Baseball Season Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

You might remember, from back at the beginning of the NFL season, when we previewed each team by having a writer we liked write about their favorite team.

Well, we're less than a week away from the start of baseball — spring training is here! — so it's time to do the same thing in the baseball world. Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.

Today: The Los Angeles Dodgers. Your author is the blog Lion In Oil.

Lion In Oil is a new blog by some Los Angeles natives and their compatriots devoted to sports, tomfoolery and madness - with a special affinity for fantasy baseball. Their words are after the jump.

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Will the Dodgers crush the competition this season, or will the fans simply be crushing each other amidst the mayhem of Dodger Stadium's new all-you-can-eat right field pavilion? The Lion in Oil crew is here to investigate.

OFFSEASON MOVES

The move that brought the most attention to the Dodgers this offseason was not one of their own. It was when JD Drew opted out of the final three years of his contract foregoing $33 million. This left nearly all Dodger fans jumping for joy as they no longer had their most unemotional and fragile player on the books. Unfortunately, Dodgers' GM Ned Colletti received no word from Drew beforehand and was left scrambling to fill the gap left in the outfield. Besides signing Jason Schmidt, Colletti's attempts to bolster the offense mirror those of recent years. That is: He made one big move and a bunch of meaningless little ones.

Dodger fans no longer have to look back at the signings of Ricky Ledee, Kenny Lofton, Fred McGriff, JD Drew, Jose Valentin, Bill Mueller, Jose Cruz Jr. and Robin Ventura as the benchmarks for hitters who disappointed. Now they have Luis Gonzalez and Juan Pierre to fill that role. Juan Pierre is a mediocre player who would fit well on many teams if they didn't have a leadoff hitter. The fact that the Dodgers already have Rafael Furcal to get on base and steal, one of the weakest lineups in the National League and are paying Pierre $44 million over five years makes this deal absolutely useless unless you are Juan Pierre, his agent or the IRS. The signing of 39-year old Gonzalez does not go over well with the writers of Lion In Oil. The Dodgers with Gonzalez in left, Pierre in center and Andre Ethier in right "boast" one of the league's weakest outfields in terms of power hitting and defense. For this outfield, one thing is certain: Albert Pujols will have more home runs by June than the whole outfield will all season.

Historically the Dodgers have thrived from having solid pitching, and they bring one of the strongest rotations in the league to the mound this season. The Dodgers added two veteran starters in Jason Schmidt and Randy Wolf to the team. LA got a relative bargain on these two when compared to Zito's monstrous deal with the Giants. Schmidt will anchor the staff, which also includes Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, and Chad Billingsley. Wolf brings his Southern California roots to the squad and hopefully more than the injured elbow and horrible numbers he had over the last few seasons with the Phillies.

Colletti also brought in catcher Mike Lieberthal to back up Russell Martin. You cannot really go wrong with such a move because you get a serviceable catcher and a member of the tribe to replace Shawn Green. But overall, we think the offseason moves will help the team win the division in the ultra-weak NL West. Luis Gonzalez is here for a year to occupy time for super-prospect Matt Kemp to take the outfield. Juan Pierre should score plenty of runs and the pitching staff will maintain its position as one of the best in baseball. The team also may make a midseason blockbuster because of its surplus of prospects and serviceable starters.

But perhaps the most pressing question related to the offseason is who called whom first when Olmedo Saenz and Brad Penny learned about the all-you-can-eat section? And how many times will we be seeing them there this season? Penny pitches once every five days, Olmedo is a bench player - over/under is 42.

YOUNG AND OLD ALIKE

Despite the ease with which one may find faults with the team, the Dodgers were relatively successful last year (at least until the playoffs began), in great part due to their combination of veteran leadership and blossoming youth. For every pinch-hit double by Olmedo Saenz, there was a perfect inning pitched by Jonathan Broxton. For every multi-hit game turned in by Andre Ethier, there was a masterful late season performance by Greg Maddux. The babies and the old men worked together beautifully at times as the Dodgers tied San Diego with the second best record in the National League. Maddux is gone now, but his indelible effects on Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley are not, and 34-year-old Jason Schmidt will take his place as the staff ace - a significant upgrade, all things considered. Also, Luis Gonzalez, who will be 40 (!!!) before the playoffs begin, joins a lineup that includes 15-year veteran Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra, who has 11 years experience of his own. The Dodgers also have Brett Tomko and Elmer Dessens in the bullpen (muck) and new addition Mike Lieberthal (JEW - WE LIKE) assuming backup catcher duties.

The Dodgers have had an ugly history of trades that have backfired - trades that sent away brilliant young talent; Pedro Martinez for Delino Deshields and Paul Konerko for Jeff Shaw, to name a couple. Regrettably, in 2006, the Dodgers may have added to this list when they traded away big-time prospect Joel Guzman for a useless Julio Lugo rental - at the very least, a waste, and at worst, one of the most horrific managerial blunders in baseball history (only time, and Guzman's career HR total, will tell). Nevertheless, last season was one in which the team's farm system not only came to life, but more importantly made a huge impact on the team throughout the year. Ignoring the Lugo deal, Ned Colletti has done an admirable job of holding on to the team's top prospects, and Grady Little has also done well to give them as many games played and innings pitched as anyone could have hoped for.

