LOS ANGELES – The sunny view here amid the palm trees and rag tops has the Dodgers coming to understand Joe Torre and Torre getting them, the only explanation for a July that has seen six wins and 36 runs in seven games, because it couldn’t possibly be about back-to-back series against the Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants.
From eye level, however, the Dodgers are just another National League West team, no matter who’s getting to know each other in the clubhouse, no matter who can now differentiate between a professional at-bat and yet another wasted one.
Five teams, half-a-season in, the NL West has seen one winning month: April, in Arizona.
The rest has been bleak enough that the next few months promise to be a real pillow fight, stray feathers and all.
Another hot five or six weeks – from any of them, really – could be enough to carry the division, advance on the playoffs, rally a town and, who knows, maybe save a job or two.
So take the Dodgers, dollar-for-dollar one of the crummy teams this side of Detroit. They’ve turned $120 million into a fight for survival, into the odd observation from Torre that the younger Dodgers now realize what’s expected of them, into an effort to stay in the race while the likes of veterans Brad Penny, Rafael Furcal, Juan Pierre and Jason Schmidt crowd the disabled list.
Meantime, they arrived at the ballpark Monday night (fresh from that heroic 5-2 trip) a half-game behind the Diamondbacks, who couldn’t look less like that April team if they dressed like Smurfs and sang show tunes.
And one incredible pitching performance by Hiroki Kuroda later they were tied for first at 44-45, having won eight of 11 games, the last a history-flirting 3-0 victory over the road-scarred Atlanta Braves. Kuroda, a 33-year-old rookie strike-thrower from Japan, took a perfect game into the eighth inning and settled for a one-hitter after Mark Teixeira stroked a two-strike double down the right-field line to lead off the inning.
At a time when, by all rights, the Dodgers should be hanging For Sale signs around the necks of Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Lowe and Chan Ho Park, they instead were knee deep in negotiations for CC Sabathia (Andy LaRoche as a centerpiece wasn't enough to get him) and are maneuvering for a modest shortstop along the lines of Alex Cora and David Eckstein, but probably not the more expensive Jack Wilson.
They could go for an outfield bat – anybody but Andruw Jones would do, at this point – but the price for Colorado's Matt Holliday will be prohibitive, particularly for a division foe, and too much for a player who is half the threat away from Coors Field, not to mention a .234 career hitter at Dodger Stadium. Jason Bay could be had, but, like Pittsburgh teammate Wilson, he carries a salary of more than $7 million next season. The Dodgers, with few exceptions, aren’t interested in committing beyond the next few months, particularly at shortstop, where their first choice is to re-sign Furcal and their second might be to sign Orlando Cabrera.
With Furcal out for the next couple months because of back surgery, Nomar Garciaparra a strained something-or-other waiting to happen, and the heavy-legged middle infield of Garciaparra and Jeff Kent turning groundouts into singles, general manager Ned Colletti appears to be focused on upgrading at shortstop. That is, acquiring a player who will give him better at-bats than Angel Berroa and greater range than Garciaparra, all while hoping Furcal prays to the same healing god Albert Pujols does.
Then there’s the added intrigue of what this means for Colletti, who won the NL wild card in 2006, his first season as GM, and has spent a lot of money for what turned out to be average teams since. In L.A., people are starting to talk about Colletti like they did Paul DePodesta a few years ago, and that didn’t end well for DePodesta. Colletti sounds willing to part with a prospect or two in the right climate, but, with few impact players to be had, it seems remote that Matt Kemp or anyone like him will go.
All of which leaves the Dodgers with the same choice as every other team in the division; Trust that their current roster will perk up and win more games or be the club that makes the move that wins an extremely soft race.
The Dodgers have been here before. In fact, they’ve been in the same condition for years, across two GMs, and a lot of average baseball, despite a competitive payroll.
What do they do?
“That’s a good question,” Torre said. “I wish I had an answer. We certainly feel we’re capable of winning.”
Meantime, Torre tries to protect his shortstop best he can, and probably bleeds too many innings out of the aging Kent, and someday soon could have two or three more starting pitchers than necessary, if one includes Clayton Kershaw.
“The shortstop right now is probably at the top of the list,” Torre said. “We see what’s available, we see what it’ll take. The magnitude of the deal is going to depend on what somebody has to offer us.”
Torre said he’d prefer not to deal from the Dodgers’ strength. They rank first in the NL in ERA, fourth in starters’ ERA, second in relief ERA. Lowe’s contract is expiring, but there’s something about a guy who takes the ball every five days, no matter what. And, if the Dodgers do make it as far, Lowe has been something of a stud in October.
“The most important part of what we do right now is pitching,” Torre said.
That, and figuring each other out. Which, you suppose, might count for something. That’d be the sunny view.