Don't turn away from the Dodgers
While the playoffs are unlikely, there are reasons to keep watching the boys in blue
PHOENIX -- They call it baseball's second half, but that is a gross misnomer. By the time the All-Star break rolls around every year, all 30 clubs have long since passed the 81-game threshold. That isn't good for teams, such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, that have left themselves a huge mountain to climb with less than half a season to do it.
That first series out of the break can be significant, regardless of the opponent. For the Dodgers, there are a couple in recent years that stand out. One was in 2004, when, like this year, they began the so-called second half in Arizona, that time with a four-game series. The Diamondbacks were awful that year, losing 111 games, and the Dodgers came in and pretty much cleaned their clocks, winning all four by a combined score of 27-14.
From there, the Dodgers went on to win 10 of their first 12 out of the break, this after winning eight of their final nine before it. Things would get rocky at times after that, but that 18-of-21 run ultimately would propel them to a division title.
And then, there was last year, when the Dodgers went into the break having won 11 of 17 games and still harboring high hopes of a third consecutive playoff appearance. This time, they began the second half with a four-gamer in St. Louis. They lost all four, by a combined 22-9, blowing a four-run, eighth-inning lead in the finale, and they never recovered, winding up with their first losing record in five years.
So how big is this three-game series with the Diamondbacks, which begins Friday night at Chase Field? It depends. If the Dodgers do well, they will say after Sunday's game that it's a good way to start the second half. If they don't, they will shrug it off and keep whistling past the same graveyard they whistled past so many times before the break, when they were going 41-51 and finishing 11 games back in the National League West.
The general consensus on the part of us casual, impartial and dispassionate observers is that any realistic hope of the Dodgers reaching the playoffs vanished weeks ago. But these next two weeks are monumentally important in one respect: The last time anyone checked with him, general manager Ned Colletti still wasn't ready to say he would trade the present for the future -- something noncontending clubs generally do -- at the upcoming trading deadline. In fact, Colletti actually added a minor piece Tuesday, picking up veteran outfielder/first baseman Juan Rivera from the Toronto Blue Jays for basically nothing.
In order for Colletti to change his tune, the Dodgers probably have to suffer a complete collapse in the two weeks that remain before that deadline.
Based on their current contract status, right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, infielder Jamey Carroll, shortstop Rafael Furcal and third baseman Casey Blake -- all potential free agents after the season -- would seem to be prime candidates for trades. However, of that group, there are major questions as to whether Furcal, who has been on the disabled list twice this season, and Blake, who presently is on it for the third time, can stay healthy.
Kuroda has full no-trade rights, and while one source close to him said he would waive them for a chance to go to a contending club and various sources say he is the one Dodgers player drawing the most interest from other teams, trading him would leave the Dodgers without an alternative for his spot in the rotation. While there are a handful of pitching prospects at the lower levels of the team's minor league system, there is no one, really, other than Triple-A pitcher John Ely (whose major league track record has been spotty), whom the Dodgers could turn to for the rest of the season.
That leaves Carroll as potentially the most likely candidate to be dealt, especially given his defensive versatility and the fact that he is hitting .297 with a .368 on-base percentage.
Even if Colletti isn't willing to concede anything, it's tough to imagine him making any significant acquisitions. Before bankruptcy, the Dodgers' budget left Colletti no more than about $2 million to play with at the deadline. Now, with bankruptcy having firmly taken hold, it isn't likely that amount will increase.
If Colletti does look to add, he likely will address the offense, which has been lackluster at best and putrid at worst. But again, the type of player who really could make a difference is the type of player the Dodgers can't really afford, so don't get your hopes up.
So the only pertinent question is whether the Dodgers can climb back into this thing with the team they already have, and there is little to suggest they can. There is a window of hope, starting with the fact that they play 42 of their remaining 70 games -- and 18 of their next 21 -- within the NL West.
Even so, the fact that there are so many teams ahead of them in the standings is more daunting than the number of games behind first place. It's a tall order, no matter what angle you view it from.
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Which brings me to my final point.
Given the high likelihood that the Dodgers are done, is there any reason to keep paying attention to them? The answer is yes.
There is still a strong possibility that Matt Kemp can capture the NL MVP award. The Dodgers haven't had one of those since Kirk Gibson in 1988. Even though Kemp cooled off slightly to close out the first half, and even if he doesn't win the MVP, it's going to be fun to watch him at a point when he has blossomed into one of the top-tier talents in the majors.
Every fifth day, we can watch Clayton Kershaw, who finally seems to have the consistency to go with his immense talent, something that has allowed him to take his place among the league's elite pitchers. There have been times this season when he has been next to unhittable, and given that he still is only 23, we can expect him to keep getting better. He also has a chance to lead the majors in strikeouts, something no Dodgers pitcher has done since Hideo Nomo did it as a rookie in 1995.
Also every fifth day, we can continue to watch Rubby De La Rosa, who over his final three starts of the first half went from raw rookie to rookie sensation. He pitched 20 innings in those starts, giving up runs in only two of them (total of four runs) and allowing only 12 hits while striking out 17. He probably came up too late in the season (May 24) to challenge for the NL rookie of the year award, something no Dodgers player has won since Todd Hollandsworth in 1996. But he is one of a handful of reasons the Dodgers have to hope for a brighter 2012, when De La Rosa will have gained enough experience for us to put some reasonable expectations on him.
So to summarize, these Dodgers don't offer much in the way of hope for the second half. But they offer plenty in the way of intrigue. And maybe the absence of expectation -- and by extension the lack of potential for profound disappointment -- is exactly what we all need to enable us to enjoy the show anyway.
Let the so-called second half begin.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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