5 key issues Dodgers must resolve down stretch
Hopefully by now you've come around to the idea that buying a title in Major League Baseball is not a bankable (pun intended) strategy. The 2013-14 Yankees proved that point rather convincingly.
But even those of us who have an understanding of how payroll is not predictive have to be blown away by what's happening with the Dodgers these days. Los Angeles has a payroll north of $300 million -- by far the highest in the history of the sport. And the Dodgers might not reach the playoffs.
Granted, they've still got a better-than-average chance, what with their 1 1/2-game edge on the Giants in the National League West and the Baseball Prospectus-calculated postseason odds that give them a 75 percent chance of nailing down the division.
But right now, the concerns surrounding the Dodgers are real, as evidenced by no less an authority than Clayton Kershaw, who admitted after Sunday's 3-2 loss in Houston that this club ought to be "panicking." Kershaw quickly couched that comment by saying "sense of urgency" would be a better term than "panic," but I personally prefer the p-word. It better captures the mood of a ballclub that certainly expects more from a nearly one third of a billion investment in player paychecks.
Here are the Dodgers' five key issues as they hit the home stretch:
1. Pitchers not named Kershaw and Zack Greinke
I liked Kurt Bevacqua's spin on the old "Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain" mantra on MLB Network the other day: "Clayton and Zack and Move the Outfield Back."
The numbers back it up. In the second half, pitchers other than Kershaw and Greinke (and there have been 19 of them, in all) have tallied a 5.52 ERA.
That three-team Trade Deadline deal that brought Alex Wood, Mat Latos and Jim Johnson aboard has moved the needle in the wrong direction. Wood allowed 13 runs on 23 hits in 23 1/3 innings. Latos allowed 11 earned runs in 14 2/3 innings over three starts, earning a demotion to the bullpen. And in that bullpen, Johnson has been a disaster -- 14 runs allowed in six innings of work over eight appearances.
We'll get to the bullpen in a moment, but Wood is the real key here. Because while a healthy Brett Anderson has been a serviceable starter for this club this season, the threat of Anderson wearing down is real. He's already accrued more innings this season than in the previous three combined, and his ERA has risen 1.5 points in the second half.
The Dodgers need more from Wood as a legit No. 3 behind Kershaw and Greinke. The lefty has utilized his knuckle-curve far more frequently with L.A. than he did with Atlanta. That's certainly by design of a club that got strong returns out of Mike Bolsinger's increased curve usage for a while. That pitch needs to be on point, and Wood needs to be a stabilizing force in the rotation.
2. The bullpen blues
If it's possible for a club to have a payroll this high and still be accused of skimping somewhere, the Dodgers did it with this bullpen.
Andrew Friedman and Co. -- perhaps understandably, given the volatility of that marketplace and the Dodgers' own recent organizational history with an overpaid 'pen -- abstained from the principal figures in free agency and instead tried to patch something together with an interesting hodgepodge of failed starters, converted position players and buy-low bounceback candidates. But when that didn't work out as well as hoped, the Dodgers should have done more to secure their relief corps at the Trade Deadline. Bringing in Johnson clearly didn't work out, and the August waiver wire is an increasingly difficult place for a club to find a worthwhile fit.
So the Dodgers are now left largely to hope that some of their inter-organizational options solidify the situation in front of closer Kenley Jansen.
Maybe there's some bad luck due to even out here, as the Dodgers' relievers have the second-highest batting average on balls in play (.319) of any team in the league, and their strikeout and walk rates are both more than satisfactory. The Dodgers certainly hope to see right-handers Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia and Chris Hatcher settle in.
But if the Dodgers really want to take a potentially worthwhile risk, they could dip into their system and summon Julio Urias, the 19-year-old pitching prospect they were so careful to keep at the Deadline. With a mid-90s fastball and an advanced breaking ball, relief work is not in Urias' long-term outlook, but he could certainly play up as a short-term bullpen Band-Aid.
3. Burning on the basepaths
That's burning on the basepaths, not up, because the Dodgers have run themselves into more than their fair share of silly outs this season. FanGraphs' baserunning metric ranks them dead last in the Majors.
Some of this comes down to a lack of team speed, but the Dodgers were concerned enough about the approach of the runners they do have that they made a rare late-season coaching change, bringing in former Brewers manager Ron Roenicke as the new third-base coach.
This, of course, led to plenty of speculation about Roenicke replacing Don Mattingly should things truly go south, but only time will tell if such speculation is warranted.
For now, the Dodgers simply need to do a better job on the bases. Because while this isn't the only explanation for why a club with the best on-base percentage and the second-best slugging percentage in the NL ranks as middle of the pack in runs per game, it's definitely a big one.
4. The regression of Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson
Has anybody in baseball had a stranger season than Pederson? His fall from NL Rookie of the Year Award favorite to bench bat has been a remarkably swift one. A .413 August on-base percentage couldn't save him from losing his starting job to Enrique Hernandez -- Pederson has simply stopped hitting the ball hard. Right now, it's difficult to envision Pederson quickly righting himself, especially if his opportunities are limited.
But what about Puig? His sub-.750 OPS since last year's All-Star break is no small sample, and his continual lower-body troubles are a concern. But the Dodgers reportedly yanked Puig back when another club claimed him on waivers this month, so they obviously believe there's some hope of him returning to a high-impact level. You wouldn't know it from the OPS, but Puig has actually shown some plate-discipline strides over the past calendar year. And while he might never be the MVP Award candidate some of us thought he could be, perhaps he can at least salvage a September surge.
5. Beat the elite
This is as simple as analysis gets: The Dodgers have not fared well against good teams, and that has to change. They are a combined 10-23 against the Cardinals (2-5), Pirates (0-3), Cubs (2-2), Mets (3-4) and, most alarmingly, the Giants (3-9).
Beating the Giants is obviously elemental if the Dodgers are going to nail down this division, and they've got seven more meetings with San Francisco, beginning with a three-game home set next week. Heck, even the seven remaining games against the third-place D-backs have taken on added gravitas in the past week.
But the Dodgers also have to do whatever they can to keep that Wild Card possibility in sight, just in case. This weekend's three-game set against the Cubs is huge, in that regard.
I wish I could say something much more brilliant than "the Dodgers have to beat good teams," but sometimes it really is that simple. To this point, this has not been the kind of juggernaut you'd expect out of a club with a $300 million-plus payroll.