It's the morning of April 27, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are sitting in third place, five games behind the NL West-leading Colorado Rockies and a half-game behind the reigning champs. Instead of bathing in the early-summer sunlight, baseball's iconic West Coast franchise is stuck in the murky cloud left billowing from the exhaust pipe of the Frank McCourt machine.
But even though the fans are avoiding the ticket windows, looking longingly down the 5 freeway at the (again) competitive Angels, and waiting for Mark Cuban to show up with a checkbook in his hand and a "DFFL" (Dodger Fan For Life) tattoo on his chest, there are still games to be played.
Conventional wisdom tells us that April is just one month out of six on the schedule. Recent history agrees. From 2000-2010, only 30 of the 66 eventual division champs held down first place on May 1.
The Dodgers have 137 games (or approximately 2,045 parking lot arrests, if you'd rather count that way) remaining. So while the rest of the country antes up on the Rockies and Giants, here are five reasons why I think the Dodgers will still have a say in this race...
This photo from last year shows Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier receiving their Silver Slugger Awards. The problem? The awards were for the 2009 season. Neither player got another one this year, and neither player deserved to. But if the first few weeks of 2011 are any indication, these two Dodger outfielders may pose like this again in 2012.
Kemp and Ethier are tied for second in the NL in batting average and tied for third in OBP. For you stat-wise folks, both are in the top 12 in the majors in WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Kemp has stolen eight bags, and in a pleasant change from last year, has only been caught once. Ethier is riding a 23-game hitting streak, the longest ever in the month of April.
Even more encouragingly, and admittedly based only on this writer's personal observations, the two seem to have finally discovered the day-to-day consistency needed to carry a lineup, something the Dodgers have missed since Manny left/was traded/sulked his way out of town/was suspended for using PEDs.
Will they cool down? Yes, eventually. They sit first and second in the majors in batting average on balls hit in play, and for the uninitiated among you, that's frequently more attributable to luck than to skill. More and more, those balls will find their way into opposing gloves, and Kemp and Ethier will descend back to more mortal numbers.
No, they can't be this good all year, but...
...no one else can possibly continue to be this bad.
Let me show you some other Dodger hitters and their 2011 stat lines so far:
Rafael Furcal .192/.250/.231
Juan Uribe .233/.288/.356
Rod Barajas .181/.238/.347
James Loney .204/.225/.245
You know what I said to myself when I researched these numbers? Ooh, Loney's numbers have gone up since I last looked.
Almost everyday, Manager Don Mattingly trots out four pitchers. And that doesn't count the pitcher. And don't even get me started on the 55 at-bats given to Aaron Miles and his .236/.263/.291. So where's the optimism? Here's those same four players, and their career lines:
Rafael Furcal .285/.350/.410
Juan Uribe .255/.300/.430
Rod Barajas .237/.283/.411
James Loney .283/.342/.427
OK, so maybe we shouldn't expect a lot of improvement there. But when you have four everyday players who make you yearn for the infamous Mario Mendoza, you haven't got many directions left to go but up. Which is why I'm counting on...
...the general manager. Ned Colletti's record is far from spotless. For every Takashi Saito, there's a Jason Schmidt. Manny Ramirez was nice. Juan Pierre? Um, not so much.
"But what about Casey Blake?!?" I hear you crying. Well, we only gave up Carlos Santana. (It's not like the Dodgers have a need for a 25-year-old catcher who slugged .467 as a rookie last year.)
But even if we're not sure that what Ned Colletti will do will work, we can be sure that Ned Colletti will do something. (I'm looking at you, Tony Reagins.)
The Dodgers have been one of the more active teams at the trade deadline lately, and if they remain within striking distance of the top, Ned Colletti will stare that nasty balance sheet right in the face and find a way to add a player without adding salary. (Just not another Octavio Dotel, pleeeeeease.)
His task should be easier this year, because...
...he can focus on the hitting. As has come to be expected from this historically arms-rich franchise, the Dodger pitching looks strong again.
Ted Lilly's early struggles notwithstanding, the Dodgers boast a solid rotation led by a young stud who has to be seen to be appreciated fully. Clayton Kershaw has unfairfilthynasty (trademark pending) stuff, and his newly minted 4:1 K:BB ratio in six 2011 starts is a harbinger of impending doom for his NL West foes.
Chad Billingsley's ERA doesn't impress, but his 8.58 K/9 ratio does. Hiroki Kuroda and Jon Garland are steady, mid-rotation contributors, and have combined to give the Dodgers six quality starts in eight tries.
Moving out towards the bullpen, we see that Jonathan Broxton is still scuffling (in the time you took to read this slideshow, he blew three more saves), but even if the Dodgers don't switch to the closer-by-committee approach that Ned Colletti recently advocated, having a good "closer" is overrated anyway.*
Besides, Mattingly can still call for Hong-Chih Kuo and his career 10.51 K/9, Kenley Jansen and his career 13.98 K/9, Matt Guerrier and his career 1.24 WHIP or Vicente Padilla, who...well, Vicente Padilla has the two qualities I like most in good closers: a good fastball, and insanity.
But if all else fails, we can count on...
*I'll add my thoughts to this boiling stew of a debate another time, but if you really need to know why closers mean so little, go Google "closer overrated."
...the competition to not run away with the whole thing. I'm not sure there's a standout team in the bunch.
According to ESPN, the Colorado Rockies have faced the 10th-most difficult schedule in baseball so far. But they fattened up on an easy opening stretch, compiling a 12-3 record against noted powerhouses in the Arizona Diamondbacks, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Mets and yes, sadly, the Dodgers.
The Rockies are 5-5 in their last 10, and for a team that has historically relied on inhabiting a hitter's paradise of mythical proportions, they rank only 14th in baseball in OPS. Their pitching has struggled even to match that mediocrity, ranking just 16th in the majors in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching).
As for the Giants, they have outplayed the Dodgers to a mere half-game lead against an identical schedule in terms of difficulty. Additionally, they may have a tough time replicating their magical 2010, when nearly every hitter not nicknamed Kung Fu Panda outperformed their expectations.
The pitching is great, and I suppose we should stop asking how many Cy Young-quality seasons Tim Lincecum's arm still has in it, but come on, how many Cy Young-quality seasons does Tim Lincecum's arm still have in it?
The Rockies and Giants deserve their reputations as division favorites. Both teams have cupboards full of talent, battle-tested veteran managers, and home ballparks well-suited to their respective on-field strengths.
But the Dodgers retain several core players from the back-to-back NLCS squads of 2008 and 2009, and those core players are young and still improving. Better yet, those core players are playing with a consistency and maturity that even those prior successful teams lacked.
The Los Angeles Dodgers deserve to be considered as contenders for the NL West crown.
So I say this to you, Denver and San Francisco, no one in lovely Southern California (and oh, how lovely the weather has been the last couple days!) is pressing the panic button yet. Well, no one other than Frank McCourt.