LA Dodgers: 10 Keys to Overtaking the San Francisco Giants in NL West

Richard Leivenberg@@richiemarketingContributor IIIJuly 31, 2012

LA Dodgers: 10 Keys to Overtaking the San Francisco Giants in NL West

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    After a weekend in which the Los Angeles Dodgers swept the San Francisco Giants—including back-to-back shutouts in PacBell Park—it looks like the South is rising again.

    Yet the question that remains is, can the Dodgers, who at one point in the season led the entire major league in winning percentage, overtake the Giants in the NL West and win the division?

    We are of course leaving out the San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, but with good reason as none of those teams seem capable of mounting a successful attack.

    Just a week ago, the Giants led the Dodgers by as much as three full games, and the Blue Crew looked as if they were on a bit of a free fall spurred on by a lagging offense and insufficient bullpen.

    Then they picked up Hanley Ramirez, brought up a kid named Cruz and seemingly righted the boat.

    Now tied with the Giants for the lead in the NL West, the trade deadline looming and another deal almost surely to be made by the anxious new management, the Dodgers are poised to succeed.

Tim Lincecum's Pitching Problems Must Continue

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    It seems almost impossible to believe, but a series of terrible outings by the once dominant Tim Lincecum may end up leading to the downfall of the Giants this year.

    With a record of 4-11 and an ERA of 5.88, Lincecum has fallen far from his once mighty perch as a perennial Cy Young Award candidate and winner of two of the vaunted awards.

    Up until this year, his ERA was a remarkable 3.15, his career record 71-46 and he possessed a World Series ring.

    But this year it is difficult to figure out what has gone wrong with "The Freak", an apt name for the skinny kid with the weird delivery and a slew of unhittable power pitches.

    As some have said, this seems more than just a slump, and it has impacted the Giants in a way that no one could have ever predicted.

    One wonders if he had won even a few more games, was even a .500 pitcher, what it would have meant to his team.

    In the meantime, the Giants have stuck with him in the rotation and has been held up by what some consider to be one of the best pitchers in the league with Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgarner having stellar years.

    As the season progresses, however, Lincecum's demise is the Dodgers' blessing.

San Francisco Giants' Hitting Slump

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    If not for Melky Cabrera and Buster Posey, the Giants would be completely punch-less at the plate.

    Cabrera, who is batting .353 with 10 home runs—and was also the MVP of the All-Star Game—might also win the MVP Award for the National League.

    Posey, who is returning from a broken leg last year, is batting .315 with 60 RBI and seemingly could win the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

    While the team batting average is .260—good enough for 11th in the league—that includes only 60 home runs, ranking the Giants at 30th.  They don't have to rely on power to get it done, as their team pitching ERA is 3.50.

    Still, as was seen over the weekend, when the Dodgers shut out the Giants two out of three games without any real power in the lineup, the Giants offense can be more than suspect.

    Having lost Pedro Sandoval to the DL, they also lost some power in the middle of the lineup.

    You don't hit, you don't win, and when the Giants score less than three runs in a game, they are 1-13.

    There is some talk about the Giants seeking some offensive help before the trade deadline.

    As long as they field the same lineup, it is in the best interest of the surging Dodgers.

Pick Up a New Pitcher

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    Despite their strong pitching, which has yielded an ERA of 3.29, the Dodgers could use another starter.

    That's why we have heard so much about Ryan Dempster of the Cubs, who has been on the trading block for some time.

    The Dodgers are hoping that the veteran right-hander would be a nice fit in a rotation filled with vets like Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano and Chad Billingsley.  Dempster would fill the shoes of Ted Lilly, who is currently on the DL.

    Dempster's career ERA is 4.11, but this year—even with a 5-5 record—he has a nifty 2.25 ERA, which would play well in any ballpark, but especially in Dodger Stadium where runs are hard to come by.

    The Dodgers have also shown interest in Jeremy Hellickson of Tampa Bay.

    Either way, the new management seems dedicated to making this a winning year and has shown itself to be unafraid to pull the trigger on a trade like this.

    Dempster would solidify the rotation as the team seeks to overtake the Giants.

Continue with Strong Pitching

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    Even if they don't pick up another starter, the Dodgers have one of the best staffs in the league.

    Clayton Kershaw shut out the Giants just this past weekend, pitching a full game and showing the grit that came with his 2011 Cy Young Award winning season.

    Chad Billingsly, alias "The Roller-Coaster Ride", shut out the Giants the day before having just come off of the DL.  Billingsly is 6-9 with the rotation's highest ERA at 3.89, but he has always had the stuff to dominate a game.

    Meanwhile, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano have excellent win-loss records—12-7 and 14-10 respectively—and have proven themselves to be stalwart competitors, often pitching late into games.

    The newcomer on the team is Stephen Fife, who has started two games and has a ridiculous ERA of 1.46.

    One thing about the Dodgers is that you can always count on their pitching.  If they continue to excel going forward, they will have a great chance of beating out the Giants.

Get the Most out of the Bullpen

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    It all comes down to the bullpen.

