Pressing Questions: The Los Angeles Dodgers

After Frank McCourt sold the Dodgers for a record setting $2 billion – by far the most ever for a sports franchise, and when it comes to MLB, the next highest was $845 million in 2009 for the Cubs – to a group led by Magic Johnson (and former baseball executive Stan Kasten and the Guggenheim Partners), Los Angeles became hyper aggressive, taking on payroll as if money wasn’t an object. It started in June, when the team signed Cuban prospect Yasiel Puig to a $42 million contract, which was $6 million more than was given to Yoenis Cespedes, who was almost unanimously regarded as the better player by most scouts. But that was just the beginning, as the Dodgers then traded for Hanley Ramirez, giving up a modest return in Nathan Eovaldi and Scott McGough. They followed that up by dealing James Loney and four prospects (none particularly exciting) for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto and Carl Crawford, picking up salaries worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars. The aggressive moves didn’t result in a playoff berth in 2012, but it’s not like the spending stopped there.

Since last season ended, the Dodgers also signed Hyun-Jin Ryu, spending $25.7 million just on a posting fee, so they will be paying him a total of $61.7 million over the next six years. As if that wasn’t enough, LA also inked Zack Greinke to a six-year, $147 million contract, as it sure looks like they will end the Yankees’ 14-year streak as baseball’s highest spending team. In fact, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan has pointed out that the Dodgers’ payroll is now higher than the GDP of at least four countries. Spending in baseball is going to increase dramatically across the league thanks to the new TV deal, but Los Angeles looks to benefit the most, as over the next 20 years, Time Warner Cable is going to pay them somewhere between $7 billion and $8 billion. It remains to be seen if management can spend that money wisely, but with Matt Kemp, Ramirez, Gonzalez, Crawford and Beckett all coming off down seasons, there’s scary potential here if they bounce back. And that’s before mentioning the team’s open wallet has no intention of closing anytime soon.

Onto the pressing questions:

Q: How high should Matt Kemp be drafted?

A: After finishing as easily the No. 1 fantasy player in 2011, Kemp was drafted extremely early last season. He finished April batting .417 with 12 homers, 24 runs scored and 25 RBI, and while his two steals may have felt disappointing, it’s tough to swipe second base with an .893 slugging percentage. A truly special fantasy season looked to be in store. However, a subsequent hamstring injury resulted (or at minimum can be partially blamed) in him having zero homers in May and then him missing the next six weeks after he later aggravated it, and when Kemp returned, he hit just five home runs over the next seven weeks before crashing into an outfield wall August 28, injuring his left shoulder in the process. He was hampered over the rest of the year, and the shoulder required surgery that was more extensive than originally anticipated during the offseason, although Kemp is expected to be ready for Opening Day.

Kemp had four straight seasons in which he surpassed 600 at-bats before last year’s injury-riddled campaign, so durability had never been a problem before. He’s entering his age-28 season and will be hitting in the middle of a lineup that could be highly productive. Kemp’s .249 BA in 2010 continues to look increasingly like a total fluke, as he’s a true five-category monster. I can see the argument for Mike Trout, Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera going ahead of him in drafts, but I’d look at Kemp soon thereafter, assuming health reports look positive.

Q: Will Adrian Gonzalez’s power return?

A: Gonzalez once hit 40 home runs while playing half his games in Petco Park, a place that suppresses left-handed power more so than any other in baseball by a wide margin. He hit just 27 homers during his first year in Boston in 2011, but he was coming off shoulder surgery and still slugged .548, which was the second highest mark of his career. Many (including myself) expected the home runs to improve last season another year removed from the shoulder surgery, but his power actually dropped significantly, as he hit only 15 long balls over 484 at-bats with the Red Sox before getting traded to Los Angeles, where he added just three more HR over another 145 at-bats and slugged only .441 - the lowest mark since his rookie year. Compounding the concern is the sudden decline in his walk rate as well. Here’s Gonzalez’s BB% over the past four seasons: 17.5, 13.4, 10.3 and 6.1. Here are his ISOs over that same span: .274, .213, .210 and .164, the latter being the worst of his career. Erosion in both walk rate and power isn’t exactly an ideal combination.

Gonzalez’s K rate and GB/FB ratio have mostly stayed the same, and he should hardly be written off entering what will be his age 32 season. Moreover, he batted .299 and finished with 108 RBI last year, so it’s not like he was a colossal bust. Still, his drop in power is mysterious and at least somewhat concerning. While acknowledging his declining BB% could very well be a sign Gonzalez won’t age well, at least he’ll be much cheaper at draft tables, and the bet here is he bounces back, even if he’s clearly entering a decline phase.

Q: What’s the deal with Carl Crawford?

A: After signing a huge contract with the Red Sox, Crawford was a massive disappointment during his first year in Boston, posting a .255/.289/.405 line while going from one of the league’s toughest hitter’s parks to one of its best. He rebounded some at the plate last year (.282/.306/.479), but injuries limited him to just 31 games, making him one of fantasy’s bigger busts in each of the past two seasons. Crawford is recovering from Tommy John surgery but is expected to be ready for Opening Day.

