What’s Left For the Dodgers to Do In the Regular Season?

September 20, 2013 at 11:07 am | Posted in PLAYOFFS | Leave a comment

kemp_arizona_celebrateEveryone out of the pool yet? Good. Arizona journalists still whining endlessly about class? Even better. While that fake controversy surges on, there’s actually still another game today, and it’s not in Phoenix, it’s in San Diego. As Bill Shaikin noted yesterday, the next truly meaningful Dodger game will take place on October 3, when Clayton Kershaw kicks off Game 1 of the NLDS. That was two weeks from yesterday, yet the Dodgers still have nine more games left, heading off to San Diego and San Francisco before coming home for a season-ending three-game set against Colorado.

I’m guessing that we’re going to see some hilarious lineups between now and then, with a whole lot more Dee Gordon and Chili Buss than anyone is really prepared to deal with, and that’s okay. That’s the spoils of clinching so early — you get to do things like that while some other teams are pulling their hair out just trying to survive.

Still, it’s not all fun and games and pools, because the waning moments of the season can still be useful. Here’s how:

1. Get everyone healthy.

This is priority number one for any team headed into the playoffs, but it’s especially so for the Dodgers. We’ve seen what this lineup looks like with Hanley Ramirez and friends in it, and we’ve seen what it looks like when Scott Van Slyke is your main power hitter. So make sure Ramirez’ back is as healthy as it could be, and the same for Carl Crawford. Don’t push Adrian Gonzalez‘ quad. Get Andre Ethier‘s ankle in good shape. And those are just the injuries that we know about, because you all know that Ronald Belisario or Nick Punto or A.J. Ellis or someone is nursing some sort of ache that isn’t public knowledge yet. Don Mattingly has attempted to do this for most of September, and it’s mostly been met with “clinch first, then rest!” from the fan base. Well, clinching has happened. Rest now.

2. Try for better playoff positioning, but not too hard.

The Dodgers are three games out in the loss column behind Atlanta, and one behind the Cardinals. The Braves wrapped up the East long ago, while St. Louis still has a lot of work to do in the Central. If we assume that making up three games on the Braves is probably not happening, then we already know what the NLDS matchups will be — Atlanta would welcome the survivor of the wild card playoff game (currently Cincinnati at Pittsburgh), while the Dodgers and Cardinals would face off in the other round. So this is really about whether the Dodgers get Games 1, 2, and 5 of the NLDS at home, or just 3 and 4.

That’s important, somewhat, moreso than catching the Braves, because the NLDS will happen, while facing Atlanta in the NLCS requires several other things to happen first. It’s also doable because while the Dodgers are one behind in the loss column, they do hold the tiebreaker against the Cardinals because they won the season series, 4-3. I would like it very much if the Dodgers can get that #2 seed, really, and open at home. But so much that it risks the health of Ramirez and Ethier and friends? Not really. Where the team plays is less important than who is playing, so while I hope they get #2, it’s important only to a point.

3. Figure out what Matt Kemp can do.

While everyone else is likely to get some regular time off, Kemp is the one starter who needs to play as much as possible, if only because he’s barely played at all for months. So while that might end up with some weird lineups where it looks like he’s on another rehab stint because of all the minor leaguers surrounding him, it’s important that he gets his reps. We’ve seen in his brief time back that he can still help the team, but it’s only been a few days. If we’re really going to have the “too many outfielders!” discussion in October, it starts with knowing how many productive outfielders you actually have.

4. Straighten out that bullpen.

Kenley Jansen is great. There is no arguing this. He’s on the Craig Kimbrel / Aroldis Chapman / Greg Holland level of “the next great closers in baseball” now that Mariano Rivera is out the door. (Yes, Koji Uehara, I love you too, but you’re 38.) And yeah, Brian Wilson has been fine, even though his velocity and strikeouts are down, and J.P Howell is generally reliable, and Chris Withrow has made quite the fine impression.

But there’s definitely some concern with the key cogs here. We’ve all seen the slump that Paco Rodriguez is in over the last few weeks, mixing in walks and homers unlike we’ve seen him before. And then there’s this, and I absolutely could not believe this to be true until I triple-checked it: Ronald Belisario has struck out one hitter in his last 11 games, spanning 49 plate appearances. He hasn’t had a multiple strikeout appearance since July 23, and while that’s somewhat unfair — he’s often only facing very few batters at a time — it’s hardly encouraging. Over the span where he’s whiffed just the one, he’s allowed 20 baserunners and 11 earned runs. That’s an enormous problem.

5. Make some decisions on the bottom part of the playoff roster.

That’s partially talking about the bullpen, where you figure out if Belisario can be carried and how many of the Wilson / Brandon League / Carlos Marmol trio of failed closers you actually keep. But it’s also about the bottom of the hitting lineup, where if you assume that Tim Federowicz, Nick Punto, Michael Young, and whichever of the four main outfielders isn’t starting that day are locks for four bench spots, you’re left with some decisions. Skip Schumaker? Jerry Hairston? Van Slyke? The speed of Dee Gordon? At some point soon, I’ll do a full “playoff roster” post, but those last spots or two should be interesting.

6. Decide whether you trust Ricky Nolasco or Hyun-jin Ryu more.

When Nolasco was pitching like an ace while Ryu had back soreness and time off, it seemed like a given that Nolasco would start Game 3. Now, Nolasco just blew up twice in a row while Ryu had a fantastic outing in Arizona. This likely depends somewhat on the exact matchup they end up seeing, but the final few starts will definitely have meaning for these two.

7. Don’t over think things.

This is more for the fans, really. Enjoy that this team really did come from last place and “Fire Mattingly NOW!” to being the first team to clinch. The next two weeks are about gearing up for the playoffs and tending to some wounds; outside of some desire to overtake St. Louis for #2, there’s not a lot of meaning attached here. Let’s try to keep that in perspective when Mattingly rolls out Quad-A lineups and brings Peter Moylan into big spots, please.

Now, back into the pool…

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