    With the Dodgers' great pitching, it is likely that many games down the stretch will be decided by the bullpen.

    Even though he has some real workhorses in the starting rotation—like Kershaw and Capuano—manager Don Mattingly often times relies on his bullpen to finish the game.

    For the most part, that has been pretty effective with Kenley Jansen leading the way as the closer.  Jansen hasn't allowed a run in his last six outings while striking out eight. He has 72 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

    Ronald Belisario, the 8th inning set-up guy, has been a little more erratic of late. Like Jansen, he is a power pitcher who relies on his fastball, but his ERA is 3.03.

    The Dodgers picked up Randy Choate in the deal which brought Hanley Ramiriez to the team from Miami, and he should be a help in middle relief.

    If the bullpen stays on track, the Dodgers will have another edge over the Giants.

Keep Ellis in the Game, Both A.J. and Mark

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    The Dodgers have two guys named Ellis, and both have been excellent additions to the team.

    In the case of A.J., the catcher, the case can be made that he has been the most valuable player on the team. Although his power numbers—eight home runs, 29 RBIs—and average of .279 are not great, he has shown by example what it means to be patient at the plate and leads the team in walks with 49.

    Perhaps more importantly, he has been a rock at his position and is hugely accountable for the stellar performances of the team's pitchers.

    He may never be a Piazza at the plate, but Ellis has given the Dodgers a big edge.

    Mark Ellis, meanwhile, has had a strange year unsettled by a freak accident in which he almost lost his leg. He is your classic, gritty second baseman, always on the ball, always ready to make the play.

    Furthermore, he has done an excellent job batting second in the lineup: moving guys over and taking pitches while batting .262.

    Combined, the Ellis boys have provided some needed stability to the team.

Hanley Ramirez

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    The Dodger season can be summed up this way: before Hanley and after Hanley.

    Before Hanley, there was Juan Uribe and a bunch of other guys playing third base. Uribe is obviously on his last legs, dreaming about how he's going to spend all of that money the Dodgers throw at him. He sure wasn't playing baseball with his sub-.200 batting average and terrible power numbers.  One home run, enough said.

    Getting Hanley, the former NL batting champ, a guy who once hit .385, a five-tool player who can bat for power and average and steal bases, was a brilliant move by the new Dodgers management.

    And don't compare him to that other Ramirez, Manny.  Because there isn't a comparison.

    Manny was pumped up on something other than Gatorade while playing intermittently between injury and suspension.  Yes, he led the team to two post-season contests, but he was not the Manny we all knew.

    Hanley is the real deal and when you place him in the lineup with Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, the Dodgers suddenly become prolific scorers.  He already has seven RBI's in five games.

    We don't have to scrutinize his fielding or some of his off-field antics, yet. Not as long as he keeps playing with the enthusiasm and natural ability he has shown so far.

    A key for the Dodgers?  Maybe, the key!

Luis Cruz

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    Luis Cruz has hit safely in the last 12 games and his two hits helped power the Dodgers past the Giants in Sunday's shut-out.

    Dee Gordon who?

    That is what Dodger fans are saying now that Cruz is at shortstop.  Cruz has 10 extra-base hits in 22 games, while Gordon had 12 extra-base hits in 78 games

    At 6'2, 200 lbs., he is not as acrobatic as Gordon, or many of the other shortstops in the league.  But, Gordon also had 17 errors when he went on the DL.

    Cruz brings a solid bat to the position, something that Gordon, even with his 30 steals, couldn't quite figure out.

    At this point, Cruz looks like a savior at short and someone the team can rely on going forward.

First Base

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    First base has been a big issue for the Dodgers which also makes it a big key to their success.

    They have pretty much stuck with James Loney, their long time first baseman, even though he has two home runs and a .257 average.

    They have also been platooning Juan Rivera whose numbers are almost identical except that he has five homers to Loney's two.

    It is safe to say that Loney is not long for the Dodgers, but he is here to stay, especially if he can go on any kind of hitting streak like he did last year.

    In July, he batted .328 which is the kind of thing the Dodgers should expect from him.

    And, he is a much better fielding first baseman than Rivera.

    With the number of solid hitters on the squad now, Loney will look like a champ if he can put together solid second half numbers.

    And, there is little question that will be a key to the Dodgers success this season.

Andre Ethier

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    When Andre Ethier went down with an oblique strain before the All-Star break, many a Dodger fan quietly wondered if he would come back as strong as he had started.

    It wasn't just the injury, but Ethier himself.

    Has he really lived up to his obvious abilities as a hitter and fielder?

    Dodger management sure thinks so and thinks he will in the future with the big contract he just received.

    Ethier has played extremely well this year and he came back from the injury strong and ready to go.

    Adding Hanley Ramirez probably helped Ethier more than anyone as he will see more good pitches and benefit from Kemp and Hanley's abilities.

    Right now, Ethier leads the team in RBI's and hits and many people thought he should have been an All-Star.

    If he continues to hit well, producing runs which the Dodgers so desperately need, Ethier will help guide the team into the division championship and the playoffs.