SweetSpot: Andre Ethier

SweetSpot TV: Offseason rapid fire!

November, 26, 2013

It's another edition of Offseason Rapid Fire with Eric Karabell. We discuss the latest news and also ask: Which is the team to beat right now?

Everyone expects the Dodgers to trade an outfielder this winter. Most likely Andre Ethier. Maybe Matt Kemp. Probably not Carl Crawford since nobody really wants Carl Crawford. And definitely not Yasiel Puig, because he's Yasiel Puig. With highly regarded prospect Joc Pederson, who hit .278/.381/.497 with 31 steals at Double-A, soon ready for the majors, the Dodgers will have five outfielders and you can't play them all at once.

Mike Petriello of FanGraphs examines the six options the Dodgers have -- trading one of the five or trading none of them. The most interesting scenario involves Kemp, who has been plagued by injuries the past two seasons following his MVP-caliber 2011:
When Kemp’s 8/$160m extension was announced in the wake of his 2011 MVP quality season, it seemed like a good deal as others like Prince Fielder & Joey Votto were getting north of $200m. Since, he’s played only 179 games in two seasons amid a never-ending litany of injuries to his shoulder, hamstrings, and ankle. After a brutal start to 2013, Kemp did hit .333/.400/.630 from July 1 on… except that he did it in only 60 plate appearances interrupted by two different injuries.

The good news is that Kemp is only headed into his age-29 season, and while a .290/.352/.482 line in 2012-13 is less than you’d expect from him, it’s hardly been a Josh Hamilton-level disaster. Still, it’s that sweet spot between “too talented to dump” and “too expensive to get much return on” that makes him tough to move, unless the Dodgers ate an obscene amount of money or did so in exchange for another big contract, like an Elvis Andrus.

The Andrus idea is interesting. Andrus is owed at least $124 million through 2022. The Rangers could play Jurickson Profar at shortstop and then pursue Robinson Cano to play second base. A middle of the order with Cano, Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder and a healthy Kemp would be pretty imposing. For the Dodgers, Andrus would allow Hanley Ramirez to move over to third base, and improve the team's defense up the middle but at the risk of moving Ramirez off the position he wants to play.


Which outfielder should the Dodgers trade, factoring in what each could bring in return?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,112)

Anyway, as Mike suggests, trading Kemp is unlikely. He's a fan favorite and there are doubts Ethier can play center field (although it will be interesting to see if Don Mattingly tries Puig out there next season considering Kemp's defensive metrics are poor). Mike also points out that "If you had too many quality outfielders, then the 2013 Dodgers wouldn't have had to give 99 starts to a group of Scott Van Slyke, Skip Schumaker, Jerry Hairston, Chili Buss, Alex Castellanos, and Elian Herrera, along with five more to Schumaker in the playoffs when neither Ethier or Kemp could answer the bell."

What do you think? How would you solve the Dodgers' outfield logjam? I'll leave Puig out of the poll but give you the five other options.

When the Oakland A's acquired Chris Young in the offseason from the Arizona Diamondbacks, it appeared Coco Crisp would be the odd man out in the Oakland outfield, or at least see his playing substantially reduced. While it was billed as a "four guys for three positions" type of arrangement along with Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, Young was viewed as the better defender in center field, and Cespedes and Reddick, Oakland's two best position players a year ago, weren't likely to sit too often.

It's not that Crisp was going to sit on the bench; after all, he put up a solid .259/.325/.418 line last year with 39 steals in 43 attempts. As a switch-hitter, he would help give Bob Melvin the platoon advantage no matter who would be pitching. But Crisp's crucial misplay against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series cost the A's a victory, forcing a Game 5 confrontation against Justin Verlander that proved to be all Verlander, and Young's power potential would be intriguing to a club that relied on heavily on the home run in 2012.

Whatever the plan, it has worked out that Crisp has been the A's best outfielder, and their second-most valuable position player behind third baseman Josh Donaldson. With Cespedes, Reddick and Young all struggling at the plate, where would the A's be without Crisp? Not tied with the Rangers for the AL West lead. Just over a week ago, the A's looked like a team on the fall, at risk of losing its hold on the second wild card to the Indians or the Orioles or maybe the Yankees. Now they've won seven of eight and caught the Rangers in the standings for the first time since Aug. 9.
[+] EnlargeCoco Crisp
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsCoco Crisp has reason to celebrate, and so do the A's.

In the opener of a crucial three-game series in Oakland against the Texas Rangers, Crisp hit the go-ahead two-run homer in the fifth, hitting the left-field foul pole and upheld upon review, and the A's bullpen held on for the 4-2 victory. It was Crisp's career-high 17th home run, but maybe his power shouldn't be that big a surprise: He hit .281/.349/.511 in the second half last year with eight home runs. He has been hitting like this since last July.

