Jun 08

Hanging out on the corner, still waiting to turn


Jim McIsaac/Getty Images (file)Juan Uribe has three doubles and zero home runs in his past 75 at-bats.

There was no mistaking the foreboding, the fear threatening to smother the excitement.

Andre Ethier doubled, and Matt Kemp singled him to third with none out in the seventh inning and the Dodgers trailing Cole Hamels, 1-0 … but the next three batters were Juan Uribe, Marcus Thames and Rod Barajas.

All three are hitters who have produced in the past. But these guys against Hamels at the top of his game, that was going to be an uphill climb, with full packs, in the heat, on a muddy trail, with the sun in their eyes, with aliens firing lasers all around, while having to listen to Wham! – just to even get a sacrifice fly or RBI groundout.

They failed – Uribe spectacularly so, popping up on the first pitch before Thames struck out and Barajas also popped out. And that was followed by wasted baserunners in the eighth and ninth innings of what became a 2-0 loss to Philadelphia.

* * *

This was not a loss that I think twice about.  The Dodgers fell to one of their toughest opponents, on the road and with an offense that, despite its occasional spurts of greatness, is mostly, objectively awful. That’s not news.

If Los Angeles had won, that would have made me think twice about this team.  A victory would have given the Dodgers’ four straight series wins, two of those series on the road against division champions from last year, including one series against the best starting pitching east of Yosemite. An 8-4 record in their last 12 games, against mostly good competition.

In a 162-game season, a road loss to Phillies means next to nothing. Hiroki Kuroda vs. Hamels in Philadelphia is not a game that the Dodgers would have been favored to win even if they were in first place. But at the same time, if something’s going to change my opinion that this team doesn’t have the strength to seriously compete this year, then it’s going to have to be something not just dramatic, but kind of epic. It’s going to have to be more than 7-5 in their past 12, no matter the competition. It’s going to have to be more than a massive comeback from down five runs in the eighth inning against the Reds. There has to be more than a mere flashes of greatness. There has to be something sustained. Even then, there would be doubt, but there’d be more than just blips.

If even the losers get lucky sometimes, then you can’t decide on a moment’s notice that a loser has become a winner.

And believe me, I know the division looks weak. Frankly, the entire National League doesn’t strike me as all that wonderful. I know everyone’s unhappy about tonight’s game, but let’s look at it another way – if Hamels gives up a hit to a guy hitting about .220, the Phillies are poised to drop two of three to a sub-.500, offensively challenged NL West team.

The weaker the league, the easier it is you to compete – but also, the easier it is for other mediocre teams. Nearly every Tom, Dick, Harry, Orson and Mary Beth has a right to think they can win this year. So this isn’t really about worrying that the Dodgers would sneak into the playoffs only to be swept in the first round. This is about worrying that, just like in 2005, there’s a land of opportunity out there, but this covered wagon still doesn’t have the horses even to make it past the Appalachians.

* * *

My theme for this year has been that the Dodgers need everything they can to go right. No margin for error. Despite some of the season’s most exciting moments coming in the past two weeks, it’s still not happening. First base and left field are still nightmares, catcher is close to it, third base is heading in that direction. We’re faced, for example, with the burning (not in a good way) question of whether Aaron Miles is actually better than Uribe.

The young replacements in the bullpen have been practically spectacular, as has Matt Kemp. The starting pitching remains as good as advertised, and Andre Ethier, though his home-run power has gone AWOL, is still productive. The defense has been better than expected.

It’s still not enough. We’re now in the third month of the season. Where’s the extra help going to come from?

Will James Loney, Uribe, Thames (6 for 42 with two walks in 2011), Barajas (7 for his last 49 with a walk and two doubles) and Jerry Sands (3 for his last 35 with two walks) pull out of their slumps?

Will Dee Gordon be a game-changer, at least until Rafael Furcal comes back? Will Furcal come back?

That’s a lot of guys who can help – if they can help. But what I find is that we’re asking mostly the same questions we’ve been asking for some time now. Those questions will not go away overnight.

Years ago, I wrote that if you’re asking “Does this win mean the Dodgers have turned the corner?” then you know the team hasn’t done so. If you have to ask, it hasn’t happened. It means the losing is still too fresh. You’ll know subconsciously your team has turned the corner when it doesn’t occur to you to wonder.

The Dodgers have had a decent road trip, a decent past couple of weeks. But they are still on the other side of the street.

May 25

So, have you started wondering about 2012 yet?


Julie Jacobson/APRubby De La Rosa

So, let’s say, just hypothetically …

just hypothetically, mind you …

… that the Dodgers don’t reverse their ugly 2011 start and reach the playoffs.

I mean, I know it’s crazy, but what if an injury-riddled team with almost no offense keeps losing?

What might happen with this roster?

For starters, there’s always the possibility that Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti will try to make a midseason deal to strengthen a playoff bid, as he has done every year of his tenure, with everyone but Zach Lee and Rubby De La Rosa serving as potential trade chips. But under Colletti, the Dodgers have never entered July with a double-digit deficit in the playoff races, and that obviously seems like a much more distinct possibility in 2011. That could dissuade Colletti from his typically go-for-it mentality.

Conversely, if the Dodgers’ fade-out continues unabated, Colletti could take the opportunity to do what is never done in Los Angeles and jump start a rebuilding program with the trade of any number of veterans to serious postseason contenders for prospects.  The conventional wisdom is that the bulk of Dodgers fans won’t tolerate a rebuild, but given what they’re already putting up with and how attendance is already in decline, it’s not as if much more damage can be done. And really, you have to be pretty myopic not to see the potential benefits of this path.

It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if Colletti gets caught in between the fork in the road and ends up largely standing still. Whether or not that turns out to be the case, it’s as good a launching point as any for our “what next” speculation.

Brian Mount/Icon SMITed Lilly

Starting rotation
In the short term: The most stable part of the team this year has needed only one substitute, John Ely in the first week of the year. Ely is around if a spot start is needed, while De La Rosa would also be a candidate to be a replacement. Keep in mind, however, that De La Rosa only threw 110 1/3 professional innings last year and has already thrown 41 this year, counting his major-league debut Tuesday — they should be looking to protect him.

In the long term: Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly will return next year, with De La Rosa poised to join them. Hiroki Kuroda will be a free agent, and Jon Garland has an $8 million vesting option that the Dodgers will probably be able to buy out, since he doesn’t figure to reach the required 190 innings. As was the case last year, the return of Kuroda (37 in February) will probably depend on his willingness to do a one-year deal in the U.S., while Garland would probably also have to agree to a similar contract as he had this year, which calls for a lower base salary plus performance incentives.

The imminent arrival of De La Rosa could allow the Dodgers to pit Kuroda against Garland in a negotiating stance — they make offers to both, and whichever one agrees first would get the deal. If neither one bites, the Dodgers would seek out a veteran starter, to give De La Rosa a cushion and provide depth in a place where Colletti most values it. (It would be encouraging if Lilly, 36 in January, showed some improvement between now and next year.)

Also, if injuries don’t hold him back, Lee could be in Double-A by the start of 2012 and in the majors by the end, if Clayton Kershaw’s path is any model. We’ll see.

Bullpen
In the short term: Expect the revolving door to continue, not just as players like Blake Hawksworth, Vicente Padilla, Jonathan Broxton and hopefully Hong-Chih Kuo return from the disabled list, but as the team decides whether Kenley Jansen, Javy Guerra, Scott Elbert or Ramon Troncoso need to spend more time in the minors. Josh Lindblom, who had 30 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings for Double-A Chattanooga through Saturday, could get his long-awaited first shot in the majors, while other non-roster players like lefty Cole St. Clair (1.02 ERA, 16 strikeouts, 12 baserunners in 17 2/3 innings) wait in the wings. And there are always names like Jon Link …

Rob Grabowski/US PresswireJavy Guerra

In the long term: Even if he returns this season at peak performance, Broxton will be a free agent at the end of the year. If he’s great, the Dodgers won’t be able to pay for him, if he’s not great, the Dodgers won’t want to pay for him. Padilla will also be a free agent, and the Dodgers will probably be out of patience with his inconsistent health. Mike MacDougal qualifies as a pleasant surprise, but if he asks for seven figures in salary for 2012, the Dodgers might balk.

