August 23, 2005
The AL Cy Young discussion will be pushed back a day, as I want to get this out first.
The Dodgers/Marlins game was the only day game on Monday, so I watched it without a remote control in my hand, seeing every pitch. It was interesting, because while the Dodgers were credited with no errors, and their pitchers allowed no unearned runs, their 68th loss of the season was as attributable to bad defense as any of the previous 67:
Make no mistake about it: if the Dodgers play ordinary defense Monday, they pull out a much-needed 2-1 win over the Marlins. That they avoided being charged with errors is just a weakness of the scoring rules; they made misplay after misplay to push them 12 games under .500.
It's been that kind of season for the Dodgers, one of the most disappointing teams in baseball. I predicted them to not only win the NL West, but to lead the NL in wins with 93. They'll need a rush to get to 83, and aren't a lock yet to reach 73.
Where did it go wrong? Injuries have played a big role. Mike Groopman tracks injuries and their cost for BP, and according to his numbers, the Dodgers have lost 984 days to the disabled list this year, fourth in MLB. They've lost more than $27 million in salary to the DL, second in baseball. That $27 million represents a bit more than a third of their overall payroll. One dollar of every three that the Dodgers have paid out this year has gone directly to the disabled list. That's awful. The Dodgers and Giants--read: Barry Bonds--are far ahead of the rest of baseball in terms of dollars lost to the DL. The Angels are #3, at just shy of $20 million.
You can't just blame the injuries, though. The losses of Eric Gagne, J.D. Drew and Odalis Perez for major chunks of the season have been a problem, to be sure. However, the healthy players' inability to produce has also hurt the Dodgers. Two of the team's three at-bat leaders, Cesar Izturis and Jason Phillips, have OPSs of 670 and below. Catcher and third base have been black holes nearly all year long, while the replacements for Drew in right field and Milton Bradley in center--Bradley missed more than a month with a finger injury--have been largely disastrous. That's performance, and to a certain extent, a reflection on the front office's choices in finding replacements.
On the other hand, it was the front office that brought in Drew and Jeff Kent, both of whom have had strong seasons, although Drew's injury will make it hard for him to be worth the $11 million he makes. Kent has only been the best second baseman in the league. Ricky Ledee also missed time to injury, but when available he's hit .294/.355/.479, pretty good for a fourth outfielder. That's three pretty good signings. As popular as blaming management is in L.A., it's hard to fault Paul DePodesta for the major choices he made last winter. They've been a net positive to the team.
Overall, the Dodgers' offense is 10th in the NL (.258 EqA), and while that's below average, it's not the reason the team is languishing well below .500.
No, the real problems have come on the mound, where the Dodgers have the 12th best ERA in the NL, a horrible ranking for a team playing 81 games in Dodger Stadium. The rotation has been passable--the free-agent money invested in pitchers Derek Lowe and Odalis Perez hasn't returned the same kind of performance as the money invested in hitters--but the real problem has been the bullpen, the same one I praised so strongly back in April. No active Dodger reliever has an ERA below 3.48, and the pitchers who came out of the pen Monday included Yhency Brazoban (5.86) and Giovanni Carrara (4.58). Elmer Dessens has been serviceable and Duaner Sanchez inconsistent, and those two have been the Dodgers' best relievers.
At the time Gagne was signed to a massive contract, and the point at which he was lost for the season, I made the point that guys like me always make: closers are overrated and overpaid relative to the innings they work and the leverage of those innings. In the specific case of the 2005 Dodgers, though, the loss of their closer has been devastating. The gap between 2004 Eric Gagne and the work they've gotten from their short relievers has cost them at least two games in the standings, and if you look at the game-by-game results, you can argue that it's much, much more than that. The Dodgers never came up with their own Brendan Donnelly or Derrick Turnbow or Huston Street to replace those innings, being let down by Brazoban and Sanchez along the way. Injuries to Kelly Wunsch and Wilson Alvarez tied Jim Tracy's hands tactically, leaving him to run an Angels-style bullpen without Angels-style relievers.
Despite all of this, the Dodgers enter play today just five games out of first place in the NL West, thanks to the Padres being about as disappointing as their neighbors to the north. After the injuries and the bullpen blowups and the interpersonal issues, the Dodgers can go to back-to-back postseasons for the first time since 1977-78 if they can just put together six good weeks of baseball. They're nearly as healthy as they're going to be; Gagne won't be coming back, but Drew could return next month, and that would complete the lineup.
This is where the unbalanced schedule has its biggest impact. The Dodgers will get six more cracks at the Padres, plus 13 other games against the Diamondbacks and Giants. They, and the three other contenders in the West, have their fate in their own hands. They can erase four bad months with one good one, and if they do, no one is going to remember this as the Duaner Sanchez Dodgers or the Jason Phillips Dodgers.