The 2015 Dodgers Feel Like Déjà vu All Over Again

(4/6/15, 2:24 a.m.)

Once upon a time, the Dodgers won the NL West – sparked by a breakthrough season by a young home-grown infielder, a stellar season by an elite closer and a powerful resurgence from a former All-Star slugger – only to lose the NLDS (3-1) to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Under the leadership of a stat-minded 30-something GM (an alumni of Billy Beane’s Oakland front office), the Dodgers underwent a remarkable off-season makeover.  The Dodgers’ veteran slugger was traded for a promising young catcher and the exciting young infielder departed.  Flush with cash, the Dodgers acquired two veteran star position players and a quality starting pitcher.  Baseball Prospectus and other pundits picked the Dodgers to repeat as NL West Champions.

Oh, did you think I was talking about the 2014-2015 Dodgers?  No . . . I was just reminiscing about what happened during the team’s off-season a decade ago.  During the 2004 season the Dodgers posted a 93-69 record.  Shawn Green had just hit 28 HR in a great bounceback season and was promptly dealt to Arizona for young catcher Dioner Navarro and spare parts.  Adrian Beltre left via free agency over an apparent difference of a million bucks a year.  But GM Paul DePodesta signed Jeff Kent, J. D. Drew and Derek Lowe and optimism was high entering the 2005 season.

Unfortunately, that 2005 team suffered through a dismal 71-91 season and finished fourth – despite the fact that new Dodgers Kent, Drew and Lowe each performed predictably well (although elite closer, Eric Gagne, got hurt and only pitched 13 innings that season).  So what caused this unexpected fall from grace?  Clearly, it was a combination of injuries and unexpectedly poor performances.  In other words: baseball happens.  But – maybe there’s more to it than that.  Perhaps something that the Dodgers’ new regime might ultimately learn from (if history repeats itself).

I remember how I felt watching the 2004 Dodgers.  That was a thrilling team.  Paul LoDuca was a joy to watch behind the plate (before he was dealt to Florida that July as part of the package that delivered Brad Penny and Hee-Sop Choi).  The infield of Shawn Green, Alex Cora, Cesar Izturis and Adrian Beltre was the best I’d seen since Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey in their prime.  2004 was LoDuca’s Beltre’s and Cora’s seventh year with the team, Green’s fifth year (most of it spent as an OF) and Izturis’ third year.  These five players had become part of the fabric of the team that climbed from two consecutive third place finishes in 2001-02 to second place in 2003 to the NL West Pennant in 2004.  Like many fans, I looked forward to watching these players grow and develop year after year – to mold themselves from contenders into champions.  While the July 2004 LoDuca trade was a disappointing gut punch, it was still easy to be optimistic about the Dodgers’ potential to climb the ladder to the 2005 World Series after being eliminated by the Cardinals in October of 2004.  Perhaps the addition of a couple of key players would be enough to put them over the top. . .

When the Dodgers signed Jeff Kent that December, I was a bit sad about the prospect of losing Alex Cora but I was also excited that the addition of Kent’s offense might mean for the team.  But those good feelings collapsed just two days later when Adrian Beltre accepted the Mariners’ offer – punching a huge hole in the Dodgers’ offense and infield defense.  The acquisition of J.D. Drew a week later was of only slight solace.

By the time all the dust had settled (and including the impact of the LoDuca trade), the 2004 Dodgers team that won 93 games (and the NL West Pennant) had, by design (and by the failure to sign Beltre) replaced its primary starting position players at C, 1B, 2B, 3B, LF and RF.  No matter how you slice it – that’s a huge turnover.  On paper, the 2005 Dodgers were still picked by many pundits to win the NL West but, instead, won just 71 games.

Fast-forward to the 2014-2015 off-season:  Under the leadership of another stat-minded 30-something GM (and alumni of Billy Beane’s Oakland front office), the Dodgers underwent a remarkable off-season makeover.  After a season in which the Dodgers won 94 games and the NL West pennant before being eliminated by the Cardinals in the NLDS, Dodgers’ slugger Matt Kemp (who had just enjoyed a successful bounceback season) was traded as part of a package for a promising young catcher (Yasmani Grandal).   Exciting young infielder Dee Gordon (a once highly-touted prospect who finally enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2014) departed as part of a trade that delivered several talented players and lead to the Dodgers acquisition of Howie Kendrick (albeit for just one year).  Free agent Hanley Ramirez was allowed to sign elsewhere and his void at SS filled by well-established veteran Jimmy Rollins.  By the time all the dust had settled, the 2014 Dodgers that had won 94 games had replaced its primary position players at C, 2B, SS and CF.  This all feels very familiar and eerily similar to the 2004-05 off-season in many respects (the fact that Gagne was injured in 2005 and Kenley Jansen is now injured just adds to the creep factor) – although Zaidi’s moves have collectively not been as completely disruptive as DePodesta’s moves.

Of course, each element of the comparison between the 2005 and 2015 Dodgers is unique.  It could certainly be well argued that the Dodgers have upgraded its offense at C and 2B and its defense at 2B, SS and CF.  But let’s take a closer look at each position:

Yasmani Grandal has tremendous offensive potential but is arguably largely unproven and there is little doubt that his defensive skills are highly suspect behind the plate.  Notwithstanding Grandal’s elite pitch-framing statistics, he lead the league in Passed Balls despite only starting 67 games at Catcher and his CS% was only about half that of other catchers on the 2014 Padres’ pitching staff.  It was also reported that three Padres starting pitchers requested that Grandal not catch their games in 2014, which certainly does not sound like great news.  (It will be interesting to see if Grandal’s pitch-framing skills result in improvements in the performances of any of the Dodgers’ pitchers.)

