Commentary

Los Angeles Dodgers fantasy team preview

Updated: March 20, 2008, 4:03 PM ET
By Eric Karabell | ESPN.com

We can see it now. This fall will be the 20th anniversary of the famous Kirk Gibson home run off Dennis Eckersley, which is the last time this proud Dodgers franchise has been to the World Series. We look ahead to Game 1 of the Fall Classic this year. Mariano Rivera puts a man on base, and here comes Nomar Garciaparra limping out of the dugout for his one big swing of the series … and there it goes … I don't believe what I just saw … it's a 10-hopper right to A-Rod, a 5-4-3 twin killing.

OK, so Dodgers fans are hoping for a bit more than that, but the point is this is a team that seems to contend every season, but it's been a really long time since there's been something to celebrate. The Dodgers have had only four losing seasons since the Gibby round-tripper, but the 1-12 record in four postseasons tends to get noticed more than the winning seasons. Something's got to change.

Enter a new manager, one who has captured four World Series titles since 1996. Yankees ownership points out that none of the titles came since 2001, but they still exist. Joe Torre is a winner and he should bring out the best in his players (nothing against Grady Little). Among all the team's offseason moves, this was probably the biggest one.

On the field, the Dodgers made few changes, signing Andruw Jones to a two-year deal and bringing Hiroki Kuroda over from Japan for rotation help, but that's pretty much it.

Last year, Jones had his worst season since he was a rookie a decade ago, costing him a longer-term deal and millions of dollars. But as bad as he was, nobody on the Dodgers matched his 26 home runs or 94 RBIs. In fact, the Dodgers are pretty desperate for his power, even if his batting average stays low.

Kuroda wasn't a true necessity because the Dodgers do have rotation depth, but it never hurts to add a potential No. 3 starter with ground-ball tendencies.

What is likely to decide this team's season are the strides made by young players Matt Kemp, James Loney and Chad Billingsley.

The Dodgers have the potential for a good lineup, rotation and bullpen depth, but ultimately the team's future will be decided by how all the parts fit together, and who emerges.

What's Changed?

Key Additions
Joe Torre, Manager
Andruw Jones, CF
Hiroki Kuroda, SP

Key Losses
Mark Hendrickson, P
Olmedo Saenz, 1B
Luis Gonzalez, LF
Randy Wolf, SP

Ballpark: It's widely assumed that Dodger Stadium is a pitchers' park. Ha! No, it's not! This is one of the shocking fallacies of baseball. According to our handy dandy park factors page, Dodger Stadium was No. 10 in runs scored in 2006 and No. 12 last year. When fantasy owners complain about a Dodgers hitter struggling, they merely blame it on the ballpark, and often those same owners overdraft a Los Angeles pitcher, assuming the ballpark will help the pitcher. It doesn't, actually. Dodger Stadium was also No. 13 in home runs, and it had a pitching staff that was No. 10 in ERA is all of baseball. Basically, don't blame Nomar Garciaparra's power outage on the ballpark, or assume this is why underrated Derek Lowe is thriving.

Top Sleeper: Third-base prospect Andy LaRoche was supposed to emerge in 2007, but all he showed was impressive plate discipline, drawing 20 walks against 24 strikeouts in 35 games. When it came to power, LaRoche didn't deliver, hitting one home run, on a windy Coors Field afternoon off Matt Herges. Dodgers third basemen hit only 15 home runs in 2007, tied for No. 23 in baseball. Hey, the Angels got only four home runs from the position, so maybe it's something in the water in Southern California. Garciaparra has to see the writing on the wall at this stage; LaRoche produced a .988 OPS at Triple-A Las Vegas, and at 24 he appears ready for the majors. Look for LaRoche to win the third base job and flirt with 20 home run power.

