Dee Gordon can run. That much has always been clear, but his light bat rendered him a liability in past seasons. This year, however, Gordon is no longer a complete zilcheroo at the plate due to two things that have driven up his batting average. First, he's making more contact, and second, he's keeping the ball out of the air, which is a good thing for a speedy player without much pop. Gordon currently leads the majors with a whopping 34 steals while only having been caught three times.
Carl Crawford's ankle sprain has temporarily alleviated the Dodgers' outfield logjam, allowing Andre Ethier to play every day. From year to year, Ethier has been one of the most remarkably consistent hitters in the game. His OPS+ has been between 121 and 132 for each of the past six seasons. Ethier's triple-slash lines are pretty good on the whole, but he absolutely needs to be platooned due to a career line of .235/.294/.349 against lefties. Still, as a fourth outfielder, he's an extreme luxury.
Many people looked at Yasiel Puig's outstanding rookie season and immediately ranked him among the greatest hitters in the game. Skeptics looked at his .383 BABIP and felt like he'd take a step back. Two months into Puig's second season, the debate has gotten even more extreme. Puig has been one of the two best hitters in baseball this season, but that BABIP now sits all the way up at .401 despite a line drive rate that ranks among baseball's lowest. Whatever your stance, Puig hits for average and power and has good plate discipline. He's a force to be reckoned with.
In 2013, Hanley Ramirez reverted to his earlier superstar level of play, finishing eighth in the NL MVP voting despite only racking up 336 plate appearances. This year, that version of Ramirez has disappeared and his rate stats are more in line with his merely good 2012. His bat is great to have at shortstop, but he gives back plenty of value on defense. There's been talk of moving him off of short, but in his walk year, Ramirez would prefer to stay where he is.
Since the beginning of 2008, Adrian Gonzalez has driven in more runs than everyone except Miguel Cabrera. Gonzalez has been a remarkably healthy player, as he's played at least 156 games in every season since becoming a full-time regular in 2006. This season he's already racked up 12 home runs, which puts him on a pace in line with his peak years. While he's been mired in a bit of a slump of late, Gonzalez is typically a .300 hitter with good power that fits nicely in the middle of any lineup.
Matt Kemp is the next of several one-time superstars in this lineup. Kemp has had hamstring and shoulder problems hamper his playing time since his superlatively great 2011 season. He's never quite reached that height again because his BABIP was very high that season and he's since become a frequent strikeout victim. Kemp has never been great in center field and the Dodgers have moved him to left within the past week.
Juan Uribe is on the disabled list, so Justin Turner is taking his place. Most 29-year-old bench players have at least one above-average skill, but Turner doesn't really stand out in any way. He's a competent hitter, but he's not great at defense or baserunning. Platoon splits indicate that he's actually slightly weaker against left-handed pitching. Because he doesn't really have a specialty, Turner is better-suited to his current role as a stopgap filling in for an injured starter than he is as a reserve on a team at full strength.
The Dodgers broke camp with Drew Butera as their backup catcher. On purpose! One would have thought that his putrid performance in Minnesota as Joe Mauer's understudy would have warded off other teams, but maybe the Dodgers weren't watching. At the plate, Butera is enjoying the best season of his career, hitting .208/.276/.338. He's poor at every aspect of catching with the exception of controlling the running game. I suppose if you're going to skimp on the spending somewhere, backup catcher isn't a bad choice, but it must be tough for Dodger fans to watch their team give plenty of playing time to a 30 year-old player this futile. A.J. Ellis can't return soon enough.
Clayton Kershaw has led the major leagues in ERA in each of the past three seasons. He's racked up a couple of Cy Young awards and a Gold Glove during that span. Right now, his ERA is a much more human 3.57, despite peripherals that indicate that Kershaw is pitching better now than he ever has. A .374 BABIP looks to be the culprit, so any idea that he's taken a step back should be put to rest. Kershaw has a pretty convincing case for the title of "best pitcher in the world".
Dan Haren is enjoying a bit of a resurgent season in Los Angeles. The control artist is very stingy with free passes and has found ways to get hitters out in the face of declining velocity; his average fastball speed this season is around 87 mph. He's bucked his recent trend of allowing too many fly balls and the result has been a reduction in his home run rate. Haren throws a few different types of fastballs along with a splitter and a knuckle curve.
On May 25, Josh Beckett threw the first no-hitter of the 2014 season. He comes into this series with a 2.52 ERA, but there's nothing in the peripherals to suggest that he's any different than the back-end starter he's been for a couple of seasons now. When you have a .222 BABIP, you're simply not going to allow many runs. Beckett doesn't throw as hard as he used to; his fastball velocity sits in the low 90s. He accompanies the heater with an effective and frequently-thrown curveball, along with a changeup.
Kenley Jansen has struck out just shy of 40 percent of the hitters he's faced over the course of his career. It's especially impressive because he's practically a one-trick pony; Jansen throws his hard cutter over 80 percent of the time. The only off-speed pitch that he uses is a seldom-thrown slider. Like many power relievers, Jansen can get a bit wild at times, but that's really the only knock on him. He's otherwise an outstanding closer and one of the best relief pitchers in the game.
Outlook & Prediction: The Dodgers got off to a slow start, but if last season is any indication, they shouldn't be counted out of the NL West race. On paper, I think they have the best team in the division and have a fighting chance despite San Francisco's considerable lead. Predicted record and finish: 89-73, second place, NL West.