What the Dodgers Need For A Strong Second Half

Now that the All Star Game has come and gone, the teams now will focus in on what needs to get done for a strong stretch run.  Technically, the second half of the season started about two weeks ago, the Dodgers having now played 94 games of their 162 game schedule.  However, the All Star Game symbolizes a break in the action and can occasionally result in momentum shifts.  The four days off allow players to rest, relax, and in some cases reload.  Here’s a look at how the Dodgers hope to reload in the second half in order to make up their 2 1/2 game deficit in the National League West.

A Healthy Matt Kemp

We don’t expect Matt Kemp to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases over the last 2 months or anything ridiculous like that.  But a healthy Matt Kemp can help the Dodgers get going with his speed, his energy, and the fact that even if the ball doesn’t leave the yard, Kemp has a way of making things happen on the base paths.

As goes Matt Kemp, in many ways, so go the Dodgers. (Image source: http://sportswithsilverman.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Beastmode.jpg)

While the Dodgers’ marketing campaign has shifted significantly to Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp is clearly the spiritual leader of the ballclub in many ways.  During the Dodgers’ hot streak, it was Kemp who saved a game with an amazing catch going back to the warning track for the final out of a ballgame.  It was Kemp who picked up a key insurance run by stealing second, stealing third, then taking home on a medium-length sacrifice fly.  And when Kemp’s shoulder barked at him in San Francisco, as small as his overall stat line may be this year, all of Dodger Nation cringed with the same level of pain that Matt Kemp was feeling.

A productive, healthy Kemp getting key hits, driving in some runs, stealing big bases and making plays in center field is the biggest question-mark.  No deadline trade, no mid-season call-up, and no other player on the team holds the spirit of the team the way that Kemp does, and no matter how present he is in the dugout while recovering from injuries, can replace his presence on the field.

If Kemp can be healthy, hit a few home runs, and otherwise be Matt Kemp with his enthusiasm and play down the stretch, it will go a long way toward getting the team to the playoffs and maybe even sticking around once they get there.

Fewer Distractions for Yasiel Puig

What happens when a man who comes from near-poverty under a brutal dictatorship suddenly finds himself in a country where individual freedom is valued and the skill set he has results in millions of dollars and the idolization of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people.  As the old Jimmy Cox song “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” goes, “when you get back on your feet again, everybody wants to be your long lost friend.”  Well, now that Puig is on his feet and an overnight sensation, he’s constantly in the spotlight.  Everyone wants to see and be seen with Los Angeles’s fastest rising star.

This is not how Yasiel Puig needs to spend his All Star Break recovering from a bruised hip. (Image source: http://static03.mediaite.com/sportsgrid/uploads/gallery/puig/screen-shot-2013-07-17-at-9-54-16-am.png)

Over the All Star Break, Puig was seen partying it up with, among others, Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion or whatever it is that Calvin Broadus calls himself these days) and Chris Brown.  Yes.  Chris Brown.  Rihanna’s OTHER ex-boyfriend.  The one that beat her.

Let’s be realistic, while this is a free country and Puig certainly has the choice to spend time with whoever he wants, one of the very serious concerns that management had with bringing Puig up to the Major Leagues at the start of the season and the reason he spent two months in Chattanooga were concerns about his maturity.  Someone within the organization needs to step in and guide Puig a little bit in terms of the consequences of social choices and how not everything that appears to be valued in American society (popularity, spending time with celebrities, partying) is not necessarily a good thing for a ballplayer pursuing a Major League career.

Anyone who watched the likes of Doc Gooden or Daryl Strawberry or any of a handful of the 1986 Mets who later flamed out due to drug issues and personal problems has got to be concerned that Puig is following the same path.

A focused Yasiel Puig could make for a long second half for the Dodgers’ NL West foes. (Image source: CNN/SI at http://i2.cdn.turner.com/si/dam/assets/130614092959-yasiel-puig-smi2-single-image-cut.jpg)

If Puig can keep off-field distractions from taking his focus away from the game, he has the potential to be the National League Rookie of the Year and to go a long way toward helping the Dodgers clinch a post-season berth.  The Dodgers need their rising star right fielder to have his focus on the field.  If not, this could be a Los Angeles crash-and-burn story waiting to happen.

One More Infielder

The Dodgers have a problem.  Mark Ellis can’t play every day and neither can Juan Uribe, meaning that on any given day they could be rotating Jerry Hairston, Jr., Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto to both of those positions.  The trade market is slim and the prices may be high, but if the Dodgers can find a decent bat to add to their second or third base arsenal that can also play passable defense, it could help them get to the post season and give them another option once there.  A superstar is not necessary.  If the Dodgers can acquire a Marco Scutaro-type player, a guy who hustles hard, hits decently and gives effort while infusing a little more energy into the team and playing multiple positions, that might be enough to compliment the pieces they already have in place.

Solid Second Halves from Uribe and Ellis

Juan Uribe has provided some big at-bats and a huge 7 RBI game this season. If Uribe can continue his big hitting in the second half, reminiscent of his stretch run performance in San Francisco in 2010, the Dodgers will have a much better chance of playing meaningful baseball in late September and playoff baseball in October. (Image source: http://cdn.fansided.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/195/files/2013/03/70922401.jpg)

Given that we just talked about the inability of Uribe and Ellis to play every day as they age, one thing that is key is that when the players do play, they must contribute.  Ellis and Uribe have both shown abilities to have big games, and Uribe has a history of hitting in the clutch (2010) and has shown flashes that he can do so again this year (7 RBI game against the Giants, game-winning home run in San Diego in the game where Zack Greinke broke his collarbone.)  Both men are going to have to continue these trends into the second half this season and play solid defense when given their chances to play the field.  If they do, the chances of the Dodgers playing late into October increase significantly.

