Joe Torre's two seasons in Los Angeles have to go down as a big success, with some frustration tempered in. The Dodgers have gone from a big-budget underachiever to a NLCS team two straight years. But they haven't taken that next step to the World Series, with Philadelphia standing in their way both years. It's easy to see them going either way this year--either completing the climb to a National League pennant, or falling behind the competition in the increasingly tough NL West and staying home for October.
Winning championships means stars have to play like stars, to borrow a phrase former NFL analyst John Madden used to use during the playoffs. No star in Hollywood is bigger--at least on the baseball diamond--than leftfielder Manny Ramirez. And no star in Hollywood (forget the baseball qualifer) is more temperamental or harder to gauge than Manny. It
speaks volumes to Torre's skills that he beat the Rockies and Giants last year with Manny serving a 50-game steroid suspension. He gets the hitter for the full year in 2010 and there's nothing Ramirez doesn't do well. That includes defense, although it's predicated on whether he cares enough to try. It's the latter point that will be the biggest key to Los Angeles success.
The help for Manny is ably provided by three players less talented, but also more predictable. Casey Blake at third had one of the best years of career despite playing in a pitcher's park after spending much of his career in Cleveland. Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are both power threats, as well as to get on base consistently. Torre could use first baseman James Loney to show the power he flashed in 2007, as well as for catcher Russell Martin to get healthy. Martin, normally one of the game's few good-hitting catchers had a bad year last season and is out until at least
Starting pitching is decent and steady, although not spectacular and I think the lack of a true ace really holds this team back in the playoffs, when teams like Philadelphia are turning loose arms like Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, the stars of the last two League Championship Series. Philadelphia went and added Roy Halladay this year, while the Dodgers have not made any substantive additions. Going top-to-bottom Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley are nice starters at the top, Hideki Kuroda is decent in the middle and Vincente Padilla was a pleasant surprise down the stretch. Towards the end of his Yankee tenure, Torre survived a more competitve gauntlet with less pitching, so this is manageable. But they either need to add another starter for the playoffs, hope Kershaw or Billingsley develop into one, or hope they draw opponents with similar weaknesses if they are going to make the World Series. If they fix this problem, the bullpen
is very solid, with a nice righty-lefty tandem of Tronsoco and Sherrill setting up for Jonathan Broxton.
All of it means an interesting year for Los Angeles, one that could go heavy in either direction.
Final NL West Picks & Preview: March 31
Up Next: Philadelphia Phillies tomorrow
Over at www.thecollegebasketballnotebook.com , regional overviews are running each day. We covered the West yesterday and will look at the Midwest today.