Arizona won't lose today: I can predict this with more confidence than usual, thanks to them not actually being scheduled to play. Somehow, however, I have a sneaking suspicion that the bullpen will still find a way to blow things and take the L. Random discussion and DodgerWatch to follow, with today's main topic being, "What the hell do we do?" I feel sympathy for Bob Melvin, since it seems that no matter which pitcher he throws up there, suckage follows.
Over the past couple of days, I've been trading emails with Jon Weisman of Sports Illustrated and the excellent Dodger Thoughts site, discussing each other's teams, in advance of the big series between them this weekend - which at least means one losing streak will come to an end! Here's our discussion, to shed some light on the nearest rival, whom we'll be facing over the next three games - many thanks to Jon for the conversation.
Jon: Jim, the Dodgers have been nipping at Arizona's heels for months now, but haven't been able to do the leapfrog thing. In fact, now the Dodgers are back under .500 and entered this week as far out of the NL West lead as they've been all summer. How confident are you guys feeling about winning the division?
Jim: According to coolstandings.com, we have a 69.8% chance of winning the division at time of writing, but you'd be hard-pushed to find any Arizona fan who feels anywhere near that confident. Obviously, being in front is the place to be, and every game where the Dodgers don't catch up helps the Diamondbacks: time is on our side, not yours. That said, I'd be a lot more optimistic if both teams were playing well: it's hardly comfortable when our team motto is no longer, "Anybody, anytime," but "Well, at least Los Angeles lost, too." The question is as much, how confident are you guys feeling about not winning it?
Jon: The Phillies series, which reversed the Dodgers' four-game sweep of them earlier in the month, was as big a morale destroyer as I've seen all year. But Arizona losing three of four during the same period just showed that, though Dodger fans shouldn't necessarily be confident, they shouldn't give up either.
Jim: Both teams made post-deadline moves, acquiring sluggers in Manny Ramirez and Adam Dunn. Why did the Dodgers not put in a claim on Dunn, to stop the Diamondbacks from getting him? And do you think either team has a realistic shot at signing their player long-term?
Jon: The Dodgers haven't addressed the claiming Dunn question officially; the conclusion we're left with is that it was a non-issue for them, and/or they didn't want to deal with the potential financial and roster implications of having him on the team. Neither of those answers are particularly satisfying for a lot of us.
The Dodgers will have the ability to sign a top-tier free agent this offseason, so I think they have a shot at Ramirez, but I don't know if the will is there. During the brief period in which Alex Rodriguez was a free agent last fall, the Dodgers didn't position themselves as serious contenders. I'm not saying the situations are identical, but I don't tend to think that a Ramirez deal will get done. I have to admit, I hadn't even gotten to the point of wondering whether Dunn would be with Arizona in 2009. What do you think?
Jim: While I'd like to see it, I'm doubtful we have enough room to make a competitive offer. It's a relatively thin free-agent market this year, and it's probable that we also have to replace Orlando Hudson at second-base. If we hadn't already committed to paying Eric Byrnes through 2010, I could see us moving Conor Jackson to LF permanently, and making an offer, but I think we'll take the two draft picks and move on.
Here in Arizona, we expect to see pitching phenom Max Scherzer added to the Diamondbacks roster as part of the September expamsion, though it's not sure if he will see playing time as a starter or strengthening the bullpen, which has struggled of late. Los Angeles have their own phenom in Clayton Kershaw, but there's some question as to whether he would be available in the playoffs, or even for the full season. How far do you see him going?
Jon: Part of the rationale behind the Greg Maddux pickup was to allow the Dodgers to stick to their plan of curtailing Kershaw's innings at about 170. You won't see Kershaw start in the playoffs even if the Dodgers have the opportunity, and I think he would be used sparingly in relief. Chad Billingsley, Derek Lowe, Hiroki Kuroda and Maddux would form the postseason rotation. It might be worth noting that James McDonald is another young starter who could see some action at least out of the bullpen in September.
I've noticed several commentators of late leaning toward Arizona because of their big three: Brandon Webb, Dan Haren and Randy Johnson. But Johnson's not exactly the pitcher he used to be. What's your feeling about the Diamondback rotation overall heading into the stretch run?