Crisp was just one of Monday's surprise heroes -- players who usually fly under the radar but provide the contributions that push teams into the playoffs. Here are a few others:

  • Brian Roberts, Orioles: After playing just 115 games combined over the past three seasons, who thought Roberts would be playing in 2013, let alone contributing? But there he was on Monday, hitting leadoff and hitting a two-run double to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead in the third inning against the Indians, on way to a 7-2 victory. He's hitting .265/.341/.350 in the second half while playing in 37 of Baltimore's 40 games. He hasn't been great, but he's getting on base and provided stability at second base.

  • David Huff, Yankees: A former supplemental first-round pick of the Indians, Huff never did much with Cleveland and the Yankees picked him up on waivers in late May and sent him to the minors. As a former starter, he has contributed two big long relief performances in the past two weeks. On Aug. 21, he pitched five scoreless innings of relief in a 4-2 victory over the Blue Jays. On Monday, he replaced Phil Hughes in the second innings after a nearly two-hour rain delay and pitched 5 2/3 innings and watched as the Yankees put up eight runs in the fourth inning to beat the White Sox.

  • Jordan Schafer, Braves: The one-time top prospect has rescued his career with a strong season as Atlanta's fourth outfielder. With Jason Heyward on the disabled list, Schafer is playing right field and went 4-for-5 on Monday, raising his season line to .275/.352/.389. Considering B.J. Upton's season-long struggles, if Heyward returns by the end of the regular season, it will be interesting to see if Schafer gets postseason starts in center field (at least against right-handed pitching).

  • Charlie Morton, Pirates: With seven strong innings in a 5-2 win over the Brewers, Morton is now 7-3 with a 3.00 ERA, and the Pirates reclaimed sole possession of first place. As Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information points out, the curveball has been a huge weapon for Morton, especially with two strikes, when he's limiting batters to a .392 OPS compared to .522 in 2011-2012. Opponents are hitting just .117 off Morton's two-strike curveballs. There are some cloudy numbers in Morton's results -- his strikeout rate isn't great and he leads the NL with 14 hit batters in just 90 innings -- but he's allowed two runs or fewer in six straight starts and helped rescue a Pirates rotation that has battled injuries.

  • Andre Ethier, Dodgers: OK, he's a pretty big name and paid like a pretty big star. The emergence of Yasiel Puig back in June led to calls for the Dodgers to trade Ethier; instead, Matt Kemp hasn't been able to stay on the field and Ethier has had to start 62 games in center field -- where he had started just once before in his major league career. He hasn't killed them defensively -- he's at -4 Defensive Runs Saved -- and in the second half he's hitting .302/.399/.532, including two doubles and a home run on Monday in a 10-8 win over the Rockies.

    It's not often that plans in March go smoothly all season. The A's outfield depth has paid off, maybe as Billy Beane intended, but sometimes alternate plans are needed -- like Ethier playing center field. I'm pretty sure that wasn't in Don Mattingly's playbook back in spring training. But playoff teams have stars and unsung heroes.

  • Eric Karabell and myself discuss this year's trade market, including Chase Utley, Andre Ethier and what the Yankees can do.

    The Philadelphia Phillies are 23-24, they've been outscored by 31 runs, Roy Halladay is on the disabled list, Ryan Howard hasn't hit and Cole Hamels can't win. So the Phillies eventually will be sellers at the trade deadline, right? I don't think so. Here are 10 reasons why.

    1. Cliff Lee is an ace.

    Remember him? Finished third in the Cy Young voting back in 2011. Pitches 200-plus innings every year. Can throw a fastball over a postage stamp while blindfolded. He's still pretty good. OK, his three-hit shutout Wednesday came against the Marlins. It still counts. He's 5-2, his ERA is 2.48, he's one inning shy of leading the majors in innings pitched and opponents are hitting .227 against him. He's one of the best pitchers in baseball.

    2. Cole Hamels will pitch better.

    Hamels is 1-7 with a 4.45 ERA and has struggled with his command. The Phillies have won just one of his 10 starts. In a way, this is good news. You really think Hamels will go 3-21? That the Phillies will win just three of the 30 or so starts Hamels will make? Of course not. So the fact that the Phillies are 23-24 while playing worse than the Marlins or Astros when Hamels pitches means they could easily be worse than 23-24. But they're not.

    [+] EnlargeCliff Lee
    AP Photo/Alan DiazPhillies lefty Cliff Lee improved to 5-2 with a complete-game, three-hit shutout of the Marlins.
    3. Kyle Kendrick is actually good now.

