The National League West? Child's play, or so we thought. Pundits from Pasadena to Pittsburgh picked the Dodgers to make mincemeat (not sold at Dodger Stadium concession stands) of the competition in 2014, with October glory practically a promise.
On paper. Instead L.A. is in a pickle.
At ESPN.com alone, no less than 16 experts predicted an NL pennant for Los Angeles, with 11 forecasting a World Series championship. And while greatness may be just around the corner, there is little evidence to suggest the drive has even started. With a win last night (6-5 over the Miami Marlins) the Dodgers are a middling 21-19 at precisely the one quarter mark of the season. Forty games down, 122 to go.
Let's grade the team by department, shall we?
Starting pitching: Zack Greinke looked every bit the ace in Clayton Kershaw's absence, leading the staff with a 6-1 record, 2.38 ERA, and 55 strikeouts in 45 1/3 innings pitched. Kershaw, back from a strained teres muscle and as wonderful as ever, stands at 2-0, 1.74, with 25 Ks in 20 2/3 innings.
Out-with-a sore-arm-but-back soon Hyun-Jin Ryu, much like the club as a whole, has been great on the road (3-0, 0.00) and a mess at home (0-2, 9.00). Dan Haren (5-1, 2.84) and Josh Beckett (0-1, 2.80) have done well in the four and five spots, respectively, and Paul Maholm (1-3, 4.71) has held his own in what is essentially a sixth starter role.
Department Grade: Grade: A.
Relief Pitching: What was thought to be a strength going in has turned out to be anything but. Blown saves and extra inning defeats have become almost expected.
Last year's revelation, Brian Wilson, is this year's question mark. He's been disabled once (some think he's hiding an injury now) and sports an ugly 10.32 ERA and .320 batting average against. Translation: Opponents are beating the crap out of him.
Kenley Jansen has been up and down, with his ERA (4.34), WHIP (1.61) and opponent batting average (.276) almost double his previous norms. Small sample size, sure, and he'll probably be fine, but a part of the problem just the same.
Jamey Wright, at 39, is starting to show his age. Short-term call-ups Jose Dominguez, Pedro Baez and 2013 surprise contributor, Paco Rodriguez, have struggled. J.P. Howell, Chris Withrow and Chris Perez are positives for the most part, and much maligned Brandon League, after a rough beginning, has been great in recent appearances.
Department Grade: C-.
Offense: Maury Wills is the only Dodger to steal 100 bases in a season (104 in 1962) going all the way back to the 1800s. Dee Gordon is on pace to steal 97 and leads the team in hitting at .324. Gordon, along with Yasiel Puig (.318, 7 home runs and 29 RBIs) have been the team's best offensive players, and without them the Dodgers are at best a fourth place team. Period, exclamation point.
Adrian Gonzalez carried the team for a time but has slipped of late, and is hitting .136 in May. Andre Ethier, on the other hand, has perked up with a .355 average during the month. Matt Kemp has raised his average from .171 to .267 in the last three and a half weeks.
Department Grade: B-.
Defense: Juan Uribe, when healthy, has been excellent at third base. And while, yes, he has some developing to do - and who among the only-a-year-in-this-country baseballers doesn't? - Puig's detractors can kiss my ass. We're looking at the second coming of Roberto Clemente in right field here. OK? He's that good.
But most in-the-know types expected a porous defense and team fielding is as bad as advertised. In other words, yikes! L.A. is 29th among 30 teams with a whopping 35 errors in their 40 games. Deflating, unwatchable, just plain awful.
Department Grade: a generous D.
Management: Poor defense and a weak bench were issues known to management throughout the winter and little was done to address them. Nick Punto was allowed to take his utility infielder talents to the low-budget Oakland A's for $2.75 million and all manner of experienced substitutes were passed over for the likes of Miguel Rojas and Chone Figgins. Cesar Izturis is still out there and can be in uniform tomorrow for a factor of major league minimum.
As for Don Mattingly, well, first the positives. He's not to blame for the struggles of the bullpen, and with the exception of a couple of strange matchup decisions, he's handled the four-outfielder situation well. He's running more and bunting less.
But Mattingly's late-game maneuvering is as predictable and confounding as ever. In fact, he may even have taken a step backwards. Former manager and current Dodgers broadcaster, Kevin Kennedy, speaks regularly about the importance of managing the last nine outs, and there is no bigger challenge for the current Dodger skipper. It's as if he's playing checkers while his counterpart plays chess.
His players are often unprepared, fundamentals are a constant concern and he doesn't teach. Not really. Biggest series of the year beginning last Thursday, four games with the Giants, at home; Mattingly holds a team meeting to rally the troops before first pitch. The Dodgers go out and lay an egg - a rotten egg - losing three over the weekend to a clearly better-managed San Francisco team.
As perhaps Mattingly's harshest critic in 2013, I've withheld comment in this space in an effort to give him a benefit of the doubt that perhaps I didn't last year. But the more I see of what seems like guessing in a job that requires sure-handedness, the more discouraged I become.
I'm not calling for Mattingly's firing - not after 40 games - but I just don't think he's a good manager. And I question whether it's within the scope of his abilities to become one.
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Department Grade: C.
Overall Team Grade: C.
Difficult as if may seem at times, please remember, glove conquers all.