First-quarter progress report: What's missing?

May, 14, 2014
May 14
12:07
PM PT
Yasiel PuigPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesYasiel Puig is leading the Dodgers with 30 RBIs this season.


LOS ANGELES -- Before a couple of Yasiel Puig-sparked victories over the Miami Marlins, who must have been a little down after learning they had lost ace Jose Fernandez for the season, the Dodgers had been playing their most lackluster baseball of 2014.

Oddly enough, they were playing so listlessly, it made them feel pretty good about the future.

“I really don’t think we’re that worried. It’s not like we’re playing that great,” pitcher Dan Haren said.

Perhaps they’re relying on it too much at times, but there is a feeling in the Dodgers’ clubhouse that they could be a sleeping giant, one that -- with a healthy Clayton Kershaw and an offense capable of doing far more than it has shown -- should be able to approximate last year’s meteoric ascent from a stumbling start.

After 41 games -- just more than one-quarter of the season -- the Dodgers are 22-19 and 3 games out of first place. After 41 games last season, they were 17-24 and seven games out of last place. You want to talk about lackluster? It was about this time last year that manager Don Mattingly publicly blasted his team’s fight and energy level and benched outfielder Andre Ethier for a game.

The extent of Mattingly’s wrath this season has been a team meeting in which he prodded them to be ready to play and reminded them of how teams reach the World Series.

How do you sum up the Dodgers’ first quarter of 2014?

“We’ve had spurts where we were really good and we’ve had spurts that weren’t good and we’ve had spurts that were right in the middle,” Adrian Gonzalez said. “Overall, I think our won-loss can get better.”

They had better hope so.

1Q MVP: Puig

You could have made an argument for Gonzalez until he tailed off drastically after April. You could build a campaign for Dee Gordon, who has been a stunning surprise both as a hitter and a fielder and a massive nuisance on the bases. Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett and Dan Haren have all pitched well enough to merit mentions.

But Puig is clearly the guy.

He weathered a ho-hum start and has been the team’s hottest hitter this month. But it’s the overall maturation in his game that has been such a boon for the team. He is still diving for any ball in the vicinity, crashing into walls and trying throws with degree-of-difficulty marks bordering on impossible. But he has also learned to keep his throws low enough to be cut off and he has grown into a patient hitter overnight. The surprise isn’t that he leads the team in OPS (.980) and RBIs (30), it’s that he leads them in walks (18).

He keeps this up and you’ll hear a lot of “MVP!” chants at Dodger Stadium this summer. They won’t be talking about team MVP.

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziZack Greinke stepped up his game and pitched like an ace in Clayton Kershaw's absence.
1Q Cy Young: Greinke

He doesn’t lead the Dodgers in innings pitched. Haren has given them an extra five innings in the same number of starts, which is not trivial given the overworked bullpen. Greinke and Beckett are tied with a 2.38 ERA.

But what Greinke (6-1) gave the Dodgers as they weathered six weeks without Kershaw was presence. He looked and pitched like an ace. Aside from Kershaw, Greinke is the only strikeout pitcher in the Dodgers’ rotation. He is averaging 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings and, when a team faces Greinke, it knows it’s in for a battle. Overall, it has been his unwillingness to have a bad start that has been such steadying force in a rotation that has seen a bit of turmoil.

1Q Comeback Player: Beckett

The Dodgers signed Paul Maholm in part because they weren’t sure Beckett would actually pitch. There aren’t enough cases of pitchers coming off surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome to have any degree of certainty how Beckett would respond, particularly since he is now 33 years old.

He reinvented himself. After a conversation with catcher A.J. Ellis, he decided to throw more curveballs and off-speed pitches and his fastball has been livelier than it was last season, touching 93 mph at times. He isn’t going to be the guy who intimidated hitters as he was at 22, but he has given the Dodgers far more than they could have asked.

1Q Grade: B-

Three games over .500 is fine. It’s in the thick of everything, pretty much right where California Chrome was before he pounced and won the Kentucky Derby. But there were times when this team seemed to lack a sense of urgency, a phrase Mattingly has uttered multiple times already. We’ll see whether Puig’s energy again can rub off on these guys or whether the front office might find a way to add a spark from the minor leagues or via a trade. The bullpen needs to get a breather, but mostly it needs to stop walking people and to hold late leads.

The prime worry is a defense that ranks 27th in the majors in fielding percentage. If the Dodgers don’t iron out some of those problems -- and they’ve steadied things a bit in recent games -- it could be the issue that swallows up their season.

In general, you get a sense that better things are to come because Kershaw will be pitching once every five games and because most of the position players have room for improvement.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Yasiel Puig
BA HR RBI R
.296 16 69 92
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
WC. Kershaw 21
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239