Dodger Thoughts: Jamey Carroll

Jamey Carroll is apparently going to bid farewell to the Dodgers for a two-year deal with Minnesota that will make him the Twins' starting shortstop, completing his journey from "we signed who for what?" to what became one of the nicest free-agent pickups in recent Dodger history.

It's not necessarily a bad thing that Carroll is leaving the Dodgers now. Though he exceeded expectations in the past two years, at times remarkably so, Carroll will be 38 in February. He will be paid according to how he produced in 2010-11 when he had arguably the two best seasons of his career, as opposed to how he produced before that. In other words, a return engagement with the Dodgers might easily have turned out to be disappointing.

What is clear is that a guy like the 2010-11 version of Jamey Carroll is someone the 2012 Dodgers could very much use.

Previously on Dodger Thoughts:

Remembering 2011: Jamey Carroll
Here's a word for Jamey Carroll: talented

Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireJamey Carroll (19)

The setup: Carroll was the sung hero of the 2010 Dodgers, exceeding expectations at the start of his two-year contract with a .379 on-base percentage in 133 games, 69 of them played at shortstop in support of an oft-injured Rafael Furcal. For 2011, he was once again slated for a bench role, but this time with everyone prepared for him to play often, given the frail state of the Dodger infield.

The closeup: Yep, you could say Carroll found regular time again – at age 37, he came to the plate 510 times, ranking fourth on the Dodgers this season. He started on Opening Day and in 111 games overall (57 at second base, 54 at shortstop). He played in 58 of the Dodgers' first 60 games and sat out only 16 of 161. The fact is, he could have even played more. Come July, when there was only one opening for a so-called reserve in the starting infield, Aaron Miles was taking away playing time even though Carroll had the Dodgers' third-highest on-base percentage in 2011. And then, of course, Dee Gordon entered the picture.

As it happens, Carroll did go through a summertime slump, with his on-base percentage falling to .329 and his OPS to .636 over July and August. He rebounded a bit in September and finished the season with a .359 on-base percentage (down .020 from 2010) and .347 slugging percentage. That includes three four-hit games between May 20 and June 11; he also walked in two of those games. Two statistical oddities from Carroll:

Overall, among infielders with at least 800 plate appearances, Carroll has the highest on-base percentage of any in Los Angeles Dodger history, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
                                                 

Rk Player OBP PA From To Age
1 Jamey Carroll .368 924 2010 2011 36-37
2 Jeff Kent .367 2146 2005 2008 37-40
3 Mike Sharperson .363 1271 1987 1993 25-31
4 Eddie Murray .359 1983 1989 1997 33-41
5 Ron Cey .359 6108 1971 1982 23-34
6 Jim Gilliam .358 4893 1958 1966 29-37
7 Billy Grabarkewitz .357 966 1969 1972 23-26
8 Eric Young .355 1366 1992 1999 25-32
9 Todd Zeile .352 842 1997 1998 31-32
10 Rafael Furcal .351 2802 2006 2011 28-33
Coming attractions: Having more than justified the two-year, $3.85 million (plus incentives) contract he signed in December 2009, Carroll is a free agent, and there will be a lot of sentiment toward resigning him. Keep in mind that Carroll shouldn't be expected to produce as much in the future as he has in the past, though we said the same thing two years ago and look what happened. At a minimum, it's reasonable to think that Carroll 2012 would be at least as effective as Miles 2011 (salaries aside). Some team will want Carroll, that's for sure.
Jamey Carroll called a players' only meeting before Thursday's dominant 6-0 victory by Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers. Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has details. Meetings like this can't save a season, but it sounds like it was a positive event.

ESPNLosAngeles.com also has a piece that you might call "The State of Vin Scully," featuring an interview with the man himself.

The biggest local baseball news is the Angels' promotion of 19-year-old super-prospect Mike Trout to replace an injured Peter Bourjos. Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com has more. The timing is funny because this was happening right around the time that Rich Lederer of Baseball Analysts, at Thursday's fun Fangraphs panel (thanks to everyone there for hosting), was extolling the virtues of Trout, saying that he would sign the player to a 10-year-contract right now.

Remember Jamey Carroll?

July, 6, 2011
7/06/11
12:15
PM PT
Aaron Miles' bruised right elbow, which could sideline him for a brief time, gives Jamey Carroll a chance to get back into a Dodger lineup that had suddenly become hard for him to crack.

Carroll, who has consistently been one of the Dodgers' top players this season, has only two starts and 11 plate appearances (2 for 10 with a walk) in the Dodgers' past eight games. Carroll had played 74 of the Dodgers' first 79 games this season, starting 63 of them.

With the hot-hitting Miles' increased playing time, one can understand how Carroll's workload lessened, but at the same time, it seems that a struggling team might want to take advantage of an effective player while it still can. Carroll's .365 on-base percentage remains third on the Dodgers, behind Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.

Besides Miles, it's mainly Juan Uribe who has kept Carroll out of the Dodger lineup. Uribe strengthens the Dodger defense when he plays third base, but at the plate, he's been giving a lot of that back. With Uribe signed to a three-year deal, the Dodgers have little choice but to hope that he regains what offensive form he had, but it's been hard to see one of the team's better bats in Carroll sidelined in the process.
Josh Wilker (yes, I do mean Wilker this time) has been doing a lot of retrospection on "The Bad News Bears" in support of his new book (which I read last weekend and quite enjoyed). Today, he writes insightfully about the Toby Whitewood character, and in the process links to a conversation with actor David Stambaugh from last year at The Hollywood Interview. It's all really interesting stuff for fans of the original movie, but here's the big reveal, from my perspective:

"For a long time," Stambaugh says, "we didn’t know how the movie would end, because they actually filmed the last play of the big game both ways. The one they used has Kelly (Jackie Earl Haley) getting tagged out, but they also shot footage of an extra man on base, Kelly making his home run, and the Bears winning the game. Michael Ritchie took some of us out to dinner a few days before the premiere, and that’s when he told us what had been decided. I think we were all pretty happy about it. It seemed like the more authentic ending."

* * *
  • Jamey Carroll gave a lengthy interview to Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors.
  • Dodger minor leaguer Scott Van Slyke was named most valuable player of the Southern League All-Star Game. He drove in the game's first run with a single before stealing second and scoring, and later doubled and scored a second run. This season, Van Slyke has 22 doubles in 225 at-bats, a .408 on-base percentage and .516 slugging percentage.
  • Update: Bryan Stow's condition has been upgraded from critical to serious, reports The Associated Press. "Doctors there said Wednesday that Stow is now breathing without a ventilator and has been able to intermittently follow some basic commands."

Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesJamey Carroll had four hits at the plate Saturday - here was his fifth. He upended Troy Tulowitzki in the fifth inning to break up a potential double play and cause a throwing error.
1) I don't even want to think about what would have happened if Tony Gwynn Jr. hadn't been in left field at the end of Saturday's 11-7 Dodger victory. For a look at the catch, head to Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness.

2) Speaking of defense, now I understand what the scouts were saying about Dee Gordon's. His ability to make spectacular plays is enough to convince you that he is the real deal at shortstop. And from what I've seen, he has been solid on the routine plays in his first week as well. Even more than the speed, Roadrunner's defense has gotten me believing in him.

3) There's still the matter of Gordon's bat. In 23 at-bats, Gordon has seven hits and seven strikeouts, zero walks and zero extra-base hits. His batting line makes Aaron Miles, who got his sixth double and third walk of the season Saturday like Adam Dunn.

Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesAaron Miles throws out Eric Young Jr. in the third inning Saturday.
4) Speaking of Miles, I totally get Tony Jackson's musings at ESPNLosAngeles.com about whether Miles and Jamey Carroll have earned more playing time. My quibble would be grouping Miles and Carroll together. Carroll (.378 on-base percentage, .381 slugging percentage) has absolutely earned a spot ahead of Juan Uribe – let Uribe try to prove himself as a hero off the bench. Miles (.319 on-base percentage, .350 slugging percentage), owner of the emptiest .300 batting average in Dodger history, according to Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A., isn't an upgrade over Casey Blake when Blake is healthy. Blake sat out Saturday's game with a stiff neck.

5) Still, if the Dodgers started a lineup of Miles at third, Gordon at short, Carroll at second and platooned Blake and James Loney at first, how much would you object?

6) Scott Elbert and Colorado are not friends. Elbert in Denver the past two seasons: 12 batters faced, nine baserunners (.750 OBP). Elbert everywhere else the past two seasons: 30 plate appearances, seven baserunners (.233 OBP).

7) Carroll moved into eight place in the National League batting race, joining Matt Kemp (third) and Andre Ethier (fourth). The last time the Dodgers finished a year with three of the top 10 in batting average was 1955, with Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo and Duke Snider. The last time the Dodgers had three .300 hitters was 2006 with Rafael Furcal, Kenny Lofton and Nomar Garciaparra. (Here's a full list of Dodger .300 hitters.)

8) Don't miss this morning's note about the Dodger Thoughts comments.

* * *
  • Don Newcombe was interviewed by Scott Bair of the North County Times.
  • We started talking about this in the Dodger Thoughts comments Saturday: MLB is mulling a realignment that would send an NL team (say, Houston or Florida) to the AL and possibly eliminate divisions altogether, with five playoff teams per league, reports Buster Olney of ESPN.com. Keith Olbermann takes down the idea at his baseball blog.
  • Kenley Jansen and Hong-Chih Kuo are doing well on their minor-league rehab assignements, reports Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.
  • The Hector Gimenez dream has been put in storage. Gimenez, who had been on the disabled list, cleared waivers and has been assigned to Double-A Chattanooga. Juan Castro has accepted his assignment to Triple-A Albuquerque.
  • Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness argues that it's time to give A.J. Ellis a chance. Of course, that was true before the Dodgers signed Dioner Navarro to a $1 million contract in the offseason.
  • Randy Keisler, who won a contract with the Dodgers via their open tryout this spring, pitched seven innings of one-run ball to win his second straight game for Albuquerque on Saturday. Christopher Jackson of Albuquerque Baseball Examiner has the story.
How does this happen? Is the lesson to bet on on-base percentage once players hit their 30s? Or is this just an anomaly?

Jamey Carroll

Signing date: December 18, 2009
Contract terms: Two years, $3.85 million ($1 million signing bonus, $1.05 million in 2010, $1.8 million in 2011), plus incentives for plate appearances
Age when signed: 35 years, eight months
Performance over previous two years: 206 games, 656 plate appearances, .355 on-base percentage, .343 slugging percentage, adjusted OPS of 89 (100 being average)
Performance as a Dodger: 195 games, 656 plate appearances, .374 on-base percentage, .348 slugging percentage, adjusted OPS of 103

Juan Uribe

Signing date: November 30, 2010
Contract terms: Three years, $21 million ($5 million in 2011, $8 million in 2012, $7 million in 2013, plus $1 million in 2014)
Age when signed: 31 years, four months
Performance over previous two years: 270 games, 1,007 plate appearances, .318 on-base percentage, .464 slugging percentage, adjusted OPS of 106
Performance as a Dodger: 46 games, 177 plate appearances, .282 on-base percentage, .319 slugging percentage, adjusted OPS of 70

Contract information source: Cot's Baseball Contracts
Andre Ethier and Rod Barajas are being held off the disabled list, according to Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com.

In addition, Aaron Miles has returned to the playing field. He'll give Jamey Carroll, who has played in 46 of 48 games this season, a theoretical day off — although it seems very likely we could see Carroll off the bench.

Dodger batting leaders for May appear in the chart below. James Loney, who is batting third in the Dodgers' latest makeshift lineup, does in fact have the third-best May OPS among tonight's starting nine:
Update: More from Jackson:
Ethier said he woke up without soreness one day after injuring his left big toe, left elbow and lower back when he banged into the right field wall chasing a ball.

"I'm going to go out and see how I feel [during batting practice] and go from there,'' he said. "I don't know if it was a good sign or a bad sign, but I really wasn't all that sore when I woke up this morning.''

Mattingly said he wouldn't hesitate to use the left-handed-hitting Ethier as a pinch hitter, but with the Dodgers scheduled to face Astros lefty J.A. Happ on Tuesday night, Mattingly said that might be a good excuse to rest Ethier for one more day.

Barajas, who suffered a sprained right wrist on a play at the plate, was sent for an MRI exam on Monday morning. Just as the X-rays he underwent on Sunday, the MRI showed no fracture and nothing seriously wrong.

"It's still sore, but it hasn't gotten any worse,'' Barajas said. "I think I could [play], but I love to play. I feel like I could tough it out even if I'm not 100 percent.'' ...

"At this point, we have a couple of guys we can put back there [to catch],'' Mattingly said, adding that infielder Russell Mitchell is his primary emergency catcher for now. "But obviously, you don't anticipate Navarro getting hurt.''

Meanwhile, third baseman Casey Blake (left elbow) and reliever Blake Hawksworth (right groin) were set to begin their minor league rehabilitation assignments on Monday night at Triple-A Albuquerque and advanced Class A Rancho Cucamonga, respectively. Outfielder Marcus Thames (right quad) is tentatively slated to report to Albuquerque on Friday, and Mattingly said he likely will need a longer rehab than Blake, whom team officials hope to activate in about a week.

Ric Tapia/Icon SMIAt age 37, Jamey Carroll has the highest on-base percentage of any infielder in Los Angeles Dodger history (minimum 500 plate appearances).
For the past year, people have used the words “gritty” and “gamer” to describe Jamey Carroll so often that it’s become a reflex. They mean it in the best possible way, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that — although other players don’t get enough credit for these qualities — Carroll qualifies.

In any case, I can’t help thinking that the words undersell what Carroll has brought to the Dodgers. “Gritty” risks implying that Carroll’s game is all about the effort and not about the results.

Since coming to the Dodgers in 2010, Carroll has racked up a season’s worth of plate appearances, 562 in all. And over that period, he has had an on-base percentage of .377. That places Carroll 12th all-time in Los Angeles Dodger history for players with at least that many times at the plate. Among those who have played at least 100 games in the infield, he is No. 1.

And this is coming in his late 30s, when more likely than not, he should be declining. That’s just flat-out good.

The point is, I’m not sure that Carroll’s grit is all that unusual. There are hundreds of players in the majors and minors who work every bit as hard as Carroll does — and get varying results, from superstar to never seeing the majors. What’s more unique about Carroll is his talent, a combination of his effort and his ability.

When I think of Carroll and what he has meant to Los Angeles, particularly with the frequent injuries to Rafael Furcal, I’m happy for his effort, but I’m plain thankful for his talent, which has made the Dodgers a better team than they'd otherwise have been. If it weren’t for the talent, people would be all too eager to shake hands with Carroll and show him and his grit the door.
What has seemed so inevitable for some time now has finally come to pass: Jonathan Broxton is hurt.

At the same time comes just about the last thing anyone wanted to think possible: Andre Ethier is also ailing.

Ethier, whose hot start in 2010 ended abruptly almost exactly one year ago with a pinky injury, has been nursing left elbow inflammation for two weeks, reports Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com. He was pulled from today's starting lineup about an hour before gametime.
... Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said an hour or so before removing Ethier from the lineup that Ethier believes the issue might have started during a series more than two weeks ago against the St. Louis Cardinals.