The Starting Rotation Must Continue To Perform At An Elite Level

The Dodger starting rotation has been one of baseball’s best this year.  So far this season, Clayton Kershaw has been absolutely stellar.  He entered the All Star Break with a league-leading 1.98 ERA and a recent game where he gave up three runs and struck out ten in seven innings could actually be considered a disappointment.  You know a pitcher is going well when a game that would be considered a very good start for most pitchers is considered a serious off-night.

So far in 2013, Clayton Kershaw’s 1.98 ERA has him looking like a pitcher that could pick up his second Cy Young Award in three season. (Image source: http://christinedzidrums.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Clayton-Kershaw-2013.jpg)

Zack Greinke has hit his stride of late, and his two-hit shutout of the Colorado Rockies on July 13th in his final pre-All Star Game start has fans optimistic that he’s shaken off any rust he might have acquired after breaking his collarbone.

Zack Greinke’s success as the second half of the one-two punch with Clayton Kershaw is critical for the Dodgers’ second-half success. (Image source: http://sports.cbsimg.net/images//visual/whatshot/Zack-Greinke-Dodgers-return-Wednesday.jpg)

Hyun-Jin Ryu had a bad outing his final start before the break, but a week and a half between starts will do the Korean lefty good.  There is some uncertainty about how Ryu will hold up over the course of an entire season, but his 7-3 record with an ERA around 3 in the first half has given fans plenty of reasons to smile.  If Ryu can come close to replicating these numbers in the second half, it will go a long way toward ensuring a division title in Los Angeles.

Recent acquisition Ricky Nolasco had a great first outing and a not-so-great second outing after arriving in blue.  The Dodgers are depending on Nolasco to have solid games and pitch a lot of innings to keep the pressure off their bullpen.

The fifth starter role is a question-mark for the team right now.  Chris Capuano was solid his last time out, but has been mostly unspectacular this year.  Stephen Fife has pitched brilliantly, but is on the disabled list for the second time with shoulder bursitis.  The Dodgers may make a move to pick up an additional arm by the deadline, but indications are that they are not in on Matt Garza.  The team has expressed some interest recently in the Houston Astros’ Bud Norris and it would appear that bringing back Hiroki Kuroda at the right price might be a good fit for the team, but all hot stove trade talk is mere speculation at this point.

The Bullpen Must Build On Recent Performance

If there was one achilles heel that really hurt the Dodgers over the first two months of the season, it was the inability of the bullpen to hold leads and close out games.  The team seems to have finally locked down some semblance of a late-game rotation, with Kenley Jansen closing ballgames, Ronald Belisario finding himself and finally looking like a decent set-up guy, Paco Rodriguez showing some serious skill as both a situational reliever and a guy who can eat an inning or two, J.P. Howell providing a solid veteran presence, and Chris Withrow and Jose Dominguez coming in and throwing some serious heat.  Matt Guerrier is gone, Javy Guerra has been relegated to the minor leagues, and Brandon League has been relegated to mop-up duty.

The Dodgers need to see a lot more games end like this in the second half. Kenley Jansen’s 2.33 ERA and 9 saves could go a long way toward getting them there. (Image source: http://www3.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Kenley+Jansen+Los+Angeles+Dodgers+v+Arizona+LSNylTw8gx5l.jpg)
Steven F. “Paco” Rodriguez has been more than a lefty with a quirky nickname for the Dodgers this season, he’s also been one of their most effective bullpen arms with a 2-2 record, a 2.45 ERA, and 37 strikeouts against 11 walks in 33 innings pitched. Paco has also managed to pick up one save in the process. (Image source: http://sports.cbsimg.net/images/visual/whatshot/uspw_7225602.jpg)

The team needs the bullpen to continue its recent efforts.  The acquisition of one more arm, such as Jesse Crain of the White Sox (if healthy) or Francisco Rodriguez of the Milwaukee Brewers is always an option, but at least for the moment it appears that the Dodgers are going to go into work through the second half of the season with the arms they’ve got.  Based on the month of July so far, this could be a very good thing.

Second Half 2011 Don Mattingly Must Show Up

The imposter Don Mattingly that fielded something like 61 lineups during the team’s first 64 games cannot show up again for the Dodgers to have a shot at winning the division.

The second half of the 2011 season, Mattingly took a Dodger team that looked absolutely hapless and made them look like contenders.  Even though the team missed the playoffs, they were the hottest team in baseball in the second half.  Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw emerged as superstars.  The team spurred a lot of optimism for fans and looked like a sure bet to perform well in 2012.

Mattingly continued that momentum into the first half of the 2012 season, but could not sustain it.  Then the first two months of 2013 were absolutely disastrous for the Dodger skipper.

Mattingly needs, as much as possible, to have lineup stability and continuity in place.  The bullpen cannot be overworked.  Starting pitchers need to be pulled when they reach their individual limits.  If Don Mattingly can do this, many of the fans who were calling for his head in May and June will be singing his praises by season’s end.  (Though Donnie shouldn’t get too comfortable, because it’s going to take a lot more than a division title to win some people over.

Manager Don Mattingly has righted the ship in Los Angeles, but can he keep it stable as the Dodgers navigate through the second half of the 2013 season? (Image source: http://media.northjersey.com/images/0525S1_klapy_90p_RGB.jpg)

There’s your look at the second half.  The Dodgers will open up tonight in Washington D.C. and take on the Washington Nationals.  Ricky Nolasco will go up against Stephen Strasburg as the team kicks off the final 68 games looking to make another move in the National League West.

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