The Los Angeles Dodgers have entered the middle of June in the same fashion they did last year—underachieving.
The team with baseball's highest payroll sat just three games over .500 heading into this week, unable to sustain any sort of prolonged consistency during the first two-and-a-half months of the season.
Don Mattingly's club has yet to win more than three games in a row. They also haven't lost more than three straight. If baseball ever needed a definition of treading water, this is it.
With the trade deadline just over a month away, the Dodgers will have to shake themselves from their funk in order to catch the NL West-leading San Francisco Giants.
If not, general manager Ned Colletti may need to address his team's problems head-on by pulling the trigger on some deals come the end of July or sooner. Let's take a look at the biggest issues plaguing the 2014 Dodgers so far.
Where is Hanley Ramirez?
The Dodgers are broaching this question in the short term and the long term.
Where is Hanley Ramirez right now?
It's a legitimate short-term inquiry, because he's clearly not the same player he was last season for Los Angeles.
The shortstop entered Wednesday's game against the Colorado Rockies slashing a modest .260/.347/.465 with 11 home runs and 42 RBI.
Compare that to his .345/.402/.638 totals from last season, and the drop-off is very apparent.
Ramirez has dealt with several minor injuries this season. He left a game in April with a thumb bruise and was scratched from a game last week due to shoulder irritation. He could be seen receiving treatment on his shoulder in the dugout during Monday's game before bowing out of Tuesday's contest when a sharply hit ball bruised his right ring finger.
Still, Ramirez has yet to make a trip to the disabled list.
It's not easy for players to produce at a high level when they are not fully healthy. Case in point: Ramirez with his cracked rib during last October's NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals—and, to a lesser extent, his bumps and bruises during the first few months of this season.
With nine pro seasons under his belt, Ramirez, 30, may be quickly approaching the end of his prime.
So, where does he fit in the Dodgers' long-term plan?
The shortstop is in the final year of a $70 million contract, per Baseball Prospectus, $16 million of which is owed to him this season.
He's also most likely in the final year of playing shortstop. Ramirez has lost virtually all of his range at the position and is becoming a defensive liability in the Dodgers infield.
It is thought that Ramirez is asking for a contract worth $130 million, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com.
For the Dodgers, that price may be too steep considering his performance so far this season.
What's more, Los Angeles has been developing shortstop Alex Guerrero in the minor leagues. The Cuban defector, signed to a lucrative contract last November, was batting .376 with 10 home runs and 29 RBI before the infamous ear-biting altercation put his season on hold.
If Ramirez continues to perform below expectations and the team can't get things going by next month's trade deadline, Colletti may seriously consider dealing his shortstop to a contender. That would allow the Dodgers to bring up Guerrero for a two-month showcase.
A more pressing matter than the Ramirez situation is the bullpen fiasco. Although it has been better of late, one of the Dodgers' main weaknesses this season has been their relief corps.
The 3.76 ERA of the Los Angeles bullpen ranks 19th in the majors, and only the New York Mets have more bullpen losses than the Dodgers.
Newly signed Brian Wilson and Chris Perez have been the main culprits for the disappointment. The plan out of spring training was for them to work the seventh and eighth innings, respectively, as a bridge to closer Kenley Jansen.
Instead, both right-handers have ERAs over 5.50 and have given up a combined 55 hits in 50 innings.
Even when Perez and Wilson have successfully handed the ball off to Jansen, the closer has been anything but a shutdown option this season.
Despite 19 saves, the hard-throwing righty has struggled to keep his ERA below 4.00.
To makes matters worse, the Dodgers lost one of their better relievers in Chris Withrow to Tommy John surgery last month.
Los Angeles is going to need reliable options in the late innings if they want to make a run like they did last season.
Right now, they don't have many.
But who can Colletti offer in a trade for bullpen help? Well, he doesn't have to look much further than the crowded outfield.
The four-outfielders-for-three-spots storyline has been beaten to death. That's because it's the biggest problem for the Dodgers.
When players are in and out of the lineup, not getting the necessary reps, it's extremely difficult for them to develop a rhythm. And without a rhythm or a consistent routine, finding success against big league pitching becomes even more challenging than it already is.
Mattingly has been mixing and matching Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford all year long. His job has been slightly easier of late with the injury to Crawford, but the veteran left fielder is nearing a return to the field.
Puig has established himself as the primary right fielder, and his manager even went so far as to call him the "best right fielder in baseball," per ESPN.
But Kemp is in the midst of what has now become a three-month struggle to regain his past form. He's been relegated from center field to left field because of defensive shortcomings, and his batting average has just now reached .267—nine points away from his season high of .276 back in mid-May.
It's no coincidence that Kemp's stats began their recent uptick when Crawford got hurt three weeks ago. The 2011 MVP runner-up is finally developing a rhythm with the consistent playing time.
Ethier hasn't fared much better, still finding himself out of the lineup against most left-handed pitchers. The former All-Star is batting nearly 30 points below his career average and has managed just three home runs.
The extra outfielders give Los Angeles undeniable insurance, but what good is the depth when those on the bench can't produce when their name is called?
If the offense doesn't perk up in the next month, it might be time to cut bait on either Kemp, Crawford or Ethier. Trading one of them away would give the remaining three consistent at-bats and the peace of mind needed for successful results.
Yes, the team would be a man short if another outfield injury occurs. But the solution is just a phone call away, as top prospect Joc Pederson is patiently waiting for his chance down in Triple-A.
All stats courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise noted.
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