With today’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of rival San Francisco, the Dodgers have relinquished sole possession of 1st place in the NL West for the 1st time since April 10th. The team has been slumping ever since Matt Kemp went back on the DL, going 11-14 since May 31st. The team has particularly struggled of late, losing 8 of their last 9. What’s even worse is that the San Francisco Giants have been able to make up 5 games in that amount of time, punctuating their mini-comeback with a 3-game sweep to tie for 1st. The Dodgers were outscored 13-0 by their rival from Northern California, the first time in the history of the franchise that they were shutout in a series of 3 games or more. So why, all of the sudden, is the outlook on LA’s dream season begun to turn cloudy? And can the Dodgers turn it around this season, or are they destined to drop behind San Francisco or maybe even Arizona, who’s only 4.5 games back of 1st?
One of the biggest reasons for the Dodgers early season success, was the fact that they played the easiest schedule in baseball through the 1st 50 game of the season. No team was able to pile up more wins against inferior, light-hitting competition (18 games against teams ranked in the bottom 5 in MLB in runs per game) than the Dodgers during the first 1/3 of the season, which has masked the Dodgers feeble offense. LA’s offense is now bordering on awful, ranking 24th in baseball in runs per game, scoring about 4 runs a game.
The offense’s biggest problem has literally been the drop off in production from Matt Kemp to anybody replacing him. Kemp was hitting a monster .355/.454/.719 with 12 homers and 28 RBI in just 36 games before succumbing to injury a 2nd time this season, and no team can truly survive the loss of an MVP level player for more than a week or two, especially the Dodgers, who are short on depth . Tony Gwynn Jr. has gotten a majority of the playing time in centerfield and he’s hit a very pedestrian .259/.302/.332, while providing very little of his trademark speed only stealing 10 bases in 16 attempts. Exchanging Tony Gwynn Jr. for Matt Kemp is similar to going to a steakhouse and ordering a large T-bone, only to find out the only thing the restaurant has left to serve is a stale piece of fish and cold french fries.
And centerfield isn’t the only black hole in the Dodgers lineup, the entire left side of the infield has been as well. Dee Gordon has gotten a .230/.280/.281 triple slash with a total of 10 extra base hits in 297 plate appearances. The Dodgers have hit Gordon in the leadoff spot in 55 games this season, and while where you place your hitters in the batting order doesn’t have a ton of effect on runs scored, it’s probably not a good idea to give one of your worst hitters (OPS+ of 57, over 40 points below league average), 60 more plate appearances than anyone else, because he is fast. Gordon does lead the NL in steals with 24 so that’s nice, but he’s been erased trying to take a base an MLB leading 8 times.
3rd base has also been a major problem, with a combo of Juan Uribe, Adam Kennedy, Justin Sellers, and Jerry Hairston manning the position. The combo has hit a combined .238 this season with only 2 homers, 23 RBI, and a 17/46 K/BB ratio in 223 at-bats. This is truly a motley crew of players, and its a surprise the Dodgers weren’t in on the Kevin Youkilis sweepstakes, especially with Boston’s final asking price being so reasonable. LA would have easily been able to fit Youkilis into the mix. He would have easily been an upgrade over this group, even if he just performed moderately.
Luckily for the Dodgers their pitching has been top-notch, ranking 2nd in the National League in fewest runs allowed, only behind the Washington Nationals. Clayton Kershaw and Chris Capuano have been All-Star worthy pitchers, posting 2.74 (139 ERA+) and 2.60 ERAs (147 ERA+) respectively. They’ve helped lead the staff to the 2nd lowest team ERA in the NL, the 2nd fewest hits allowed, 3rd fewest homers, and the 5th most strikeouts. All of these numbers are indicative of an elite pitching staff, and there is no reason the Dodgers won’t continue to pitch this well. They play in a division made up of mostly weak offenses (Colorado is the exception), and Dodger Stadium is one of the most pitcher-friendly venues in baseball.
Los Angeles is a fundamentally flawed team without Matt Kemp and the last 2 weeks have made that much obvious. If Andre Ethier, who left today’s game with an apparent injury, is out for a significant amount of time, the Dodgers are absolutely screwed. They don’t have the offensive depth to survive losing their 2nd best hitter, while their best hitter is already on the DL. This team’s best option at this point is to explore the trade market to find an outfield, 1st base, 3rd base, or shortstop upgrade. If LA really wants to contend for a title this season, they may want to address more than one of those issues. The pitching staff may be fine, but without more offense, Los Angeles isn’t going anywhere.