In the wake of tonight's loss to the Phils, it's time to forget about the past and look to the future. The following is my take on what the Dodgers need to do and what they will do.
What the Dodgers Need to Do
1. Shore up the Starting Pitching
I still don't get why everyone knocked the Dodgers' pitching this season when they had the best team ERA in baseball. It's easy to look at the NLCS and say, "Say, we were right." But that would be ignoring the NLDS and the fact that most of the problems in that series were aberrations compared to the rest of the season.
In any case, the Dodgers only have 3 starting pitchers coming back: Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, and Hiroki Kuroda. The good news there is that this is a solid group of 3. Billingsley looked like a Cy Young winner for two months, Kershaw looked like one for what followed, and Kuroda dominated in last year's NLCS (you might remember that as the NLCS in which Kuroda didn't pitch for the first time in 3 weeks...thanks for that one, Joe...).
The bad news is that that still only makes 3 starters. The best free agent pitcher available is John Lackey, and if they have the money, the Dodgers couldn't find a better place to spend it. Lackey is an excellent starter, plus he's got the physical makeup and history of a guy who, as near as anyone can predict, should stay off the DL. Perhaps they take the 17 million they will no longer be paying Jason Schmidt, put some of it into Lackey, and backload his contract since they'll be paying Manny 25 million next season (assuming that Manny picks up his option, which he unfortunately almost certainly will).
As for a 5th starter? That's a harder call, but I'd say either give someone within the organization a shot (e.g. Eric Stults, Ramon Troncosco, Charlie Haeger, Josh Lindblom, or Chris Withrow) or go for another reclamation project like they successfully did with Jose Lima, Wilson Alvarez, Jeff Weaver, Chan Ho Park, and so on. Mark Mulder is my #1 candidate for that idea.
Other guys I'd like to see them look into for either rotation spot: Ben Sheets, Rich Harden, Erik Bedard, Randy Wolf, Tim Hudson, Carl Pavano, Justin Duchscherer, Brandon Webb. Any of those guys would be useful, and some would be great.
2. Get a Second Baseman
The O-Dawg and Ronnie Baseball will both be free agents, and I'd be glad to have either one back. Hudson is a class act, a great fielder, and for 3/4 of the year, was a dang good hitter. Belliard played great for a month- you gotta figure anyone would be energized by getting traded from the last-place Nats to the playoff-bound Dodgers, as he apparently was. Of the two, I'd be much less confident in Belliard for a full season. Dude's looking pretty fat for a two-bagger, for one thing...
The second base opening is where the Jon Garland for Tony Abreu trade never made much sense to me. Did the Dodgers really need Garland that bad? No, they didn't. He wasn't especially needed when he came over, and Coletti had to realize that the Dodgers would need a second baseman, right? Abreu has had real success on the big club but just got hurt. Add that to a .353 avg. in AAA, and I would have been happy to fill that position between him and Blake DeWitt, then use the money that would save on Lackey or another starter.
But that's not an option now. DeWitt is still a semi-viable internal option, but he hit around .250 in AAA this year, so despite some major league success he doesn't seem trustworthy. Also, the Dodgers minor league player of the year was a single A shortstop named Dee Becker who hit .300 and stole a whopping 73 bases. Still, he's a SS, that was in single A, and he also got caught stealing 25 times. Sounds like he's a couple years out to me.
My favorite idea outside the organization is Chone Figgins. I know he plays 3B for the Halos, but he used to play second, and I never got the idea he cared much where he played. Just imagine the day that Manny gets hurt and the Dodgers trot out a lineup that includes Furcal, Figgins, Matt Kemp, and Juan Pierre. Can anyone think of a team that ever had so much speed? I can't see it happening, but it's fun to dream.
Other notable options include trading for Dan Uggla (apparently he's on the block), or signing Mark DeRosa or Placido Polanco. It's really hard to say who they'll end up with next year, but my gut tells me it'll be either Belliard or Hudson again. I'm fine with that.
3. Bring Back a Good Bench
One of the clearest strengths the Dodgers had this season was the bench. Guys like Mark Loretta, Brad Ausmus, Juan Pierre, Doug Mientcawiojagaowoz (does anyone know how to spell that guy's last name?), and Juan Castro go a long way for making a team good, and that was obvious this year. There are a lot of veterans out there worth looking into, and they need to do so: Ausmus, Loretta, and Mientkiewicz (there, that's it) are gone. I'd be glad to re-sign all of those guys.
