LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Dodgers, by now, were to have collapsed upon themselves.
Beneath the heft of ownership that has artistically executed the leap from self-destructive to certifiably wacky …
Grasping for a pitching staff that had turned to mist …
Running an offense (and payroll) around a PED-head cleanup hitter whose slugging percentage (were he reliable enough to accumulate the qualifying at-bats) would rate 59th in the game …
The Dodgers were to have gone the way of one of those fire truck-swallowing sinkholes you hear about out here.
But, look around.
Even after a lopsided loss to the Los Angeles Angels in the first game of the Freeway Series on Friday, the Dodgers are even with the San Diego Padres in the National League West and among a small handful of teams in baseball flirting with a .600 winning percentage.
The owner is into his ex for $7.7 million a year (or almost what he's paying his starting shortstop), the iconic manager can't bear to commit to another season, the entire starting rotation has 100 career wins, Manny Ramirez(notes) has morphed into Austin Kearns(notes) (sans glove, arm, hustle) and all the Dodgers have done for the last six weeks is win baseball games.
It can't all be about the "V energy," can it?
Well, no. Even Vladimir Shpunt – the club's faith healer/cosmic 10th man/DirecTV subscriber – admitted to the L.A. Times that at his best he covered the last 10 percent of good fortune, 15 percent tops. (Like we often say, "If all else fails, Shpunt!" Other times, we say, "Hey, who's the guy mind-melding with his Samsung?")
While Mr. Shpunt apparently is no longer on the payroll, he must have left a little residual vibe.
In spite of marginal production from Ramirez, time on the disabled list for Ramirez, Rafael Furcal(notes) and Andre Ethier(notes), a so-so start for Matt Kemp(notes) and a starting rotation that ends with unheralded rookies John Ely(notes) and Carlos Monasterios(notes), the Dodgers have been just mediocre enough in everything to make something of themselves.
Really, they've become a model for showing up and playing, just to see what happens. They're not doing it on payroll, they're not doing it on superstars, they're not even doing it on balance. If they've ridden anything in particular, it's been timely growth from Clayton Kershaw(notes) and Chad Billingsley(notes), a workable bullpen and a bench that has been extraordinary. For days at a time, these have been the Dodgers of Jamey Carroll(notes) and Reed Johnson(notes), of Blake DeWitt(notes) and Ronnie Belliard(notes), and even of Xavier Paul(notes) and A.J. Ellis(notes). Throw in Monasterios and Ely, and on many nights they haven't even slightly resembled the team that went as far as the NL championship series the past two seasons.
While GM Ned Colletti was being pilloried for failing to improving the core of a team that confirmed it could not play past the Philadelphia Phillies (and while, likely, operating under the new post-nuptial budget), he was tending to the decidedly unsexy reconstruction of the roster's fringe.
"We didn't think we needed to tear it down and rebuild it," Colletti said. "We knew the value of the bench and the value of pitching depth, even if it's not real glamorous."
Granted, fringe generally props you up for short times and wins you the occasional game, not championships. But, core generally doesn't come cheap, either, and fringe will have to do until Ethier gets healthier, and Ramirez finds his power stroke (assuming it's still in there somewhere), and Kemp resumes his course toward five-tool consistency.
"We spend so much time talking about starting lineups and starting pitching," Joe Torre said, "you have a tendency to go past the support people."
And that all has made for a fine couple of months, or everything after the 9-14 start.
What comes next, and what will be necessary if the Dodgers are to be something other than a few-months flash, looks something like, well, Cliff Lee(notes). Maybe Roy Oswalt(notes). Maybe Kevin Millwood(notes) or Dan Haren(notes). Colletti has been poking around the American League, hoping – as a last resort – to identify a pitcher who might look a lot better in the softer other league.
According to two baseball sources, Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik would deal Lee for a power bat right now. The Dodgers of course would send Ramirez for him, but, as of this moment, he's not a power hitter anymore.
And, so far, Houston Astros GM Ed Wade is shopping Roy Oswalt "as is." That means dealing with Oswalt's no-trade rights. And that means the Astros have no current plans to defray the cost of the 32-year old right-hander. Oswalt is due whatever would remain of $15 million this season, $16 million next season and a $16 million option (with a $2 million buyout) in 2012. That's too rich for Frank McCourt, or so it would seem.
Meantime, the Dodgers are what they are, winning games we thought they might, but for reasons we didn't expect. They've resisted implosion.
Course, our man Shpunt probably saw it coming.