Intriguing spring battle: The Dodgers have four outfielders who seem to deserve regular playing time, but obviously that's not going to happen. Figure Andruw Jones to be an everyday player, not only because he's likely to hit cleanup but also for his defensive ability in center field. Kemp has been compared to a young Dave Winfield, with an exciting combination of power, speed and a right-fielder's arm. So who plays left field, Juan Pierre or Andre Ethier? Pierre hasn't missed a game since the Eisenhower administration. Well, it was a bit more recent than that, but you get the point. While he's not a particularly good fielder, even in left field, and he hasn't a lick of power, Pierre does remain a terrific base stealer (336 steals since 2002, by far the most in baseball). If Pierre plays, Torre has already said he'd hit second in the order, meaning a good chance for 100 runs scored.

The Offense

2007 Team Stats
OBP+SLG (OPS): .743 (21st)
Runs Scored: 735 (21st)
HR: 129 (26th)
Attempted Steals: 187 (3rd)

Dodger Stadium Park Factor:
Runs: 1.053 (12th) | HRs: 1.052 (13th)

Probable Lineup
Name
Pos
Proj. Rd*
Rafael Furcal
SS
6
Juan Pierre
CF
12
Matt Kemp
RF
7
Andruw Jones
CF
14
Jeff Kent
2B
12
James Loney
1B
13
Russ Martin
C
6
Andy LaRoche
3B
NR
*Projected round a player will be drafted in an ESPN standard 10-team league.

So where does that leave Ethier? First of all, why is there all this outrage over Ethier possibly being left out of the lineup? The left-handed hitter does have ability, but 24 home runs over 279 career games isn't exactly Ruthian. Also, he's been caught stealing on nine of his 14 attempts. Ethier is certainly trade bait, and more in demand than Pierre due to his age, but if there's one L.A. outfielder you don't look to draft, it's Ethier.

Trainer's room: Rafael Furcal should -- finally -- be fully healthy from the sprained ankle he suffered last March. We joke because it likely held him back all last season, and fantasy owners were far from pleased. Furcal salvaged his season for fantasy owners with 12 stolen bases in September, and he should be expected to return to normal levels of performance, with more than 35 steals and double-digit home runs. The other middle infielder is Jeff Kent, who missed 26 games without a disabled-list stint. Basically, he's just old and keeps dealing with minor injuries, and that shouldn't change at age 40. He'll be in the trainer's room a lot, but if he can play 136 games again and deliver 20 home runs and an .875 OPS at a scarce fantasy position, you'll take it.

The team's biggest problem in 2007 wasn't Furcal, but the fact that big free-agent signing Jason Schmidt made just six starts, winning only one. Schmidt's pitching shoulder turned to mush and necessitated major surgery for a number of issues, notably a torn labrum. The Dodgers hope Schmidt will be ready for Opening Day, but this is very unlikely. When he does return, don't expect the same fastball. With the $15 million he makes per year, at least we can be sure he'll be in the rotation, not banished to middle relief. He's a late-round fantasy pick, at best.

The Rotation

2007 Starters Stats
Record: 58-61 (16th)
ERA: 4.43 (12th) | WHIP: 1.41 (17th)
Batting Average Against: .271 (12th)
Home Runs Allowed: 94 (27th)
Team Fielding Percentage: .981 (26th)

Dodger Stadium Factor:
Runs: 1.053 (12th) | HRs: 1.052 (13th)

Projected Rotation
Name
Proj. Rd*
No. 1
Brad Penny
16
No. 2
Derek Lowe
18
No. 3
Chad Billingsley
14
No. 4
Hiroki Kuroda
NR
No. 5
Jason Schmidt
NR
No. 6
Esteban Loaiza
NR
*Projected round a player will be drafted in an ESPN standard 10-team league.

Schedule Preview: The Dodgers play in an interesting division for fantasy owners, as two of their most common opponents play in pitchers' parks (Padres, Giants) while the other two play in hitters' parks (Rockies, Diamondbacks). Fantasy owners in daily leagues are going to want to keep a close eye on the schedule. The period right after the All-Star break looks particularly attractive, with road games at Arizona and Colorado, then home series against underwhelming Washington and potentially messy San Francisco. Dodgers hitters will also look better for fantasy owners as buy-low candidates in the final six weeks, with road series in Philadelphia, Washington (new park, supposedly tilted to hitters) and Arizona kicking things off. As for likely Opening Day starter Brad Penny, it doesn't matter which teams are on the schedule; he's a notorious first-half pitcher, so draft him with pride and move him before July. Over the past three seasons, Penny has a 25-8 record and 2.88 ERA before the All-Star break, but is 14-14 with a 4.82 ERA after. Can't blame that on the schedule makers.

