Think this team has been a little schizophrenic lately? Check out what’s happened over their last five series, also helpfully illustrated graphically by the baseball-reference chart at right (longer lines mean larger margins of victory or defeat):
@ NYM, 7/20-7/22: Dodgers sweep three games
@ STL, 7/23-7/26: Dodgers drop three of four
@ SFG, 7/27-7/29: Dodgers sweep three games
vs ARI, 7/30-8/1: Dodgers swept in three games
vs CHC, 8/3-8/5: Dodgers sweep three games
vs COL, 8/6-8/8: Dodgers drop two of three
Despite sweeping three series since that road trip began on July 20, the Dodgers are just 10-8 over their last 18 games, and even when they were sweeping the Cubs, people were panicking because Chicago is so bad that merely winning isn’t enough if you’re not dominating.
112 games into the season, we still have no idea what this team is; in the span of just one week, they’ll look like the best team in baseball when they go into San Francisco and destroy the Giants, then look totally disinterested when they get walked over by Arizona. They’ll take care of business by sweeping the Cubs, then look like the 2003 offense in getting shut down by Colorado. Of course, that’s what happens when you make so many trades at the deadline; at the start of the stretch outlined above, Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Randy Choate, Brandon League, & Joe Blanton were all playing elsewhere, and so a roster that is markedly changed due to trades and health from what it was in June is hard to compare against the completely different team that took the field back then.
So what is this team, really? I honestly have no idea, and while I lean towards “good, but not quite good enough” in large part to an infield that continues to be among the worst in baseball, I also know that the National League is so wide-open and without a dominant team that anyone who makes the playoffs could get hot at the right time and steamroll their way to the World Series.
Still, I go back to the question we asked nearly a month ago, two weeks before the trading deadline…
The Dodgers, as Jon Weisman astutely notes this morning at LA Magazine, find themselves in a very difficult position as the trading deadline nears. They’ve been in first place or close to it for basically the entire season, and that along with a new ownership group eager to impress and a general manager hoping to hang on to his job means that they have to continue trying to win this year. But the reality increasingly seems to be that the hot start to the season is just not backed up by a roster with the talent needed to compete, not with the worst corner infield situation in baseball, zero production out of shortstop, very little coming from left field, and a starting rotation that may actually need to send the unheralded Stephen Fife to make his major league debut against Roy Halladay tonight. Even if they could fill all of those holes in the next two weeks – and due to the quantity of them, I think it’s pretty clear that they can’t – they’re held back both by a minor league system which doesn’t have the top-end talent other teams desire and a new playoff system which will make the few clubs willing to sell ask for sky-high prices.
You have to compete, but you may not realistically be able to win. What do you do?
Weeks later, I think we can all agree that many of those holes remain unfilled. The infield, even with Ramirez, remains a disaster, and Blanton isn’t exactly the rotation upgrade we were expecting. Yet even if things don’t end well this year, as I’m increasingly thinking they won’t, it seems to me that they’ve done a good job of threading the needle. Heading into the deadline, you had to improve the team and make an effort to contend in order to keep those returning fans and season ticket orders coming, and they did – remaining holes aside, a team with Ramirez, Victorino, Choate, League, & Blanton is better than the early-July roster that did not have them.
But in making those upgrades, I think we all realized that the hot start to the season created unrealistically high expectations, and so it never seemed to make sense to toss out your entire farm system in an attempt to win with a roster that still has too much dead wood of the Juan Rivera / Juan Uribe / James Loney variety to make it realistic; that’s why it was so encouraging to see them stand their ground and refuse to include Allen Webster to Chicago for Ryan Dempster, who was unlikely to be the difference between a championship or not.
(If I can take a total sidebar for the moment, this Webster update from Baseball Prospectus yesterday is phenomenally encouraging:)
While only Ethan Martin was dealt, heading to the Phillies in the Shane Victorino deal, nearly every team talking to the Dodgers inquired about right-hander Allen Webster, and with good reason, as the 22-year-old right-hander, after a tough first half, has a 2.13 ERA in nine starts since the All-Star break. “It’s all there,” said a National League scout who was taken off his coverage to see the team. “When everything is going, he has three average-to-plus pitches and knows what to do with them.” The scout noted that Webster’s game has matured, as well. “He knows he has a really good—and potentially special—changeup, but he’s not over-relying on it anymore,” the scout explained. “It’s like he finally figured out that setting that pitch up with 92-94 mph heat is the best way to go about it, and his curveball has improved as well. He used to get over the ball and it wouldn’t finish, but now it’s breaking through the zone much better.”
So in the interest of continuing this year’s push, upgrades were made, but not at the price of any prospects we’re likely to miss desperately; Martin seems like the most highly-touted of those who left, and even he probably wasn’t going to be in the top 5 of what is not a strong system. (Off the top of my head, Zach Lee, Webster, Chris Reed, Yasiel Puig, & Joc Pederson are all above him, and you can make cases for Matt Magill, Corey Seager, and others as well.)
When it comes down to it, this is an incredibly frustrating team to watch right now, just because you have absolutely no idea what team is going to show up on a given night. But when I think back to how we expected this season would play out as something of a transitional year between ownership groups and how few of us thought there’d be any playoff excitement at all, what we’ve been given – without mortgaging the future to do it – seems kind of like gravy. Hey, maybe this team gets hot and makes the playoffs; maybe they flame out and we torch Uribe in effigy in the parking lot. (Then again, these two things may not be mutually exclusive.) Either way, the future seems brighter than it has in years, and I’m not going to let the ups and downs of a surprising 2012 season change that. If the worst we can say right now is that the chronological order in which the dreck at the bottom of the roster is being eliminated doesn’t seem optimal, well, maybe that’s not so bad.
Of course, we’ll see what our tune is when they go get swept in Miami by a poor Marlins team before crushing the surging Pirates in Pittsburgh.