Keep Calm and Go Dodgers

As I’m sure you all know by now, I’m taking off this afternoon for ten days in Europe, specifically Spain & Germany. Yes, I scheduled my honeymoon during the playoff push. To be fair, at the time, I didn’t think the Dodgers had much of a chance to make any noise in 2012, and though they certainly haven’t been quiet, it’s not really looking like they’re a playoff team right now either. (Especially if the news on Clayton Kershaw is bad.)

Not to worry, however: things will still push on here. There’s a game thread ready to auto-publish every day at about two hours prior to game time (I hope; the blog is set to Pacific Time, which I am not on, and military time, which I do not use, so there’s a 90% possibility something kicks off at the wrong time), and while there won’t be lineups or a recap, there will still be some fun facts in each post. There’s also something fun to go up in the morning for next Monday’s off day.

Besides, you all know that whenever I leave, great things happen, so when I return on September 28 I expect the Dodgers to have locked up a playoff spot and somehow convinced the Mariners to loan them Felix Hernandez for the stretch fun.

So have fun, try to keep it clean and somewhat on-topic in the comments, and be good: I haven’t left things entirely unpoliced.

Are The Dodgers Even Going to Finish Over .500?

That’s the question of the day, not anything about playoffs. At just four games over, losers of 7 of 8, 11 of 16, and 16 of 23, with series remaining in Washington, Cincinnati, & San Diego – only the league’s two best teams and the NL’s hottest – it’s fair to wonder if the Dodgers can win 7 of the remaining 18, which would put them right at .500.

As we’ve discussed, while not making the playoffs in 2012 would be disappointing, it’s not really the end of the world. What really makes this interesting is that if you had told us all back in spring training that the Dodgers would be heading into this final stretch on pace to finish just slightly over .500, I’m pretty sure we’d have said, “yeah, that sounds about right.” (I can’t find it right now, but I’m pretty sure my prediction was for 80-85 wins with an outside chance for 90 if everything broke right, which of course injuries were never going to allow.)

Six months later, it looks like the end result is going to be exactly where we expected it would. This may be the destination we were prepared for, but I don’t think any of us can say this is the route we saw them taking to get there. No matter what happens to end this season, at least the organization is in a better place than it was a year ago – or at least that’s what I’m trying to keep convincing myself of as the games get increasingly unwatchable.

What Does it Mean to “Make The Playoffs”?

I think most of us would agree that after losing two of three in a disappointing weekend series in San Francisco to fall five games out with 21 to play, any hopes the Dodgers might still have of taking the NL West are on life support. That’s not to say “dead”, of course, because it’s not totally ridiculous to say that all they need to do is pick up one game in each of the next two weeks to put themselves into position to enter that last three-game set with their destiny in their own hands, but considering how each side has been playing lately along with the ongoing health concerns of Clayton Kershaw & Matt Kemp, it doesn’t seem particularly likely.

If it seems like it’d take a miracle to catch the Giants right now, then it’d take a miracle and then some to overtake Atlanta for the wild card, given that the Braves are 6.5 ahead of the Dodgers and don’t even offer the benefit of head-to-head play. Short of Atlanta somehow repeating last year’s collapse and the Dodgers being able to take advantage of it, that’s not a scenario which seems in any way possible.

For most of the last two decades, that’d be the end of it. The Dodgers would try (and probably fail) to catch the Giants, the Braves would run away with the wild card, and we’d console ourselves with the knowledge that playoffs or not, the first six months for this organization post-McCourt got off to a great start.

But that’s not the case this year, thanks to the latest brainchild of Bud Selig, a man who continually insists that the public does not want more instant replay in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary: the second wild card, and it’s there where the Dodgers have a real chance. They sit just one game behind St. Louis, and not only do they welcome the Cardinals for four games later this week, the defending champs are losing players just as quickly as the Dodgers are – in the last ten days alone, they’ve had to contend with additional injuries to Jake Westbrook, Lance Berkman, & Rafael Furcal.