Kuo will be arbitration eligible and stand to earn a big raise – his mental and physical condition makes him a non-tender candidate, although if there’s any sign he’s conquered his anxiety disorder, he might be the reliever they decide to reinvest in.

Most likely to return are Hawksworth, Matt Guerrier and the rookies including Jansen, Elbert and Guerra, with the Dodgers patrolling the major- and minor-league free agent market for their usual host of candidates.

Further down the line, the Dodgers will keep their eyes on Steven Ames and Shawn Tolleson – the latter continuing his strikeout-mad ways with 13 in 7 2/3 innings since his promotion to Rancho Cucamonga.

Though the bullpen has been a lightning rod for discussion this year, this is not the place for the Dodgers to spend a high portion of their resources. They have bigger fish to fry.

Catching
In the short term: A.J. Ellis stands by, waiting for the next disabled list trip for Rod Barajas or Dioner Navarro.

In the long term: Navarro has done little to indicate he was worth his 2011 contract, let alone that he’d be worth a 2012 deal. Ellis, who will finally be out of options just before his 31st birthday, figures to settle in at last on the major-league roster. Barajas, 36 in September, will be a free agent, and though he is currently second in the team in home runs, it’s anyone’s guess whether the Dodgers will bring him back. You can’t rule it out, but the Dodgers will consider alternatives.

In the real long term, the Dodgers might finally have a new catching prospect in 23-year-old Gorman Erickson, who had a .991 OPS for Single-A Rancho Cucamonga, relying (as Ellis does) on plate discipline rather than power. But Erickson’s numbers will diminish once he leaves the friendlier confines of the California League for Double-A. Maybe he, too, will become a full-time backup in about five years.

Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesCasey Blake

Infield
In the short term: Injuries will likely dictate playing time for the remainder of spring and on into the summer. But should Casey Blake, Rafael Furcal and Juan Uribe actually end up on the active roster at the same time next month, it doesn’t mean the end of Jamey Carroll’s playing time. The indispensable, no-longer-a-reserve Carroll has been too productive to sit. Carroll can give those other three players rest, and if that also means Blake moves around to play some first base, so be it.

Aaron Miles, on the other hand, could go back to sixth-infielder status, which suits him, and Russ Mitchell would go back to the minors. Juan Castro can go and clear waivers.

On the other hand, if the injuries continue, we’ll just see more of what we’ve seen, with Ivan De Jesus no doubt making a return appearance at some point.

In the long term: Overhaul. Loney, due for one more arbitration-eligible raise despite his most disappointing season, will be jettisoned unless he shows some hint of power. Even his mainstream reputation as a clutch hitter has been scarred. Blake has a $6 million club option, too rich for a 38-year-old who will be a part-timer. Same story with Furcal’s $12 million club option. That leaves only Uribe among the nominal starters.

Carroll will be a free agent – and he’ll also be 38. This has been a happy marriage, and I actually like the odds of his returning, but he will get other offers. In any event, as great as he has been in 2010-11, it’d be risky to count on him as a starter in 2012 – though perhaps you could use him as a stopgap until minor-leaguer Dee Gordon is considered ready.

But will Gordon be ready next year? With a .735 OPS and 10 errors so far in his first 40 Triple-A games, there’s no way you can pencil him into the 2012 Dodger starting lineup. De Jesus also seems like a longshot to do much of note in the majors next year, if ever.

Although Jerry Sands could hold down left field, one option for the Dodgers would be to move him to the infield, where the team is much thinner. Uribe would take a second position, while the Dodgers look outside the organization for help at the two other spots. Gordon, though some might not want to hear it, could be a trade chip.

A late-breaking candidate is Scott Van Slyke, who has been playing first base for Chattanooga after starting his pro career as an outfielder. Van Slyke, 25 in July, had a .954 OPS (fifth in the Southern League) with 16 doubles in his first 42 games this year.

Outfield
In the short term: Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Sands, who is platooning with Jay Gibbons. Sands looked ripe to go back to Albuquerque just a week or two ago, but that notion has changed dramatically. A healthy Marcus Thames could still knock Sands down to Triple-A temporarily, but there’s going to be much more resistance to that happening now. Sands could also enter the infield mix even before 2012.

In the long term: Kemp for sure. Ethier, probably. The outfielder certainly won’t be non-tendered, and he is as likely to get a multiyear deal as any other fate. That doesn’t mean Ethier, 30 in April, couldn’t be a trade candidate in 2012, the year he becomes eligible for free agency, but as noted recently, that’s not the type of trade the Dodgers have been making.

So there’s Sands, or if he moves to the infield, Trayvon Robinson could get a shot. Roster expansion in September should provide an early peek at Robinson.

Summary
The Dodgers will need at least one front-line starting pitcher next season, whether it’s Kuroda, Garland or someone else, with an eye on possibly two. No walk in the park, but simple enough.

The starting lineup is another story. You have Kemp, Ethier and (grumble) Uribe. You probably have Sands. Maybe Carroll. Then your next two in-house options to start are Ellis at catcher and either Robinson or Van Slyke. If desperate, the Dodgers could resurrect the Sands-to-third idea.

The point is, the Dodgers are going to make some big moves in the offseason, otherwise their 2012 starting lineup could look like this:

Carroll, SS
Robinson, LF
Ethier, RF
Kemp, CF
Sands, 3B
Uribe, 2B
Ellis, C
Van Slyke, 1B

It’s gonna be an interesting offseason … five months from now.

May 24

May bitter blues

May has historically been a good month for the Dodgers since they moved to Los Angeles. So it might come as no surprise that the 2011 Dodgers are on pace for their West Coast worst.

They’ll need to go 4-3 over their final seven games this month just to avoid matching Los Angeles’ worst May ever.

Worst Mays in Los Angeles Dodger history
.333 7-14, 2011 (seven games remaining)
.393 11-17, 1958
.393 11-17, 2005
.393 11-17, 1995*
.423 11-15, 1984
.423 11-15, 1987
.433 13-17, 1998
.452 14-17, 1959*
* reached postseason

Tony Jackson has more on the woebegone Dodgers at ESPNLosAngeles.com.

May 15

Quarter-pole report


Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireRod Barajas could become the second player in Dodger history, after Marquis Grissom in 2001, with at least 20 homers and fewer walks than homers.

By around the middle of the fifth inning today, the Dodgers will have completed 25% of their 2011 regular season. Here are the paces some of their most frequently used players are on:

Andre Ethier: 16 homers, 219 hits, 41 doubles, 117 strikeouts
Matt Kemp: 28 homers, 49 steals in 61 attempts, 203 hits, 81 walks, 101 RBI, 36 doubles, 138 strikeouts, 162 games
Jamey Carroll: 0 homers, 158 games, 178 hits, 12-for-12 stealing
Rod Barajas: 28 homers, 20 walks, 57 RBI, 134 strikeouts
James Loney: four homers, four steals, eight doubles, 49 RBI, 32 walks, 73 strikeouts
Juan Uribe: 24 doubles, 24 walks, 12 homers, 126 strikeouts

Clayton Kershaw: 20-12, 239 innings, 81 walks, 259 strikeouts
Chad Billingsley: 8-12, 227 1/3 innings, 85 walks, 203 strikeouts
Hiroki Kuroda: 16-12, 215 1/3 innings, 53 walks, 166 strikeouts
Ted Lilly: 12-12, 178 1/3 innings, 36 walks, 117 strikeouts
Kenley Jansen: 0-0, 65 innings, 41 walks, 113 strikeouts
Matt Guerrier: 8-8, 81 1/3 innings, 28 walks, 65 strikeouts

May 11

Dodgers hover near .500, but does a crash loom?


