As this season began, expectations were sky high in Los Angeles — and rightfully so with the remarkable roster that the Dodgers’ new deep pockets had put together.
There was Kemp, Crawford, Ethier, Ramirez and Gonzalez plugging up the middle of what was sure to be one of the best lineups in baseball.
On the mound, they had Kershaw, Greinke, Billingsley, Ryu, Beckett and Capuano — a sizable upgrade from just one season earlier.
On paper, this team appeared destined for greatness.
And then, the team plummeted.
Before he knew it, Don Mattingly was managing for his job, half the rotation was on the disabled list and what was supposed to be a “return to glory” season was quickly becoming a nightmare.
The Dodgers had either overlooked or gotten extremely unlucky in places most people don’t seem to think about: the bench and the bullpen.
While the team was loaded throughout their starting lineup and in their rotation, a lack of depth on the bench and a lack of talent in the bullpen reminded baseball fans just how important those two aspects of the game truly are.
The Dodgers had studs in the sexy places of their roster, but major duds in support roles.
Now while there are plenty of reasons for the Dodgers’ remarkable turnaround this season, I think we can look at those same two areas and see such a remarkable turnaround that it’s difficult not to point the finger there.
With the addition of Puig and Hanley Ramirez to the lineup (one from the minors and one back from injury), the Dodgers problem of depth immediately disappeared.
Guys who were slated to play once or twice a week were back to the role they belonged in and were quickly removed from key spots in the everyday lineup.
In the bullpen, Mattingly and the Dodgers front office just finally figured things out.
Brandon League had no business being a closer, Matt Gurrier had no business pitching for the Dodgers and guys like Paco Rodriguez deserved a far more important role than was given.
But all of this is old news though, so what does this have to do with today?
The answer is simple: the reason the Dodgers are such a threat to win the World Series is not because the front office got lucky (Puig) and make a few nice tweaks to what they had (Kenley Jansen), but the realization there was far more to be done.
They knew that while the tweaks they made had put this team in position to be really good, they weren’t necessarily built to be great.
So Ned Colletti went to work.
On July 2, Colletti traded Gurrier to the Chicago Cubs for Carlos Marmol — not a season-changing move, but one that at least gave the team a new arm to look at in the bullpen.
On July 6, the team acquired Ricky Nolasco from the Marlins — adding depth to a rotation that had already lost two of its top five pitchers for the season.
On July 30, the team signed Brian Wilson to a free agent contract — taking a gamble on a guy that hadn’t pitched in 15 months.
On August 30, the Dodgers added Edinson Volquez — hoping to rekindle the magic of a few years ago when Volquez was one of the league’s top pitchers.
On August 31, the Dodgers traded for Michael Young — a move that did nothing more than add depth to the bench.
On the surface, none of these moves appear to be season-changers.
The Dodgers added some mercurial relievers, a back-end starting pitcher and a veteran infielder whose best days are well behind him.
The answer lies in same exact shift in strategy the Dodgers were forced into by a rough start to the season.
The team realized that adding more stars to their lineup or rotation wasn’t the answer.
The answer to solving the mystery of why this team wasn’t successful was in figuring out the bullpen and adding some depth to a bench that desperately needed it.
In nine appearances in the month of August, Marmol has yet to allow a run, while striking out 11.
In ten starts since joining the Dodgers, Nolasco boasts a 2.20 ERA, while the team is 8-2 in his starts.
In five appearances since returning from an extended rehab stint, Wilson has yet to allow a run.
While Volquez and Young have yet to make an impact on the Dodgers — and they might not — the reason for excitement remains the same.
These moves aren’t flashy and they aren’t headline-grabbers.
They’re the realization that winning baseball games involves more than hitting home runs and starting pitching — a realization that the Dodgers have thankfully come to.
If the postseason were to begin today and the Dodgers got back to being healthy, the bench and bullpen might be two of the team’s best assets.
They’d have Andre Ethier and Michael Young as the first two guys off the bench — two guys hitting over .270 this season.
In the bullpen, they have two of the best relievers in baseball (Jansen and Rodriguez), along with a bunch of guys who are simply getting the job done.
On the surface, this Dodgers team didn’t need a lot of work.
In the places no one thinks to look, however, there was plenty to be done.
Thankfully, the work was done and the team is rolling — now it’s just a question of whether they can keep it up.
In case you missed it, be sure to find out more about Matt Kemp’s rehab assignment.