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Reflections on the Dodgers: LA Blues Continue

Matt Kemp & Clayton Kershaw photo taken from Zimbio via Google Images

After a horrendous finish to the 2010 season, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti attempted to make the moves that appeared to address some of the Dodgers biggest needs heading into the 2011 season. Joe Torre and his cadre of “old school” coaches were shown the door, Juan Uribe was signed away from the rival World Series Champion Giants, Hiroki Kuroda was re-signed to stabilize the rotation, Vicente Padilla was signed to be a swingman/closer in the event Jonathon Broxton didn’t bounce back (he didn’t and he got injured again requiring surgery), Jon Garland was signed to be an innings eating 5th starting pitcher and Marcus Thames and Jay Gibbons were signed to platoon in left field. The only one of these moves that really panned out was Kuroda who turned in a solid season remaining relatively healthy. Uribe came into camp over weight and out of shape, Padilla had yet another neck injury that required surgery and shelved him for the entire season, Garland’s shoulder finally blew up after years of pitching and iffy medical reports, Thames and Gibbons were released before the All Star break and the new batting coach (Jeff Pentland) was fired on July 20th. In addition, Casey Blake spent nearly the entire season on the DL, Rafael Furcal was inured all of April and half of the month of May, James Loney regressed terribly at the plate, Chad Billingsley really bottomed out in the 2nd half of the season and Andre Either completely tanked power wise after his 30 game hitting streak came to an end, complaining about his lack of a long term contract (amongst other interesting things like getting his picture taken during pre-game BP giving the double “you’re number 1” sign).

 

All of this left the Dodgers scrambling to field a lineup much less be competitive. The good news is that with the arrival of new batting coach, (former Dodgers player Dave Hansen) Loney had a remarkable resurgence that carried over to the end of the season, rookie call up Dee Gordon showed himself ready to be the shortstop of the future, Jerry Sands showed marked improvement after returning from a stint back in AAA, Justin Sellers showed himself to have a future as a utility player, and both Aaron Miles and Jamey Carroll played solid baseball on defense and at the plate. The better news is that several of the Dodgers young starting and relief pitchers made the most of their opportunity and really thrived. Kenley Jansen in particular really caught fire after being demoted to Triple A and having treatment for a heart condition posting an MLB record 16.7 strikeout rate per 9 innings after his return to the big club.

 

Even all of that great news pales in comparison to the best development news for the two members of the 2011 LA Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp both had break through seasons of the ages for the Dodgers franchise. Kershaw (age 23) finished leading in the NL pitching “triple crown” categories: Wins (21-tied for 1st with Arizona’s Ian Kennedy) Strikeouts 248 and ERA 2.28. After three full MLB seasons his career ERA sits at 2.88.  Kershaw is the hands down, odds on favorite to win the 2011 NL Cy Young Award (despite what the talking heads at ESPN say). The keys to his big breakthrough in 2011 were a much more consistent changeup, use of his slider more than his curve and a drastic reduction in his walk rate. The sky appears to be the limit for Kershaw.

 

As remarkable as Kershaw’s season was – Kemp’s may have been more notable only because it was less expected. Kemp (age 27) who has always possessed world class athleticism and ability clearly appeared to have been worn down by Joe Torre, Larry Bowa and Bob Schieffer’s old school, in your face approach, especially in the 2nd half of the 2010 season. “Kemper”came into 2011 in great shape, focused, motivated and more relaxed with Don Mattingly’s lower key approach. Kemp found himself in pursuit of the ever elusive NL offensive triple crown chase until the final few days of the season, finishing one home run short of becoming the 5th player in MLB history to join the 40/40 (homeruns  and stolen bases in the same season) club. For 2011 Kemp finished 1st in homeruns (39), RBI’s (126) and his .324 batting average was good for 3rd in the NL. These numbers put him in the NL MVP discussion. For a team that finished 82-79 to have an NL Cy Young AND an MVP candidate is really odd, but that’s a testament to the strong seasons the LA Super K’s (Kemp and Kershaw) had!

 

The Dodgers played much better baseball in the 2nd half, particularly from August 1st through the end of the season. The question going forward is can they carry over their strong finish to 2012? At 82-79 the Dodgers finished above break even but it took them until the final day of the season to be that far above .500 for the first time since mid April. Any reflection of the 2011 Dodgers must include at least a brief discussion of the absolutely dreadful ownership situation. Currently the Dodgers are in bankruptcy court and the team and MLB continue to file competing motions for various things like control of the team, its payroll and broadcasting contracts. Commissioner Bud Selig has indicated he wants the bankruptcy and ownership questions cleared up prior to the start of MLB’s off season, soon after the World Series is completed, to allow the Dodgers to secure new ownership and financing which will allow the club to set a budget going forward for roster needs for the 2012 season.

 

As a lifelong Dodger fan I can tell you that the beating of Brian Stow (who continues to recover slowly) on Opening Day, the discovery that Frank and Jamie McCourt have stripped the Dodgers of liquidity in support of their lavish lifestyles and watching Dodger Stadium on TV be less than half full while protests occur on the streets leading into the parking lot, and the lackluster play for a good part of the season were particularly distressing. Yet the season of Kemp and Kershaw and the emergence of some young talent do give a flicker of hope to the Dodgers in 2012. The pitching staff (under the unheralded but very effective leadership of pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, the lone hold over from Joe Torre’s tenure) looks promising, and the Dodgers offensive core has one more year under contractual control (Ethier, Kemp and Loney all are eligible for free agency after 2012). With Gordon coming and a return to health of Uribe, the Dodgers are one really big bat (Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols how you feel about LA?) from bouncing back into contention in the NL West. But all that rests on how soon the ownership situation gets worked out. Hey we are talking about LA – land of Hollywood, Disneyland, etc. where the dreams are big and hope springs eternal…right?

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