Manny Ramirez heads to Albuquerque today, where he’ll begin a 10-day rehab assignment of sorts, preparation for a return from his 50-game suspension for violating baseball’s drug policy. It’s an odd facet of the policy that it affords a violator such courtesy, but unlike the possibility that a suspended player might be voted into the starting lineup for the All-Star Game, it appears to be there by design, not by accident. This isn’t a special case for Ramirez; every player suspended under the policy has had the same right, including the Phillies J.C. Romero, who made seven appearances last month in preparation for his own return from his suspension. It’s worth pointing out that Romero’s total doesn’t include the three games he appeared in while pitching for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic back in March. Now there’s a loophole that needs closing.
In any event, Ramirez is eligible to return to the Dodgers‘ lineup on July 3, and barring a major collapse over their next nine games, which come against three .500-ish ballclubs, his team will have weathered his absence just fine. They were 21-8 when the news of his suspension broke, with a +55 run differential, both major league bests. Since then they’ve gone 25-16 with a +30 run differential, both National League bests, and they’ve held the Hit List’s top spot since the first regular season rankings. At the time, they had a 6½-game lead over their closest pursuers, the Giants, an 8½-game lead over their expected rivals, the Diamondbacks, and an 83.3 percent shot at the playoffs according to our plain-vanilla playoff odds. Now they lead the Giants by 8½ games, with the Diamondbacks DOA at 17 games back, and their overall odds at 97.8 percent. That’s about as pretty as a team can sit.
Which isn’t to say that the Dodger offense hasn’t suffered sans dreadlocks:
Period R/G HR/G AVG/ OBP/ SLG With Manny 5.55 0.83 .283/.376/.426 Without Manny 4.56 0.66 .276/.345/.397 Total 4.97 0.73 .279/.358/.408 NL Rank 1 13 1 1 6
The team’s scoring dipped by 18 percent in the absence of Ramirez. His absence has been most acutely felt by the club in the power department. Since May 6, just three regulars have slugged higher than .410: Juan Pierre (.441), Matt Kemp (.477), and Casey Blake (.582). Meanwhile, a few of their players have shown an alarming lack of muscle all season long, though there are signs that they’re coming around. James Loney has just four home runs, but two of them came in his last three games. Rafael Furcal has three, including one last Friday night. Russell Martin, who appears to be following the Jason Kendall career path minus the grisly ankle injury, finally hit his first one of the year on Saturday.
Pierre hasn’t homered all year, but his overall slugging percentage is 50 points higher than Loney’s, 98 points higher than Furcal’s, and 133 points higher than Martin’s. Indeed, the supreme irony of this entire fiasco is that the ridiculously expensive slap-hitting speedster who had been relegated to fourth-outfielder status has gone bonkers at bat upon being restored to the lineup. Pierre collected multiple hits in 14 of the first 20 games after the suspension, and has now done so in 19 of 41, including a three-hit effort in the most recent ESPN Sunday night Game of the Week against the Angels. Thanks to an unsustainable .368 batting average on balls in play, he’s third in the batting race at .337, and his .392 OBP and .433 SLG would both be career highs.
Furthermore, his .198 MLVr trails only Ramirez (.641), Blake (.249), and Kemp (.211) among Dodger regulars, which raises the question of what happens once Ramirez returns. Last week, manager Joe Torre told reporters that Pierre would be headed back to the bench, but given Andre Ethier‘s slump in Ramirez’s absence (.233/.296/.404) and his struggles against lefties (.195/.279 /.377), it’s not hard to envision a potential Ramirez/Pierre/Kemp alignment working its way into Torre’s rotation; Pierre is hitting .411/.476/.518 in 65 PA against lefties, the kind of small-sample performance that Torre might find impossible to resist.
The larger question is whether Pierre’s play has boosted his value enough to make him attractive to other teams, and the answer is “probably not.” He’s about halfway through his absurd five-year deal, and owed $10 million this year, $10 million next year, and $8.5 million in 2011. It’s unlikely that any team is willing to assume the approximately $22 million he’ll still have coming after the trading deadline; in the current economic climate, even half that might be a stretch, and with the Dodgers already eating $21 million worth of Andruw Jones‘ pie between here and 2014, it’s tough to envision them having an appetite for much more-not unless Steve Phillips, who from the ESPN booth has lobbied for the Dodgers to take care of Pierre so often you’d think he was his agent, suddenly finds himself in a GM chair. Suffice it to say that there’s no threat of that these days.
