Los Angeles Dodgers: 10 Winners and Losers from MLB's First Month
The Los Angeles Dodgers ended April with a very appropriate 13-13 record. The .500 record was fitting because the first month of the MLB season provided as much hope as it did frustration for Dodgers fans.
While some of Los Angeles’ most important players got off to fantastic starts, others stumbled out of the gate. Injuries have also decimated the roster, just as it did during the second half of the 2012 season.
The Dodgers enter tonight’s three-game series in San Francisco a game under .500 at 13-14. However, they trail the Giants by just 2.5 games in the NL West standings.
Los Angeles is only 3.5 games behind the division-leading Colorado Rockies, who are off to a surprising 17-11 start.
The Dodgers still have 135 games remaining, so it is way too early to overreact to the good or the bad results thus far. Here are the 10 biggest winners and losers in Los Angeles after the first month of the season.
Winner: Clayton Kershaw
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw’s reliability is becoming as certain as death and taxes. He started the 2013 campaign with a complete game shutout of the rival Giants on Opening Day and has been mostly exceptional ever since.
After six April starts, Kershaw is 3-2 with a 1.73 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, .181 BAA and 47 strikeouts in 41.2 innings pitched. Those numbers are skewed by a pair of mediocre starts against the San Diego Padres and New York Mets in the middle of the month.
Kershaw continues to prove that he is arguably the best pitcher in MLB. If he indeed becomes the first $200 million pitcher in major league history, the hefty extension will be well earned.
Loser: Zack Greinke
Zack Greinke shined in his first start for the Dodgers, pitching 6.1 shutout innings in a 3-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Unfortunately, his second start was cut short when he suffered a broken collarbone during a bench-clearing brawl against the San Diego Padres.
The injury to his non-throwing shoulder required surgery on April 13, and Greinke is expected to be out until early-to-mid-June.
His injury was the first of many to cripple the Dodgers’ starting rotation early on. Now a position that was considered a strength when the season started is hanging by a thread until Greinke returns.
This also means that Dodgers fans will have to wait at least another month to see if Greinke and Kershaw can become the best 1-2 pitching combination in Major League Baseball.
Winner: Carl Crawford
Carl Crawford’s first season with the Dodgers has been almost perfect. The former All-Star left fielder, coming off back-to-back injury-ravaged years, started 23 of 26 games in April while solving the team’s leadoff woes.
Crawford hit .308 with four home runs, six RBI, four stolen bases and 20 runs scored last month. He was one of the lone bright spots in the Los Angeles lineup, and the Dodgers desperately need him to continue playing at a high level.
His ability to stay healthy and produce were major questions coming into the season. But Crawford is clearly still capable of playing just as well as he did for the Tampa Bay Rays during the first nine years of his career.
Crawford missed Wednesday’s game with tightness in his hamstring, but the injury should not keep him on the shelf for long. He could return to jump-starting the Dodgers offense as soon as tonight.
Loser: Matt Kemp
At this time last year, Matt Kemp was battling Josh Hamilton (then with the Texas Rangers) for the unofficial title of the best player in MLB. After hamstring and shoulder injuries derailed the best season of the center fielder’s young career, the effects of the injuries seem to have carried over into 2013.
Kemp hit a disappointing .260 in April with just one home run, 11 RBI, and a whopping 25 strikeouts. Contrast that with last April when he hit a robust .417 with 12 homers, 25 RBI and 24 runs scored.
As disheartening as Kemp’s start was, he has shown signs of breaking out over the past two weeks. He’s hit .356 over the past 14 days with six RBI, six runs scored and four stolen bases.
If the Dodgers are going to fulfill their lofty preseason expectations, Kemp will need to have a great year in the middle of the lineup.
Winner: Adrian Gonzalez
First baseman Adrian Gonzalez has been the Dodgers’ best and most consistent hitter this season. He finished April with a .333 average, two home runs and 18 RBI.
Gonzalez scored just seven runs last month, but that can largely be attributed to the struggles of right fielder Andre Ethier and the absence of shortstop Hanley Ramirez.
Gonzalez’s numbers have been eerily similar whether at home or on the road and versus left and right-handed pitchers. This suggests that he should have no problem maintaining this level of production throughout the year.
The Dodgers can expect even better production out of Gonzalez once the hitters behind him start picking up their games.
