Alternate worlds: The ’13 Dodgers as a distortion of the ’12-’13 Lakers

On May 7th, the Los Angeles Dodgers were 13-19, in last place in the NL West and on a 6-game losing streak. Any time you’re talking about early May baseball, league trends are hooked up with more caveats than A-Rod has sinewy blonde women. To draw any conclusions based on games played before the summer solstice is usually a fool’s errand, and shouldn’t be taken seriously, no matter how objective the fan.
 
Even with all that in mind, there was still cause for alarm. It wasn’t that the Dodgers were losing–it’s how they were losing. It was dispiriting at times, and downright shameful during others. Here’s a snapshot of how this Disciple of Scully was feeling at the time:

What…the hell…is going wrong?

Three weeks before the baseball season ever began, I wrote a post titled “To see how “a potential juggernaut” can go wrong, the 2013 Dodgers must look to the 2013 Lakers“. As Spring Training broke and I began to collect my thoughts for a season preview, I realized that these Boys in Blue–from their star-studded, expensive roster to the championship expectations surrounding them–very, very closely resembled this past season’s edition of the Lake Show.

Not every doom-saying prediction has come true–but a few have come straight out of the bleachers, just like this past cursed Lakers season.

The team’s age and injury-prone players have reared their filthy heads. Mark Ellis is down with yet another leg injury, which will cost him several weeks on the DL. Hanley Ramirez has been injured twice now, once with hand surgery and now with a strained hamstring, continuing a trend from the past three seasons. Matt Kemp remains nearly as ineffective as he was at the end of last year, and it remains to be seen whether or not he’s still hurting from an ass-kicking from a center field wall in Colorado. Chad Billingsley’s elbow exploded right on schedule, costing the right-hander a year of playing time while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

However, there have been several injuries completely random in nature–paging the 2012-2013 Lakers season, paging the 2012-2013 Lakers season. Zack Greinke broke his collar bone when Carlos Quentin decided that the Chargers were so shitty this year that another San Diego football tackle was necessary to redeem them. Chris Capuano strained his calf running in for the ensuing fight. Adrian Gonzalez had one at-bat this past weekend in San Francisco because he strained his neck while accidentally running into an umpire on Thursday night. The injury bug has hit the Dodgers like a hurricane in just one month so far, with an amazing 11 players on the disabled list as of today. Like the Lakers, the hits just keep on coming, from both expected and unexpected areas.

But to the glee of LA and the dismay of Phoenix, Denver, San Francisco and San Diego, the 2013 Dodgers didn’t become the 2012-2013 Lakers. Well at least, not the way the 2012-2013 Lakers ended up. They became what they should have been.

On June 21st, the Dodgers were an abysmal 30-42, last in the NL West and fifth-worst in all of baseball. They couldn’t hit, they couldn’t pitch well enough, they couldn’t close down games and most laughably, they couldn’t even stay on the field. Just like the Lakers, nothing was going right for the Dodgers.

From there, the damn near improbable happened–almost everything came together. Zack Greinke got on the mend and began to match the nightly zeroes put up by his rotation-mate Clayton Kershaw, pitching to a 2.14 ERA and a 10-1 record in 11 starts. The bullpen morphed into one of the very best in the game, anchored by newly installed closer Kenley Jansen and his 41 strikeouts in 28 innings pitched. Hanley Ramirez returned from injury and hit .330 to go along with a .994 OPS. And there was that Puig guy who’s been decent.

Since that low point on June 21st, the Dodgers have put up this record: 47-12. Seriously. That’s good for a .796 winning percentage. Which, prorated over an entire season would amount to a 129-33 record. It is one of the best stretches in the history of Major League Baseball, and arguably the most dominant in franchise history. They look like the monstrous leviathan they were constructed as in late January, formed together with the fiercest pitching staff in the league and an offense whose full operating capacity hasn’t even been touched yet. The Dodgers are a mix of title-starved vets with tremendous chips on their blue-etched shoulders and a group of enthusiastic youngsters with tremendous upside. The franchise isn’t just poised to win their first pennant in 25 years–they might be the favorites to win the whole damn thing, and that might not change for years to come. This is, more or less, exactly what management had in mind when this team was hastily–but perhaps intelligently–constructed beginning with the trade for Hanley Ramirez over a year ago.

Even with the 2012-2013 NBA season long gone, it’s echoes seem to ring with the team’s sporting mirror image playing so incredibly well just down the 110 freeway. In the Dodgers’ incredible turnaround, it’s hard not to compare it to the one that never happened in STAPLES Center ten months ago.

Just Greinke, Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez and Mark Ellis have come back from injury and excelled (despite the advanced ages of some of those players), why couldn’t the same have happened to Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Pau Gasol and Houston’s new center?

Other players like Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett, Brandon League and Luis Cruz simply haven’t worked out, for reasons based on performance or injury. However, the Dodgers have been able to deal with these seemingly crucial losses of personnel with their superior depth. What if the injury losses or ineffectiveness of the Lakers guards and bigs could have been allayed with break out years from Darius Morris, Jordan Hill or Devin Ebanks?

Stars like Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Ramirez and Puig have been able to come into the pressure cooker of So Cal and thrived, overcoming injury and early-season criticism. What if the center, Nash and Gasol had been able to do the same?

Most importantly, this team has a healthy mix of veteran players and young guys yet to hit their primes. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the world and arguably the National League’s most valuable player. And he’s only 26. Yasiel Puig is a contender for the NL’s Rookie of the Year trophy at just 22 years old (well…allegedly). Dominating closer Jansen is 25 years old and only in his fifth year as a pitcher, converted from a catcher. Rookie pitchers Hyun-Jin Ryu, Chris Withrow, Paco Rodriguez and Stephen Fife are between just 22 and 26 years old. Combined with their current All-Star teammates, there’s no reason to suggest that this Dodgers team won’t be able to contend for a playoff spot for the next five or six seasons. Wasn’t that supposed to be the case with a center-centric future and a Kobe Bryant-Nash-Gasol present?

For the Lakers, this Dodgers team has flashed sideways on them like they were Jack Shepard in a bad fake beard. It’s a vision of the team they could have been, dominating a regular season with a supreme mix of talent and pride–but just as relevant is the team they could have been for years to come.

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