"We're keeping an eye on it," Mattingly said. ...

Mattingly said before the game that even with the hitting streak on the line, he would have no hesitation to use Ethier as a pinch hitter in a key situation on a day when he wasn't in the starting lineup.

"No, because we're trying to win a ballgame," Mattingly said.

Broxton has been shut down with right elbow pain and will have an MRI exam, reports Jackson:
... Mattingly said no determination will be made on whether to place Broxton on the 15-day disabled list until the results of that exam are known.

Broxton, who apparently already had left Dodger Stadium to undergo the exam, wasn't available for comment.

"He came in today complaining about some stuff," said Mattingly, who wasn't sure how long Broxton had been experiencing discomfort. "I told him it was honorable that he wanted to pitch through that, but that in the end, it doesn't do him any good. It's not fair to him, and it's really not fair to anybody else either."

Broxton won't pitch until after the MRI, and Vicente Padilla will be the team's first-choice closer for now. ...

"[Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt] and I were looking at tape," Mattingly said. "The way the ball was coming out, we felt like something was wrong. We were going to bring him in this morning, but [trainer] Stan [Conte] came in and said Brox came in talking about pain. Brox actually came in with him and told us what was going on.'' ...

Mattingly said that if Broxton goes on the DL, the team likely will recall reliever Kenley Jansen, who was optioned to Double-A Chattanooga on Sunday.

For all the talk about Broxton's mental makeup, his biggest brain cramp will have been if he has been keeping his soreness a secret.

Since June 27, Broxton has pitched 42 1/3 innings and allowed 53 hits and 32 walks (6.5 walks per nine innings) while striking out 35 (7.4 per nine innings), for a 7.02 ERA.

From the start of the 2006 season through June 26, 2010, Broxton pitched 336 innings, allowing 254 hits and 119 walks (3.2 walks per nine innings) while striking out 446 (11.9 per nine innings), for a 2.60 ERA.

Ken Gurnick of MLB.com added the following:
Mattingly said one of the immediate issues was to find an MRI tube large enough for Broxton to get his 300-pound frame into.

"I'm serious," said Mattingly.

Jay Gibbons' 10-pitch at-bat Tuesday was enough to convince Mattingly he was ready for a start in today's day game. He was originally slated for left field, then moved to right after Ethier was scratched, with Tony Gwynn, Jr. taking left.

Russ Mitchell also gets his first start, as Jamey Carroll, who has played in 30 of 31 games this season and hasn't missed an inning since April 18, gets a rest and Juan Uribe moves to shortstop.

That leaves Matt Kemp as the lineup's main anchor. It's no 29-game hitting streak, but Kemp has hit in 27 of 31 games this season. His walks have declined, however, to only two in his past 10 games.


Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp and his helmet exult after stealing second base despite a pickoff.
Matt Kemp steals second base despite picking picked off first.

Matt Kemp scores from second on a James Loney line drive off the glove of the second baseman.

Matt Kemp walks for a second time after being down in the count 0-2.

Matt Kemp lines an RBI single that turns left fielder Pat Burrell into a jumping bean, with the ball skipping past him.

Matt Kemp is thrown out at third.

That last one was just to remind us that as long as you're pushing for Kemp to be aggressive, you're going to pay the price now and then. Nonetheless, 2011 has returned that Matt Kemp that everyone loves, and his role in the Dodgers' 6-1 victory Monday over San Francisco was the latest example.

You've heard of the eye in the middle of the hurricane? Matt Kemp is the hurricane that surrounds the eye.

Kemp, who went 1 for 2 with two walks, is boasting a .537 on-base percentage and .647 slugging percentage, not to mention a 1.000 stealing percentage on seven tries.

The stolen base was remarkable because the Giants did so much right and so little wrong. San Francisco pitcher Madison Bumgarner threw to first base as Kemp broke for second. First baseman Brandon Belt immediately turned and threw down to short. Miguel Tejada got the ball and put down the tag. And Kemp was just plain ol' safe.

So Kemp is back to outrunning his occasional mistake rather than eliminating them entirely, but I think we'll take that trade, especially with the way he looks at the plate. His seventh-inning strikeout was only his fourth in 41 plate appearances this season.

Kemp and Clayton Kershaw fought for the spotlight on Opening Day: Kershaw shone brightest then, and he just as easily could have tonight. He wasn't untouchable, allowing six hits and two walks in 6 2/3 innings, but he always had the right pitch when he needed it. Only one San Francisco baserunner made it past second base – Aubrey Huff with two out in the bottom of the fourth inning – at which point Kershaw annihilated Belt with three fastballs for strikes, the last two swinging.

Kershaw, whose seven strikeouts gave him 24 in 19 2/3 innings this season, faced 11 batters with runners on base tonight. Three of them hit the ball out of the infield: two singles, one flyout. He lowered his 2011 ERA to 1.37 and has now pitched 23 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings against the Giants. (His 117 pitches tonight were one shy of his career high.)

A third hero tonight was second baseman Jamey Carroll, who figures to play more shortstop soon with Rafael Furcal injuring his thumb while stealing third base in the Dodgers' four-run fifth inning and leaving the game an inning later. Carroll went 3 for 5, raising his on-base percentage for the season to .452. Andre Ethier's two hits put him at .442, while Rod Barajas hit what at the start of the fifth inning seemed a huge home run, giving the Dodgers a 2-0 lead.

And the slumping Uribe even contributed, going 1 for 4 but also making two nice defensive plays to support Dodger reliever Matt Guerrier in the eighth inning. Mike MacDougal gave up a homer to Burrell in the ninth – Burrell's third blast in five games against the Dodgers this year.

Colorado rallied for a 7-6 victory against the Mets, so the Dodgers remain in second place, 1 1/2 games back.

* * *

One might say it's a bit nervy, but then again, what hasn't been nervy in the McCourt divorce saga? The law firm that drafted the disputed agreement at the center of the court battle between Frank and Jamie McCourt is suing Frank, "asking a Massachusetts court to declare that the firm met its obligations and caused him no loss when it drafted a marital property agreement with his ex-wife."

As Josh Fisher of Dodger Divorce and Bill Shaikin of the Times note, there's more to it than that. Shaikin:
... Bingham McCutchen, the Boston-based firm responsible for the since-invalidated agreement that would have granted McCourt sole ownership of the Dodgers, essentially asked a Massachusetts court to deprive McCourt of the chance to sue the firm for malpractice should he lose control of the team.

"Any injury, loss or expense he has sustained or will sustain were caused not by Bingham's conduct, but by his own widely publicized financial problems, huge withdrawals of cash from the Dodgers, and strained relations with Major League Baseball," the suit alleges. "None of this is attributable to Bingham's work."

The suit also claims McCourt owes Bingham "hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid legal fees." ...

... In a statement, McCourt spokesman Steve Sugerman blamed Bingham for preparing an agreement that did not stand up in court.

"Mr. McCourt is disappointed that the Bingham firm is unwilling to accept responsibility for its actions and is instead now trying to defend conduct that is indefensible," the statement read. ...




Eric Risberg/APJeremy Affeldt and Jamey Carroll conclude the on-field ceremony with a handshake.
Monday night's pregame ceremony by the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers against fan violence, part of a concerted response to the horrible beating of Giants fan Bryan Stow on March 31, was unprecedented but wonderfully rendered.

Coming after a warm presentation that saw former Giant and current Dodger Juan Uribe receive his World Series ring amid applause and smiles from both teams, the event illustrated how simple it is to embrace a rivalry without being overwhelmed by it.

Dodger and Giants players gathered on the field and paused for a moment of silence on behalf of Stow. Then, Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt took to the microphone and thanked fans of both teams for their support of Stow.

