After last night’s 9-1 victory over the Giants – a game that got completely out of hand in the late innings thanks in part to some hilarious Giant defense as Don Mattingly was desperately trying to give away outs via the bunt – the 19-10 Dodgers are in a four-way tie with Baltimore (!), Tampa Bay, and Texas for the best record in baseball. (Washington also has just 10 losses, but only 18 wins as they have played one fewer game.)
As exciting as the first month of this season has been, I think we can all agree that the Dodgers are not actually the the best team in baseball. They have too many holes on offense beyond Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, & A.J. Ellis, very little support from the bench, and the lingering thought that the bottom could drop out of the older back of the rotation at any time – in addition to a quite favorable early-season schedule.
That being said, the Dodgers currently have what no other division leader can claim: a five-game lead within the division. Only Texas has as much as a four-game lead, and the other divisions are all three games or less. On May 8, those numbers don’t mean a whole lot and can easily be erased with a bad week; besides, I imagine I don’t need to remind you about how St. Louis won the World Series last year. Still, we’ve now seen three of the other four teams in the NL West, and I can’t help but come to the conclusion that this division is going to be really, really bad. At the moment, the Dodgers are the only team in the West above .500, and there’s not a single other division without at least two teams at .500 or better.
We kicked off the season by watching the Dodgers embarrass the Padres, the club regarded by most to finish last in the division before the year, and it hasn’t gotten any better for San Diego. The Padres have already lost three-fifths of their proposed starting rotation – Tim Stauffer, Dustin Moseley, and now 2011 breakout star Cory Luebke (who may need major surgery) – to injury, and that’s from a staff that was already missing Mat Latos & Aaron Harang from last year. They’re so strapped in the rotation that they actually had to dig up the corpse of Jeff Suppan to have enough warm bodies, and now closer Huston Street is on the disabled list as well with a right shoulder strain. On offense, they have exactly two regular hitters – Chase Headley & Cameron Maybin – who have been anything north of atrocious, with recent rumblings being that they might release one or both of their veteran middle infielders (Orlando Hudson & Jason Bartlett) if they can’t get themselves turned around. The Padres didn’t have much hope before 2012, and they’re absolutely cooked now.
Then there’s the Rockies, who many expected to fight the Dodgers for third place. They’ve been held back by the fact that none of their bats are really hitting other than Carlos Gonzalez & Michael Cuddyer, but mainly I want to just note that 121-year-old crypt-keeper Jamie Moyer, currently striking out 4.54/9, has been their most effective starter, and leave it at that. So I will.
Yesterday, we saw the Giants for the first time, and I hate to count out any team that has a rotation fronted by Matt Cain & Madison Bumgarner along with Tim Lincecum, rebounding from a poor start, and Barry Zito, who is at least serviceable now. They’ve even managed to coax more productivity out of Melky Cabrera, and Buster Posey has been effective in his return from his serious leg injury. But… you saw the lineup they ran out there last night, right? Someone in the comments last night cracked that it reminded them of the scene from “Major League” where one team executive says, “I’ve never heard of half of these guys and the ones I do know are way past their prime,” only to have the general manager reply that “most of these guys never had a prime.” I mean, Ryan Theriot! Joaquin Arias! Brett Pill! Conor Gillaspie! Hector Sanchez! All in the same lineup, with Aubrey Huff about to join them, in no small part due to Bruce Bochy’s criminal under-usage of Brandon Belt. I get that the Dodger lineup wouldn’t be much better than this if you removed Kemp & Ethier, but until that happens, Los Angeles does have Kemp & Ethier. San Francisco also just lost two key contributors in Pablo Sandoval & Brian Wilson, plus Guillermo Mota to a PED suspension, and all of this plus shoddy defense means that the Giants don’t scare me all that much.
Finally, we reach Arizona, the one club the Dodgers haven’t seen yet. (They’ll get their first look after the Colorado series later this week.) The Diamondbacks were the consensus choice to take the division – myself included – but have started slowly after injuries to Chris Young, Justin Upton, & Daniel Hudson, while Stephen Drew is still working back from last year’s ankle injury. Arizona has received almost nothing from their corner infield duo of Ryan Roberts & Paul Goldschmidt (sound familiar?) but their starting pitching has been excellent and is only going to get better as top prospect Trevor Bauer and others push their way to the majors. Though the Snakes are just 14-16 at this point, I still consider them dangerous, especially with that rotation and as they get healthy in the outfield. Not to be too hyperbolic, but there might be no bigger games on the schedule this year than when the Dodgers play Arizona, and the five games the two will play over the next two weeks could really have a big impact on the top of the NL West leaderboards.
There’s still a long way to go, and it’s not completely out of the question to see the Dodgers fall apart – especially if anything happens to Kemp, Ethier, or Clayton Kershaw. Yet with 133 games left, if the Dodgers played merely .500 ball the rest of the way, that would make them an 86-win team. In the era of two wild cards, that makes them a contender. In the increasingly poor NL West, that just might make them a champion.