Addition by Subtraction
Just a short edition this time, to reiterate themes I’ve already brought up but are increasingly popular lately with mainstream baseball writers. Namely the subject of what Stan Kasten may do or should do to improve the Dodgers’ fortunes – i.e. making adjustments.
Last year, Kasten waited till June to address the obvious need to tinker with the pen that was costing the team game after game. I don't imagine this year's tweaks will come any sooner, as Kasten has proven himself to be patient enough to wait for rain. I am more of a realist. I guess the difference of opinion and "patience" comes from Kasten's fingerprints being all over a roster that had issues going into 2014. To change course early would make it seem like he didn't believe in his plan, so I get that.
Here are some immediate things I would look into to turn the team's fortunes around. It would of course begin with turning Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez into players that made more sense for this specific team and the future direction of it.
Neither are bad guys and both have major upside, of course. I think though that neither is right for this team, for similar and different reasons. Kemp, as its now being written about in the LA Times, is a guy who seems to be more of an outsider than centerpiece of the Dodgers nowadays. This happens from missing a large chunk of time and contributing virtually nothing to last season's success. I get the serious shoulder injury he suffered during the course of duty in 2012, but a lot has changed since then. It's not that Kemp is wrong, or the Dodgers are wrong, but it would appear that today Kemp isn't nearly as important to the Dodgers winning baseball games as he was back in the lean days under Frank McCourt. Back then Kemp, for one reason or another, was on the top of his game, and today, well he's not. There are many superstars around to shoulder the load Kemp used to (before ironically losing his shoulder), and with physical limitations and perhaps some mental, the Kemp as focal point isn't necessary anymore.
Kemp isn't helping offensively or defensively and since the team bonded while he was absent in 2013, he's been playing catch up ever since. He doesn't seem happy with his new role and between his comments and his agent’s; it's evident that unless something drastically changes soon, he will likely have to reinvent himself in another town. Which might not be such a bad thing. Kemp in Texas or some other place might thrive. Kemp as DH might be the best thing for all concerned. Right now he's not the offensive catalyst he was, and he's hurting the Dodgers defensively, which is why Donnie pushed him out of centerfield.
While he still has lookalike hotties wanting to bone him, his value to the team is diminished. I feel for a guy who got hurt like he did in Colorado several years ago, but everything since I don't feel so sympathetic about. His ankle injury, which was very serious and perhaps an explanation for his reduced speed and poor movement in the outfield, was his own doing. Half-assing it home and not sliding can't be blamed on the aggressive play that crushed his shoulder.
The Dodgers' greatest strength is their starting pitching. With the rotation they have, all the other issues together might not be able to stop. In a short series, versus anyone, the Dodgers would at worst be competitive due to the rotation. That said, it's foolish to build around your starting pitching and put subpar fielding behind them, as well as allow games to be lost by the pen. Kasten will need to tinker with the pen once more, but what about the fielding? It would seem he and Donnie get that something needs to be done with moving Kemp out of center and calling up Cuban glove man Erisbel Arruebarrena. With Kemp and Hanley playing less, the Dodgers lineup has gotten more modest (in more ways than one) but the results have been more wins. Is Andre Ethier better than Kemp and is Arruebarrena better than Hanley? Well, probably not (though I would argue Ethier right now is as good as Kemp, except a better fielder and with a more team-first attitude) but perhaps they're better for THIS team.
Kemp is going to get his chance now with Carl Crawford sidelined (again) with the badly sprained ankle. Kemp can make or break his future in LA by shutting up and producing, playing a good left field, or he will find himself moved sometime between now and August (trade deadline not an issue due his contract). It would be in Kemp's best interest to stop moping, passively blaming others, and just play hard. If Kemp can be the Kemp of old, no doubt he would help the Dodgers – or any team – but the clock is ticking. I think he's losing his manager, the two-headed GM and perhaps his teammates. A team built around excellent starting pitching, and with options in the outfield, and whose best prospect just happens to be a gem of a centerfielder, does not need excuses or resting on one's laurels. Now's your chance, Kemp – play great baseball and take left field away from Crawford. If you can't, then you can't and you probably need to take your very calculated stubble and movie star smile to the next town.
Hanley is a little different, but a little bit the same as Kemp. The same part is that he also seems preoccupied and is not a good defender. It would seem that like Manny coming over from Boston and being a spark before reverting to more traditional Manny being Manny traits, the honeymoon with "I See You" Hanley has passed. Nowadays Hanley appears he hasn't gotten his large contract extension. He seems mopey as well, and never was a good fielder. With Hanley, you take the mediocre to bad fielding because of the amazing offense. Last year, for example, his fielding issues weren't nearly as big a concern since he was crushing the ball. This year, he's not, so the fielding stands out. Also, last year he smiled and seemed genuinely happy to be in LA, this year, he seems bitter, and his body language implies he's got other things on his mind.
