It’s been 11 days now since that strange night in St. Louis when Clayton Kershaw got hit around in the third inning and the Dodgers’ bats were snuffed out by rookie Michael Wacha, ending the Dodgers’ run in the NLCS. It’s a little under five months until the Dodgers open 2014 by, perhaps, renewing hostilities with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the other hemisphere.
Don Mattingly already dubbed the potential for bad blood in that season-opening Australia series, “The Rumble Down Under.”
So, as the Dodgers just begin to devise their plans for this offseason, let’s pause and do our final set of grades for the 2013 season, a strange and exciting year.
The playoffs told the tale of the Dodgers’ season-long hitting trend. When the main guys were healthy, the Dodgers were disconcertingly deep and frighteningly powerful. When the main guys were out, they were a pop gun. The Dodgers pummeled an Atlanta Braves staff that led the NL in ERA and then, after Joe Kelly cracked Hanley Ramirez’s rib three batters into the NLCS, they just stopped scoring.
The stark contrast speaks to some shrewd moves made by the front office in trying to ramp up quickly and some serious deficiencies in a farm system ravaged by Frank McCourt’s penny pinching. When Allen Craig got hurt in August, the St. Louis Cardinals could bring up Matt Adams. When Hanley Ramirez got hurt in March, the Dodgers started the season with Justin Sellers. Think about that.
The Dodgers’ clubhouse might have more star-caliber players in their prime years than any locker room in the majors. But that just obscures the fact that, like the classic Dodger teams, they’re really all about starting pitching. Led by Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the Dodgers’ starters had a 3.13 ERA, beating out the No. 2 rotation, the Cardinals’, by 0.29 runs -- a yawning gap.
When you look at the five Dodger players who are finalists for Gold Gloves, they all seem worthy. Zack Greinke is like an extra infielder on the pitcher’s mound; Mark Ellis is the steadiest at his position in baseball; Adrian Gonzalez tries plays with high degrees of difficulty and almost always pulls them off; A.J. Ellis is an ace pitch caller and good thrower; Juan Uribe looks unorthodox but almost always makes the play, even as he creeps into his mid-30s.
But it also gives a mistaken impression of the Dodgers’ overall defense. Only the Milwaukee Brewers committed more errors than the Dodgers’ 109 and the Dodgers probably need to think about moving Ramirez back to third base before his lack of range becomes more exposed in a bigger sample. They were also lacking a dynamic glove in center field, even when everyone was healthy. Yasiel Puig is a circus, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way. Overall, the Dodgers have a little work to do when it comes to evaluating their catching and throwing this winter.
Don Mattingly will be back next year, both sides acknowledged last week, which gives us an opportunity to discuss his strengths and shortcomings as a manager. When the Dodgers were 9 ½ games back and on the brink of imploding, as disappointing, expensive teams tend to do, Mattingly -- the players say -- continued to come to work in a good mood and, generally, to back his players. It might seem like a small thing, but if you were feeling like Mattingly was feeling those days, would you have found it easy to work with a smile? It kept the environment in the Dodgers clubhouse from growing toxic and the team stayed together and found its footing.
When the playoffs started, the second-guessing in the postgame interview room seemed to take Mattingly by surprise at times. He didn't articulate his thinking clearly. That shouldn’t happen again. Whatever the dynamic was between Mattingly and his bench coach, Trey Hillman, the Dodgers broke that up by firing Hillman. Mattingly, a close friend of Hillman’s, probably isn’t happy about it, but it probably won’t hurt to bring in a bench coach who has a different set of eyes and maybe a different set of philosophies. Creative tension can be good.
The Dodgers seem to have settled on good equilibrium in their front office, with president Stan Kasten handling many of the major financial transactions and general manager Ned Colletti working with his crew of assistants and top scouts to find players from other organizations and other countries that can add a boost to the team’s push. That dynamic seems to be working fine.
Kershaw blamed himself, but nobody else in the room seemed to be blaming anybody aside from the Cardinals’ pitching and the collective lack of response to it. Without Ramirez, the Dodgers just got beaten by a better team, or at least a better pitching staff, and most people seemed to feel that way.
Mattingly mentioned that there were events in the clubhouse that never became public because he protected his players from negative publicity. But even if there were tensions that arose, they were probably no different than those that pop up around every other pro sports team. For a group that comes from a lot of places and earns massive amounts of money, the character of the team seemed to be solid.
STATE OF CONTENTION
The Dodgers flooded their farm system with college arms last June and they’ll probably do it again this June. They’ve been picking up players all over the world, sometimes at extravagant prices, such as the $28 million deal for Cuban second baseman Alexander Guerrero, and sometimes in more anonymous ways. The point is the Dodgers are working hard to get to where the Cardinals are -- with a strong organization that isn’t reliant on overpriced free agents to succeed. Until they get there, they might be in an awkward in-between phase for a while, but if they can manage to get a little bit younger this winter, they certainly have the talent, resources and leadership to contend year after year.