Loser: Hanley Ramirez
Ramirez was a loser in the most literal sense of the word. He missed all but two games in April after surgery to repair a right thumb injury he suffered during the final game of the World Baseball Classic.
Ramirez was originally scheduled to be out until mid-May, so his return on April 29 came about three weeks earlier than expected. Luckily for the Dodgers, he has shown no lingering effects from the layoff during his first three games, including two starts.
He has gone five-for-nine with a home run, two doubles and a stolen base so far.
The sample size is obviously too small to make a complete assessment of where Ramirez is right now. Still, with Kemp and Ethier getting off to slow starts, it is good to see Ramirez provide the spark that the Dodgers hoped for when they acquired him from the Miami Marlins last July.
Winner: Brandon League
Brandon League was lights-out during his brief stint as the Dodgers closer last season. He was six-for-six in save opportunities while filling in for Kenley Jansen, who missed a month with a recurring heart condition.
Still, many people raised their eyebrows when Los Angeles re-signed League last offseason to a three-year, $22.5 million contract. When Dodgers manager Don Mattingly named him the closer over Jansen before the season, even more people questioned whether the better pitcher was being given the role.
League has validated Mattingly’s decision so far by going eight-for-nine in save opportunities. Although he has surrendered an earned run in five of his 11 outings, League has walked just one batter over 11 innings pitched.
The Dodgers bullpen has struggled this year after being one of the better units in the National League in 2012. But League gives Los Angeles some stability at the end of games while the rest of the bullpen sorts itself out.
Loser: Chad Billingsley
Right-hander Chad Billingsley had a breakout 2012 campaign cut short in early-August when he experienced a sharp pain in his pitching elbow. Hoping to avoid surgery, he instead opted for an aggressive rehab program in hopes of being ready for the start of this season.
While the rehab worked temporarily, Billingsley lasted just two starts before finally needing Tommy John surgery to fully repair his elbow. He will now miss the remainder of the 2013 season and spend most of 2014 recovering.
It’s a disappointing setback for the 28-year-old pitcher, who finally looked to be coming into his own as a starter. It’s an even bigger blow to the Dodgers rotation, as they have now lost a player expected to be their No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
Loser: Luis Cruz
Luis Cruz was a pleasant surprise for the Dodgers last year, at the plate and in the field. He hit .297 in 78 games for Los Angeles while playing excellent defense at third base and shortstop.
With last year’s free-agent market for third baseman being very thin, the Dodgers chose to give Cruz the first shot at keeping the everyday job this season. Unfortunately, his anemic bat may have sent him to the bench for good.
Cruz has hit just .088 in 57 at-bats with no extra-base hits on the year.
With Ramirez back in the lineup as the everyday shortstop, the Dodgers have recently turned to veteran utility infielders Juan Uribe and Nick Punto to man the hot corner.
Punto has been forced to spend most of his time at second base with Mark Ellis missing the past five games with a leg injury. However, if he keeps swinging a hot bat (.375 average entering Friday night’s game), he could reduce the number of opportunities that Cruz has to reclaim his job going forward.
Winner: Don Mattingly
Mattingly’s job has been made more difficult by the seemingly endless barrage of injuries that have plagued the Dodgers early on. However, the number of games missed by key players in the season’s first month should dampen the enormous expectations placed on the Dodgers this year.
Injuries have already forced Los Angeles to use nine different starting pitchers this season.
Mattingly is working as a lame-duck manager in 2013 with this being the last year of his current contract. While most people think that he has done a phenomenal job during his first two-plus years in Los Angeles, the influx of high-priced talent over the past year has quickly increased the pressure to win.
A 25-year World Series drought has also made the Dodgers fanbase antsy—to say nothing of the hated Giants winning two of the last three world titles.
Mattingly spent his entire playing career with the New York Yankees during one of the worst stretches in the franchise’s storied history. He knows a thing or two about the pressure to perform for an iconic franchise in a major market.
Mattingly also knows that the partners at Guggenheim Baseball Management are nothing compared to the irrepressible George Steinbrenner.
A longtime baseball executive like team president Stan Kasten will undoubtedly give Mattingly the benefit of the doubt when evaluating the team’s early performance. Mattingly will get a mulligan on April’s slow start, but the pressure will increase as the season wears on and the injuries subside.