Friday, August 29, 2014

5 questions the Dodgers face down the stretch

Here we are at the end of August, and there's a month left of regular season baseball on the schedule.  The Dodgers find themselves up 4 1/2 games over the Giants in the NL West, and it's a race that doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

With that said, here are five key questions the Dodgers face for the September pennant run.

1) Will Clayton Kershaw win the MVP award?
There's certainly little reason to doubt that he not only can, but he will.  After another masterful performance on Wednesday in Arizona, a place where he was pounded in May, his numbers look like this: 16-3, 1.73 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 6 CG, 2 SHO, 194 K's in 161 1/3 IP.  I'm not sure how he keeps topping himself, but he does.

We all know how rare it is for pitchers to win the MVP, as they only appear in around 20% of the games, and that's with really good health.  Kershaw was hurt for over a month at the start of the season, so his percentage will be lower.  But in addition to his awesome numbers, what he also has going for him is that there aren't many other strong candidates.  Troy Tulowitzki was, but he's done for the season already.  Andrew McCutchen has good numbers again, but he's been banged up a bit and the Pirates aren't as good as last year.  Guys like Anthony Rizzo and Justin Upton aren't getting the buzz.

The only guy who is in strong contention with Kershaw is Giancarlo Stanton.  He leads the NL in homers, RBIs, OPS, SLG, and BB.  The Marlins aren't that good, but are still hovering around that final Wild Card spot.

In my mind, if Kershaw continues to do his thing, and the Dodgers claim the top spot in the NL, then the award is his.  If he slips up at all, and the Dodgers do as well, then I'd lean towards Stanton getting it.

2) Will Yasiel Puig regain his power?
Puig was the starting right fielder in the All-Star Game, has been moved to the important position of center field, and is still one of the most exciting players in baseball.  What he doesn't have going for him right now, however, is power. 

He's currently leading the Dodgers in batting average (.301) and OBP (.388), and is eighth and fifth in the NL in those stats, respectively.  He also has greatly improved his plate discipline, with higher walk totals this year.  Unfortunately, since the end of May, he only has two home runs.  Two.  That's it.

While his game shouldn't be measured just on homers, it's still a shockingly low number for such a strong guy.  He certainly swings for the fences quite often, but is settling for choppers or simple fly balls.  He's pressing to make things happen, and it just isn't.

Even though he hits in the #2 spot, if he can start driving in more runs, and hitting more out of the park, then the Dodgers are so much better.  It would be no different than what Mike Trout brings to the Angels, as he has 30 homers and 92 RBIs in that spot (with the other 2 RBIs in the #3 spot).  Puig isn't as good a hitter, but is such a big talent that he can definitely make more happen.

3) Will the setup role ever be settled?
Ugh... the eighth inning for the Dodgers.  Whether it's Brian Wilson, Brandon League, or anyone else who has been given a shot, the results have not been pretty.  It's been an adventure, to say the least.

Ned Colletti was unable to secure a top reliever before the trade deadline, and in the waiver period he went for starters in Roberto Hernandez and Kevin Correia.  Who knows how close the Dodgers were to getting a reliever, but the bottom line is that they are stuck with who they have at this point.

One thing I know for sure, and that's Wilson and League are NOT the answers, and should NOT be given more chances to pitch in the eighth.  Wilson's ERA is 5.05, and League continually chokes in big situations.  Guys like Jamey Wright and Chris Perez haven't been able to do anything either.

About the only guy who has been solid is J.P. Howell, but even he has his bouts of wildness.  He still has a 1.97 ERA, and lefties are hitting .133 against him, so that's someone you want to pitch in the setup role.  Right now, that's it.  Maybe someone like Pedro Baez steps in and fills the role.  Hey, why not?  The Dodgers have limited options, so this is an area I can definitely see haunting them in October.

4) Will Dee Gordon run out of juice?
Gordon has had a great year, as he more than earned his All-Star berth at second base, and is leading baseball with 58 steals.  He's been a huge boost to the Dodgers in the leadoff spot, a role that was questionable coming into the season.

He also has slowed down in August, and is clearly showing some wear and tear of playing the long baseball season.

In a way, this should be expected.  Right now he's played in 127 games.  Want to know what his career high was before this season?  It was 87 in 2012.  Wow, that's a big jump.  He made headlines coming into this season for "bulking up" in his words, and it most certainly paid off.  But, August has seen his average dip, his strikeouts go up, and his OBP go down.  Not a good formula for a leadoff hitter.

Don Mattingly has been giving him days off here and there, which is a good move.  The best thing that can happen for Gordon is that the Dodgers run away with the division, and he can afford to take more rest towards the end of September.  That way he'll be as fresh as he can be going into the playoffs.  If he's forced to play too much and his numbers continue to tumble, he might not be able to do much in October.  And that hurts the Dodgers a lot.

5) Which Hanley Ramirez shows up?
Hanley can go one of two ways.  There's the MVP talent who drives the ball and leads the Dodgers in the heart of the lineup.  Or there's the broken down guy who grounds out, strikes out, and continues to be awful defensively at short.  What's is gonna be?

That's a major question for the Dodgers.  It's also a major dilemma for Mattingly.  If Hanley can't hit, there's little reason to play him, other than being a threat based on past success.  Clearly guys like Miguel Rojas and Erisbel Arruebarrena are better options at short, and considering the Dodgers want to win with pitching, it makes more sense to play them despite their offensive shortcomings.

I wrote about Hanley and his big September ahead earlier this week.  Basically, if he can be that guy in the #3 spot (or around that) to get big hits, the Dodgers will be hard to stop in the postseason.  Plus, he'll earn a big payday next season, whether it's with the Dodgers or some other team.  If he looks old and broken down, it's hard to imagine him getting the money he thinks he deserves.  He'll look more like yesterday's news.

As you can see, despite the Dodgers being almost 20 games over .500, there are still questions that remain that could hold them back from their ultimate goal of being world champions.  September will be a fun month to watch, so let's see what unfolds.

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