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A team in flux

Dodgers should make room for Kemp, youngsters

Posted: Thursday June 21, 2007 5:21PM; Updated: Thursday June 21, 2007 5:50PM
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Matt Kemp
Matt Kemp has yet to prove that he can hit a breaking ball, but his all-around ability merits regular playing time.
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When the news finally came on Wednesday night that intended Los Angeles Dodgers staff ace Jason Schmidt was lost for the season, you couldn't feel the sting as much as the shrug.

Having only pitched 25 2/3 innings this season -- and allowing 18 earned runs in the process -- Schmidt barely dented the collective Los Angeles consciousness. That's because the Dodgers' unease with their current situation has to be so broad, it could hardly center on one player, no matter if that player's torn labrum and frayed bicep tendon represents $12.5 million in salary down the tubes for 2007.

There's a peculiar tension enveloping Los Angeles, where the Dodgers have simultaneously flirted with the NL's best record and disaster. At 40-31 the Dodgers are only 1 1/2 games behind league-leading San Diego, yet question marks have swarmed the team like the indefatigable paparazzi around Paris, Lindsay and Britney.

The daily announcement of the Dodgers' starting lineup has become imbued with the suspense of revealing the day's lotto numbers. The Dodgers have a bunch of younger talent that they don't seem sure what to do with, and under the guise of keeping people fresh, are really just trying to figure out what direction they want to go in.

Though left fielder Luis Gonzalez has been a pleasant surprise, improving on his 2006 performance despite turning 39 this year, and catcher Russell Martin has become a Bunyanesque folk hero, little else has gone right offensively. Second baseman Jeff Kent has continued the slight decline expected of someone of his 39-year-old vintage, center fielder Juan Pierre has fallen short of even his meager on-base percentages of years past, and shortstop Rafael Furcal didn't hit his first home run until his 265th plate appearance.

Third baseman Wilson Betemit (.760 OPS) has further confounded the Dodgers by having more extra-base hits than singles and more walks than hits -- not inherently bad, just confusing. And the team has been just plain bedeviled by Nomar Garciaparra, a 2006 All-Star who has one home run and a .665 OPS in '07. Garciaparra began sharing playing time last week in an uneasy combination with 23-year-old James Loney, even though Loney's Pacific Coast League batting average somehow dropped 101 points from last year to this. No one in the organization, least of all Garciaparra, is talking about what's wrong with him or how likely it is that he'll snap out of it.

For most of this year opposing pitchers have taken to the Dodger lineup like tots at a petting zoo; Los Angeles ranks 12th in the NL in runs scored with 305. The visitors can't let down their guard completely, but ultimately the biggest, scariest animal in the bunch is just a gruff ol' goat, chewing his cud. Then, off to the side, poised and eager though certainly untamed, stands the Bison. His name is Matt Kemp, and he is the only one with the potential to turn the Dodgers' dusty little kiddie operation into something with some teeth. However, even Kemp comes with his own set of caveats.

Kemp first arrived in Los Angeles as a 21-year-old 12 1/2 months ago, hitting seven home runs in his first 50 plate appearances. But he then hit none over his next 109 and his OPS fell from 1.287 to .737, prompting the Dodgers to venture into the free-agent market for outfield help.

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