Gene J. Puskar/APJerry Sands and Aaron Miles during Monday’s Dodger loss.

The Dodgers produced a feel-good win Tuesday night. The hitters hit, the pitchers pitched and a good time was had by all.

If only it didn’t feel so unusual.

The victory showed what the Dodgers are capable of on a given night, but it didn’t really change how capable they look this season.

Los Angeles entered the season riding a thin line. The pitching was going to be good if not great, but the hitting was the opposite, and the depth, outside of Vicente Padilla, almost non-existent.

And so while it seems crazy on the one hand to get down a team that is only three games below .500 and 3 1/2 games out of first place in the National League West, the weaknesses remain almost overwhelming.

How do you win without a decent on-base percentage, power or relief?

The hitting was always going to be borderline at best, and this is not best. Outside of Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, the rest of the crew hits like Olive Oyl. James Loney has no power. Dodger left fielders are slugging below .300 this season with not a single home run. (Marcus Thames hit two as a pinch-hitter.)  Jamey Carroll and Aaron Miles are on hot streaks, but that’s not a dependable offense.

It’s reasonable to hope Loney will get an extra-base hit again sometime in his career, but the actual growth the Dodgers were counting on just doesn’t seem to be coming.

Rafael Furcal’s going to save this team when he comes off the disabled list? Furcal can be wonderful — an All-Star last year — but I don’t think Furcal physically can be that big a difference-maker over the long haul any more. Nor is Casey Blake capable of hitting like he did at the outset of the season for any sustained period of time.

Meanwhile, if the bullpen can’t protect the starting pitchers, day after day, there’s not much hope one can offer. The pitching needs to be as reliable as the offense is unreliable. It needs to be stone-cold bulletproof. And for some reason, Hong-Chih Kuo and Jonathan Broxton have had the roof cave in on them in the same year.

But I don’t know how you make changes to that bullpen without making things elsewhere on the roster worse. Call up Rubby De La Rosa, switch him to relief and expect him to be perfect? I bet he’d be good, but I don’t think he can be that good. And he’s still only one guy.

Short of a reversal of fortune in that pen — Kuo and Broxton get healthy and effective again — I don’t think anything turns the Dodgers into a serious playoff contender at this point unless they trade prospects for a big bat. And while there are some trades I’d be willing to make, I’m not sure that the ones that aren’t flat-out depressing are realistic.

I’ve seen teams have bad seasons — I’ve seen the 2005 Dodgers, who went 71-91 — and you’re going to have to convince me this team isn’t worse. You want to bring up guys like Mike Edwards? Edwards’ 2005 OPS is higher than that of Loney, Miles, Juan Uribe and Jerry Sands/Tony Gwynn Jr.

The 2005 Dodgers were 19-12 on May 9 and had a 38-43 record until their best hitter, who happened to be their right fielder, was hit by a pitch and lost for the season. Imagine how the 2011 Dodgers would look if they lost Ethier for that long.

This year’s team is looking more like the 1992 Dodgers, who lost 99 games despite a 3.41 team ERA that was sixth in the National League, because the lineup had become so decrepit.

If it were only a matter of health, or only a matter of the bullpen, or only a matter of the offense, I’d hardly sweat the current 3 1/2-game deficit in the NL West (five games in the wild card). The Dodgers will win their share of games, enjoy their occasional night where things go right instead of going wrong. But short of a major trade (or bad mojo for their rivals), I’m just not seeing how they put together a sustained run that surpasses both Colorado and San Francisco unless the bullpen reverses itself, with its two best relievers returning to form by the second half of the season, or the offense performs above its grade. For that, all one can do is hope.

I don’t write these words lightly. It’s been nearly 20 years since I felt this pessimistic about a Dodger team in May. With each first pitch, I hope I’m proven wrong.

Dodgers at Pirates, 4:05 p.m.

Sep 27

Ten things to watch for in the Dodgers’ final week

Getty ImagesDodgers such as Clayton Kershaw, Joe Torre and Ted Lilly have targets to shoot for – or avoid.

Need something to keep your interest in the Dodgers over the season’s final six games? Here are 10 postcards from the edge of your seat …

1) Clayton Kershaw’s sub-3.00 ERA

Kershaw figures to make one more start this season, Wednesday at Colorado – a tough locale for keeping his current 2.91 ERA below 3.00 for the second year in a row. This is complicated by the fact that a few scenarios put Kershaw’s final ERA at 2.995 or 2.996, which technically keeps him below 3.00 but won’t do the trick for those who don’t take the decimal places out that far. Here’s how many runs Kershaw can allow, based on how many innings he throws:

Innings Wednesday Max runs allowable to keep ERA below 3.000 Max runs allowable to keep ERA below 2.995
1 2 2
2 2 2
3 3 2
4 3 3
5 3 3
6 4 3
7 4 4
8 4 4
9 5 4

Those of you interested in fractions of innings, you’ll have to remain in suspense.

2) Kershaw’s pursuit of the Dodger pitcher sacrifice bunt record

Is anything really more important than this? Kershaw has 18 this season, with only Orel Hershiser (19) ahead of him.

3) Team home run leader

Media guide cover boys Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are tied at 23. Who will win bragging rights, which will come in necessary next year when Kershaw figures to be the media guy cover boy?

4) Team RBI leader

Despite having only 21 RBI since the All-Star break, James Loney (84) is still trying to hold off Ethier (79) and Kemp (77) for the title. Loney’s cause might have been aided by John Lindsey’s injury.

5) Joe Torre’s 2,000th loss

The Dodgers’ loss Sunday was Torre’s 1,996th as a manager. The team needs to go 3-3 to keep him below two grand.

6) .300 club

The Dodgers will not have a qualified hitter (minimum 502 plate appearances) bat above .300 this season. So let’s turn to the unqualified! Kenley Jansen (1.000) and Manny Ramirez (.311) are locks, but Trent Oeltjen (.333), Rafael Furcal (.298), Jamey Carroll (.292) and Jay Gibbons (.288) are in the running. And why stop there? A.J. Ellis, Rod Barajas and pitchers from hither to yon could also end up at .300 with a hot final week.

7) Ted Lilly’s HR/BB ratio

Lilly enters the final week with 12 homers and 11 walks allowed as a Dodger. Don Newcombe (1958) and Terry Mulholland (2002) are the only Dodgers to allow more homers than walks in a season, minimum 10 homers allowed.

8) Hustleful but homerless

Jamey Carroll enters the final week of the season without a home run to his credit in 408 plate appearances. Carroll has homered in each of his past four seasons, but can he make it five? Carroll is currently tied for 2,725th place on baseball’s all-time home run list with 12.

9) September Mourn

The worst September (and October) in Los Angeles Dodger history was the 10-20 performance by the woeful 1992 team. The 2010 Dodgers are 7-16 in September, so if they lose at least four of their final six games, they’ll take the crown.

10) Lowest of the low
The worst teams in baseball since the All-Star break:

24-43, .358 Kansas City
24-43, .358 Seattle
25-42, .373 Pittsburgh
26-42, .382 Los Angeles
28-39, .418 New York Mets
28-39, .418 Washington

Yes, the Dodgers can be that team.

Sep 16

The Big Blue Wrecked Crew: 2010-11 Dodger offseason primer


Kirby Lee/US PresswireRussell Martin: Just one of the many questions the Dodgers face this winter.

The Dodger roster heading into the 2010-11 offseason, and I don’t say this lightly, is a mess.

It’s not a hopeless mess. But it is a mess, and it’s going to take some skill from the crew in charge to clean up. It’s a goop of oil and water, an unsightly combination of having to fill holes while also figuring out which rising salaries to jettison and which to risk holding onto.

Oh, and when the 2010 season ends, the No. 5 starter on the 40-man roster, at least by major-league experience, will be someone who hasn’t pitched in a professional game in four months: Scott Elbert.

The Dodgers have one absolute jewel on the team: Clayton Kershaw. The team’s top player won’t be arbitration eligible for one more year and only figures to earn approximately $500,000 in 2011.

