- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- A few hours before Friday night's game, a 3-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds before 46,418 at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre was waffling on the subject of whether to activate long-lost left fielder Manny Ramirez from the disabled list on Saturday.
Ramirez was about to play the final game of his minor league rehabilitation assignment, but with a night game/day game combo awaiting this weekend and an off day Monday, Torre hinted it might make more sense to wait until Tuesday, when the Dodgers begin a six-game trip against the Milwaukee Brewers.
By the end of the evening, the need to have Ramirez back in the lineup was bordering on desperation. In light of that, and the fact that Ramirez appeared to come out of his three-game rehab assignment at high Single-A Inland Empire unscathed, is there really a compelling reason to put it off?
"When he gets here tomorrow, we'll talk and see where we are," Torre said. "When he is healthy, he is definitely a threat, and that is what we're looking for right now. I'm not saying he isn't going to play tomorrow, but I would rather talk to him first."
This game, meanwhile, was merely the latest example of what the Dodgers are without Ramirez in their lineup: a hollowed-out shell of an offense. When rookie Carlos Monasterios (3-4), making a spot start in place of the injured Vicente Padilla, made a bad throw to first base on a fourth-inning sacrifice attempt, leading to two unearned runs and a 3-1 lead for the Reds, there was an undeniable feeling that the punchless Dodgers were done for the evening.
And, as it turned out, they were.
While it's true Ramirez himself is only a shadow of what he once was -- he is hitting .317 with a .409 on-base percentage, but he doesn't hit for much power anymore and he went 1-for-6 with four strikeouts against A-ball pitching on his rehab assignment -- his mere presence still changes the complexion of the Dodgers' lineup, and he is still sufficiently imposing that opposing managers still approach him as if he were as dangerous as ever.
That means the hitters in front of Ramirez get more pitches to hit, the hitters behind him get more opportunities to drive in runs, and, in theory, the Dodgers (62-61) score more runs.
On the flip side, take a moment to digest these numbers: The Dodgers have played 60 games this season during Ramirez's three disabled-list stints (including backdated games in which he wasn't available to play but hadn't been placed on the DL yet). Of those 60 games, the Dodgers have scored two runs or fewer in 27 of them (45 percent).
Of the 33 games the club has played during Ramirez's current stint on the DL because of a strained right calf, it has scored two or fewer runs in a mind-blowing 20 of them.
Before the game, one of the reasons Torre gave for possibly delaying the move was that there wasn't an easy corresponding move. It will probably involve someone being designated for assignment, and that someone almost certainly will be either Ronnie Belliard, Juan Castro, Jay Gibbons or Reed Johnson, with the last two being the most likely because Belliard and Castro are the only backup middle infielders.
After the game, Torre said he planned to start Gibbons at first base on Saturday to give the struggling James Loney (2-for-20) a night off. That could point to Johnson, but he is hitting .302 for the season. That and the fact he is owed only about $175,000 for the rest of the season could make it difficult to get Johnson safely through waivers.
But even if it means losing a backup player, this is a move the Dodgers need to make as soon as possible. They are still buried in fourth place in the National League West, 12 games behind the division-leading San Diego Padres, and they are now eight behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the wild-card standings. Simply put, the Dodgers have nothing else to lose, including Ramirez. After all, why be cautious with him at this point? What is the worst that can happen? He gets injured again and the Dodgers are right back where they already are?
Barring a miracle recovery that leads to a playoff berth, Ramirez is entering his final six weeks with the Dodgers. Given that they have invested $45 million in him and that they have hardly gotten an acceptable return on that investment to this point, there is no reason not to be bold and go full-speed ahead with him right now, while the Dodgers still have a pulse.
Left-hander Scott Elbert, the Dodgers' first-round draft pick in 2004 who left the club's Triple-A Albuquerque affiliate in early June to deal with personal issues, is now dealing with another problem -- shoulder soreness.
Elbert is rehabilitating at the Dodgers' spring training complex in Glendale, Ariz., in hopes of making it back before the end of the Pacific Coast League season on Sept. 6. If he fails to do so, Elbert probably will pitch either in the Arizona Instructional League or Arizona Fall League.
Quote of the day
"I thought about it when I was out in '07. I threw my hat in the ring. But they wanted Joe. Yeah, I thought about it. But I'm happy where I am." -- Reds manager Dusty Baker on the possibility of managing the Dodgers, with whom he played for eight of his 19 major league seasons and enjoyed the best years of his career.
Baker is in the final season of a three-year, $10.5 million contract, meaning he could be available as a free agent if Torre decides not to return in 2011. Baker has been offered an extension by the Reds, but he hasn't signed it yet.
Right-hander Chad Billingsley (9-7, 3.66), the Dodgers' scheduled starter for Saturday, hasn't faced the Reds since April 20, when he was torched for seven runs (four earned) in three innings. Through that start, Billingsley's third of the year, he had a 7.07 ERA and had allowed 20 hits in 14 innings. Since a meeting the following day with Torre and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, Billingsley has made 20 starts, posting a 3.28 ERA and allowing 116 hits in 126 1/3 innings.
Right-hander Johnny Cueto (11-3, 3.38) has been the Reds' season-long ace and would have an even better record if he hadn't been the victim of five blown saves by the bullpen, the second-highest total of any major league pitcher behind Florida's Josh Johnson (six).
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
1dKevin Van Valkenburg