Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What's Wrong With the Los Angeles Dodgers?

A week ago, could you see this happening?

The Dodgers had just finished up one of the most prolific summers in franchise history. They'd completed the biggest August trade ever, which simply punctuated a month-long stretch of surprising and seemingly organization-changing deals. The names of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Shane Victorino, Brandon League and Hanley Ramirez now all adorn those beautiful, crisp white jerseys. The turnover has been so severe that over half the players on the active roster today weren't on the opening day lineup card for manager Don Mattingly. It's not like the team didn't need the help; up until the July trade for Ramirez, the Dodgers were a somewhat feeble offensive squad that eeked by with manufactured runs, a fantastic bullpen and an effective rotation. In the past few months, the Dodgers had gone from the best record in baseball to grasping to a division lead to trying to stay in the Wild Card hunt. However, in the minds of many, they had been overachieving. The team that took the field in April was expected to merely finish near .500, not compete for a playoff spot. As soon as  new ownership took over, their gold-lined pockets suggested a new way of doing business and a wave of expection surrounding them.

Four months ago, could you see this happening?

The Los Angeles Dodgers have been saddled with mounting expectations, which seem to take an even more exagerrated shape with every single payroll dollar the team takes on. Last week's trade for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto highlighted the Dodgers' four-month metamorphosis from an early season surprise to a trendy late summer pick to win the World Series.

But in the last week, those optimistic predictions have taken a nosedive. With last night's win against the Padres, the Dodgers have gone a mere 5-5 since the pact was consummated on August 25th. They sit 4.5 games out of the NL West lead, and a half game behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the last Wild Card position. They've scored 38 runs in that span, while giving up 44. Four of the five wins have come by one or two runs, including a nearly blown 9 run lead last Wednesday, two consecutive come from behind wins and only one definitive victory (Adrian Gonzalez's first game last Saturday). Despite the pedestrian mark of 5-5, the Dodgers have actually - and stunningly - played worse than their record suggests.

How is that possible? When this new Dodger team was assembled over the past month, each new piece seemed to fit the exact need the team had. Lefty power-hitting first baseman? Check. Possible number two starting pitcher with postseason experience? Check. Power arm at the back of the bullpen? Check. Defensive left-fielder with speed that can lead off in the batting order? Check. Middle of the lineup offensive threat with something to prove? Check.

Even as GM Ned Colleti ran his pens dry marking down his shopping items, this Dodgers team is just about underwhelming everyone a mere week into the trade. I'm always the type to preach patience with new trades, but this team was assembled to win immediately. With time running out on the season - less than 30 games to play - the Dodgers need to win 5 out of 6 of their upcoming games with the division-leading Giants, as well as keep up with them the rest of the way just to salvage a one-game cushion. It's not so much that the Dodgers haven't destroyed all comers or even how bad they've looked in the past week. It's that all of the problems that have cropped up recently are indicative of the months-long flaws in this inexplicably declining team.

Ever the optimists on MAMBINO, we're going to take a look in the contributing factors to this week of poor ball by the Boys in Blue, as well as if these problems are indeed solvable with these few remaining games.

Starting Rotation: All season long, the Dodgers' starting staff has been ranked in the top five of nearly every pitching category. However, in the last month, things have taken a turn for the worse. Chris Capuano, the second-best pitcher in the rotation up until early August, has given up 18 runs in his last four starts. Chad Billingsley had worked a 2.27 ERA in 31 August innings until going out with what will most likely be a season-ending elbow injury last week. In his stead, Joe Blanton has served up a 6.67 ERA with the Dodgers so far, giving up four more homers to add to his NL-leading 27.  In the past 10 games, the staff as a whole has only managed five quality starts. The Dodgers rotation, which was once one of the anchors of his flawed team, has been set adrift in the sea of mediocre hurlers.

Solvable? Absolutely. Clayton Kershaw has been and will continue to be the team's ace with Cy Young-quality work. In his two starts, Josh Beckett has been decent and very good in his 9 strikeout, 6 inning dominance of the Diamondbacks this weekend. Chris Capuano has gotten tagged two of his last three outings, but has reported that nothing's physically wrong with him, which is a great starting place when you're talking about a two-time Tommy John surgered elbow. His early season production was probably more of an outlier than anything, so if he can keep his team in the game by giving 5 or 6 innings and allowing no more than 3 runs, that should suffice. Speaking of which, Aaron Harang has kept his team in all of six August starts, but the team has given him just 17 runs when he's pitched. Going forward, the Dodgers have to lean on Kershaw and Beckett, while Capuano and Harang merely have to be mortal. This might be sacrilege, but new Chavez Ravine whipping boy Joe Blanton has actually been a bit better than his numbers suggest. He's kept the score at a manageable deficit in most of his starts, but has allowed a whopping 45 base hits in just 6 starts.

The truth is that the Dodgers simply aren't given their starters enough runs to work with. As I mentioned, the Dodgers have scored only 38 runs in the last 10 games. This offense was put together as the west coast's answer to the New York Yankees, not the New York Mets.