"I don't think I need to tell you guys about the Dodger-Giants rivalry," Affeldt said. "It's one of the most storied rivalries in the history of the game. But in honoring that rivalry, and honoring the Stow family, we ask that you respect the rivalry, and you respect each other as fans. You guys have rights as fans. You guys have the right to cheer. You have rights to wear the black and orange. You have rights to wear Dodger blue. You have rights to be frustrated when one team loses and excited when one team wins.

"We're fierce competitors, but when the last out is made, that rivalry ends upon the field. So please respect that, and in your excitement or in your frustration, don't take it out on another fan if you don't agree with who they cheer for."

Affeldt then introduced Dodgers infielder Jamey Carroll, whom he called a friend, an ex-teammate, a good husband, a good father and a good human being. Carroll reiterated Affeldt's gratitude for the support of Stow and his family, as well as the call for perspective.

"There's nothing better than rivalry in sports," Carroll said. "And as Jeremy said, this is one of the best that's out there. And as we do respect each other on the field, we do want you guys to have the same respect."

Carroll said "competitive banter and passion" were praiseworthy, "but there's no room in this game for hatred and violence."

"It is about respect," Carroll concluded. "It is about civility. This is America's national pastime, and let's keep it that way."

They shook hands.

Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesNed Colletti is beginning his sixth season as Dodgers general manager. The team has averaged 86 regular-season victories during his tenure.
Ten days.

The Dodgers rose from the basement of the National League West in May to the best record in the league in June, then sat only two games out of first place in the division at the All-Star Break.

Yet as far as Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti was concerned, it was almost a mirage. During an interview at his Dodger Stadium office last week, Colletti fully acknowledged that the Dodgers' second-half fade, as much as he and everyone else tried to reverse it, came as disturbingly little surprise to him.

Ten days. In Colletti's view, that's how long the Dodgers played championship-quality baseball in 2010.

"I think the second half, in a lot of ways, was the result of the first half and the spring," Colletti said. "I can't say I had more than a 10-day period where I thought we were truly playing as well as we could play. In ’09, we had a pretty good defense, and we executed, played well in clutch situations, found a way to win games. We really hadn’t done that very much in the first half of the season. And I think it caught up with us in the second half.

"And what I did last year wasn’t acceptable. How I prepared for last year didn’t meet the results that I have for myself."

The Dodgers will arrive to spring training later this month, in many ways, a different team than a year ago, starting with a greater emphasis on starting pitching that represents Colletti's most visceral response to his roster concerns from 2010. At the same time, Colletti said the experience the returning core gained from last year's disappointment has the potential to play a significant, positive role in 2011.

"They’re professional, and this is their livelihood," he said. "And you believe there’s enough pride and adjustment and education from this past year. A lot of guys haven’t gone through what they’ve gone through in the past year. That will put them in the right place coming in to know it’s got to be better and it’s got to be more focused.

"Because they’ve (succeeded) before, I’m confident. But then, last year was what it was. I’m cautious by nature. I take nothing for granted, at any point in my life at any stage. So I don’t take it for granted that it’s just gonna happen. I think it has to be prepared in order to happen.

Translated, Colletti believes the talent is there but the effort, focus and confidence need to return. He said the offseason preparation "is done to some point, and when you get to camp now it’s going to be up to Don [Mattingly] and his staff to have certain procedures in place and certain accountability set forth. And I obviously have to support that, and they have to buy into it."


Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
Matt Kemp had homered once in 31 games prior to hitting one out in each of his final five games of 2010.
Comeback kids?
Despite leading Dodgers regulars on offense, Andre Ethier never fully seemed to recover from the pinky injury he suffered in May and fed doubts about his long-term ability to hit left-handed pitchers (.625 OPS against them in 2010, .681 for his career). James Loney went from decent before the All-Star Break (.803) to disastrous after (.616). Jonathan Broxton's second-half collapse is as well-documented as anyone's, and Matt Kemp ... well, let's just say his season could have been the inspiration for what made Linda Blair's head spin in "The Exorcist."

The question, Colletti agreed, is which of the players will hit a hurdle in their development in 2010, and which have hit a wall. And it's a question that's due for an answer. Mulligans that were handed out last year won't be found so easily or at all in 2011.

"In the past, I’ve been more patient than open-minded," Colletti said. "I think that one of the toughest characteristics you have to have in these jobs is patience because everybody expects everything to turn overnight. … It doesn’t work that way. Everybody’s human; these guys are all human. They take maturation, physical maturation, all kinds of processes.

"I won’t be able to be just completely patient with it [this year]. We’re not an old team, but we’re not a team overwhelmed with rookies, either. We have experience, and a lot of our players have been to the postseason at least twice and sometimes three times in the last five years. So it’s there, it’s really kind of going back to that point and being focused about it and passionate about it and tough-minded about it."

It might surprise people to learn that Colletti seems particularly bullish about Kemp, the target of a radio critique by Colletti in April.

"I think probably from middle of August on, things became a little bit more focused for him," Colletti said. "He and I had a conversation, probably in August, that was really a man-to-man, heart-to-heart, one-on-one conversation. And I was trying to take some of the weight off. I think he understands it; I think he understands what transpired last year. I think from my conversations this winter, from the last month of the season and this winter, I think he understands more than he did a year ago about himself and about the game, about preparation. So I think he’s got a chance to really have a great year."

It's possible Colletti might have said the same thing about Russell Martin, except Martin is no longer around. The circumstances of the Dodgers' decision to let Martin go rather than offer him salary arbitration weren't discussed, but Martin's recent offseason comments about "distractions" that affected him led to a broader comment from Colletti about the difficulty of playing in Los Angeles.

"Sometimes, it’s commitment, prioritization and commitment," Colletti said. "I read what Russell said, but I don’t know what the true context was or what his underlying thoughts were as to why he said it. ... There are a lot of distractions in this city. There’s a lot of different things to be doing, a lot of places your mind can wander off to, but if you’re a professional baseball player, if you’re a Dodger, you’ve got to figure out life. ... And it’s not easy to do it."

Without going into many specifics, Colletti indicated that the ability to play in Los Angeles is a factor in some trades of young players he has made. He called Carlos Santana the prospect he regrets parting with "probably more than anybody" before he added that there were a couple of other guys he would have to wait and see on.

"Again, Los Angeles isn't for everybody," Colletti said. "Sometimes we make a move on a player because we know in this environment here, they're not going to be very good in it."


Chris Williams/Icon SMI
Jonathan Broxton issued 25 of his 28 walks last season after June 23.
Pitching paradoxes
As for Broxton, count Colletti among those who see his second-half crumble as an issue of confidence, rather than health problems that might have been caused by his 48-pitch tar-and-feathering against the Yankees last June.

"He never complained," Colletti said. "And at the end, he wasn't thrilled with it, but I said, 'Jonathan, I need you to take a complete physical -- your arm, your shoulder, your elbow.' A week to go in the season. And he said, 'I feel great. I don't need to do it.' And I said, 'I need you to do it.' So he said, 'I'll do it,' and everything came back clean."

Colletti is aware of the volatility of relief pitchers, comparing them to great goaltenders who can go through "a month or two where they can't stop anything." But this awareness cuts both ways. It leads Colletti to give relievers who have performed in the past long leashes, and it compels him to have as many alternatives on hand as he can, as seen through the acquisitions of set-up men Matt Guerrier and Blake Hawksworth and oblique references to No. 6 starter Vicente Padilla's potential to close games.

Again, however, Colletti believes that at rock bottom you can often find a trampoline. Look no further than Chad Billingsley, banished from the Dodgers' starting rotation by the end of 2009 before rising anew last season.

