In my damn near interminable preview post series, 20 Days of Thinking Blue, I was equal parts optimistic that this Dodgers team would bring home the city’s first pennant in 25 years and concerned that they were headed horrific disaster. It’s still early in the year and neither has come to pass at this point. The Dodgers are merely…fine, bubbling around the .500 mark and playing uninspired baseball.
Why is this happening? At this point, what’s wrong with the Los Angeles Dodgers? And can it be fixed?
The Dodgers were constructed like the New York Yankees of old—imported veterans with power hitting alongside homegrown players that had grown into All-Stars. The center of the line-up was supposed to feature the spectacular Yasiel Puig and a resurgent Matt Kemp, with Adrian Gonazalez, Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawford forming a devastating front five. Waiting in the wings would be Cuban rookie Alexander Guerrero and top prospects Joc Pederson. The line-up was supposed to be a tough 8 outs…make it 9 when Silver Slugging pitcher Zack Greinke was throwing.
Instead, many of the questions that I asked before the season have already come to fruition.
Matt Kemp has gone up and down with his production, looking like his old self one day and swatting two homers and then striking out three times in an 0-4 day on another. Hanley Ramirez is off to a relatively slow start, hitting just .250 with an OPS strangely below .800…and he’s questionably going on the DL any day now. Gonzalez was a killer in April with 1.021 OPS, 8 homers and 24 RBIs, but has cratered to a .685 OPS and just 7 extra base hits in May. Crawford and Ethier are making their ways back up from sub .200 batting averages, but are clearly suffering from a lack of playing time (more on that later) and weaknesses against lefty pitching. Yasiel Puig is the only “star” player exceeding expectations, establishing himself as a MVP candidate early on as he leads the Dodgers in almost every single offensive category.
Moving to the role players, there are have been surprises and disappointments, proving they too have been inconsistent. Dee Gordon has been a better second baseman than even my wildest expectations, swiping 30 bags and maintaining an OBP over .330. He’s still not the greatest defender at the position (with 5 errors already), but he hasn’t been as atrocious as his time at SS. Juan Uribe has confirmed our fears as well: he’s continuing his fantastic defensive and offensive play from last year, but has predictably broken down physically and is currently on the DL. A.J. Ellis looked like a journeyman catcher before he tore his meniscus early in April and has looked that very same way since he’s come back (not to mention spraining his ankle while celebrating Josh Beckett’s no hitter on Sunday).
I wrote in our huge preview series that Kemp’s return from severe injuries, Uribe’s age and a lack of bench options should the starters fail present a much bigger problem for the Dodgers than people are giving them credit for. This prediction has sadly come true early on. I wouldn’t panic too hard at this point, as Ramirez could heat up at the plate and the trade or either Ethier or Crawford could iron out the problems amongst the outfielders. However, with injury concerns to Kemp and Hanley lingering around each sprint to first, I suspect that we’ll just be holding our breath and wishing that every guy will heat up around October. This is a problem that probably won’t be going anywhere.
A shaky bullpen
The Dodgers spent over $20 million improving their bullpen this offseason and somehow it may be worse than last year’s.
Relievers Brian Wilson, J.P. Howell and Chris Perez were all brought in to fortify an already strong ‘pen and thus far, the moves have backfired. Out of the three, only Howell has truly excelled with a 2.08 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 24 appearances. Wilson has an ERA over 7.00 and has spent time on the DL with elbow soreness (uh-oh) after a sterling two months with the Dodgers last year, while Perez has given up three homers in performances reminiscent of the ones that got him booted from the Cleveland Indians’ closer job last season.
But the bullpens’ struggles aren’t confined to guys with new deals. Last year’s breakthrough pitcher, Chris Withrow, has a nice 2.95 ERA but 18 walks in 21 innings. The reputed best closer in the league, Kenley Jansen, has given up 23 hits and 10 walks in 23 innings and has taken two losses already this season.
But as strange as all of that is, nothing is more odd than this: the team’s best reliever, statistically speaking? Brandon effing League. Yes. That guy. In over 26 innings, he’s given up just 7 walks and struck out 16, while allowing just 22 hits. He has a 1.35 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP, which is the best on the team. Better than Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
With 12 losses, the Dodgers ‘pen needs to get better in a hurry. A preseason strength has turned into a real time disaster. This team absolutely has the ability to bounce back big time.
