The Dodgers‘ demise has been postponed, at least for now. This was supposed the year the Dodgers fell back in the standings after winning back-to-back National League West titles and making consecutive appearances in the NLCS. The club’s financial problems that have been caused by owner Frank McCourt’s ongoing divorce proceedings kept general manager Ned Colletti from significantly improving the roster over the winter. That led to dire pre-season predictions.
The Dodgers certainly seemed ready for a fall when they dropped six games back in the NL West on May 8. A six-game losing streak from June 17-23 again brought into question the viability of a divisional three-peat. Yet the All-Star break is here and the Dodgers haven’t gone away. They are 49-39 and tied with the Rockies for second place, two games behind the division-leading Padres.
Manager Joe Torre is very optimistic about the Dodgers’ chances of playing again in October, observing, “We have a good club. I certainly feel we can compete with anyone in the division, anyone in the league. Granted, there is room for improvement. We need to get better but I certainly like our chances of winning this division.”
It has been assumed since spring training that Colletti would try to trade for a starting pitcher if he had any money to spend at the July 31 non-waiver deadline. That the Dodgers are 11thin the 16-team NL with an average of 4.52 runs allowed a game seems to underscore the need for a starter. While the Dodgers’ rotation is far from dominant, left-hander Clayton Kershaw (4.0) and right-hander Chad Billingsley (2.1) have stepped into leading roles this season just as Colletti hoped they would. Instead, relief pitching has become the Dodgers’ biggest need. Torre admits he has just two relievers he can trust with a lead, closer Jonathan Broxton and left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo, both of whom are on the National League All-Star team. Right-hander Ronald Belisario was also one of Torre’s trusted bullpen guys but he is on the restricted list because of a substance abuse issue, and the Dodgers don’t know when he will be return.
“Right now, it’s harder to manage when I have to go to the bullpen in the sixth inning with a six-run lead than if I have to go to the bullpen in the eighth inning with a one-run lead,” Torre said. “That’s not a good way to have to manage.”
Broxton (2.884), Kuo (1.971), and Belisario (1.286) have indeed been an effective trio. However, the bullpen has been hurt by the awful season of left-hander George Sherrill (-1.282), their big deadline acquisition last season in a trade with the Orioles.
“With Sherill, you just don’t know what you’re going to get right now when you bring him into a game,” Torre said. “He’s a good guy and he’s working hard to try to get straightened out but it’s just not happening for him. It’s kind of hard to figure. You saw the progression he made during the time he was with the Mariners and Orioles to where he became a premier reliever. If can get back to where he was, it would be a big boost for us.”
Making Colletti’s job of acquiring pitching more difficult is that the Dodgers do not who have many prospects at Triple-A Las Vegas who are major-league ready. When the Dodgers inquired about left-hander Cliff Lee to bolster their rotation, the Mariners wanted a package that was topped by either Billingsley or first baseman James Loney. The Dodgers refused to give up either player, who they feel are keys to their playoff hopes.
One area that the Dodgers don’t need to sure up is the offense as they are third in the league in runs scored with an average of 4.79 a game. In fact, the Dodgers should get a boost right after the All-Star break as left fielder Manny Ramirez is expected to come off the disabled list after sitting out a little over two weeks with a hamstring injury. Ramirez (.332 TAv), right fielder Andre Ethier (.327), and shortstop Rafael Furcal (.323) are having outstanding seasons and Torre is encouraged that the Dodgers’ best overall player, center fielder Matt Kemp (.283), is ready for a big second half. Torre likes the way Kemp has responded since being held off of the starting lineup for three straight games late last month.
“Everyone thought I was punishing Matt but it was just clear to me that he was pressing and needed to take a few days to clear his head and get his confidence back,” Torre said. “There are no statistics to tell you how a guy is feeling on the inside but I don’t think there was any question that Matt wasn’t in the right frame of mind. We all want to be perfect and sometimes Matt has a hard time coming to grips with the fact that nobody is perfect. He holds everything inside and always tells you everything is all right, but it can’t always be all right and it wasn’t all right with him. However, I see him being back to the old Matt Kemp now. He’s playing with confidence again and that’s only going to make us an even better team for the second half of the season.”
The Rangers may not have locked up the American League West title when they able to pull off a trade for Lee. However, they certainly look like strong favorites in the division as they hold a 4 ½-game lead on the Angels, who do not have a starting pitcher of Lee’s caliber. Yet the Angels say they are not ready to concede.
“Regardless of what they do, we know we have to play at a higher level,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “Whether a team in our division does or doesn’t make a move doesn’t change what we have to do in the second half. We know the challenge in front of us. The team ahead of us just got better. But it doesn’t change our challenge.”
One reason the Angels believe they still have a chance is because they have 14 games remaining with the Rangers. However, the Angels players do understand that their task is now tougher.
“We just need to start playing with our ‘A’ game instead of our ‘C’ game,” left-hander Joe Saunders said. “That’s what it’s going to take, whether Texas did something or not.”
“The guy’s good,” center fielder Torii Hunter said of Lee. “They made a good move. (Rangers president) Nolan Ryan is a Hall of Famer. He knows what he’s doing. He’s doing what I would do if I was GM and my team was in first place and there was a team in my rear-view mirror- you put your foot down. They put their foot to the floor with that move.”