So if you can’t see the Dodgers making up five on the Giants or 6.5 on the Braves, surely you could see them overtaking a one-game deficit on the wounded-but-still-dangerous Cardinals to take that second wild card spot. Yet if they do, then the question becomes: does it really matter?

I mean, I know it matters, because being in the playoffs is better than not being in the playoffs, but we’ve never seen an October like the one we’re about to. Your only prize for taking that second wild card is one game at the home of the first wild card, to be played on Friday, October 5. (The final regular season game is set for Wednesday, October 3. I’m assuming for the moment that there’s no tie for the second wild card, which would necessitate a tiebreaker on Thursday, October 4, and would just complicate things further.)

As things stand, that would send the Dodgers to Atlanta for that one game winner-takes-all showdown, much like the game between the bottom two teams that kicks off March Madness, and that’s sort of a dummy prize. If you lose that game – which, considering you most likely had to claw up until the last day to get it, probably comes without Kershaw on the mound – you don’t even get the benefit of a single home playoff game. You lose, and you go home. You win, and you move on to Washington or Cincinnati.

From baseball’s point of view, this makes a lot of sense, because there had been complaints in recent years that winning the division didn’t carry enough of a prize. Now, the wild card teams are penalized the way they should be, and if a team is going to make a run to the title as a wild card, they’re really going to have to earn it. (To this day, the Marlins still have two more World Series titles than they do division titles, which seems wrong.) For all the concerns about whether adding another playoff team even made sense, this was the one part of it I always agreed with.

From the point of view of the team, however, does it mean anything? Will you hang a banner saying “2012 NL Wild Card”, especially if you didn’t even get a home game? Should you be proud of being the fifth-best team in the league, which is what the second wild card is? Again, if you get in, win the game, and make some noise, no one’s going to care that you were the second wild card. If you get in and your stay in the playoffs lasts for three hours 3,000 miles from home, I’m not sure anyone’s going to remember that, either.

None of this affects how you approach the rest of the season, of course. You play the games on your schedule, try to win as many as you can, and see where the chips fall as far as playoff positioning. You don’t target the division or the first wild card or the second wild card; you just win. And, it should go without saying, none of this is relevant if the Dodgers can’t get their offensive act together. Yet with the Pirates sinking like a stone, the Dodgers are the only team within five games of St. Louis for that last wild card spot. We’ll know a lot more at the end of the weekend, but for the moment it looks like Selig’s shiny new toy is the only path for the Dodgers into the playoffs. What exactly that means, in this new era of baseball inclusiveness, remains to be seen.

2012 is Important, But It’s Not the Only Goal

A quick thought for the day… over the last two weeks or so, as the Dodgers have occasionally looked terrible, I’ve heard many variations on the following theme:

“If the Dodgers spent all that money and made all those trades and don’t even get into the playoffs in 2012, they’ll have wasted it all for nothing!”

To which I say, wait, what now? Sure, if you go out and assume more than a quarter-billion dollars in future commitments, deal about a dozen prospects, and make one of the most controversial trades in the history of the sport, expectations are going to rise – and rightfully so. Some of the moves were made to help the Dodgers win right now, and if 2012 ends with the Dodgers on the outside looking in, it’ll be a big disappointment.

But to suggest that all of that effort was expended with 2012 in mind as the sole and singular goal… well, that’s just foolish. Yes, Hanley Ramirez was a big immediate upgrade over Dee Gordon and/or Juan Uribe, but he’s also going to be that for the next two seasons in a market devoid of left side help. Sure, Adrian Gonzalez required a massive outlay, but it wasn’t just to replace James Loney for six weeks, it was to fill a hole for the next six years when there’s no immediate help coming from the farm system or the free agent market at the position. Josh Beckett‘s contract was a requirement in acquiring Gonzalez, and while he’s needed right now to help reinforce a rotation weakened by injuries to Chad Billingsley & Ted Lilly, he’s also around for the next two years to hopefully help fill out the back end. You can argue about whether this is a good thing, but Nick Punto is signed up through next season too. Hell, Carl Crawford is already out for the year, so any value he provides – if there is any – will come in 2013 or later.

