Call it the "Yasiel Puig effect," or whatever you so choose, but there has been no better team in Major League Baseball since June 1 than the Los Angeles Dodgers.
On June 1, the Dodgers were 23-31, good for last place in the NL West, and staring at a 7.5-game deficit behind the Arizona Diamondbacks. The cyborg $216 million brainchild of compiled and unwanted parts from elsewhere looked like the result of a high-stakes spending spree by a drunken college student.
This ownership group prints money, so it didn't really matter in that sense. But at the beginning of June, this club looked destined for an injury-riddled future, replete with aging veterans on contracts that last forever. The Dodgers' were the mid-2000s Knicks, their front office filled with spend-happy Isiah Thomases.
And then things started working out—in a big way. Los Angeles is a MLB-best 29-16 since the beginning of June, and the team has been been sensational over its last 30 games, going 23-7. The Dodgers not only found themselves back above the .500-mark, but they took a half-game lead over an Arizona squad that seems to be in a state of inertia.
Puig has certainly had a lot to do with the team's surge. His performance in June was one of the greatest first months a rookie has ever had. For the month, he batted .436 with seven home runs and 16 RBI.
While "Puigmania" has slowed down markedly since—he hasn't hit a homer since July 2—his initial ascent coincided with the return of Hanley Ramirez to the lineup. Ramirez, back to a full-time shortstop role and seemingly happy for the first time in a few years, has been unbelievable. He's hitting .382 with 10 home runs and 31 RBI, and has shown no signs of falling off a cliff like Puig.
That said, even in the good times, it's not hard to find some chinks in the armor.
On Wednesday, the Dodgers placed star outfielder Matt Kemp back onto the disabled list for the third time this season, with a bothersome ankle injury again being the cause (h/t USA Today). Kemp is in the midst of his second straight injury-plagued campaign, after having missed 56 games in 2011 with lingering ailments. Kemp is the team's best player when healthy, so Los Angeles isn't anywhere near its peak form without him in the lineup.
With the remainder of the roster swinging the bat well, however, it's an injury that the team can likely mask until Kemp returns.
The Dodgers' biggest problem as we barrel toward next Wednesday's trade deadline comes on the mound.
Clayton Kershaw remains the National League's best pitcher. Los Angeles has given him pretty faulty run support, resulting in a 9-6 record, but Kershaw has posted a 2.01 ERA with a crazy-good 0.88 WHIP and 148 strikeouts this season. With apologies to Adam Wainwright, Kershaw is the NL's Cy Young winner if the ballots were due today.
Kajillionaire Zack Greinke has also been very good when he's not getting injured in bench-clearing brawls. The 29-year-old righty has an 8-2 record with a 3.36 ERA and 1.29 WHIP, though the underlying number suggest that he's actually not getting unlucky for once—an anomaly in the metrics darling's career. Barring another injury, Greinke will fit right in where the Dodgers expected, as a No. 2 starter behind Kershaw in the playoffs.
Looking forward, the question marks come after those two aces are off the mound. The Dodgers brought in Ricky Nolasco earlier this month to fix that problem, but we're not talking about the most reliable guy here. Nolasco is perpetually above the 4.00 ERA-mark and allows too many baserunners for Los Angeles to put him in a must-win Game 3 situation.
Hyun-Jin Ryu has been great this year, but he's a 26-year-old rookie. Again, this is a guy that no $216 million team should be hoping doesn't collapse in a shortened series.
I'm sure you all know where this is headed. The Dodgers were major players on the Matt Garza market before being outbid by the Texas Rangers, and Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan noted that they've expressed interest in Astros starter Bud Norris. But the coup de grace came from Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune, who notes that the Dodgers will be one of many teams having scouts watch Jake Peavy this Thursday.
While Peavy falls in line with the Dodgers' forte—big name, big contract, etc.—the more salient part of Gonzales' report comes later. It seems as though Los Angeles will be sticking around for the weekend to watch another White Sox pitcher, reliever Jesse Crain, who should return to the mound after about a month-long absence.
Of the two moves, Peavy feels like the one Los Angeles would push harder for. The unrelenting chase of the pretty girl has put the Dodgers in this position. They've built a roster of Rushmore-esque players, ones that sell tickets and cause audible noises from fans when their names are announced.
They've just built it on a leaky foundation. Because if anyone thinks the Dodgers' rotation is a mess, then they would probably need hazmat suits when looking at the bullpen.
Led by the human disaster film Brandon League, the Dodgers rank 22nd in bullpen ERA through Tuesday. The trio of Kenley Jansen, J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez has kept things afloat, but only four teams have blown more saves this season. For those looking for advanced metrics in this scenario, the Dodgers rank 22nd in bullpen WAR, and most other underlying numbers suggest they've been just as bad as advertised.
Crain is an injury risk with his shoulder, but he could be the elixir to the problem. Before going on the disabled list, the 32-year-old righty posted a 0.74 ERA and 1.15 WHIP while only blowing one lead for the White Sox. He's gotten consistently better during his time in Chicago and is on pace to be a two-win pitcher for the first time in his entire career.
If we're playing the need vs. wants game, it's Crain over Peavy all day. We learn the value of a strong bullpen every September, and teams don't subsist without the ability to lock down the eighth and ninth innings.
And you don't pay $216 million to get eliminated in the divisional round.
More important for Dodgers?
Even if it's not Crain and the Dodgers go elsewhere, they need to shore up their bullpen before entertaining the notion of another starter. The team's sweeping roster moves have already depleted the farm system beyond any recognition. Joc Pederson is probably the team's biggest chip to push, and he'd be a starting point in any move with Chicago.
But landing a reliever won't be nearly as expensive. Grabbing them is almost a Supermarket Sweep-like push every July, with clubs shipping them off in exchange for B-level prospects. So the Dodgers can land a Crain or someone of a similar skill level without actually giving up Pederson, leaving him available for a potential move this winter or even in August—a month in which the Dodgers have done damage before.
It might not be the trade that moves the needle, but the team needs to work on the foundation before building another romper room. Add a reliever above all else, and if the Dodgers get their homework done first, then maybe they can go out and get another nice new toy.
All advanced stats are via FanGraphs.
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