Can Dodgers survive (again) without Kemp?
Just when he thought he was in, they pulled him back out. After spending 15 days on the disabled list while recovering from a left hamstring strain, the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp returned to the lineup on Tuesday, but he played in only two games and managed just five plate appearances before another hamstring injury sent him back to the DL. On Wednesday, Kemp not only aggravated the original injury while scoring on Andre Ethier’s double, he suffered a second strain slightly higher up the leg (for those scratch ing their heads, remember that a strain is a tear). Both are Grade I strains, the least severe kind, but according to Dodger trainer Sue Falsone, he will be out for a minimum of four weeks. When it’s all said and done, instead of reaching his stated seasonal goal of 50 homers and 50 steals, he may wind up missing 50 games due to his two DL stints.
Such an extended absence could be difficult for an underpowered Dodgers squad to overcome. Yes, Los Angeles went 9-5 during Kemp’s initial DL stay — a span during which they also dealt with a near-Biblical plague of injuries to infielders Mark Ellis, Juan Uribe, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Justin Sellers, outfielder Juan Rivera and starter Ted Lilly — but it was fueled by an unsustainable rise in batting average on balls in play and a slew of spare parts playing over their heads. Their makeshift offense, which included a whole lot of rookie Elian Herrera at second base, the undead Adam Kennedy at third, waiver wire pickup Bobby Abreu in leftfield, and fourth outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. in center, scored 4.57 runs per g ame on .292/.351/.420 hitting in Kemp’s absence, compared to 4.44 runs per game on .262/.340/407 hitting prior.
Although the Dodgers’ walk rate and power decreased noticeably in Kemp’s absence, a rise in BABIP, from .302 to .360, helped them continue humming along. Red-hot fill-ins such as Abreu (.318/.430/.424), Herrera (.314/.397/.373) and Hairston (12-for-21 since returning) have enjoyed unsustainably high BABIPs of .444 or better, and the addition-by-subtraction of the dead weight bats of Uribe (.250/.302/.338) and Rivera (.247/.276/.358) hasn’t hurt. Still, in the past five years, no team has carried a .360 BABIP across an entire month; among NL clubs, the Phillies’ .349 in July 2007 stands as the high-water mark, with the Dodgers’ .343 in May the fourth-highest.
Once that comes back to earth, the team’s lack of power will be exposed. Kemp’s 12 homers represent 31 percent of the team’s total; Andre Ethier (nine homers) and A.J. Ellis (five) are the only other Dodgers with more than two, not to mention the only regulars with an isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) mark higher than the league average .144.
They won’t get power from the players replacing Kemp in center. Gwynn started there for 12 of the 14 games that Kemp initially missed, and while he can hold his own defensively, he isn’t cut out for everyday play; in his career, he has hit an outstanding .303/.375/.402 in 138 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter, but .244/.313/.318 at other positions. Herrera, who started nine games at second base since being called up the day before Kemp went down, made his second start in center on Thursday night, and could get a longer look there. The 27-year-old Dominican is a late bloomer who because of his age and mixed reviews of his skill set didn’t even rank among the Dodgers’ top 30 prospects in the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2012. Along with his versatility — he was a catcher when he signed, and has played every other position during his seven seasons stateside — his plate discipline is his best asset. He owns a lifetime .282/.363/.388 line in the minors, but he’s been old for his level at virtually every stop, a 21- or 22-year-old playing against 18- and 19-year olds in the rookie leagues, and so on up the ladder, so his stats must be taken with a grain of salt. Still, the bar isn’t very high if it’s being set by Gwynn.
Kemp’s roster spot was taken by another interesting callup, Alex Castellanos. Acquired from St. Louis last July 31 in a trade for Rafael Furcal, the 25-year-old can hit enough to make him a legitimate prospect despite his age (.291/.359/.505 overall in the minors, including .320/.386/.573 at Double-A last year). Though he was moved to the outfield by the Cardinals due to bad hands, the Dodgers have tried him at second base this year, where his defense has improved enough to make him playable. With Mark Ellis out for another five weeks after emergency surgery to reduce swelling from a contusion in his left leg, Castellanos should get an audition.
Despite losing four straight at home to the Brewers, the Dodgers still own the majors’ best record at 32-19 (.627) and the NL’s second-best run differential (+40), not to mention a five-game lead in the NL West, where the Giants are the only other team with a winning record (27-24) or a positive run differential (+2). To preserve its lead, Los Angeles will not only need its fill-ins to rise to the occasion, it will need its pitching staff to continue stepping up. The team’s 3.55 runs per game allowed ranks third in the league, but Lilly is now on the disabled list due to shoulder soreness, and rookie Nathan Eovaldi could have trouble maintaining the seven-inning, two-run pace of Tuesday’s 2012 debut. Of more critical importance is a rebound from Chad Billingsley. He appeared to have shaken off a disappointing 2011 with an April run in which he made four quality starts out of five en route to a 2.64 ERA. Alas, he didn’t manage a single quality start in six May turns while getting rocked for a 5.52 ERA; three times, he pitched five innings or less. A BABIP spike from .207 to .440 was one reason, a walk rate that shot from 2.1 to 5.2 per nine was another.
Even in this dark hour, one thing the Dodgers have going for them is a new ownership that’s much more willing to spend money than the ousted Frank McCourt. General manager Ned Colletti had already been trying to acquire another bat, and his efforts have certainly redoubled. That’s a scary thought for those critical of his track record, but with so many spots in the lineup needing improvement — first base (James Loney, .245/.320/.355) and shortstop (Dee Gordon .225/.269/.277) scream for upgrades — and the ability to take on salary (something McCourt was loath to allow him to do), he may be able to fortify the team further in Kemp’s absence. To remain on top in the NL West, the Dodgers will need it.