Dodgers can expect success all year
LA boasting healthy mix of youth, veterans, speed and power
CHICAGO -- It is true that you win nothing for having baseball's best record as May draws to a close. But in the case of the Los Angeles Dodgers, they are on top by merit. The only reasonable forecast for them is for continued success.
They are first in the National League in runs scored, second in team ERA, third in fewest errors committed. The spectrum of baseball activities has been covered; the Dodgers are all right everywhere.
A 2-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Friday kept them from being a .700 ballclub at the 50-game mark. But being a .680 ballclub seems much better than a consolation prize, particularly when the Dodgers' lead in the NL West approaches double digits. It is distinctly possible that the Dodgers will not continue through September on their current 110-victory pace. But there is no reason to expect that they will finish the 2009 season as anything other than one of baseball's elite teams.
And in a way, their season to date has been even better than the record suggests. The 50-game suspension of Manny Ramirez was supposed to severely damage this team. It hasn't done much harm so far. The Dodgers are 13-8 since the suspension started. Their young and talented players have continued to improve. Their veterans are providing leadership and stability.
And it hasn't hurt that Juan Pierre took over in left field and has hit .411, with extra-base pop, since Ramirez departed. Now, with Pierre and Rafael Furcal and Orlando Hudson, the Dodgers have additional, enviable offensive components, greater ability to manufacture runs with small ball and speed. Last year at this time, the Dodgers were struggling to score runs. Now, even without Ramirez, the Dodgers have a lineup that is prototypically strong.
"These are usually the prerequisites for putting a lineup together -- speed at the top of the lineup, power in the middle of the lineup and contact at the back end of the lineup," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "I think that's the way you put a Major League lineup together. That's the way you put any lineup together. And the Dodgers are fortunate that they have those ingredients."
For Dodgers manager Joe Torre, this sort of diversified offense was always a goal.
"The thing that I'm probably proudest about on this road trip is we won three games in Colorado and we don't hit a home run," Torre said on Friday. "For me, that's great, because that's all we talk about this year is: 'Think small. If you think small, big things will happen.' I always preached that with the Yankees, it's something that I've always been a believer in.
"When we got Furcal back, and then we were able to sign Hudson, that to me was automatic, one-two at the top of the batting order, two switch-hitters, two guys with speed, two guys, sort of pesky-type players," Torre said.
"And then there was Manny hitting third. I got a lot of questions about 'who's going to protect Manny?' Well, I think you protect Manny by getting men on base in front of him because then they have to pitch to him. And then when Manny went down, Juan Pierre, who we had hit ninth in a number of games, because we felt it was more advantageous for him to hit ninth than eighth, he caught on fire."
The Dodgers' tangible abilities are self-evident in their individual and collective performances. Their core of young talent, both at the everyday positions and on the pitching staff, is in place and indisputable. Other clubs have hopes for the future. The Dodgers already have assembled much of the future's cast. But to persevere over even one six-month season, a team must also have intangible strengths. The Dodgers are probably set up very well in this category, as well.
"I sensed in Spring Training that this ballclub was having a lot of fun, it had a whole different personality, and that was even before we had Manny again," Torre said. "There was no question that the way we finished up last year, beating the Cubs [in a Division Series], they were the best club in the National League, it did a lot for our confidence, our self-esteem.
"I think the additions of [Mark] Loretta and [Brad] Ausmus, aside from their ability and their ability to come off the bench, their personalities in the clubhouse, their professionalism really helps keep this club together."
Last season, Torre's first in Los Angeles, had to be a work in progress. The Dodgers had talent and Torre had a splendid managerial reputation. But everybody involved had to become more than casual acquaintances.
"I think we have young players that are growing," Torre said. "But I think they've had a little help along the way, Manny being part of that. I think Casey Blake has helped these guys understand what that growth is. I think last year we came on board, and we had a bunch of young players here that knew they were talented, but I don't think they knew for sure what that meant.
"Their work ethic, it's not that they didn't work before, but I'm not sure they really knew exactly what the process was. Again, probably because they were highly touted coming out of the Minor Leagues, a lot of times young players when they get to the big leagues say: 'OK, I've done it.' But that's when the work starts.
"I'm not sure they necessarily believed what we were saying to them last year, even though they were very respectful. But I had just come on board. You know, trust is something you have to earn. I think it's a two-way street, as far as my trusting them, and them trusting what we were trying to do."
It is far too early for congratulations. But it is not too early to notice how superbly the 2009 Dodgers have played, and how bright their future appears.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.