"Most of our young players did not experience a lot of failure as young players, minor leagues [or] early in the big leagues," Colletti said. "They really didn’t struggle. And when it finally hits you, and you do struggle for whatever reason and you're doing it in front of 45,000 people in Los Angeles all the time, on television every day, that's a tough time to struggle for the first time, for the really first time, and be able to come out of it."

Interestingly, Colletti's faith in failure recovery played a partial role in what many believe is the Dodgers' greatest weakness heading into this season: the lack of a bona fide left fielder.

Angst in the outfield
This winter, the Dodgers didn't bid on the two marquee outfield free agents, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, and you can safely conclude that was a reflection of their overall contract demands and the Dodgers' budget. But when it came to alternatives, Colletti was wary of blocking two Dodgers outfield prospects who could each be major league ready a year from now, Trayvon Robinson and Jerry Sands, especially after the experience Robinson had in Jacksonville last summer.

"Robinson last year started off slow in Double-A, and we stayed with him and he figured it out," Colletti said. "That to me was huge. Because he's gonna have to figure that out. Because everybody struggles up here."

There is the caveat that it's not as if the current Dodgers never struggled in the majors or minors before 2010 -- one could easily make the case that they did, but that their subsequent triumphs blotted out the memory. In any event, if he had found a signable veteran outfielder worthy of a multiyear deal, Colletti no doubt would have pulled the trigger. But he does feel optimistic over the long term about what he has.

"If I would have signed a left fielder for three years, who was again not one of those robust guys -- I’m not sure there was a guy out there -- then I’m really kind of blocking one of those two kids, and I’ve got faith in both of them," he said. "Hopefully, not this year. Hopefully, it’s a year from now, but I have faith in both that they’ll be able to play and contribute. And actually I told them both that, too, in the fall -- I told Trayvon way back in the summertime, 'It’s important for me to know who you are and how you play. Because you know what, Manny’s not gonna be back next year. And I’ve got to make a decision whether I’m gonna go and tie up his spot for three or four years, or be patient and mix and match for a year and wait for you.'"


Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesCasey Blake had an .895 OPS against lefties last year, .663 against righties.
In the interim, Colletti is under no illusion that he has gold in the third outfield slot, so the Dodgers will essentially play it by ear in the outfield, with Mattingly looking at matchup opportunities for Tony Gwynn Jr., Marcus Thames, Jay Gibbons and Xavier Paul (if he makes the squad), and on an infrequent basis, Casey Blake or Jamey Carroll.

"Right now Matty's the center fielder," Colletti said. "Andre’s the right fielder. I want to see what Tony can do offensively. He’ll play as much as the offense allows him, I think ... using the whole field, bunting more, figuring out ways to get on base, because his on-base percentage isn’t high even when he hits .270. See if he can become more disciplined at the plate, use his speed more to get on. I don't expect power out of him. I don’t expect gap power out of him, but I would like to see him get on base a lot more, because if he does it perhaps changes the dynamics in the outfield.

"And in the meantime, I’ve got two guys that can hit, one from the left side and one from the right side -- actually two from the left side with X. Paul and Gibbons, and then Thames. ... And perhaps they’re five- or six-inning guys, and then you go defense later. But you’ve got two guys that might be able to hit 20 homers between them."

Third base offers a secondary question for the Dodgers because, while Blake is sure to start against lefties and some righties, no one seems to be beating the drum for him to play 146 games like he did last season. With the Dodgers' minor leagues fairly thin at second and third base, this time Colletti took the plunge on a multiyear stopgap in Juan Uribe.

"Our system’s produced a lot of guys," Colletti said. "But except for really [Ivan] DeJesus, we don’t really have a second baseman that’s on the verge of being here. We have a shortstop coming probably in Dee Gordon and after him [Jake] Lemmerman, and right now third base is a bit of an open spot too -- we had [Pedro] Baez in the Cal League last year. So Uribe, while the on-base percentage isn’t Moneyball-ish or whatever, the run production is still pretty good, in that he can play second, short or third, and we don’t have anybody that’s going to press him at third for a while, and really De Jesus is trying to transition to play second. I needed somebody I can run out there who’s a big league guy."

Because of what he sees as a potential benefit to have Uribe play some at the hot corner, Colletti emphasized that De Jesus has a legitimate chance to make the Opening Day roster as a backup infielder. Obviously, someone like Carroll could also make several starts to allow Blake to rest.

In any case, Colletti is aware of how much a juggling act the Dodgers' everyday lineup has become. Though he has in one sense traded last year's lack of a fifth starter for this year's lack of an everyday left fielder or third baseman, Colletti sees the two situations as apples and oranges.


Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Matt Guerrier, 31, has allowed 11.5 baserunners per nine innings in his career.
Never enough
"You really didn’t have in my mind many choices that were going to be able to play every day," Colletti said. "We had to fix the pitching first, and we had to upgrade the bullpen if we could.

"You can’t finesse pitching. Maybe a day here or there, but you need to have it. And the list [of available pitchers], we were kind of picking near the top of the list, even though it isn’t sexy to say you signed Ted [Lilly] or Hiroki [Kuroda], it’s not necessarily 'wow,' but it’s solid. It gave us a little bit of depth. So we had to start there. The kid from Minnesota, Guerrier, is gonna be a good add for us. He’s pitched in a lot of big games; he’s always had positive results.

"It’s the most volatile group, but once [Joaquin] Benoit got three years and [$16.5 million], that’s what people expect to get ... and if you really need a guy, sometimes you have to go the extra distance to go and get him."

Add together the total commitments the Dodgers made to their free-agent signees of this past offseason, and you barely pass the total value of Adrian Beltre's deal by itself, while falling short of the Crawford or Werth contracts. And like it or not, Colletti was not going to enter another season shy on pitching or dependent on unproven rookies such as James McDonald or Scott Elbert.

"I was apprehensive all winter long last year" Colletti said of the starting pitching. "I knew we were short going in; I knew we weren’t going to be able to rally it. In the spring, J-Mac and Scotty both struggled. We may have sent them both out early, in fact, because they couldn’t throw strikes; they were all over the board. So right from the beginning, I knew we were going to be short. I didn’t know how we were gonna mix and match, and we couldn’t afford an injury certainly."

If there's an ongoing concern on everyone's minds, it's how the Frank McCourt ownership crisis is affecting spending on the team on the field. You can argue that different owners might have allowed Colletti to sign one big-ticket free agent in addition to shoring up the pitching, but Colletti doesn't contend that the divorce itself is having an impact on personnel.

He also makes the case, as McCourt did a year ago, that the Dodgers are aiming to spend more money to deepen their prospect population.

Farm aid
"We've had basically the same [major-league] payroll," Colletti said. "Though we dipped a little bit last year, we're coming back this year. It's not really how much you have, it's where you spend it. We do have to get better at international signings; we have to reinvest there. I think we've let Venezuela slip for a few years, and we've made some changes in the staffing.

"We've done a decent job in the D.R. [Dominican Republic] -- not what we did 25 years ago, but with all due respect, 25 years ago there wasn't 30 teams down there, either. So, it's not like we could just cherry-pick the players we want like we probably did at the outset of the country opening up to having players signed. But we do have to get better at that to support our player development system. It's been fruitful. Obviously, a lot of players are in the big leagues now that we drafted, but we have to keep flowing, and they have to keep getting better. I know we've hit a touchable lull right now and I think we're probably a year or two away from having another group come forward."

[+] EnlargeZach Lee
Chris Carlson/APLogan White escorts newly signed Zach Lee in his Dodger Stadium visit in August.
Colletti didn't rule out the Dodgers' top draft choice of 2010, Zach Lee -- whose signing shocked most baseball observers -- being part of the Dodgers' graduating class of 2012. Amid the height of McCourt tensions, Lee received a $5.25 million signing bonus, a record for a Dodgers' draft pick. The previous record-holder, Clayton Kershaw, reached the majors less than two calendar years after he was picked, and Lee could do the same.