What’s driven the Dodgers’ success in Ramirez’s absence is pitching. They’re allowing a league-low 3.8 runs per game, topping the NL in both SNLVAR (9.7) and WXRL (6.4). Their top three starters-Chad Billingsley, Randy Wolf, and Clayton Kershaw-are in the SNLVAR top 20 individually. Billingsley has shaken off the effects of last November’s broken leg to position himself for a run at the Cy Young Award; he leads the league with nine wins while running second in home-run rate (0.27), fourth in strikeouts (96), and sixth in ERA (2.83). Wolf has ridden a .259 BABIP to a 3.29 ERA and over six innings per start, a showing even better than his late-2008 run with Houston. Kershaw, while clearly not a finished product at the tender age of 21, is carrying a respectable 3.76 ERA thanks to his top 10 showings in strikeout rate (8.8 per nine) and home-run rate (0.6 per nine), and the third-lowest hit rate (6.7 per nine). He tends to walk a fine line between dominance and disaster, however, leading the league in walks (he’s walked exactly four hitters in eight of his 14 starts) and pitches per hitter (4.3), with a HR/FB rate (6.7 percent) and BABIP (.269) which contain plenty of room for regression.
That trio has needed to be on their best behavior because James McDonald‘s ineffectiveness and injuries to Hiroki Kuroda and Eric Stults have forced retreads Eric Milton and Jeff Weaver to make eight starts. Neither pitched in the majors at all last year, and neither has been a consistently effective major league pitcher since 2004 (Milton) or 2005 (Weaver). Weaver toiled in the minors to the tune of a 6.17 ERA, while Milton worked his way back from Tommy John surgery, and both earned their way back to The Show by surviving the fly-ball purgatory of Albuquerque. They’ve given the Dodgers solid work under the circumstances:
Player GS IP/S SNLVAR Fair RA SNWP Billingsley 15 98.2 2.8 3.26 .592 Wolf 15 93.0 2.4 3.67 .566 Kershaw 14 76.2 2.3 3.74 .571 Kuroda 5 28.0 0.6 3.97 .530 Stults 9 45.0 0.9 4.54 .511 Weaver 4 20.0 0.6 4.24 .565 Milton 4 18.2 0.3 4.95 .484 McDonald 4 18.2 -0.2 7.15 .349
The bottom four pitchers have combined for a .485 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage (SNWP), and they’re quite sufficient for the purpose of a fifth-starter solution. But with Kershaw needing to skirt an innings cap-he threw 169 innings combined last year-Ned Colletti is reportedly seeking another starter via trade.
As for the bullpen, Jonathan Broxton is leading the league with 3.5 WXRL. He’s gone 17-for-19 in saves while flat out dominating, blowing away an MLB-high 14.3 hitters per nine while holding them to a .131/.219/.197 showing. Torre has also shown a willingness to use Ramon Troncoso in the closer role to give Broxton a night off for whatever reason (rest, childbirth, a toe problem); he’s racked up four saves while running fourth in the league in WXRL (2.5) and third in Fair Run Average (1.26). The Dodger skipper has also invested faith in Ronald Belisario, a 26-year-old former Marlins and Pirates farmhand who had topped out at Double-A before winning friends and influencing people as a non-roster invitee this spring. The occasional high-leverage hiccup has knocked Belisario out of the top 50 in WXRL, but his 2.14 Fair Run Average testifies to his good work.
Both Troncoso and Belisario generate a ton of ground balls while missing their share of bats. Given Hong-Chi Kuo’s injury, Cory Wade‘s ineffectiveness, and Guillermo Mota‘s general Mota-lity, Torre’s ridden his newfound Troncoso/Belisario tandem at a combined 200-inning pace. Clearly the team will need another reliable reliever or two to emerge before someone winds up in the Scott Proctor Memorial Wing. McDonald may help now that he was recently recalled from Triple-A. So could Stults, as he’s shown a massive reverse platoon split over the course of his 140-inning major league career (1005 OPS vs. lefties, 749 vs. righties).
Getting back to Ramirez, it will be interesting to see how the fan base and the mainstream media, both local and national, handle his return. Prior to his suspension, he had mostly enjoyed a nonstop love fest, even given this winter’s contentious negotiations. So long as he can still produce-even if not at the level he had done since last August-the majority of Dodger fans will likely warm to him, rationalizing that he’s paid his debt to society. His transgressions will almost certainly generate some boos at home and even more in opposing ballparks, but that’s hardly new given his tenure playing the villain in Boston; on the other hand, his sixth-place showing in the All-Star balloting suggests that he’s also got his supporters outside the City of Angels. But expect that the moment the Dodgers finally lose three games in a row-and amazingly, they’ve yet to do so this year-you’ll see a spate of articles from the usual hacks on Manny’s tired act and the way his return has disrupted the team’s chemistry, and how this has left poor Juan Pierre hanging out to dry at a time when his career was undergoing a renaissance. That train is never late.
Still, the bottom line is that if fifth starters, fourth relievers, and reintegrating a wayward superstar are your major concerns at this point in the season, chances are you’ve got a championship-caliber ballclub on your hands. While there’s plenty to scoff at on Colletti’s resumé, he and his staff also deserve credit for scaring up useful cogs like Blake and Wolf as well as a handful of unlikely stopgaps to fit around the team’s young nucleus. Such players have helped put the Dodgers in their strongest position in years, and they remain the NL’s team to beat going forward.