Offense: In the Dodgers recent 5-5 stretch, they've left 8 runners on base per game, almost two up from their season average. Leaving more than 6 men on the diamond every night ranks them near the middle of the MLB pack, but 8 puts them squarely towards the bottom. This set of Dodgers just haven't had luck on their side with runners in scoring position either, dropping a paltry .256 batting average with the opportunity to drive runs in. Night after night, Mattingly's squad just can't seem to get the hits to fall, and thus the even with such a high-priced, high-powered offense, it seems like the Dodgers just can't score enough.

Solvable?: Yes. Aside from his dramatic home run in his first AB as a Dodger, Adrian Gonzalez has taken James Loney's mantle a little too literally. Gonzalez has only three extra base hits in 10 games and is batting .214 on the whole. Similarly, Matt Kemp has been mortal since coming back from injury in mid-July. He's still hitting around .300, but his slugging has fallen nearly .250 points, his strikeout rate is up and just watching him, he's not squaring the ball up and hitting for the type of prolific power he's been known for. His August numbers were even more pedestrian: just two homers in nearly 100 at-bats. Andre Ethier's past month was slightly better, but with only 9 extra-base hits, he hasn't hit for the power or consistency that the team has needed him to with the dip in production from his teammates. However, Hanley Ramirez has continued to serve as the team's offensive buoy, mashing 10 homers since his acquisition in July and slugging at an MVP rate.

This problem is about a set of big-time hitters simply being in a slump. The reason why it seems to apparent is that they're all doing it at the same time. Kemp, Ethier and Gonzalez have all shown flashes of their power strokes recently, so I believe it's just a matter of time before they start clicking altogether. Most of the role players have been great in support, including catcher AJ Ellis and third baseman Luis Cruz with OPS around .800, and Mark Ellis getting on-base as a lead off man at a .350 clip. This is really a case of the big hitters in the line-up just not doing their jobs. But also, this guy's performance:

Shane Victorino: Since the trade, the former Flyin' Hawaiian has been the top of the order spark plug with pop the team expected. He's batting under .250 in the past week, and just a shade over that since he was acquired from Philadelphia a month ago. He's still stealing bases with 8 bags while being caught only twice, but he's simply not getting on base nearly enough at a .311 on-base percentage. That doesn't even speak to the discernable difference in power of his bat, with just a .339 slugging compared to a sterling .431 career mark. All in all, Shane has probably been the most disappointing Dodgers of all the new imports.

Solvable? I think part of the problem is that Victorino is now playing for a team that probably won't re-sign him next year. With Carl Crawford on the books for the next five seasons (and $42 million dollar OF prospect Yasiel Puig toiling in the minors), the Flyin' Hawaiian shouldn't be in LA for the long-term. Statistically, Victorino's August and September are two of the worst months of his seasons, which isn't good news for a guy who's 31 and regressing. I do think that he was miscast as a leadoff man when he first got to LA, so Mattingly's manuever of putting him in the two-spot behind Mark Ellis was probably a move in the right direction. However, at this point, the hope that Victorino merely needed a change in scenery has probably gone out the window. It's obvious that the man is pressing hard to try and justify a new contract in the offseason. Let's just hope he comes up big in the playoffs like years past...if indeed the Dodgers get that far.

The biggest problem with this team beyond all the particulars of this personnel is that they're essentially a group of several cliques now being put together for a stretch run. Three groups from three teams - Philadelphia (Blanton, Victorino), Miami (Ramirez, Choate), Boston (Beckett, Gonzalez, Punto) - have been thrust together with a bunch of Dodgers who haven't ever faced these types of massive expectations before. Half of the team has been dropped into a new city not in July, but rather August, and now are in a must-win situation every single game to catch the division-leading Giants. This in turn is affecting the hitters, who just can't seem to convert opportunities into runs. It's hard to say whether or not the pressure is actually the most crucial factor in turning what should be a destructive offensive team into a mediocre one, but at the same time, how could it not?

Plainly, this team needs to start hitting. The bullpen, Brandon League in particular, has been fantastic as of late, and the starting rotation, while pedestrian, has been good enough to win. One more fascinating month for what is rapidly turning into the most fascinating team in the National League. Who would have thought?

1 comment:

  1. Very optomistic there....I think Boston pulled one over on LA, Crawford, who knows, Gonzalez l00ks & is clearly LOST and as dynamic as a Prius, Punto, ghessh lets fite for A .16O HITTER!! Kemp has lost it, & really all the power hitters have the l00k to be swiginin for the fences EVERY TIME....Either, hell he need to be platooned with someone who can HIT a lefty! Hard to do when you make $17M a season...as they said back in Brooklyn..Wait tille next year! PS- Mattingly should go Aloha with Victonrino, he does not mamage, he is like a fan, watching the game, sacrifices, intentional walks, steals, double steals, squeezes, all seems to be lost from his memory..DOnnia baseball has become Donnie Osamond.....without the hair or voice....FROM A REALLY DISGUSTED "FAN" who sees these millionaires tanking it (all except HEnly who has mental lapse but can HIT @ least a bit....)