The Tenth Inning – Week 11

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The Tenth Inning – Week 11 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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When Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs back on May 7, many people expected the Dodgers to cool off from their sizzling start. After all, in a lineup of mostly solid, if unspectacular, hitters, Manny was the pivot point around which everyone else operated. Pitchers attacked certain hitters in an effort to avoid facing Ramirez with runners on base, and other hitters used a simple, comfortable approach at the plate without trying to do too much, knowing Manny was lurking somewhere in the order. How could they maintain such a potent lineup top-to-bottom when the player that made lineup dynamic in the first place wouldn’t be penciled in for another 50 games.

Enter Juan Pierre. While the speedster will never be mistaken for a guy who will bash 40 homers and drive in 140 runs, he does add a couple of things to the team that Manny lacks – speed and defense. Adding Pierre to the top of a lineup that already includes base stealer Rafael Furcal only increased both the on-base percentage and stolen base percentage of the team. Couple that with a .337 batting average and above average defense (with HUGE range) and the Dodgers simply changed styles without missing a beat, save for a little five-game hiccup where they went 1-4 immediately following Manny’s suspension.

Want proof? The Dodgers were 21-8 when the announcement of Manny’s failed drug test came down. They are now 46-24, meaning they have posted a 25-16 record in the 41 games without their star slugger. Their overall winning percentage is .657, leaving them as far-and-away the best team in baseball (Boston is second at .609). Without Manny, their winning percentage is .610… meaning they’d STILL be the best team in the majors. Sure it’s not as good of a record, but they haven’t really missed a beat because of Pierre’s performance in place of Ramirez, plus the other players stepping up their own game by doing just a little bit more, and allowing the collective efforts replace Manny as opposed to having one player try to fill Ramirez’s shoes.

The question for General Manager Ned Colletti and Manager Joe Torre now becomes what to do once Manny returns. He is scheduled to be back in the lineup, barring any rainouts over the next week and a half, on July 3, just in time for their big nine-game road trip to San Diego, New York, and Milwaukee before the All-Star break. How will they handle their lineup and bench? Andre Eithier is hitting .268 with 11 homers and 43 RBI’s in right, while Matt Kemp is batting .318 with 8 homers and 37 RBI’s in center. Which of the three will Torre replace in order to insert Manny? Interleague will be finished by that point, meaning no opportunities for any of them to DH. Pierre might be content to return to fill-in status, maybe getting 2-3 starts a week at most, but the team will have to revert back to the way they were playing before Manny’s suspension, and guys like Kemp, Eithier, Russell Martin, and Casey Blake won’t be called on to produce the power numbers that they have been producing in Manny’s absence. Obviously if they continue to produce at their non-Manny pace, the Dodgers become an even better club, and clearly that is the ideal situation, but it’s not uncommon for a player’s mental approach to change when someone of Manny’s caliber is removed from the lineup, and the same is true for when he is reinserted. That leads to one intriguing option.

The Dodgers have used their bullpen a ton this year, specifically their more reliable relievers like Jonathan Broxton, Ronald Belisario, and Ramon Troncoso. While Broxton has experienced multiple major league seasons as a reliever, the other two have not. Belisario is a rookie and Troncoso threw 38 innings last year in his first season. Already Belisario has thrown 42 innings and Troncoso has thrown 45, with all 87 innings combined coming in relief. They have both been very good (2.20 ERA for Troncoso, 2.14 for Belisario) but they’re both on pace for nearly 90 innings this season. The Dodgers could use a big-time reliever, preferably a lefty since their best southpaw in the ‘pen is Brent Leach, who also happens to be a rookie.

This is where Pierre comes in. While he is an excellent option to have on the roster, he’s not the type of guy that would be valuable in a late-inning pinch-hit role come the postseason. He would, however, be of great-use to a team that is in need of a leadoff hitter, good defensive outfielder, or base stealer for a playoff run. Teams that could really use Pierre include Texas, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Cincinnati, just to name a handful. Colletti should be looking right now at any and all options that would allow for him to deal Pierre for a left-handed reliever AND, if possible, a left-handed power bat. The Dodgers are a predominantly right-handed hitting lineup, and having a left-handed bat on the bench would be a vital asset, akin to what they experience last season when the Phillies used Matt Stairs to win game 4 of the LCS. Colletti might not get both using just Pierre, but he could certainly get one or the other, and the sooner the GM pulls the trigger, the higher Pierre’s value will be, the more he’ll get back in return, and the less the team – and therefore, Torre – will have to worry about how to handle four outfielders.

The Playoff “Dead” List
May 25 – Washington Nationals
June 1 – Colorado Rockies
June 8 – Baltimore Orioles
June 15 – Arizona Diamondbacks
June 22 – Kansas City Royals
Sure, there are a lot of options for this week’s season-ender selection (the Pirates, Athletics, Astros, Indians, and Padres were all considered as worthy candidates) but the nod this week goes to the Royals. As one of only four teams not to make the postseason since the strike, KC’s struggles have been well-documented, but at least this season they can say that they’re turning things around. The emergence of Zach Greinke has been a wonderful story, and some of the pieces are in place – if management can keep them all together – to create something like what the Twins did early this decade where the Royals could compete for a division title four or five years in a row. The first year of that stretch will likely be 2010 if the improvement continues, but 2009 is just simply too much of a hurdle, even in the weakest division in baseball.

*NEW FEATURE* – Trivia Question
As mentioned above, the Royals are one of only four teams not to make the playoffs since the strike in 1994. Who are the other three?
(Answer next week)

This week, watch for…
Thursday’s Pitchers
1) STL @ NYM (Carpenter vs Santana)
2) NYY @ ATL (Pettitte vs Lowe)
3) BOS @ WAS (Debut of John Smoltz)
Also, a mid-week World Series rematch, PHI @ TAM from Tue-Thu, 6/23-25.

Look for my column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday for the UltimateCapper

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