    As Bill Baer wrote at the end of April, this is a new-and-improved Kendrick over the previous mediocre editions. Basically, Kendrick has stopped throwing so many cutters to left-handers and started using his changeup more often. It has given him a strikeout pitch against lefties and helped hold them to a .240/.290/.380 (BA/OBP/SLG) line against him this season, a big improvement compared to the .268/.341/.458 mark from 2010 to 2012.

    4. Michael Young hasn't been horrible.

    He hasn't been great, hitting .287 with just one home run, but for some reason, he has started drawing walks (23 this year compared to 33 all of last season with the Rangers). That's given him a fine .378 on-base percentage. If he keeps that walk rate up, Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel should actually consider moving him into the leadoff spot -- especially considering Young's tendency to ground into rally-killing double plays (11, most in the majors). It's not so much that he hasn't been a big positive, but he hasn't been the gaping wound many sabermetric analysts projected. Take that, smart guys!

    5. Delmon Young isn't good at baseball.

    No, no, no, this is another good thing. The Phillies will eventually realize they'll need a better right fielder. Can you say Andre Ethier? Actually, he and Young would make a nice platoon.

    6. The bullpen will do better.

    The Phillies rank 27th in the majors with a 4.67 bullpen ERA. I think they have enough quality arms down there (14th in strikeout percentage, for example) to improve. Well, assuming Chad Durbin doesn't keep getting used.

    7. The Nationals just might not be that good.

    The Phillies are just one game behind the Nationals in the standings. Their run differentials are nearly the same -- minus-26 for Washington, minus-31 for Philadelphia -- but nobody is suggesting the Nationals sell off. That still leaves the Braves, a team the Phillies still have to play 16 times. In fact, the Phillies haven't played the Nationals yet, so they have 19 games remaining against them. So, umm ... they control their own destiny!

    8. Even if the Phillies decide to dump, what do they have to dump?

    OK, you could trade Chase Utley, but you're not going to get a franchise prospect in return for three months of Utley's services (yes, everyone can point to the Mets getting Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran in 2011, but that's a rarity). You could trade Lee, although his salary is so high -- $25 million each of the next two years with a possible $27.5 million vesting option in 2016 -- that he might not bring much in return, either. You're not going to get anything for Delmon Young or Michael Young. In other words, trading assets isn't really the way to start a youth movement because you don't have valuable assets to deal. That leaves general manager Ruben Amaro with the option of trying to acquire players other teams might be looking to dump -- such as an Ethier, who probably wouldn't cost much if the Phillies are willing to absorb part of his contract.

    9. Roy Halladay might return this year.


    What should the Phillies do?


    Discuss (Total votes: 4,829)

    He just headed to Florida to begin rehabbing from his shoulder surgery, and everyone is hopeful he can return in late August. Hey, you never know.

    10. Big-market teams don't give up!

    Well, OK, the Red Sox did a year ago, but that's because the Dodgers offered a gift too generous to turn down. The Phillies aren't going to find a taker for Howard's contract.

    Look, I don't believe the Phillies are good enough to beat the Braves or Nationals, but the wild card isn't a crazy impossibility. They have a tougher schedule ahead, with 35 games left against the Braves and Nationals and only 19 against the Marlins and Mets. Manuel's resistance to doing things such as platooning Howard or admitting that Delmon Young can't or shouldn't play right field is an obstacle. Michael Young might stop drawing walks. Utley just missed a game with a sore rib cage, so who knows when he'll miss a chunk of action.

    If the Phillies trade for a couple of bats in the outfield, however, you never know. It certainly doesn't seem in Amaro's nature to concede a playoff berth. Look for the Phillies to be buyers.
    Dodgers manager Don Mattingly benched veteran right fielder Andre Ethier for this afternoon's game in Milwaukee and did so publicly, suggesting Ethier lacks toughness or grit or fight or hustle or some combination of those:
    "It's not just all, 'Let’s go put an All-Star team out there and play games and the team with the All-Star team wins.' It's trying to find that balance of a team that's got a little grit and a little fight. They'll fight you, and has enough talent to get there also, with that. All grit and no talent is not going to get you there and all talent and no grit is not going to get you there. There's got to be a mixture of both."

    It's the third time Ethier hasn't started in six games, and Wednesday's benching was particularly noteworthy because it came against a right-hander. Ethier is one of those players who plays with a sort of effortless ability, but obviously Mattingly sees something going on. With the benching, he's sort of putting what I'll call the J.D. Drew label on him: It doesn't look like Ethier is trying. Difference is, Drew was a much better player than Ethier.