Then, there are a few players whose higher salaries the Dodgers won’t mind paying. Chad Billingsley, who will command somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million, knocked down many of the questions others had about him with a resurgent 2010 season. Hong-Chih Kuo will draw low seven figures, and after the way he has persevered and performed, no one should begrudge him. Kenley Jansen will make people swoon, and only receive the major-league minimum pay and meal money in return.

So much for the good news. Now, the concerns:

  • Rafael Furcal surely remains talented, but the Dodgers have $12 million going to a player who has averaged fewer than 100 games per year since 2008.
  • Slumping reliever Jonathan Broxton’s final season before free agency is tagged with a $7 million salary.
  • Coming off an injury that ended his second straight disappointing year, arbitration-eligible Russell Martin would also get as much as $7 million if the Dodgers don’t non-tender him.
  • Andre Ethier looked like an MVP at the start of the year; by the end, his $9.25 million 2011 salary for an outfielder who struggles against lefties didn’t seem like quite as much of a bargain.
  • Lightning Rod Award-winning outfielder Matt Kemp has $6.95 million coming next year.
  • Casey Blake, game but aging, gets $5.25 million in the final chapter of his three-year deal.
  • By now, James Loney should have developed enough that the $4.5 million he is projected to earn next year should have seemed closer to a bargain than a burden, but his second-half disappearance hasn’t helped matters.
  • Incumbent second baseman Ryan Theriot and his sub-.700 OPS will bring home about $3.5 million if the Dodgers hang onto him.

In sum, that’s about $55 million committed to a series of question marks, some small, some large. In addition, Los Angeles owes approximately $17 million of its 2011 budget to (swallow hard) Manny Ramirez, Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones and Jason Schmidt — the price for turning past mistakes into the playoff teams of the previous two years.

Overall, the Dodgers on paper have close to $100 million – a figure that might well be at or above their budget limit – committed before they make a single offseason move.

Now, all is not lost. The Dodgers can and probably will gain roughly $12 million in breathing room if and when they bid farewell to George Sherrill, Octavio Dotel, Scott Podsednik and Brad Ausmus (who has said he will retire). Meanwhile, free agents Jay Gibbons and Rod Barajas should start to help shore up the bench for under $2 million combined. And it should be noted that not all of the above question marks will have negative answers.

Nevertheless, that still leaves the Dodgers at about $90 million in payroll, with John Ely as their No. 3 starter and serious questions about most of their offense. As shaky as their lineup now looks, and however aggressive the Dodgers might want to be with the latest crop of prospects, the Dodgers absolutely have to add at least two more starters, whether through free agency or trade, whether Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda or outsiders.

It’s for this reason that unless the team salary budget goes up, the Dodgers almost certainly will trade or non-tender a 2011 contract to at least one from the group of Broxton, Kemp, Ethier, Loney and Martin. Loney, because he has the lowest salary, might be most likely to stay – he’s finishing the year as a disappointment at first base, but he’s not finishing the year alone as a disappointment. In any case, all of them have something to offer other teams that might be, as hard as it is for some to digest, more willing to spend than the Dodgers are.

An Ethier trade would be a shock, for example, much more than a Kemp trade, but who can say it’s out of the question now?

However this plays out, the Dodgers may well bring back many of the same players next year who boosted them to National League Championship Series appearances in 2008-09 and sunk them in 2010. In one respect, nothing will have changed: You’re always hoping players move forward, like Kershaw and Billingsley, and not backward, like Kemp and Loney and Broxton and Martin and so on. Good does sometimes follow bad, after all. But still, it’s going to be a nervous offseason for a lot of us.

Sure, BP had it tougher. But as cleanup goes, this is as thick a goop as Chavez Ravine has seen in quite some time.

Sep 09

Dodgers’ 2010 season: One step forward, five steps back


Scott Wachter/Icon SMIRonald Belisario: 2.04 ERA in 2009, 5.32 ERA in 2010.

It wasn’t even a headline. It was just a little item in Tony Jackson’s Dodger notebook from the earliest days of Spring Training, appearing below the day’s top news: “Blake shaves signature beard.”

Dodgers reliever Ronald Belisario will be late to spring training for the second season in a row because of visa problems in his native Venezuela …

There was no indication of how late Belisario would be, or much reason to think it would affect his 2010 season. And it was but one pitcher in a deep Dodger bullpen, one of the best in baseball the previous year.

The Dodgers had other things to worry about. Who would be their fifth starter? What condition would Manny Ramirez be in? Would Russell Martin and Chad Billingsley come back from disappointment? How would the ownership strife affect the team? So Belisario’s going to be a little late. So what?

But as it turned out, Belisario’s visa problem, which was never completely explained, was a pinprick in the Dodger life-raft. The other concerns didn’t completely go away, but strangely, it was with Belisario’s absence that the air slowly began leaking out of the 2010 Dodger season.

Without Belisario, the Dodgers weren’t as prepared for George Sherrill to misplace his mechanics or for Hong-Chih Kuo to begin the season with soreness in his left elbow. It put an extra strain on second-year reliever Ramon Troncoso, and compelled the Dodgers to keep both Russ and Ramon Ortiz on their Opening Day roster. Four times in the team’s first eight games, Dodger relievers ended up with an L next to their names in the box score. In a year that begin with promise but also uncertainty, the Dodger bullpen was supposed to be the anchor of the two-time defending National League West champions. Instead, it was the first sign of the unraveling.

And as it turned out, there was plenty to unravel. Among the many other fraying threads of a year gone awry were these:

Garret Anderson: Remember when Brian Giles and Doug Mientkiewicz were competing for the role of top left-handed pinch-hitter? Each came with health concerns, so come March, the Dodgers decided to take a look at Anderson, perhaps the most costly look since Lot’s wife checked her rear-view mirror. Anderson had the lowest adjusted OPS (29) of any Dodger with at least 150 plate appearances since Maury Wills in 1972 and second-lowest of any grown man in a Dodger uniform in 99 years.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
The Dodgers got about six productive weeks out of Vicente Padilla in 2010.

Sour start: Inviting speculation that he was implicitly criticizing the state of the team’s pitching, Joe Torre passed over Hiroki Kuroda to give the first pitch of the season to Vicente Padilla. The Dodgers subsequently began the season on a grim note, with Pittsburgh’s Garret Jones homering in his first two at-bats against Padilla en-route to an 11-5 pounding of the Dodgers. Pittsburgh began the season 2-0 over Los Angeles; the Pirates are 45-92 since.

Bullpen bottoms out early: Torre used Jonathan Broxton in the ninth inning of the Dodgers’ third and fourth games of the season, with leads of eight and six runs. In the fifth game of the season, Troncoso and Sherrill were asked to protect a two-run lead in the ninth, and failed. This, as it turned out, was not an aberration.

Death to flying things: Seemingly quelling fears about the back of the Dodger starting rotation, Charlie Haeger struck out 12 in six innings during his first start of the season. But one out before Haeger’s outing was over, Matt Kemp bobbled and dropped a fly ball, leading to an unearned run that cut the Dodgers’ lead to 5-4 and setting in motion a season Kemp is already trying to forget. Jeff Weaver gave up two more runs in the seventh inning, and the Dodgers came home from their first road trip of the season 2-4.

Manny needing medical: With a .500 on-base percentage and .619 slugging percentage, Ramirez heads to the disabled list for the first of three times in 2010 with a right calf strain. In the 13 games he had played to that point, the Dodgers had scored 93 runs.

Many needing medical: A day later, the struggling Padilla went on the DL. A week later, it was Rafael Furcal. Haeger, in something of a mercy killing, landed on injured reserve following his eight-strike, five-run start against Colorado. And then just after Ramirez returned, a broken pinky sidelined Andre Ethier and halted his MVP-caliber start to the season.

Lima’s time: It had no bearing on the Dodgers’ playoff hopes, but the passing of Jose Lima can’t go unremarked upon when talking about things gone wrong.