Jim: Johnson has been a second-half revelation. Many people expected him to flag, or be skipped occasionally to keep him fresh, but he hasn't missed a game all year - and has a 1.82 ERA, with a K:BB ratio of 53:7, in eight starts since the All-Star Game. He seems to have benefited from a side session he threw during the break, under the eye of pitching coach Tom House. Can he keep it up? Well, he could double that post-break ERA and still be a formidable #3. Personally, I'm more concerned about Doug Davis, who may be wearing down - understandably - after having his cancerous thyroid removed in April, or Yusmeiro Petit and his amazing .195 BABIP.
The Dodgers offense, even with Ramirez, is scuffling badly. The series opener against the Nationals made it eight consecutive games scoring three runs or less, tying an NL season-high. Is there a particular cause? And, perhaps more importantly for LA, a cure?
Jon: They're slumping, slumping badly. This is a challenged offensive team, reliant for the most part on stringing hits together, but clearly, if this is some record-high streak of ineptitude in the NL for 2008, it's not the Dodgers' usual behavior. They are leaving runners on base rather than not getting them on in the first place, which is usually a sign that a team isn't hopeless at the plate. So the cure is time. Whether that cure will come soon enough, or with enough time remaining in the schedule, I don't know.
And yet, there's Arizona, with a chance to go four up in the division, letting San Diego knock out Webb. Neither of these teams can really seem to get their act together. Webb losing is obviously a fluke, but what is the Diamondbacks' biggest worry?
Jim: If anything is going to sink us, it's the bullpen. They have a second-half ERA of 5.34, and an 0-8 record after July 10. I've a nasty feeling manager Bob Melvin blew out Brandon Lyon's arm by using him in hard, back-to-back-to-back outings just after the break: his ERA before that was 2.43, but balloons to 12.75 since. Any apparent resulting lack of blown saves is largely because we've only had three in August - and Lyon had to be bailed out in one of those. While Melvin still professes confidence in his closer, I have little, and set-up man Jon Rauch, with his 6.19 ERA for us, isn't much more inspiring. We have good relievers - Juan Cruz and Tony Peña have generally been solid recently - but Melvin apparently dislikes using them in high-leverage situations for some reason.
Enough gloom and depression! Who - presumably outside of Manny - do you expect to step up and carry the Dodgers through the last month of the season?
Jon: Aside from Ramirez, I think it's really going to be up to the younger non-rookies - Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney and even Russell Martin, though he has logged more than 1,000 innings behind the plate, to have enough left to carry the offense. It's getting to be too late for Rafael Furcal to have much of an impact, though perhaps he might be able to offer occasional help off the bench in September. But overall, I think the key to the Dodgers winning will have to be pitching depth. Though Los Angeles can't match Arizona ace-for-ace, the Dodgers do have a solid staff top-to-bottom. There have been some blown saves, but I'm still confident in the group overall. I'm really hoping they can keep the muzzle on opponents in September.
And who will be Arizona's heroes, should they have heroes?
Jim: Justin Upton should return, and certainly has the chance - if he can regain his April form, where he batted 327/.372/.554. It's a big "if" however, since he hit below .200 after that. Third-baseman Mark Reynolds is notoriously streaky, so could get hot down the stretch too. But it's the rotation that has taken Arizona this far, and it'll be them that we need to keep us in games. In particular, I'd love to see Davis come through with some clutch performances: it'd be the ultimate feel-good story of the season, to go from being diagnosed with cancer to leading his team into the playoffs.
Looking into the post-season, how do you think the Dodgers would match-up against the other contenders? Who do you fear most?
Jon: I mostly fear the television industry making fun of the Dodgers even being in the postseason. I can't even think about potential Dodger playoff opponents. I just know that the pitching staff would have to come up huge, and the Dodgers would basically just need to get some of the luck that has eluded them since 1988.
Jim: I look forward to the ESPN angst if LA or AZ make the playoffs, and the Yankees don't, despite a better record! I feel the same about Arizona's chances - but once you reach the playoffs, the first 162 games become meaningless. That's probably the biggest thing either of our teams have in their favor.