How the Dodgers Will Actually Fare
1. The Bullpen Will Be Great Again
The Dodgers should have the best bullpen in baseball again next year. Broxton and Sherill at the back end is devastating (except in game 4 of the NLCS, which Broxton is never allowed to appear in again), and they have 3 legitimate other set-up men in Kuo, Troncosco, and Belisario. They even have Scott Elbert and Brent Leach as lefty specialists and an effective swingman in Jeff Weaver. The only guy they are losing is Guillermo Mota, which is completely fine despite that he was quite good for much of the year. A good bullpen is hard to find for a lot of teams, and it is the place where the Dodgers have easily the most depth.
2. Manny Will No Longer Be Manny
I guess another way to put that would be "Manny will no longer be that good." Post-steroids Manny is a guy who can't get his bat head around as quickly as he used to, which means he gets jammed a lot more. He'll still crush pitches that are over the plate, but when you can throw inside to Manny, he's just not so intimidating. No matter where they bat him in the lineup, he'll put up the number of a 6 hitter with the defense of...well...Manny. Think Giambi pre-roids and post-roids. Big difference.
This could be a big problem for this club next year, and my only hope is that he does something crazy (that's not that far-fetched is it? I mean, it's Manny!), and doesn't exercise that 25 million dollar option he has.
We could honestly see here just how much of a difference steroids make in major leaguers. Manny was one of the two most intimidating right-handed hitters in the game a few months ago. Now he's a pretty good hitter. Yikes. Baseball needs to event a steroid contract clause: if at any point in a season a player is caught taking steroids, the team he plays for can if they so choose nullify any remaining years after the one he is currently in. There is no way the Dodgers would pay Manny 25 million now that he's not the Manny they thought he was. No team should get so badly penalized because a player cheats and hides it well.
3. The Dodgers Will Win the Division Again
The Diamondbacks scared me in the beginning of this season, and they still have some weapons, but they're going to lose a lot of pieces, especially if they don't pick up Webb's option (or if he comes back and isn't healthy). A lot of things would have to go right for them to compete a Dodgers team that is mostly staying in tact. The Padres are terrible, no matter what they did the last third of their season.
The problem for the Giants is that even with such dominant starting pitching, I still cannot see them getting the bats they need to put everything together. One big hitter in the middle of the lineup would help, but they really need more than that. Sandoval is the real deal, but it's him and a bunch of guys right now, and that just isn't enough. Plus, Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito have some serious question marks. Their off-season will be interesting, but I can't see them getting back in. One last thing: an injury to Lincecum or Cain would paralyze them, and that's scary for any team.
Which leaves the Rockies. Thing about the Rockies is this: their starting pitching is getting much better, because Jimenez and De La Rosa are both really that good. Jason Hammel, Aaron Cook, and a rehabbed Jeff Francis could make a real good rotation. And apparently Jim Tracy connects with them as a manager, no matter how uninspiring he appears.
The thing is, the Rockies lineup doesn't wow me, and they need some key production to make it work. Guys like Brad Hawpe, Ian Stewart, Clint Barmes, Chris Ianetta, and Dexter Fowler have to prove that they can keep doing it, and I'm not totally convinced with that group. Plus, Helton isn't getting any younger, and Tulo has had some real rough streaks, despite his overall excellent season.
What separates the Dodgers from these teams is that they just have way fewer question marks. The young guys are getting older and better. Ethier and Kemp are real middle of the order threats, and hopefully Manny can keep something up too. Furcal finally looked healthy and back to form at the end of the season. You know what you'll get from Casey Blake every year. And so on.
The only question marks are in the starting rotation, and if past seasons have been any indication, Coletti will go out and get at least one more upper tier starter, maybe even two. This could very quickly turn from a question mark to a strength, and I for one am confident in the three guys that are locked in.
So there's no reason the Dodgers shouldn't win the NL West for the third year in a row. The one thing to remember? That they're the Dodgers, of course.
Maybe there will even be some extra magic for Vinny's last season. What better way for him to go out than with a World Series win?