As is the custom around these parts, we exchanged questions with our SBNation rival blogger prior to the upcoming playoff series. This time, it's Eric Stephen from True Blue L.A. His questions, and my answers, can be found here.
Enjoy, and I wish the worst of luck to the Los Angeles Dodgers!
1. How is this Dodgers club different from the 2008 version? How is it worse, and how is it better?
To put it simply, the club is just better. Matt Kemp made a leap this year, Andre Ethier turned on the power, and Clayton Kershaw burst on the scene. The bullpen is one of the best I have ever seen. Last year, the club was an OK team that got good once Manny Ramirez came aboard. Still, they only won 84 games. This year, the pitching staff as a whole has been the best in the league, and the Dodgers were able to achieve the best record in the NL. They are legitimately good, having the highest run differential in baseball at +169 runs.
2. The Dodgers rotation, with Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla, has a significant ex-Phillies flavor, if you will. Help, or hinderance for the Dodgers?
Both Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla fall under the category of pleasant surprises. Wolf came into the season with a spotty injury history, and all he did was set a career high in starts and innings, leading the club in both categories. He was also a model of stability, pitching six innings or more in 29 of 34 starts, including a stretch of 17 straight in the second half. He's a quality start waiting to happen.
Padilla on the other hand was so reviled by his teammates in Texas that many of them celebrated his release by personally thanking Rangers' GM Jon Daniels. The Dodgers got him for almost nothing -- about $85,000, the pro-rated minimum salary -- and he came to LA with a clean slate. He had a 4.89 ERA in Texas, and hadn't really been a good pitcher since 2003. His strikeout rate with the Rangers was the worst of his career, at 4.9 per nine innings, so needless to say our expectations were low. Fast forward seven regular season starts, a 3.20 ERA, and 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings, and the Dodgers were believers. Then, he went out and threw seven scoreless innings to close out the Cardinals, and Dodger fans have a new cult hero. Speaking of that, do you have any Padilla Flotilla signs we can borrow for Friday?
3. In which areas do you think the Dodgers overmatch the Phillies? Are there any places where you think the Phillies are clearly better? Where are they most evenly matched?
The Dodgers' main advantage has to be in the bullpen. Our pen has been a strength all season, but since the end of July -- the return of Hong-Chih Kuo from the disabled list, and the acquisition of George Sherrill from Baltimore -- the bullpen has transformed into quite a weapon. Over the last two months of the season, the back four of Jonathan Broxton, Sherrill, Kuo, and Ronald Belisario had a combined 1.63 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 99.1 innings.
The Phillies have the advantage in frontline starting pitching, with Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels at the top. The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw, but their starting rotation, which had a 3.83 FIP -- 3rd in MLB by the way, compared to 4.46 for the Phillies -- had strength in its depth. Chad Billingsley will be in the bullpen, and Jon Garland, another late season pickup, won't even be on the roster for the NLCS. Also, the Dodgers simply don't have an answer for Chase Utley.
The two teams seem evenly matched in the outfield, where the Dodgers' trio more than hold their own against the three All-Stars wearing the red caps. Because of Jayson Werth's defensive advantage over Andre Ethier, I might give the overall edge to the Phillies, but it's close, and I reserve the right to change that opinion.
4. Which Phillies player do you fear the most coming into this Series?
Chase Utley scares the hell out of me.
More after the jump...
5. Barrels of ink have been spilled this season about Joe Torre, and his effect on the Dodgers as a team. What good things, and what bad things, do you think he brings to the table?
It seems to me Torre's greatest strength is that he is even-keeled. He doesn't get too high after wins, and doesn't get too low after losses, and has spread that atmosphere to the clubhouse. There really haven't been any issues in the clubhouse this year (hmm, Jeff Kent and Derek Lowe leave and clubhouse harmony increases...). He does some maddening things at times, like batting Matt Kemp 7th and 8th for a large portion of the season, but most of his flaws are small-scale things. For instance, over the last few years the battle has shifted from "Why aren't Kemp and/or Ethier playing?" to "Why is Kemp and/or Ethier batting so low?" For the most part, Torre puts the right eight guys there almost every day, and I don't have a problem with him for that.
6. Which Dodgers player(s) need to step up most for this team to make a trip to the World Series?
The key to the series will be Rafael Furcal and Manny Ramirez. Manny's struggles have been a bit overblown -- he is hitting ..255/.380/.448 since getting hit in the hand on July 21 -- but he has started to hit the ball with authority to right field over the last week or two, perhaps a sign that Hall of Fame Manny is back, rather than just Solid Regular Manny.
Furcal has been battling back problems all season, and frankly wasn't very good. However, I'm hanging my hat on his strong September/October, and not just for his .330/.400/.491 line. For the first five months of the season, Furcal only attempted 11 steals despite having the green light all year, and was successful only six times. However, his back felt much better in the final month, and he started to run again. His six steals in seven attempts over the final month were a great sign, and he hit .500/.500/.667 in the NLDS. A healthy Furcal and a productive Manny transform this offense into a formidable crew.
I was in the stands in Game 4 last year, and that Stairs home run -- has it landed yet? -- seemed to literally suck the air out of Dodger Stadium. I think about that home run quite often, and I think the team does too. The big reason for the Thome trade was probably related to Stairs, in that the club wanted a legitimate power threat off the bench, and Thome certainly provides that, although he has been battling a heel injury since coming over.
7. Was trading for Jim Thome a hysterical overreaction to the Game Four Matt Stairs Miracle/Tragedy, or brilliant long-view late inning gamesmanship?
For most of the season, the Dodgers went with the unconventional 13 pitchers on their 25-man roster, so they had a four-man bench. Those four were Juan Pierre, Mark Loretta, Juan Castro, and Brad Ausmus, and they all started well out of the gate. However, over time they all regressed (as expected) and the Dodgers weren't really getting any production from their bench. The addition of Thome (someone the opposing manager "has to think about," as Torre likes to say) and Ronnie Belliard have really bolstered the bench.
Love is a strong word. I love my family. I love Christina Hendricks' breasts. I don't love Manny Ramirez. I do like him, though, quite a bit. I always appreciated him from afar when he was in Cleveland and Boston, always hoping to hear his postgame interviews for the unintentional comedy. When he came to Los Angeles, it was hard not to love him, as he hit like Babe Ruth in his two plus months as a Dodger in 2008. However, the bloom came off the rose after his 50-game suspension this season. I can't say I was surprised he got busted, but it was still disappointing. I don't necessarily harbor any grudge toward him or anything; I still root for him, after all. But the love is not there anymore. Who knows, maybe he can earn that love again over the next two weeks!
8. Manny Ramirez: Love him or hate him? And why?
9. Finally, your NLCS prediction.
I like that the Dodgers have homefield advantage, I think that the bullpen will play a huge role in the Dodgers' favor, and I think the Dodgers can score some runs, especially off Pedro, Blanton, and Happ. I'll take the Dodgers in six.