SI: Dodgers will repeat as N.L. West champs

I just received an advance copy of the Dodgers story from this year’s Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue. I have copy-and-pasted it below.

Reason to Celebrate- By Jon Heyman

Ever since Manny Ramirez declared, “I’m baaaaack,” following the club’s most celebrated spring holdout since Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale held out in 1966, the Dodgers haven’t been able to keep Ramirez away from Camelback Ranch, the team’s new spring training home in Glendale, Ariz. The superstar, who signed a two-year, $45 million deal (with an opt-out clause after this season) three weeks into camp, would arrive at the ballpark at 6:30 each morning to run with strength-and-conditioning coach Brendon Huttman before heading to the batting cage. “He’s like a big kid, and he loves to play baseball,” says centerfielder Matt Kemp, “and that’s kind of rubbed off on [the rest of] us.”

A slugging savant who won two World Series titles with the Red Sox, Ramirez is equally remembered in Boston as an erratic malcontent. But one team’s cancer, it turns out, can be another’s cure.

Not that Ramirez doesn’t still stir up anxiety. Even unflappable manager Joe Torre was looking oddly concerned in the days before Manny resigned. “We couldn’t win without him,” one Dodger said shortly after the signing. “Everyone in here knows that.”

To bring Ramirez back, Dodgers G.M. Ned Colletti says he negotiated with agent Scott Boras for 141 straight days, holidays included. But now that he’s got his man, the L.A. lineup is as good as any in the National League one though eight. It looks a lot like the one that reached the NLCS last season, except upbeat second baseman Orlando Hudson (maybe the steal of the winter’s free-agent signings at oneyear, $3.4 million guaranteed) replaces the dour Jeff Kent, who retired.

Ramirez won’t duplicate the otherworldly .396 (.410 including postseason) he hit after coming over to the NL on July 31, but the Dodgers’ quartet of emerging, under27 stars–first baseman James Loney, outfielders Andre Ethier and Kemp, and catcher Russell Martin–should all improve with Manny anchoring the middle of the lineup. Los Angeles was 54-54 at the time of the swap, but it averaged nearly half a home run more and four tenths of a run a game more after Ramirez arrived. “I don’t think we were lacking confidence, but it gives you a little extra confidence knowing you have Manny on your side,” says Ethier.

Now the biggest concern for Dodgers officials is the pitching staff. It led the league in ERA last year but over the winter lost key starter Derek Lowe and much of its bullpen (Takashi Saito, Chan Ho Park, Joe Beimel and Scott Proctor). Even with the free-agent signing of serviceable, if injury-prone, veteran Randy Wolf, one L.A. official says, “We need another starter.”

The continued development of 21-year-old lefthanded phenom Clayton Kershaw would help. Kershaw, who throws 95 mph with a plus breaking ball, was hit or miss in early spring, according to one Dodgers official, but he finished strong. “He looks like he’s ready to take the next step,” a rival G.M. says.

The bullpen has no such immediate reinforcement. Jonathan Broxton, the new fulltime closer, was 14 of 17 in save opportunities after Saito went down with an elbow injury last year, but he looked better as a setup man. Replacing him in that role is lefty HongChih Kuo, who has filthy stuff (96 strikeouts in 80 innings and a 2.14 ERA) but is brittle (two Tommy John surgeries already at age 27). The front office is counting on strong-armed youngsters James McDonald and Cory Wade to fill the void left by the many pen departures. “We knew we’d have to address the pitching, and we addressed it somewhat,” Colletti says. “But we’re a young, inexperienced staff.”

The young pitchers should benefit from a tight defense that’s especially strong up the middle, with returning shortstop Rafael Furcal, plus Hudson and Martin. (The athletic Kemp is still a work in progress in center.) But L.A.’s main goal is to beat up teams up with its bats, and while that’s an unusual plan in a division of spacious ballparks, including Dodger Stadium, it may work. With Ramirez back to help that talented quartet of young position players, the Dodgers are the class of a division that has no lineup to match theirs.

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  • karmabad

    Ehh…I’m not a fan of predictions. Last year everyone predicted the Tigers to take it all. Sure, they produced the runs, but it’s PITCHING that killed them in the end. We’ll definitely score runs in 09, but we need another proven starter with experience and not a rookie in my opinion. We should pounce come all star break on a Peavy or Halladay type player since both of those teams will be even more desperate to unload payroll due to the economy…and when I say that I mean a Manny 08 type trade where we don’t really lose anything in the end.

  • para’s

    karma: Forget about Peavy. The Padres would ask for a king’s ransom for him. They’ll do zero favors for the Dodgers regarding any deal for Peavy.

  • BruinFBBB

    No, I think Karma’s on to something. We really should pursue a marquee player (within our division if we can) for nothing…

    Maybe we can get Pujols from the Cards for Loretta or something…

  • Old Brooklyn Fan

    I’d say the starting pitching 1-5, is better than most people are giving them credit for. It does lack experience but it’s full of talent. Give it a chance.
    The offense showed what it could do last year in it’s pursuit of the N.L. West and in the NLDS.
    I don’t think Hudson equals Kent, but he does have other talents and has experience over DeWitt.
    The bullpen is the one thing that scares me. I wish we still had Saito and I haven’t gained confidence in Broxton, yet.
    All in all, if they don’t make it, they sure as heck will give it a good fight.

  • Brooklyn Dodger

    The pitching staff may lack experience, but it definitely doesn’t lack talent. Billingsley was 16-10, after an 0-4 start last year. Kuroda pitched a lot better than his 9 wins indicate, Wolf finished last season strong, and looks so far that he will at the very least be more than serviceable. Kershaw has added a year of maturity, and looks to be making steady progress, and McDonald has a solid repertoire of pitches, and is no more of a risk than than declining veterans such a Pedro Martinez, which some bloggers seem to favor.

    Manny is Manny, and young veterans such as Kemp, Martin, Ethier and Loney all show the promise of getting better as they mature. Hudson is definitely an improvement over Kent, both offensively and defensively, and let’s not forget that after Furcal’s injury last year, shortstop was an offensive black hole. The bench is also stronger. Ausmus is an improvement over Ardoin, and Loretta should certainly contribute a lot more than Sweeney did last year.

    As for the bullpen, there’s an abundance of both talent and questions. It could be a problem, but it could also turn out to be a stength.

    Furthermore, whether he opens the season with Dodgers or not, Blake DeWitt provides insurance against injury at 2nd and 3rd, and the emergence of Josh Lindblom, does the same for the pitching staff. It’s possible that even Jason Schmidt might be able to contribute at some point this season.

    Finally, as we’ve learned in the past, the Dodgers are not likely to end the season looking the same as they begin it. Trades and other player moves are likely as the season progresses.