The Rangers haven’t been to the postseason since 1999 and have never won a playoff series. They admittedly made this move with an eye toward October.
“We haven’t won anything yet, but we feel like we’re in position to put our best foot forward to be competitive in our division and in the American League,” GM Jon Daniels said. “We said all along that if we could upgrade our club we would do so, and this gives us a few more pieces to play with.”
“I feel like this makes us better, a left-handed pitcher who is a proven starter and an innings-eater,” Ryan said. “He’s going to have a presence not only on days when he pitches, but on the rest of the staff as well.”
The Mariners gave up three prospects in the Phillies in December to acquire Lee for what they hoped would be a run at their first AL West title since 2001. However, the Mariners are last in the division, 15 games behind the Rangers.
It was implied at the time of the trade that the Mariners hoped they would start well in order to entice Lee to sign a long-term contact as he is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. However, Lee said he and his agent approached the Mariners before spring training and again before he came off the disabled list after missing the first month of the season with an abdominal strain about a contract extension, but were rebuffed.
“They decided not to, and that’s that,” Lee said. “There really is nothing to it other than that.”
The love affair between the Phillies and their fans seems to be stronger than ever, at least at the ticket window, as they have sold out every game at Citizens Bank Park this season. However, some cracks are starting to show in the relationship.
Center fielder Shane Victorino criticized the fans for booing last week after a loss to the Braves and stopped just short of calling them front-runners. Right-hander Joe Blanton sarcastically tipped his hat to the crowd as he walked off the mound last Friday night after giving up six runs and 12 hits in 5 1/3 innings.
However, the ugliest moment came last Thursday night when right fielder Jayson Werth unleashed a string of expletives in the 12thinning of a victory over the Reds at a fan who caught a foul ball that Werth was attempting to make a play on as it faded into the seats. Werth was roundly criticized on Philadelphia talk show the next day after replays showed the ball was out of play and the man catching the ball was a father with a son in tow. Werth was not apologetic after the incident, though.
“I’m assuming people are upset, but to me it was just something that happened and I moved on right after,” Werth said. “There has been some backlash. Honestly, in the heat of the moment and the situation that goes on on the field, I’m definitely in a different mindset than I would be in a normal setting. I don’t think I would have yelled at anybody like that if that wasn’t the case. We had the game on the line. If a guy comes up and hits a home run on the next pitch, I think it’s a pretty big deal. Obviously I feel bad for the guy and the kid and the people that were sitting around there. It was definitely out of character a little bit. I don’t feel bad about playing hard and going after balls in the stands and stuff like that. It’s just one of those deals. It is part of the game.”
MLB Rumors & Rumblings: The Reds and Yankees were the runner-ups in the Lee sweepstakes and both will continue to pursue starting pitching in trades with Cubs left-hander Ted Lilly, rather than Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt, said to be their primary target. … The Marlins are consider putting right-hander Ricky Nolasco on the trading block, a move that would likely generate significant interest. … The Blue Jays have realized their longshot playoff bid is over and are willing to trade left-handed reliever Scott Downs, right-handed relievers Kevin Gregg and Jason Frasor, first baseman Lyle Overbay, shortstop Alex Gonalzez, and right fielder Jose Bautista. … The Tigers have emphatically rebuffed teams who have asked for right-hander Rick Porcello, now at Triple-A Toledo, in trade talks. … Jason Giambi will get the majority of starts at first base for the Rockies with Todd Helton on the disabled list, but right fielder Brad Hawpe, catcher Chris Iannetta, and utility infielder Melvin Mora might also see time there, as will Brad Eldred, who was called up from Triple-A Colorado Springs.
Scouts’ view on various major-leaguers:
Rays left fielder Carl Crawford: “He’s always been a good player, but I’ve never seen him as good as he’s been this season in all phases of the game. He is setting himself up to make some major money in free agency.”
Pirates outfielder Ryan Church: “He’s been just awful all season. I can’t believe the Pirates are playing him almost every day. Unless they’re hoping against hope that he’ll raise his trade value, I don’t see any reason why a rebuilding team is messing around with this guy.”
Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond: “He has made a ton of errors but I’m glad the Nationals are sticking with him. He has got a lot of talent and he’s going to be a good player. It might take a while but I really believe their patience will be rewarded.”
Padres reliever Luke Gregerson: “He’s lost command of his slider and that’s made him hittable. When he throws that slider for strikes, he’s unhittable. When he doesn’t, he is very ordinary.”
Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt: “I know teams are a little leery of trading for him because they don’t want to take on his salary for next year but this guy could be a difference maker in a pennant race and right on in to the postseason.. He is throwing the ball as well as I’ve ever seen him.”
Marlins catcher Ronny Paulino: “They’ve been forced to play him every day and he’s getting exposed with regular playing time. He’s OK as a No. 2 catcher, but it’s really a stretch to think he’s a No. 1.”
Reds first baseman Joey Votto: “He has become just a great hitter. You could see it building ever since he came to the major leagues but now he’s taken off. He rarely swings at a bad pitch now. He’ll wait and wait until he gets a pitch he can drive.”
Indians right-hander Jake Westbrook: “If I’m a contender, there is just no way I trade for him for the stretch run. He’s been too inconsistent. He is not the pitcher he was before he had Tommy John surgery.”