AL East Meets NL West

This is not how it was supposed to be. The Los Angeles Dodgers are making history with a payroll just north of $239 million dollars — they may still end the season higher — and finding out that despite all the money they spent, the team is flawed. 

Manager Don Mattingly is very much on the hot seat. The organization that was full of excitement last season as a new ownership group replaced Frank McCourt, orchestrated a blockbuster trade with the Red Sox, and said building a championship team was priority number one, is in last place.

Who’s in first place? The Arizona Diamondbacks have top honors, the San Francisco Giants sit two games back, the somewhat surprising Colorado Rockies another half game past the Giants, the San Diego Padres six games back, and the Dodgers another game-and-a-half behind the Padres. In other words, the NL West has proven to be a decent approximation of the opposite of what offseason predictions called for.

Across the country and in the other league, the Boston Red Sox lead the AL East by a game, followed by the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, and Toronto Blue Jays. After making their own blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins and acquiring reigning NL Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays were picked to win the AL East by fans, press, and baseball insiders.

Unlike the Diamondbacks, who traded away arguably their best player in Justin Upton, the Jays started slow and have continued to sputter. There is a certain amount of symmetry in the unlikely standings of these two divisions.

As a Red Sox fan, I sympathize for Dodgers fans out there. Heading into the 2011 season, the Red Sox were dubbed a “super team” after acquiring Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford during the offseason and boasting a star-studded rotation led by Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, along with Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, and the mercurial Daisuke Matsuzaka. The team responded to amazing levels of hype by losing six games out of the gate and going just 11-15 in April.

After teasing the world from the beginning of May through the end of August, leading the AL East by half-a-game, the Sox won just seven games in September on their way to one the most embarrassing collapses in baseball history. Manager Terry Francona was fired, general manager Theo Epstein escaped to Chicago, and Bobby Valentine arrived to oversee entirely new forms of pain in the 2012 season.

The Dodgers created their hype storm far differently, but the result is the same: the team is lost and becoming a laughing stock. The 2011 Red Sox won 19 games in May. The Dodgers won a total of 22 games entering today. Los Angeles faced the problem of “too much pitching” before the rotation went from a strength to just another fire to put out.

What happened? Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, since his return, have lived up to their reputations. The rest of the rotation has been a patchwork, although Hyun-Jin Ryu has been a solid contributor in his debut season in America. Ultimately, the blame falls on the position players. Despite the hype and the payroll, the Dodgers entered the season with a number of question marks around the diamond.

While the struggles of Matt Kemp (.251/.305/.335 with 2 HR) have been well documented, his down season is likely the product of shoulder surgery over the winter. It may simply be a longer recovery process than anyone anticipated. Andre Ethier is in the midst of his worst season as well (.253/.346/.392 with 4 HR). Carl Crawford, finally healthy, has been up to his old tricks batting .294/.354/.446 with 5 home runs and 9 steals.

That all three outfielders are in the middle of long-term contracts of dollar values previously thought immoveable, until the Dodgers-Red Sox trade of last summer, is something to consider when looking at the underperforming offense.

Another star signed long-term is Adrian Gonzalez. Like Kemp, Gonzalez is a player recovering from shoulder surgery. While Gonzo is several years removed from his operation, the power he displayed during his years in San Diego, pre-surgery, has not returned. Expected to be a 40-homer threat in Fenway Park, the first baseman instead hit just 27 home runs for the Red Sox in 2011 and 18 while splitting his time between Boston and LA.

Gonzalez has hit 7 home runs through the the first 48 games of the 2013 season. Gonzalez started off slowly this year but has raised his numbers to .333/.389/.520 while breaking out in a big way. Is it a hot streak? A healthy shoulder? Difficult to tell, but a promising sign for a formerly elite first baseman trying to get back on track. However, if his recovery process is any sort of guide for Matt Kemp, the Dodgers may need to look for other sources of power in the lineup. 

Next up: Hanley Ramirez. Or, he would be if he could recover from one injury long enough to contribute in games before struck with the next one. This may sound familiar, but Ramirez is a Dodger several years removed from his best seasons, despite being just 29 years old. From 2006-2010, the shortstop hit .313/.385/.521 for the then Florida Marlins, averaging 25 home runs and 39 stolen bases per year as a potent power-speed threat. Since the 2010 season, Ramirez has been in a tailspin of ineffectiveness and now, injury.

Hitting at just a .254/.328/.422 clip over parts of three seasons, Ramirez has hit a total of 35 homers, about one every seven games instead of every six. After stealing at least 32 bases in four of his first five season in the majors, Ramirez has swiped 20 and 21 bases the last two years. After recovering from a thumb injury that sidelined him for the first month of the season, Ramirez did both homer and steal in his four games of 2013 before injuring his hamstring, but there is no telling which of his skills will be ready when he next takes the field.

Amazingly, that’s it in terms of big names in the starting lineup. With Hanley expected to play shortstop for the Dodgers this season, third base and second base were filled cheaply. 

The Dodgers best — and closest — help in the minors is Yasiel Puig, but he’s an outfielder with less than one season in American baseball and unlikely to displace Kemp, Crawford, or Ethier. Dee Gordon was manning shortstop, but once again found himself unable to hit for average or power. In concert with an inability to take a walk, Gordon’s skills are an embodiment of the phrase “you can’t steal first base.”  So, he’s back in the minors.

The lack of depth for a team with playoff aspirations — really, expectations — is shaping up to the be biggest obstacle in Chavez Ravine. Despite the record-setting payroll, the Dodgers roster is surprisingly thin. But that’s not always such a limitation.

Across the country and in the opposite league sit the New York Yankees. The Yankees now have the second highest payroll in the game thanks to their former Brooklyn rivals. In a twist, the Yankees began the season as underdogs. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter were expected to be absent for at least a chunk of the first half in Spring Training.

As the season was about to open, Curtis Granderson succumbed to an injury as well, and Mark Teixeira joined in the hurt parade for good measure. Combined with the departure of Russell Martin in free agency to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Yankees looked down on their luck. The Bronx Bombers signed Travis Hafner from the scrap heap, Lyle Overbay after being cut from the Red Sox while competing for the backup first base job, and traded for one of the worst players in baseball over the past few seasons: Vernon Wells.

As play begins on May 30th, the Yankees are one game back in the AL East. Hafner has been healthy, playing in 42 games, and is hitting .256/.373/.496 with 8 home runs. Last season, Pronk played in 66 total games and hit 13 home runs for the Cleveland Indians. His health has been a question mark for for six years now, but as long as he’s on the field, he performs.

Overbay hasn’t done as well, posting just a .294 OBP, but he’s also knocked in 8 home runs. Vernon Wells? His .263/.313/.457 with 10 homers and 4 stolen bases is a far cry from the .230/.279/.403 11 home run line he posted in 2012. He’s played in the outfield and even third base for a notable appearance.

The Yankees catching duo has also performed better than most expected. Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart have both kept their OPS above .650. Kevin Youkilis, brought in to replace the injured A-Rod, chipped in with a .266/.347/.422 line before hitting the DL himself.

The Dodgers entered the season expected to dominate. The Yankees were expected to struggle while their stars recovered from injury. On the West Coast, players who were expected to contribute haven’t done so. On the East Coast, a handful of long shots are making their names known in pinstripes. And, we are given yet another reminder that team success is about as impossible to predict in professional baseball as the location of a knuckleball.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

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