Five questions: Los Angeles Dodgers

A little secret about these five-question essays: The same guy writing the answers … writes the questions! Conspiracy, I say!

Anyway, for most of the national media, there is only one question when it comes to the Dodgers: Will a certain highly paid left fielder behave? But the Dodgers remain much more than a one-question team. They’re an uncertain mix of rising talent and question marks—sometimes within the same player. The foundation is there for a strong postseason run, but admittedly, everything has to go just so.

On that note, here are the biggest questions facing the team in 2009.

Have you heard that Manny comes to Los Angeles with some baggage?

You don’t say. Funny, that never came up … except for the constant strafing of reminders we’ve gotten for the past eight months. The guy’s the original American Tourister—the Samsonite Slugger.

Manny Ramirez might have character issues, but he’s hardly the first guy to have them—or did you think every other major league ballplayer was an altar boy? In the meantime, when he’s gruntled, he has undoubtedly been a pleasure to have around. After four years of an older, grumpier, even more fragile Jeff Kent, Los Angeles will take that trade.

And so even though we know (yes, we know!) that Ramirez won’t play 162 games with an on-base percentage of .489 or slugging percentage of .743—the numbers he rang up in 53 regular-season games with the Dodgers in 2008— we also know that what he promises to bring represents a dramatic improvement over any third outfielder the Dodgers had within reach.

Ramirez won’t single-handedly bring the Dodgers success, and you never know, he could be this year’s Andruw Jones. But with a maximum of two years on his new contract and a one-year opt-out clause for a carrot, the Dodgers are well-disposed to take their chances on him. Whether he sits out one day because of soreness or the next because he saw a butterfly, the Dodgers accept that as part of their fate. We have checked his baggage, and we are satisfied to have him unpack.

Do the Dodgers have enough pitching to back up the Manny-led offense?

Though the Dodgers pitching seems thinner in 2009 than in recent years, that’s in large part reflective of how many live arms the Dodgers have rescued from the dead or discarded. No one in a given March expected guys like Wilson Alvarez, Takashi Saito, Joe Beimel, Rudy Seanez or Chan Ho Park to contribute.

As I wrote on Dodger Thoughts earlier this year, the starting front four of Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, Clayton Kershaw and Randy Wolf match up well with their recent predecessors. What hasn’t come so far in ’09 is any assurance that there is another longshot hero. That actually might be for the best, because instead of wasting innings on guys like Eric Milton or Shawn Estes, the Dodgers have been forced to go straight to two-time franchise minor-league pitcher of the year James McDonald. Similarly, the dearth of impressive wild cards in the bullpen could open the door for fast-rising 21-year-old Josh Lindblom, who could mirror Kershaw’s 2008 season with a midseason (if not sooner) pick-me-up.

While the Dodgers don’t enter the 2009 season as overtly deep in pitching as they did in 2008, they don’t need to, thanks to their improved offense and defense (e.g., Orlando Hudson for Kent). Things could go horribly wrong if Billingsley & Co. can’t stay healthy, but that’s a risk for any team, as Cole Hamels, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Johan Santana remind us. With McDonald as the No. 5 starter and a bullpen featuring the underrated Jonathan Broxton and Hong-Chih Kuo, the Dodgers have enough pitching on paper to win. They just have to hope that paper doesn’t crumble.

What about the kids in the lineup?

This should be the year we stop calling them kids. They grow up fast, don’t they? Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and James Loney each have well over 1,000 career plate appearances. Billingsley and Broxton are clearly veterans at this point as well. Kershaw and McDonald really constitute the junior brigade as far as the Opening Day roster, though in-season callups could change that.

At the same time, these non-kids are still on the upswing of their careers, with Ethier, who turns 27 on April 10, the oldest. This doesn’t guarantee improvement—Loney in particular seemed to disappoint in 2008 compared to 2007—but it does increase the odds that many key Dodgers will see improved seasons.

There’s little reason to think these guys can’t adjust collectively to the hurdles they faced last year. For all the attention that Ramirez gets, the rest of the lineup is an understated reason why the Dodgers will contend this season.

How far can this team go?

As far as their trainers can take them. Healthy, the Dodgers boast one of the best batting orders in baseball and a more-than-adequate starting rotation. When the worst thing you can say about a team is its No. 5 starter/middle relief might be a problem—well, look around and try pointing out how many teams don’t have that problem, particularly in the NL. A World Series prediction might be foolhardy, but the possibility of having Ramirez, Rafael Furcal and an improving Kershaw for full seasons ought to mitigate many of the concerns that this can’t be as good a team as the one that was two innings away from tying the 2008 NL Championship Series at two games apiece.

But sure, one guy blows out an elbow, another guy tweaks his spine, and suddenly the Dodgers fall to fourth place with only the San Diego Padres as a net. The 2009 Dodgers have great potential: great, fragile potential.

Why isn’t the team’s outlook the final question?

Because I can’t shake the fear or feeling that Vin Scully’s 60th season calling Dodgers games will be his last, and if so, that’s the story of the year, no matter what happens on the field. We need to cherish him.

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