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Los Angeles DODGERS
Michael Bamberger
March 29, 1999
Built in the Fox image, these Dodgers are meant to be seen—in October
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March 29, 1999

Los Angeles Dodgers

Built in the Fox image, these Dodgers are meant to be seen—in October

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By the Numbers

1998 Team Statistics (NL rank)

1998 record: 83-79 (third in NL West)

BATTING AVERAGE

.252 (13)

OPP. BATTING AVG.

.246 (2)

RUNS SCORED

669 (12)

ERA

3.81 (5)

HOME RUNS

159 (8)

FIELDING PCT.

.978 (13)

Talk about your overhauls. Since last year at this time, the Dodgers have installed a new owner, a new general manager, a new manager. They will start a new catcher, a new third baseman, a new leftfielder, a new centerfielder, a new shortstop. They have a new Opening Day pitcher, who cost them $105 million. They have a new closer. They have a new goal: Win in the postseason now. The Dodgers haven't won a postseason game since 1988. That streak is about to end. Rupert Murdoch and his broadcast company, Fox, are banking on it.

In the old days, under the O'Malley family, the Dodgers were prudent, and their talent was largely homegrown. They bought their spring training site, they built their stadium themselves, they nurtured the professional lives of the men they liked: Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Tommy Lasorda, Mike Piazza. To the Fox people, clearly not a group afraid to spend money, the Dodgers are high-priced programming. Piazza may turn out to be the greatest hitting catcher ever, but in dramatic terms the Piazza years in L.A. were flops. The new owners took over last season, and Piazza is no longer a member of the cast.

The catcher now, acquired in a trade with the Mets, is supposed to be switch-hitter Todd Hundley. Defensively, Hundley has been solid throughout his career, but his arm strength has been tested only minimally since he had reconstructive surgery on his right (throwing) elbow in '97. As of March 22, he hadn't caught an inning in spring training and the Dodgers were admitting they weren't sure how soon and how much he'd be able to play. Offensively, Hundley has been potent but sporadic. But he's a gamer, and gamers have been scarce in Los Angeles since the days of Kirk Gibson.

The new manager, Davey Johnson, is a gamer too, but also a bit of a stats freak. He has a reputation for coming in and increasing run production immediately by crunching numbers in a computer to produce statistically optimal lineup cards. In 1996, Johnson's first year in Baltimore, the Orioles scored 949 runs, up 245 from the year before. Last year the Dodgers were 24th in the majors in runs scored, tallying just 4.1 per game. That should change.

The heart of the Dodgers' order is formidable. Batting third will be power-hitting outfielder Gary Sheffield. Hundley is penciled in for cleanup. Batting fifth will be rightfielder Raul Mondesi, who hit 30 homers in '98 and showed up for spring training this year looking lean and hungry.

Sheffield, who turned 30 in November, is a mystery. For a while he sounded grownup. Last season he advised Mondesi to be more selective at the plate. In the off-season he agreed to play left so that Mondesi could play right. But this spring Sheffield spoke of being uncomfortable in left and carped about the team's appearance code, which prohibits facial hair and earrings. He said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that if he didn't have five years left on his six-year, $61 million contract, he'd retire now. It's hard to know with Sheffield whether he'll act like an adult or a baby.

When Kevin Brown pitches on Opening Day, he'll be 34 and in the first year of a seven-year deal paying him $105 million. The Dodgers are counting on Brown's being a young 34. They're also expecting him to put up the kind of numbers he did last year, when he went 18-7 with a 2.38 ERA. Assuming he'll repeat that performance may not sound realistic, and his contract may not sound prudent, but remember, these are the new win-now Dodgers.

Brown throws hard—he had 257 strikeouts in '98—and even when the batters he faces put tire ball in play, he can depend on his outfielders. Mondesi and centerfielder Devon White (acquired from the Diamondbacks) are defensively accomplished. The infield is another story. Eric Karros at first is ordinary. So is Eric Young at second. Mark Grudzielanek, the shortstop, made 33 errors last year. Adrian Beltre, the young third baseman, needs to be more decisive. For Brown, matching last year's record with that infield may be difficult.

Even if Brown's ERA ascends to his career mark, 3.30, it should be enough to lead the Dodgers to victory in the National League West. What's more, on the mound the Dodgers are not a one-man show. Only two teams in the National League have true five-man rotations, solid from one through five: Atlanta and Los Angeles. After Brown, the Dodgers pitch Chan Ho Park (3.71 ERA last year), Carlos Perez (3.75), Ismael Valdes (3.98) and Darren Dreifort (4.00).

There are some live arms in the bullpen, too. Alan Mills, signed as a free agent, is a righty setup man who last year with Baltimore held lefties to a .207 batting average and righties to .201. The closer is righthander Jeff Shaw, who had 48 saves last season. The Dodgers have a long reliever, Dave Mlicki, who would be in most teams' rotations. Too many starters: It's a problem most teams would love to have.

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