Elbert’s Elba: Scott Elbert, the Dodgers’ top pitching prospect at the start of the year, gets called up, walks three in two-thirds of an inning, and isn’t heard from again.

Broxton’s season turns: With the Dodgers continuing to ache for reliable setup men, the All-Star closer’s season 180s with a 48-pitch nightmare against the Yankees.

Another Belisario mystery: Just when he had righted himself on the field, Belisario disappears to the restricted list for a month.

The end of Elymania: The shot in the arm provided by rookie John Ely ricochets on the Dodgers when he posts a 7.49 ERA in his final seven starts before being sent back to Albuquerque.

Fruitless acquisitions: The Dodgers trade Blake DeWitt, James McDonald, Lucas May, Elisaul Pimentel, Brett Wallach, Kyle Smit and Andrew Lambo for Ted Lilly, Octavio Dotel, Ryan Theriot and Scott Podsednik – and then go 14-15 in August and 1-6 to start September.

Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI
The Dodgers are more than a hair out of the playoff chase.

Absent offense: The team’s second-half OPS is .647. No Dodger with more than 50 plate appearances has an OPS over .750 since the All-Star break.

More injuries: Furcal and Martin succumb again in August, Martin for the season.

To shield themselves from these falling rocks, the Dodgers had the sustained excellence of Clayton Kershaw, Kuroda and Kuo, the comeback of Billingsley, the valuable off-the-bench contributions by Jamey Carroll, and occasional hot streaks by various other players from time to time, from Ramirez, Ethier, Furcal and even Kemp (in April) to Carlos Monasterios, Kenley Jansen, Ely, Padilla and Lilly. There was the nine-game winning streak in May. There was even a walkoff balk.

It wasn’t enough, not nearly. The Dodgers didn’t have the kind of protection they needed against so much pummeling. Too many expectations went unmet. In the starting lineup, you can’t find a single player who didn’t take a step back in performance and/or health.

Despite the McCourts, the Dodgers had a contender on paper. But that paper got shredded, much like Ronald Belisario’s visa application.

Jul 21

Trade Deadline Inception


Warner Bros. PicturesUpside down, boy you turn me, inside out …

Each of the following passages is rooted in something real. And yet each reality offers a mystery.

I just had so many different thoughts, and this is me trying (and, as you’ll see, mostly failing) to make sense of them. But whether I make sense of them or not, 10 days from now, on July 31, baseball’s no-waivers-required trade deadline, we get the kick.

* * *

After a night like Tuesday – not to mention confirmation that Manny Ramirez will be out for a while – this Dodger team might seem to have a cloud of doom over it.

It’s a Dodger team that hasn’t been very healthy, hasn’t been (except for a short stretch in May) very lucky, hasn’t been very deep and lately hasn’t been very good.

Rafael Furcal has exceeded expectations, as has Hong-Chih Kuo for all of 30 of the team’s 840 innings pitched this season. Andre Ethier is a little better than expected, though not as much since early May. Same with Jamey Carroll. And after that, who?

The issue is not whether the Dodgers are out of contention. They’re not. They could be leading the wild card race inside of a week. And unless you’ve completely ruled out the possibility of the upstart Padres having their own problems, the NL West is wide open.

We’ve all seen this show before – twice in recent years, in fact. In 2006 and 2008, the Dodgers had tremendous swoons, only to recover from them.

Each time, they got help at the trade deadline – without blowing up the team.

So, what now?

* * *

Well, it’s not just about now.

At the end of this season, starting pitchers Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla become free agents. So does outfielder Manny Ramirez – who admittedly might not have much to contribute for the remainder of the year. Casey Blake looks increasingly like he’s not going to hit enough to hold down third base. Russell Martin has devolved into a No. 8 hitter.

Those are the major concerns, before you even get into injury risk for Furcal and Kuo, or paying for James Loney’s power uncertainty, or whether Blake DeWitt is a legitimate second baseman, and so on. People complained about the Dodgers needing to reload after the 2009 offseason, but the 2010 team will require even more new ammo.

And so, dual considerations. If you go for broke this year, you could be digging a hole so deep for the 2011 Dodgers that they can’t recover. But is the hole for 2011 so deep already that you might as well go for broke?

* * *

Scott Halleran/Allsport/Getty Images
Mike Trombley

Random trade deadline thoughts and memories …

  • Looking for relief help in 2001, the Dodgers traded minor leaguers Kris Foster and Geronimo Gil for Mike Trombley. Trombley allowed 17 runs and 37 baserunners in 23 1/3 innings.
  • Looking for starting pitching help in 2001, the Dodgers traded minor leaguers Jeff Barry, Gary Majewski and Onan Masaoka for James Baldwin. Baldwin made five quality starts in 11 tries, finishing with a 4.20 ERA as a Dodger.
  • July 31 is not the stopping point for Dodger general manager Ned Colletti, who in the past has acquired Greg Maddux, Marlon Anderson, David Wells, Jim Thome, Padilla, Esteban Loaiza and Jon Garland after that date. All those players, and more, cleared waivers, allowing them to be moved after the so-called deadline.
  • I really do believe that Carlos Santana was traded for Casey Blake, not for $2 million. Not saying it was the right thing to do. But I don’t believe that Santana was a throw-in. I think Meloan was. Blake for Meloan and $2 million doesn’t make sense to me from the Indians’ perspective.
  • Yhency Brazoban made his major-league debut on August 5, 2004 and for the remainder of the year, struck out 27 in 32 2/3 innings with a 2.48 ERA, stranding 12 of 14 runners.
  • Is Kenley Jansen this year’s Brazoban? Or this year’s Meloan?

* * *

“Interested.”

That word ignited off the 2010 Dodger trade deadline frenzy. Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that an anonymous industry source said the Dodgers were “interested” in Pirate pitcher Paul Maholm.

A thinner piece of news, you probably could not find Tuesday. Even if this source is correct – and he might not be – it tells us nothing of how serious the interest is. But suddenly, the Dodger online world was aflame with discussion of this pitcher with 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings, a pitcher who might be as poor a fit with a poor Dodger defense as you could find.

In his past two starts, Maholm has allowed two runs in 16 innings. In two of three starts before that, he allowed 12 earned runs in four innings.

Nothing to see here.

* * *

Gus Ruelas/AP
Andre Ethier reacts after Tuesday’s game-ending strikeout.

And then there’s Peter Gammons, whom Vin Scully Is My Homeboy noted last week was thinking out loud about the Red Sox pursuing Ethier.

The one team I keep wondering about if they drop a few games back, if the Dodgers start dropping back, would they talk about Andre Ethier. He’s going to make $10-$12 million next year, the coaching staff feels with their bizarre ownership situation, they don’t want to pay Ethier and might trade him now. That would be a fascinating guy to go after.”

And when Steve Dilbeck of the Times helped spread word of this Tuesday (not to mention Alyssa Milano), more panic.

I’d say there’s no chance of Ethier being traded. If the Dodgers aren’t trading Matt Kemp, they’re not trading Ethier. But let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s say there are bluffs all around and everything and everyone is on Colletti’s table. The Dodgers would be trading Ethier at his highest value. The haul for a 28-year-old All-Star whose work ethic is unquestioned and who won’t be a free agent until November 2012 could be astonishing.

* * *

For that matter, how many teams in baseball would like to have Furcal right now?

No, you’d never trade Furcal now. But six weeks ago, you would have. A slumping, injury-prone shortstop with millions upon millions remaining on his contract? You’d have traded him for less than you’d get for him now.

* * *

I’m talking way too much about trading key players away, but allow me just a little more before I move on.

Four days before the trade deadline four years ago, I wrote a lengthy column for SI.com, advocating that being a seller lose its stigma.

… It should not be so shameful for a .500 team, a team that can only win a World Series if karma and luck fall head over heels in love, to say, “Look, we can be a long shot this year, or we can make a small sacrifice and become a serious contender for years to come.”

