By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (93-69) - First Place (NL West); lost to St. Louis in NLDS
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: C - Paul Bako; RP - Frank Brooks; OF - J.D. Drew; 2B - Jeff Kent; OF - Ricky Ledee; SP - Derek Lowe; 3B - Norihiro Nakamura; Jason Phillips (C); 3B - Jose Valentin
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 3B - Adrian Beltre; INF - Alex Cora; OF - Steve Finley; OF - Shawn Green; INF - Jose Hernandez; SP - Kazuhisa Ishii; SP - Jose Lima; SP - Hideo Nomo; RP - Paul Shuey;
PROJECTED LINEUP: Cesar Izturis (SS); Hee Seop Choi (1B); J.D. Drew (RF); Jeff Kent (2B); Milton Bradley (CF); Jayson Werth (LF); Jose Valentin (3B); Jason Phillips
PROJECTED ROTATION: Derek Lowe (RHP); Jeff Weaver (RHP); Odalis Perez (LHP); Brad Penny (RHP); Scott Erickson (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Eric Gagne (RHP)
MANAGER: Jim Tracy
On the heels of a 93-69 record and their first division title since 1995, the Dodgers are faced with the task of not rebuilding, but retooling as they aim to repeat as champions in the NL West. Gone are Adrian Beltre, Steve Finley, Shawn Green and Kazuhisa Ishii. General manager Paul DePodesta managed to work out deals for free agent rightfielder J.D. Drew, second baseman Jeff Kent, third baseman Jose Valentin, catcher Jason Phillips and sinkerballer Derek Lowe.
Because of the changes, there are a few big questions this season. First, will the offense be able to account for the offseason losses? Green, Beltre and Finley combined for 89 homers and 253 RBI while with the Dodgers last season. Incredibly, that's 44 percent of the home runs and nearly 35 percent of the runs driven in.
Second, how will the catching situation iron out with Phillips expected to carry the load? Acquired in a trade from the Mets in the deal that sent Ishii to New York, Phillips will no doubt bring stability behind the plate, and it gives options for the Dodgers to trade David Ross.
Third, what effect will a sprained knee have on super-closer Eric Gagne early in the season? Gagne was changing his delivery earlier in spring training to compensate for the problem, stemming from a mild sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
Fourth, how will Brad Penny rebound from a devastating arm injury that cut short his 2004 season? Penny was traded to the Dodgers from Florida, but was limited to three starts for LA due to nerve irritation in his right arm.
Valentin certainly won't be able to match what Beltre did at the hot corner last year with 48 homers and 121 RBI. A 13-year veteran, Valentin did crush 30 homers and drive in 70 runs last season for the White Sox, but those numbers aren't half the story. He hit just .216 and fanned 139 times while drawing only 43 walks. Valentin will now have to make the switch from shortstop to third base, where he hasn't played since 2002.
A guy who is 6'5" tall and weighs 240 pounds should be considered one of the best power-hitters in the game, right? Not if you're Hee Seop Choi. The Korean-born first baseman was highly-touted when he came through the Cubs organization, but since starting his major league career in 2002, he's been limited to only 25 homers in 595 at-bats. After being acquired from the Marlins in the deal that sent Paul Lo Duca to Florida, Choi batted a disastrous .161 and didn't homer in 62 at-bats in an LA uniform. Those power numbers are likely to increase, but he'll be under more pressure if he's hitting from the No. 2 slot, unlike last year when he was in the middle of the lineup.
The Dodgers must rely heavily on shortstop Cesar Izturis to become the offensive spark-plug as the lead-off hitter, but his on-base percentage was a paltry .330 last year. He is however one of the best defenders in the league.
Kent provided a spark for Houston last year with 27 homers, 107 RBI and a .289 average. During a healthy season, he's consistently in the range of 25 HR and 100 RBI, and this year should be no different, although he's only a career. 250 hitter at Dodger Stadium. The 37-year-old still has strong defensive skills for a second baseman and is still one of the best fastball hitters in the game.
Phillips batted a paltry .218 last season with seven home runs and 34 RBI in 128 games. In 2003 the 28-year-old impressed and seemed headed for stardom, as he hit .298 with 11 homers and 58 RBI in 119 games. Since he'll likely be the full-time catcher in a non-platoon situation, like he had last season with Mike Piazza, Phillips could hone his skills and concentrate more on his defense.
