Dodgers need tweaks if they want to make run
Los Angeles is plodding along in National League West, could deal an outfielder
Don Mattingly's job security is not a daily source of discourse, and it doesn't appear as if it's going to take an act of God or, say, a blistering, 42-8 run to straighten things out.
No, the Dodgers, despite not exactly aligning with expectations early on, aren't in disarray. They're simply plodding along with a pedestrian 22-20 record and a third-place standing in the National League West.
Still, they dropped three of four to the first-place Giants last weekend, in a non-binding but eye-opening litmus test of just how real that reinvigorated San Francisco squad is. And plenty of people are wondering when the Dodgers are going to play like the $235 million behemoth they are.
The good news is that they got the ace of aces, Clayton Kershaw, back last week, and A.J. Ellis, whose presence behind the plate is an underrated asset on this superstar-laden squad, returned to action Wednesday.
Furthermore, the Dodgers hit the road this weekend knowing all nine games on their three-city slate come against clubs (the division-rival D-backs, the Mets and the Phillies) in current possession of losing records.
So things appear to be looking up.
But there is a discernible disconnect between the payroll and the plot, and that inspires questions about what it's going to take to put the Dodgers firmly on the title track.
Probably the biggest question facing this team right now is whether it ought to -- or needs to -- consider dealing from its enviable outfield depth in order to augment elsewhere.
Consider this an answer in the affirmative.
Right now, in Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier, the Dodgers have four everyday options for three spots, and that doesn't even account for Scott Van Slyke sitting on the bench with a .949 OPS or Joc Pederson -- who has power, speed and defensive aplomb -- looming in Triple-A.
Certainly, this is a "problem" the Dodgers can afford, from a financial perspective. They are that rare bird that can afford having Crawford and Ethier, who are making a combined $35.75 million this year, rotating in and out of the lineup.
But those who see the Dodgers regularly are convinced they have needs. Not the kind of needs that necessarily jump out at you. But needs all the same, particularly for a club so heavily invested in a World Series run.
"They're underperforming, relative to their payroll, and they're underperforming for three key reasons," an NL scout said. "The bench is awful, the bullpen is fringy at best, maybe below average, and there's no situational hitting."
Let's briefly investigate those points, shall we?
Last year's Dodgers club experienced the value of utility men Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston, all of whom had previous postseason experience, coming off the pine. The current bench has Justin Turner and Chone Figgins both hitting .222, with Van Slyke arguably underutilized due to the four-headed monster in the outfield.
As far as the bullpen is concerned, the Dodgers are loaded with former closer-types, but overwork could be an issue.
Dodgers relievers have thrown the most innings of any Major League club entering Thursday. Closer Kenley Jansen is tied for second in the NL in appearances with left-hander J.P. Howell, and Jansen (4.34 ERA) has not looked nearly as sharp as last season. Same goes for Brian Wilson, whose rising ERA (10.22) and declining velocity are not exactly reminiscent of his September surge following his return from his second Tommy John surgery last year.
It will also be interesting to see how the rotation holds up to the grind of the season. No worries so far, as Kershaw has returned to a unit that ranks third in the NL in starters' ERA (3.08). But there are obvious questions about the overall durability of the 34-year-old Josh Beckett (2.38 ERA in seven starts) and the 33-year-old Dan Haren (2.84 ERA in eight starts), given their past physical issues. Both, though, have been pleasant surprises so far.
Hyun-jin Ryu is expected back soon from shoulder inflammation, which would provide another boost. But there have been questions about Ryu's shoulder ever since his mysterious between-starts bullpen session in Atlanta during last year's NL Division Series, and any medical malady involving a pitcher's shoulder must be closely monitored.
Given all of the above, one could certainly see where the Dodgers might benefit, at some point this summer, from exploring the market for their outfield excess. Bats, after all, are in especially high demand in this pitching-prominent environment.
What about that situational hitting component?
Per Baseball-Reference, the Dodgers have capitalized on situations in which they had a runner on third and less than two out 51 percent of the time, which is exactly league average. They've grounded into the double play in double-play opportunities 13 percent of the time, the second-highest rate in the Majors. They've made productive outs 33 percent of the time, just slightly above league average. Their .253 batting average with runners in scoring position ranks 11th in baseball.
So, no, the Dodgers haven't been terrible situationally. But with so much offensive talent, you do see room for improvement, especially given that the Dodgers have had one of the more impactful leadoff hitters in the game in the early going, in Dee Gordon.
"There's no reason they can't manufacture more runs," the scout said.
As it stands, the Dodgers have started off 22-20 after starting off last season 30-42. After the ridiculous 42-8 stretch, they finished the 2013 regular season by going 20-20. Add it all up, and that's a 72-82 record sandwiched around a historic -- and likely unrepeatable -- summer surge.
Such inconsistency makes it awfully hard to know just how good this Dodgers team is. But last year's run showed us how good it can be. And while a repeat of that run isn't necessary, some improvement on the early showing is.