Tuesday, September 18, 2012

One baseball season, three distinctive Dodger teams

This fragmented 2012 season has given us not one Dodgers team, but three. The third, which is before us today, is, by far, the most talented. The first Dodgers team this season was the most successful on the field. The second? Glad to see 'em go.

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles


The 2012 Dodgers season, with two weeks remaining, breaks down into three distinct seasons, due largely to major events that have changed the team's composition throughout 2012. We can think of the 2012 Dodgers, therefore, almost as three distinctive teams.

The third Dodgers team of 2012, the team playing before us now, is unquestionably the best of the three in terms of raw major league firepower, even if a lot of it is on the disabled list. However, in terms of results on the field, this third Dodgers team runs well behind the first Dodgers team of 2012, which fought through injuries to win behind the awesome feats of Matt Kemp and a group of old players who prevailed by presence of mind. Sadly, that group gave way to the second Dodgers of 2012, broken by injuries and a lost step here and there as the older players lost their spring. The system had no one to step in and the general lack of ready players was exposed by the requirements of staying on top. So, on came the third Dodgers, from well outside of the organization.

For the purposes of clarity, we'll refer to the Dodgers until May 28, the day Kemp came off the disabled list the first time, as the first Dodgers. To that point, the Dodgers were 32-15, cruising along with the best record in the game. They even survived a couple weeks without Kemp as hitters like A.J. Ellis and Andre Ethier -- and who can forget Bobby Abreu? -- picked up the slack. The first Dodgers were 21-6 in games started by opposing right handers.

However, that week of May 28 brought some ill portents, and the second Dodgers came with them. Kemp didn't last the week before going back on the disabled list. Milwaukee came to Dodger Stadium and swept four games. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly went away from his effective lineup against right-handed starters. Later, bats slowed down throughout the lineup and the club put on displays of remarkable offensive listlessness, such as being no-hit by six pitchers in Seattle and going an entire three-game series in San Francisco without scoring a run. This second version of the 2012 Dodgers was 21-30. The second Dodgers inherited a 7 1/2 game lead in the NL West. When the second Dodgers handed off to the third Dodgers, the Dodgers were 2 1/2 down in the NL West, a net loss of ten games on the division lead.

The hand-off occurred on July 25, when the new Dodgers ownership made its first imprint on the team by picking up Hanley Ramirez from the Florida Marlins. The Dodgers were willing to take on the remaining $38 million of Ramirez' contract through 2014. Since then, we've seen all the other deals, including the blockbuster with Boston. To improve their dying club, the Dodgers went on a $300 million shopping spree in the middle of the season.

And the Dodgers did improve their club. They just didn't improve enough to take the National League by storm. The Dodgers were 53-45 when they acquired Ramirez. So, they had a good record. But they did not have a good team. Indeed, by the end of July, the Dodgers were so far from being a good team that adding $20 million to the payroll for August and September wasn't enough to make them good in 2012. Fortunately, these trades are about way more than 2012.

Thus, this third iteration of the Dodgers is 23-25. It doesn't sound like much, but we have to remember that the second iteration of the Dodgers was truly terrible, a predictable outcome of the first iteration, which was an aging group playing over its head. There's a lot to be said for playing over one's head. Whatever that is, it certainly can't be said about the Dodgers in front of us right now. The third iteration of the Dodgers plainly lacks the magic of the first iteration. But the third iteration has something the first iteration doesn't. It has 2013. And something else. Real depth in the batting order, when it all comes together.

No one expected anything from the Dodgers this season. Then, the team came out of the gate so well that everyone forgot that they expected nothing from the Dodgers, and they especially forgot why. The way Kemp was swinging the bat, who could think about anything else? At the end of May, it seemed the Dodgers couldn't fail to win 90 games this year.

Now, with 15 games remaining, 90 wins is all but a mathematical impossibility. By the end of June, we remembered again that we expected nothing from the Dodgers, and why. And here we have to give the new Dodgers owners credit. They saw this light hitting club going flaccid, they saw the injuries on the pitching staff and they dug deep to add players.

We might say that all the improvements for the third Dodgers are for naught if they are only 23-25, but a mix like this isn't going to express itself in 50 games, and the Dodgers still have a chance in the next 15 games, anyway, however slight it is now that Clayton Kershaw is out indefinitely with hip problems. Either way, imagine where the Dodgers would be right now without the improvements.

The Dodgers are better. It's just not obvious enough how they are better. Some of the improvements are lost in the shuffle. For example, the Dodgers brought in Ramirez partly so they could back off on Dee Gordon as the everyday shortstop. And Ramirez has given the offense a jolt. If, at times, it seems that Ramirez doesn't flake out any less than Gordon, he has produced an .809 OPS and he scores or drives in a run per game. But since Ramirez arrived, Kemp has a .700 OPS. Kemp has almost become Dee Gordon, though he is few doubles better than Gordon's .562 OPS this year.

Adrian Gonzalez has disappointed since he arrived from Boston, but he's still miles more productive at first base than James Loney, who went the other way in that deal. Gonzalez has a .659 OPS with the Dodgers. Terrible. But Loney was only at .646. Gonzalez has driven in a run about every five at-bats for the Dodgers, while Loney drove in a run only ten at-bats for them this year.

The definitive truth about the third iteration of the Dodgers, the ones in front of us right now, is that they have two great hitters in Kemp and Gonzalez who are struggling. But we've seen how Kemp can carry the Dodgers when he is hot. And Gonzalez is a 100-RBI man even this year, which is his worst since he became an everyday player.

The Dodgers have 15 games remaining. They're only a game out of the second wild card. It's not everything the Dodgers would have wanted at the end of July, but it's a lot more than they would have without the improvements. And it is, by far, a better lineup than they had at the end of July, or at the end of any month before then. The group just isn't hitting. That can happen to any team for a month. Problem is, it's been happening to the Dodgers since the beginning of June.

The Los Angeles Times noted the other day that what this new group of Dodgers really needs is spring training. Point taken, but we would add that what the Dodgers are going through now ultimately will surpass the value of spring training.

During this past offseason, the Angels made big moves, signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to $317 million worth of contracts. So, this new Angels team went to spring training this year with a fresh start. And that start, we remember, was terrible. In April, the Angels had a better team than the Dodgers, and they also had a worse start. Now, in September, the Angels are finishing better, but the Dodgers still are in a more favorable playoff position.

Might the Angels have started better this year if they had a futile piece of last season together that they could have stewed upon? Just wondering. One imagines that Dodgers players are a little embarrassed that the last few weeks have gone down like they have after ownership did its part. As one watches this hastily assembled All-Star cast struggle at Dodger Stadium, one expects that players will talk next spring about a fresh start and unfinished business, all at the same time. Fresh starts aren't everything they're cracked up to be. There's a bit to be said for in sports for payback, vindication, whatever you will.

But we really ought to not speak of payback and vindication next year until we know more specifically what's being paid back and what's being vindicated from this year. And we still have 15 games this year to find out. Maybe more.

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