Dodgers should hand keys to the kids
While its season at a crossroads, it's time to take a chance on L.A.'s young talent
LOS ANGELES -- I'm going to use this column to take up a cause that occurred to me in the top of the fifth inning on Saturday night when Los Angeles Dodgers rookie right-hander Rubby De La Rosa appeared to be in trouble, the first two Houston Astros batters having reached base. De La Rosa actually was in far more trouble than we knew, as he wouldn't survive what became a five-run frame for the Astros, but that was incidental to what I'm about to say.
With a veteran catcher and three veteran infielders on the field for the Dodgers at that point, it was shortstop Dee Gordon, a fellow rookie less than a year older than De La Rosa and who had been in the majors for less than three weeks, who jogged over to the mound and told De La Rosa to calm down and focus.
It didn't work, but again, that is beside the point.
The point is that Gordon wasn't afraid to do what he did. Sure, it helped that he and De La Rosa played together in the minors, that they know each other and are comfortable with each other. But how many rookies with so little service time would have the temerity to do such a thing?
"I like it," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said before Sunday's game, a 1-0 victory over the Houston Astros before 44,665 at Dodger Stadium. "We asked our infielders in spring training, when a guy is in a little bit of a jam, if you're a guy who knows him really well, it could take a little bit of the edge off to get a visit from one of the guys behind him rather than a coach or a catcher coming out."
Anyway, it was while watching Gordon's bold, brief trip to the mound that it occurred to me: It is time for the Dodgers to turn to the kids. Commit to them.
It's eventually going to be their machine to drive anyway, so why not now, when there frankly isn't a lot to lose?
I know the argument against it, especially since the Dodgers are just 7 1/2 games out in the National League West and they play an unusually high percentage of games within the division after the All-Star break, giving them a chance to make up a lot of ground quickly if they can somehow find a way to get hot. But I say that is all the more reason to go with a youth movement now, not as a rebuilding effort but as a possible way to salvage a season that may be a lost cause anyway.
Here is what I'm envisioning:
Bring Jerry Sands back from the minors and put him in left field, creating an everyday outfield of Sands, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. Leave Gordon in as the everyday shortstop, even when Rafael Furcal returns, because history tells us that if Furcal is used as anything more than a backup he is almost certain to suffer another injury. Dioner Navarro's game-winning home run on Sunday notwithstanding, for as long as Rod Barajas remains on the disabled list and maybe longer, give A.J. Ellis the majority of the starts behind the plate because he will give you at least as much offensive production as Navarro will. And leave De La Rosa in the rotation for the rest of the season, whether Jon Garland comes back from the DL or not.
And above all, whatever you do, leave rookie Javy Guerra in the closer's role, regardless of whether he struggles or continues to pitch like he did on Sunday, when he induced three consecutive harmless grounders from Carlos Lee, Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson for his second save of the season.
"[Jonathan] Broxton is our closer, I don't think there is any question about it," Guerra said after the game, suggesting that before he was called up a month ago, he must have been too busy posting a 1.06 ERA and limiting opposing hitters to a .145 batting average at Double-A Chattanooga to notice what was going on with the big club. "These are just the roles we have been thrown into."
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Incidentally, Mattingly still won't officially give Guerra the title, but I can't imagine him giving it back to Broxton when he returns from the DL in a week or so.
"For the most part, whenever we have gotten to that situation, we have gone to Javy, and every time we have gone there he has done the job," Mattingly said. "He is having success, that's the biggest thing. But I don't really want to anoint him or anything like that ... just because if our situation changes a little bit, you don't want him to be down or to have a sense that he lost his job."
If the Dodgers (32-41) continue to struggle, they will start dumping players at the trading deadline. One of the first candidates to be shipped elsewhere probably would be first baseman James Loney, who got off to a horrendous start but has hit just well enough since the start of May to make himself marketable, especially since he isn't eligible for free agency until after next season. If that happens, maybe you move Sands to first base permanently and bring up highly touted outfield prospect Trayvon Robinson, who is presently hitting .315 with 15 homers, 44 RBIs and a .382 on-base percentage at Triple-A Albuquerque, and play him every day, too.
And then you tell every single one of them that come rain or shine, sizzle or slump, they are in the lineup and they are there to stay. If they perform well, great, and maybe the Dodgers even make a run at turning this thing around. If they don't, there is no substitute for pressure-free experience, experience that could serve each of them well a year from now, when, presumably, the Dodgers will be under new ownership and looking to a brighter future.
Mind you, this isn't to take anything away from the veterans. Most of them have had nice careers, but most of them are on the decline. This alignment still leaves an opening at second base, where hot-hitting Jamey Carroll really should be in there every day, and third base, where you could alternate the .250-hitting Casey Blake and the .207-hitting Juan Uribe and see what you get from them.
Right now, despite having gone 2-for-11 in the three-game series with the Astros, Gordon is one of the Dodgers' best hitters, and he has enough speed to pick up his share of cheap hits even if he goes into a slump. Add in the fact he is a charismatic player who is so much fun to watch that he could sell a few extra tickets, and it becomes a no-brainer.
Picture it, if you will: A Dodgers lineup consisting of Gordon's speed, the potential power of Sands and Robinson and the dual power threats of Kemp and Ethier in the middle. You will have to put up with a fair number of strikeouts from Sands and Robinson, but name one player in this lineup now from whom you don't have to put up with that?
Simply put, the odds are against the Dodgers saving their season. Once you fall 10 games below .500, as they did for the first time on Saturday, it's pretty tough to come back. But right now, the Dodgers are at a crossroads as far as 2011 is concerned.
They can get a head start on a future that looks at least semi-promising. Or they can stick with what got them to this less-than-promising place where they now find themselves.
Which one do you think gives them the best chance to defy the odds?
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.