Well, just like all the geniuses said, the National League West is a tight three-way race. You have the steady Giants; you have the Rockies making their annual September wakeup call, and….the Padres?!? This is a team that had Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell on the trading block before the season even started. Everyone thought this team would finish last, and here they are, in first place by an ever-so-slim margin.
The missing team here is the Dodgers, concluding what has turned into a raging black hole of a season. The owners are going through a divorce, Manny Ramirez was injured and in decline, plus the bullpeYes folks, it will probably get worse before it gets better. The already cheapskate owner’s divorce will probably keep the team in limbo next year, our favorite scapegoat is off to the Windy City, and Joe Torre is gone. What is left is a decent core of starting pitchers and a young-but-not-getting any-younger lineup that didn’t mature the way it should have this year, a couple of guys who can help in the bullpen, but no middle relief. It screams “.500” team, which would be a dream to Royals or Orioles fans, but not acceptable to Dodgers fans.
One of the problems and/or solutions lies at first base. It’s not James Loney’s fault that Manny was injured for much of the year. Nor was it his fault that Casey Blake suffered a serious production decline on the other corner. It also wasn’t his fault that Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp didn’t rise to carry the team like they would’ve hoped. Nobody expected Loney to carry the team power-wise, but his offensive statistics, like Ethier and Kemp, suffered a decline. Except for the oft-injured Rafael Furcal, every Dodger regular will probably have a worse season statistically than the year before.
While the Dodgers would certainly like more power from Loney, with guys like Ramirez, Blake, Ethier and Kemp, they were happy to see him become a Mark Grace type who would hit low double digit home runs and be an ace in the field. There is no doubt that Loney is strong in the field, and getting better. Loney’s .998 fielding percentage is best in the league of first basemen playing over 140 games, and represents a gradual improvement over the last three seasons. This he has done with a mixed-bag infield this year, while last year he had Blake, a healthy Furcal and Orlando Hudson in his infield. In almost all defensive categories he is in the top 10.
As the defense has improved, his offense has declined. His batting average of .278 will be a slight decline over last year. Even if he gets hot over the last two weeks, it will be pretty flat compared to his .289 in 2008 and .281 in 2009. His slugging percentage, while up a few points from last year, will probably decline from the .434 he hit in 2009. His OPS will probably also decline from the .772 he had in 2008 and the .756 he had in 2009. His strikeout totals will be the most he has ever had, while his walks and homers will be at his lowest level since he became a regular. A hot streak can make many of these numbers even or even better than the previous years, but the key is there is no progression, at least offensively. Offensively, he is much closer statistically to a Ryan Garko or a Billy Butler than he is a Mark Grace.
Now it’s not panic time. Perhaps it is for the Dodgers organization as a whole, but maybe not for Loney. It took Keith Hernandez, a guy not unlike Loney four years as a regular to hit his stride. John Olerud also comes to mind as a guy who took a few years to come alive. Problem is, the Dodgers need solutions now, and where Loney fits into the overall equation is a big question.
At third, Blake’s days as a starter are probably numbered. The cash-strapped Dodgers may give Russ Mitchell a crack at his job. If Blake stays as a starter or even if Mitchell gets the job, the Dodgers may be inclined to trade Loney for a power bat.
Then there is the outfield. Unless there is a trade, and that is a big “if”, Ethier and Kemp will man two spots in the outfield. Both are in contract years, so it should be interesting. How about the third spot? They need a left fielder. You can see McCourt salivating about putting Jay Gibbons in left and saving a ton of money, but Gibbons, if he re-signs, would be best off the bench. This left fielder needs to be a guy who can carry the team if necessary. Neither Ethier nor Kemp was the guy this year. Ethier started strong, but he has had a weak second half. It may also be that his 31 HR 106 RBI season a year ago may have been a fluke. It just may be that he is a guy who will hit 20-25 home runs and hit about .280 with an OBP of around .350. Not bad at all, but perhaps not a guy who is a centerpiece for a pennant contender. Kemp has had a terrible season, but with his tools, he may very well be possible to be the guy who hits 30+ homers a year, have over 100 RBIs, steal 30 bases and play an awesome center field. The question is, does he want it? The next question is, does he want it with the Dodgers?
Now the magic question: with needs for a power bat who can conceivably play first base or the outfield, or possibly third base, the magic answer is … Adam Dunn! Perhaps Blake and Mitchell can fight for the job at third base, or a mid-level free agent could be found, but Dunn can play first, perhaps leading to a move of Loney to get that outfielder. In another scenario Dunn can play in the outfield, where he is terrible, but after watching Manny stumble around there for parts of three seasons, it won’t be much of a change. With Dunn around, much like Manny, Ethier and Kemp will see better pitches, improving a deficient offense in what should be a winnable NL West next year.
Asher Chancey, a columnist for Bleacher Report, had some interesting insights to Ethier’s hitting with and without Manny in the lineup:
2008, w/o Manny: 11/46, 33/61, .274/.339/.442
2008, w/Manny: 9/31, 26/27, .368/.448/.649
2009, w/Manny Pt I: 6/27, 20/16, .317/.438/.558
2009, w/o Manny: 9/25, 16/42, .222/.293/.438
2009, w/Manny Pt 2: 16/54, 36/58, .285/.370/.532
2010, w/Manny: 12/47, 23/35, .312/.370/.547
2010, w/o Manny: 8/24, 20/48, .278/.345/.460
2010, after Manny: 1/3, 6/13, .167/.286/.278.
Of course there is the McCourt question. Will he be willing to pay the $15 million or so a year that Dunn will surely get, and will he be willing to out-bid teams like the Yankees and others who will be after him? McCourt and Ned Colletti will also need to keep their starting pitchers happy and dig up some middle relievers, so while getting a big bat is the huge prize, it is not the only one. Does Dunn want to play in Los Angeles? With a cheapskate, debt-ridden owner going through a divorce, a possibly departing Joe Torre and a rudderless clubhouse, this may not be the most desired destination for a blue-chip free agent.
It may be akin to saying that while all I can do is barely afford my beat-up Corolla, it is probably not realistic for me to be pricing top-of-the-line Jaguars. McCourt is cheap and, while going through his divorce, will be even cheaper. Colletti has said that the Dodgers will be more active in the upcoming offseason, but more so in the trading market than the free agent one. Loney is certainly a trade-able asset, but it is hard to say who would be available for someone like him. It would say a lot to beleaguered Dodger fans if they went out and got a guy like Dunn. After the poor season, after the divorce shenanigans, after the departure of Torre, they need to figure out something. Attendance will be the lowest it has been in years, and it will get worse if something doesn’t happen.