Billingsley, the future ace of the team, will have his first season as a full-time member of the rotation. He is good enough to win 15+ and have an ERA in the low 3's. He has excellent stuff and will benefit from having Schmidt on the staff with him. Broxton will return to his setup role and may get a few save opportunities spelling closer Takashi Saito. Andre Ethier will get an opportunity to prove his rookie season was not a fluke in right field. James Loney will get playing time at 1B when Nomar sits, and more at RF when LuGone rests as well (with Ethier shifting to left field). Matt Kemp will use AAA to figure out how to hit breaking balls and learn what a base on balls is. One prospect who might see his first MLB action this season is Andy LaRoche (brother of Adam); he will likely be called up midseason, depending on injuries and Wilson Betemit's performance.

We expect Penny to rebound from his dreadful second half (6.52 after the break) mostly because we think he was playing injured. Lowe should be dependable for his usual 200 innings and mid-3 ERA. After Billingsley struggled with his control in his first few starts, he rebounded and finished the year with 90 innings pitched and 3.87 ERA. Should any of their pitchers falter or get injured, LA has plenty of potential substitutes in the bullpen to fill the spots. Tomko, Mark Hendrickson (please no) or Hong-Chi Kuo (who gave a Lion in Oil writer a ball at Citizens Bank Park, after which he caught a foul ball) all will start spring training in the pen, looking to impress and move to the starting five.

This season should bring more improvement from the youngsters, and just how much game action they see will depend heavily on the health of the aging players. Position and lineup shuffling will take place all season long, and that's part of the beauty of this team. Nomar provides many a clutch hit, but should he need to rest (which will happen a lot) the lineup will not be much weaker with James Loney playing first. Similarly, if and when Luis Gonzalez's batting average is flirting with the Mendoza line, Ethier and Loney might both be in the lineup at once - Matt Kemp could be in there at some point as well.

The anchor, the unsung hero, if you will, of the Dodgers is 23-year-old catcher Russell Martin. What's not to like about this man? He was an everyday catcher as a rookie, had countless late-game base hits, has an above average arm, works well with the pitchers...the list goes on and on. The most amazing thing about him, though, is his exuberance and dedication to the game. (Or that his father's a jazz musician.) Without a doubt, he was the player who worked the hardest day in and day out during the 2006 season. Diving for balls in foul territory, hustling to first base, showing emotion after crossing home plate - this guy loves to win, and he gives his all towards making that happen.

So, as you watch the Dodgers this season, look out for this tandem of young and old. The team's success reflects the glory of these combined forces - a two pronged attack. We can just see it now...Baby Billingsley starts the game, turns in 7 perfect innings before turning it over to monstrosity-of-a-man Brox the Ox in the 8th...Nomar hobbles to the plate and cracks a go-ahead homer over the left field wall, and 37-yr-old Saito comes in to finish the opponent off. Mmmmmm...

REMEMBER VIN

The 2007 season will mark Vin Scully's 57th season with the Dodgers, and never has one man defined a franchise like Scully does now. No matter how tumultuous things have been in Chavez Ravine recently, there has always been one constant - the man in the booth. With his soothing voice Scully has the gift of gab, weaving the game and the scene with grace and ease. Generations of Dodgers fans can remember growing up listening to Scully, and these writers used to fall asleep listening to his majestic voice. In a time when the sports media landscape has been dominated by over the top hysterics and homerism (think Vitale, Stephen A. Smith, etc), Scully's one-man booth and tell-it-like-it-is style constantly set him apart. Not limited to baseball, Scully has called numerous sports over his long and distinguished career. Many don't realize that he was John Madden's original NFL broadcast partner.

Now more than ever Dodger fans and all baseball fans alike should take the time to appreciate Vin Scully. Scully rarely travels east of the Rockies, and only calls about 115 games per season. His contract runs through 2008, and while he says he has no intentions to retire any time soon, we must all take the time to soak in this true gem. Who knows which season, let alone which game, will be his last. The Lakers were embodied by the voice of Chick Hearn, but Los Angelenos were unable to show their true love for him until after his death. Let's not let this happen this time around. The Dodgers have come up with the great promotion of letting the fans vote on their third bobble-head giveaway. Lion In Oil calls for a symbolic write-in vote — for Vin Scully. A Vin Scully bobblehead giveaway, coupled with a yearly Vin Scully Appreciation night is the least we can do to give back to the man and voice who has given so much to the Dodgers as well as the sport.

PROGNOSIS

So what do we make of all this? This season will be a real test for the team. Frank McCourt has shown a willingness to spend money, something Dodgers fans were worried about when he bought the Bums. We have great young talent, some dependable veterans, and a weak division that is ours to win. From now until the trade deadline may be the time that defines the tenures of both Ned Colletti and Grady Little. Will Colletti be able to pull off the trade that the Dodgers so desperately need without sacrificing too much? Will Little know when it's time to bench struggling or hurt veterans and let the young guys play? (And will the front office support his moves?) And if the Dodgers are limping along in third place on July 1, will we see another great winning streak like in years past, one that carries them into October?

The Dodgers rarely do anything in epic fashion, save for last year's five home run bonanza against San Diego, so if this team fails, it will be a painful, slow failure, one that saps the strength of the players and the fans, that perhaps leaves us wondering, much as Dodgers fans felt after the mid-90s glut of Rookie of the Years seemed to disappear into thin air: What could have been?

What do we think? The Dodgers will win the division - despite the play of Gonzo and Pierre - with a record of 89-72 and will lose to the Mets in the second round of the playoffs. Hey, we're fans, but we're realistic. And for a team that's won one playoff game since 1988, well, this would be progress.