A poor reserve corps
Out of any team with championship aspirations, there isn’t a bench in the National League worse than LA’s. Infielder Justin Turner is hitting .231 with a .287 OBP. Chone Figgins has only 36 plate appearances, mostly because he’s 36 and yes, he sucks. Starter A.J. Ellis is hitting just .170 after missing half the year thus far with a knee injury and his replacement Drew Butera is actually a better relief pitcher (two strikeouts in two inning of mop-up duty) than a hitter (.222 average, .292 OPB). Ethier, Crawford or Van Slyke are the reserve outfielders on any given day, but erratic playing time is really affecting how well the first two regulars are swinging the bat.
Unlike last year with versatile position players like Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto swinging the bat and playing multiple roles, the Dodgers are pigeon-holed by their glut of outfielders and not enough quality bats off the bench. With Juan Uribe perhaps headed to the DL and Hanley Ramirez just one sprint away from joining him, it could only get worse. The Dodgers need to find a more capable batch of pinch hitters and utility men that can play several positions whose names aren’t “Chone Figgins”. This probably will be in the way of midseason trades, which will probably cost the Dodgers more in prospects for role players than I’m sure they’d like to spend.
This problem has manifested itself already this season, a problem that even the most pedestrian of fans could have seen months in advance. However, it hasn’t developed quite in the manner that many predicted.
It’s certainly not Yasiel Puig, who looks like an MVP candidate (1.055 OPS, 10 home runs, .345 average) early in the year. It’s that the Dodgers haven’t played their second best hitting outfielder. No, not Matt Kemp. Not even Andre Ethier. Certainly not Carl Crawford.
It’s Scott Van motherfucking Slyke.
The bruising OF/1B back-up has proven to be the team’s secret weapon, as MAMBINO ably predicted before the season. In a 68 plate appearances, SVS is destroying the ball, hitting an unreal .259 with 4 homers and a .954 OPS against opposing pitchers. Despite the small sample size and limited exposure to right handed pitching, Van Slyke on most nights looks like the team’s second best hitter.
Ethier and Crawford are both still struggling with both having an OPS hovering around .700. Meanwhile, Matt Kemp is playing uneven baseball, though it’s apparent he’s still feeling his way out after a prolonged absence the past two seasons—with his being on pace for over 160 strikeouts, after all. However, he’s still .264 with five homers and over an .780 OPS, so he’s scores better than his two struggling lefty outfielders.
With Van Slyke playing so well and prospect Joc Pederson going HAM in the minors, it’s finally time to trade either Crawford or Ethier. The Dodgers will have to eat eight figures of one of their contracts—maybe up to $40 million—in order to get consistent playing time and roles for four players rather than five.
This is of less concern, as lest we forget, we’re talking about the best pitcher on the planet.
However, Clayton… get it together, man.
In 28 innings, Kershaw has gotten hit hard, with 29 hits and 11 earned runs against. He was absolutely battered by the piss-poor Diamondbacks last week, getting knocked around for 7 earned runs in the second inning. It’s been an alarmingly un-Kershaw-like, especially considering the team just dropped over $200 million on him this past offseason. How concerned should we really be?
Not that concerned.
He’s still striking out batters by the boatload, with 37 in 28 innings, all while walking just 6 all year. He’s had his season disrupted by a trip to Australia and a stint on the DL with a shoulder injury that apparently is no longer lingering (a dubious claim, isn’t it?). His curveball has been hanging a bit more than usual, but perhaps that’s just a sign of a pitcher getting sharp early in the year.
Putting all this together, I’m not terribly worried about Kershaw going forward. However, the fact that he’s been far from a two-time Cy Young Award winner is a big reason why the Dodgers have been quite mediocre.
Even with all these concerns, it’s still not even June yet and many of these problems are solvable internally or an easy fix through a couple savvy trades (maybe involving Andre Ethier) or even waiver claims. I don’t believe that Kershaw, Jansen, Wilson and Perez are going to pitch this unevenly the entire season. I still have major concerns about the offense, but I’m hoping that Puig, Gonzalez, a decent Kemp and half a season from Hanley (it’s happening) will be able to buoy their scoring attack enough to carry the Dodgers to October.