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Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Better Luck Next Time

Lack of offense (and some odd medical moves) cost Dodgers

September 25, 2003|Ross Newhan

Wait a minute!

Before the Dodgers make the mistake of angrily casting Odalis Perez to the trade winds, and before anyone suggests that the season has been undermined by a broken fingernail, let's remember two things:

* Nothing has undermined the season more than the broken bats of an offense that has been shut out 13 times, scored two runs or fewer in a debilitating 58 games and was hesitantly addressed by the general manager under the shortsighted philosophy of the owner.

* Perez has weathered two storms and been vindicated.

His midseason denunciation of the offense continues to be valid, and he proved in defeat Monday night -- which was something of an ironic twist -- that a blister or broken nail can definitely affect a pitcher's feel and grip.

The Dodgers, of course, are done, finished.

Their wild-card pursuit is still alive mathematically, but the pulse is fainter than the attack.

What happens after Sunday is a surface housecleaning. Fred McGriff, Andy Ashby and Brian Jordan, who already is long gone, will be among those officially leaving.

Then the decisions get tougher.

Will Dan Evans and Jim Tracy be back?

Will News Corp. finally reach a sale agreement at some point during the winter?

Will the owner, old or new, approve taking the payroll over the increased luxury-tax threshold of $120 million after using the 2003 trigger of $117.5 million as a self-imposed salary cap?

The philosophical decision to put Commissioner Bud Selig ahead of 3 million fans and a pitching staff that was baseball's best and basically hungered only for three or four runs a game was fatal given the long absences of McGriff and Jordan, the first-half struggle of Adrian Beltre and the shoulder injury that restricted Shawn Green's power.

When Evans finally responded, it was only in the context of the cap.

Rickey Henderson came out of the independent Atlantic League, Jeromy Burnitz came off the New York Mets' financial scrapheap, and Robin Ventura was dumped by the New York Yankees in favor of Aaron Boone.

None of those three is expected to be back next year, when Kevin Brown and Hideo Nomo will be a year older and the door may be closing on the club's chances to reach the playoffs with the current rotation.

Will the Dodgers step up financially to acquire the needed power at first base and left field?

How do they address the split-season behavior of Beltre?

Does the middle-infield brilliance of Cesar Izturis and Alex Cora compensate for their sub-.250 averages?

Is Dave Roberts the answer at leadoff and in center field?

Who makes these calls if Evans and Tracy don't?

The departures of Jordan, McGriff and Ashby represent a $20-million savings, but Eric Gagne may be awarded the house in arbitration, and it seems likely that the luxury tax will be an issue again if the Dodgers are going to make a legitimate run at free agents of the Vladimir Guerrero or Kazuo Matsui caliber.

Evans won't discuss 2004 until 2003 is finished.

He has repeatedly expressed a commitment to rebuilding the farm system, focusing on pitching and defense.

His refusal to trade any of his big three pitching prospects -- Edwin Jackson, Greg Miller and Joel Hanrahan -- compounded the payroll and other restrictions as Evans weighed the market, but at some point the Dodgers have to be in position to restock from within.

Given Jackson's impressive debut, the ascent of Miller and Hanrahan and the superlative performance of Wilson Alvarez in his second-half starting role, it stands to reason that the Dodgers will try to trade Perez.

The 26-year-old left-hander, 12-12 with a 4.52 earned-run average, failed to pitch back to his 2002 form (15-10, 3.00) and clearly angered teammates and management with his comments about the offense, his refusal to try to take the mound last week against Arizona with the broken fingernail and his expressions of betrayal for what he perceived to be the club's mishandling of his condition and lack of support since then.

Of course, in a season underscored by a sense of urgency stemming, perhaps, from the sale and/or uncertain status of Evans and Tracy, there have been a series of medical questions raised.

They've included:

* The silence surrounding Green's shoulder condition as management allowed him to absorb a summer of criticism for his lack of production.

* The possibility that McGriff was pressured off the disabled list amid the club's offensive ineptness only to aggravate his groin strain and spend most of the second half back on the DL.

* And now the Perez issue in which he undoubtedly felt internal pressure (maybe both real and perceived) to start in San Diego with a blood blister on his pitching hand after being ripped (anonymously, of course) by teammates and the media (I apologize for writing that Rosie Perez would have started) after he failed to try against Arizona, saying the day before he couldn't.

Although every game down the stretch is critical, the Dodgers didn't blow the wild card in the game Perez started or the game he didn't.

They blew it because of the offensive ineptitude of which he spoke in midseason, his a strange voice, perhaps, amid otherwise mum veterans, and a voice strangely criticized in a clubhouse that reacted more strongly to one of their own speaking out of frustration than when Arizona's Luis Gonzalez challenged their fortitude and ability by saying the Diamondbacks didn't worry about the Dodgers.

Now, with the enigmatic Beltre one of their only other options, the Dodgers will try to unload Perez, and that's a risk.

He still boasts significant upside, there is no guarantee Jackson is ready for a full-season jump from double A or that Alvarez can pick up where he left off or that Brown and Nomo can remain healthy and effective amid the ticking clock.

For the 2003 Dodgers the clock has already struck midnight. Struck it, of course, with all the bang of the Dodgers' broken bats.

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