Dead Arms

After completing the first month of the season, the Dodgers are 17-12 and only .5 game out of first place in the National League West. A big reason for the strong start has been the team’s pitching. While the Dodgers’ offense ranks in the bottom half of the Majors in runs and team batting average (17th and 18th respectively), its pitching staff has the 5th best ERA in the Majors. However, as great as the pitching has been, there is one statistic that should give the team and its fans a cause for concern. The number is 5.77. That number is the average innings pitched per game by Dodgers’ starters.

While much has been made about Zack Greinke‘s 5-0 start and his 18 game streak of having pitched at least five innings and giving up two or fewer runs, he has not been doing his bullpen any favors. Greinke has pitched more than six innings just once in his first six starts. In their first 29 games, Dodgers pitchers have pitched more than 6 innings on only 9 occasions, and it wasn’t until  Josh Beckett’s start last Friday against the Rockies that they had a starter complete 8 innings.

So what’s the point of this you ask? The Dodgers had a winning month, they are only .5 a game out of first place, and just finished a sweep of the Twins where the offense showed signs of life. Well my friends, the Dodgers are second in Major League Baseball in  innings pitched by relievers, and after looking at some statistics from the past 10 years, that is not a good thing.

Since 2004, only 15 teams  have finished the season ranked in the top 10 in innings pitched by relievers and made the post season. Out of the 15 teams to have reached the post season, only 5 were able to advance past the Divisional Series, and one of those teams, the 2006 Mets, reached the NLCS by defeating the Dodgers, another team in the top 10. Of the five teams that advanced to the Championship Series, only two made it to the World Series. And guess what? Neither of those teams, the 2010 Rangers or 2007 Rockies, won it all. Those statistics do not bode well for a Dodgers bullpen that has been overworked in its first month.

Another cause for concern falls on the manager, Don Mattingly. Mattingly cut his teeth working for Joe Torre, a manager infamous for wearing out his bullpen. Torre in fact managed one of those top 10 teams when he was with the Dodgers, in 2009, making it all the way to the NLCS. The Dodgers lost that series when Matt Stairs eviscerated Jonathon Broxton for the second consecutive post season. When taking a closer look, the trouble is not only the toll all those innings had on the reliever’s arm at the end of the year, but the impact those innings had on the reliever for the rest of his career.

The 2009 Dodgers were led by three relievers who pitched in 69 or more games; Jonathon Broxton, Ramon Troncoso, and Ronald Belisario. Troncoso led the way in innings pitched with 82.2, while Broxton threw 76.0 and Belisario finished the year throwing 70.2 innings. These three were Joe Torre’s security blanket and he used them often…too often.

After 2009, Troncoso appeared in 52 games and saw his ERA rise nearly two runs higher than the previous year. In 2011 he appeared in only 18 games, as he was unable to pitch effectively enough to keep his spot in the Dodgers bullpen. He did not appear in a Major League game in 2012, and last year pitched ineffectively for the White Sox in 29 games.

Broxton appeared in 73 games in 2009 and sported in 2.61 ERA. In 2010, he pitched in 64 games, but saw his ERA spike to 4.04. 2011 saw Broxton pitch in only 14 games, as he had elbow and shoulder issues. While he bounced back in ’12 to appear in 60 games, Broxton was only able to pitch in 35 games last year, finding himself on the DL twice.

Belisario has had better luck health wise, pitching in 59 or more games each year since 2009, except 2011 when he served a suspension for violating the League’s drug policy and was not invited to join the team. However in 2010, Belisario’s strikeouts/9 innings dropped by nearly two and hitters had an OPS .120 higher than 2009 (.580 vs. .702). Missing 2011 may have helped Belisario, as he performed near his 2009 numbers, but he again regressed in 2013.

Now, looking at 2014, Mattingly has been using his guys at a more astonishing rate. Kenley Jansen is on pace to pitch in 96 games. The effects are already showing as his 1.53 WHIP is almost twice what it was over the past two seasons. He is striking out batters at a higher rate than ever before (a ridiculous 16.9/9 innings), but he is allowing more home runs/9 innings than ever before. Jansen is not the only one being thrown in the fire nearly every night as J.P. Howell is on pace to appear in 84 games and Chris Perez 73.

Mattingly has shown a quick trigger when it comes to using his bullpen, something that may ultimately cost his team not only this year (remember those playoff stats?) but in the future. He learned from one of the best in the business that running a bullpen in to the ground is okay, as long as if you win this year.

