Clap Clap ClapClapClap: Who ARE Those Guys? The Tantalizing Enigma of the 2008 Los Angeles Dodgers
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 10, 2008
Angels: Still a suicide squeeze away from being interesting
The Phillies had a fairly glorious win tonight in game 1 of the NLCS, with the team’s two most badly slumping hitters (Burrell and Utley) now officially looking back on track and the team’s ace (Hamels) now officially looking like…well, an ace, without any of the qualifications he might’ve needed (can’t handle pressure starts, always breaks down by season’s end, gets fucked by big power hitters) just a month ago. But in the aftermath, I feel more like talking about the team on the losing end–a team I find more interesting than anyone seems to really give them credit for being, so much so that I can’t even wait another four of five games to write about in the hopes that I can make a Eugoogly out of the article. The Phils could use the attention being diverted elsewhere anyways.
When talking about the Los Angeles Dodgers in this post-season, one invariably must talk about their recently-acquired superstar and media lightning rod Manny Ramirez. This is, naturally, not without reason–Manny’s controversy-soaked booting from Beantown and the subsequent near-historic tear he went on once displaced to the West Coast is the most obvious and easily marketed story to emerge from Dodgers Stadium this season. But to me, it might be the least interesting. More interesting to me, for instance, would be the fact that the Dodgers are currently sturcturing their lineup around a whole bunch of dudes that few non-baseball nerds outside of LA had even heard of this time last year. And they are doing this while a veritable 21st Century Baseball Hall of Fame hides in the reserves.
Picture it’s 2003. Someone tells you that in five years, a team that has the services of Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre, Angel Berroa, Greg Maddux, Estaban Loiaza, Jason Schmidt and Brad Penny at their disposal will make a deep playoff run. Not only would you not be surprised, your mind would probably boggle at the possibilities. This is a group of players that, as of 2003, had amassed between them:
- One MVP award
- Two Rookie of the Year awards
- Four Cy Young awards (as well as a second place and third place finish that very year)
- Two batting titles
- Two stolen base titles
- About 700 home runs and 500 wins
- 21 All-Star Game apperances
- Two rings from that year’s World Series
Sounds like the makings of a championship contender, no? Compare them to a team like the ’08 Phillies, that has maybe a half-dozen past-or-present star-caliber players on it, and there couldn’t be much of a doubt as to who would be the series favorite, could there?
And indeed, the Dodgers have been cited as the series favorite by just about anyone who thinks their opinion matters. But the truly remarkable thing is that despite having all these sluggers and gunners on their roster, not a single one of them is on either the team’s starting lineup or their starting rotation. Some of them (Kent, Garciaparra) are coming off the bench, some of them (Maddux) are coming out of the pen, some kind of sucked (Berroa, Pierre), some were injured (Schmidt), some kind of sucked and then got injured (Penny, Jones), and one was deemed useless enough to get released straight up (Loaiza). But barring a pinch-hit or middle-relief miracle, none of them will be mentioned when discussing the 2008 Dodgers post-season.
Has there ever been a team that had this big a collection of wasted talent, and still turned out to be a possible Series contender? In my limited experience, the closest thing I can think of is last season’s Dallas Mavericks, who had faded glories Jason Terry, Juwan Howard, Eddie Jones, Jamaal Magloire and Jerry Stackhouse all coming off the bench (Bill Simmons: “Ladies and gentlemen, your 1999 Eastern Conference All-Stars!”) But there are two differences, I think–for one, it seems unlikely that anyone would have thought in 1999 that eight years later, all these NBA dudes (none of whom except Stackhouse were ever anything but second-tier to begin with) would still be producing, while in ’03, players like Nomar and Andruw were still thought by some to be on the track to hall-of-fame careers, and players like Penny and Berroa were still on the rise.
The other big difference, and the one I find particularly compelling, is that all the deadweight and uninspired play eventually took their toll on the Mavs, who were undone by the youth and burgeoning talent of the Hornets in the first round last year. But the Dodgers have stayed strong because amidst all the injuries, the bad contracts, and the flame-outs, they managed to launch a legitimate youth movement simultaneously. Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, James Loney, Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton and Clayton Kershaw, all 26 or under and none with more than three seasons in the big leagues, managed to form a solid team foundation that should be potent for years to come. Without Manuelito’s contributions they might not make the playoffs, but at the very least, they’re far less of an embarrassment than the Detroit Tigers, whose has-been stars all mostly managed to at least contribute a little.
It’s not often that you see a team that can manage to be both the Yankees and the Rays in a single season, with a worse regular season than both but with arguably greater playoff hopes than either, but the Dodgers somehow managed to swing it. And speaking of the Yankees, how the hell did Joe Torre end up presiding over this mess the way he did? I thought he was supposed to be the crochety old “Players’ Manager,” favoring his proven vets over the green young’ns? Says Baseball Prospectus: “Torre could have the next Mike Schmidt at Triple-A, and he would still give Nomar Garciaparra just one more week to find his stroke at third base.” Yet here we are in the post-season, where Veteran Experience should be paramount, and Torre’s playing certified nobody Blake DeWitt at 2nd while Jeff Kent grumbles on the bunch. Has Torre really been as morphed by LA as those State Farm commercials claim he has?
I’m certainly hoping the rest of the NLCS is chock-full of games like tonight’s, but I gotta admit, I can think of worse baseball fates than the Dodgers advancing to the fall classic. Objectively speaking, the Phils’ obvious delineaton between the great, good, fair and subpar players on its team just can’t compare to the glorious contradictions of this ass-backwards ballclub.