June 9, 2009, 6:02 p.m. Forget the "are the Dodgers this good" question. They are this good.
And you know me, I'm great at accentuating the obvious, breaking it down into long, meandering sections of text, when short and sweet will just as easily do. So rather than bore you by going all the way back to the womb, what do say I bore you by trying (and failing) to be brief.
Here are the top ten reasons the Dodgers are this good.
The Starting Nine: That's the traditional eight, but with two left fielders. Yeah, there's a bit of a power shortage, but so what. The object of the game is to score more runs than the opponent. The long ball is a lovely thing, but 39-20 is 39-20.
The "kids" label is way overused. The Dodgers are led by young adult men, all of whom have had the right to vote for years. They've grown into a unit of young veterans, playing solid all around baseball, plenty good enough for first place.
Andre Either, Matt Kemp, James Loney and Russell Martin, the so-called core of kid regulars, are improving, each in his own way and at an appropriate pace. And more importantly, the emphasis belongs on the word "regulars" now, not kids.
Yes, Martin has struggled offensively, and I'm not sure what that's about, but he's a much better catcher than he was last year, especially at gunning down baserunners. The team can win with a catcher actually hitting like a catcher, instead of what we’re used to in Los Angeles. Martin will probably revert to form over the summer, and anything the club gets from him is a bonus.
Rafael Furcal's play is a legitimate concern, but underestimating him would be a mistake. While Furcal has accomplished less than expected so far in 2009, Casey Blake and Orlando Hudson have done more than enough to make up for it, and are playing at the highest level of their respective careers. And career years by multiple players equals pennants.
Starting Pitching: There's career years-to-date and career years, period, and Chad Billingsley looks to be in the category of the former rather than the latter. A true ace, Billingsley is on pace to win between 15 and 20 games, while finishing in the top tier of National League pitchers in most major categories. The sky's the limit with this guy, and his importance to the club cannot be understated. He's that good. It might take him another year or two to go eight and nine innings on 100 pitches, but don't be surprised if it's sooner rather than later.
His three wins notwithstanding, Randy Wolf has been just a step behind Billingsley, and while 2009 may not turn out to be the career year, it's likely to be the best of his post-surgery seasons.
Opening Day starter Hiroki Kuroda is back from the obligatory strained oblique and the Dodgers have already seen near-perfect results. On the year, he's made three starts and given up three runs total. Kuroda is not going to keep up a 1.62 ERA-pace, obviously, but there's every reason in the world to expect top-of-the-rotation numbers for the duration. It's a big deal to have him back.
Clayton Kershaw, Eric Milton, Eric Stults, and in a smaller role, Jeff Weaver have all made their marks on the season, more than adequate for the back end. James McDonald represents the one disappointment, but it's a long season, and you can expect better results from him before it's over.
Relief Pitching: Jonathan Broxton is a complete stud, another in a long line of organization prospects to flourish in a new challenge. He's essentially Eric Gagne, minus the steroids, and still growing on the job.
Now that Broxton is 7-0, the coast is clear to start talking up some statistics from two generations past. You know, Ron Perranoski's 1963 Dodger numbers (16-3, 1.67 ERA, 21 saves and 47 games finished), Phil Regan's 1966 season (14-1, 1.62, 21 and 48 for L.A.), and Elroy Face's 1959 stunner for Pittsburgh (18-1, 2.70, 10 and 47).
The "get the ball to Broxton" campaign is working better all the time, which is bad news for the rest of the National League. Ronald Belisario and Ramon Troncoso have moved quickly and effectively into their setup tandem role, and predecessors Guillermo Mota and Cory Wade have regained top form after a period of ineffectiveness.
Rick Honeycutt gets a major assist for his work with all four guys, and I'm confident that with Honeycutt's help, and a quality rehab following 15 days off, Will Ohman will be every bit the veteran left-hander the Dodgers expected when they signed him in late March. That's a damn good pen, which just might be bolstered come trading season.
Defense: Excellence with the glove is about more than just errors and fielding percentage. You have to watch a team play. That said, the Dodgers current .989 mark, if held over the entire season, would be best in franchise history.
Moreover, switching Hudson and Jeff Kent is a team changer by itself. Loney continues to improve, Blake and Ethier are solid, and Matt Kemp is closing in on Gold Glove status.
With the recent exception of 2004, a division winning season, the Dodgers haven't had consistently good defensive performances in God-knows how long. They won two rings in the 1980s with the likes of Pedro Guerrero and Mike Marshall anyway, but good defense makes things a lot easier. This team has a leg up.