Of course none of this may matter soon. Clayton Kershaw is set to come off the DL this upcoming week and everyone knows that he loves going deep in to a game. And if Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, and/or Dan Haren become the inning eaters they have been in the past, then maybe the Dodgers’ relievers won’t lead the league in innings pitched. If that happens, the Dodgers might give themselves a better chance of reaching the promised land this year…and maybe even next.

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This Day in Dodgers Baseball

On this day, April 30th, 1940, Brooklyn Dodgers’ pitcher Tex Carleton became the seventh pitcher in team history to throw a no-hitter. Carleton defeated the Cincinnati Reds 3-0 at Crosley field. Tex allowed two walks and struck out four batters in the victory.

His win that day gave Tex a perfect 2-0 record to start the season. Carleton would finish the season, his first and last with Brooklyn, with a record of 6-6 and a 3.81 ERA. 1940 also proved to be his last season in the big leagues, as he wrapped up his career with a tidy 100 wins.

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The Super Star Dilemna

The Dodgers have a problem. Before the eye rolling begins, believe me, I am fully aware of how unappreciative it is to complain about a team that has the following: the highest payroll in Major League history ($235,684,934 to be exact), 14 players on the 40 man roster who have made at least one All-Star team, arguably the best pitcher in baseball, and they are a team that came within two games of the World Series last year. But let me repeat myself, the Dodgers have a problem.

The problem at hand is what to do with Hanley Ramirez. While the Hot Stove chatter that began in the spring and has carried over in to the regular season has been centered around the team’s outfield conudrum, Hanley’s contract situation has been generally overlooked. After the 2014 season, Ramirez will be a free agent if the Dodgers are not able to reach an extension with him during the season. The question is, should they?

Last year, when healthy he was the team’s offensive catalyst, putting up an out of this world triple slash line of .345/.402/.638. He hit 20 home runs, drove in 57, and finished 8th in the MVP voting after playing in only 86 games. Ramirez also became a central figure in the Dodgers locker room, serving as a mentor to Yasiel Puig. It seems obvious that Hanely’s contributions to the team would make him an obvious lock for a huge pay day, but upon closer examination, the landscape is dotted with red flags.

First and foremost, long term contracts for players over the age of 30 (Hanley will be 31 in 2015) have not been kind. This would be the perfect time to mock and point fingers at Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees, but Alex’s contract is not the only questionable one that has been doled out over the past few years. Albert Pujols signed a 10 year contract at the age of 32 for $240 million dollars., and while injuries have slowed him down the past two years, the contract is beginning to look like a major overpay as he may not be the same offensive force he was in St. Louis. Josh Hamilton signed a much shorter  5 year, $125 million contract at the age of 32, but again, between injuries and a quickly deteriorating skill set at the plate, his contract too is one that the Angels may regret. Teams seem all too willing to pay for a player’s past performance, without realizing that as a player ages, their skill sets are bound to decline and in an era with strict PED testing, players are not performing late in their careers like they were in the past.

The second issue that the Dodgers have to think about in terms of Ramirez is his character. Let’s not forget that this is the same player that the Marlins were willing to give away in 2012. Maybe part of that was the much documented front office choas that is the Miami Marlins. However, during his stay in Miami, Hanley ripped his coach and his teammates through the press and of course there was the infamous time where he did his best Pele impersonation during a game. All of these problems began shortly after he signed a 6 year contract extension.

Lastly, but certainly what shouldn’t be the least of the Dodgers’ concerns, is his defense. Over the course of his career, Ramirez has never scored above a 3 in BIS’ Defensive Runs Saved Above Average. In fact, Hanley has only put up positive numbers twice in his eight year career. And if you are not one for advanced metrics, Hanley has committed 5 errors already this season, tied for second among MLB shortstops.

So if these are all reasons to raise GM Ned Coletti’s eyebrows at a contract extension, what are the alternatives? The Dodgers can’t simply let him walk away, not when their payroll could wipe the California State deficit clean. Trade him. That’s right, it may seem like blasphemy to some, but it just may be the right thing to do.

When examining other trade alternatives, the Dodgers do not have a trade piece to dangle that would net them a large return. The popular line of thinking is to trade one of the surplus of outfielders, but between the large contracts, injury history, and age of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Carl Crawford, it is unlikely that the Dodgers would be able to land Major League talent, or a blue chip prospect. In addition, there are a lot of teams that would pay a very high price to have a bat like Hanley’s in the middle of their lineup, regardless of his defensive limitations. Teams just don’t have as much depth up the middle, but this is where the Dodgers are also at an advantage.

