The 2012 Major League Baseball season is just over 20 percent in the books and the races have started to take shape. Time will tell if the three teams at the top of each National League division will be there at the end. I have my own feelings on each and since the season is so young, there is still plenty of time for the division winners to turn out how I thought – none of which are currently in first. In the meantime, it is fun to try to speculate on how each team will do based on its performance to this point.
But of all the teams at the top of their respective division, there is one that interests me the most and that is the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not only are they in first place, they have the biggest lead of any team – National or American League. With the Frank McCourt mess behind them and under new management of Guggenheim Baseball Management (with former Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson), the Dodgers certainly aren’t being distracted by off the field shenanigans. To be sure, that’s what they were dodging last year – not trolleys.
The question of whether Los Angeles will maintain their top spot in the standings depends a lot, of course, on Matt Kemp. But the team will have to do without their star center-fielder for the next couple of weeks as he is on the 15 day disabled list with a strained hamstring. All the 2011 Most Valuable Player runner-up has done is smash 12 homeruns and hit to the tune of a .359 batting average, leading the Dodgers to one of the top offensive spots in the league. About the only thing his fantasy owners have to complain about is the lack of stolen bases. With only two at this stage, Kemp is on a pace for about 10, well short of last year’s total of 40. If Los Angeles hopes to remain at the top of the West Division, they are going to need their 27 year old offensive leader to return healthy and play at the level he was before going down.
As good as Matt Kemp is, the Dodgers have been getting good performance from a number of other players on the hitting side. Andre Ethier has been solid batting .308 with eight homeruns and leads the team with 33 runs batted in. As good as he’s been, the thirty year old right fielder will have to pick up some of the slack during Kemp’s absence.
A pleasant surprise has been catcher A.J. Ellis. At 31 years old, Ellis isn’t a spring chicken in baseball terms. The most playing time he’s had in the big leagues is the 108 at bats he had in 2010, a total that will surely be surpassed this year by the primary backstop. Ellis has hit for a solid .314 average and has contributed three homeruns, 15 RBI and scored 11 runs.
On the other side of the coin is the light hitting James Loney. The first baseman is still hitting a lowly .236 even after a .375 clip the past week. But the six year Dodger still only has one homerun on the year and has never hit more than 15 in a single season and that was way back in 2007. This lack of pop from a position that teams like to get a good amount of power from. Reportedly, manager Don Mattingly is not very pleased with Loney’s production and there is the real possibility of a change occurring there.
Then there’s Dee Gordon. The second year Dodger is arguably the fastest player in Major League Baseball and is tied for second in the league with 12 stolen bases. Gordon is still learning his craft at the big league level and needs to improve a bit on his 70% success rate. But the problem with the shortstop is a .212 batting average and .250 on base percentage. Even at those anemic levels, Mattingly is sticking with the 24 year old at the top of his batting order.
On the pitching side, Los Angeles is led by 2011 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. The fifth year Dodger has picked up where he left off last year, compiling a .911 WHIP and 2.22 ERA in posting three wins against one loss. The only blemish so far is his strikeout rate has slipped from 9.57/9 last year to 8.03/9 in 2012.
After Kershaw in the rotation comes Chad Billingsley. Even with just a 2-2 record, Chad is pitching better this young season than any year since his 16-10 2008 campaign. The strikeout rate is up from last year while the walk rate is down. Combined with a BABIP that is the lowest of his career, the 27 year old is sporting the lowest WHIP and ERA since 2008. Billingsley’s Achilles ’ heel has been the long ball – double last year’s level.
Chris Capuano has been nothing short of fabulous in his seven starts, putting up a 5-0 record with a 1.03 WHIP and 2.06 ERA. The 33 year old is striking out better than eight batters per nine and walking just over three. An alarm could be a .236 BABIP which is well below any he has posted in his career.
Ted Lilly was rewarded this past off-season with a new three year $33 million contract. He has responded with five victories against no losses and a fantastic .965 WHIP and 2.11 ERA. But the strikeout rate has slipped 2.21 to 5.17/9 and the walk rate has increased by almost one to 3.29/9. As if that wasn’t alarming enough, even though the 36 year old starter has historically pitched to a BABIP under .300, his .204 mark so far is absolutely unsustainable. The staff senior citizen has a correction coming.
Rounding out the rotation is newly signed Aaron Harang. Even though his record is 2-2 he hasn’t continued the resurgence he had last year with the San Diego Padres and is pitching to a 1.42 WHIP and 4.46 ERA. These are certainly not numbers the Dodgers were counting on when they gave him a new two year contract.This has been the Los Angeles Dodgers in a nutshell. There are obviously very good performers and some not as good as the team would like. I picked the Arizona Diamondbacks to finish tops in this division and still think Kirk Gibson will rally the troops and come away with first place. But the Dodgers won’t go quietly and Donnie Baseball (with a bit of Magic) will have his team in the thick of things right until the end.