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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dodgers Need To Re-Learn Lessons From 1972

Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness draws our attention to the brutal fact that the team's most pressing offensive issue isn't the underperformance of its Tweedledee and Tweedledum outfielders, Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones — it's Jeff Kent, who is hitting at a historic low level for a cleanup batter. Citing Steve Treder's recent piece in The Hardball Times, the worst cleanup hitter since 1957 is Aramis Ramirez in 2002, who sported a godawful 72 OPS+ on a Pirates team whose average production was 88 OPS+. Even then, Ramirez was badly injured in an early-season brawl that severely twisted his ankle.

By contrast, Kent is hitting a meager 74 OPS+, making this particular mistake a blunder of historic proportions.

It's not like this is news, either; I've been over this quite a bit lately, but it seems that this team suffers from too many veterans, something Colletti seems to mistake for depth. It was something like the problem the 1972 Dodgers faced with a bumper crop of young talent coming up and a number of stopgaps on the field in their way, something Matt Welch wrote about a couple years ago in the context of the Angels' best players at DH. The Halos' greatest DH, incidentally, was "the last guy in the world you'd think of as an Angel, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson", who only spent a single year with the Angels in 1973. What was he doing in an Angels uniform? Simply put, the Dodgers pulled the trigger on a huge, messy deal that went like this:

Robinson was traded from the Dodgers to the Angels after the 1972 season. It was a huge, complicated trade -- the 36-year-old Robinson, coming off his worst season ever, along with 28-year-old former 20-game winner Bill Singer, 22-year-old budding phenom Bobby Valentine, 26-year-old infield flameout Billy Grabarkewitz, and mediocre 25-year-old reliever Mike Strahler ... for two Angels: 26-year-old former 20-game winner Andy Messersmith, and solid 30-year-old 3Bman Ken McMullen. I absolutely love trades like this, not just because of the paradox that the Angels won it big in 1973 -- Robinson had that monster year above and Singer won 20 and made the All-Star team, while McMullen's career fell off a cliff -- while losing it long-term (Messersmith blossomed into a superstar, while the rest of the Angels' catch wasn't much after '73); but also because the transaction accomplished something crucial from the Dodgers' point of view that too infrequently comes up when evaluating trades: It made elbow room for a historical crop of very good young players. You could argue, and not be completely high, that the Frank Robinson trade was a turning point in the creation of L.A.'s glorious run in the '70s and early '80s.
Jon and I have been over this at his place, but it does seem to me that Kent should be pushed to the bench, traded, or released, if only so a better defensive player can take his spot; certainly, it's hard to imagine how a worse bat could enter the lineup. The Dodgers, however, seem hell-bent on making sure that the team represents the marketing program cooked up in the offseason, and is only distantly interested in winning, or finding out about the quality of the kids they're bringing up. Why else would Luis Maza, a quadruple-A middle infielder, be playing ahead of Chin-Lung Hu? Why else would Joe Torre be moving Russell Martin to third so he could get recently disabled Gary Bennett behind the dish? For those who say the Dodgers have no prejudices against young players, why was it that it took until game 63 of the 2007 season for James Loney to even make an appearance with the club, and this after hitting .448 in spring training? On top of that, the Dodgers didn't make the final decision to drop 78 OPS+ Nomar as the starter at first base, an offense-first position, until June 26 (2007 game 77), when Nomar was shifted to third base for good — almost the halfway point in the season.

The Dodgers have a real fear of young players. They need to get over it.

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I really like how you wrote that the Dodgers are "only distantly interested in winning" - That's truly a brilliant observation, and unfortunately I sometimes get that feeling as well. Although after meeting the McCourts and hearing them speak in public, I do think they have a genuine desire to win. Anyway, once again you hit the nail on the head with this post.

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