Big question: Do Dodgers have thoroughbred legs to win race?
May 15, 2014 at 12:30p ET
LOS ANGELES — Some won’t want to hear it, will say it’s all a media creation. But several veteran players believe something is missing in the Dodgers’ culture, and club officials wonder about the team’s makeup, too.
“Maybe winning will produce chemistry?” one veteran asked me over the weekend, hopefully. Another pointed out to me that only four current Dodgers have played for World Series champions — Josh Beckett, Chone Figgins, Brian Wilson and Juan Uribe.
Two of those players, Wilson and Uribe, won with — ahem — the rival Giants (Uribe also won with the White Sox in 2005). And, ahem, the difference between the Dodgers and Giants was quite evident last weekend, when the Giants — winners of the 2010 and ’12 World Series — took three of four at Dodger Stadium.
Not that the Dodgers should panic. Their 22-20 record actually is five games better than it was at this point last season. Remember? Manager Don Mattingly nearly didn’t survive May. The team bottomed out at 30-42 on June 21. And then — whoosh! — the Dodgers went on a 42-8 roll, won the NL West and advanced to the National League Championship Series.
Whoosh! That’s the sound shortstop Hanley Ramirez made in the dugout before Wednesday night’s game, comparing the season to a horse race. Ramirez held one hand out, then brought his other hand forward to signify one horse passing another. Whoosh!
I mentioned to Ramirez that the trail horse eventually has to start running, and he nodded in agreement. Who knows? Any moment now, the Dodgers actually might find their $235 million stride. Though the Marlins pummeled them Wednesday night 13-2, the Dodgers took two of three in the series and next will face three sub-.500 clubs — the D-Backs, Mets and Phillies —on a nine-game trip.
Second baseman Dee Gordon is everything people thought Cincinnati speedster Billy Hamilton might be (and still may become). Right fielder Yasiel Puig is everything that Bo Jackson could have been, and in the words of Mattingly, “growing up before our eyes.” Meanwhile, the Dodgers’ rotation soon will be whole for the first time, with left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu close to returning from shoulder inflammation.
Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, a revitalized Beckett, a sub-3.00 ERA Dan Haren and Ryu – that’s a hellacious group (left-hander Paul Maholm lasted just 3 2/3 innings Wednesday night, in what may have been his final start). But still, a quarter of the season is gone, and the Dodgers’ identity remains a work in progress.
The Giants know who they are — they’ve won before, and they’re desperate to win again. But enough about those murky intangibles, lest I make sabermetricians’ heads explode. For the Dodgers, the tangible is disturbing enough.
The team ranks 15th in the majors in defensive efficiency, the rate at which batted balls are converted into outs, but leads the NL with 36 errors in 42 games. Ramirez and center fielder Matt Kemp are among the worst defenders at their positions, according to advanced metrics - though Mattingly says that part of Kemp’s problem, coming off ankle and shoulder surgeries, is rust.
In any case, all of those plays that the Dodgers do not make force their pitchers to get extra outs, which is one reason that the team’s bullpen leads the majors in innings. Another is that the Dodgers have played a major-league leading 10 extra-inning games, despite ranking fourth in the NL in runs.
In April there were questions about whether Mattingly is overworking closer Kenley Jansen, who is tied for second in the NL in appearances with teammate J.P. Howell and others. But that issue already has diminished, and figures to diminish further if the team improves its run differential, which at plus-three ranks third in the NL West behind the Rockies at plus-50 and Giants at plus-29.
Last year’s team included several complementary parts — second baseman Mark Ellis, reserves Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston — who had previous postseason experience. This year’s club, while highly compensated, lacks the same kind of ballast. The players want to win, of course. But do they need to win? Different question.
Indeed, for all of the Dodgers’ long-term commitments, the team is in somewhat of tenuous state. Ramirez is a free agent at the end of the season, but as I reported Saturday on Fox Sports 1, the Dodgers want to see him stay healthy before signing him long term. Meanwhile, the four-veterans-for-three-spots arrangement in the outfield is uncomfortable for Mattingly and the players affected most.
Puig and Kemp essentially are in the lineup every day, leaving the scraps to Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier, both of whom are accustomed to regular at-bats, and Scott Van Slyke, who also would benefit from additional use. Joc Pederson, the best defensive outfielder in the organization, isn’t even on the team — he’s completing his development at Triple-A.
One veteran speculated that the front office is in waiting mode, reasoning that if the team flops, the Dodgers will part with Ramirez this offseason, trade at least one of the outfielders and retool on the fly. Maybe, but would it even work? Many big-spending teams react to losing by spending more, particularly when their farm systems are not ready to provide alternatives.
Pederson should be ready by next Opening Day, and so might a pitcher or two, but who else? The Dodgers’ $25 million Cuban shortstop, Erisbel Arruebarrena, is a gifted defender but batting only .143 with a .412 OPS at Double-A. Their $28 million Cuban second baseman, Alex Guerrero, is batting .326 with a .940 OPS at Triple-A, but defending like a DH.
Then again, those players simply might need more time to develop - and the same, of course, can be said of the 2014 Dodgers. As Ramirez noted, the season is a horse race, and the best horse eventually will prevail.
The Dodgers, on paper, are the best horse. The Dodgers, on paper, are too talented to flounder.
Now if only they were a team.