NL West Report: Dodgers Work Some Early Magic

The Los Angeles Dodgers couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2012 MLB season. Just getting a new owner would have, in of itself, made the season for Dodger fans. But then you get Magic Johnson as the leader of the new ownership group, with a $2.1 billion price tag that reaffirms the value of your historic franchise? Then add to the fact your current team is winning games, rolling to a 13-5 record coming into Wednesday’s action. It can’t get much better for Dodger Nation. The question now is how much of this is sustainable.

L.A’s offense is being upheld by familiar pillars, as Andre Ethier is off to a solid start, slugging .565 and Matt Kemp is off to an otherworldly stuff, having already homered nine times, delivering on on-base percentage of .513 and a slugging line of .924. And this while playing their home games in a park that’s notoriously pitcher-friendly. Veteran second baseman Mark Ellis is setting the table, with a .375 OBP. On the pitching side of the equation, Clayton Kershaw has followed Kemp’s path of building on a phenomenal ’11 with an even better start to ’12. The young lefthander has four starts and a 1.61 ERA. In the bullpen, Javy Guerra has quickly answered a key question mark regarding the closer’s role by nailing down seven of his first eight chances.

But before TheSportsNotebook joins the giddiness we have to point out some less pleasant facts. While Chad Billingsley is being praised by pundits for his nice start to the season, I have to note that a 3.04 ERA is nothing special when pitching in Dodger Stadium—it’s certainly not bad, but for LA to contend, they either need Billingsley to step it up still further or build a rotation where 2 thru 5 are all in that low 3s neighborhood. And the rotation after Billingsley is struggling. First baseman James Loney has been struggling so long he ceases to be a disappointment, and Juan Rivera is also off to a slow start.  So the question is this—we know the Dodgers are going to cool off a bit, because no one plays at a 13-5 pace all year anyway. But will the cool down just bring them to back to the pack—they currently hold a 3.5 game lead, while still keeping the team in the race. Or will this just be the kind of start that’s quickly forgotten as the team falls out of contention. The answer to that lies as much with Los Angeles’ competition as it does with the Dodgers themselves, so on that note, let’s continue the first of what will be our regular weekly tours through the NL West…

San Francisco (9-8): Tim Lincecum has been positively awful out of the gate, with his 8.20 ERA in four starts, but the rest of the team is coming together pretty nicely. Barry Zito’s pitched very well and new leftfielder Melky Cabrera is showing he can be the pesky table-setter the Giants need him to be. Buster Posey is showing why the Giants missed him so much last summer, hitting for average, drawing for walks and driving it for power, while Pablo Sandoval is off to an All-Star caliber start. Manager Bruce Bochy can be further pleased with the hot start of Nathan Schierholtz. Some of this will cool down, but the anticipated turnaround from Lincecum will cure a lot of ills. The issue is going to be handling the transition in the bullpen now that Brian Wilson is gone for the year. Bochy has talented arms to work with, as depth was always this area’s calling card, but he has to get everyone situated in new roles. I expect San Fran will be fine, but the issue will be how quickly they get to fine. On Friday, Frisco starts a nine-game homestand against beatable opponents, so now’s the first chance to tighten that gap with the Dodgers.

Shop for officially licensed Arizona Diamondbacks apparel and accessories from Fanatics!Arizona (9-9): If you’re a Diamondbacks fan I think you have to be pretty happy. The back end of your starting rotation looks like a mess, you’re getting nicked up with injuries and your young corner infield talent isn’t hitting, but you’re still .500 and only four games back of the hottest team in baseball. New acquisitions Aaron Hill (who came over at the trade deadline last year) and Jason Kubel (who’s literally new) have picked up the offense, while Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and Joe Saunders provide a balanced top three in the rotation. The concern? That the slow starts of third baseman Ryan Roberts and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt aren’t flukes, but signs that each is overrated. I like both, but neither has the track record that makes a turnaround something to simply assume. Another more immediate concern? A ten-game road trip out East that could turn the standings into a bigger concern if the D-Backs can’t at least tread water.

Colorado (8-8): The Rockies may be hanging at .500, but this pitching rotation is an absolute mess. Jamie Moyer is more than a great human interest story, in being the oldest pitcher to win a game at age 49. He’s the ace of the staff. If you’re a Colorado fan that ceases to be amusing. Rafael Betancourt has stabilized the closer spot, converting all five chances at a 1.29 ERA, but what good does that do if the rotation can’t get him the ball?

San Diego (5-13): We’ll sum up the Padres with this—they rank 7th in the National League in ERA. Which doesn’t sound too bad in a 16-team league, but when you play in a park so vast that Babe Ruth probably hits only 25-30 a year, it’s nowhere near acceptable. Clayton Richard, who needs to be a top two starter, has a 5.11 ERA after four starts, and if I was a sabermetrics guy, I’d immediately be running numbers to see what that would be if he pitched in a place like Philadelphia or on the north side of Chicago. Offensively, third baseman Chase Headley is showing he’s the real deal, with a .423/.581 line. While the offense has to be granted tolerance for park effects, it’s surely disappointing that top prospect Yonder Alonso is only hitting .196 with no home runs. He was a key part of the deal that sent starting pitcher Mat Latos to Cincinnati and closer to home one of my sleeper picks in a Fantasy League draft. I’ve cut him loose. The Padres need to make it work with him.