The Difference One Month Can Make

Of the many things I love about baseball, it’s that no matter how much you think you know, you can always learn something new. If there’s anything I’ve learned so far in 2012, it’s that it almost seems foolish to look at a team’s overall record and think that this alone shows you who they are. For example, one month ago tomorrow, the Dodgers welcomed the Mets to Dodger Stadium. At the height of their injury crisis, with  this is the lineup they rolled out, along with OPS at the time:

1. Dee Gordon SS .556
2. Elian Herrera 3B .685
3. Juan Rivera LF .661
4. James Loney 1B .634
5. Scott Van Slyke RF .509
6. Adam Kennedy 2B .607
7. Matt Treanor C .759
8. Tony Gwynn CF .625

That’s simply atrocious. Loney is hardly even a major-league quality hitter at this point, and he was hitting cleanup. You could look at that list and argue that not a single one of those players belongs in the lineup for a contending team, much less all eight at the same time. That’s three young players who probably still need to be in the minors, two old-and-busted veterans, a backup catcher, an all-glove backup outfielder, and whatever it is we’re referring to Loney as these days. The only OPS mark there that isn’t a total embarrassment belonged to Treanor, and all he’s done since then is go 3-31, bringing his OPS down to a more realistic .635. Predictably, they lost, scoring twice in the fourth inning against Chris Young but otherwise being shut down on their way to a fifth loss in a row.

That was only a month ago, and so much has changed. Gordon & Kennedy are injured; Herrera & Van Slyke are in Albuquerque. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, & Mark Ellis are all back from injury, Hanley Ramirez is now a Dodger, and I don’t think any of us believe that there won’t be at least one more bat (and a starter, of course) coming before Tuesday. While I admit that I cherry-picked that game somewhat by selecting a day where both A.J. Ellis & Jerry Hairston didn’t start, the active offensive roster one month ago as compared to the one we’ll have in a few days is so markedly different that it can barely even be considered the same club.

This is still a very flawed team, of course. They still have three big holes at first base, left field, and whichever one of shortstop or third that Ramirez doesn’t up at; even if they fill one of those, you’re still looking at a lineup that could have two of Loney, Rivera, Gordon, Gwynn, Luis Cruz or Juan Uribe in the lineup on a daily basis. Still, this is a new club as we head down the stretch. They’re probably not the team that miraculously was 17 games over .500 in late May, and they’re definitely not the same team that lost 11 of 12 while being shut out basically every night in late June.

I’m not sure what kind of team we’re looking at now, but I do know that there’s no changing the games that have already been played. That a various collection of players have managed to go 53-47 to this point isn’t quite as relevant as it seems; what matters is that the players we see now (along with anyone who arrives by Tuesday afternoon) are three games out of first place as they head into San Francisco for a huge series starting tonight. Can this group hang? It’s hard to say, but I know I feel a lot better about that question that I did just one month ago, even though the Dodgers have a worse winning percentage now than then.

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