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After blowing a late lead on Sunday for the second time in two Chicago nights, the Dodgers went to San Diego last night and extended their road woes with a 1-0 loss to the Padres. Now carrying a seven-game losing streak, the Dodgers have slipped to 33-36, 5 ½ games behind those Padres in the NL West . This is a far cry from where they stood two weeks into the season, when an eight-game winning streak gave them the best start in baseball at 12-2. The Dodgers are at 21-33 since that hot start, and haven’t looked like a contending team in well over a month.

Now, the Dodgers were never an .857 team, but before the season I did predict that they’d win the NL West and post the best record in the NL, so their collapse has been something of a surprise. They’ve had considerable injury woes–as Will Carroll pointed out, the Dodgers have lost more player-days and player salary to the DL than virtually every team in baseball–but enough to turn a .580 team into a .420 one?

The injury that has gotten the most attention is the one to Eric Gagne‘s elbow. The Dodger closer is likely out for the season after spraining a ligament in his right elbow, basically the same injury that caused him to miss the season’s first 35 games. The bullpen meltdowns on Saturday and Sunday make the Gagne injury an easy excuse, but it wasn’t that long ago that Yhency Brazoban was making a name for himself as the closer. In fact, Brazoban’s underlying indicators still mark him as an effective short reliever: 27 strikeouts and 10 walks in 29 innings. He’s allowed a few more home runs–four–than you’d like to see, but the difference between him and Gagne over 80 innings isn’t more than two wins a season. The Dodgers’ middle relief has stumbled, exacerbating the loss of Gagne over the past week or so, but the framework for a good bullpen–Giovanni Carrara and Kelly Wunsch doing specialist work in front of Duaner Sanchez and Brazoban–is in place.

The absence of Gagne isn’t the underlying cause of the Dodgers’ woes. They were 21-14 before he came back, and 12-15 with him on the roster. That they’ve had a seven-game losing streak since his last appearance has more to do with the offense–12 runs in those seven games–than with any bullpen issues.

Yes, the offense. See, it’s not Gagne’s injury that has been most devastating to the Dodgers. It’s the loss of Milton Bradley that has crippled them. The switch-hitting center fielder was having a terrific season when a torn ligament in his right ring finger forced him to the DL in late May with him hitting .298/.345/.511. Up to that point, the Dodgers had scored 242 runs in 49 games, or 4.9 per. Since then? 72 runs in 20 games, down to 3.6 per. That’s the difference between an offense that can win and one that can’t.

The Dodgers simply haven’t been able to replace Bradley’s bat. Consider that last night against Jake Peavy, as nasty a right-hander as there is in baseball, Jim Tracy had Jason Repko batting second, Olmedo Saenz in the five spot, and Jayson Werth batting sixth. Repko is barely a major leaguer, and he sports a .308 OBP (albeit with a “backwards” OBP split in a small sample). Saenz and Werth are platoon players, capable of contributing by smashing left-handers, but out of their element when asked to play a significant role against righties. Tracy’s few remaining left-handed options, Jason Grabowski and Oscar Robles, have been awful and have little hope of improving. Like Repko, each is a marginal major leaguer.

When you have to play those three guys in your top six lineup spots against Jake Peavy, you’re asking to be shut out. Add into this mix the horror show that third base has been for most of the season, Hee Seop Choi‘s devolution into a Two True Outcomes player, and the return of Cesar Izturis to his own body (2-for-his-last-46), and you have an offense that quickly went from championship caliber to being shut down by Jose Lima for eight innings. The Dodgers need Ledee, Bradley and Jose Valentin back from the DL if they’re going to keep their season together.

The Dodgers’ rotation has been a disappointment as well, due to both injuries and unrealistic expectations. Or do you have another term for employing Scott Erickson? D.J. Houlton has now taken Erickson’s spot and been a serviceable six-inning guy, which was his upside in March and remains so. The loss of Odalis Perez has hurt, although he wasn’t pitching all that well at the time he went on the DL. The low-upside rotation was a good complement for an offense scoring five runs a game and a deep bullpen; when the offense and bullpen failed, the rotation began to look much worse. It’s essentially a league-average group, maybe a bit better if Perez comes back healthy and effective.

While I give lots of credit to Paul DePodesta for assembling a bench using cheap, even free, talent, one of the reasons you do that is so that you can easily get rid of players who you’re wrong about. After a season and a half, it’s pretty clear that Jason Grabowski isn’t going to hit the way he did in the A’s system. Robles might have been a good player in the Mexican League, but he’s barely able to get the ball out of the infield in the majors. Erickson should never have been employed, and is just a waste of roster space right now. Jayson Werth had a nice little run last year, but he needs a platoon partner. A month from now, we may be saying similar things about Antonio Perez and Mike Edwards, both of whom have gaudy stat lines driven by high batting averages, and who have temporarily solved the third-base problems.

Getting healthy is only going to address some of these problems, and there’s no guarantee that the Dodgers will even get healthy. Bradley is expected back within a week, but according to Carroll, the injury is an odd one for a baseball player, so Bradley may not be out of the woods. Ledee could make it back by the end of the month, and Valentin in the second half. The Dodgers need all three of these guys to make the offense work, or DePodesta will have to bring in reinforcements.

The Padres are finally having the season I’d expected them to have for, what, four of the past five years? That’s going to make it hard for the Dodgers to steal this division with 86-88 wins, and with each day they extend players beyond their abilities is one day further from 90-92 wins. Their pitching, especially their bullpen, may look like the problem, but what they really need is to fix an offense that is the bigger factor in their current struggles.

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