At some point, you might start thinking that the Dodgers’ litany of woes is like the real estate market: Sure, it’s supposed to get better, but it finds new ways to make you unhappy. After all, no sooner had they started working up excitement over Matt Kemp's imminent return from the DL than they had to absorb the next unaffordable body blow to the lineup: Now right fielder Andre Ethier is headed to the DL, as well.
Earlier in the year, you could talk about how the Dodgers were a testament to the purported wisdom of general manager Ned Colletti’s aggressive offseason assemblage of journeyman bit players -- usually at top dollar, and overwhelmingly on two-year, back-loaded contracts. People wondered about those deals in December and January, but those concerns were easy to set aside in the early going. Chris Capuano and even Aaron Harang were doing good things in the rotation, Mark Ellis was getting on base as their regular at second base and with Jerry Hairston Jr. getting plugged into every hole in the lineup as it opened up, Colletti was an easy April tout.
Bobby Abreu washing up on waivers and longtime farmhand Elian Herrera posting a .400 OBP in his first month on the roster, and Colletti’s crew appeared to be the roster equivalent of found money. It was easy to credit Colletti with a certain brand of genius in an NL West without any easy favorite.
But all of that is much more easily affordable when the middle of the order features Kemp slugging .700 and Ethier providing his blend of offensive balance. Bit players doing their bit is nice and further evidence of the old saying that victory has many fathers, while defeat’s an orphan. Boppers bopping has a way of making everybody look good.
But take that one-two punch of Kemp and now Ethier out of the picture, and you’ve got a lineup that scrapes by at best. Without either Ethier or Kemp around this past week, the Dodgers have averaged just more than two runs per game and are drawing about two walks per game. They’ve hit one home run. That’s what happens when your supporting cast is put into the limelight, not for a scene, but carrying the whole show.
Things were already bad before Ethier left, though. Last week’s three consecutive shutouts to the Giants may be the signature setback, but during their latest 5-12 run, the Dodgers have scored more than three runs in a ballgame just three times. (Consistent with the way their luck has been going, they also managed to lose one of those rare outbursts.)
None too coincidentally, the supporting cast looked terrible during that time. The highest OPS of any Dodger position player over the past 30 games is Juan Rivera’s .653. The team-wide OPS from June 1 on is .572. The guys who are supposed to be center pieces have been anything but: Ethier is among those struggling (.628 OPS since June 1, with one homer). James Loney's bat has been MIA for so long that you’re more likely to see it on a milk carton, but even he has managed to disappoint the low standards he’s set for himself in recent seasons, contributing just a .540 OPS since the calendar turned to June.
How low can the Dodgers go? Much depends on if Ethier will really be ready to come back right after the All-Star break -- the same time as Kemp’s supposed to return to action. Back-dating Ethier’s trip to the DL to June 28 isn’t suggestive so much as it’s a formality. Ethier joins a long list of ballplayers who’ve suffered oblique injuries in the past two seasons, and rushing him back brings on a high risk of re-injury -- as high as 12 percent, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine in a 20-year study that Dodgers senior trainer Stan Conte co-authored earlier this year.
So there’s that risk, but that’s without getting into the Dodgers’ unhappy recent experience with Kemp at the end of May. The Dodgers reactivated their star slugger from his original hamstring injury six weeks ago only to have to return him to the DL two games later because he aggravated the injury. Even if Kemp’s back and 100 percent after the All-Star break, however much everyone involved might want all of the best Dodgers back on the field, their tenuous contention bid can’t afford a rush-back re-injury repeat experience with Ethier, as well. As the Dodgers have learned as the bit players get overexposed by everyday play, the supporting cast simply isn’t good enough for them to be able to afford it.
Things will get better once Kemp and Ethier return, of course. But how much better, and will it be in enough time? Even then, thanks to Colletti’s multiyear commitments, the question of whether or not the Dodgers can honestly expect better things next year remains to be seen, especially when the balloon payments to Capuano, Harang, Ellis and Hairston add another $11.5 million to the team’s payroll. If you think things can’t get worse, the bad news is that, relative to their fast opening in April and May, they may never get better.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.