Only two weeks into the 1992 season, it is too soon for the Dodgers to have solved the puzzle.
Can Jose Offerman continue to handle shortstop with the confidence he has begun to display, or will the lingering rumor involving Shawon Dunston become reality?
Can Eric Davis overcome the herniated disk and nerve-related numbness in his right arm to provide right-handed balance and protection behind Darryl Strawberry, or will the Dodgers have to pursue Tim Wallach for that purpose?
Can the maligned defense and revamped rotation supply stability?
The Dodgers won their fourth in a row Monday night, defeating the Cincinnati Reds, 6-0. There are suddenly positive signs at several positions, but no conclusions yet. Amid the uncertainty, one thing is clear: The Dodgers need their right fielder to be more than oracle and philosopher. They need him to be more than statesman and spokesman.
They need Strawberry to be a batsman. They need him to be focused and consistent in the middle of a lineup that may have to override possible pitching and defensive deficiencies and may often have to do it without Davis and/or the fragile knees of Kal Daniels.
Steady Eddie Murray is gone. There are nights when Stan Javier or Mitch Webster will be in left field and the infield will be a proving ground for Eric Karros, Dave Hansen, Carlos Hernandez and Offerman.
Strawberry broached all of that in acknowledging that his consistency is "more important than anything" on the Dodgers' list of priorities.
"I have it in my mind that I have to lock myself in early," he said, referring to getting himself in a groove and in focus. "I can't do what I did in the first half of last season and say, 'It's OK, I still have the second half to go.' "
The goal is admirable and imperative, perhaps. But it might be impossible.
Consistency is seldom the trademark of a power hitter, and has never been Strawberry's. He has averaged 31 home runs and 92 runs batted in during a nine-year career in which the albatross of great expectations is still on his shoulders--but his route to 31 and 92 has not been a straight line.
Last year, when the Dodgers blew a 9 1/2-game lead and finished one back of the Atlanta Braves in the National League West, Strawberry batted .207 in May and .219 in June, then .290, .302 and .270 in the final three months. He hit 21 of his 28 homers and collected 73 of his 99 RBIs after July 1--after mid-July, really, because his bat was silent during the devastation of a seven-game losing streak that began on July 11.
Said Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president: "We need Darryl every day because we're not the same club without him, but his pattern as a streak hitter has been established. He goes on tears in which nobody alive can get him out, but who in history sustains those kinds of streaks? You can't put a label of consistency on that type hitter, or their numbers would be off the board.
"Darryl was there for us at an important time last year. He was there down the stretch, he was there with some big home runs. Did he have a good season? Yes, for me he did. He wanted to do more, and I think he will do more this year (given the year of adjusting to the demands of his homecoming and the presence of his boyhood pal, Davis).
"It's also important to remember that his presence in the lineup doesn't always show. Sometimes a walk from a pitcher who doesn't want to pitch to him can trigger an attack more than a home run."
Strawberry had two hits Monday and is batting .245. He has three home runs and nine RBIs, but two of the homers and five of the RBIs came in one game.
He would seem to be struggling in his pursuit of that coveted consistency, but he doesn't call it that, because "I'm not striking out like I do when I struggle," though he has struck out 11 times in 51 at-bats.
Strawberry added: "That's a positive, something to build on. I expect to have a big year, but I learned from (former New York Met first baseman) Keith Hernandez not to worry about statistics until I've had at least a hundred at-bats, as long as I'm getting quality at-bats, and I feel that I am.
"I normally don't have a big home run start (with fewer home runs in April than in any other month), but you can pile up numbers in a hurry.
"I expect a takeoff soon. It's time to get rolling."
Strawberry's rhetoric is often that of the rap singer, and often as difficult to decipher. At 30, he still travels with considerable baggage, frequently frustrating and infuriating in his performance and comments, but there is also a record of production for which he does not have to apologize, including the bottom-line averages of 31 homers and 92 RBIs, the 283 career homers that are more than anyone has hit in the same span, and the nine-year streak of 26 or more homers a year.
Only Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Eddie Mathews and Reggie Jackson had longer streaks of 25 homers or more.