    Here, each player's WAR (wins above replacement) from ages 25 to 30 (Ethier is in his age-31 season):

    Ethier: 1.1, 2.2, 2.9, 1.9, 2.4, 3.8
    Drew: 5.5, 2.8, 2.5, 8.3, 3.2, 4.0

    I was going to write how this means Ethier could be on the trading block, since spring training sensation Yasiel Puig is playing well in Double-A (.314 AVG/.385 OBP/.579 SLG, six home runs, 10 steals) and could be in line for a promotion, but Dave Cameron at FanGraphs has an excellent piece on the topic. From Dave's piece:

    As challenging as moving Ethier's contract might seem -- he's hit just .270/.346/.415 over the last calendar year, spanning 619 plate appearances, so this is no longer just a slump -- the Dodgers have the financial capability to eat a significant chunk of his contract in order to move him and create a spot in the lineup for Puig. And while Ethier is certainly not worth his full salary, it's not so far removed from the realm of reason that he couldn't possibly be traded.

    Even over the past 365 days, when Ethier has demonstrated marginal power, he's still put up a 111 wRC+, and both ZiPS and Steamer forecast him to hit at about that level the rest of the season. The disappointing Andre Ethier is still roughly an average player, maybe even a tick above for this year, though he's on the wrong side of 30 and will probably be below average before too long.

    What should do the Dodgers do with Andre Ethier?


    Discuss (Total votes: 2,660)

    As those graphs suggest, trading him has three obstacles:

    1. He does make a lot of money (signed a five-year, $85 million extension last year).
    2. He can't hit lefties (never has) and maybe not righties as well as in the past.
    3. He's getting older.

    Is there another team out there willing to take a chance on Ethier? That believes he's still a 3-win player and not a platoon guy on the decline? The Dodgers would likely have to eat some of his remaining contract. Dave suggests the Royals (for Jeff Francoeur), the Mariners (for Franklin Gutierrez) and the Rangers as possible partners. Those make sense and I'd also toss in the Orioles, for whom Ethier could DH.

    Maybe Don Mattingly is a good manager. Maybe he's a bad manager. Maybe, like his mentor Joe Torre, he's just four jobs away from the job that will turn him into a Hall of Famer. (The headline in the New York Daily News when the Yankees hired Torre: "CLUELESS JOE.")

    Right now, Mattingly is taking his share of the blame for the Los Angeles Dodgers' 18-25 start, but blame is spread around to every corner of the clubhouse when you have a veteran roster of famous names, the highest payroll in baseball and playoff expectations and a lousy record. I suspect, however, the Dodgers would be something close to 18-25 regardless who was managing. "It ain't like football. You can't make up no trick plays," Yogi Berra once said.

    After getting a vote of confidence from the front office -- Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said Mattingly is "doing fine" -- Mattingly looked like a genius on Monday. But any manager can look like a genius when he hands the ball to Clayton Kershaw. The current Best Pitcher on Planet Earth tossed a three-hit complete game in a 3-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. While Kershaw was his usual dominant self in lowering his ERA to 1.35, we saw the two people who can ultimately save Mattingly's job (well, besides, Colletti and team president Stan Kasten): Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.

    The two guys in the middle of the lineup, who make nearly $34 million between them this year, both homered, but it was only Kemp's second and Ethier's fourth of the season. The Dodgers rank 29th in the majors in runs scored, and while you can blame Hanley Ramirez's injury, or the poor production from Luis Cruz, a large portion of that blame falls on Kemp and Ethier. Heck, Kershaw has one home run. Nick Punto has a home run. Kemp is now tied with those two guys. He's hitting .267/.315/.358 with 16 RBIs, and maybe the offseason shoulder surgery has affected him or maybe we're just waiting for a patented Kemp hot streak to kick in.

    [+] EnlargeDodgers' Don Mattingly
    Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsAt 18-25, Don Mattingly's Dodgers are in last place in the NL West.
    Ethier tripled and homered, raising his triple-slash line to .262/.345/.407. The problem here isn't as obvious as Kemp's power struggles; this may be exactly who Ethier is now at age 31, a good player beginning the decline phase of his career. That line isn't so different from the .292/.368/.421 Ethier put up in 2011, for example (although he played through some knee issues that year).

    But even when hitting .284 with 20 home runs like he did last year, Either is more solid contributor than star. In fact, it's the money being paid to Kemp and Ethier that sums up some of the Dodgers' current and long-term problems. This may be their team … not just for 2013, but for the foreseeable future. Consider their primary payroll obligations right now:

    Kemp: $149.5 million through 2019 (34 years old)
    Ethier: $85 million through 2017 (35 years old, could vest for 2018)
    Carl Crawford: $106.7 million through 2017 (35 years old)
    Adrian Gonzalez: $132.1 million through 2018 (36 years old)
    Zack Greinke: $147 million through 2018 (34 years old)

    That doesn't include Josh Beckett and Ramirez (signed through 2014) or some of the throwaway contracts, such as those of Chad Billingsley (signed through 2014 but out until sometime next year following Tommy John surgery), Juan Uribe and Brandon League. And it doesn't include whatever it will cost to retain Kershaw's services past 2014. Can you say $30 million per year?

