A.J. Ellis #17 of the Los Angeles Dodgers (center, facing camera) is mobbed by teammates after hitting a walk off sacrifice fly for the only run of the game in the ninth innning against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium on July 12, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The Dodgers won 1-0. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
The All-Star break is done.
Vacations, for those who didn’t make the team, are over. The chase for a playoff spot is on.
The Dodgers start the second half riding a two-game winning streak and a one game lead over the Giants in the National League West.
It's fitting that their first post-break opponent is the Cardinals, the same team that gave LA a 9-0 spanking in Game 6 of the NLCS last year to end their season.
A rematch would be great for baseball and both teams are expected to provide it.
But, if the Dodgers plan on making it back, their general Ned Colleti and manager Don Mattingly will need to get under the hood and do some tinkering to get their blue hot-rod of a team running smoothly.
There are some areas in the motor they should pay special attention to.
Center field: The Dodgers need a center fielder. Badly! Andre Ethier and Scott Van Slyke are fine athletes and certified big leaguers. But, running down balls in the gaps is not their strong suits. Yasiel Puig is a ball hog in the greatest sense but watching him track a fly is similar to Google maps being confronted with road closures. It’s all over the place. The good news for the Dodgers: they already have a center fielder in Matt Kemp. The bad news: most defensive stats show he’s been awful this year. According to FanGraphs advanced metrics, Kemp’s last in range runs (-14.5) and ultimate zone rating (-16.4). Basically, both stats say his defensive woes have led to approximately 14 to 16 more runs being scored by Dodger opponents than if he wasn’t out there. Still, Kemp’s their best option. He’s a two-time Gold Glove winner for a reason. He may have lost a step but he’s looked healthy and more confident with more playing time. If the Dodgers don’t trade his $160 million contract to another team, then the move should be to put their best center fielder back in center field.
Left field: If Kemp moves then Mattingly’s back to his juggling act with what to do there. Carl Crawford is back, so it adds to the suspense of who will win the job. It was essentially Crawford's until an ankle injury knocked him out for awhile. He'll get another shot at it but don't be surprised if Mattingly settles on a Crawford-Ethier-Van Slyke combo.
Starting Pitching: We already know how ridiculously good the front three of the rotation are. Josh Beckett and Dan Haren are the wildcards. If Becket can return from the disabled list and be his first half self, and Haren can keep the homers he likes to give up to solo shots, the back half of the Dodgers staff will keep them sailing even with an inconsistent offense.
Bullpen: Kenley Jansen is still the man at the end of games. What the Dodgers need is a setup man who can hand a game over to their closer. Chris Perez and Brian Wilson have both been given chances, but they’ve both blown them. Brandon League, on the other hand, may be the guy. He’s only given up one earned run since June 16. He has a 2.09 ERA in 38 appearances and Mattingly's confidence in him is at an all-time high.
The Dodgers are also in the market for another left-handed reliever, although J.P. Howell has been dynamite. In 34 innings he’s only given up 17 hits and five earned runs. Paul Maholm has stepped up to provide long relief when called upon. The addition of another lefty will give the skipper options in the seventh or eighth inning of a one-run game in September.
The Bench: Like every team, the Dodgers have dealt with injuries and disabled list casualties. But, their bench has helped keep the team afloat. The part-timers have been led by Justin Turner. He’s been a Godsend for the club this year. Turner stepped in at third when Juan Uribe went down for an extended time, and he’s done duty at shortstop and second base. At the plate is where Turner has really come through hitting .302 (48 for 159), with three home runs and 21 RBIs. He’s been dealing with some napping leg injuries, but they shouldn’t be enough to keep him from answering the bell when his number is called.
The bright spot nobody saw coming has been Miguel Rojas. Forget the .208 batting average. The 25-year-old has dazzled with the glove. The unbelievable defensive play he made to save Clayton Kershaw’s no-hitter is just one in a growing highlight reel. Rojas and Dee Gordon have become one of the most exciting double-play combinations in baseball. Even as regulars have returned from injuries Rojas hasn’t gone anywhere. He'll have to get better at the plate. At times he looks lost. If he can get that together, Rojas could turn out to be an unsung hero when the season is all said and done.
Health is the variable factor every team deals with, so no need to go there.
Watching how the season plays out should be fun, that is, if you have Time Warner Cable. But, that's whole other story in itself.