Sure, Shane Victorino, Brandon League, & Joe Blanton are all free agents and are around strictly to help in 2012. Fine. Every team in contention makes moves like that, and while Victorino has been generally awful and League & Blanton each struggled early before turning it around lately, I don’t think any of the prospects dealt for them are really going to be anyone we miss, unless you’re the world’s biggest Logan Bawcom fan.

A 2012 stretch run was absolutely part of what the Dodgers were going for, but it’s far from the only thing these moves accomplished. This club was built on a tight budget over the last few seasons, and there’s only so much you can do in-season to change that, especially when the sale wasn’t even completed a month into the year. The fact that the Dodgers are even in position right now is incredible, considering where our expectations were to start 2012, and what these moves have done is taken a very flawed team and improved them greatly. But there’s still holes to be fixed – a questionable starting rotation, the continued existence of Juan Uribe, Adam Kennedy, Juan Rivera, a sometimes patchwork bullpen, a limited prospect pool in the minors – and it’s going to take more than three or four months to handle all that.

What the new ownership has done is set this team up well for the future, with a core offensive group of Gonzalez, Ramirez, Matt Kemp, & Andre Ethier that’s locked down for years. If you want to argue they overpaid to do so, then you’re absolutely going to have an argument to do so. But it’s not all about 2012. Whether they make the playoffs or fizz out in September (and this is a separate conversation, but it’s worth arguing whether making that one-game wild card bout and then going home even matters), the Dodger team that ends 2012 is going to be far, far, stronger than the one that started it. It’s prepared to make some real noise in the NL for years, and if things play out the way we hope they will, I doubt anyone will say, “well, yeah, but they should have done more in 2012.”

2012 is important, and we’ve seen what impact the new owners have had already in just the perception of this team around baseball. It’s not the only thing, and no matter what the next four weeks of baseball brings, it’s not going to change what we expect could be a very bright future.

31 Games to Go

After narrowly escaping Colorado with a sweep-avoiding-yet-still-terrifying victory, the Dodgers have 31 games left to make a playoff push in 2012. They’re 3.5 games behind the Giants, who somehow haven’t been completely shut down by the PED bust of Melky Cabrera, and they may have to do it with a banged-up Matt Kemp and potentially without Kenley Jansen entirely.

As they return home to kick off a series against Ian Kennedy and the Diamondbacks tonight, here’s what they’re facing as August turns into September:

4 vs Arizona
3 vs San Diego
[day off]
3 @ San Francisco
[day off]
2 @ Arizona
4 vs St. Louis
[day off]
3 @ Washington
3 @ Cincinnati
[day off]
3 @ San Diego
3 vs Colorado
3 vs San Francisco

I’m assuming you see what I see there, and that’s that the season-ending three game set at home against the Giants from October 1-3, culminating in a 4:15 local start on Wednesday 10/3, could be set up perfectly to be the next chapter in the great Dodger/Giant rivalry.

Or, if the Dodgers don’t get their act together, it could be totally meaningless and a mere reminder of what could have been. 3.5 games, it should be noted, is far from impossible to overcome, especially when they still have six head-to-head matchups against the Giants. After 131 games in 2011, St. Louis was 9.5 games back in the Central, and I think we all remember what happened there.

Still, it’s a difficult schedule, even aside from San Francisco. The Reds & Nationals are the two best teams in the National League so far, and while the Dodgers may get lucky enough to avoid Stephen Strasburg, that’s still going to be a tough road trip. Six against San Diego may seem like a treat, but I’ll bet you’d be as surprised as I am to learn that they have the best record in the league (41-30) since June 9.

As you can see, it’s also a schedule with its fair share of days off, which is much-needed after what seems like an endless string of “20 games in 20 days” stretches. That includes a somewhat odd set of days off around both ends of the Sept. 7-9 series in San Francisco, and almost a total lack of Monday baseball – after the Dodgers face San Diego on Labor Day, they don’t play on Monday again until that final San Francisco series on October 1.