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Saturday, August 25, 2012
Delving into some particulars

By Mark Saxon

MLB Illustration
Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford (next season) will give the Dodgers a different look.

LOS ANGELES -- This seems like an opportune time to ask how much better the Los Angeles Dodgers actually got by adding Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto and -- eventually -- Carl Crawford.

You may have heard about the little trade the Dodgers just whipped up with the Boston Red Sox and, if you follow baseball and breathe air, you probably have an opinion.

Did they turn themselves into the favorite to win the NL West? A darkhorse contender for the World Series? The favorite to hoist the trophy with all those little flags this October? Or, did they just set themselves up for a very expensive, very embarrassing flop?

Is there a more futile question you could ask right now?

“We have to play games and see how it goes,” said Matt Kemp, when he had finished describing how excited he was over Saturday’s trade. “I can’t predict the future.”

That’s the thing about baseball. Those last 35 games are coming, piling up on top of one another until it’s over, and nobody knows what’s going to happen between now and Oct. 3, even after the Dodgers made the biggest trade in their history.

We don’t know, but maybe we can shed a little light. Let’s take a closer look at the four players the Dodgers added and ask how much they can help them win a title in the next two seasons.

Adrian Gonzalez

Is he in decline at age 30 because he is hitting fewer home runs every year? It’s a pretty linear pattern and that line isn’t pointing up. Gonzalez hit 40 home runs for the San Diego Padres in 2009, 31 the next year, 27 the year after that. After his second-deck shot off Josh Johnson in the first inning Saturday night, he has 16 so far in 2012.

It's real, but are we missing the point? Gonzalez is not, after all, a swing-from-the-heels slugger. He’s a line-drive hitter with power who has a knack for driving in runs. Even with his power in decline, Gonzalez drove in 86 runs for the Red Sox, largely because he was batting .398 with runners in scoring position.

It doesn’t matter how you drive them in as long as they're in.

“He’s just legit,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “He’s good against lefties, righties, doesn’t matter. The swing is just smooth and easy.”

He’s not just a guy with a bat either. The first thing he did as a Dodger was to make a play on a Donovan Solano sharp grounder deep in the hole and make a crisp throw to Clayton Kershaw for the out. Gonzalez is a three-time Gold Glove winner.

And unlike some of the other players the Dodgers have added recently who have spotty reputations, Gonzalez has a squeaky-clean rep inside the game.

“Adrian has to be the quietest 30-home run, 100-RBI guy on the planet,” one veteran scout said.

Josh Beckett

If ever there was a player who looked as if he needed a fresh start, it’s Beckett. At the center of the controversy that erupted when the Red Sox collapsed at the end of 2011, he wasn’t exactly performing at a high level this season.

He hasn’t won since July 15. He has allowed four runs or more in six of his last eight starts.

Does Beckett, 32, have something in reserve that could emerge in a new environment? The numbers suggest the Dodgers aren’t exactly getting him on the way up. Beckett’s average fastball velocity in 2006 was 94.7 mph, according to Fangraphs.com. It’s 91.6 this season. He throws more cutters now and fewer curveballs.

“He does not have the stuff that he had when he was real good, but who else does?” the scout said.

Beckett is more of a wait-and-hope situation. The Dodgers probably wouldn’t have taken on Beckett’s contract if the Red Sox didn’t require it to part with Gonzalez. He has a reputation for ignoring advice from coaches, so we’ll see how things go with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and Mattingly.

On the other hand, the Dodgers just lost Chad Billingsley to a recurrence of elbow pain and Beckett is probably better than anyone they could have brought up in-house. Plus, if they reach the playoffs, he's tended to perform at his best with the most on the line.

Carl Crawford

He just underwent Tommy John surgery on his left elbow and he probably won’t play for the Dodgers until May 2013 or so.

In some ways, Crawford is the key to this whole package. He was one of the most dynamic players in the American League before he went to Boston, where he got off to a brutally slow start, a situation that quickly snowballed.

Mattingly played in New York. He knows what it can be like in those East Coast cities when things start off badly. Crawford chose to go to the team that offered him the most money in the winter after the 2010 season and, in retrospect, that may not have been a wise move.

“That seems like a misfit,” Mattingly said.

If he comes back healthy, the Dodgers could have one of the best outfields in the game with Crawford in left, Matt Kemp in center and Andre Ethier in right. They also could have one of the most exciting top-of-the-order hitters in the game, a player who has stolen 60 bases, a rarity nowadays.

He’s only 31. He’s also a close friend of Kemp’s.

“That guy right there is probably one of the most exciting players in the game,” Kemp said.

The scout added, “He did not just forget how to play, but did not react very well to all the negative attention that comes with struggles in Boston. When he gets healthy, I expect him to be the C.C. of old.”

Nick Punto

At 34, Punto isn’t exactly a scintillating option off the bench. He’s batting .200 this season and has hit 15 home runs in 12 seasons in the major leagues.

On the other hand, he plays good defense at multiple positions and has tended to win. He can do the little things, like get down a bunt when you need one. He might fit better in the National League than the American League and he could prove useful in the playoffs, if the Dodgers get there.

He has played in five playoff series and he got a World Series ring with the St. Louis Cardinals last year.

Right now, after the most stunning trade in Dodgers history raised everyone's hopes, those are some of the traits that come into focus.