The Dodgers have won six in a row and seven of their last ten, and as the roster continues to get healthy and Yasiel Puig continues to do completely absurd things that make his contract look like a bargain, Dodger fans are happy. (Speaking of Puig, our good friend EephusBlue has created the phenomenal t-shirt you see at right. You haven’t supported Puig until you’ve worn a shirt of him blasting baseballs to Mars; buy one in any color now.)
But of course as great as that all is, they’re still in last place. They’re six games under and six games out, and that’s a tough place to be in as June turns into July. No matter how optimistic we are about how the team is playing right now, it doesn’t change the fact that they spent most of the first three months struggling along. Remember, we’ve been all but certain more than once that Don Mattingly absolutely wasn’t going to make it through the next 48 hours, and while there’s clearly differing opinions on whether he should have or not, even the fact that it was so seriously discussed should illustrate how tough the first half of 2013 has been.
That being the case, the recent rumors around interest in Ricky Nolasco and others has made for an interesting situation. The Dodgers are too talented (and, okay, expensive) to give up, but last-place teams don’t generally buy. That’s how we end up with national writers like Colin Wyers and Steven Goldman wondering whether buying is even appropriate here:
Goldman: Well, if everything but the Dodgers stays exactly the same, the D’Backs would finish with 86 wins. To reach 87, the Dodgers would have to 52-33. That’s a 99-win pace the rest of the way. They not only need to get better, they need everyone else to die.
And as difficult as that reality is to swallow, I get that. The Dodgers that had Luis Cruz, Dee Gordon, Justin Sellers, Skip Schumaker, busted Matt Kemp, & friends sucking up plate appearances were awful. The team that didn’t have Puig but did have Ramon Hernandez, Matt Magill, Ted Lilly, and “Brandon League, closer!” was brutal, boring, and bad. Those might not have been the Dodgers we thought that well over $200 million would buy, but thanks to all the injuries those were the ones we saw, and those losses count just as much as any other in the standings at the end of the day.
Now, finally, we’re close to seeing what this lineup can do at full strength. Hanley Ramirez is back after two different disabled list stints and is just mashing baseballs. Kemp has much to prove, but has looked better in his brief time off the disabled list, perhaps helped by a reunion with former hitting coach Jeff Pentland. Cruz is nowhere to be found, while Juan Uribe has been hilariously not awful. Even Andre Ethier seems rejuvenated by not being the only man standing amongst a lineup of fill-ins — not that the same situation bothered Adrian Gonzalez, I suppose — and within a week to ten days, we can expect Carl Crawford back, deposing the weak link of Schumaker or Nick Punto or Mark Ellis atop the lineup.
Now, is it too late after three months of very indifferent play? In some divisions, it absolutely would be. If the Dodgers were in the NL Central, they’d be 12 games out behind the Cardinals and Pirates (!) and probably dead in the water — and considering the 45-34 Reds are there as well, the wild cards are probably a pipe dream at this point. They’d be eight games out in the loss column in the NL East, and nine in both the East & West in the American League.
Mercifully, the Dodgers don’t play in those divisions. They don’t have to worry about the Rangers or the A’s or the Red Sox. They play in the forever soft NL West, currently led by the “worst record of any division leader at 42-36″ Arizona Diamondbacks, and with exactly one team over .500. You look around that division, and you start to feel optimistic.
Yes, the Rockies have a very talented offense… but they’ve also lost Troy Tulowitzki to injury and have an incredibly thin rotation. Sure, the Padres have some impressive young players and have proven in head-to-head play that they’re not a team to be ignored… but they are also, somewhat unbelievably, the worst pitching staff in baseball right now. The Giants, as much as you all despise them, can never be counted out based only on what they’ve done in two of the last three seasons, and Buster Posey is unquestionably among the brightest stars in baseball. They’re also two games under .500 after being swept by the Dodgers, and have finally seen their rotation fall apart as Tim Lincecum continues to decline and Ryan Vogelsong is injured.
It’s the Diamondbacks who concern me, because Paul Goldschmidt is a legitimate superstar, they’re just getting Aaron Hill back from injury, and they have incredibly enviable young pitching depth. Brandon McCarthy gets hurt? Oh, no problem, here’s Tyler Skaggs or Randall Delgado or Archie Bradley. They’re a quality team with the depth to make trades to improve, and right now they have a six-game cushion on the Dodgers — in no small part due to the fact that they’ve beaten the Dodgers seven of nine so far this year. But the Dodgers still have ten more games with Arizona, including a three game set from July 8-10, and it’s likely that no games this year will be more important.
Six games out at the end of June is still a lot, and it won’t be easy to overcome. If Walter O’Malley had happened to move his club from Brooklyn to somewhere not located in what would eventually become the National League West, this might not even be a conversation worth having. Hell, if they stumble over the next two weeks and haven’t made any progress, I’ll probably be begging Ned Colletti not to spend prospects on Michael Young and Brandon Lyon.
But now that the team is finally getting healthy and playing well, in a division where no one is pulling away, and where we can look forward to a lineup that has Puig, Kemp, Gonzalez, Ramirez, & Crawford in it for the first time ever, the playoffs are still a valid goal. As unlikely as it might be, now is not the time to think otherwise.