    If we assume Kershaw makes $20 million next year and then signs a long-term deal for $30 million per season, those five players plus Kershaw will be making an average of about $134 million per season through 2017. The problem isn't so much whether or not the Dodgers can afford that -- by all accounts the ownership group has bottomless pockets and doesn't care much about exceeding luxury tax thresholds (at least for now) -- but what are the Dodgers affording?

    That core doesn't look like a core that's going to win in 2013, let alone five seasons from now. That group is akin to the Phillies signing guys such as Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley into their early and mid-30s, then watching them age and the team decline from World Series champs to contenders to mediocrity. Except at least the Phillies won something and dominated for years. What has this group done besides put Mattingly's head in the guillotine?

    To be fair, the season is far from over and writing off the Dodgers now could be fateful words. Kemp may heat up, Greinke is back in the rotation, Ramirez will return from the disabled list, the bullpen may stop blowing late leads and Kershaw may win every start the rest of the season.

    Still, I suspect Mattingly may not make it through the end of May. That would be the easy way out for Colletti and Kasten. But, hey, who knows, maybe they know a manager out there who has some good trick plays.
    As we wait for free agency to officially begin, a few Friday afternoon links to check out.

    Dodgers still living on the edge

    September, 20, 2012
    AM ET

      "I mean, guys, I know how to hit. I promise you, I know how to hit. It’s just right now, it’s been pretty tough."
      -- Matt Kemp to reporters a few days ago

    Kemp has not had a good September. He's been mired in such a terrible slump that Cardinals manager Mike Matheny intentionally walked Andre Ethier the other day with runners at second and third and two out in the bottom of the 10th inning. And it worked. Kemp flied out, and the Cardinals eventually won the game in 12 innings.

    The 2011 MVP runner-up entered Wednesday's doubleheader in Washington hitting .122 in September, with one walk and 14 strikeouts, an approach conjuring up memories of Kemp's lackluster 2010 season. Going back to Aug. 10, he had one home run and 12 RBIs in 31 games. "The Bison"? This was more like "T-Bone" Shelby.

    Kemp went 1-for-4 in the first game as the Nationals won 3-1, dropping the Dodgers to 9-17 since an Aug. 19 victory had left them a half-game up on the Giants in the National League West. They were now two games behind the Cardinals in the crawl to the second wild-card spot. I wouldn't quite label the nightcap a must-win game, but there was at least a certain urgency.

    How did this happen? How did the Dodgers get here? On Aug. 20, they lost to the Giants, when Madison Bumgarner outdueled Clayton Kershaw 2-1 (both starters went eight innings, and combined for 20 strikeouts and no walks). The Giants won the next day and the next. A sweep at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers then had an off day, and general manager Ned Colletti spent it finalizing the blockbuster deal to acquire Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett. This would right the ship. It would be a battle to the end against their hated rivals, and in a perfect alignment of the schedule, the teams would finish the season against each other at Dodger Stadium.

    Instead, the blockbuster became blockbusted. Gonzalez has been awful since joining the Dodgers, and his batting line stood at .233/.286/.378 (BA/OBP/SLG). Those would be described in the greater L.A. area as "James Loney numbers." Beckett had been inconsistent in four starts with the Dodgers, posting a 3.38 ERA but allowing 27 hits in 24 innings. He'd start the second game.

    * * * *

    The Dodgers scored three runs in the third inning. Kemp and Gonzalez drew key walks, and Hanley Ramirez and Ethier knocked in runs. They scored three more in the fourth. Kemp had an RBI single. He later scored a controversial run (replays showed he hadn't crossed the plate before a tag was made on Gonzalez). It was just the second time the Dodgers had scored at least six runs in 18 games. They'd scored two or fewer in nine of those games.

    * * * *

    The Nationals scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth. The home crowd went crazy.

    * * * *

    The Dodgers were staring down the barrel of one of the season's most bitter defeats that any team had suffered, an absolutely crushing blow considering the timing and circumstances.

    Kemp led off the ninth against Nationals closer Tyler Clippard, and fell behind on a called strike for a cutter and two foul balls on a changeup and fastball. Kemp had entered the day hitting .200 on 0-2 counts, with 32 strikeouts in 63 plate appearances. Over the past three seasons, batters were hitting .128 off Clippard when he reached an 0-2 count.

