Springtime Storylines: Am I gonna talk myself into liking the Dodgers’ chances this year?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season.  The latest: Divorce Court, with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Season 2.

The Big Question: Despite all the drama surrounding these guys, am I gonna talk myself into liking the Dodgers’ chances this year?

So much of the Dodgers’ zeitgeist is dominated by McCourt doom and gloom — more of that below — that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are some things to like here.  First and foremost is the rotation which is pretty darn good. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a sucker for rotations, and I may be a cheap date when it comes to them too. All I know is that on paper Kershaw-Billingsley-Lilly-Kuroda-Garland seems pretty nice. At least if Garland’s oblique injury doesn’t prevent him from contributing, but it’s still a good front four.

Still, we must remember that this was a team that only won 80 games last season, and for them to be interesting, additional wins have to come from someplace. They’re probably looking at a decline behind the dish with the loss of Russell Martin. James Loney could improve, but I wouldn’t wager on it being a significant improvement. I think Matt Kemp is poised for a nice return to 2009 form and I believe that Andre Ethier will still be solid in right.  I’m less confident in the health and effectiveness of Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake, I’m still scratching my head at the Juan Uribe signing and I worry about the depth of this team.

All in all I see improvement, but I don’t see enough of it to scare the Giants or Rockies. If they start hot I know I’m gonna get sucked in, but as I sit here soberly considering it at the moment, I don’t think they have the horses. Please remind me of this when I wax effusive in some random late April “And That Happened” entry.

So what else is going on?

  • The McCourt divorce saga drags on, with some observers believing that the litigation and attendant shenanigans could last all season.  It’s easy to overstate the effect this will all have on the team on the field in 2011 — the roster is the roster at this point — but it will be interesting to see what happens if the Dodgers are competitive and need a little boost to get over the hump.  Will Frank, watching every penny, decline to make a move?  Or will the prospect of missing the playoffs due to the failure to make a move cause him to suck it up and go for broke (and for those playoff revenues)?  The point is that, no matter how the team does this year, it’s impossible to predict management’s decisions without at least some acknowledgment of the divorce looming over everything.
  • It will be fun to watch the Manny haters in the L.A. press this season.  Yeah, Manny is gone, and there were no shortage of scribes who celebrated his departure. But what happens if Manny posts a .900 OPS in Tampa Bay while a left field consisting of Jay Gibbons, Marcus Thames and too many at bats given to Tony Gwynn Jr. fails to deliver in L.A.?  Don’t get me wrong — as far as platoons go, I could see Gibbons/Thames being pretty darn interesting, at least offensively speaking — but it’s no lock, the defense will be ugly regardless and I do think Manny will hit a ton this season.  Oh, I shouldn’t worry. I’m sure someone will explain how the Dodgers’ offensive woes in 2011 are all Manny’s fault.
  • Everyone — myself included — has snarked at Don Mattingly’s managing gaffes during interim gigs in recent years, but I want the guy to succeed and think he’ll be just fine.  Let’s be clear about something: Joe Torre is a Hall of Fame manager, but Mattingly is not replacing the Hall of Fame version of Joe Torre. I got the sense he was really mailing it in last season, with the only real part of his old self shining through being his worst tendencies like, say, overworking certain members of the bullpen.  I don’t place too much stock in attitude and all of that, but the Dodgers need a fresh start, and Mattingly may very well be able to give it to them.
  • The most interesting thing to watch all year will also be the most talked about: Matt Kemp’s attempt to return to superstar status. Even if the Matt Kemp hate got a bit too much to handle, 2010 was a bad year for him. The 2009 version of the guy was someone who displayed the skills of a damn smart baseball player: picking good pitches at which to hack, making good choices on the basepaths and taking good routes to the baseball on defense. Something caused that stuff to slide sideways last season, and if he gets back on track in those departments this year, both his and the Dodgers’ stock will be vastly improved.

So how are they gonna do?

I think Clayton Kershaw breaks out this year and the return of Billingsley and Kuroda — and a full year of Ted Lilly — will make the Dodgers a competitive team.  But I think there are too many holes in the lineup for the Dodgers to seriously contend. If everything breaks right for them, and if things break seriously wrong in San Francisco and Colorado, the Dodgers could make things interesting. I think the smarter bet, however, is to pencil Los Angeles into the third place slot.

Brandon McCarthy wins final spot in Dodgers’ rotation

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We learned on Monday that Hyun-Jin Ryu won one of the final two spots in the Dodgers’ starting rotation. Brandon McCarthy has won the other, Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register reports. Alex Wood was McCarthy’s competitor for the spot.

McCarthy, 33, posted a 4.85 ERA across four appearances spanning 13 innings this spring, yielding seven earned runs on 14 hits and a walk with seven strikeouts. Wood, a southpaw, gave up five earned runs in six innings against the Reds on Tuesday, which might have factored into the decision.

Last season, McCarthy made nine starts and one relief appearance, posting a 4.95 ERA with a 44/26 K/BB ratio in 40 innings. In the event McCarthy falters, the club has Wood as well as Julio Urias and the injured Scott Kazmir as potential replacements.

Yankees re-sign Jon Niese to a minor league deal

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The Yankees have re-signed pitcher Jon Niese to a minor league contract, George A. King III of the New York Post reports. Niese was released on Sunday, but he’ll stick around and provide rotation depth for the Yankees.

Niese had knee surgery last August and got a late start to spring training as a result. In six spring appearances lasting an inning each, the lefty gave up three earned runs on five hits and a walk with five strikeouts.

Niese, a veteran of nine seasons, put up an aggregate 5.50 ERA with an 88/47 K/BB ratio in 121 innings last season between the Pirates and Mets.