Can money solve problems, and other hope for improvement

I'll pretend that one of you remembers that last year I wrote a piece on the best team the Dodgers could put together from free agents (because I'm too lazy to look at other teams' farm systems for trades).  I declared the best lineup you could buy, which with non-tendering Martin, Loney and Theriot and not counting the $20m or so in deferred money came to $160m (so $180m or so with deferred $$), so here's that team again:

What could you do with a lineup of:


And a rotation of


The first and most obvious answer is that Frank would have gone bankrupt much sooner.

But supposing the Dodgers magically had good ownership (competent, rich, invisible or awesomely visible), let's see what could have happened.  First, I'll start with the Baseball Musings Lineup tool, and I'll tweak the lineup order to Furcal, Hudson, Martinez, Kemp, Beltre, Ethier, Dunn, Crawford, Pitcher, which yields this.  A 720 run team, 76 runs better than the 2011 Dodgers and good for 6th in the NL with runs scored (1 run behind Milwaukee), as opposed to LA's actual ranking of 9th in the NL.  Did I mention offense is way down everywhere?

I'll also make myself a whipping boy by reposting my closing quote:

If anything, though, the consistent performance and lack of injury risk (along with not costing $20m/yr) makes Adam Dunn a great choice.

Still, having Victor Martinez behind the plate, Adrian Beltre at the hot corner (still hitting like he was in Texas), and a full year of Andre Ethier and Rafael Furcal with the same triple slash numbers would have yielded a better offense, even with Crawford and Dunn.  That's how much dead weight there was in the Dodger lineup in 2011 - position by position, the team hit:

2 - .227/.305/.393
3 - .279/.328/.392
4 - .256/.303/.324
5 - .228/.305/.325
6 - .275/.327/.336
7 - .252/.319/.362
8 - .318/.392/.567
9 - .292/.369/.436

As it is, Hudson would have been a small offensive help, but Beltre and V-Mart would have been huge.  A full year of Furcal wouldn't have been as good as having Dee Gordon, and Adam Dunn . . . well, he was better than Andruw Jones in 2008.  Carl Crawford's crappiness (bet you can't say that 5 times fast) last year would have been a wash for this team, which is kind of sad.  The defense probably gets a bit worse on the whole with Martinez behind the plate, though Beltre at 3B helps.

As for pitching, the 2011 Dodgers had a 5th in the NL 3.56 ERA, and a 3.41 ERA for starting pitchers.  So what happens if you plug in Cliff Lee?  Well, Billingsley, Kershaw, Lilly and Kuroda combined for 130 starts, and Lee conveniently pitched 32 starts (rather inconveniently, the Dodgers only played 161 games due to a rainout in DC).  

So if you replace Dodger 5th starters with Lee, you'll take out a group that put up a 3.75 ERA over 180 innings for a guy who put up a 2.41 ERA over 232 innings.  For simplicity, I'll ignore all the important DIPS stuff, and assume unearned runs remain constant.  I'll also assume, for simplicity, that the bullpen will still put up an ERA of 3.92.  If Cliff Lee is the 5th starter, then the impact of him over the existing starters and on reducing the bullpen use is 34 fewer runs, bringing the team ERA down to 3.34 (good for 3rd in the NL).  Also if Rubby de la Rosa still blew his elbow out it would have been in the minors and he wouldn't be acquiring service time and collecting a major league DL paycheck, for whatever that's worth, though if he didn't then that's a nice backup plan for if Kuroda doesn't come back.

The net result, ceterus parabus, is a team that scores 720 runs and allows 578 - roughly equal to the Brewers' offense with the Giants' pitching, a team with a 97-65 W-L record.

So what?

It's unlikely that the Dodgers will dramatically improve that much, but it wouldn't be hard.  There's so much room for improvement - Andre Ethier could have a season like 2009, Matt Kemp could have another 2011.  Dee Gordon may hit .300 and be a great dynamic player.  Juan Uribe could actually hit well maybe hit for his career averages.  AJ Ellis could get a full year behind the plate The Dodgers could get a good hitting catcher.  James Loney could be non tendered and replaced with Prince Fielder Albert Pujols might hit like he did in the 2nd half of 2011.  Jerry Sands can probably beat a .681 OPS.  It doesn't always take superstars, and the superstars may not be the answers you seek.

When you sign a free agent, you take a risk that they suddenly suck, get hurt, or just age poorly and be a terrible contract for the last two years of their deal.  But in most cases, you get a known commodity.  Here, the Dodgers are looking at potentially going to the young players for a couple positions (LF, SS, possibly 2B as well), and worst case scenario, they hold steady, but best case scenario the team improves by a lot.  Uribe and Loney might even be valuable contributors. Similarly, if Dodger 5th starters had a better year than Chad Billingsley, then maybe keeping the rotation intact and with good depth would work out well.

Kemp and Kershaw were the only players who really exceeded expectations and seem likely to not have quite as epic a 2012, but many more players (Uribe, LF, C, Gordon) have room for improvement.  The Giants will have Posey back in 2012 and will be the favorite in the NL West again, but I wouldn't count this team out.  A 90 win season doesn't seem too far out of reach, even if a $180,000,000 payroll is.

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