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Despite GM's hot hand, Dodgers not playing with a full deck

BILL PLASCHKE

Ned Colletti has done nearly everything in his power to fill Dodgers' postseason needs, with one glaring exception: They still lack an ace pitcher.

September 02, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Amid the rows of chilled, sparkling luxury suites at Dodger Stadium, one is not air-conditioned.

Coincidence or not, it's the one belonging to Ned Colletti.

The Dodgers' general manager was smiling through the stifling heat Tuesday, wearing a long-sleeve dress shirt in his fancy steam bath.

"This is great," he said. "I'm great."

Oh yeah? Well, it's about to get hotter.

Colletti finished his season's work late Monday night, acquiring enough players to satisfy most of the team's postseason needs.

All but the one that burns brightest.

The lack of an ace starting pitcher is still hanging out there, blinding and brutal.

Colletti has done a masterful job of collecting every other imaginable championship piece, but none of it will work without an ace starter.

Jim Thome and Ronnie Belliard will be nice late-inning threats -- if the Dodgers can hold the lead that long.

George Sherrill has been nearly unhittable as an eighth-inning setup man -- if the Dodgers are winning that late.

Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla are nice fourth starters -- if the Dodgers are still in series contention.

The Dodgers can be confident in nearly every player at every position, except the most important player in the most tenuous spot.

Who will take the ball in their first game in the first full week of October?

Who will set the tone the way Cole Hamels set the tone for last year's Philadelphia Phillies?

Who will throw the first roundhouse the way Josh Beckett once punched it for the Boston Red Sox?

The personality of a postseason series is entirely established by the team's No. 1 starting pitcher. Most of the other top NL contenders each have two; the Dodgers don't have one.

"We've improved our pitching," Colletti said Tuesday. "But time will tell if we've done enough."

The Phillies have Hamels and Cliff Lee. The St. Louis Cardinals have Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. The San Francisco Giants have Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

The Dodgers?

"That's what the rest of the season will tell us," Colletti said.

So far, so-so.

If the playoffs began this week, their top starter would be Randy Wolf, who has 274 career appearances but zero in the postseason.

Their second starter would be Chad Billingsley, who has disappointed the organization with his inability to either act or pitch like an ace. Not to mention, his career postseason earned-run average is 7.24.

The other night in Cincinnati, Billingsley shook his head and said what the Dodgers hate to hear.

"Lately, I haven't been able to find it, and I don't know what it is," he said.

Their third starter will be Clayton Kershaw, who will be a postseason ace in coming years, but not now, not at age 21, not with the sort of inconsistency that could end a game early.

"Sometimes, with young guys, you don't know until you know," Colletti said.

Agreed. This is why the Dodgers should not have taken a chance. This is why Colletti should have offered more to the Cleveland Indians for Lee.

It is a failed trade that could haunt them through October, a failure of the entire Dodgers organization to either offer or cultivate the right prospects.

It could be that Colletti overvalued his kids. It could be that Logan White's system has slowed in its development of kids.

Or it could be that this belongs on Frank McCourt's desk. Remember that last summer, in an effort to save money, the Dodgers traded some of their best prospects for players -- Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake, Greg Maddux -- instead of just buying them.

The bottom line is that, in acquiring Lee, the Phillies traded from a system that had four of Baseball America's midseason top 50 prospects.

The Dodgers had zero players on that list.

So Lee went to Philadelphia, where, typically for an American League pitcher going to the lighter-hitting National League, he is 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA.

And guess who could be on the mound against the Dodgers in October?

"I thought we had the guys," Colletti said of the Lee deal. "I really thought we had the guys to get it done, but you never know how organizations value their players."

Judging from raw statistics, the Dodgers' pitching is set, with the league's best ERA and lowest opponent batting average.

But postseason pitching is about raw, period. It's not about cold statistics as much as swagger and savvy and stuff. Even though starting pitchers work less than anyone in a World Series, it is no coincidence that 11 of the last 23 Series featured a starting pitcher as MVP.

The top pitchers in championship rotations bring the heat. If that guy doesn't emerge soon, the Dodgers will be feeling it.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillPlaschke

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