I Don't Know if You Noticed This, But. . .

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IJuly 4, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 16:  Eric Stults #50 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the San Francisco Giants during the game at Dodger Stadium on April 16, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

As one of the Bleacher Report Los Angeles Dodgers Featured Columnists—a title that is so humbling that I almost feel unworthy to carry it!—I am going to concentrate a large portion of my time on two things:

                             • The ridiculously rich history of the Dodgers’ organization


                             • Some of the little things that get overlooked day-to-day

So I’m introducing the recurring series, “I Don’t Know if You Noticed This, But. . .”

For other up to the minute Dodger highlights, browse the profiles of my fellow Dodger Featured Columnists: J. C. Ayvazi—who actually visits the Dodger clubhouse when the team is playing home games—and P. J. Ross of Seattle, who visits L. A. at least once a year to take in our beloved Dodgers.

When I get my ESPN contract, I will be joining them frequently! Until them, like I have continuously since 1978, I will root for my beloved Dodgers from afar.

Okay, it’s almost impossible to ignore the elephant in the room, so I will address it, briefly.

Just about everyone on Earth—including some alleged Los Angeles Dodger fans—felt that the team was going to collapse when Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games.

I will admit that I was extremely anxious, myself. The Dodgers, who were the consensus favorite to win the West once Ramirez signed, had bolted out to a 21-8 mark.

Had the team kept winning at that rate, they would have set a new MLB record for team wins in a single season, with 117.

The team cooled somewhat without ManRam; of course, they probably would have cooled even with him. The team with 29-21 in his absence, and have the distinction of being the first major league team to 50 wins, at 50-29.

However, there have been chinks in the armor, and cracks in the foundation. . .

I don’t know if you noticed this, but the team is getting healthy and whole. This is a great thing.

The bullpen, one of the best in either league, has logged a fairly high number of innings pitched per game: roughly three and one-third innings per contest.

That leaves just five and two-third innings a night for the starters. That’s close to the major league average, but am I the only one who is a bit alarmed by the number?

The biggest problem has been the back end of the rotation. Once we get past Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and Clayton Kershaw, things get rather dicey.

Kuroda himself has only recently returned from injury, and is just now getting his legs under him. This allows the team to move Randy Wolf further down in the rotation, which is just what the doctor ordered.

Wolf has been okay, sometimes spectacular, but inconsistent. Ideally, he should be the third or fourth starter; at times, he has functioned as the de facto ace.

With his long history of injury problems, Joe Torre will have to monitor his pitch counts. . . and have a “Plan B” on tap.

Eric Milton, who is in the bullpen for the time being as the All-Star break approaches, should really only be relied on for spot starts and long relief, yet he has been in the rotation for the majority of the year.

Kershaw should be the fifth starter, leaving Torre the option of pushing his starts back at times and limiting the crafty young lefty’s innings.

Instead, the number five slot in the rotation has been a black hole.

So, let me shine a light on the likely fifth starter very soon: Eric Stults.

Stults, a 29-year old lefty from Plymouth, IN, is reporting no discomfort in his rehabilitation starts. As PJ reports in this article, the hurler is up to a pitch count of 60, and is quickly regaining command of his pitch locations.

Stults is a bright young talent, who hurled a shutout in just his ninth major league start in 2008, and tossed another one on Mother’s Day of this year. Having him at the back end of the rotation could leave the Bums’ rotation looking something like this:

1) Righty Chad Billingsley; 2) Righty Hiroki Kuroda; 3) Lefty Randy Wolf (unless/until he breaks down); 4) Lefty Eric Stults; and 5) Lefty Clayton Kershaw.

The days of an all-right-handed Dodgers’ rotation are long gone. Stults, in particular, pitches well to righty batters. If he improves his control, the sky seems to be the limit. He could progress to the front of the rotation as a No. 2 type; f he pitches well enough, I wouldn’t mind having him break up Bills and Roki, though Torre might want Wolf there.

And I don’t know if you noticed it yet, but Rafael Furcal seems to be getting his game together right on time.

With Ramirez back, Juan Pierre (by default) heads back to the bench, as he doesn’t have the arm to displace Andre Ethier in rightfield (not to mention power, youth, etc.), nor the overall skill set to bump Matt Kemp out at center.

He will be eased into the line-up a few times a week, though, as he has been a most pleasant surprise for this edition of the Dodgers.

The problem with that is: the club loses its lead-off hitter when that happens.

Furcal, though, has long preferred the lead-off spot in the line-up. It’s just that he wasn’t hitting well enough to set the table for the team, and with Pierre playing so well (.321 BA, .381 OBP, 22 steals), Torre left him in the one hole.

Rafael came off the bench to single home the only run in a 1-0 triumph over the Colorado Rockies on Wednesday, and collected four hits to spur the Dodgers to a 6-3 victory over San Diego on Friday night—Manny’s first night back, as the team moved to 51-29.

Combine that with Russell Martin’s two RBI night on Friday, and the Dodgers are finally very close to hitting on all cylinders.

Torre has been dogged by questions about Martin’s mystifying lack of production this season. Nothing I have read indicates that the catcher is dinged up; he’s just going through the worst dry spell of his major league career.

With Manny back, the entire line-up should prosper, as PJ ably demonstrated here, so I feel no need to have the same discussion again.

I will comment that anytime you can move Casey Blake back down out of the top five in your order; anytime Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp are allowed to relax and just play ball without the pressure of having to jack dingers; and any time you have Juan Pierre as your fourth outfielder; your team is in marvelous shape.

But whether you noticed it or not, the best team in baseball, without having to make a trade or even so much as a waiver acquisition, has just gotten substantially better. It’s up to Joe Torre to squeeze production out of this team; I have no doubts that he will.


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