30. Like all things, the true answer lies somewhere in the middle. If the power outage and smorgasbord of past injuries (ankle, toe and elbow, in addition to 2011’s knee) scare you off, outfielders like Chris B. Young, Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher and Logan Morrison could all be available as more stable alternatives.
Is Juan Rivera really the Dodgers’ starting LF?
One of Colletti’s many perplexing offseason moves was to sign Juan Rivera to a 1 year, $4.5 million contract (with a team option, no less), thereby spending a valuable chunk of the cash-strapped club’s restricted budget, to block emerging young hitter Jerry Sands. Sands had a topsy-turvy 2011, spending time in the big leagues and at AAA, but a strong September (.343 BA, .413 OBP and .493 SLG, including a 14 game hitting streak) with the Dodgers gave a possible preview of things to come. An unheralded 25th round pick, Sands showed excellent power in the minors, and could deliver fantasy owners a very affordable 20-25 homers and 70+ RBIs if given enough playing time.
It’s better for Sands as a player to get regular at-bats in AAA than ride the pine behind Rivera, so do not despair if he spends April in Albuquerque instead of Los Angeles. If he starts 2012 in the minors and rakes, he may force his way into the conversation. When the inevitable new owner decides to let the kids play full time, look for Sands to be manning LF for the Dodgers full-time by year’s end. He could even wind up on most mixed-league rosters before season’s end. Sands may not be a draft day necessity if he gets sent down to AAA, but monitor his activity and be ready to pounce on the waiver wire as the season progresses.
Is Dee Gordon the next Jose Reyes?
While Dee Gordon lacks Reyes’ pop (and hopefully his hamstring vulnerability), he could approach the new Marlin’s best years on the basepaths. Â If he plays every day and steals like he’s capable of, Gordon could be be an incredible value at a shallow position.Â Fantasy owners should be able to pencil Gordon in for at least 40 steals, and could be rewarded with a lot more.Â Â Owners considering drafting Elvis Andrus in the first 5 rounds may want to wait until the middle rounds and aim for similar numbers out of Gordon.
Gordon hit .372 over the last 31 days of the 2011 season, but such production is completely unsustainable from the youngster and should be taken with a grain of salt.Â The steals will likely be Gordon’s only fantasy contribution, and they may remain a bit suppressed until he gets on base at a higher clip and learns to take a pitch. His slightly suspect glove might affect his playing time, but the SS job is his to lose. Gordon may not be the next Reyes, but he just might represent the best value at shortstop once the top options are off the board.
Is there a single starting pitcher to own other than Kershaw?
After Kershaw, the Dodgers’ rotation gets shallow quickly. Colletti responded to the Hiroki Kuroda’s free agency by spending the money it would have taken to re-sign him on Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang, two fading hurlers with little appeal outside deep NL-only leagues and the occasional favorable matchup. Chad Billingsley’s thoroughly mediocre 2011 makes him something of an unknown, and he could just as easily find himself a fixture on your roster as on the waiver wire.
Ted Lilly has always been somewhat underrated as a steady fantasy commodity, but increasing age (36), decreasing strikeouts and a steadily increasing walk rate don’t bode well for much more than a late-round flyer. With so many quality starting pitchers out there this year, there’s less need than ever to draft a guy like Lilly, who’s a safer bet than Billingsley but lacks any upside. Billingsley and Lilly represent nothing more than end-game options in mixed leagues.
Every team in the NL West has made a playoff appearance in the last 6 years, so don’t count the Dodgers out of contention just yet, especially if the team’s new owner decides to make a big splash in LA and open his checkbook. The Dodgers hold plenty of fantasy value going into Spring Training, but the resolution of off-field ownership distractions could bring in even more talent, and increase the value of the their already-valuable young players.