"We really liked this kid," Colletti said. "We really liked his makeup, his demeanor, his abilities, athleticism, his toughness. ... Not only are the physical skills different than most kids you see, but the way his mind works is different ... probably from playing at the highest levels at a couple of sports, including going to LSU for a summer and having that experience, which as long as he didn't get hurt it didn't bother me."

Colletti's hope is that the Dodgers' minor league pitchers drafted in previous years allow Lee as much time as he needs to develop. There was an epidemic of setbacks among the farm system's arms in 2010 -- so many that if Colletti wants to see who can overcome hurdles, wish granted.

"It's concerning to me," he said. "Probably a lot of the guys that we could both probably name should be a year farther along than they are. They've all struggled with command. … Some are converted players, some weren't pitchers necessarily in high school or college. So they're still learning that.

Curing the epidemic
And to circle back to the beginning of our piece, in some ways, older players never stop learning and developing. Witness Colletti's additional assessment of the contagion that struck the Dodgers' offense in 2010:

"I think hitters sometimes without results start to get impatient, so they start to chase out of the zone," he said. "They’re trying to build more offensive numbers in a quicker period of time and so they’re not as diligent to work the count, and all that stuff starts to compound through the course of it. ... When people are starting to slump, sometimes it produces more guys that go in that direction than less. And that’s what started to happen. It started to spiral where one guy struggled and then two. And then the third guy saw the other two and then he struggled, and it continued to mount."


Alex Gallardo/APDavey Lopes will switch to a Dodgers' uniform for the first time since Game 6 of the 1981 World Series.
When you take Colletti's view of what went wrong with the Dodgers last year and what's needed to make it right, it makes sense that he sees one of the most promising offseason moves as one that even some jaded Dodgers fans embraced: the hiring of Davey Lopes as a coach.

"I've known him a long time and I've admired him," Colletti said. "You know, I was with him in Chicago when he was still a player and I've certainly watched him from the other side of the field when he managed and when he was coaching. And I think what he brings here is -- you're talking about first -- someone who was an iconic Dodger who understands Los Angeles and understands the Dodgers and was here during one of the greatest periods in our franchise's history. That's important.

"What he did in Philly with baserunning and defense and fine-tuning that position, the first-base coaching position, to make it a far more valuable position to the organization, is something we noticed. And I think he's going to have a great impact on our club. I think there are some players that could turn their game up a notch with his instruction, with his thought process. I think, while it's a coaching position, I think it's a huge addition for this franchise."

Will a new manager, new coaches, new players and new spirits be enough to right the Dodgers' ship? It's too soon to say, but if the Dodgers are to play more than 10 days of great baseball in 2011, Colletti will expect to see strong signs of it before Opening Day arrives.

Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireIn 2010, Jamey Carroll had an OBP of .375 against lefties and .380 against righties.
Last season, the Dodgers had seven players with an on-base percentage of at least .330 and a minimum of 100 plate appearances. Three of those players (Manny Ramirez, Russell Martin, Blake DeWitt) are gone, a fourth is the oft-injured Rafael Furcal, and a fifth (A.J. Ellis) will be at best a part-timer trying to prove that he wasn't a one-month wonder.

That leaves Andre Ethier and Jamey Carroll. This short post is about Carroll.

Carroll, arguably the Dodgers' third-string second-baseman when 2010 began, ended up becoming an almost shockingly pivotal player for the team, posting a career-high .379 OBP at age 36. Career highs at age 36 scream fluke, but the late-blooming Carroll does have a career OBP of .355 and has reached that level four of the past five years.

That .355 is still better than almost anyone else on the roster can offer. There's Ethier and, depending how much they play, Furcal and Ellis. James Loney's career OBP is in the ballpark at .348. Casey Blake was at .363 in 2009, before falling to .320 last year. Matt Kemp hasn't been at that level since 2007, and Juan Uribe has never come close.

Blake and Uribe, who play Carroll's two primary positions, offer power that Carroll can't touch, but in terms of overall offensive value, Carroll actually had the better 2010, whether you look at Baseball Prospectus' total average (Carroll .283, Blake .267, Uribe .266) or Fangraph's wOBA (Carroll .329, Uribe .322, Blake .317). And then there's this idle thought: He's probably not a worse outfielder than Jay Gibbons would be, though I tend to doubt a playoff team starts a Carroll in left.

What this means for 2011, I don't know. Carroll turns 37 in February. Assuming no other major acquisitions for the Dodger infield, Carroll will probably start the season on the bench, serving as a pinch-hitter, defensive replacement and spot starter until someone gets hurt. But it wouldn't surprise me if Carroll actually was deserving of a starting spot somewhere in that 2011 Dodger lineup, depending at least in part on whether Blake is in a faster decline. In particular, Carroll might be a good No. 2 hitter behind Furcal, helping him set up Ethier, Kemp, Loney, Uribe and the rest.

We'll see how things look in March ...

* * *
  • Savvy post over at True Blue L.A. this morning, in which that site's denizens decipher clues about the Dodger roster from a picture of Juan Uribe with a whiteboard listing the Dodger roster in the background. Included in the sleuthing: 1) George Sherrill (headed for Atlanta on a $1.2 million contract) was long gone from the Dodgers minds before Russell Martin and Trent Oeltjen, 2) J.D. Closser and Jon Huber look like they're getting non-roster invitations to Spring Training, 3) as Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness noticed, John Lindsey, sadly, might be the next player to come off the team.
  • Madison Square Garden is going to buy the Fabulous Great Western L.A. Forum, according to Billboard.biz (via L.A. Observed).
  • Bill Plaschke of the Times uses Carl Crawford signing with Boston to argue that no one wants to play baseball in Los Angeles anymore, ignoring the mountain of evidence to the contrary. At first, it appears Plaschke is talking only about $100 million players, but then he brings up names like Todd Zeile and you have to ask, did Plaschke not see (for example) Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda basically skip free agency to sign at less competitive rates with the Dodgers just in the past six weeks?
  • Charley Steiner is getting an honorary doctorate from his alma mater at Bradley, writes Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.
  • Not to overload on Clayton Kershaw's wedding, but Vin Scully Is My Homeboy has wedding dance video. The kid's got some moves!

One Friday in the summer of 1977, I won an award named after the legend who was born 100 years ago today. The John Wooden Basketball Camp Special Award was given to one member of each of the camp's basketball teams who best exemplified the values of Wooden's Pyramid of Success.



Future non-star.


I was 9 1/2 years old, heading into fifth grade, and had been dribbling a basketball (originally with two hands but more recently with one) for five years or more. But I had not made a lot of progress as far as putting the ball in the basket. I was almost unconscionably short, I'm guessing about 4-foot 4 or so, and that 10-foot hoop was still miles high in the sky. As far as playing the game, I was still trying to figure so many things out. And so that week on the campus of Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, I was quite possibly the least talented basketball player in that entire camp, or at least among them.

I think we played about five games in our little camp league that week, and our team's coach, whom I actually don't have any bad memories of, decided at about Game 2 that I should play safety. Yes, safety, and by that I mean, he came to the conclusion that offense was such a pointless endeavor for me that I was better off just being on defense. So he designated that I shouldn't cross the halfcourt line when our team had the ball. He played four-on-five, while I waited for the other team to bring the ball back my way. The game looked pretty interesting from the backcourt ...

