Back in the hunt
The Dodgers clinched their ninth NL West title and their first since 1995, then managed to earn their first playoff win since their 1988 World Series title. It was the Dodgers’ 23rd postseason appearance in franchise history, which ranks second all-time to the New York Yankees.
Slamming the door
Eric Gagne’s major league record streak ended at 84 consecutive save conversions, but he still came through in 45 of 47 chances to give him 152 saves over the past three seasons — the most over a three-year span in major league history. Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley held the previous mark of 142. Gagne is the all-time leader with a .962 save percentage (152- of-158).
Steve Finley was an impact performer after the July 31 trade that sent him from Arizona to Los Angeles. From Aug. 31 until the end of the season, Finley drove in the winning run in the ninth inning four times — including the walk-off grand slam that clinched the division Oct. 2. Finley also drove in the run that put the Dodgers in the lead for good 10 times. In 58 games with the Dodgers, Finley hit 13 home runs and had 46 RBIs.
One is enough
From the beginning, the Dodgers appeared to have the intangibles flowing in their direction. They won their first 10 one-run games in 2004, the most in baseball since the Giants started the 1987 season winning their first 10 one-run games. The best streak ever in one-run games to start the season was 11 by the 1972 New York Mets.
Building a legacy
Manager Jim Tracy has led the Dodgers to a 356–292 record over his four seasons on the bench. Over that span, the Dodgers have played just 10 games that did not have playoff implications. Tracy, who began as an interim skipper after the firing of Davey Johnson, already has the fourth-longest tenure with the same team among current NL managers (trailing Atlanta’s Bobby Cox, St. Louis’ Tony LaRussa and San Diego’s Bruce Bochy.)
Beltre and the Duke
Third baseman Adrian Beltre hit 48 home runs to tie Mike Schmidt’s single-season major league record by a third baseman. Beltre became the first Dodger to lead the NL in homers since Duke Snider paced the league with 43 in 1956.
The Dodgers savored their first division title since 1995 and won their first playoff game since 1988, but the roster overhaul began almost before the champagne dried. J.D. Drew must replace Adrian Beltre as the franchise star or the retooled Dodgers will be hard-pressed to defend their the NL West crown.
Jeff Weaver became a solid pitcher again last year and will be counted upon heavily to lead the rotation. Derek Lowe, baseball’s second-winningest pitcher over the last three seasons and a postseason hero for Boston, signed a $36 million deal, but his regular-season struggles in ’04 have to be a cause for concern. Brad Penny has nerve damage in his arm, and Kazuhisa Ishii continues to have fits of wildness. Odalis Perez signed a three-year deal, but his durability is a question. Edwin Jackson was plagued by injuries last year but is expected to blossom into one of the game’s great talents.
The Dodgers’ renovations didn’t include Eric Gagne, who remains the most valuable reliever in either league. Gagne’s save streak ended last year at 84 consecutive conversions, but he still held batters to a .181 average and converted 45-of-47 chances. With the signing of Lowe, Elmer Dessens and Wilson Alvarez return to their roles as valuable swingmen. Yhency Brazoban throws almost as hard as Gagne, and despite a few slips in September, he handled the pressure well after being thrust into the setup role following the trade of Guillermo Mota. Brazoban should be even better as a second-year player. Duaner Sanchez responded to a heavy workload and will be a prime component again. Giovanni Carrara, a favorite of manager Jim Tracy, worked his way back to the majors last year and will bring his cut fastball back to a long relief role.
Jeff Kent wept at his introductory news conference; his surprised parents were in the front row and didn’t know of the signing until Kent held up his Dodgers jersey. Second baseman Alex Cora was equally surprised a week later, when the Dodgers did not tender him a contract. Kent’s bat will beef up the lineup, but his defense won’t be a match for Cora’s range and sure hands. Good thing the Dodgers have a Gold Glover on the other side of the bag. Cesar Izturis proved the Dodgers were smart to let him struggle with the bat for two seasons. He firmed up his approach from the left side and hit .288, which helped Gold Glove voters finally notice his superb defense. Izturis should be a favorite to repeat, though his Venezuelan countryman and idol Omar Vizquel will be playing shortstop for the rival Giants.
The Dodgers got penalized for signing Adrian Beltre as a 15-year-old. They watched him endure growing pains in the major leagues. They even watched him field ground balls with a colostomy bag attached to him while recovering from an appendectomy in 2001. Then he broke out for a career year in 2004, finishing second to Barry Bonds in MVP voting, and the Dodgers decided he was too expensive to retain. Instead, they signed Jose Valentin to play third base. Valentin has power potential but had a miserable .287 OBP last year and represents a huge offensive and defensive downgrade from Beltre. Shawn Green played well defensively after moving from right field to first base, but he’s moved on to greener pastures in Arizona after an offseason trade that brought the Dodgers catching prospect Dioner Navarro and three minor league pitchers. Hee-Seop Choi was a bust in L.A. after coming over from Florida in a midseason trade, but he inherits the first base job from Green by default, barring another deal prior to Opening Day.
Steve Finley hit the walk-off grand slam that clinched the division, but that didn’t win him a new contract. Even though Finley signed with Anaheim, the Dodgers’ outfield should be a strength. Milton Bradley has all the ingredients to be a two-way star in center field but hasn’t been able to conquer his temper. The Dodgers were supportive after Bradley’s bottle-throwing incident with fans cost him several games in September. But the team’s patience has its limits. Drew was signed to replace Beltre as a middle-of-the-order threat. Drew cashed in after putting up big numbers in Atlanta last year. It also was the first healthy season of his career. The Dodgers are banking on those knees holding up, which is a risk. Jayson Werth made the most of a part-time role and likely will win a full-time job in left field. He was a nice find for GM Paul DePodesta.
DePodesta still hears fallout from last year’s midseason trade that sent Paul Lo Duca to Florida. DePodesta will continue to hear it from fans until the Dodgers find a competent catcher. Paul Bako, who only played in 49 games for the Cubs in 2004, could be that guy. The job, however, is likely to go to former backup David Ross. He is a solid receiver but can’t hit big-league pitching.
Olmedo Saenz will return in a reserve role following a successful year. The Dodgers also added Ricky Ledee, who is coming off a rough season but remains a talented pinch hitter and reserve outfielder. Jason Grabowski didn’t contribute much in a part-time capacity and should have a diminished role this year. The Dodgers will miss retired veteran Robin Ventura, a solid pinch hitter and a valuable presence in the locker room.
Tracy entered last year as a lame-duck manager who basically needed to make the postseason to keep his job. The Dodgers accomplished that, and Tracy received a two-year extension. Tracy’s cerebral style is a good fit with DePodesta, who had some rough moments in his first offseason as a full-fledged general manager. It’s difficult to grade DePodesta after such a short time, but he has already shown he’s not afraid to make bold changes. The biggest question is the Dodgers’ payroll, which owner Frank McCourt insists will remain in the $100 million range.
The Dodgers traditionally win with pitching and defense, but they might need to go another route to defend their NL West title. The losses of Beltre and Cora might be most felt in their infield defense. Much of their offensive production will depend on Drew staying healthy and Bradley staying out of hot water, especially with the departure of Green. Even if the addition of Lowe turns out to be a huge bonus, the rotation still has huge question marks with Penny, Ishii and Jackson. The Dodgers need veteran leadership to help keep Bradley under control, and it remains to be seen what kind of effect the roster turnover will have on clubhouse chemistry. Expect the Dodgers to contend, but they certainly don’t have the makings of a dynasty just yet.