Teams can get hot instantly — there’s no denying that. Florida surprised everyone in 2003, went on a run and won the World Series. Houston recovered from a faceplant of a start in 2005 and took the NL pennant. If you’re three games out of the playoffs with a .500 record, the postseason possibilities may be so tantalizing that the slim odds of winning it all may not matter to you.

Good enough. That doesn’t mean it should be a sin to step back and decide that whatever you have now, you can build upon with a little more patience. It should be a choice. And it can be a choice that remains open until the moment the deadline passes, a choice that depends on whether you can get a quality deal or not, as opposed to a deal that just makes you look busy.

As for the fans, some will complain. Some will always complain. But if you show you have a plan and you make an intelligent trade for the future, sacrificing a mere two months in the process could render those complaints moot rather quickly …

I’m not saying the Dodgers should become sellers, and I don’t believe they will become sellers, but there is a case for it. And the funny thing is, the McCourt divorce provides cover for it. Ownership would get crucified by the mainstream for turning 2010 into a rebuilding year. But ownership is already being crucified. So why should we care about the bad PR, if that’s status quo and ultimately the team would be better off for it?

* * *

This website celebrates its eighth anniversary today. After proclaiming my intention to exult or vent as appropriate, my first main post wondered aloud about whether the Dodgers should be sellers.

I guess that temptation has often been with me. Buoyed by the drafts of Logan White, the Dodgers were able to make long-term commitments to developing players from within. But the Dodgers have never taken a similarly long view with regards to midseason trades.

What if they did? I know it will never happen, but what if it did?

Francis Specker/AP
Marlon Anderson follows through in the ninth inning, September 18, 2006.

* * *

Then again, does it need to happen? Manny Ramirez in 2008 was a man-made gift from the heavens. And so was Marlon Anderson in 2006.

And 2004, the most tumultuous trade deadline of them all, worked out rather well.

So why not believe? Why not go for it?

Just a week ago, the Dodgers were in fine shape, a good team that was maybe a player or two away from becoming great.

* * *

Roy Oswalt? Jayson Werth? Dan Haren? Ben Sheets? David DeJesus? Scott Downs?

There are some names that could help the Dodgers. But not many.

Dee Gordon? Chris Withrow? Ethan Martin? Jerry Sands? Aaron Miller? Allen Webster? Joe Etc.? Who’s irreplaceable? Who’s gonna make you go, “I don’t miss him that much – so it was worth a shot.”

* * *

You need to be smart, and you need to be fortunate. And you can do that as a buyer or a seller. It truly doesn’t matter which. If you are smart and fortunate, you will win.

The Dodgers won’t be sellers. We can be sure of this. They will either stand pat or acquire someone to help immediately. They might try to acquire someone but end up standing pat because the price was too high. But those are the options.

But the thing is, if you acknowledge that standing pat is a possibility – and that standing pat probably means you won’t win in 2010 (because the teams that rallied from the depths avoided standing pat) – then how can you not entertain the option of trading for the future instead of the present?

If standing pat is a worse choice than selling high, why wouldn’t you be in talks to sell high, as a backup plan?

The answer is one of public relations, of public perception. But this morning, not too many people like the 2010 Dodgers right now anyway. And those that do aren’t the ones who are likely to complain about sacrificing the 2010 Dodgers to make them more competitive in 2011 or 2012.

That’s the paradox.

* * *

Anyway, enough about Plan B. Plan A is to improve the 2010 Dodgers now.

It can be done. Ownership or not. Roy Oswalt’s contract or not. You can make smart trades. The Dodgers have done it before. They can do it again.

Ten days until July 31. Let the freakout begin.

Jul 16

A crisis of confidence in the 2010 Dodgers


Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireManny Ramirez and the Dodgers are in the chase, but who’s up for the ride?

One of the most peculiar things to me about last season was how testy many Dodger Thoughts commenters were when things were going well.

For a Dodger team that basically won its division wire-to-wire and had the best record in the National League for almost the entire year, there was an overflow of discontent last spring and summer. The gripes could be rather specific if not downright picayune, but they were constant. Criticism of Joe Torre was ongoing. The war against Matt Kemp batting eighth took on a life of its own. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another.

I pleaded with the unhappy campers to smell the roses, to accept that no team was perfect and enjoy what appeared to be the best Dodger team since at least 1988 (even accounting for Manny Ramirez’s suspension). They told me not to take anything for granted, that success didn’t eliminate the need for worry.

This year, aside from the occasional game like the Sunday night meltdown against the Yankees, things are less angsty in the comments. But weirdly, that seems to speaks to a deeper dissatisfaction in Los Angeles.

It’s just a theory, but I think that in a sense almost everyone felt that last year’s Dodger team was a special team. Or at least might be. Different people absorbed and reacted to this possibility in different ways, but overall the Dodgers’ potential seemed limitless — with even a World Series title possible if they would just not screw it up. People didn’t want to see that team wasted, and that made the stakes higher.

People don’t think this year’s team is a special team. Manny Ramirez is a year older, and Kemp’s spot in the batting order is the least of anyone’s concerns about him. There’s plenty to be happy about, but the team got off to a grim start instead of a great one, and the McCourt saga has sapped that extra bounce from everyone’s step.

Even though the Phillies seem less a threat now than they did a year ago, even though the path to the National League pennant is arguably more wide open than it was a year ago, even though the Dodgers currently sit only a half-game out of a playoff spot … no one seems all that excited.

The one fella that actually seemed to galvanize some fans was John Ely. His burst onto the scene was magical, spreading the kind of fairy dust that, accompanied by a nice month of May, made the eyes of Dodger fans twinkle. But for now, midnight has struck Ely down, and few seem very confident that we’ll make it back to the ball.

I wouldn’t have been writing this piece today if Clayton Kershaw had beaten St. Louis on Thursday, because I don’t think it would have occurred to me to do so after a victory. But I don’t think a victory would have changed the underlying feeling I’m getting. The ennui that seemed to accompany the 7-1 defeat crystallized some thoughts I’ve had percolating for a while.

After 10 or 20 years when Dodgers fans were grateful just to win a single playoff game, that’s no longer enough. They want the World Series. And with but a few exceptions, they don’t think they’re gonna get it.

It’s not that Dodger fans no longer care, or no longer desire. By and large, they just don’t believe.

Jun 03

Resurgent Dodgers can exhale … and then hold their breath once more


Getty Images
Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate

But for a blown save on an 0-2 pitch with two out in the ninth inning by Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez at San Diego on Wednesday, the Dodgers would have completed their journey from being in a tie for the worst record in the National League on April 29 to being in a tie for the best today.

Exactly four weeks ago, Dodger fans wondered, “What next?” But it turned out that Murphy’s Law had not become the law of the land – and moreover, the Dodgers showed they could overcome the adversity that remained. This team had a good side after all, and now sits at 31-22, one game from the top of the NL.

Since starting the season 8-14, Los Angeles has gone 23-8. The Dodgers reach the one-third point of the 2010 season tonight on a 95-win pace – exactly the number of games they won last season. And while they had to survive the 50-game suspension of Manny Ramirez and ongoing traumas to Hiroki Kuroda in 2009, this season has been no picnic.

Ramirez, Rafael Furcal and Andre Ethier have been out of the starting lineup a combined 73 times this season, either for injuries or attempts to avoid them, while 2009 postseason stalwart Vicente Padilla has been sidelined since April 22 and four key relievers have been on the suspended, disabled or just plain awful list: Ronald Belisario, Hong-Chih Kuo, Jeff Weaver and George Sherrill.

Gus Ruelas/APAndre Ethier goes 1 for 14 as the Dodgers win three in a row: good omen or bad?

Things haven’t stopped going wrong for the Dodgers – if you needed any more evidence of that, two runs in their past 24 innings against last-place Arizona should suffice. The Dodgers were crazy close to being swept by the Diamondbacks, which would have meant seven losses in their past 10 games, which would have meant another round of Angst Blue Ribbon being passed around the dorm.

