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Monday, June 9, 2014
Five reasons the Dodgers have struggled

By David Schoenfield

The Dodgers enter Monday's game against the Reds with a 33-31 record, good enough to be in the thick of this year's wild-card race but 9.5 games behind the best-in-baseball Giants. Mediocrity may be good enough for now, but it's certainly not what was expected from a team with the highest payroll in the majors.

What's gone wrong? What's interesting is how much has gone right: Yasiel Puig has performed at an MVP level; Dee Gordon stepped into the hole at second base and has played well (including an MLB-leading 36 steals); coming off surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome last July, Josh Beckett wasn't even a sure thing for the rotation and has posted a 2.57 ERA; Clayton Kershaw missed time with a back issue but has returned to pitch like Clayton Kershaw (minus one blow-up start); Zack Greinke is 8-2 with a 2.62 ERA; they have the second-best wOBA in the National League, behind only the Rockies.

So, a lot has gone right and they're still on an 84-win pace. Here are five reasons they've disappointed:

1. The bullpen

The pen is a mediocre 18th in the majors with a 3.74 ERA, but its 4-14 record is the worst in the majors (only the Mets have more bullpen losses). I expected the Dodgers to have one of the best bullpens in the league -- after all, the Dodgers' pen had a dominant second half of 2013 with a 2.76 ERA and added more depth in the offseason with Chris Perez and Jamey Wright, plus re-signing Brian Wilson, who had a big impact in September and in the postseason. Back in spring training, I talked to Perez and Paco Rodriguez about what appeared to be a big concern at the time: How would Don Mattingly and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt find enough work for everyone? "I've actually told Honey that a couple of times," Perez said in March. "We're going to be fighting for innings down there. Maybe not at the beginning of the year but by June and July when the starters start rolling, you may be looking at one batter here or one batter there, but that's a good thing to have."

Rodriguez, coming off a 2.32 ERA and .164 average allowed, wasn't even guaranteed a roster spot, that's how deep the bullpen looked. "Nobody's going to complain about not having enough innings, that's something we all say, because as long as we stay fresh, that's our biggest thing," Rodriguez said in March. "I don't think any of these guys are going to be complaining about winning ballgames."

That was the expectation heading into the year: The Dodgers would win a lot of games, the bullpen would be a huge part of it and things would sort themselves out. Instead, Perez is 0-3, Rodriguez is back in Triple-A and even closer Kenley Jansen, while still racking up the strikeouts, has struggled at times. He has 17 saves in 19 chances, but has lost twice in extra innings and in only three of those saves has he had to protect a one-run lead.

All of this has helped lead to a 3-8 record in extra innings. The Dodgers have actually hit well in extra innings -- .264/.338/.500 -- so the blame there falls primarily to the bullpen.

2. Defense
Last year, the Dodgers rated as a very good defensive team, with plus-47 defensive runs saved, fifth best in the majors. The three best defenders were Juan Uribe (plus-15 DRS), Mark Ellis (plus-12) and Adrian Gonzalez (plus-11). Utility infielder Nick Punto also rated at plus-10 DRS. Hanley Ramirez had played well, for him, at shortstop with plus-3 DRS. This year, however, Ellis and Punto departed as free agents, Uribe has missed time on the disabled list and Ramirez has regressed back to being a below-average shortstop with minus-10 DRS. Overall, the Dodgers are still at plus-1 DRS so they aren't a terrible defensive club, but they have struggled at shortstop and in center field (Matt Kemp was finally moved to left for good reason). Ramirez has played a little better of late; Baseball Info Solutions keeps track of defensive misplays and Ramirez is third among shortstops with 14, but has had just one in the past month. The Dodgers can at least hope he's cut down on the mistakes even if his range isn't great. As for center field, Andre Ethier and Scott Van Slyke are hardly the answers. It may be time to go with Joc Pederson.

3. The catchers
Dodgers catchers are hitting .179/.266/.271, the second-worst wOBA in the majors from the position. Last year, they ranked tied for 18th; not great, but at least the spot wasn't an offensive black hole. Projected starter A.J. Ellis has played just 15 games due to various injuries and he at least posted a .350 OBP when he did play. When he returns from his sprained ankle, the Dodgers should get a little more offense here.

4. No big bat behind Puig
Last year, Ramirez was the best hitter in the National League when he played, mashing to a .345/.402/.638 line in 86 games. He's hitting a respectable .257/.346/.465 with 10 home runs, but it's a reminder of how potent and valuable Ramirez was last year. Adrian Gonzalez had a monster April, but he's down to a .247 average and his .326 OBP is mediocre; he's no longer an elite hitter. Ethier's power has all but vanished and Kemp hasn't gotten on track. It's a good offense, but not a great one.

5. The Paul Maholm disaster
The Dodgers won just two of the seven games that Maholm started, most of those while filling in for Kershaw. He had a 5.50 ERA with more walks than strikeouts. Even as a fifth starter, he was terrible.

There's another side to this -- that the Dodgers just weren't as good as everybody expected, that considering the age and potential defensive liabilities of some players along with some players being good bets not to repeat their 2013 levels (Ramirez, Uribe, even Kershaw), they were an 85-win team all along, not a 95-win team.

Maybe. We have 100 games left to find out. But at this point, that 9.5-game lead for the Giants is going to be tough to overcome.