Depth: We're not talking about just 25 guys here. The Dodgers have used 34 players this year, and literally every one of them has contributed. There's no 2008 version of Mark Sweeney, no 2007 Brett Tomko, no one guy that you just can't wait for the team to finally give up and adios from the roster.
Brad Ausmus, Juan Castro and Mark Loretta have all been as good or better than expected, Xavier Paul and Doug Mientkiewicz produced during their short time in good health, and Jamie Hoffmann has done enough to warrant his promotion. And then there's Juan Pierre.
Juan Pierre: What can we say about Juan Pierre? Well, whatever it is, it's not going to be enough, and it probably ought to start with a hearty "we're not worthy" or "we owe you one, buddy." Rarely do you see a veteran player make such a marked improvement this far into his career, and Pierre has done just that. His newfound ability to see pitches and draw walks, while hitting better than .350 throughout, has been incredible. He's never been better, and I, for one, am sorry I doubted him for so long.
Manny Ramirez: I'm still disgusted with Manny's indiscretion(s), very much so, and there's no telling how much he, and the Dodgers, benefited from his performance enhancing drug use. But the .348 batting average and 20 RBIs in 27 games counts in the history books, and the club is where it is today because of his contributions.
The Dodgers have learned how to play and win without their starting left fielder, which is huge going forward, both in 2009 and beyond. Getting Ramirez back in July will be a lot like getting him at the trading deadline last year, only earlier (duh).
The Dugout: Joe Torre has been better this year than last, and continues to be the leader of men he was in New York, while Rick Honeycutt has done a great job. Honeycutt may have been a bust as a Dodger pitcher, and he still holds the Los Angeles record for consecutive losses (13 in 1987), but he's a wonderful coach.
I'm not going to pretend to know exactly what Mariano Duncan and Bob Schaefer do exactly, and what Larry Bowa does, beyond wave his arms and kick the occasional butt, but it must be something.
The one blemish with Torre, as mentioned here often, is his serial overuse of Russell Martin, when he has a very capable backup in Ausmus. It's the one unexplainable thing about Torre, the one thing you just can't put your finger on. Kind of like Steve Garvey, with the throwing. We just have to learn to live with it.
The Front Office: C'mon, Ronald Belisario? Ronald Belisario?! There are 29 other GMs scratching their heads over that one, wondering how they missed out. That's almost an Executive of the Year Award for Ned Colletti right there. Throw in newcomers Ausmus, Castro, Hudson, Loretta, Mientkiewicz, Milton, Mota, Ohman, Weaver and Wolf, while keeping everyone of value except for Derek Lowe, and that's a heavy load for one winter.
Divvying up the credit between Colletti and his lieutenants is difficult, so let's just complement the whole squad: Kim Ng, Logan White, and De Jon Watson you know about, and the club sports seven "special assistants to the gm," including Lee Elia, Vance Lovelace (see "Trivia" for more on him), Bill Mueller and Jose Vizcaino. High fives all around the room.
Intangibles: One of the most obvious reasons to be optimistic about the 2009 Dodgers is its ability to win a bunch of ways. More so with Manny, but still to some degree, they win by overpowering their opponents. They win with the walk-off homer as well as the walk-off two-run double. They come from behind and they win after leading for nine innings, scoring early and late. They play great ball at home and better than average ball on the road. They win close games and they win with great defense.
I shutter at the prospect of yet another "c-word" discussion because "chemistry" is more a class we all sucked at in high school than it is an explainable baseball term. But that special something really does seem to be in evidence here, kind of like with the 1988 championship team.
It's beyond analysis, really. Call it the improvement that can only be had by retiring Jeff Kent and his clubhouse demeanor. Call it a "kids" coming-of-age story. Or simply recall the words of Big D, our beloved Don Drysdale, who often put it thusly:
"Well, I tell ya, if you could put this game in capsule form, you'd never be able to spend all the money."
Talkback: Your comments are always encouraged…
Trivia: Other than being a member of the current front office, where else in Dodgers history does Vance Lovelace's name appear? No "Wild, Wild West" jokes, please…
Statue for Sandy: The Koufax in bronze campaign continues. Please Vote “Yes on 32.” And tell a friend…
Trivia Answer: Lovelace was the main figure acquired in the trade of Ron Cey to the Chicago Cubs, January 19, 1983. The prototypical giveaway, if every there was one. And if Al Campanis were alive today, he'd tell you without a moment's hesitation…
Remember, glove conquers all….
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