2010 saw the Dodgers fall to NL West also-rans for the first time in several years. Many fans believe the distraction of owner Frank McCourt’s divorce and subsequent unfavorable financial disclosures played a major role in the collapse of a team that was 10 games over .500 at the All-Star break but limped to an 80-82 finish. Of course, just as many believe this is a dynamic team that underachieved. Here are a few things that could determine whether the 2011 rollercoaster ride will be fun or nauseating.
Best case scenario:
During the “Torre era,” the names of the veterans vying for the back end spots in the starting rotation sounded like one of those washed up celebrity rehab shows; Jason Schmidt, Eric Milton, and Ramon Ortiz were all given their fifteen minutes. Too bad none of them recovered from what ailed them. GM Ned Colletti may have finally solved the problem. The Dodgers, health-willing, enter spring training with a full, five man starting rotation. Okay, so maybe the 30-something “new” Dodgers Ted Lilly and Jon Garland and “re-signee” Hiroki Kuroda being added to the youthful tandem of Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley won’t make anyone forget Koufax or Drysdale but each of them showed their tanks weren’t quite empty in 2010. They had an average ERA of about 3.50 and each won at least 10 games. Last season’s planned #1 starter, Vicente Padilla, also inked to a new deal, was limited to 16 games in 2010 but fought back to a 6-5 record which included a shutout against the Padres. Padilla is currently being mentioned as either a long reliever or closer but look for him to be the spot starter if the schedule calls for it. In 2011, the competition for the last couple of spots in the rotation may be, for once, refreshingly boring.
Most Valuable Asset:
Outfielder Andre Ethier was putting up Triple Crown like numbers the first six weeks of 2010 (11 HR, 38 RI, .392 BA on May 15) until a broken pinkie placed him the 15 day DL. He made it back to hit a respectable 23 home runs and bat .292 but has said the finger bothered him the entire season. If he remains healthy, the question may be how Ethier responds now that Manny Ramirez isn’t around to “protect” him in the line-up. Some claim Ethier’s numbers were padded when, in an effort to pitch around Manny, teams were forced to throw him pitches right down the middle. The fact is the heart of the line-up has officially been turned over to Ethier and Matt Kemp. If Andre is going to be a giant, it will be this year.
Keep an eye on:
The number 1 and number 9 spots in the line up. Shortstop Rafael Furcal, when healthy, provides an intangible spark at the top of the order. A nagging back problem limited him to 97 games last year. Although the Dodgers had a myriad of problems that saw them stumble after All-Star break, losing Furcal for the month of August certainly didn’t help matters. He still finished with a .300 BA and was one of the more consistent bats in an otherwise miserable offense.
The signing of Tony Gwynn Jr. didn’t exactly send shockwaves across the league since the man certainly hasn’t shown he can hit like his dad. Still, some say he has terrific defensive skills and has proven he can hit well above the .204 he hit in 2010 (.270 in 2009). If he can recover his hitting skills enough to round out the bottom of the line-up, it will provide some much needed defensive flexibility in an outfield that is stuck with retreads Marcus Thames, Jay Gibbons, and Gabe Kapler, none known for their glove, vying for left field.
Worst case scenario:
The Dodgers were shutout 17 times in 2010. They ranked 27th in the majors in home runs and 24th in RBI. In order to help the power shortage, the Dodgers signed free agent infielder Juan Uribe and his 24 home runs. Too bad that was about all they could muster in the way of offensive improvement. A lot of pressure is on Matt Kemp (.248 in 2010 after .297 in 2009) and James Loney (.267 after hitting .291 in ’09) to return to form.
The Dodgers enter 2011 with only one viable left hander, Hong Chih-Kuo, in the bullpen. Closer Jonathan Broxton fell apart after the All-Star break and Kuo was forced into the role. He showed he could rise to the occasion as needed (1.20 ERA, 12 saves in 13 chances). If Broxton, as well as 2009 workhorse Ronald Belisario, can’t bounce back from poor seasons, Kuo may be needed more times than he can deliver. The problem is the man has had more arm surgeries than Charlie Sheen has had porn stars. Lefty Scott Elbert, the Dodgers first round pick in the 2004 draft who can’t seem to stick with the big club as a starter, is reportedly going to be looked at as “Kuo-lite” for the late, left-handed batting situations.
Keep the other eye on:
The swagger of Manny is gone. The coolness of Joe Torre is gone. The fan-friendly and energetic Russell Martin is gone. And, to the joy of many, Rihanna is gone, at least from Matt Kemp’s house. In spite of ownership’s statements promising a smooth season, many would like to see Frank McCourt gone. Attendance is slipping and there are rumors of Dodger employees being laid off. With the Giants and Phillies being defined by their pitching and the Braves, Reds, and Cardinals defined by lumber, the question is what will define the Dodgers? Chaotic is the word that defined the second half of 2010 and some worry it is still in the 2011 Dodgers dictionary.
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