Possible Solutions for the Dodgers' Early-Year Problems

Geoff Ratliff@@geoffratliffContributor IIIApril 18, 2014

Possible Solutions for the Dodgers' Early-Year Problems

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    The Yasiel Puig saga has reached epic proportions.
    The Yasiel Puig saga has reached epic proportions.Jeff Chiu

    The Los Angeles Dodgers are off to a 10-6 start, including a stellar 8-3 road record, and are tied atop the NL West along with the San Francisco Giants.

    But their .625 winning percentage—which currently has them on pace for 101 wins—masks some early struggles that could doom the Dodgers’ chances of repeating as division champs.

    Dodgers fans already know that this team can overcome adversity. This year’s early-season woes are nothing in comparison with what last year’s club overcame while battling through a 20-32 start.

    However, a combination of bad luck, bad play and some Hollywood-esque drama has created a few reasons to be concerned about a team with World Series aspirations.

    Here are six early-season problems that could spoil the Dodgers' postseason plans, along with some potential ways to cure what ails them.

The Yasiel Puig Saga

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    Puig may be unable to escape the latest development in his ongoing drama.
    Puig may be unable to escape the latest development in his ongoing drama.Ralph Freso

    The drama surrounding Yasiel Puig has suddenly evolved into something much more serious than daily critiques of his play on the field. Two recent stories by Jesse Katz of Los Angeles Magazine and Steven Eden of ESPN the Magazine have shed new light on Puig’s epic journey from Cuba to the United States, and the details are like something out of a Martin Scorsese film.

    Neither story is intended to serve as an excuse for Puig’s often absent-minded play. In fact, one could argue that the stories aren’t really about Puig at all.

    Both articles use Puig’s story as the backdrop for extremely intimate and thoroughly detailed accounts of the shady process by which most Cuban ballplayers find their way to the major leagues.

    We can only speculate as to how much of what’s happened to Puig over the past two years still impacts his ability to focus on the field. But even Dodgers manager Don Mattingly admitted that he is concerned about his 23-year-old right fielder after reading the first of the two articles.

    In 13 games this season, Puig is hitting just .250 with one home run, five RBI and seven runs scored. He’s also struck out 10 times and has just one stolen base in two attempts.

    Despite the team’s incredible outfield depth, the Dodgers need Puig to be a productive member of the lineup if they expect to end their 26-year World Series drought.

    Puig, like many Cuban defectors before him, hasn't provided many details about his journey to the United States. With little insight form the player himself, it is impossible to know how much of his performance thus far is just a slow start, the beginning of a prolonged sophomore slump or the result of external factors impacting his play.

    Whatever the cause, the only real solution for the Dodgers is to let Puig play through his struggles and continue to support him both publicly and privately.

The Injury Bug

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    Kershaw and Ellis are the latest Dodgers to hit the DL.
    Kershaw and Ellis are the latest Dodgers to hit the DL.Lynne Sladky

    For the third consecutive year the Dodgers have been hampered by early-season injuries to major contributors. While the strong start has quieted some of the concern, Los Angeles desperately needs Clayton Kershaw and A.J. Ellis over the long haul if it is to be taken seriously as a title contender.

    Kershaw has been on the disabled list since March 22 due to inflammation near his left shoulder. While there still is not a clear timetable for his return, the latest reports have him making improvement during his latest bullpen session.

    The Dodgers will undoubtedly be extremely cautious with the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. Although Kershaw has been a model of durability during his six-year career, Los Angeles must do everything to protect its $215 million investment.

    Ellis is considerably less well-paid than his batterymate. However, his importance to the Dodgers cannot be overstated. Eliis' handling of the pitching staff and solid defense behind the plate have been pleasant surprises since he took over the role as L.A.’s primary catcher in 2012.

    Unfortunately, the Dodgers will be without their starting catcher for the next four to six weeks after he tore the meniscus in his left knee.

    The Dodgers received yet another injury scare on Wednesday night when Hanley Ramirez was hit on the hand by a pitch from San Francisco’s Ryan Vogelsong. Ramirez was forced to leave the game immediately and he sat out Thursday’s series finale.

    Fortunately, the latest reports have Ramirez returning to the lineup Friday night when the Dodgers host the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first game of a three-game weekend series.

    The Dodgers have been chided for their exorbitant spending over the past couple of seasons. However, their recent injury history suggests that general manager Ned Colletti may have the last laugh.

    The depth that Colletti has created at nearly every position allows the Dodgers to be incredibly conservative when it comes to managing injuries. With the luxury of not having to rush players back on the field too quickly, the Dodgers are able to make decisions that are in the best interest of both the player and the team.

    That peace of mind is priceless in an era in which athletes openly question teams’ handling of injuries.

The Insane Number of Strikeouts

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    Kemp is striking out at an alarming rate in 2014.
    Kemp is striking out at an alarming rate in 2014.Ralph Freso

    Dodgers hitters have struck out an unconscionable 145 times through 16 games. Among National League teams, only the New York Mets (150) have struck out more.

    Last I checked, nobody is expecting the Mets to be playoff contenders, let alone be included on the short list of World Series favorites.

    Unfortunately, this is one of those negative stats that Dodgers fans are going to have to live with for as long as the core of this lineup stays together.

    L.A.’s top eight hitters, including Dee Gordon, Carl Crawford, Puig, Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Juan Uribe, are all players who routinely post high K rates. Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire wasn’t exactly a high-contact hitter during his playing days, so it’s unlikely that his tutelage will solve the problem.

