Commentary

A lot riding on how Dodgers finish up

It's been a mostly mediocre run for L.A. ever since blockbuster trade with Boston

Originally Published: September 18, 2012
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Just after 2 p.m. on Aug. 25, Matt Kemp clicked a cell phone picture of the Los Angeles Dodgers' lineup -- with Adrian Gonzalez batting fourth -- and tweeted it to his more than 200,000 followers.

At that moment, Gonzalez was somewhere over the desert at an altitude of roughly 30,000 feet aboard a private jet, but he would, indeed, be in the lineup that day and hit a dramatic three-run home run in his first at-bat as a Dodger.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Gonzalez
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireAdrian Gonzalez is batting .233 with one home run in 21 games since joining the Dodgers.

Kemp's tweet contained just one word and a hash tag.

#Wow.

Three-and-a-half weeks later, "wow" seems about right, for all the wrong reasons. After taking on more than a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in salary obligations to land Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto and an injured Carl Crawford from the Boston Red Sox, the Dodgers have slipped further from their objective. They are 8-13 since the trade, have gone from two games back in the NL West to a barely breathing 7½ back and are hanging on in the wild-card race only because the St. Louis Cardinals have struggled just as badly as they have.

It's not exactly what they were envisioning when they made one of the brashest transactions in baseball history.

"I don't think anybody in here can put their finger on it," said Dodgers second baseman Mark Ellis. "We just haven't swung the bats well."

The weather has changed since that sunshiny moment when Gonzalez hit his dramatic home run off Josh Johnson. He is batting .233 as a Dodger. He hasn't hit a home run in the intervening 85 at-bats since that first one. Gonzalez's .659 OPS in L.A. is well off his career mark of .876. The Dodgers have won just one of Beckett's four starts. Punto hasn't made a subpar bench any better. Crawford, coming off Tommy John surgery, may not be back until next April or May.

Adding to the team's desperation is a brutal hitting slump for Kemp and the worry that Clayton Kershaw's injured hip could cause him to miss the rest of the season.

All in all, it hasn't been a happy few weeks for the Dodgers. But they continue to say they would make the trade again if they had the ability to travel in time. The hope is that the team somehow finds a way to snap out of this funk and qualify as a wild-card contender. If not, the Dodgers feel they're well-positioned for spring 2013, with Crawford's return on the horizon and Gonzalez having a chance to settle in.

"Just like the players that are traded, you can't measure this on what they do in 2012," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "As time goes on, you can evaluate the trade for a lot of different reasons. But with ownership allowing us to be aggressive, we decided we would take chances and we would go for it.

"I think we're in a better place today, the last couple of weeks notwithstanding, than had we stayed pat. I think, going forward, we're going to be a lot better."

When Colletti met with the prospective new owners in April, one of them, Stan Kasten, asked Colletti what his top priorities were for baseball operations. Colletti's response: first, beef up efforts in Latin America. More than once, Colletti had to dip into his funds for international players to acquire major leaguers near the trade deadline. Otherwise, then-owner Frank McCourt wouldn't authorize any further spending.

The second priority was to get Andre Ethier signed to a long-term contract extension, something they scratched off the list in June. The third priority was more of an attitude thing.

"Be bold," Colletti said.

As complicated as that Aug. 25 trade appears, with six players and the equivalent of a poverty-stricken nation's GDP getting moved, it was really all about one thing: landing Gonzalez. The Dodgers had tried just before the July 31 deadline, but Boston general manager Ben Cherington wasn't yet ready to make a move that drastic.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireClayton Kershaw, who went 14-9 with a 2.53 ERA last season, is unsigned beyond his final year of arbitration.

For years, the Dodgers had been searching for ways to land a big bat that could slide between Kemp's and Ethier's in their lineup. Colletti looked ahead at the 2013 free-agent class for first basemen (with a sheer drop after Adam LaRoche) and came away certain his best opportunity would come via trade.

But there's a deeper level than that. Colletti and the new owners were convinced that Gonzalez would be the perfect player to market around in a county that is 49 percent Hispanic. Thirty percent of the residents of Los Angeles County were born in Mexico, the country where Gonzalez's parents grew up. He spent time on both sides of the border while growing up in Chula Vista, Calif.

If only he were hitting.

"My swing has been a wreck all year," Gonzalez said. "There hasn't been a stretch of three or four games all year, where I've thought, 'This is it.'

"If there was a remedy I knew of, I would have fixed it. Last year, when I was banged up, it was like I just got simple and got the bat to the ball. Now, the only time I'm not thinking about what I'm doing at the plate is when there are runners in scoring position. I just think about helping the team, getting him in and I get simple."

Gonzalez is batting .395 with runners in scoring position and .253 when there's nobody on second or third. His drought would be easier for the Dodgers to take if Kemp weren't struggling even worse. Kemp is hitting .122 with two RBIs this month. He has struck out 14 times and walked once.

It's desperation time for the Dodgers, who -- amazingly -- trail the Cardinals by just one game for the second wild card. Tuesday they begin their most difficult road trip of the year, with series in Washington, Cincinnati and San Diego. All that time, the Cardinals will be playing the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs exclusively.

If this thing continues to unravel, most baseball fans will view that bold August trade as one of the biggest front-office blunders in recent history. The Dodgers remain confident that it wasn't, but they wouldn't mind getting a little confirmation. Sooner would be better than later.

A lot has been written since the trade -- and the ones before it that brought in Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, Brandon League and Randy Choate -- about whether the Dodgers have a unified clubhouse. The players insist the personalities are meshing just fine. It's the on-field chemistry that has been the issue.

"I don't see it as an excuse or a detriment to how you play," Colletti said. "The mound is the same distance, the bats are the same. It's still a hitter versus a pitcher. The basics of the game don't really change."

The final 15 games of this Dodgers season are about, finally, making the sum of the parts equal a whole. A lot is riding on the outcome.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.