Howie Kendrick is certainly an excellent all-around second-baseman and, while Dee Gordon had a good offensive season last year, much has been written about the fact that he only drew two walks after the All-Star Game and his OBP sunk like a stone.  That being said, it is interesting to note that that Kendrick’s and Gordon’s “age 26” seasons are remarkably similar.  At 26, Kendrick posted a line of .279/.313/.407 with 14 SB while Gordon’s line was .289/.326/.378 with 64 SB so Gordon may have a good chance at improving upon his offensive performance, especially under Brett Butler’s tutelage in Miami.  While Kendrick is currently a superior defensive second-baseman, Gordon was actually among the MLB’s best second-basemen in converting difficult plays into outs (according to Inside Edge’s statistics available on FanGraphs) and, if Gordon can become more dependable at routine plays (where he was slightly below-average during 2014, his first full year at the position), his overall defensive performance and reputation could well improve.  Will Kendrick prove to be an upgrade?  For 2015, that’s very likely.  But if Gordon continues to improve instead of regressing, as many pundits believe he will, the question of whether Kendrick is a significant upgrade over Gordon may prove to be a closer call than many suspect.  For what it’s worth, I support the Gordon trade itself because I’m very high on Kike’ Hernandez, Austin Barnes and Chris Hatcher and I’m perfectly happy with one year of Kendrick.  However, considering that the Dodgers had Gordon under several years of team control when they traded him and only have Kendrick under control for 2015, if Gordon does improve throughout the balance of his 20s, it may become important for Barnes, Hernandez and Hatcher to make meaningful MLB contributions for the trade to continue to tilt in the Dodgers’ favor.

Jimmy Rollins is a multiple All-Star and Gold Glove winner and should bring a lot of value to the 2015 Dodgers.  That being said, he’s 36 years old and plays SS.  As much as I love Rollins as a player, the cold reality is that even some of the greatest middle-infielders of all-time hit the proverbial wall right around Rollins’ age (or earlier).  Barry Larkin’s skills declined markedly after his age 36 season, Alan Trammell after age 35 and Ryne Sandberg after 33, so it should not be at all unexpected if Rollins loses a step in the field and a bit of bat speed in 2015.  In any event, Rollins’ defense should be vastly superior to that of Hanley Ramirez and, hopefully, he will retain enough offensive pop to avoid becoming a liability at the plate.

Joc Pederson certainly looks fantastic: a young CF with power, speed, patience and a high ceiling.  How will Pederson perform as an everyday player against MLB pitchers?  Will he become the next Duke Snider, Todd Hollandsworth or Billy Ashley?  Only time will tell.  Meanwhile, at the plate, Pederson is essentially replacing Matt Kemp and his .852 OPS and 25 HR.  Sure, Kemp’s defensive performance has not been good in recent years, especially in CF, but his 2014 performance in RF was actually just about league average (again, according to Inside Edge’s statistics).  So it may be over-simplifying things a bit to suggest that Pederson, an above-average defensive player, need not post such lofty offensive numbers to replace Kemp.  I am convinced that Kemp’s bat will be sorely missed.  Joc’s defense will have to be stellar to offset the loss of offense.

For any MLB team to win 94 games is actually a pretty rare and special thing.  So many things have to work out well.  So many things have to remain in balance.  Tampering too much with a team that just won 94 games seems somehow reckless.  As Greinke recently said in an interview (I’m paraphrasing), it can take some time for players to learn how to play well as a unit.  In 2004, a core group of 5 starting position players had played together for the Dodgers for an average of nearly six years.  Last year, Kemp, Ellis, Uribe, Gordon and Hanley had played together for the Dodgers for an average of five years.  In 2015, four of the Dodgers’ starting eight will be playing for the Dodgers for the first time, and the five starting position players with the longest tenures with the team will have averaged less than 3.5 years.

So what will this mean for the Dodgers in 2015?  Of course, that’s impossible to predict.  One method that I’ve used in years past to project a team’s performance has been to make a list of a team’s “question marks” and try to apply a blend of best-case and worse-case scenarios.  For example, the average age of the Dodgers infield is a source of some concern, as a drop in range or efficiency, especially at SS and 3B, could negate other defensive improvements.  How will the Dodgers fare without Kenley Jansen as Closer for the first part of the season?  If Grandal’s defense proves unplayable and A.J. Ellis doesn’t bounceback offensively, who would help fill the void?  The Dodgers won the NL West Pennant in 2013 and 2014, out-performing their expected W-L record (based on runs scored vs. runs allowed) by two to three games – which suggests a bit of good luck padded their win totals.  It would be fairly extraordinary for the Dodgers to win a third straight division title, even without so many changes.

Of course, as a lifelong Dodgers fan (I first started following the team in 1974), nothing would please me more than to see this team pull it all together and win it all.  As a fan, I’m trying to be excited.  I want to be optimistic.  Surely, my heart wants another championship.  But my poor brain (such as it is) projects this Dodgers team to win about 84 games.  Meanwhile, I expect the Padres and Giants to win between 80 and 90 games so perhaps 84 wins may still be enough for the Dodgers to elbow their way into the playoffs.

Play Ball!

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