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About Jon
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1) using profanity or any euphemisms for profanity
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4) arguing for the sake of arguing
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The Dodger Offseason: An Outsider's Positive Review
2005-01-12 09:26
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

Mitchel Lichtman, known to readers of Baseball Primer as MGL, is one of that site's most popular and respected commentators. Lichtman has been doing sabermetric research and analysis for 16 years, and is currently a part-time statistical analyst for the St. Louis Cardinals. He has a degree in mathematics and psychology from Cornell University and a law degree (J.D.) from the University of Nevada.

Dodger Thoughts recently asked Lichtman to assess the Dodgers' offseason reconstruction, and he was kind enough to put on his hard hat and run the inspection. Here are his answers:

1) Flashback to October: the Dodger season has just ended. Name the most important "do" and/or "don't" for Paul DePodesta.
If you mean in terms of trades and acquisitions, the do's are: Dump Green and his ridiculous salary, find a permanent defensive position for Werth, teach Jackson how to pitch or trade him, plan on cordially and gracefully letting Beltre, Lima and Finley go (because the former will be overpaid and the latter two have no value), figure out how to get Alvarez into the rotation, get Weaver to stop fidgeting so much on the mound and act like he cares, try to resign Hernandez and Bradley (for cheap), get Penny healthy, replace Mota with another good short reliever, pitch Gagne more, figure out why Dessens sucks as a starter, try and trade Ishii to a dumb team, touting his good W-L totals and his 2003 sub-4 ERA, throw a going away party for Nomo, play Choi full-time at first, and try and be a little more popular with the fans and the media - in no particular order. That also seems to answer most of the "don'ts."

2) Back to the present, what has been DePodesta's strongest offseason move to date and what has been his weakest?
Hmmm… Valentin was a steal, although I'd much rather see him at SS than at third. A platoon of Valentin and Hernandez (at SS) would have been lights out, sabermetrically speaking. Drew is one of the few high profile players who are worth their contracts. He is a top 10 player and only a top 10 player is worth 10 mil a year or more. I think the health concerns with Drew have been overstated. I don't particularly like long-term contracts, but one, sometimes you have no choice, and two, people forget that salaries in baseball have risen 12% a year for the last 16 years, and I see no reason why that should not continue. The Kent contract is not a bad one.

The weakest (and most controversial) move by far, and that is an understatement, is Lowe's signing. Funny I thought he was going to be underrated (since he had an unlucky regular season in '04) and able to be had for a bargain. I don't know what happened. Lowe should benefit from a very good Dodger IF defense. There is also some evidence that groundball pitchers do anomalously well in Chavez (and Fenway, BTW); I am pretty sure that Depo knows this. I have a hard time believing that even if true (that Lowe will benefit greatly from Chavez), it makes Lowe worth anywhere near 9 mil a year for four years. If Lowe even has a little bit of bad luck or a severe injury, Depo is setting himself up for a crucifixion.

3) For many people, the offseason priority was retaining Adrian Beltre. For me personally, his transformation seemed completely legitimate. What is the range of expectation for Beltre's performance in 2005, and what should the Dodgers have been willing to spend on him?
I don't know, or care too much about, the "range of expectation" for anyone. The "confidence interval" around a player projection, in my opinion, is almost wholly based on the amount of historical data we have on that player, and has nothing to do with the his range of performance in the past. In other words, all players with the same amount of career playing time have around the same range or interval of expected performance surrounding their mean or median projection. It is really not important in terms of valuing a player either, which is why I don't pay much attention to how certain I am of a player's projection. It's not like we are trading options, where volatility is important.

I also don't believe in breakout years or "transformations" as you put it. Not that players don't change their true levels of performance (including having breakout years), sometimes even drastically, from time to time. It's just that it is very difficult to identify a real change among all the random fluctuation (noise) in a player's stats. A scout can help with that of course. This is true of lots of things in baseball.

