Fire Jim Tracy

Saturday, April 09, 2005

J.D. Penny and the First Four Games

I started this season with the assumption that this team’s general success was largely (and dangerously) dependant on two factors:

1) J.D. Drew’s health
2) Brad Penny’s health

I was also somewhat concerned with a third-—how DePodesta’s theoretical Derek Lowe (i.e. the extreme groundball pitcher pitching in Dodger Stadium) would play out in real life-—but it seemed to me that J.D. Penny’s (ha!) health was a much more significant issue. Drew, because on paper he seemed to be the cornerstone of an offense filled with questions; Penny because of the value he provides to a rotation that’s hazy after Odalis Perez, Jeff Weaver, and Derek Lowe. If Penny’s healthy, he gives the team legitimate front-line starter-type innings; if he’s not, Jim Tracy plays bingo with two important rotation slots and hopes he gets Lima-type (i.e. flukish) performance from Elmer Dessens, Scott Erickson, Wilson Alvarez, or Mystery Minor Leaguer.

These are not unreasonable assumptions, but I’m willing to believe that they may be incorrect.

Let’s pretend we can glean something meaningful from four games against two teams that weren’t projected to be very good: a geriatric Giants squad sans Bonds and Alou, and a Diamondbacks team that needed major organ transplants but settled for cosmetic surgery. We can’t, really-—sample size problems, strength of schedule considerations--but perhaps we can develop a good starting point or two to serve as foundation for subsequent, more meaningful analysis.

The Dodgers have won 3 of 4 games, scoring 26 runs and allowing 15. They’ve essentially done this without the main actors of my thesis--Penny is on the DL and J.D. Drew is still hitless as a Dodger.

They’ve also done it without much help from a bullpen that was projected to continue its status as one of the league’s best. Dodger relievers have given up 8 of the team’s 15 runs in a measly 9.1 IP (out of the team’s 35 IP). This isn’t a total shock, though—-Eric Gagne, Giovanni Carrara, and Alvarez are hurt, and because of Penny’s injury status Dessens has to move into the starting rotation. So while there is some cause for concern here, it’s nothing time and healing shouldn’t fix.

If you did the math in that last paragraph, you know that Dodger starters (Lowe, Perez, Weaver, and Dessens) have given up 7 runs in 25.2 IP. This translates to a stellar 2.45 ERA for the Dodger starting rotation in these first four games. They haven’t been 25.2 perfect innings: Perez (3 walks & 6 hits in 5 innings) and Lowe (8 hits and 2 walks in 7 innings) both had to work out of several jams. But I doubt many expected that this group, which was filled with preseason question marks (Perez’s tendonitis, Lowe’s effectiveness, Dessens’ effectiveness), would collectively slap a 2.45 ERA on opposing hitters. We can’t expect this to continue-—certainly not from Dessens—-but that Perez, Weaver, and Lowe all shined in their debuts in spite of the questions and concerns accompanying them is a positive indicator at this early point of the season. With Penny healing well and set to return to the rotation in a couple of weeks, early signs point to the team deploying four solid starting pitchers, a luxury few teams enjoy.

As good as the Dodger starters have been these past four games, the offense has been even better. After a forgettable 2-run/5-hit debut against Jason Schmidt at SBC Park (a tough an assignment as any in the bigs), Dodger hitters have produced 24 runs in the last 3 games. They’ve done this without any meaningful contributions from proven-performer Drew (.000/.071/.000 in 15 ABs) and Hee Seop Choi (.000/.125/.000 in 7 ABs). Instead, they’ve relied on the efforts of Jeff Kent (.500/.600./583 in 12 ABs), Jose Valentin (.429/.615/1.143 in 7 ABs), Milton Bradley (.357/.400/.571 in 14 ABs), Olmedo Saenz (.600/.667/.800 in 5 ABs), and sparkplug catcher Jason Phillips, who had an RBI in each of the first three games and absolutely killed two balls tonight that were inches away from being hits instead of outs.

Kent came to the Dodgers as already having established himself as the greatest second-baseman of his era. While we should expect some age-based offensive decline from Kent, he has so far been a monster in the batter’s box and on the field (at second and first base). I love his intensity; I love his performance even more. Phillips is another welcome addition; whereas Dodger fans used to expect nearly nonexistent production at the bottom of the lineup (from David Ross and Alex Cora), Phillips appears set to provide some punch at the eight spot. Bradley looks like he’s improved his approach, Valentin has more than made up for his much-maligned Opening-Day bungle with his bat, and Saenz legitimately looks like he deserves more at-bats-—probably at the expense of Choi.

That the offense so far has lacked performance from Drew and an injured Jayson Werth only brightens the picture. This offense may well be able to compete without Drew and Werth. That those two are expected to be important cogs in the machine this year only heightens expectations and projections.

This team also appears to have the benefit of unusual versatility and maneuverability: 1) Kent can play first and second; 2) Saenz is a right-handed bat that can play first and third; 3) Choi is a left-handed bat that plays first; 3) Valentin is a switch-hitter that can play third, shortstop, and probably first; 4) Antonio Perez can play second and perhaps shortstop and third; 5) the outfield boasts three potential centerfielders in Bradley, Drew, and Werth (it appears Jason Repko can play the center-spot as well). Heck, even the bullpen has two guys in Alvarez and Dessens that can serve as spot starters. While this versatility may sound like meaningless puffery, it actually serves as an insurance policy. If the Choi experiment doesn’t work out-—no big deal, Saenz or Kent can set up shop at first base. If Valentin continues to struggle with the glove, Saenz, Perez, or Norihiro Nakamura could be serviceable fill-ins. Even if the unthinkable happens and Cesar Izturis--the backbone of the infield—-goes down, the Dodgers have Valentin, who comes with years of experience at the position. So go ahead, root against Choi all you want—it appears that this offense can succeed with or without him.

Like I said at the beginning of this piece, it’s only been 4 games, so digest this discussion with the proper perspective. But it appears that the DePodesta model is working. If you’ve been paying attention to the Dodgers’ main rivals, you’ve noticed that a veteran-heavy Padres team is having trouble scoring runs at Petco Park and that the Giants have glaring weaknesses in their offense and bullpen. So it appears, at least initially, that this Dodgers team could win this division—-and win it handily-—even if my fears about J.D. Penny’s health come true.

It’s been a fun first four games. I can’t wait for the next 158.


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