by Trevor Whenham - 05/25/2006
The Dodgers are one of the more storied franchises in sports, but it has been a rough time to be a Dodgers fan for the last several years. Sure, they made the playoffs in 2004, but St. Louis quickly ended their World Series dreams. Last year they started out 12-2 and people were thinking that the team was playoff-bound again despite a major roster overhaul. Then they crashed back to earth and ended up at 71-91, their second worst record since they moved to L.A. in 1958.
By May 4 of this season fans were probably thinking that 71 wins would be pretty nice. The team was 12-17 and not much was going right. Then something clicked, and the team became the hottest in the league. They've gone 15-3 since then, including seven wins in a row and nine of their last 10. They couldn't be playing better, but will it last?
On paper, the team should be a disaster. Their disabled list is better than Kansas City's starting roster. Eric Gagne hasn't thrown this year and was spotty (at best) last year. His set up man, Yhency Brazoban, wrecked his elbow and is gone for a year. Also in the sick bay are shortstop Cezar Izturis, catcher Dioner Navarro, third baseman Bill Mueller and outfielders Ricky Ledee, Jayson Werth, and Jason Repko. Despite all of those injuries, however, they keep winning.
The team has benefited from surprising contributions from the players called on to fill in. Most remarkable is third baseman Willy Aybar. The 23-year-old from the Dominican Republic only has 40 career games under his belt, but he is batting .343 in 14 games with 11 RBI. At that rate, Mueller doesn't need to hurry back from his knee injury. Heck, if Aybar keeps it up the team might just kick Mueller in the knee to keep him out.
Other positions have been filled nicely, too. With Navarro out, the catching duties have been handled by an unlikely duo - 39-year-old Sandy Alomar Jr., who is hitting .342 in 13 games, and 23-year-old Canadian rookie Russell Martin, who is hitting .309. Another rookie, Andre Ethier, is batting .304 in 19 games and has played error-free left field.
Beyond the fill-ins, however, the offense has been driven by one predictable performer and two pleasant surprises. Jeff Kent, in his second year with the Dodgers, is still a cornerstone. His batting average has fallen a few points to .258, but he has added 32 RBI and his on-base percentage is up slightly from last year and well over his career average. Defensively, he playing the best he has in years. J.D. Drew has been one of the surprises. His .294 average and 35 RBI are what we would expect from him, but what isn't necessarily expected is that he has stayed healthy. He has been a physical disaster for the last several years, but, so far at least, the injury bug isn't biting this year.
If there is one player that deserves credit for the Dodgers' success, it is Nomar Garciaparra. His last few seasons have been injury-filled disasters and he was all but written off, but the Dodgers snapped him up at a bargain price and stuck him at first base. He's healthy and he's been a menace. In 29 games he's batting a gaudy .375, and his 1.088 OPS is bested by only super-freak Albert Pujols and Jim Thome. He's taken to first base like he was born to play it, committing just one error all season.
All of those bright lights mean that the offense, which let them down last season, is chugging along. They are second in the majors with 197 walks, fourth with a .357 on-base percentage, and first in stolen bases with 42. They aren't full of power and they are definitely small ballers, but they are scoring and, not surprisingly, that is turning into wins.
The pitching has been surprisingly solid. Brad Penny and Brett Tomko have been equally great in posting matching 5-1 records. Odalis Perez has missed some time with personal issues, but his 4-1 record has helped, even if his 6.97 ERA is a bit higher than you'd like to see. Derek Lowe and Jae Seo have had their moments, too. One of the best stories in the league so far, though, is Aaron Sele. The 13-year veteran could only land a spot in Triple A to start the season, but he was called up as an emergency starter on May 7. Since then he has gone 3-0 in four starts, capped by a brilliant 3 hit shutout over 7 innings against Colorado last time out.
The bullpen hasn't been a point of strength. Like so many teams, they just don't have the depth you need to succeed when your starters can't get it done. There are some bright lights, though. 21-year-old Jonathan Broxton has a 0.69 ERA over 13 innings since being called up. The bullpen situation is about to get a whole lot scarier for opposition batters, though. Eric Gagne is making rehab appearances in Triple A on Friday and Monday and is due to be activated on June 1. He faced teammates, including Aybar and Izturis, on Monday. He threw 21 pitches, including all four of the weapons in his arsenal, and the speed and movement were about where they need to be. Most importantly, he felt no pain and no fear of injury. His presence alone will elevate the bullpen.
The Verdict? - I hesitate to be positive about the Dodgers, but things could certainly be worse. Gagne's return will be a huge psychological boost, and he will begin a parade of starters back from the injured list. The team is winning like crazy but, unlike many teams that get hot, they aren't doing it because of scorching hot players and gaudy stats. They are just playing a game that works and getting it done. There is room for improvement, and they should improve by the end of June when they will hopefully have a full roster. The NL West is surprisingly solid so far this year, but the Dodgers, barring more major injuries, should be competitive into September. That's more than you could say about last year.