I (and most other forecasters I think) expect Beltre's offensive performance next year and beyond to be somewhere in between last year and prior years, with more of an emphasis on last year of course. His defense appears to be great. One of the best. He has no other above average peripherals, by the way. My observation (which I don't particularly trust) of Beltre this year was that pitchers starting pitching him away too much, he adjusted, and crushed the mistakes. I think he will and should be pitched inside more often this year. This is the sort of cat and mouse game (game theory) you sometimes see between pitchers and catchers.

He is worth around 10 mil per in a short or long-term contract, about the same as Drew. Seattle's contract of five years/64 mil is high. I would not have signed Beltre for that much. On the other hand, it is usually easier to replace a corner OF'er than a 3B'man. So between the Drew and Beltre contracts (assuming that the Dodgers could have gotten him for around the same money), it would have been close if I were the Dodgers.

4) When Beltre went to Seattle, did the Dodgers over-commit in their contract for J.D. Drew?

No, I don't think so. I already addressed that.

5) Jeff Kent next. First, talk about what we might expect from him offensively as he goes from Houston to Los Angeles (and parenthetically, perhaps, how much of a change to expect from Dodger Stadium now that the foul territory is being reduced).

There are lots of people who know more about that than I, and the answers are sort of obvious anyway. Less foul territory equals fewer foul outs equals more of everything else.

Who cares what Chavez will do to Kent's stats? All the Dodger opponent hitters at home will suffer the same effect on their stats, right? Sure some players may benefit more or less from a stadium than other players, but one, it is usually de minimus, and two, we don't have a great understanding of how that works anyway. That is one of the uncharted territories in sabermetrics, although I am sure that some teams are already working on it (see comments above on Lowe).

Dodger Stadium is fairly small and the average temperature is fairly warm. It does not suppress home runs. It increases foul outs (and therefore increases everything else), and decreases doubles and triples because of the configuration of the foul territory and the smooth outfield dimensions (no nooks or crannies). Kent is a fly ball hitter, so his doubles and triples should not be suppressed as much as the average hitter. Maybe that's one reason they acquired him. We still should see his overall stats decline, as compared to Houston's Minute Maid Park, which inflates almost everything.

6) A big topic of conversation has been about Kent's defense. Alex Cora simply dazzled us at second base, yet you have statistics that show that Kent may be as good or better?
Yup. Kent had a phenomenal UZR in 2004, +20 per 150 defensive games. Before that, his UZR was a few runs above average per year. So yes, using UZR alone, he projects to be a well-above average defensive second baseman. It appears that Depo does not disagree with that assessment. He probably uses a similar defensive rating system.

Kent is not generally considered a good defender, although I have heard a few knowledgeable people say that his instincts and positioning are underrated. In Tango's excellent Fan Scouting Report, the respondents have Kent rated quite low (and Cora high) in all categories. Who knows? UZR is not the gospel. All things considered, my best guess is that he is around average. For Dodger fans, let's hope that UZR is right!

Cora? Dazzle schmazzle! Seriously, UZR does not rate Cora very well. Interestingly, his UZR was much better as a SS in 2000 and 2001. It should be the other way around. Of course, that could just be luck (either good luck as a SS or bad luck as a 2B'man). How a player "looks" on defense can be misleading of course. In fact, players who make the spectacular looking (dazzling) plays are often overrated and vice versa. For example, there is a certain GG fielder whose first name is Der… Never mind.

7) Beltre gets replaced at third, for now at least, by a platoon of Jose Valentin and Antonio Perez. Is this adequate?
Sure. Not as good as Beltre of course. No one would be, other than Rolen or Chavez. But Valentin is a decent hitter overall, even better versus righties. He was an excellent defensive SS (again, according to UZR), so we expect him to be even better at third. Perez projects to be a decent hitter as well (from his MLE's and limited major league experience). I have no idea about his defense. As I said, I would have preferred to see Valentin platoon at SS, but the third base situation should be fine. Fans may not like it too much though, as apparently Valentin's excellent defense is not apparent to the naked eye. Most fans want offense, offense, and more offense.

