Fantasy Articles
Creating an element of suspense to rival any smash Hollywood thriller, the elaborate game of chicken between agent Scott Boras and Dodgers GM Ned Colletti culminated in Boras’ acceptance of the Dodgers original two-year, $45 million offer on behalf of client Manny Ramirez.  With that pivotal piece in place, Los Angeles can at least temporarily put aside the drama and focus on the 2009 season.  Grab some sun block, because there’s ample fantasy talent basking in the warm California sun. 

Top Tier:


ramirez_manny_2
Manny is one with his bat.
Photo by shgmom56, used under creative commons license.
Manny Ramirez (OF): With the new season just two weeks away, there are two burning questions concerning Ramirez.  Will he make an honest effort to play nice with Dodger teammates now that the novelty of his clubhouse presence has worn off and will he be able to build upon the phenomenal conclusion to his 2008 season?  It didn’t help matters that immediately after Ramirez signed, ex-Red Sox teammate Jonathon Paplebon took direct aim with the following salvo:  "It just takes one guy to bring an entire team down, and that's exactly what was happening," Papelbon recounted in an interview with Esquire magazine. "Once we saw that, we weren't afraid to get rid of him (Ramirez). It's like cancer. That's what he was. Cancer."

Fortunately for all concerned, the Dodgers and Red Sox won’t meet unless both reach the World Series. It will be interesting to see if Ramirez adopts a chip on his shoulder in response or merely brushes it off and lets the baseball media dissect the enigmatic Manny being Manny.  He demonstrated late last season why he remains among the most feared batsmen around.  After the trade to Los Angeles, he finished 17/53/.396.  What got lost in the hoopla was his performance while in Boston: 20/68/.299 in 354 at bats.  Which is the more reliable predictor for this year?  Probably the latter, given his age (37 in May) and the fact he won’t enjoy the luxury of DHing to rest nagging injuries (he’s current nursing a sore hamstring).  Bid expecting 30/100/.300 and hope he surprises.  He’ll be drafted earlier than those numbers are worth in fantasy mixed leagues; let someone else drop a second round pick on him.

Matt Kemp (OF):
Kemp exploded offensively last season.  For someone who barely touched double digits in homers and steals (10 each) in 2007, the 2008 version of Kemp flew off the charts.  He finished with 18 homers, 76 RBI, an astonishing 35 steals and a .290 average.  Those numbers have reverberated through the fantasy world and sent him rocketing up the draft board.  Kemp is typically among the top 40 players chosen in mock drafts.  He may not pilfer bases at the same clip, as he’ll drop to fifth in the order to accommodate Manny, so expect some decline.  His power should trend up, making 25 homers and 90 RBI accessible.  The one uncertainty is his average.  How can you hit .290 while fanning 153 times?  It’s probably not sustainable without some reduction in the whiff total, so watch for it to moderate.  Kemp is one of the few players who can honestly claim to possess five tool potential.  How much are you prepared to pay for it? 

Russell Martin (C): Martin continues to provide a unique blend of speed and power from behind the dish.  He has shown remarkable durability for a catcher, toiling in excess of 150 games during both 2007 and 2008.  The downside is that he wears down noticeably as the season progresses.  Last year, for example, he poked just three homers in 223 second half at bats.  The trend is so pronounced, you might consider selling him high at the break before fatigue sets in.  Tired or not, Martin is a shoo-in for 15 homers, 15 steals and a .280 average. 

Rafael Furcal (SS):
When people reflect on Furcal’s career some day, they’ll marvel at his proficiency when healthy and lament how much injuries sapped his marvelous talent.  2008 played true to form.  Furcal sizzled out of the gate but those rooting for an injury holiday were soon jilted when a bad back sidelined him in early May.  The condition worsened and after having accumulated just 143 at bats (five homers, 16 RBI, eight steals), he opted for back surgery in July which ended his regular season.  By all accounts he is fully recovered, but wellness is a relative term when discussing Furcal.  The Dodgers would be delighted with anything resembling 2007 (25 steals, .271 average) but the accumulation of injuries on his 31-year-old body may preclude even that.  Furcal falls in the extremely high risk/high reward category so in selecting him; make sure you grab someone capable of stepping in for the full season should he go down. 

Second Tier:

Chad Billingsley (SP): Billingsley endured a playoff meltdown that included being lambasted by teammates for failing to retaliate when the Phils plunked Manny Ramirez.  It’s unfortunate because he had a splendid regular season, good enough to remove the “projected” in front of “ace.”   Billingsley struggles with his command at times but racked up 16 wins in 2008 along with 200 strikeouts.  He faces added pressure to excel with the departure of staff fixture Derek Lowe but should be up to the task provided his command improves (a middling 1.34 WHIP last season).  The only Achilles heel is a lack of stamina as he lasted beyond the seventh inning just three times last year.  With the Dodgers stellar relief corps, however, it doesn’t make much difference.  Billingsley will justify his ace billing in 2009 with 15 wins and 200 whiffs. 

James Loney (1B): Loney showed improved maturity and plate discipline last year and was rewarded with 150 starts.  Two cautionary signs along the way were a .772 OPS that ranked below the ML average among first sackers and a steep 100 point drop in his slugging percentage.  If they are aberrations, look for Loney to lock in 20 homers and 85 RBI this year with a .290 average.  He’s a worthwhile acquisition in the 12th round of mixed league drafts.

