Just before camp opened in February – on Valentine’s Day, no less, so I must have been feeling particularly forgiving – I listed six reasons for optimism in 2011. I don’t think I’d get much of an argument right now if I said that five of the six items that I was looking forward to have, as expected, worked out pretty well. That’d be Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Vin Scully, the progression of the next wave of prospects like Dee Gordon, Rubby De La Rosa, & Jerry Sands, and the new & improved coaching staff. With the team nine games under .500 and falling fast, you could conceivably argue the last point, but as Jon Weisman astutely observes, it’s hard to blame Don Mattingly for this. Besides, Davey Lopes has clearly had a positive impact on Kemp. I’ll give the sixth item – “overall pitching depth” – a push, because while no one expected the amount of injuries this team has had to deal with, the young bullpen replacements have generally performed well.
Of course, the reason that I was even listing reasons for optimism at that point in the offseason is that we’d suffered through such a long, depressing winter. Here’s how I prefaced that February article:
I’ll be the first to say that this hasn’t exactly been the brightest offseason around here. We’ve been dismayed at the seemingly excessive contracts handed out to Matt Guerrier, Rod Barajas, and Juan Uribe. We’ve cringed at the impending disastrophe of the JaMarcus Gwybbons, Jr. situation in left field, wondered why they couldn’t find a righty partner for Andre Ethier, been disappointed over the inability to upgrade on Casey Blake, and resigned ourselves to another year of mediocrity from James Loney. We’ve been terrified at both how there’s no good option for a #2 hitter and how the lineup as a whole seems to have been assembled with no regard for OBP. We’ve worried about atrocious outfield defense and considered what things may have looked like if the near-misses for aging vets Aubrey Huff , Michael Young, and A.J. Pierzynski hadn’t been misses at all. We’ve fretted that minor-league deals or not, historically poor players like Juan Castro and Aaron Miles are in the mix and just may make the team, and we’ve wondered when and if proven young talents like Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley would see long-term deals.
And that’s just a list of on-the-field concerns, because there’s still the ongoing McCourt embarrassment, the uncertainty around inexperienced new manager Don Mattingly, and yet another fun year of “will Ronald Belisario make it to camp?”
When you look at how we thought things would look in February… well, what really ended up not being accurate there? Mattingly has proven himself to be more than just a Joe Torre clone, and Miles, I’ll grant, has been serviceable while being pushed into far more playing time than expected. But what else?
Look at the list. Barajas and particularly Uribe have been atrocious, while Guerrier has at least had his moments but is on pace for the second-worst year of his career. The left field trio didn’t work out, was eventually supplanted by Sands, and now counts Trent Oeltjen as a member after Gibbons was DFA’d. (So… TreMarcus Gwoeltjen, Jr.?) Ethier is hitting .240/.289/.347 without a homer against lefties, while Blake has dealt with three injuries and is on pace to play in just 75 games. Loney’s disastrous season has been well chronicled, though he’s at least seen some improvement since April. The #2 spot has actually been okay, split between Blake, Miles, and Jamey Carroll, though our worries about OBP were accurate, as the Dodgers rank 13th in the NL. On defense, the collective fielding unit ranks 29th in Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency, just barely above the Cubs. The McCourt situation has been a complete mess, and Belisario never did make it into the country.
If there’s anything that’s been something of a surprise, it’s the injuries, as I’m sure that none of us saw a need to use the disabled list 19 times before July. But if the shock is in the sheer volume, few of the individual health concerns came out of nowhere. Rafael Furcal, Vicente Padilla, and Hong-Chih Kuo have always been known to be among the more fragile players in baseball. We all knew there was something wrong with Jonathan Broxton, and Blake is 37 years old, along with Gibbons and Marcus Thames checking in at 34. Jon Garland going on the disabled list for the first (and second) time in his career may be news, but this last trip is less surprising when you remember that he mentioned this winter that he couldn’t get a multiyear deal because other teams didn’t like the looks of his shoulder exams. He is, of course, currently on the shelf due to the shoulder with no return date.
In fact, of the 19 disabling injuries, less than a third came from players under 30. Two were Broxton & Kuo, which we know were no surprise. One was the early knee injury to 28-year-old minor-league lifer Hector Gimenez, which hardly counts, and fellow catcher Dioner Navarro started the year on the DL due to an oblique strain. Blake Hawksworth and Kenley Jansen also missed time out of the bullpen… and that’s it. Every other injury was to an older player. It may be bad luck that so many injuries have happened at the same time, but it’s hard to be too surprised when a team full of over-30 players with injury concerns get hurt.
The point is, this was always a flawed team, one that few thought was going to head anywhere unless everything worked out completely perfectly. It hasn’t, and while the depths we’ve seen lately may have been deeper than expected from a team we thought would be at least competitive, little here has been a complete surprise. For once, that’s not entirely Frank McCourt’s fault. Off-field distractions aside, the Dodgers were one of the more active teams in free agency last winter, and though the payroll isn’t to the levels it really ought to be, it’s also not a $50m shoestring budget like other teams have to deal with. This is the team that Ned Colletti put together, and it hasn’t been pretty. As they head into the interleague portion of their schedule with 12 games against the Tigers, Twins, and Angels (twice) – a task they have historically struggled with – they’re just one game ahead of the pace set by the 1992 Dodgers, who lost 99 games. I don’t think this club is as poor as that one is, but we also shouldn’t be making plans for October. (On a personal note, the silver lining there is that I have four weddings to attend between September 10 – October 22, and likely won’t be missing much.)
Going forward, Tony Jackson astutely thinks they should let the young players take over, while MLBTradeRumors wonders what the trade market for Jamey Carroll might look like. I agree with each, but this is a regime that has never shown an inclination to sell, no matter what the standings look like. As for me? Besides for the usual “McCourt payroll fail” watch, I’m changing my tune to become James Loney‘s biggest fan. Since April 26, he’s hitting .310/.366/.405. It’s not enough to turn this team around, but it just might be enough to turn him from “guaranteed non-tender” to “possible trade bait”.