Originally posted on The Outside Corner  |  Last updated 4/23/13
The Los Angeles Dodgers' $147 million pitcher is out with a broken collarbone, suffered in a silly on-field skirmish.  The team's best position player is hitting .235 with a .564 OPS, no home runs and six RBI.  Worst of all, the Dodgers have an 8-10 record after their first 18 games, putting them fourth in the NL West, five games out of first place. This is not the start that the Dodgers, their fans and observers throughout baseball imagined for a team that looked like MLB's new free-spending superpower.  Expectations were sky high in Chavez Ravine going into this season. The Dodgers had an opening day payroll of $216 million, second only to the New York Yankees. (The Dodgers were actually on top, until the Yankees acquired Vernon Wells and $10 million to $12 million of 2013 salary.) It's been just over a year since the Guggenheim Baseball Management group headed by Mark Walter, Stan Kasten and Magic Johnson took over ownership of the Dodgers.   Any thought that the new ownership might take a season to evaluate its club and then make changes during the winter went out the window when the Dodgers decided to transform their roster as quickly as possible during the non-waiver and waiver trade deadlines. By taking on high-priced stars that other teams didn't want, the team filled holes at shortstop, first base and starting pitcher.  The Dodgers acquired Hanley Ramirez and the $38 million remaining on his contract as of last July. Taking on the full value of Ramirez's deal was probably the difference in making the deal happen, rather than watch the Miami Marlins deal the infielder to another club.  Of course, that was small change compared to the blockbuster trade the Dodgers made with the Boston Red Sox before the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline. Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto came to Los Angeles along with $260 million in player salaries.  Enabled by ownership's seemingly unlimited willingness to add payroll, general manager Ned Colletti essentially completed an offseason's worth of transactions in one weekend, at a time of the season when little movement is made because players typically need to clear waivers before being traded.  But money changes everything. And no team had taken on more cash while a season was in progress than the Dodgers. That reflected ownership's ambition to become a winner immediately. The new bosses were hardly quiet about it.  "We understand that you have to spend money to be good in this league," Magic Johnson told ESPN Los Angeles' Mark Saxon. "We understood that before we bought the team." As a former star athlete accustomed to winning — and winning in Los Angeles — that sort of mindset could be expected. Magic presumably wouldn't be associated with an enterprise that wasn't dedicated to pursuing championships. But while he's the face of Dodgers ownership, he isn't really the big money. That would be Mark Walter, and money hasn't been an obstacle to him either. "We can take on significant money," Walter said to the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez last August. That was before the trade with the Red Sox, but Walter obviously wasn't kidding. During the offseason, he made Zack Greinke the highest-paid right-handed pitcher in MLB with a six-year, $147 million deal. (Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander have since surpassed the average annual value of Greinke's deal with their recent contract extensions.) Never mind that the Dodgers already had Clayton Kershaw,  arguably the National League's best pitcher.  But the one thing that the Dodgers' megabucks ownership can't control is injuries. Ramirez tore a ligament in his right thumb during the World Baseball Classic and has yet to play this season. That's forced the Dodgers to play Justin Sellers at shortstop, who's hitting .174 with a .522 OPS. Luis Cruz has also had to stay at third base as a result of Ramirez's injury, giving the Dodgers an .087 average and .209 (that's not a typo) OPS at a position typically manned by a run-producing bat. The alternatives at shortstop and third base are Punto and Juan Uribe.  Greinke's broken collarbone will keep him out for two months. Chad Billingsley went on the disabled list over the weekend with pain in his pitching elbow. There were already questions as to whether Billingsley should have undergone Tommy John surgery to repair a partially torn ligament in that right elbow, but he opted for rehabilitation and strengthening exercises instead. That follows Chris Capuano going on the DL with a strained calf last week.  Remember when the Dodgers had too much starting pitching? Capuano and Harang were available to anyone in MLB throughout the offseason and spring training after Greinke and Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu were signed. But between those injuries and Harang being traded to the Colorado Rockies early in the season, that surplus has been wiped out. The Dodgers now have to hope Ted Lilly is fully recovered from shoulder surgery. He's scheduled to start against the Mets on Wednesday. He'll join Stephen Fife, who joined the starting rotation from Triple-A Albuquerque when Billingsley was placed on the DL.  Colletti was able to bring in some star power with ownership's open vault, but didn't build much depth behind it. Jerry Hairston Jr. and Skip Schumaker are decent role players, but are exposed when called upon to play every day.  However, those holes in the lineup wouldn't seem so glaring if the Dodgers' star hitters produced as expected. Money can't make hitters hit either. As alluded to above, Matt Kemp is hitting .235, perhaps still affected by a shoulder that required offseason surgery. As ESPN Stats and Info's Mark Simon pointed out, the Dodgers center fielder isn't hitting the ball hard or turning on the inside pitch. Off-speed stuff is also giving him trouble.  Kemp put up MVP-caliber numbers last April, hitting .417 with a 1.383 OPS, 12 home runs and 25 RBI. That was a major reason for the Dodgers' early-season success, in which they had a 3.5-game first-place lead over the San Francisco Giants in the NL West.  Gonzalez, Crawford and A.J. Ellis are off to encouraging starts thus far into the season, but it's not enough to carry an underperforming lineup. The Dodgers need their best hitter to perform up to his capabilities. Even if he doesn't produce like an MVP, Kemp needs to be a presence in the middle of the batting order.  All of this has to be prefaced by saying that it's still very early in the season, naturally. The Dodgers can't overreact by playing so poorly in April, compiling a six-game losing streak in the process. However, the team does have to hang in the NL West. That task looks even more difficult right now due to the surprising success of the Rockies, who are tied for the best record in MLB at 13-5 going into Tuesday's play. The Dodgers expected to wrestle with the Giants for the NL West title, with the Arizona Diamondbacks lurking as a sleeper contender. Maybe the Rockies aren't for real, but they've built a five-game margin. That's a decent gap to make up so early in the year.  As the Dodgers continue to struggle, the heat has to be increasing on Don Mattingly. No manager was under more pressure to win going into this season. Ownership didn't spend all this money to miss the playoffs. Even if injuries and poor performance aren't his fault, Mattingly is almost certainly going to take the fall if his team doesn't meet expectations. The question is whether those in charge will act impulsively or rationally.  A bad start can certainly be overcome and the Dodgers have plenty of time to pull themselves together. But the "it's early" consolation will only apply for so long. At some point, there need to be more signs of promise to believe that this team can recover to compete for a playoff spot — and World Series championship — as expected. As May gets nearer, those expectations will only get heavier.
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