    Clippard wanted to elevate a fastball; he didn't elevate enough. Kemp belted a towering fly ball to center field that reached the third row of bleachers. Brandon League had an easy, 12-pitch bottom of the ninth, and the Dodgers had the win 7-6. If the Dodgers somehow find a way to gather up some steam and catch the Cardinals to make the postseason, this will be the game Dodgers fans remember. From nearly falling off the edge of the cliff to catching a branch on the way down. Still hanging in there.

    * * * *

    This isn't a good team right now, not with Kemp and Gonzalez struggling at the plate. Not with Kershaw indefinitely sidelined -- maybe for the rest of the season -- with his sore hip. The Dodgers haven't been good since that amazing 30-13 start. In truth, the Dodgers' season peaked May 22, when Ivan DeJesus Jr. doubled in two runs in the ninth inning to give the Dodgers an 8-7 victory over the Diamondbacks. They seemed unstoppable at that time, a miracle season in the works. Cue highlights of Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson on the big screen.

    The Gonzalez trade was a sign of desperation, a sign of a new ownership group with deep pockets being played the fool. Take on our fading stars! Take on these mammoth contracts! Win back your fans! It will work out for you, trust us!

    You know, the funny thing about the Frank McCourt era is that the Dodgers made the playoffs four times in his eight seasons as owner. They even won their first two playoff series since 1988.

    I have a feeling they will be 0-for-1 in the Magic Johnson era.

    Matt KempHarry E. Walker/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp gets his due for taking the pressure off everyone else with his winning homer in the nightcap.

    Dodgers doing the necessary things

    August, 14, 2012
    AM ET
    Matt Kemp didn’t go yard. He didn’t need to. And Andre Ethier? He didn’t put the lineup on his back either. What of Mattingly’s mighty mites, the guys who were the toast of Los Angeles back in May? They were there, sure, but they essentially clocked in and clocked out, proverbial lunch pails in hand.

    And the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates just the same on Monday night, because the team that made people wonder how general manager Ned Colletti had done it three months ago doesn’t really exist anymore. Kemp had a good night, and journeyman Aaron Harang tossed his 14th quality start -- a reasonable stand-in definition for “winnable game” -- of the season. This could be the second year in Harang’s career that he tosses a quality start 60 percent of the time, the sort of serviceability that recommended him to the Dodgers in the first place, just as it did Chris Capuano and now Joe Blanton. Rounding out a rotation after you have an ace in place isn’t sexy but it’s necessary, and perhaps that’s the word that will define what Colletti’s done this summer: the necessary things.

    That’s because Colletti didn’t stand still any more than circumstances did. When forced to do something necessary, he has done it. He has adapted and overcome, and that, as much as anything, might be what puts the Dodgers into the postseason. Colletti never made the mistake of settling, not for the team he built over the winter on back-loaded deals to an odd collection of journeymen, and not when that team started the season 30-13 behind Kemp’s brief triple-crown bid. After a 6-19 swoon through July 17 helped kill any complacency over their brittle early-season achievements, Colletti acted, armed with the newly added largesse of his team’s new owners. Trading for Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino and Blanton represents a facelift significant enough to elicit professional respect among cosmetic surgeons.

    As a result, the new-look Dodgers might resemble that surprise hot-start team you remember from April, but only in the broadest particulars. Kemp and Ethier you remember. But the undercard? Let’s just say the Dodgers aren’t going to try getting to the dance with everyone they initially invited. Transient heroes such as Bobby Abreu, Elian Herrera and Dee Gordon have had their moments, but Colletti was as married to any of them as Kris Humphries was to Kim Kardashian -- give me a good month, maybe two, and then, see ya! As brutally unfair as that might seem, that’s life in baseball’s middle class.

    Let’s not forget Don Mattingly’s part in also doing a few necessary things. The skipper didn’t settle on Javy Guerra as his closer, last year’s 21 saves or no. Faced with a necessary choice after Guerra pitched poorly, Mattingly let performance be his guide, and Kenley Jansen nailed down Monday's game. Confronted by James Loney’s consistently crummy production, the Dodgers have turned more and more to Juan Rivera at first base -- Rivera has started 16 of their past 30 games. Giving Ramirez a test-drive at short to see if he can still swing it sets up a later necessary decision about what Gordon’s role might be down the stretch. Gordon might be the franchise's long-term future at shortstop, but there’s a right-now future to honor as well, and you can bet Mattingly will make a necessary choice with that in mind.