8) Evaluate the Shawn Green trade.
Excellent trade. Green is most likely an aging, declining hitter (despite his "resurgent" second half last year), who does not play defense very well at any position (no positive peripherals either). He is barely an above average player anymore at either first or in the OF. He is only worth 3-4 mil per year. Didn't the Dodgers save 6 or 8 mil by trading him and subsidizing his contract? That was a great move by Depo; he completely suckered the D-Backs. And they got a good prospect in Navarro to boot! Catching prospects who can hit are like gold, by the way.

9) What would you do now about the Dodger catching situation?
I would have pursued A.J. whatever his last name is. He was signed for a song. Matheny may have been an option. Of course, his value is only in his defense. Bako is pretty worthless, even in a platoon, but they are paying him barely over the minimum. Ross is not as bad as most people think. He did not hit well last year, but he was not at all terrible (in linear weights) for a catcher. His MLE's (Major League Equivalent Averages) in the minors were not bad at all. In fact, quite good for a catcher. Still, a Ross/Bako platoon is a pretty generic barely over replacement-level solution. There really are no other catchers available, however. Absent signing A.J., I would probably do the same thing as the Dodgers are doing now. Keep the hole and wait and see if and when Navarro is ready. And as I said, Ross could surprise. I would even consider playing him full-time.

10) Jim Tracy's starting lineup could be something like: Cesar Izturis, Jayson Werth, J.D. Drew, Jeff Kent, Milton Bradley, Jose Valentin, Hee Seop Choi, Dave Ross. Overall, what's your impression?
It is good, not great, overall. Excellent defense all the way around, other than Choi. Should be one of the best defenses in baseball. The offense is much improved over the past few years. Not quite the caliber of the Cardinals, or the Giants, with Bonds in the lineup of course, or even Atlanta or Philly. And certainly nowhere near that of the Yankees or Boston. I am not crazy about Izturis, and they have a dearth of superstar quality hitters. Only Drew comes close (but not quite). All great hitting teams have at least one and usually two or three superstar or near-superstar level hitters. Beyond Drew, their best hitter is, believe it or not, Choi (Werth, Kent, and Bradley are close thirds). In other words, there is plenty of room for improvement in the future, especially with a large payroll.

12) Even with the return of Odalis Perez returns, the starting pitching appears a bit threadbare. Jeff Weaver is the most durable starter. Perez misses a few starts here in there. Kazuhisa Ishii is inconsistent. Edwin Jackson has potential but some growing on the mound up to do. Brad Penny - who knows? Though Elmer Dessens and Wilson Alvarez can spot start, and help may come from the minors (such as Jackson provided in 2003), should fans be worried the staff will be battered? (Note: this question was asked before the Derek Lowe signing, but answered after the signing.)

I don't know about "battered", but yes, the rotation is suspect. Perez is their best pitcher (actually Alvarez is, but he does not appear to be able to start much or for long), Weaver is OK, so is Lowe, Ishii is terrible, Penny is a question mark, and Jackson has a long way to go, and has not progressed so far. If Penny is healthy (he was very good when he was) and Lowe greatly benefits from Chavez and the Dodger defense, then things will look a lot rosier for Dodger fans.

13) Ultimately, what do you see as the common thread in DePodesta's maneuvers?
Getting the best possible players he can (in marginal value) with the considerable money he has to spend, using excellent sabermetric evaluation techniques. Dodger fans are lucky to have who I consider one of the best GM's in the game. Sabermetric and innovative GM + lots of money to spend = lots of wins!

14) Any thoughts about how the Dodgers will fare in 2005 - or too soon to say?
Not too soon, I don't think. They are probably pretty much done dealing. Given the quality of the division (not too good) and the quality of the brain trusts of the other teams in the division, save the Padres, although I haven't "run the numbers" yet for all the teams, I think that they will be a top contender, along with the Padres, in the division. I'm not just saying that to appease the fans on this site. The Giants may also contend again, but after Bonds retires, they are going to be in big trouble.

15) Any other insights about the team you'd like to add?
Nothing I can think of that hasn't been covered. Good luck to the Dodgers and best wishes to all the Dodger fans!

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