He’s become essentially a platoon player at this stage of his career (he did hit lefties well last season, but it was in an insignificant 39-AB sample that included a 9:1 K:BB ratio), and it’s worth noting he’s attempted just 29 stolen bases over the past two years, in what amounts to one full season (623 at-bats). He averaged 60.7 SB attempts over his previous eight seasons. Who knows, maybe the change in scenery helps, and Crawford makes for an interesting last year’s bum (X2) target, and he’ll certainly be cheaper (a running theme with this Dodgers team) than at any point in his career.

Q: What’s the deal with Hanley Ramirez?

A: While Ramirez didn’t follow up a disappointing 2011 campaign with an even worse 2012 like Crawford, he also didn’t return to his previous star status, posting a .257/.322/.437 line playing for both the Marlins and Dodgers. His K rate (19.8) was the highest of his career, while his walk rate (8.1) was his lowest since 2007. The most curious aspect of Ramirez is him transforming into such an extreme groundball hitter. In fact, over the past three seasons, his 1.48 GB/FB rate is the 25th highest in all of baseball. While that’s obviously not what you want to see from a young and previously powerful shortstop, what’s even weirder is that his BABIP over that span is .301. That seems normal enough on the surface, until you realize it was .351 from 2006-2009 – tied for the fifth highest in MLB. Put differently, Ramirez has suffered a drop in homers thanks to hitting more groundballs, yet his hit rate has also declined precipitously at the same time, as we’d normally expect the opposite to occur (groundballs typically go for hits far more than fly balls). It’s a truly odd case that’s now been three years running, although that doesn’t necessarily suggest it will mean anything moving forward.

Either way, Ramirez no longer looks like the elite fantasy property he once was, but given his recent profile, it’s probably safe to expect improvement either in 1) batting average or 2) home runs.

Q: Who will close?

A: Rest assured, the spending spree wasn’t limited to offense or the starting rotation, as the team handed Brandon League a three-year, $22.5 million deal, which currently looks like the favorite for craziest contract given this offseason. The rich deal makes League the heavy favorite to enter the year as closer, which is most important to fantasy owners, even if his skill set pales in comparison to Kenley Jansen’s (and while I doubt this was the Dodgers’ intentions, it’s not like teams should always use their best relievers in ninth-inning roles exclusively).

Still, performance could easily lead to a change at some point. League is coming off a season in which he posted a 54:33 K:BB ratio over 72.0 innings with a 1.36 WHIP while playing for both the Mariners and Dodgers. He was better after joining Los Angeles, but it’s not like pitching for Seattle in that division makes the league switch all that prominent. League had a 3.13 ERA despite a completely unsustainable 2.1 HR/FB% and is especially vulnerable pigeonholed in a closer’s role with such extreme righty/lefty platoon splits. Jansen, meanwhile, is easily one of the best relievers in baseball. His career K rate is 14.58 and hopefully offseason surgery corrected his heart problem for good. It certainly doesn’t always work this way, but I’d bet on skills over role here, especially since Jansen should come cheaper.

Q: What about Zack Greinke?

A: Greinke has the reputation as someone whose peripherals don’t match his actual performance, and while it’s not totally without merit, his career ERA (3.77) isn’t that far off his career xFIP (3.62). He’s certainly been inconsistent over the past couple of years though, as after posting ERAs of 5.29 and 6.04 over his first two months of the 2011 season, he followed that up with 2.27, 3.02 and 3.00 months to end the year. Last season, he recorded a 1.70 ERA in June. Then a 5.46 ERA in July and a 5.22 ERA in August. Naturally, his ERA in September was 2.11. It all counts the same in the end, and pitching in the NL West should help moving forward. Greinke has quietly become an extreme groundball pitcher of late (his GB/FB ratios over the past four years: 0.99, 1.27, 1.54, 1.69), which might help explain his decline in K rate from 2011 to 2012, when he introduced a cutter for the first time in his career.

Quick Hits: Clayton Kershaw took a small step back last season, with his K rate declining while his BB and HR/FB rates increased, but he’s a total stud who needs no further explanation. He should be one of the top-three pitchers off the board (most would say it’s between him or Justin Verlander, but I think one other SP deserves strong consideration at the top as well. But I’m probably the only one)…Josh Beckett’s average fastball velocity over the past four years, represented via mph: 94.3, 93.5, 93.1 and 91.4. I actually think he represents yet another strong buy-low opportunity on LA for fantasy owners, as his switch from the AL East to the NL West is about as helpful as it gets, but last year’s drop in velocity is something of a concern…Hyun-Jin Ryu (his namesake was always my go to in “Street Fighter 2” back in the day) had a 2.80 ERA over seven seasons in Korea, and like all foreign pitchers, enters MLB as a wild card. He won’t turn 26 until March and had a 3.23 K:BB ratio in Korea’s most competitive league, so there’s upside here…Los Angeles’ rotation is so deep, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang are all competing for just one spot. A couple of trades look inevitable (specifically, addressing third base)…There remains the possibility of moving Ramirez back to third to open up shortstop for Dee Gordon, and the latter’s incredible speed still leaves fantasy owners salivating, but his bat simply might never be worthy of being a major league regular, unfortunately…I’ve never tried one, but Adam Carolla claims the Dodger Dog is the worst hot dog in America. Thoughts?

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