Signed to a one-year, incentive-laden deal in the offseason, the Dodgers are giving Milton Bradley another shot in center field, despite late-season turmoil in 2004. On the positive side, he established career-highs with 19 home runs and 67 RBI while batting .267. He added 15 stolen bases and nine outfield assists
However, Bradley's five-year career has been marred by a series of troubling incidents, both on and off the field, in which the speedy switch-hitter has lost his cool. He was suspended for the final five games of last season after a bottle-throwing tantrum involving a fan at Dodger Stadium and also received a four-game penalty earlier in the year after tossing a bag of balls onto the field following an ejection.
Bradley's irrational behavior continued during the offseason, as he was cited for disorderly conduct after interfering with a traffic stop in Ohio on Thanksgiving Day.
The big bucks are rolling in for Drew, who finalized a five-year, $55 million pact just before Christmas. Drew's salary reflects his 2004 performance with the Braves, when he batted .305 with career-highs in homers (31), runs scored (118) runs scored and walks (118). The 29-year-old also posted 93 RBI and exceeded all expectations by staying healthy.
While Jayson Werth is expected to be the everyday leftfielder, that won't be the case at the beginning of the season. Werth has an injured left wrist and will likely start the season on the DL, leaving rookie Jason Repko to take his place. Repko isn't known for his power, but hit .311 at Las Vegas last year and was hitting over .350 this spring. Werth hit .272 when slotted in the No. 2 hole last season, but is hardly worth of being a No. 2 man in a lineup.
The Dodgers were ranked fourth in the majors in ERA (4.01) last season, and a good season from Lowe could lower that mark even more, although his ERA was 5.42 last year. At four years and $36 million, the righthander's new contract screams of a poor deal, although because of a porous defense in Boston, he allowed more unearned runs last season (28) than any other pitcher in recent memory. The product of his $9 million a year contract can be traced to the postseason, when Lowe's stock rose due to his 1.86 ERA in the playoffs.
Jeff Weaver will be pitching for a big payday, as he enters the final year of his contract with the Dodgers. The 38-year-old righthander's 13-13 mark and 4.01 ERA last season was respectable, when considering his ERA was a career- worst 5.99 with the Yankees in 2003. Weaver still has the tools to be an asset in the rotation with a hard slider and good breaking ball, but sometimes loses focus when things don't go his way.
Odalis Perez was nearly traded in the offseason, but the Dodgers gave him a three-year, $24 million contract. It's considered a good deal, not only because he's a young (27) lefthander, but since his ERA was 3.26 last year and he's not likely to break down long term, although he was battling biceps tendinitis in spring training.
Penny had his season come to an end after just three starts with the Dodgers due to a right biceps injury. He was 9-10 with a 3.15 ERA in 24 combined starts for the Dodgers and Marlins and allowed three runs or less in 19 of his 24 starts.
Veteran righthander Scott Erickson or lefty Wilson Alvarez are battling for the No. 5 starter's spot. The 37-year-old Erickson could be the choice here, even though he was limited to a combined six games last season between the Mets and Rangers. Alvarez may not be ready for the start of the season due to tendinitis in his shoulder.
An All-Star in each of the last three years, Gagne signed a two-year, $19- million contract this offseason. He won the 2003 NL Cy Young after leading the majors with 55 saves and posting a microscopic 1.20 ERA in 77 appearances. The 29-year-old put together another outstanding season in 2004, as Gagne went 7-3 with a 2.19 ERA and 45 saves. He also set a major-league record with 84 straight successful converted save opportunities that was broken in July.
Yhency Brazoban is expected to serve as the No. 1 right-handed setup man, replacing Guillermo Mota, who was dealt to Florida last year. Righthander Duaner Sanchez, picked up off waivers from Pittsburgh last year, joins Aquilino Lopez and Frank Brooks in set-up roles, while Elmer Dessens and Giovanni Carrara will likely get the bulk of the work in long relief.
With Ross likely to be traded, expect Paul Bako to be used as the back-up, mostly as a defensive replacement in the late innings. Ricky Ledee will be a valuable bat off the bench since he has home run power and is slick in the field. Antonio Perez is a solid middle infielder and his offensive numbers weren't that shabby (.296, 22 HR, 88 RBI) last year at Las Vegas. Third baseman Norihiro Nakamura, who clubbed 46 homers in 2001 and 42 in 2002 while playing in Japan, may not even make the 25-man roster.
The losses of Beltre, who is now with the Mariners, and Green, who was dealt to the Diamondbacks, have left a huge hole in the offense. Kent and Drew will close that gap, but the Dodgers don't have enough power in their lineup, or on the mound to win this division, even if the Giants are without Barry Bonds for the first half of the season.