First place in the NL West by a half game. Best record in the major leagues (can you believe it?!) Nine wins in their last 11 games.
And yet, thirteen short games into the long baseball season, I remain worried about the Dodgers. Despite the team's 9-4 record, it does not feel like the Dodgers have been an overpowering force yet this year, hitting, pitching, or batting. Yes, Rafael Furcal has played only four games at short, and yes, many of the spots in the Dodgers lineup (notably Matt Kemp/Andre Ethier, Wilson Betemit/Wilson Valdez, and Juan Pierre) have not yet hit their stride (and in some cases, many speculate they may never hit their stride). But I feel there are more reasons for concern rather than optimism. In particular, I am worried about:
- Jason Schmidt’s declining velocity. There were signals in spring, and now outright concern following Monday’s MRI (results apparently coming today). Schmidt is the only pitcher in the starting rotation with a losing record, and though we haven’t had to count on him to date, the soundness of his $47M, three-year contract is definitely at risk. Schmidt has been quiet, but his underhand tosses from fielding practice yesterday are not good signs.
- Juan Pierre’s dormant bat. His 11 hits of the year have produced only one extra-base hit (a double) and five stolen bases (with 1 CS), and he’s scored only 7 of the team’s 58 runs having played in all 13 games. Russell Martin, on the other hand, has played in 12 games and has 16 hits (four for extra bases, including one home run) and has scored 12 runs—and has stolen four bases (with no CS). And Martin’s defense has been spectacular to boot. There was no shortage of Pierre-hating during the offseason (catalyzed by a five-year, $44M contract), and many cited Pierre’s out-making ability from the plate. The Dodgers’ PR campaigning went into full force publicizing Pierre’s impressive work ethic during spring training and the season. Now that I’ve seen his undisciplined plate appearances for myself (five Ks, two BBs, plenty of sad swings), I’m wondering where we can slot Pierre if anywhere.
- Rag-armed outfielders. Sure, we can compensate somewhat like we did last night, when Furcal positioned himself halfway to into left field to receive Luis Gonzalez’s weak throw from the left field corner, leading to Furcal sailing a bullet to Martin for the successful play at the plate. But the lack of arms and wheels in left field and (Pierre’s) center field mean a lot of singles-stretched-into-doubles and runners-scoring-from-first. It seems like this has already been the case in many of our games to date, and I’m worried that other speedy teams will do more of the same.
- A continued lack of a serious power bat.The Dodgers have eight home runs to date, one fewer than their opponents. Three of these home runs have come from Gonzalez. Considering Gonzo basically took the first week of the season off at the plate, his .292 BA and .854 OPS is impressive. But to expect 37 HR from Gonzo (as his current pace indicates) is absurd. Our lack of a power bat was obvious the second J.D. Drew pulled his option and drove Colletti bonkers, but it’s been months now and we haven’t been able to address this void despite the fact that it is starting us right in the face.
- The injury bug, looming around the corner. And I’m not talking about the hits that we’ve already taken to Hong-Chih Kuo, Furcal, or Kemp. I’m talking about the inevitable injuries to the older every-day position players, namely Garciaparra, Kent, and Gonzalez. I suppose we’re already pretty well-stocked in the cupboard with Kemp, La Roche, and our SoSG favorite Loney waiting in the wings. But if the only guys producing are the veterans, can the rest of the team pick up the slack if one of the old guys hits the DL for a while?
The only facet of the team about which I don’t have a ton of concern is the bullpen, who has been outstanding to date, from mainstays Joe Beimel, Jonathan Broxton, and Takashi Saito (our seventh-eighth-ninth inning arms) to even much-maligned Mark Hendrickson (11 IP, 2 ER, 11 Ks, 1 BB). Only Chad Billingsley and Rudy Seanez have not performed, one of which can be attributable to youth and one of which cannot (you do the math). Besides the aforementioned Schmidt issues, the other four starters and the bullpen have been lights out.
I usually err pretty optimistic, so all of these worries are getting me down. Why I can’t just enjoy the moment, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I know (and history supports) that if one of the other pistons in the engines stops firing, Grady Little will be slow to react. At this stage, though, it’s hard for me to call any of these pistons as really “firing” in the first place.
Winning eight of ten from NL West opponents has been huge. But it’s time the Dodgers really start their engines, if we want to be in first place come September.