Future Closer: The Dodgers are in strong shape when it comes to potential closers if something befalls 38-year-old Takashi Saito. Of course, the team shouldn't root for that to happen at all, since Saito has a 1.77 ERA and .820 WHIP with 63 saves in his two seasons. He's been terrific, although fantasy owners keep expecting an injury or age to slow him down. Despite the numbers, fantasy owners continue to draft Jonathan Broxton as if he'll be picking up saves this season. Broxton has averaged 98 strikeouts in two major league seasons and is clearly next in line for Saito's throne. Interestingly, the Dodgers have another Jonathan on deck. Jonathan Meloan is a Broxton clone, a big hulking strikeout intimidator just waiting for his chance. Be careful not to expect saves from Meloan this season; he'd need to leapfrog two pitchers.

The Bullpen

2007 Relievers Stats
Record: 24-19 (11th)
Saves/Opps: 43/60 (11th)
ERA: 3.82 (10th) | WHIP: 1.25 (3rd)
Batting Average Against: .243 (7th)
Strikeouts per 9 innings: 8.43 (3rd)

Projected Bullpen
Name
Proj. Rd*
Closer
Takashi Saito
8
Setup**
Jonathan Broxton
24
Setup
Jonathan Meloan
NR
Setup
Joe Beimel
NR
*Projected round a player will be drafted in an ESPN standard 10-team league.
**Closer-in-waiting

Backups to watch: This is what it's come to for poor Nomar Garciaparra. The fact is, unless both Loney and LaRoche fall flat on their faces, Garciaparra isn't guaranteed at-bats on this team. With seven home runs in 121 games, Garciaparra managed to rank No. 176 out of 193 hitters in slugging percentage with a minimum 450 plate appearances. Mark Loretta slugged better. So did Paul Lo Duca, David Eckstein and Sean Casey. Despite all that proof, Garciaparra could end up hitting singles for another team or filling in around the horn as a utility guy. In fairness, he did bat .283, and he hit 20 home runs the year before, so he remains a player who could help fantasy teams -- and with eligibility at both corners to start with, he adds versatility. As last-round picks go, there could be some value here.

Fantasy studs: The first Dodger off the board in fantasy drafts likely will be speedy catcher Russell Martin, that rare backstop who steals bases. Martin is pegged as a third-round pick, but there are warning signs. For one, catchers who run don't often keep running. Martin stole 21 bases in 30 attempts overall last year, but after the All-Star break he was 5-for-11. Don't be shocked if Martin hits lower in the batting order this season and runs a lot less. He'll still be one of fantasy's top catchers, but it's the steals that make him a third-round pick. Kemp is being drafted as if he's reaching stardom immediately, as well.

Prospects to watch for 2008: LaRoche, Kemp and Loney all figure to be regulars in this lineup for years to come, and they are past prospect status at this point. Two players who will start the year in the minor leagues and be prepared for call-ups are lefty starter Clayton Kershaw and flashy shortstop Chin-Lung Hu. Kershaw is a strikeout southpaw and first-round pick from 2006 who has only five starts at Double-A, so he won't be rushed. He fanned 163 hitters in 121 innings in 2007 and is expected to be a top-of-the-rotation starter soon. Hu was the MVP of the Futures Game at All-Star weekend in San Francisco. Scouts figure he's major league ready as a fielder, and last year his bat made progress, too. Hu doesn't figure to hit with much power or steal a lot of bases, but with Furcal in the final year of his contract, he could be the future shortstop.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.

Eric Karabell | email

ESPN.com Senior Writer