Stars shine in Dodgers' outfield
Team's fate seems to hinge on Ramirez, Ethier and Kemp
In a city where star power means everything, can there be anything more perfectly suited than the Dodgers' starting outfield?
In this corner, you have Manny Ramirez, the dreadlocked superstar who has an entire section of the Dodger Stadium stands named in his honor, the guy around whom the team's marketing department built much of its campaign last year before he drew a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's substance-abuse policy.
In that corner, you have Andre Ethier, the guy who led the team in home runs and RBIs last seasons and has become synonymous with Hollywood endings after delivering nine walkoff hits, five of them home runs, in over the last two seasons.
And in the middle, you have Matt Kemp, who they say has the potential to one day be the best player of the bunch. He just happens to be dating singer Rihanna, which makes sense when you consider that you're not a real Hollywood star until you're in a highly public relationship with another star of equal or greater standing.
All that glitz and glamour means little to Dodgers manager Joe Torre and general manager Ned Colletti. What they need, desperately it would seem, is for this trio to produce the way it is capable of producing. Last season, Ramirez, Kemp and Ethier combined for 107 doubles, 76 home runs and 301 RBI. Add to that what Ramirez could have done during the two months he missed, and you have a pretty explosive outfield.
These three probably will hit third, fourth and fifth (in no particular order) in the Dodgers' lineup. If they don't get it done, the Dodgers won't go very far. But if they perform the way they can, the possibilities are endless.
By and large, Dodgers fans seemed to forgive Ramirez for his suspension, especially since the club went 29-21 during his absence and gained ground in the NL West standings. What they found more difficult to swallow was his performance after he returned, a stretch during which the whole "Mannywood'' thing seemed to lose its luster.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Ramirez's average dropped almost 80 points, from .348 before the suspension to .269 afterward. And while he slammed six homers and drove in 20 runs in 27 games before his ouster, he hit just 13 homers with 43 RBIs in 77 games afterward.
Where the blame lies for Ramirez's statistical plummet depends upon whom you ask. One of the most popular theories was that he suffered from not having had a real spring training -- the Dodgers didn't re-sign him until March 5, more than two weeks after the start of camp. Another was that, for all his talent, he suddenly started playing like the 37-year-old guy he was.
So the big question for the Dodgers now is, which Ramirez will show up for this final season of what is now a two-year, $45 million contract? Even his post-suspension numbers project over a full season to 27 homers and 90 RBIs, which should be plenty good enough if the other key players in the lineup carry their share of the load.
Kemp's offensive coming-out party of last season has been well documented, as has the fact he showed improved patience at the plate, drew more walks and cut down on his strikeouts. The one aspect of his season that didn't get as much notice was his outstanding defense, which resulted in the first of what figure to be several Gold Gloves.
Los Angeles Dodgers
That defense will be critical for the Dodgers this season, as Kemp will be responsible for covering much of the ground in left-center that the aging Ramirez can't anymore, and never really has anyway. That's not such a tall order at Dodger Stadium, where the gaps are small. The real test will come at places such as Colorado's cavernous Coors Field, where all nine of the games the Dodgers play there this season figure to be critical in the division standings.
Beyond that, Kemp appears to have overcome most of the pitfalls that plagued the early years of his career. His base-running instincts have improved, his feel for the game has gotten better, and he finally seems to grasp the patient hitting philosophy that Torre and Don Mattingly brought with them from New York.
Kemp has historically been media shy, so it'll be interesting to see how he handles his sudden status as a target of the paparazzi. Armed with a new two-year, $10.95 million contract, he could be in for a monster season if he can maintain a healthy focus on baseball.
One day during spring training in 2007, when he was coming off a rookie campaign that suggested a budding superstar, Ethier told a reporter he thought he needed to hit more home runs that year. Told a few minutes later of Ethier's comments, then-Dodgers manager Grady Little shuddered at the thought that Ethier might mess up his sweet, line-drive stroke by suddenly swinging from his heels to generate more power.
Los Angeles Dodgers
By last summer, when his worst fears appeared to come to fruition, Little was long gone and all but forgotten. Yes, Ethier's average fell off 33 points from the previous year, and his strikeouts increased by 28. But in the grand scheme of a season in which he was arguably their most valuable player, the Dodgers were more than willing to take the good with the bad.
Ethier shattered his previous career highs last season by slamming 31 homers and driving in 106 runs. Of course, there was no one Dodgers fans liked seeing at the plate more in the home half of the ninth inning or some subsequent inning. And lest anyone think Ethier was all about the long ball, he also drew a career-high 72 walks and posted a .361 on-base percentage.
There was also the little matter of that seven-pitch, bases-loaded walk he coaxed from Philadelphia's J.A. Happ in the eighth inning, forcing in the winning run in a tension filled Game 2, the Dodgers' only victory in the National League Championship Series.
As for that sweet, line-drive stroke, well, Ethier still had 42 doubles.
Ethier isn't the five-tool player that Kemp is, but he might be the best pure hitter in the Dodgers' lineup. Ethier just signed a two-year $15.25 million deal. With both Ethier and Kemp locked in through 2012, they will be starting alongside each other in the Dodgers' outfield for the forseeable future.
That makes for a pretty scary one-two punch in the middle of the order.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.