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Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Dodgers' ability to get on base keeps team in pennant race

Often forgotten about the 2009 Dodgers is that they were a good on-base percentage team – tops in the National League at .346. They say pitching wins championships, but being able to put runners on base, time and time again, plays a pretty big role, too.

The individual OBPs will fluctuate this season – in ways we can't really predict – but with an even split of players above and below the age of 28, the team's OBP might be very much the same.

Scanning the offense:

Russell Martin, C (.352 in 2009): Despite his '09 power outage, Martin maintained an OBP within shouting distance of his .373 career mark entering the year, and reflective of his .025 drop (compared with 2008) in batting average on balls in play. Even in September, by which time his season was all but lost offensively, Martin drew 13 walks (nine unintentional). He OBPed .327 in the month, despite his BABIP being an unlucky .200.

Even if stays a worse slugger than Juan Pierre, Martin hasn't lost the ability to work his way to first base. I know there's a lot of cynicism about Martin at this point – and his new physique only adds to the mystery – but you still have a 27-year-old player who underperformed for one year but has been historically strong in this area.

James Loney, 1B (.357): Loney walked more than he struck out for the first time in his career last year, indicating a better handle of the strike zone. If he decides to swing more for the fences, that could change, but the odds are better that, at age 26 in May, he will improve. His OBP in the second half of 2009 was .366.

Ronnie Belliard, Blake DeWitt and Jamey Carroll, 2B (.325/.245/.355): No surprise that this appears the most tenuous spot of the offense. Last year, Orlando Hudson on-based .357 and Belliard, in his short stint out West, .398. That's going to be tough for this trio to match, despite Carroll's ability here. A breakout season for DeWitt, who OBPed .344 in '08, would help – as would better work off the bench to replace the 204 plate appearances given to Mark Loretta (.309).

Rafael Furcal, SS (.335): I won't make any bold predictions for the 32-year-old Furcal to improve, despite his better look in September. There's potential for an uptick if he stays healthy this year, but that's a big if. Furcal's backup, whoever it is, figures to be OBP-challenged – though perhaps no worse than Juan Castro (.311) was.

Casey Blake, 3B (.363): Blake's OBP soared unexpectedly last year to a near-career-high .363 at age 35, compared to a .338 career mark. He'll slide.

Manny Ramirez, LF (.418): Ramirez OBPed .492 before his suspension – we won't see that player again. But in the period from his suspension return to his Bobbleslam, his OBP was still .429, and so the overall 2009 figure he posted last year still seems mostly within reach.

No. 4 outfielder Juan Pierre had a surprising .365 on-base percentage – not as good as Ramirez's even in August and September, but higher than Reed Johnson and friends will probably have. The Dodgers' OBP should still be strong in left field, if not quite as strong.

Matt Kemp, CF (.352): Kemp's OBP wasn't a career-high – in fact, it was only .010 higher than his 2007 batting average. This is a 25-year-old who was rapidly growing but wasn't maxing his on-base potential last year. While the .266 OBP he had in September gives pause, bet on Kemp to step it up.

Andre Ethier, RF (.361): Since his major-league debut in 2006, Ethier has simply been a strong OBP man. His career-low is .350, and he's been above .360 in three of four years. The fact that he has had some slumps underscores just how hot he gets the rest of the time. If pitchers decide to challenge Ramirez more, Ethier's the guy they might be most careful with – I'm not sure a .400 OBP is out of the question.

So, second base, shortstop, third base and left field figure to slide. Catcher, first base, center field and right field figure to rise. Obviously, things won't all go according to plan, but with any kind of luck at all, the Dodgers should be able keep innings going like they did last year. That's one reason why they still should be taken seriously in the 2010 pennant race.

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