For Dodgers, there's always next season
LOS ANGELES -- So what's the point, you ask?
Why are the Los Angeles Dodgers playing out these final five weeks of a lost season, other than because Major League Baseball says they have to? Well, for a lot of reasons. To try to win as many games as they can, sure, but really, what's the difference between 65, 70 or 75 wins? To climb as high in the standings as they can, of course, because third place is still up for grabs in the National League West, but again, does it really matter whether you finish third, fourth or fifth?
There will be chances to play the spoiler, especially with that three-game, season-ending series in Arizona. But that isn't really what this is going to be about. We can watch Matt Kemp chase the most valuable player award and Clayton Kershaw vie for the Cy Young, but those are mere subplots, albeit compelling ones.
More than anything, these five weeks will be about evaluation. A lot of evaluation. Important evaluation, the kind that could have a bearing on the organization for years to come. A huge indication of that came Tuesday, when the team designated fading veteran catcher Dioner Navarro for assignment and called up A.J. Ellis, who is out of minor league options after this season and whose future place in the organization is yet to be determined.
If they have the financial resources -- a major question mark, considering they're in bankruptcy -- the Dodgers desperately need to add a power bat this winter. For now, though, the questions that need to be answered all center on players who already are here, some of whom may not be here much longer.
First, and perhaps most important, is rookie shortstop Dee Gordon. When he comes off the disabled list, probably sometime next week, club officials will continue to gauge whether he is ready to take over the job on an everyday basis next year and whether he really can be the Dodgers' anchor at shortstop for years to come. If he is, well, then, fine, he already is in place and is under club control through at least 2017. If he isn't, the Dodgers will have to look elsewhere, as they really don't have an alternative within the organization, at least not one that is close to being big league ready.
Second is first baseman James Loney, whose days with the Dodgers seemed to be numbered as recently as a week ago because of his lack of offensive production at a position where offensive production -- and more specifically, power production -- is all but a must. Since then, though, Loney has been hot, going 12-for-18 in a seven-game stretch through Wednesday.
Is that enough to save Loney from the indignation of being non-tendered, as longtime teammate Russell Martin was last winter by the Dodgers? Not by itself. But if Loney can keep up that trend the rest of the way, and if he is willing to be flexible in contract talks this winter -- i.e., willing to accept something slightly less than the roughly $5.5 million he would stand to make next season through the arbitration process -- he might buy himself at least one more year here.
They're also going to look at the starting rotation, where Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly are going to be there for sure next year because they all are locked up contractually. But Hiroki Kuroda is a free agent, and there are indications he will go back to Japan to finish his career, possibly as soon as 2012.
Given that, and given that Rubby De La Rosa won't be back until late next season at the earliest, the Dodgers will continue to keep a close eye on rookie Nathan Eovaldi, who has been outstanding so far in four starts. He isn't going to get many more starts because he is nearing his innings limit, but even after he is taken out of the rotation -- replaced, presumably, by John Ely -- he will continue to make sporadic appearances out of the bullpen. He figures to go to spring training as all but a lock to begin the season as the Dodgers' fourth or fifth starter.
So, to summarize, the rest of this Dodgers season is really all about next season. Call it Spring Training Part Deux, if you will. We also will see a handful of September call-ups, all of whom will be evaluated for the future. There is one open spot on the 40-man roster, thanks to Navarro having been DFA'd, and more could be cleared if necessary, so it's possible some of those call-ups won't be the obvious ones.
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Perhaps Tim Federowicz, the highly regarded catching prospect the Dodgers got from the Boston Red Sox in that three-team deal at the trading deadline, could get a look. Maybe Scott Van Slyke, the second-generation outfielder who has had a breakout season at Double-A Chattanooga, will get the call. And we can probably count on seeing Jerry Sands again, because he needs to be evaluated for an everyday spot on next year's team, and even with spring training still almost six months away, it's never too early for that evaluation to start.
Where the Dodgers will end up record-wise or in the standings is anyone's guess at this point, and again, it really doesn't matter that much anyway. But these final five weeks are a lot more than simply marking time. They will have at least some impact, and maybe a big one, on the future of this franchise. So the front office and the coaching staff will be watching intently, every inning, every pitch, every at-bat.
Even if most everyone else couldn't care less.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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