Even having avoided that unhappy storm, the Dodgers head into a scheduling tsunami starting this evening. Their opponent for the next four games, Atlanta, has rather amazingly duplicated the Dodgers’ 8-14/23-8 split to take over the NL East lead. This series starts a stretch of 25 games in the remaining 28 days of June for Los Angeles, with the worst opponent in that time being the American League’s 27-28 Angels. Sixteen games this month come against teams on pace to win at least 90 games – the Braves, Cardinals, Reds, Red Sox and Yankees – with the stretch then capped by an out-for-blood rendezvous at San Francisco, playing .633 ball at home.

By July 1, all the doubting and even a good chunk of the loathing from April might return to Chavez Ravine. And no matter how resourceful the Dodgers are, they might find it nearly impossible not to fall farther behind the endlessly underestimated Padres, who get 10 games against the Phillies, Blue Jays and Rays this month but overall have an easier go of it. The Dodgers came within a strike of first place in the NL West on Wednesday; it could be weeks before they’re that close again.

Or not. Because after all, as opposed to a month ago, now the 2010 Dodgers have something more than hope. They now have, if nothing else, an established record of success.

Jason Bridge/US PresswireThe pending return of Vicente Padilla by the end of June could be an injection if not a distraction.

Even without Padilla – some might say especially without him – the Dodgers’ starting rotation of Kuroda, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, John Ely and Carlos Monasterios has a combined ERA of 3.08 for the season. Furthermore, all but Monasterios are now regularly pitching six innings or more, putting the Dodgers in position to take advantage of a bullpen that has begun to match last year’s excellence. These guys won’t shut down the opposition each time out. They’ll ebb and flow – Kuroda, the hero of April, is struggling more of late, while Billingsley’s recovery Monday showed signs of a warrior – but in any case, they’ve passed enough tests to inspire confidence. The worst-case scenarios are no longer the only ones anyone can see.

For the time being, the offense has emerged as the greater concern, averaging 2.8 runs in the past 10 games – not exactly Phillies-level slumpage, but poor enough. Still, Dodger fans know the team is capable of better – the 68 runs in the first 10 games of the season, for example, a spiritual facsimile of the 31 consecutive scoreless innings the pitching has just thrown.

In a significant way, the 31-22 Dodgers are in the exact same position the 8-14 Dodgers were in four weeks ago: capable of brilliance, dilapidation and everything in between. At the end of this month, Dodger fans will combine another 25 equations of whether the good outweighed the bad on each and every given day, but right now, not one person can say how it will go. The Dodgers won their past three games thanks to an inexplicable double error and a balk, a seven-inning two-hitter from a guy no one cared about a blink ago, and four innings of shutout relief from their 19th pitcher of the season combined with a by-inches single from a .146 hitter. They won a three-game series with four RBI. That’s as great as it is scary for a team trying to win it all. How do you tell the future from tea leaves so mischievous?

As we move toward the season’s second trimester, perhaps the most salient thought is this. Every single team has its worries, its injuries, its Garret Andersons and George Sherrills, yes, even its hurdles to making a midseason trade. Yes, every single one of them. The Dodgers might have more than some, but not too many yet. A month ago, Dodger fans had reason to doubt whether they’d ever make it into the 2010 pennant race. One thing they can say now: They’re in it.

May 06

Dodgers can only wonder, ‘What next?’


Getty Images
Stat o’ the Day: Just 27 games into the Dodgers’ 2010 season, Ramon Troncoso has already pitched in 11 losses.

It may be early, but the fans are going wild – and not in a good way.

Wednesday’s 11-3 loss to Milwaukee marked the one-month anniversary of a Dodger season that began with an 11-5 loss to Pittsburgh. Two days shy of one year since Manny Ramirez’s suspension, it’s remarkable to think back and realize: The Dodger community was probably in better spirits that sorry day than now.

The wreckage of the Dodgers’ start to 2010 fits perfectly with the narrative that began in the offseason, which foretold that the divorce of Frank and Jamie McCourt would have a domino effect that would leave the franchise in ruins. And while this isn’t exactly Carthage, it is last place in the National League West in May.

A different ownership situation might have bred a different start to the season, it’s true. No, a pair of happily married McCourts would not have turned the 2009-10 Dodger offseason into a wheeling-and-dealing free-for-all – not after reaching the National League Championship Series two straight years, certainly not after the Jason Schmidt and Andruw Jones debacles of recent offseasons. But Frank and Jamie surely wouldn’t have made fewer moves if they were still going steady.

But what’s sad about the 2010 Dodgers is that the doleful divorce has been only one of many, many, many other things that have gone wrong this season. Here begins “Lament: Why Even in Their Worst Nightmares, the Dodgers Couldn’t Fathom Being This Bad.”

Chapter the First: A Rotation Off Its Axis

Harry How/Getty Images
Mixed bag: The last 23 batters Chad Billingsley faced Wednesday did not score; the first four did.

Consider, if you will, that the Dodger starting rotation at the end of the 2009 season was made up of Randy Wolf (having something of a career year), a wounded Hiroki Kuroda, a staggering Chad Billingsley, a green Clayton Kershaw, and Vicente Padilla having, well, two great weeks.

Though spring training 2010 began with Wolf in a Milwaukee Brewers uniform, there was every reason to believe that at least 60 percent of that bunch would be better than they were – in contrast to Wolf, who you’d reasonably expect to decline after everything imaginable went right for him at age 33. And in fact, that’s exactly what happened with Kuroda, who has a 2.08 ERA while averaging 6.9 innings per start this year.

But though they have had their moments, Billingsley and Kershaw haven’t exactly been the equivalent of, say, Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez, who has pitched 41 1/3 innings with a 0.87 ERA and 44 strikeouts. The growing pains are still evident – more painfully in the case of Billingsley, who is only six months younger than the cherry-picked Jimenez, but more fable-busting for Kershaw, who was supposed to be the guy with the head on his shoulders but instead has walked a mind-boggling seven batters per nine innings in ’09. Both still have bright futures, but the need for more consistency remains. (Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles has more on Billingsley.)

Then there was Padilla, who had two fine starts in the postseason but otherwise had been a forgettable pitcher for most of the past five years or more. The Dodgers chose him in January over Jon Garland, a pitcher they thought enough of five months earlier that they traded infield prospect Tony Abreu for him. The 30-year-old Garland, who signed with San Diego for a guaranteed $5.9 million (including a potential 2011 $600,000 club buyout), has an ERA of 2.06 (adjusted ERA 184) over 35 innings in six starts. The 32-year-old Padilla, who signed with the Dodgers for a guaranteed $5.025 million plus incentives, has pulled a mini-Schmidt: 21 2/3 innings, 6.65 ERA (61 ERA+) and an indefinite stay on the disabled list. This wasn’t the divorce or the budget talking. The Dodgers made a pretty simple either-or choice, and at least to this point, they chose wrong. (And did so even with the character issues that are supposedly so important to Dodger general manager Ned Colletti being in Garland’s favor.)

The fifth spot in the Dodger starting rotation had a number of candidates, though ideally there should only have been two: James McDonald and Scott Elbert. McDonald was the 2008 and 2009 Dodger Minor League Pitcher of the Year who had a rough start in 2010 before finishing the year strong. Elbert is considered by many to be an even brighter prospect. However, neither came close to making any kind of case in spring training that they belonged in the rotation – though they were given little opportunity while manager Joe Torre quickly turned his focus to pitchers who had no more minor-league options, like perennial also-ran Eric Stults and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, along with a cascade of scrapheap veterans like the Ortiz Unbrothers, Ramon and Russ. Honestly, it was reasonable to suspect that someone from McDonald, Elbert and frenemies could give the Dodgers inconsistent but useful enough output in the back of the rotation – and the Dodgers have certainly had their share of luck in this area in recent years – but it hasn’t come close to happening. That in turn made the Dodgers particularly ill-prepared, at least at this point, for an injury to one of their front four starters, even Padilla.

