As we predicted at the start of the season, the race in the NL West is tighter than Pamela Anderson's wardrobe, with only two and a half games separating the two contenders. What we failed to predict is who the contenders would be, again giving the Los Angeles Dodgers more credit than they have deserved and underrating the San Francisco Giants.
At the start of every season, the Dodgers are as attractive a team to pick in the west as the Blue Jays are in the east for us, and for many of the same reasons. The team always seems to have a few excellent players–players you can build a team around, like Mike Piazza, Gary Sheffield, and Kevin Brown–surrounded by a less than stellar supporting cast. It seems reasonable to assume that it's easier to find some halfway decent filler than the star power that every contending team needs, and so it goes.
One of the seductive things about the Dodgers organization is how good the farm system has been. This is the team, after all, that groomed Adrian Beltre, Paul Konerko, Peter Bergeron, Roger Cedeno, and many other quality players. The first problem, of course, is how frequently these players are wearing other uniforms by the time they make it to the majors. The Dodgers never seem to get good return when they run guys like these out of town–a trend that started when they badmouthed error-prone on-base-machine Jose Offerman's heart and desire and then were befuddled when they couldn't get anything useful for their All-Star in trade.
The frustrating thing about this organization is that they are obviously willing and able to upgrade themselves, and frequently make bold moves to that end–the Todd Hundley pickup, finally paying dividends after a wasted season last year, and the Raul Mondesi for Shawn Green deal, for example. Yet this is the same team that has provided bulletproof job security for mediocre first baseman Eric Karros, whose trade value has been considerable for years and whose reputation remains far greater than his production.
And so, despite the recent troubles of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Dodgers have sunken from contention faster than a Russian submarine–and this isn't much of a surprise when you look at what they pass off as trade deadline moves. Nabbing Tom Goodwin from the Rockies was a terrible idea, especially considering Goodwin is signed for two more years. The thin air was masking a typical Goodwin season at the plate: not enough production with the bat to make him a plus, and that's considering his defense and speed on the bases. Taking into account the fact that the Dodgers already have a guy like this in Devon White makes the move even stranger. We've mentioned some of the opportunities around baseball for a offense-defense "platoon" situation over the last few weeks, and with White's still-solid defense and Todd Hollandsworth's peak period offensive game, the Dodgers had a good chance to try this strategy out. Instead, they traded a cheap Hollandsworth and a good pitching prospect in Randy Dorame for Goodwin. Their other pickup, Ismael Valdes, is sporting a 6.65 ERA in his five starts for the team. Valdes is a good pitcher when he's right, but blisters have been killing his effectiveness this year, and he certainly isn't the tonic that a team looking for a title needs.
It's no secret that, as a collective, we hold manager Davey Johnson in high regard. He waded into ugly situations in New York, in Cincinnati, and in Baltimore, and all three teams won under his leadership. We expected that Johnson would bring the Dodgers out of the malaise they have been in since 1995, when they won their last division title. But not even Johnson has been able to fix this team.
In the end, the Dodgers again appear to be a team that is less effective than the sum of its parts. The pitching has been mediocre this season, but that's a big step up from the year they had last season. The offense has been fine, despite black holes they have up the middle. And yet the team is only three games above .500. The decision the team made this season with the most long-term ramifications? Probably tossing the lesbian couple out of Dodger Stadium for smooching.
With the second highest payroll in the league and a record right around the midpoint, changes should and will be made in Los Angeles. Both Johnson and general manager Kevin Malone, whose blustery guarantees of postseason play have been among the more amusing sound bites in southern California since his hiring, should begin freshening up their resumes. The Bums will probably enter the offseason with new management, and as long as they keep the front office reins out of the clutches of Tommy Lasorda, that will be a good thing.
If the Dodgers of the late 1990s are proof of anything, it is that throwing gobs of money around is no guarantee of anything more than a nice tax writeoff.
Lookit those Giants go! As this is written, the Giants are leading a surprisingly spry NL West and are flirting with the 20 games above .500 mark. The team has hit well all season, and leads the league by a wide margin in Equivalent Average. The surprise has been the pitching; Russ Ortiz started off the season toxic but has been good lately, Shawn Estes has cut down on the gopher balls and been reliable all year, and Kirk Rueter was just rewarded for another solid performance with a big contract. Leading the rotation in innings pitched and effectiveness is wünderkind Livan Hernandez, pitching like he hasn't since the stretch drive in 1997. The Giants bullpen doesn't have the depth they've enjoyed over the last few years, but all the innings the rotation is absorbing help minimize the pen's impact. I thought it was going to be close at the start of the season, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the Giants blow the punchless Diamondbacks away down the stretch. The San Francisco offense is something to behold.
San Diego is quietly bringing up the rear in the division, but they are only five games under .500 despite another rash of injuries. The injuries to the pitching staff have given the team a chance to look at some of their young pitchers, and the results have been pretty promising. In particular, Brian Tollberg has been good and Adam Eaton has been great.
Despite his frustrating control problems, the Padres would be crazy to give up on Matt Clement now, while they aren't really counting on him for anything. He and Eaton could be two of the best starters of the decade.
Colorado first baseman Todd Helton is behind the latest dastardly plan to cross baseball's .400 barrier. He probably won't make it, and the Rockies have said they won't be sitting him if he does make it above .400 before the season ends. Talk of MVP contention is pretty far-fetched, but we shouldn't forget that the man is having a damn fine season with the bat, thin air or no thin air.
In other Rockies news: if major league shortstops were tires, Neifi Perez would have Firestone written all over him. Despite that, Rockies management is pushing towards a multi-year deal with Perez. If there's one guy whose numbers are a figment of altitude, it's Perez, and the faster he signs his name on the dotted line, the better for him–and the rest of the division.
Dave Pease can be reached at email@example.com.