Certainly, the Dodgers have hopes Ramirez will exceed the .246/.322/.428 line he put up with the Marlins. But even if he fails to improve -- and there's evidence that declining bat speed possibly created by a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery is the primary culprit -- he's still a big upgrade over what the Dodgers have been getting at third base or shortstop. Dodgers third basemen entered Wednesday's games ranked 23rd in the majors in OPS at .681; Dodgers shortstops ranked 25th with a .604 OPS.
Ramirez had a promising debut on Wednesday night, going 2-for-4. He tripled off the center-field wall and scored in the second inning and delivered a two-out RBI single in the sixth. He drew a leadoff walk in the 12th but didn't advance past first base, and the Cardinals scored in the bottom of the frame to win, 3-2.
The lack of offense from anyone besides Ramirez points to some larger issues, namely that he alone isn't going to push the Dodgers past the Giants. Here are five big-picture keys for the Dodgers winning the West:
1. Andre Ethier: Where has your power gone?
On June 12, Ethier signed a contract extension that will cover at least five years and cost $85 million. The deal was met with mixed reviews considering Ethier's age (30) and declining power numbers since 2009. He hasn't done much lately to inspire confidence in that deal by hitting .261 with just two home runs in 157 at-bats since May 22. Ethier's numbers are up a bit from 2011 thanks to 25 doubles, but he's still slugging under .400 over the past two months. You need better results from your cleanup hitter.
2. Production from the leadoff spot
Thanks to abysmal production from shortstop Dee Gordon, Dodgers leadoff hitters ranked 26th in the majors with a .278 on-base percentage and 30th in OPS. Somebody needs to tell Don Mattingly that it doesn't matter that Gordon could challenge Usain Bolt in a sprint around the bases: He's about as appropriate of a leadoff hitter as Magic Johnson. It's not clear what the Dodgers will do once Gordon returns from his thumb injury, but batting leadoff should no longer be in his job description if he gets his starting spot back.
In fact, considering the continued ineptitude of Juan Uribe at the plate (.196/.255/.297), it seems the Dodgers' best lineup would feature Ramirez at shortstop and utility man Jerry Hairston at third base. While Ramirez is likely only adequate at shortstop, it's not like Gordon is Ozzie Smith out there. His minus-13 defensive runs saved are tied with Derek Jeter for worst among shortstops. Half-season defensive numbers have to be taken with small sample caveats, but I don't think the Dodgers would lose by replacing Gordon with Ramirez.
In Gordon's absence, Mattingly has primarily alternated Bobby Abreu and Hairston in the leadoff spot, based on if a right-hander or left-hander starts. Even though Abreu has, shall we say, lost a step or four, he can at least get on base at an acceptable clip (.345).
Also, why not move catcher A.J. Ellis out of the eighth spot? No, he doesn't have a lot of power -- although he is third on the team in home runs with seven -- but he has a .389 OBP. This could give the Dodgers a lineup something like this:
C A.J. Ellis
2B Mark Ellis
1B James Loney
Against a left-hander, move Hairston into the leadoff spot and slide in Juan Rivera in left field. However ...
3. James Loney: Isn't it time?
To cut bait, you mean? Yes. I'm sure Mattingly, as a gifted glove man back in his day, appreciated a defensive first baseman. But enough is enough. Loney is hitting .248. He doesn't get on. He doesn't have power. He's tied for the National League lead in double plays grounded into. So ... umm ... can't they find somebody better to play first base? How about a guy like Daniel Murphy of the Mets? Not a power guy, but he can base a bit. Or they could revisit Carlos Lee, who earlier vetoed a trade to the Dodgers before the Astros traded him to the Marlins.
4. Chad Billingsley: Good ... or mediocre?
The Dodgers have received terrific production from free-agent signings Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang and I'm not worried that Clayton Kershaw's ERA has skyrocketed all the way up to 3.14. That leaves Billingsley as the one who could up step up the final 60 games. While his 4.15 ERA nearly matches his 4.21 mark of 2011, there are indicators he is pitching better: His SO/BB ratio of 2.97 is vastly improved over last year's 1.81. Still, he remains a frustrating enigma; it's clear Mattingly doesn't have a lot of confidence in him, as he's pitched more than six innings in four of his 19 starts.
5. Tim Lincecum!
The best sign for Dodgers on Wednesday might not have been Ramirez's two hits, but Lincecum getting pounded by the Padres. After two good starts against the Astros and Phillies, Lincecum gave up 11 baserunners, five runs and two home runs in a 6-3 loss. I would argue that the Dodgers' best chance of winning the NL West rests not Ramirez's bat or Kemp's return from injury or Mattingly's figuring out a batting order, but on Lincecum's right shoulder.
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