Jonathon Broxton (RP): Broxton is now the new sheriff in town following the departure of Takashi Saito and will be the Dodgers closer.  Many are downplaying his prospects, contending he doesn’t have much experience and is therefore an above average risk.  That ignores the impressive contributions he has made the past three years out of the Dodgers pen.   This is the same pitcher who overpowered NL batters to the tune of 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings while covering for an injured Takashi Saito last year.  That type of dominance, when wedded to solid control and a closer’s mentality, spells success in anyone’s book.  Look for the 24-year-old to have a great season and notch 35 saves. 

Andre Ethier (OF): Ethier is a deadly line drive hitter who turns on a fastball in a heartbeat.  He scorched NL hurlers in September at a .462 clip, a modest calling card suggesting better things await.  His power is still developing and 25 homer potential remains a possibility.  If he gets slotted ahead of Ramirez, he’s on target for 18 homers, 85 RBI and a .305 average.  He’s slightly undervalued in most drafts and makes a great fourth outfielder if nabbed in the 11th round. 

Third Tier:

Clayton Kershaw (SP): The highly touted Kershaw didn’t overwhelm opponents last year during his first ML season, but gave indications that he will grow into a dominant role.  He finished 5-5 with a 4.26 ERA and a 2:1 K:BB ratio while hurling 108 innings.  Kershaw experienced the usual rookie upheavals but settled down and acquitted himself well during the heat of the pennant chase.  That experience toughened him mentally and should accelerate his development this season.  Because of the sorry state of the Dodgers rotation, he has been elevated to the team’s No. 4 starter.  Los Angeles will proceed cautiously with their prized youngster, meaning he could be on strict pitch counts for much of this season.  His time to blossom into a top of the rotation star is a year or two distant but is coming.  Presently, remain content with 10 wins, 160 strikeouts and an ERA around 4.00. 

Hideki Kuroda (SP):
The Japanese veteran signed a 3-year, $35.2M deal with the Dodgers prior to last season.  So far, the results are mixed as the 33-year-old Kuroda finished a lackluster 9-10 in his first full ML season.  To reach even that required incremental improvement.  He endured a wretched June and July, during which his ERA soared to 5.91 and he missed several weeks with an injured shoulder.  During August and September, Kuroda was a changed man and an imposing pitcher.  In his final 11 regular season starts, he went 5-2 with a skimpy 2.39 ERA.  He built upon that momentum by winning both of his playoff starts.  If he can factor in a bit more of the post-July persona, Kuroda should record 12 wins with a 3.50 ERA.  That stacks up as fifth starter material in most mixed leagues. 

Question Mark:


Jason Schmidt (SP):
At the conclusion of the 2006 season, the Dodgers jumped at the chance to sign Schmidt, then considered among the elite NL hurlers.  In fact, they gave him 47 million good reasons (for three years) to vacate San Francisco for LA.  It has been a sobering experience for the Dodger faithful.  He lasted a mere 26 innings in 2007 before being shut down with elbow problems.  He topped that last year by missing the entire campaign with a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder.  Here he is in 2009, again going through the motions in spring training.  The Dodgers will soon be out of their misery as they can finally dump him after this season.  It’s anyone’s guess what he might be able to offer but don’t expect a beaten down 36-year-old to suddenly regain his lost youth.  He’s strictly a final round roll of the dice. 

Sleeper Alert:

Orlando Hudson  (2B):
Like a high school girl waiting anxiously by the phone for a prom invitation, O-Dog likewise waited restlessly all winter hoping a suitor would call offering employment.  Finally, the Dodgers stepped forward.  As Hudson discovered, it was truly a buyer’s market for free agents this off-season.  After earning $6.3M in 2008, he jumped at the $3.4M Los Angeles offered (with incentives, it could total $4.6M).  Hudson is a defensive wizard which has little fantasy relevance other than he’s guaranteed to play when healthy.  And Hudson’s health has become a growing concern.  Last year’s 407 at bats last year represented his lowest total since 2002 as a broken bone in his left wrist ended his season prematurely in August.  He’s only reached double digit steals once in his career and would require a full season to sock 10 homers.  Hudson possesses much greater value in real life then in Roto, so don’t overpay. 

Great Debate:


Hung Chi Kuo (RP): Kuo brings heat and plenty of it.  He was superb last season, registering a miserly 2.14 ERA in 80 innings, accentuated with 96 whiffs, just 21 walks and a paltry four homers allowed.  He’s had multiple operations on his pitching elbow and it reared up last year, causing him to miss much of September.  It has resurfaced this spring although Kuo was able to throw an inning of relief on March 10 and pronounced himself fit.   Because the specter of injury hangs over him, invest wisely.  He makes a nice option in leagues rewarding ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts, especially after all the better known closers are off the board.  Kuo would likely step in should Broxton falter or get hurt, giving him a tad more value.  

Prospect Watch:

James McDonald (SP): McDonald is the organization’s top pitching prospect, earning accolades as their minor league pitcher of the year in 2008.  He went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 26 starts split between Double and Triple-A, culminating with six innings of scoreless relief for the Dodgers.  McDonald averaged a strikeout per inning in the minors although he’s not a power pitcher, relying instead on pinpoint control and location of his pitches.  Given the unsettled state of the Dodgers rotation, it’s not impossible for McDonald to wrestle the fifth spot away from retreads Claudio Vargas, Shawn Estes and Eric Milton.  It’s more likely that he’ll start the year at Triple-A, ready to jump on a plane should a vacancy occur.  He doesn’t project as an ace, but then neither did Chad Billingsley.