For two straight years the Los Angeles Dodgers have gotten to the brink of the World Series and two straight years have been ousted decisively by Philadelphia, with a 2-8 record in those LCS games of 2008-09. Much like their crosstown American League friends in Anaheim that we looked at last week (Check the recent posts or scroll down), the key question for the Dodgers revolves around pitching. Unlike the Angels, who have questions up and down the rotation, the Dodgers can expect steady starting pitching. But do they have a genuine ace, the kind of #1 guy who can put you over the top in October. The last three years have seen C.C. Sabathia, Cole Hamels and Josh Beckett dominate the postseason and lead their teams to a championship.Who could do that for Joe Torre?
Chad Billingsley showed ace capacity in 2008 when he won 16 games with a 3.14 ERA, but the
latter jumped to 4.03 last year. Considering he works in a pitcher's park against relatively soft National League lineups that ERA is a long way from ace-caliber. Clayton Kershaw, the 22-year old lefthander, made his major league debut last year and showed a lot. He pitched 171 innings and put up a 2.79 ERA. But he only won eight games. While relying on W-L record has become a sign of outdated thinking in the new sabermetric era, I'm still enough of a traditionalist to think it means at least something. Kershaw needs to double that win total to be a legit #1.
Moving beyond the top two, we go to Hiroki Kuroda. I like the Japanese players in general. I like their professionalism and approach to the game, from Ichiro to Matsui to Matsuzaka. And I like Kuroda too, who's settled into a life of ERA's in the mid-3.70s and a record around .500. The evidence suggests he is what he is--a reliable #3 guy. After him, Vincente Padilla was a pleasant surprise
last year in providing stability at the back of the rotation, but he's never done anything to remotely suggest he's an ace. #5 guy Charlie Haeger probably shouldn't even be in the rotation of a presumed contender, much less inspire visions of stardom.
What are the Dodgers to do? Over the last two years they've let the Phillies beat them first to Cliff Lee, the difference maker in last year's LCS and Roy Halladay in the offseason. They didn't bid aggressively on C.C. Sabathia, when he was interested in returning to his West Coast roots. And now ownership is in a mess, with Frank McCourt's divorce having gone public. Large investments probably aren't forthcoming anytime soon. Joe Torre's left with hoping Billingsley or Kershaw up their game to the next level. Or they could look at a trade for someone like Boston's Matsuzaka, who's fallen out of favor with his current team, but as recently as 2008 won 18 games with a sub-3.00 ERA pitching in the AL
East. Whatever it is, a silver-bullet solution isn't forthcoming.
Prognosis: In ways both good and bad, the Dodgers remind me of Duke basketball. I recall back in January writing of the latter, that they were good, but with limitations and their best hope to win it all was for other major powers to suffer upsets and allow a chance for their natural stability to triumph. Duke got what they needed and won it all. Los Angeles can expect steady performance as well, and will be in the discussion all year long. But upsets are easier to come by in college basketball than in the big-money world of major league baseball, where the rich get richer at the trade deadline. Los Angeles needs some kind of upgrade from outside if they are to take the next step this season.