And then, one time, an opposing player stole the ball. How I remember it, that kid racing (as much as 9-year-olds raced) down the left side of the outdoor court, parallel to some Cal Lutheran dormitories, with only me between him and the basket. I sped up to match him stride for stride. He drove in for his layup, and I leaped up next to him – we're talking four, five, six inches in the air at least – and tipped the ball away. Clean, pure, perfect. My first extraordinary moment on a basketball court.

Foul!

The referee, some guy whom I'd guess was about 16, whistled me for a shooting foul. I was in utter disbelief. I cried out in protest, and was immediately warned not to argue. You didn't argue a call at John Wooden Basketball Camp. I shut my mouth, bitterly, crestfallen that my moment – my moment – had been taken away from me. I looked around, and I'm not sure anyone really believed that I had been robbed, because I'm not sure anyone believed I was capable of having a moment to rob.

My milli-spark of rebellion was an aberration, and it did not prevent me from receiving the Wooden Basketball Camp Special Award, the award praising me for my industriousness, cooperation, ambition and so forth. True, I wasn't showing much confidence or competitive greatness, but I meant well. I won it, and I accepted it, took a little pride in it, put it on a wall in my bedroom at home and kept it in a box through my adulthood.

There was no mistaking, then or now, that this award was a consolation prize. Practically a booby prize. It's not that it didn't mean something. It was a reward for not giving up. But why would I have given up? The implicit answer was that I as a basketball player, I was that bad.

There wasn't a person who received the John Wooden Basketball Camp Special Award who wouldn't have traded it on sight for just being a little better naturally at actually playing basketball.

* * *


Ed Andrieski/APMatt Kemp slaps his bat after one of his 170 strikeouts in 2010.


The Dodgers' 2010 season was defined by two kinds of players: Jamey Carroll and Matt Kemp. Carroll, the overachiever who hustled. Kemp, the underachiever who ... well, we really don't know exactly what he was doing. And that's the reason for this story.

I am someone who has always had, almost without exception, what adults would call a good attitude toward work. Rarely in my life has my effort been questioned. This is true despite the fact that even before I became aware of it, it has been my goal to do more with less. I'm not a show-my-work guy. I just want it to be easy.

I'm practically a lifelong skier, for example, having taken my first lesson 35 years ago, when I was 7. To this day, I challenge myself, seeking out the hardest possible runs I can, but I don't do it for the sake of the work. I do it for the sake of the accomplishment. I want to glide, always glide. I want to be a natural.

But I was not a natural, never. Skiing is my best sport, but it has taken me all 35 years to get to the level of ability I'm at today. In my 20s, trying to impress myself and more importantly, trying to impress girls, I was OK, but I wasn't impressing anyone. I had to grind and grind away at it.

There's a widespread assumption that Kemp has had things too easy in his athletic life, and that this year he paid a price for it. I think that's probably both truth and fallacy there. Kemp has made athletics a daily part of his life for probably 20 years or more now, ultimately at a level of intensity that most of us can't relate to. The idea that Kemp hasn't worked to get to where he is today couldn't be more ignorant.

But Kemp undoubtedly, more than anyone sitting at a computer reading this piece, is a natural at sports – even at the game of baseball at which he can sometimes seem clunky. He was a basketball star in high school. He reached the professional level in his No. 2 sport at age 21. He got Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards as presents for his 25th birthday. Generally, Kemp has probably found throughout his life that if he worked a certain amount, he would get better, and that any setbacks were temporary. You grow accustomed to that pace.

Relatively speaking, Kemp is a natural, and it's completely understandable that he would take pride in that. I know I would. Making it look easy? Come on. How could you not feel good about that? Of course you'd find self-worth in that.

Hustle is great, but not needing to hustle, not needing to make that extra, tear-yourself-up effort, not needing to be told what to do, that can be pretty spectacular. That is a rush and a half. Who wouldn't become addicted to it? And addictions are not something you easily shed overnight.

* * *


Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesHappy birthday, Mr. Wooden


OK, there have been times I have actually felt like a natural. Just a few. First-grade spelling: They didn't call me Speedy Gonzales because I could run fast. Math was never a problem in elementary school. And I could rock a Mattel Electronic Football game pretty hard. It was effortless, and it felt good.

Starting in seventh grade, it started to get incrementally harder. I still had my strengths, but nothing was automatic. And as I went into high school, a philosophy evolved. It took as much effort for me to get from an F (i.e., doing nothing) to a B+ or A- in an average class, as it did for me to get from an A- to an A. In other words, the cherry on top was half the effort. The A, though it seemed so close, was like the last 1,000 "Into Thin Air" feet of the climb to the top of Everest. That was the part where you could die trying.

And so sometimes, going for the A often seemed not worth the trouble. Other times, it wasn't by choice. I took to science like Kemp has taken to the tailing slider. After sailing along in math my whole life, calculus brought me to my knees. I made mistakes that I couldn't fathom, and I made mistakes that were just plain stupid.

I graduated from high school with a 3.5 or 3.6 grade-point average. I probably ranked about 40th out of 130 or so kids in the rather intense environment that was my senior class, better than some, worse than others. I had a lower GPA than my older brother or sister had (though who knows what my grade-point average on balls in play was).

I did have excellent SAT scores, but as the applications were going out, I was warned by our college counselor that I had the wrong combination of strengths. If your SAT scores were in a lower percentile than your GPA, that meant you made the extra effort to place above your station. You were a worker. You had character. High SATs and a lower GPA, however, meant you were lazy. Which, in my case, was not wholly true but partially so.

What did that make me? Did it make me a bad person, to be good but not great? That as hard as I tried, I consciously risked falling short of my goals because I couldn't or wouldn't make myself try harder? Should I be booed? Should I have my ethic questioned?

Ah, but it's different, right? There's no comparison between high school classes and major-league baseball. I wasn't getting paid, first thousands and then millions like Kemp (though I was getting paid, in a sense, by my parents' investment in my future). I was just a boy. Kemp is a man. I was in school; Kemp is a professional.

I'm going to argue that it's not so different. As much as your circumstances change, there is a core part of you that remains young and in the midst of development. I am 42 years old, but that's a chronological age. Or to put it another way, it's an average of all the ages I feel. Sure, there's some 42-year-old in me, but part of me still feels 9, and part of me feels about 75.

I approach life a certain way. I want to be better, and I'll grind at it, but there's a limit to what I'll do. I work very hard, I feel, but I can't emphasize that limit enough. And that limit can change on a weekly, daily, hourly basis. There always has and always will be a part of me that wants to do nothing more than smell the roses, whether those roses are Saturday morning cartoons as a kid or a nice long walk in the twilight as a grown-up. I like the work I do, but I don't like to work. I accept the process and can even enjoy the journey, but the result is a big part of my reward. I always want my life to be easier; I always want things to go right the first time.

And so that limit of how hard I'm willing to work is a moving target. I suspect that's true for many of us.

Knowing what to do is not the same as being able or willing to do it. It's a hard lesson to learn that the effort that you're comfortable with is not always enough. It's a lesson that might make you rebel. Matt Kemp and I can't be the only ones who wrestle with that. Being paid a lot of money might alter the personal battlefield, but it doesn't eliminate it.

* * *

While on his postseason vacation in Europe with Rihanna, a short break before his offseason workouts begin, Kemp's baseball mind is probably is at one of two places. He's thinking that he has overcome hurdles before, and so there's no reason to think he won't overcome them again. Or he's thinking that okay, that philosophy has worked in the past, but this time he really has to find another gear. He is going to have grind even harder than before, and that's what he's gonna show us next year.

Or he's thinking both of the above. He will have to grind, but he will succeed. Because he believes.

I don't know if it's one, the other or both. However, I don't imagine Kemp not caring about improving. There's too much for him to gain – more money, more glory, more victory – not to care.

