As the Dodgers have slumped over the last week and a half, losing seven of ten while the Giants crept to within three games, I’ve spent some time trying to recall our expectations for this team headed into the season. We were worried about the offense behind Matt Kemp & Andre Ethier, uncertain – though optimistic – about what A.J. Ellis & Dee Gordon could provide, crossing our fingers that James Loney would be the guy who ended 2011 rather than the one who started it, and cautious about the older back end of a rotation comprised of Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano, & Aaron Harang.
It was a largely veteran team built to get by in a year of ownership transition, a collection of players which seemed to be intended more for Ned Colletti to have a safely mediocre team rather than a group that promised much upside. I can’t find the post right now, but I’m pretty sure that in the spring I predicted that this was a team that seemed likely to be in the 82-85 win range, yet with as much chance to win 75 as 90. Sure, we’d enjoy the greatness of another year of Clayton Kershaw & Matt Kemp, but mainly we’d bask in the long-awaited glory of moving past the McCourt debacle, and anything positive which happened on the field in 2012 would almost seem like a bonus.
Then the season started, and somehow the Dodgers made it through 54 games (one-third of the full season) with the best record in baseball, even despite the recent slump. Expectations, whatever they may have been, have been shattered.
That, I think, is what has made this slump so disappointing for people. (That, and that the games have largely been painfully uninteresting to watch.) Had you told us prior to the season that Kemp, Mark Ellis, Juan Rivera, Juan Uribe, Matt Guerrier, Ted Lilly, & Jerry Hairston (for a time) would be on the disabled list all at the same time, and that the Dodgers would go 3-7 in a ten-game stretch, our response probably would have been, “wow, we won three?! Great!” But people are no longer looking at this team as the questionable middle-of-the-pack squad we thought they’d be, they’re looking at them as the team that burst out to a red-hot start, and teams with the best record in baseball shouldn’t play as atrociously as they have been – in theory.
There’s plenty of reasons for the recent slide, of course, none more obvious than the absences of Kemp & Mark Ellis, who were each excellent when healthy. And though none of us like to hear it, playing Arizona, St. Louis, & Milwaukee is far more difficult than San Diego & Pittsburgh were in April. But perhaps most of all, the good hops and close calls which had almost uniformly been going the Dodgers’ way early in the season have started swinging back the other way. The days where an unexpected new hero would appear out of the woodwork every night – a Matt Treanor here, an Ivan De Jesus there, a Scott Van Slyke over there – seem long gone right now.
So maybe this team isn’t quite as good as the hype had been spouting a few weeks ago, when they were topping national power rankings left and right. Maybe a team that’s regularly giving considerable lineup time to Adam Kennedy, Tony Gwynn, Loney, & Gordon shouldn’t really be surprising any of us when they fail to score runs, and maybe there’s not a lot to dream on in the near term, considering Kemp is out for several more weeks at least and the imminent returns of Rivera & Uribe aren’t exactly recipes for instant upgrades.
Yet for all of the depression over the last ten days, there’s still quite a bit of hope here. We’ve learned that A.J. Ellis is for real. (Send him to represent the NL in Kansas City so everyone else can learn that as well, won’t you?) We’ve learned that Bobby Abreu, when used properly, can still be an effective offensive weapon, that Elian Herrera may just have some utility, and we’ve learned that a healthy Capuano can be quite a bit more than we thought he would be. Most importantly, they do still have the benefit of that great start, because those wins still count. If they’re merely the .500 team from here on out that many of us expected they’d be, that’s still a 87-75 at the end of the year. That’s right in the playoff hunt, even if it’s easy to see them continuing to struggle over the next few weeks as they head into interleague play without Kemp, considering it’s unlikely that the new regime stands still with this undermanned roster as the trade deadline nears.
So cheer up, Dodger fans. The next few weeks could be pretty rough, but that’s okay. Kemp will be back. Mark Ellis will be back. Rubby De La Rosa may even be back at some point (though only in the bullpen). Trades will be made, and prospects will come up. Thanks to the cushion of the great start, the Dodgers will remain in the race, even if they’re not quite the team that April made them out to be. Considering what we thought of 2012 entering the year, that alone is more than we could have asked for.
And if not? If they collapse and blow the rest of the summer entirely? That’s the worst-case scenario, of course, but there’s a bright side there too; that’d make it a whole lot easier to make some of the front office changes many of us have been clamoring for. That seems unlikely at the moment though, so as long as we keep things in perspective, the rest of 2012 should have plenty of interesting moments left to offer.