After a disappointing homestand that saw the Dodgers lose series to the Pirates and White Sox, the team has fallen 8.5 games back of the Giants in the NL West. At 31-30, they are one of baseball's biggest disappointments, and their recent poor play prompted manager Don Mattingly to say "We're just not that good."
Perhaps he is trying to motivate his team, but Mattingly is right, the Dodgers aren't that good right now. The Dodgers biggest problem is on defense, where they are one of the worst fielding teams in baseball.
It's often said that you can measure a team's strength on defense based on how good they are up the middle - centerfield, shortstop, second base, and catcher. Shortstop is arguably the most important position on the diamond, and the Dodgers made a huge error by starting the season with Hanley Ramirez there. For several years, Ramirez has shown signs of fading at that position, prompting the Marlins to switch him to third base in 2012. Last year his defense at short was passable, but his body continued breaking down in an injury-plagued season.
This year, GM Ned Colletti should have started the season with Ramirez as the Opening Day Third Baseman. Instead, Ramirez has been the worst defensive shortstop in MLB by a mile according to every advanced metric. He has an atrocious -9.0 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) according to FanGraphs, and the next closest regular NL shortstop is Everth Cabrera at -4.7. He's also dead-last in Defensive Wins Below Replacement Level (DWAR) for shortstops.
Ramirez's production at the plate has been more in line with his declining 2011-12 seasons than his shockingly good 2013 season that really should be viewed as an outlier. Keep in mind, he only played 86 games last year. He's hitting .253, and perhaps playing shortstop has taken more of a toll on his body.
If the Dodgers sign Ramirez to a long-term deal, then it will be a huge mistake. They already have $28 million committed to Alexander Guerrero and $25 million committed to Erisbel Arruebarrena. Their best hitting prospect is a young shortstop named Corey Seager, who admittedly is a few years away. But there's really no room for Ramirez on the diamond over the long-term. Just because they have money, doesn't mean that they have to spend money. And giving an injury-prone Ramirez, say $150 million over 7 years, is like begging for long-term dead-weight.
Last year, Ramirez's defense was masked a little by having a terrific defender at second base in Mark Ellis, and gold glove caliber defense from Juan Uribe. They ate up a lot of space for Ramirez. Uribe is still on the team (although he's hurt), but reports of Dee Gordon's great defense have been greatly exaggerated. His UZR and DWAR are both negative and he ranks towards the bottom of the league at second base. It's true that he's new to the position, and he will probably get better if he stays there, but you can't help but wonder if Gordon is better-suited to play centerfield, where he can use speed and not worry about fielding groundballs.
Speaking of centerfield, the Dodgers are struggling mightily there. As bad as Hanley Ramirez has been at shortstop, Matt Kemp has been as bad or worse in centerfield. He ranks dead last in MLB in both UZR and DWAR among players at that position. Kemp always did a poor job of tracking flyballs and running routes. Now that problem is compounded by his injuries, and he is no longer a major league quality centerfielder. It's a wonder that Mattingly didn't move him to left field earlier than last week.
But Kemp has struggled at the plate too, hitting just .238 with a .689 OPS, and he leads the team with 55 strikeouts. At this point, calling him a fourth outfielder might be a compliment, considering Scott Van Slyke might actually be better. Kemp's MVP days appear long gone, and he will never live up to the $163 million contract he signed after the 2011 season.
The Dodgers should have foreseen Kemp's struggles before the season started. Last October, I wrote that Kemp would have trouble playing center, and the Dodgers should train Carl Crawford to play the position. Andre Ethier has manned center admirably, but he's still pretty slow. Crawford hasn't been great in left field either though, as he has a negative DWAR. In fact, every single regular Dodgers defensive player (with the exception of whomever plays catcher) has a negative DWAR.
With those types of numbers, it's no wonder that the Dodger bullpen has struggled. Defense is a pitcher's best friend. Fortunately, their starting pitching is so solid that they've been able to get by earlier in games.
Offensively, it appears the Dodgers have been pretty good on the surface, ranking in the top-5 in the NL in OBP and Slugging. But much of that is attributable to just one player. If you take away Yasiel Puig's production, then the Dodgers batting average goes down from .252 to .242. Outside of Puig, the Dodgers offense has been very inconsistent, with most of the roster sporting mediocre OBPs.
If the Dodgers are going to improve, then they are going to have to get younger and more athletic. Fortunately, the reinforcements are slowly coming in. It would not surprise me to see Joc Pederson playing centerfield by season's end. Puig is already here. Guerrero probably would be here too if not for Miguel Olivo literally biting his ear.
Currently, the Oakland A's sport the record in MLB. Ned Colletti and his staff should be trying to learn from the A's and their success, rather than treating them as an anomaly. Just because the Dodgers have the resources to sign every veteran under the sun, doesn't mean that it's best way to win games. More than ever, baseball has become a young man's game. And relying on older veterans just isn't an effective way to win games anymore.