Saturday, March 29, 2014
Dodgers 2014: Could this be the year?
By Mark Saxon
The ESPN Major League Baseball summit is an interesting experience, a blending of all the different kinds of people who cover baseball for various platforms at the company all crammed into one basement room in Bristol, talking about the game.
The final segment this past February was for story ideas and the second question that arose -- after are the Yankees any good -- was: Are the Dodgers any good?
There were plenty of doubts raised. Matt Kemp's health is as shaky as ever. Is Juan Uribe really going to hold up as the everyday third baseman? How valuable is Andre Ethier when he hardly hits lefties? Hanley Ramirez doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in his pitcher when he’s got a glove on his hand and he’s standing at shortstop. Even if he’s healthy, does Josh Beckett have anything left?
Hmm. All true, but guess what? It was also all true last October when, despite nearly everything that could go wrong going wrong, the Dodgers fell two games short of the World Series.
This is a team built with so much talent, it doesn’t need to get breaks to win. In fact, it can get practically nothing but bad breaks and still barge into the playoffs and scare the rest of the league to death. We saw that last year, when the Dodgers churned up the disabled-list transaction wire and still took the St. Louis Cardinals to Game 6 of the NLCS -- without Beckett, without Kemp and practically without Ramirez or Ethier, who were hobbled.
What’s more, the Dodgers don’t even have to play that well to win. They looked sluggish offensively in the opening series in Game 1, then error-prone and wild in Game 2 and still swept the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Australia. So, start with this: The Dodgers are 2-0 and 28 teams in baseball still haven’t played a game.
There are a lot of ways to summarize why the Dodgers look like the favorites to win the World Series, but you really don’t have to get much deeper than to point out they have the best pitcher in the game, Clayton Kershaw, the best hitter in the National League, Ramirez, and probably the best bullpen in the league. We haven’t even gotten to Zack Greinke, who has the ability and the focus to give Kershaw a run for the money in the Cy Young race.
Nor have we gotten to Kemp, who has serious questions about his ankle, but looked better than ever in batting practice this spring. If he’s healthy and, as he says, still a “beast,” the Dodgers have an excellent chance to win more than 100 games. Then there’s Yasiel Puig, who might be the most gifted athlete in baseball and, if he can learn to listen to coaches and fellow players, still has MVP potential.
Everyone likes to poke holes in this team and, of course, there are a few soft spots. Second base has the potential to be a season-long headache, if not a circus. Some scouts have already surmised that Cuban signee Alex Guerrero is going to be a bust and the Dodgers tried to protect themselves by bringing in a bunch of veterans to compete this spring. It looks like they’ll go with a Dee Gordon-Justin Turner platoon for now, with Chone Figgins available. Not exactly an intimidating array of options there.
The Dodgers could really cement themselves as playoff locks by reviving a trade proposal from last season and sending a pitching prospect to Anaheim in exchange for steadily productive second baseman Howie Kendrick.
Defense will be a problem. Ramirez isn’t a good shortstop and none of the options at second will remind anyone of Roberto Alomar. The Dodgers’ options in center field are all below average defensively.
Some people will say that manager Don Mattingly weighs the team down with poor in-game decisions, but none of those people give Mattingly proper credit for smoothly managing a potentially combustible array of well-paid egos and, oh yeah, Puig, the Wild Horse. He’ll also have Tim Wallach as his bench coach this season, which could add to a little different in-game tone.
If everything goes wrong again, the Dodgers look like a playoff team. If Puig stays focused and they avoid the injuries that almost torpedoed them last season, look out. They could tear through the league, win their first World Series in 26 years and hardly even look like they’re trying.