    If you want to speculate about anything with this club, though, don’t think about the warm fuzzies of the Dodgers’ new age of Magic (Johnson) or what might have been if Kemp had stayed healthy. That way lies madness -- with Kemp around, perhaps the Dodgers’ needs might not have seemed so dire, and maybe then Colletti doesn’t bring in HanRam and the Flyin’ Hawaiian and rent Joe Blanton. Follow that thread of possibilities and you’re probably left with a nice little team, an 85-win team that gets remembered fondly as a symbol of the Dodgers’ return to respectability, if mildly disappointing for its late fade.

    But perhaps because the Dodgers did start strong and Kemp did get hurt, Colletti did those subsequently necessary things to make something more of his team's circumstance. As a result, the Dodgers are turning into something more than just a rival with those Angels arrivistes from Anaheim for Angeleno affections, they’re turning into the sort of team you can see going toe-to-toe with anybody in a postseason series. Outside of the non-Clayton Kershaw nights, they can now beat you with the sort of depth in talent that is usually associated with the Yankees or Red Sox or last year's Cardinals (or the Phillies, up until this year).

    They're stronger now because they were weak in June, possibly as strong as any team in the league. Think on that: Do you really want to run into a team that can lead off a postseason series with Kershaw? If you’re a gambling man, here’s hoping you don’t find that necessary.

    Mike SciosciaKelvin Kuo/US PresswireIf Mike Scioscia wants to make a federal case out of it, there's always the Ninth Circuit.
    Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
    If you're a fan of one of these teams, you know of what I speak. For all the hype and attention given to the trade deadline, the biggest area of improvement for playoff contenders usually needs to come from players already on the roster. Here are 10 who need to step it up:

    Ervin Santana, Angels (4-10, 6.00 ERA)
    At this point, I'm not sure why the Angels are still running Santana out there. Simply replacing him with any decent fourth or fifth starter would be a huge improvement, and you wouldn't have to pay the hefty price to acquire, say, Zack Greinke. (Although adding Greinke would certainly bolster the playoff rotation.) After a terrible April in which he surrendered 10 home runs, Santana pitched a little better in May and June, but has been trending downward lately. In his past four starts he has a total of four strikeouts.

    Santana's numbers are down across the board -- higher walk rate, lower strikeout rate, way too many home runs -- but it appears his primary problem has been too many hanging sliders. In 2011, batters hit .161 with seven home runs off his slider; this year they're hitting .199 but with 12 home runs already. Overall, he's allowed 23 home runs, despite pitching in a good pitcher's park.

    [+] EnlargeAndre Ethier
    Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireThe Dodgers need Andre Ethier to find his early season form.
    Andre Ethier, Dodgers (.289/.362/.481)
    I mentioned Ethier in Wednesday' blog about the Dodgers. While his overall numbers are solid, since May 22 he's hitting .259/.346/.377 with just two home runs in 45 games. The Dodgers need more production from their cleanup hitter.

    Jemile Weeks, A's (.216/.302/.300)
    While the A's might look to boost their offense by adding a shortstop or third baseman (good luck with those positions), they'll likely ride with Weeks at second. So promising as a rookie in 2011 when he hit .303 with 26 doubles and eight triples in 406 at-bats, Weeks has actually doubled his walk rate while striking out less, but a .248 average on balls in play has hurt him. That's not all bad luck -- he's hitting fewer line drives and more groundballs than last season, and clearly he isn't driving the ball much. But the talent is there to have a strong final 60 games.

    Reds leadoff hitters (.200/.247/.304)
    That's mostly courtesy of rookie shortstop Zack Cozart with Drew Stubbs appearing there a few times of late. But that means Dusty Baker usually just moves Cozart down to the No. 2 hole. So, yes, Baker apparently believes it's a good idea to start your lineup with two sub-.300 OBP guys hitting first and second. He just doesn't get it, and why the front office hasn't told him to stop that nonsense is beyond me. The Reds would be better off with Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce hitting 1-2. At least that way your better hitters are getting more plate appearances.

    Michael Young, Rangers (.270/.299/.346)
    For all the talk about the Rangers seeking another starting pitcher with Colby Lewis out for the season and Roy Oswalt struggling, Young is the one guy in the lineup who's been a big, fat zero. As a designated hitter with an empty .270 batting average despite playing in the best hitter's park in the American League, Young has been one of the least valuable hitters in the league. In fact, based on Baseball-Reference offensive WAR, only Ryan Raburn and Justin Smoak rank worse than Young. And he's getting worse; he hit .326 in April, but has a .270 OBP in July and hasn't homered since May 7.