Just as centerfield is a position you normally want a defender first, which made Kemp's foibles out there more obvious, shortstop is an even more important defensive position. Hanley crushing baseballs and getting to most things hit at him worked. Hanley not hitting and not getting to balls, and making errors, while pouting, doesn't. I think Kasten needs to get back to the blueprint. The blueprint for good baseball is known by any fan not pursing their lips and taking selfies with cleavage showing. The blueprint includes strong defense up the middle as a major component.
I have been saying all season that since Dee Gordon has impressed the way he has at second, the Alex Guerrero transition to second may as well be scraped. The experience there is still useful, as Guerrero might just become a very valuable infield sub, playing all over and adding a nice power threat off the bench to go along with Scott Van Slyke doing the same in the outfield and first base. Although he's being paid $28M, Guerrero would be a nice addition in this capacity, if ultimately Hanley remains at shortstop or Arruebarrena takes the job. I would say either Guerrero moving back to short or Arruebarrena getting the job is better in the long run than reupping with Hanley.
Hanley is a superior offensive player, but Guerrero looks to be a very solid hitter himself. Hanley is nowhere near Arruebarrena with the glove, and since the Dodgers won a World Series in 1988 with little Alfredo Griffin hitting .199 at short, I'm not too worried about his offense. Besides, if Hanley were moved and Arruebarrena failed, Guerrero is around, and Corey Seager is about a year away from figuring into the picture (although I imagine he will eventually end up at third, replacing Juan Uribe).
The idea of a slick fielding shortstop behind a stellar rotation appeals to me as a baseball purist. As does the idea of Joc Pederson playing centerfield every day, with Ethier and Crawford combining with Van Slyke in left, as well as spot duty in other spots. I think the combination of Pederson/Arruebarrena in CF/SS would make for a better Dodgers team than Kemp/Hanley or even Ethier/Hanley. The whole reason Kasten added the expensive players was to buy time for the farm system to regenerate. Now you have Pederson, who's at worst very close, Guerrero and Arruebarrena all in the fold, so what do you do if you're Kasten? Keep playing somewhat unhappy or unmotivated stars, or dealing them for other needs and playing guys within the system?
I understand Kemp's contract makes trading him for value difficult, but Guggenheim is sitting on a mountain of cash thanks to the TV deal that has pissed off 70% of fans in the city. It wouldn't be that hard to find a taker for Kemp, especially if cash were included in the deal. Hanley is a walk free-agent, but no doubt a contender (Yankees!) would be very interested in him. What could you get? Who knows? I'd aim for an arm or three for the pen, blue chips (I'd demand a team's young catcher of the future, such as the Rangers top prospect Jorge Alfaro, who is likened to Buster Posey, only he plays defense too), and probably some solid veteran bench help since the current bench isn't much to speak of. In truth, the Dodgers don't need much more than that. Addressing the future of the catcher position, the current bullpen and bench would more than improve the team. Also, it would allow for payroll flexibility, young players to move up, improved defense, athleticism, and a better balance of superstars and non-superstars.
A team of bloated and comfortable fat cats isn't often a winning formula. Most of the time the largest payroll doesn't win it all. The Dodgers – from my vantage point – seem to be a bit of a country club environment with each millionaire looking to the other and either identifying or wondering, "Where's mine?"
The team needs to get back to baseball fundamentals – the blueprint – and have a better mix of people, not just the most star studded collection of egos available. Defense needs to improve, kids need to get their chance, depth needs to be added, and most of all, a professionalism and desire to win baseball games needs to be instilled.
I think it's very challenging to motivate highly paid stars who don't sense the urgency. I believe it's easier to motivate journeymen and kids, which is probably why the Giants tend to do well and the Marlins have perked up this year. It's ok to have a star or two (or more), and even without Kemp and Hanley the Dodgers would have plenty. Star power is not a shortcoming at all in LA. But a good mix of key baseball ingredients does appear lacking. The 1988 team won it all with a lot fewer stars. The difference was they had a few big names, a lot of experienced journeymen and some kids – balance! They played defense and they had heart. I think a lot of the ingredients are here now to repeat, but sometimes it takes addition by subtraction. Kasten should not be afraid to make necessary adjustments. It's one third of the way through the 2014 season and the record isn't terrible. It would seem irresponsible not to try to improve and win it all.