COMMENTARY | The most important position player for the Los Angeles Dodgers this season won't be a former MVP runner-up in Matt Kemp. It won't be the player with the longest tenure as a Dodger in Andre Ethier. It won't be some of the players who aren't expected to do well in Mark Ellis or Luis Cruz.
No, the most important position player for the Dodgers in 2013 is a guy they've wanted for five years: Adrian Gonzalez.
The Dodgers have coveted the big left-hander since his days with the Padres. In 2009, the team almost made a blockbuster deal with the San Diego Padres that would have sent Ivan DeJesus, Blake DeWitt, James Loney, Russell Martin and James McDonald for Gonzalez and Heath Bell. Ironically, DeJesus and Loney were both dealt to Boston in August as part of the deal to finally land Gonzalez in a Dodgers uniform.
Gonzalez, when healthy, is among the best hitters in the game. With first base -- especially in the National League -- not being as impressive as in recent years, Gonzalez has a real chance to stake his claim to the game's best first baseman.
If he does, the Dodgers will be in good shape. However, it's easier said than done.
Gonzalez's projections are pretty standard across the board. Most are projecting a line like this:
- 26 HR
- 98 RBIs
- 35 2B
- 66 BB
- 4.3 fWAR
That's a productive season, but if the Dodgers want to seriously contend for a world championship, they'll need to get a little more than that out of Gonzalez.
Gonzalez suffered a shoulder injury in 2010, his last season with the Padres. He had his right labrum surgically repaired. That's a convenient reason to explain Gonzalez's lack of power in 2012, but what about 2011?
In Gonzalez's first year in Boston (2011), he hit .338, had a .957 OPS, a .375 weighted on-base average (wOBA, well above-average), led the majors in hits (213) and hit 27 home runs. That was coming off shoulder surgery in the winter. This is more what the Dodgers need in 2013, especially if Gonzalez is going to be hitting behind Kemp.
While the batting average was good last season before and the trade (.297), Gonzalez struggled in other areas of hitting. He wasn't drawing nearly as many walks (5.9 percent compared to an 11.3 percent career rate heading into 2012), and his power was surprisingly absent (32.3 at-bats per home runs compared to a 19.5 rate pre-2012).
Overall, he posted full-season career-lows in 2012 in home runs (18), walks (42), OBP (.344), slugging percentage (.463) and, subsequently, OPS (.806).
A repeat of 2012 won't help the Dodgers, especially since Gonzalez is clearly the team's second-best hitter. To offset an off-year by Gonzalez, guys like Ethier or Hanley Ramirez would have to step up big time. Ramirez is no longer the 7-WAR player he once was, and it'd be surprising if Ethier ever OPS'd .850 or better again. This is why Gonzalez returning to his career norms is so vitally important for this Dodgers club, a club ripe with sky-high expectations.
With Ramirez expected to hit behind Gonzalez, the Dodgers could have one of the best hearts of the order, and Gonzalez will be in the middle of it.
For what it's worth, Gonzalez, despite his 2012 struggles, still managed to drive in more than 100 runs for the fifth time in the last six years. The only year he didn't, he drove in 99 runs while hitting 40 home runs for the Padres in 2009.
The Dodgers will go as Gonzalez goes. They should be a solid team if he doesn't improve upon his 2012 numbers, but they should be a great team if he returns to form.
Dustin Nosler has followed the Dodgers from Northern California all his life. He's the founder of Feelin' Kinda Blue, a Dodger blog. He also co-hosts "Dugout Blues," a weekly Dodger podcast. Find him on Twitter @FeelinKindaBlue.