But let's consider the alternative.

There is conflicting scuttlebutt about Kemp. You hear that he does work, very hard. You also hear that he's not a good listener, that when it comes to instruction or coaching, he's a mixed bag. People wonder where his head is at a given moment.


Alex Gallardo/AP
Mr. Inspiration, Jamey Carroll, is listed at 170 pounds, the lightest weight on the 2010 Dodger roster.
These are not contradictory reports. Far from it. The beef with Kemp is with his mental game, but that grievance contains an implicit assumption that only a fool, or worse, a scumbag, would operate at less than full mental capacity. That oversimplifies things to a remarkable degree, practically the equivalent of hammering Jamey Carroll because he isn't bigger and stronger.

The mental game can be hard. For some, it can be unconquerable. The mental game is not a free throw. Carroll is better at it than Kemp, but Carroll is more than 10 years older than Kemp. Carroll didn't even break into the big leagues until he was two years older than Kemp (who has played in 626 games) is now. Carroll had to hustle more than most, had to think more than most, or he'd simply never have made it in the show, much less stuck around.

Kemp now has to step up his mental game to bounce back from a disappointing 2010 season. Anyone, including Kemp, can see this. But people think it's a matter of flipping a switch, and that's simply not true. You don't power the mental game by flipping a switch. You power it by being the hamster that grinds on the wheel all day long, all so that you might get one extra drop of water.

Everyone is asking the same thing of Kemp – to work twice as hard in order to become, instead of better than 99.9998 percent of the people in the world at his sport, better than 99.9999 percent.

Maybe that's disingenuous; maybe it's only fair to look at Kemp in the context of his peers, among whom he ranked poorly in 2010, at least by Fangraphs' estimation. The point is, everyone is expecting Kemp to be humble about a career that, until a few months ago, he has had every reason to take pride in. That might require more than an overnight adjustment. It might require trying harder, and then thinking you've got it, and then realizing you don't, and then having to search – sincerely search – for new levels within yourself that aren't immediately apparent.

Kemp, who has averaged more than 20 homers a year with a .285 batting average, who has had Gold Glove and Silver Slugger honors, two playoff appearances, a past income of more than $5 million and a guaranteed 2011 income of nearly $7 million, who came back and improved after disappointing finishes to his 2006 and 2008 seasons, is being told that's not enough, not nearly. He's being told that if he doesn't improve in 2011, he will be a great disappointment, and if there's any question about his effort, it will be nothing less than shameful.

And here I sit, having worked hard to get where I am but with plenty farther I could go, having consciously and constantly holding myself back. Kemp is considered a mental misfit even though he's a grown man under constant instruction, while no one questions my dedication to writing even though all I'm subjected to is the occasional edit, and I haven't taken a writing class in 15 years. Kemp is sliced and diced for his Rihanna romance, even if the sincerity of it – no matter what the future holds – should no longer be in doubt, while I refuse any job that would require travel or night work that would take me away from my wife and kids, even if it would bring in more money, more glory, more victory.

If Kemp were to say to himself – and I personally don't think for a moment he is saying this to himself – "I have money, I have love, I have a good job and I have my health, and I have this all just by being who I already am, and even though I'm no longer the best, that's all I need," no one would think for a moment that this was a legitimate perspective, even though outside the world of competitive sports, it most certainly is. In sports, there's no greater sin than unrealized potential. And yet in life, in real life, letting some of your potential go at a certain point can actually be a gift to yourself and your loved ones.

* * *

But let's say you accept your flaws. You're humbled. You're trying to get better. You aren't getting there.

You don't necessarily decide when it's going to click.

In ninth-grade history, I had a teacher I was really struggling with. He had a very strong, upper-crust personality and was not afraid to mock you. I simply did not get him, and I felt that whatever I was learning — and I was learning something — I was learning despite him.

Tests in the class typically consisted of a short-answer portion (60 points) and then an essay (40 points). One time, mid-essay, I found myself in deep trouble. I had started with a thesis paragraph that I couldn't really support. I can't really recall what it was or why I went with it, although I guess it was basically the argument I thought the teacher would have made or what he wanted to see. But I just couldn't see it through.

I crossed out the paragraph and started over, arguing the opposite. (Hello, George Costanza.) I was running out of time but I whipped through it. It wasn't effortless – I had to think about what I was writing – but the thoughts did follow, one after another. Nevertheless, I didn't turn in the exam with any confidence.

When I got it back, my teacher had given me 45 points for the 40-point essay portion, and written the following words: "Weisman, I have challenged you, and you have come alive!"

Sounds hokey for sure, but you don't forget something like that. And not to go all "Dead Poets Society" on you, but I came to realize that the teacher – all 23 years old of him – had come to this class at the start of the school year and found many of us in a stupor before it had even started, and he was trying to shake us out of it. He wasn't trying to impose himself on us. He was trying to draw something out of us. That's not something that you necessarily can understand right away. Arguably, it could be even harder to realize when you're older. I know, despite my best intentions, I don't love criticism, however constructive.

This moment in ninth grade was a turning point for my life as a writer, as a thinker and as a doer, but there was no straight path to it. I needed to get somewhere, and I got to it, but it couldn't have been more roundabout. It involved a clash and reconciliation of determined instruction with determined independence. It involved a personal evolution on its own timetable that no one could control. Though it was largely a mental issue, it wasn't an issue of effort or desire or choice. Not by themselves, anyway.

And all this leads to is the next challenge, and the next. For a decade in my 20s and 30s, I would pursue the goal of writing for primetime shows and fall short. Today, I have several different paths I pursue, but I'm honestly not sure where I should channel all my energies. Sometimes, I think I'm doing my best; other times I'm not so sure. There is still doubt. Which one of me is right?

* * *

I imagine two types of reactions to this piece. (Maybe more, but these two will be among them.)

1) Yeah, you make some good (if long-winded) points.
2) What kind of pathetic apology for mediocrity is this?

Let me reiterate that I don't believe that Kemp is actively choosing mediocrity. Nor am I trying to suggest that mediocrity is a worthy end, in and of itself.


Barry Gutierrez/AP
Kemp smiles after teammate Casey Blake's solo homer in the ninth inning September 28.
I am asking people to understand that stepping up one's effort is a process, and it's not an easy process. There really is no such thing as an overnight success. Asking more of yourself than you're used to giving is — in and of itself — a challenge. More than a challenge, it's a mystery.

There's always a limit. There's always something that holds us back, some level of relaxation we preserve for ourselves, whether it's money, pleasure, sleep, blissful ignorance or what have you. And the questions, for Kemp or anyone else, are twofold: Where do you want to be on that scale, and how much control you have over that desire?

In the coming year, we'll see what Kemp is made of at age 26. We'll see how much he steps up his mental game. It's silly to assume that he won't develop at all, but if he doesn't develop as much as people like me hope, there are all kinds of reasons why. They're not excuses. They're reasons.

None of us know how Kemp will respond to the challenge. I'm not sure Kemp even knows. Plus, his performance in 2011 won't necessarily be an accurate reflection of his work ethic. He could coast, and improve based on just natural development. He could bust his butt, and slide farther back. People will cheer if he does well, boo if he does poorly, draw conclusions based on whatever they see fit.

As I approach the 4,000-word mark on this essay, I guess all I'm really trying to say about turning on hustle and smarts is this: Living up to the standard that John Wooden set ... it's just not that simple.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Clayton Kershaw
WINS ERA SO IP
14 1.86 174 145
OTHER LEADERS
BAY. Puig .312
HRA. Gonzalez 17
RBIA. Gonzalez 83
RD. Gordon 69
OPSY. Puig .909
ERAC. Kershaw 1.86
SOC. Kershaw 174