This brings us back to the four pitchers most talked about this Dodger offseason. One was Wolf, who had a 4.91 ERA after three starts this season but has since allowed two runs in his past 14 innings. Two was John Lackey, who signed a five-year, $82 million contract with the Red Sox and has a 3.89 ERA. Lackey figured to be a B version of the former Dodger with the famous seven-year contract itch, Kevin Brown – not quite as expensive but not quite as good and arguably every bit as likely to get injured for part of his contract. Lackey raises a good question: Do you pay big money for a pitcher even knowing that one of those years he’s likely to spend on the DL? I would have said no – and perhaps that’s ultimately a question for the accountants – but given the Dodgers’ current pitching desperation, many people would probably be inclined to say yes.

Pitchers three and four are Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, the most-discussed trade targets of the past year. Whatever efforts the Dodgers made to acquire them, the organization has ultimately had to bet that what they had in Kershaw and Billingsley (among other young players) in the long term would be worth more than what they would get out of Lee and Halladay in the short term – not a bad bet, but strictly as of May 2010, a losing bet.

So there you have it. We’ve discussed close to a dozen starting pitchers, and of that group, only Kuroda has given the Dodgers a happy beginning to 2010. Some of the misfortune the Dodgers brought upon themselves; some of it has been ill-fated – but when you add it all up, it’s almost a clean sweep for Murphy’s Law over Los Angeles.

Chapter the Second: The Blahpen

Kathy Willens/AP
George Sherrill: 0.65 ERA as a Dodger in 2009, 9.00 in 2010.

When your best reliever (Jonathan Broxton) hasn’t even pitched nine innings all year, when your next-best bullpen success story is a Rule 5 draftee (Carlos Monasterios) who remains on the roster, things have gone horribly wrong.

Maybe it all started with Ronald Belisario, for virtually all of spring training trapped in a distant land like a passenger crashing with Oceanic 815, his absence shifting the balance of the bullpen when the season began ever-so-slightly yet ever-so-significantly. His MIA act, accompanied by another ill-timed injury to lefty mesmerizer Hong-Chih Kuo and an almost complete reversal-of-fortune by 2009′s stellar set-up man, George Sherrill, turned a key Dodger strength into a disaster area. In the Dodgers’ first 15 games of 2010, the bullpen lost five – that alone made a huge difference between the Dodgers being 11-16 this morning as opposed to 16-11, of being 5 1/2 games out of first place as opposed to just half a game. And that doesn’t even count games like Wednesday’s, in which the bullpen was handed a one-run deficit and let it multiply by 800%.

What did the Dodgers do wrong with their relievers? Not a lot. Yeah, if money were no object, they could have outbid the Angels for a guy like Fernando Rodney, who signed for an exorbitant amount of money for a reliever: two years, $11 million. Or they could have spent $50,000 on a chaperone for Belisario. Beyond that, what they assembled was battle-tested and looked like one of the best bullpens in baseball. It just hasn’t worked out that way.

Chapter the Third: Defenestrate the defense

Danny Moloshok/AP
Charged with 10 errors last year, Casey Blake has made half that many this year.

Wednesday, Major League Baseball announced that a change by the official scorer gave James Loney a throwing error for a play that occurred against the Reds nearly two weeks before. It kind of fit: The Dodger defense has been so poor this year that it can pick up errors without even playing.

The defense had actually been on a modest streak of errorless games recently until Wednesday night against the Brewers, when Casey Blake threw in the dirt in the seventh inning of what at the time was a one-run game. Before the night was over, the team botched a rundown play and Blake made another error, his fifth in 24 games.

It felt very familiar. For most of the year, the defense has been toxic. The expected weak spots, such as Ramirez in left field, haven’t even been the story. There have been mistakes all over the field, to the extent that Matt Kemp’s 2009 Gold Glove in center field is being examined for “Dewey Defeats Truman” inaccuracies.

The defense broke the levee on the already cracking Dodger pitching, helping spoil what really was a true onslaught by the Dodger offense in the opening days of the year. The Dodgers averaged 6.5 runs in those first 15 games, but lost eight of them. And yet at seven of eight positions, this was the same defense that the Dodgers took to the NL playoffs last year. The mere aging of players Blake and Ramirez doesn’t begin to explain it. Did the Dodgers not prepare properly in spring training? Who knows? But this was another walk off the cliff that at least in part appeared out of nowhere.

Chapter the Fourth: Yes, Everyone Gets Injuries

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Manny Ramirez has a 1.159 OPS – but only 52 plate appearances.

… so we won’t cry too long over the Dodgers’ sick bay.  Losing Kuo was one thing, losing Jeff Weaver was barely anything, but losing Padilla was a problematic thing, and then Ramirez and Rafael Furcal going out almost simultaneously was a big thing. No one expected either Ramirez or Furcal to play 162 games, but in a better Dodger world, they would have at least made it through April. Heck, Ramirez made it into May last year before he was unceremoniously sidelined by what turned up in the lab.

In any case, it’s fair to say that the Dodgers knew in advance they would need a bench this year – and it’s no secret that Colletti has always liked to have depth. But again, some choices that had nothing to do with the divorce have gone awry. For example, on December 16, Jamey Carroll (36 in February) signed with the Dodgers for nearly $4 million over two years. Two weeks later, Kelly Johnson (28 in February) signed a cheaper contract in overall value with Arizona: one year, $2.35 million. Carroll has a .383 on-base percentage but just one extra-base hit. Johnson was just named NL Player of the Month after going 25 for 80 with eight doubles and nine home runs – a .404 on-base percentage and .750 slugging percentage.

Brad Ausmus and Garret Anderson have been wasted signings, albeit relatively inexpensive ones. You’re never going to get ‘em all right, and you can certainly argue that so far, Ronnie Belliard has been worth the $825,000 he lost weight to earn from the Dodgers, while Reed Johnson has been what you’d expect him to be. But those are the few breaks the Dodgers have caught, in a first month that exposed another nagging worry sooner than they would have hoped.

Chapter the Fifth: Five months to go

Wednesday, Billingsley gave up four runs in the first inning – then pitched five shutout innings and could have come out battling for a win in the seventh inning had Carroll, well, been able to hit his first three-run homer in 2,574 career plate appearances. Yep, this is when you bring out the unseemly disclaimer: It’s still early.

I haven’t even wanted to mention that the 2009 Colorado Rockies started with an 11-16 record at this time last year, exactly where the Dodgers are today – and then lost 12 of their next 19 before bouncing back with a months-long hot streak that scared the pajamas off every NL rival going into the playoffs. When John Ely, who was something like the Dodgers’ No. 14 starter entering spring training, is the guy you’re counting on for the second week in a row to prevent a series sweep, it’s not auspicious. If Kuroda goes down at some point this year, the Dodgers could give their 91-loss 2005 a run for its worthless money. But yes, it’s still early.

Maybe with happier owners, the Dodgers sign Wolf. Mainly with different owners, the Dodgers splurge for Lackey. Maybe there’s a parallel universe where the Dodgers make the big trade for Lee or convince Halladay that the West Coast ain’t so bad. But the Dodger problems in 2010 have been much more than the loss of one veteran pitcher.

And that’s with some things that people expected to go wrong not doing so at all. Kuroda wasn’t done as a pitcher. Ramirez wasn’t done as a hitter. Broxton has not been scarred by Jimmy Rollins’ game-winning double in the 2009 NLCS. Andre Ethier hasn’t regressed – he’s an early contender for the Triple Crown. James Loney is showing signs of life.

For that matter, Juan Pierre, the supposedly reborn savior from 2009 who was sent to the White Sox for 2010, is batting .226, with seven walks and 15 steals in 19 attempts but no extra-base hits.

It’s still early – but whether it’s early enough for a turnaround or just early in a miserable year, I don’t know. Even for a team playing ball both on the field and in divorce court, so much can change between May and October. After all, look at what’s happened to the Dodgers between October and May.