Are They Who We Thought They Were?

The Dodgers are now 5-1 after another solid Chad Billingsley outing last night. This is unarguably excellent; you could make the case that after last year, the Dodgers needed to get off to a quick start more than just about any other team in baseball. They are, at this ridiculously early juncture in the season, “the best team in baseball“. Even if it’s silly to make such judgements on April 12 (spoiler alert: it is) it doesn’t mean the wins don’t count all the same, and that’ll be important down the line.

Yet I’m still trying to figure out what we know now that we didn’t just a week ago, when most of us were predicting an 82-85 win season. The offense is still the Matt Kemp & Andre Ethier show, with the two combining for four of the five Dodger homers and a total OPS that is approximately a billion. The infield might actually be even worse than we thought it would be, with James Loney still searching for his first hit, Mark Ellis subsisting on “productive out” grounders to the right side which give announcers the vapors, Juan Uribe generally being awful, and Dee Gordon not getting on base enough but being fantastically exciting when he does. Behind the plate, A.J. Ellis has just three hits but has walked five times, setting the stage for a full season of fans & media types bemoaning his inevitable .222 average while we all drool over his .375 OBP. Other than Juan Rivera getting himself off to a nice start, this is basically the offense we thought we had.

On the pitching side, Clayton Kershaw has been his usual outstanding self (10/1 K/BB, despite an 0-0 record) while Billingsley has been just as good (15/1 K/BB). Retread vets Aaron Harang & Chris Capuano were disappointing in their debuts, and as expected, the bullpen has been led by the youthful Javy Guerra, Kenley Jansen, & Josh Lindblom, all outpitching the older Mike MacDougal, Jamey Wright, & Todd Coffey. (For the most part, anyway. Matt Guerrier has been effective in the early going, while Scott Elbert has not.) Jansen’s performance deserves particular acclaim, as he’s struck out eight in five innings without allowing a single walk, while I worry that Lindblom will get farmed out when Ted Lilly returns on Saturday. The big surprise here is Billingsley, with everything else roughly as expected.

So while I’m greatly enjoying the hot start, I’m trying to keep things in perspective, without being too much of a wet blanket.  (Don’t forget, the 2005 team that ended up going 71-91 did get off to a 12-2 start.) It can’t be ignored that the Dodgers have been fortunate enough to start off against the Padres – who not only had to put their Opening Day starter on the disabled list just before the season but keep shooting themselves in the foot with eight errors in five games – and the always dreadful Pirates, who have scored just nine runs in five games. (Though as Bob Timmermann rightfully points out, they have had to face some murderous pitching, including Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Vance Worley, Kershaw, & Billingsley.) Though they absolutely need to beat up on such teams if they plan on being a contender, we’ll need to see how they look when they start facing some real competition; next week’s trip to Milwaukee ought to be a good test.

Still… if this is a brand new Billingsley, and the big year I’ve been predicting for Ethier for months comes true, suddenly this isn’t just the team with “one great pitcher and one great hitter.” I’m not sure if that’s enough to ameliorate the other problems, particularly on offense, but it’s a big step forward from the lack of support Kemp & Kershaw received in 2011. If you’ve now got a big four, plus some excitement at the end of the bullpen and some hope that Gordon continues to improve, you can squint hard enough to see this being a team worth having new ownership spending to add to at the deadline.

Ah, what the hell. It’s April 12. We don’t know anything at all yet, except that the first week has been about as much fun as anyone could have rightfully expected it to be. For now, good enough for me.

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