    Tim Lincecum, Giants (4-11, 5.88 ERA)
    This one goes without saying. After two good starts (against the Triple-A Astros and Phillies), Lincecum was roughed up again on Wednesday, allowing 11 runners and two home runs to the Padres in less than five innings. I don't want to hear about his FIP or xFIP -- Lincecum has been terrible, can't locate his fastball, and when he does throw strikes he gets lit. The potential is there for improvement, of course, but it's starting to look more and more like a lost season. The Giants will undoubtedly look to upgrade the offense -- amazingly, Bruce Bochy hit Brandon Crawford fifth on Wednesday -- but Lincecum could provide a bigger left than any hitter they might acquire.

    Philip Humber, White Sox (4-5, 6.25 ERA)
    Was that this year that Humber threw his perfect game? The White Sox are still hoping that John Danks can return at some point, but considering he just threw 20 pitches off a mound on Tuesday in testing his left shoulder, he's still a long ways away. Humber has been burned by the long ball (16 home runs in 76.1 innings).

    Tommy Hanson, Braves (11-5, 4.39)
    Hanson's win-loss record is nice thanks to great run support when he's started, but he's hardly pitching like an ace right now, with a 5.54 ERA over his past 11 starts while averaging less than six innings per start. Maybe that hasn't resulted in losses, but it has taxed the bullpen. Injuries have cut into Hanson's once-promising potential, and the truth is his stuff doesn't grade out as high as it once did. His average fastball velocity is down 3 mph from where it was two seasons ago, and he now sits around 90. He's allowed 19 home runs this season -- 15 off his fastball.

    Cardinals bullpen (10-15, 4.17 ERA)
    This story sounds familiar: It took the Cardinals four-plus months last season to figure out their bullpen. The Cardinals rank 10th in the NL in bullpen ERA, and all the teams below them have losing records. Cardinals relievers have allowed 34 home runs, third-worst in the league; only the Rockies and Astros have allowed more. The arms and ability are here, as we saw last October.

    Jon Lester (5-8, 5.46 ERA) and Josh Beckett (5-9, 4.57 ERA), Red Sox
    You can take apart the Red Sox a thousand different ways -- injuries, clubhouse issues, Bobby Valentine and so on -- but consider this: Despite the multitude of injuries, the Red Sox are still second in the AL in runs scored. If these two were instead 8-5 and 9-5, they'd be 56-43 and 3.5 games behind the Yankees instead of 4.5 out of the wild-card standings.
    The Los Angeles Dodgers don't need Hanley Ramirez to suddenly convert back into vintage, MVP-candidate Hanley Ramirez.

    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:

    LF Abreu
    C A.J. Ellis
    CF Kemp
    RF Ethier
    SS Ramirez
    3B Hairston
    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.

    Omar InfanteJason Miller/Getty ImagesOmar Infante is feeling lighter than air after getting away from Miami's mayhem.
    Keith Law and I returned from a brief Independence Day hiatus to discuss many pertinent matters on Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, including ...

    1. Carlos Lee is now a Miami Marlin, but will he really make much of an impact on his new team? And what about the prospects headed to Houston?

    2. Meanwhile, Cliff Lee wins his first game of the season, which is funny for quite a few reasons.

    3. How do the Dodgers ever score runs these days? We discuss the lineup, which lost a key cog Wednesday. And why is Matt Kemp competing in the home run contest?

    4. Today we gladly took your tweets instead of emails and it was a blast! We talked potential trades, Chris Sale, minor leaguers and much more!

    5. Thursday’s schedule has one matchup of All-Stars in New York, but keep an eye on a battle of pitchers traded for each other in San Diego as well!

    So download and listen to Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast and get ready for Friday’s episode with me and Mark Simon! Then it’s on to Kansas City!

    Ethier's injury latest Dodger setback

    July, 5, 2012
    AM ET

    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.

    Nats FanGreg Fiume/Getty ImagesWhat fan doesn't want to say happy birthday to the U.S. of A.?
    Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
    A few new and interesting contracts were in the news as Keith Law and I gathered for Tuesday's Baseball Today podcast !

    1. Jorge Soler signed a nine-year deal to become a member of the Chicago Cubs. Law has the goods on this top outfield prospect.

    2. Andre Ethier and the Los Angeles Dodgers will be partners for the next five years. Do we feel as good about this contract?

    3. Should Angels stud Mike Trout play in the All-Star Game? Should he get MVP votes? Yeah, he's that good.

    4. Our emailers want to talk about Stony Brook, international free agent strategy, team construction and arm slot for pitchers.

    5. Tuesday's schedule features more interleague, with streaking Clay Buchholz back on the mound in Miami, Felix Hernandez getting a gift with the Padres and Zack Greinke returning to Kansas City.

    So download and listen to Tuesday's Baseball Today podcast, because in this business, like Brandon Morrow and his oblique injury, we're all day to day!