While some teams would have a hard time filling the talent gap that a Hanley Ramirez would leave in the lineup, the Dodgers are actually adequately equipped to try. During the fall they signed Cuban shortstop Alexander Guerrero to a 4 year $28 million contract, and while it may be too early to tell, all indications are that his offense is Major League ready. Currently Guerrero is batting .366/.458/.683 with 7 extra base hits in 48 plate appearances. Perhaps most impressive, he has only struck out 4 times to begin the season. Of course questions have been raised regarding his defense, but it is hard to imagine that he could be less effective than Ramirez.

If the Dodgers did need a late inning defensive substitute they have another Cuban shortstop, Erisbel  Arruebarrena who could fill in late in the game. When Arruebarrena signed, questions existed about whether his bat was Major League ready, but there was no question that he had the potential to be a defensive stalwart in the middle infield. Even though it may not be glamorous to be defensive minded on a team full of All-Star caliber players, just look at the career Brendan Ryan has made for himself and try to argue that it is a bad living.

So if the Dodgers could go forward with a trade, who would be likely trade candidates? Let’s take a look at three possible trade destinations for Ramirez.

Detroit Tigers – It is well documented that GM Dave Dombrowski has been been looking for a replacement at shortstop ever since Jose Iglesias went down during Spring Training. The Tigers just released Alex Gonzalez after a very brief stint with the team, and Dombrowski is always willing to make a splash.

While it may be far fetched, a Max Scherzer for Ramirez trade could make sense. Before you laugh, consider this. The Tiger’s recently offered Scherzer $144 million to stay in Detroit, an extension that Max and his agent Scott Boras declined. Now extension talks are being tabled until the end of the season, and we all know that once Boras begins to smell free agency, an extension is never likely.

Add to that the fact Dombrowski has already shown that he is willing to make gutsy moves (sending Prince Fielder to Texas for Ian Kinsler) and there is the potential for another straight up, my super star for your super star trade. Can you imagine a playoff trio of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Max Scherzer? Yikes…

Seattle Mariners – The Mariners and Dodgers are familiar with one another’s farm systems after engaging in trade talks over the past year for Andre Ethier. Seattle also is still sitting on some extra cash after failing to sign Nelson Cruz and a free agent starter this year. Furthermore, GM Jack Zdruriencik’s job is in jeopardy, which might mean that he  has to make one more splashy move to stay in his role, opening the door for a potential trade.

After a great spring, Dustin Ackley has struggled to get it going this year. However, he could provide the Dodgers with extra infield depth (especially if Dee Gordon reverts to 2013 Dee Gordon). Ackley has the ability to play several positions, and his position flexibility is something that the Dodgers could use, especially given Justin Turner’s struggles in the early going.

The Mariners also have some pitching depth, and the Dodgers could target someone like James Paxton to package with Ackley. Paxton is off to a relatively strong start in two starts that he has made this year, and has been ranked in the top 100 in Baseball America’s prospect ratings the past three years. Paxton and Ackley could be the centerpiece for a Hanley Ramirez trade to the Northwest. Also of note, could the Dodgers talk to Mariners in to parting with Jesus Montero, who seems to be quietly putting it back together in AAA this year?

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – This trade might not even require Ramirez to pack his suitcase and could you imagine an Angel’s offense with Trout-Pujols-Hamilton-Ramirez. On name recognition alone that is terrifying, but if Pujols and Hamilton are able to put up numbers resembling previous years, that lineup would be frightening. Ramirez could play short for the Angels, but he also could slide over to third, replacing the struggling David Freese.

Finding prospects that the Dodgers might be interested in is another matter altogether. The Angels have depleted their Minor League depth over the past few years, but there could be some value to be found. The Angels top second base prospect Taylor Lindsey would almost certainly have to be involved in any trade. And while first base is not a need, C.J. Cron seems to be blocked in the Angels system with Albert Pujols in front of him and could be used as a trade chip as well, one the Dodgers could use later in the year.

One other reason that this could make sense is that Hanley seems to like L.A., and if the Angels are willing to hand out one more mega deal,  Ramirez is a candidate to stay in Southern Calfornia.

Having a super star on the wrong side of 30 is a tricky situation for any organization, but extremely difficult for the Dodgers because Ramirez played phenomenal baseball last year, in addition to the fact that the Dodgers have a lot of money to spend. Time will tell what Ned Coletti decides to do, but don’t be surprised if some teams give the Dodgers a phone call this summer to see if they have a chance at trading for the talented shortstop. And if Coletti wants to win now, and in the future, he would be smart to pick up the phone.

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