May 7: A day Dodgers fans would like to try and forget.
With all the questions about the steroids issue and Manny's character aside, Dodgers fans had a few pressing questions about the team itself:
How would all of the talented young hitters fare in his absence? How much of a drop in run production would the team suffer? Would any teams in the NL West be able to gain significant ground on the Dodgers in the division race?
A more simple question: Who would replace Manny in left field?
A simple answer: Juan Pierre.
Pierre, the one who became the odd man out in the Dodgers' outfield last year after the trade for Ramirez would now have his chance to spark the Dodgers offense in his own way.
He would also have the chance to remind everyone just how good a player can be, and of the one we have seen do some pretty impressive things throughout this decade.
In eight seasons in the Major Leagues before 2008, Pierre had established himself as one of the premier leadoff hitters in baseball. He tallied over 200 hits in four different seasons (2001, 2003, 2004, and 2006), over 100 runs in three ('01, '03, '04), and over 50 stolen bases in four ('03, '04, '06, and '07). He also hit finished the season batting over .300 three times ('01, '03, and '04).
However, after appearing in 821 consecutive games between 2002 and 2008, Pierre was forced into a role completely unknown to him throughout his nine-year career. He had not only played in, but started all 162 games in the outfield in both 2004 and 2006, with the Florida Marlins and Chicago Cubs, respectively.
Even before Ramirez arrived in L.A., Pierre hadn’t been an everyday fixture in the Dodgers outfield in the 2008 season. Manager Joe Torre was giving emerging young outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier as much time playing time as he could. He was also trying to keep the highly paid veteran Andruw Jones happy, giving him his share of starts in center field.
That forced Pierre into a platoon of sorts in both left and center field. After Manny came to L.A., Pierre’s role was relegated further, primarily to a pinch hitter and pinch runner later in ballgames.
There were reportedly some grumblings from Pierre about the lack of playing time late in the season. This may have seemed like a selfish response, but how else would you expect a gamer like Pierre to react to the situation? He was uncomfortable because he simply did not know how to not play.
The 2009 season started out with the same situation for Pierre—serving as the fourth outfielder behind Ramirez (left), Kemp (center), and Ethier (right).
When Manny sat out the first game of his suspension on May 7, however, it opened the door for Pierre in left field. He responded immediately, going 2-for-4 that night against the Washington Nationals.
Pierre has not let up in 17 games since his return to the leadoff spot in the Dodgers starting lineup. He has two or more hits in 11 of those 17 games. After another two-hit game in Monday's 16-6 rout of the Colorado Rockies, Pierre is hitting .402 since May 7, and .385 for the season. His on-base percentage of .458 is in the same stratosphere as Manny, whose OBP was .492 in 27 games prior to the suspension.
More importantly, the Dodgers as a team have won nine of their past 12 games with Pierre. They won two out of three in each of their series’ against the Phillies and Mets, currently the top two teams in the NL East. The Dodgers are still holding a commanding lead in the NL West, leading the San Diego Padres by 7.5 games.
They also still hold the Majors' best record at 31-15.
If the Dodgers can continue to play they way they have of late, a new question should be asked in L.A.: Who could Pierre replace when Manny is eligible to return to the team on July 3?
It sounds like a ridiculous question, but it's one Joe Torre will have to seriously contemplate if Pierre can continue to play anywhere close to the level he is right now.
Also, consider the fact that shortstop Rafael Furcal has struggled to hit consistently in 2009 (.238 average on the season, .194 since May 7). This means the Dodgers will have a greater need for a consistent, legitimate leadoff hitter that they can put out there each night.
Juan Pierre certainly seems like the man for the job.
Individual and team statistics used in this article obtained from the Los Angeles Dodgers team page at mlb.com