    The Dodgers have spent lavishly to build one of the league’s toughest lineups. That toughness manifests itself in the form of a group of aggressive hitters, most of whom can change the course of a game with one swing of the bat.

    The Dodgers hitters will be better off, on balance, if they maintain their aggressive edge. However, it would behoove them to take a few more pitches when Gordon is on base.

    While Gordon’s 10 stolen bases (in 11 attempts) lead the majors, the total could be higher if the hitters behind him were more patient. It’s been frustrating to watch Crawford in particular foul off bad pitches while Gordon was attempting to steal second base.

    The situation is even more frustrating to watch knowing that Crawford was a former elite base stealer himself. Take one for the team, Carl. You’re better than that.

Loose Hands Sink Postseason Plans

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    Ralph Freso

    For those who aren’t familiar with the saying “loose lips sink ships,” it basically means that plans are often doomed by someone’s inability to keep his or her mouth shut. In the case of the Dodgers, their inability to keep their gloves closed around the ball could derail their plans to advance in the postseason.

    L.A.’s 15 errors and .976 fielding percentage are both third worst in the National League.

    Ramirez has been the biggest culprit, having already committed four errors at shortstop. Gordon has committed a pair of errors as he continues to make the transition to a full-time second baseman, and Kemp has also committed two errors in center field.

    That’s the core of the Dodgers' up-the-middle defense making the bulk of the team's fielding errors thus far. That is a level of ineptitude that simply cannot continue throughout the season.

    Kemp is a two-time Gold Glove winner, and Gordon will undoubtedly improve in the field as he becomes more comfortable at his new position. Ramirez has never been mistaken for an elite defender, but he has the ability and athleticism to be a very good defensive player when he is focused.

    Uribe has become an outstanding defensive third baseman, and Gonzalez is a three-time Gold Glove winner at first base. With former Gold Glove winners in right field (Ethier) and left (Crawford), Los Angeles has little reason to worry about its defense at the corners.

    In short, this is a team that should end up with much better defensive numbers as the season goes on.

What’s Eating Kenley Jansen?

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    Jansen has been uncharacteristically hittable early in 2014.
    Jansen has been uncharacteristically hittable early in 2014.Associated Press

    I expected this to be the year that Kenley Jansen solidified his status as one of the best closers in baseball. Instead, the 26-year-old reliever has been pitching as if he’s trying to lose the ninth-inning role by the end of April.

    Jansen lowered his ERA and walk rate while improving his strikeout, innings pitched and save totals in each of the last two seasons. But through 11 appearances in 2014, Jansen is on pace for the worst season of his five-year career.

    Jansen has given up 13 hits and five walks in just nine innings. He’s already blown two saves in seven chances after blowing just four save opportunities all of last year.

    Outside of former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and Atlanta Braves flamethrower Craig Kimbrel, relief pitchers tend to be a fairly volatile group from year to year. But Jansen’s consistency over the past four seasons made him a reasonable candidate to join the short list of dependable late-game stoppers.

    Perhaps the pressure of starting a season as the undisputed ninth-inning guy for the first time in his career has gotten into his head. However, Jansen has always had a surprisingly cool demeanor on the mound, so I have a hard time believing that he’s suddenly buckling under the pressure.

    With Brian Wilson back from the DL and Chris Perez thriving in his seventh-inning role, the Dodgers have proven options to turn to if Jansen’s struggles continue. But my guess is that Mattingly is nowhere close to rearranging the order of his bullpen.

    The best and most likely solution to the problem is to allow Jansen to pitch his way through his early-season struggles, at least until they become a detriment to the team.

Beating the San Francisco Giants

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    Just one of many battles between the Dodgers and Giants.
    Just one of many battles between the Dodgers and Giants.Jeff Chiu

    The Dodgers haven’t had a winning record against the Giants in a season series since going 11-7 against their Bay Area rivals in 2009. In the four-plus seasons since, the Dodgers are a paltry 35-44 versus San Francisco, including a 2-4 mark this year.

    After the first three games of the year were all decided by four runs or more, the Dodgers and Giants recently wrapped up a three-game set where each game was decided by one run.

    Going 8-11 against the Giants last year didn’t matter much as the Dodgers finished 16 games clear of San Francisco in the NL West standings. But the Giants appear to be back to playing the type of ball that led them to World Series titles in 2010 and 2012.

    If San Francisco’s turnaround proves sustainable, the Dodgers will be in a close fight for the division title with their longtime rivals all season long. That makes each head-to-head meeting between the two teams increasingly more important as the season wears on.

    After a four-game series in Los Angeles May 8-11, the Dodgers and Giants don’t play each other again until after the All-Star break in late July. They’ll then face off six more times in the season’s final three weeks, hopefully with both teams still jockeying for playoff position.

    The Dodgers aren’t lacking for motivation to play their best baseball against the Giants, and there is no magic formula for beating San Francisco, either.

    Both teams are built on the foundation of outstanding pitching staffs that start with their starting rotations and extend to their respective bullpens. While the Dodgers lineup has considerably more star power, the Giants have a core of professional hitters who can make life miserable for even the best pitchers (just ask the 2012 Detroit Tigers).

    The two clubs enjoy one of the game’s oldest rivalries, dating back to the years when they both called New York City home. Los Angeles would love nothing more than to see its recent spending binge pay off with the type of postseason success that San Francisco has enjoyed over the past four years.