For Dodgers 2011 Questions Start in Relief

LOS ANGELES CA - JULY 05: Starting pitcher John Ely #48 of the Los Angeles Dodgers walks off the mound after being relieved by manager Joe Torre in the third inning against the Florida Marlins on July 5 2010 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

After going from 95 wins in 2009 to 80 in 2010, the Dodgers need to improve across the board if they're going to contend again, and new manager Don Mattingly might have to his best work with the relief corps.

So 2010 wasn't a good year for baseball teams that claim "Los Angeles" as their home. The Orange County Angels dropped from 97 wins in 2009 to 80 in 2010; the real Los Angeles team dropped from 95 wins to 80. In all the major leagues, only the woeful Mariners suffered a larger dropoff.

When a team hits the skids like that, it's usually a team effort and the Dodgers were no exception, as they plummeted  from first in scoring and fourth in ERA to 11th and seventh.

Actually, fourth to seventh isn't exactly a plummet. First to 11th is. It might be more fun to focus on the bullpen, which mostly went from heroes to zeroes, largely thanks to Jonathan Broxton's second-half implosion. But the real issue is the offense, which simply has to make big strides if the Dodgers are going to contend again.

Are enough Dodgers likely to make strides?

At catcher, Rod Barajas (with his sub-.300 on-base percentage) isn't an upgrade over Russell Martin and A.J. Ellis.

At first base, James Loney seems to have settled in as an exactly league-average hitter.

At second base, Juan Uribe figures to do roughly what Blake DeWitt and Ryan Theriot (etc.) did.

At shortstop, you never know what you'll get from Rafael Furcal. He did hit quite well last season, when he played.

At third base, 36-year-old Casey Blake has been replaced by 37-year-old Casey Blake.

In left field, a squad of fellows replaces a squad of fellows. One member (Manny Ramirez) of last year's squad could really hit. Two members (Marcus Thames and Jay Gibbons) of this year's squad can sort of hit. If this constitutes an upgrade, you'll need a microscope in October to find it.

In center field, the Dodgers will be perfectly wonderful if Matt Kemp continues his up-down-up-down pattern, because this season it's once again Up's turn.

And in right field, Andre Ethier has been almost exactly the same hitter for three years running, and at 29 (next week) he's not likely to take a big step forward.

On balance, then? There's no reason to think the Dodgers will score significantly more runs this year than last year. With the exceptions of Ethier and perhaps Kemp, they just don't have enough outstanding hitters on the roster. And there aren't any outstanding hitters in the farm system.

So maybe it does come back to the pitching. The hitting probably won't be any better than average, which means the pitching will have to be outstanding. And with a rotation built around Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda, the Dodgers have a great head start toward having the second-best pitching in their division.

So maybe it does come back to the bullpen. In 2009, the Dodgers' 3.14 relief ERA was easily the best in the National League. In 2009, the bullpen dropped to 4.07, 11th in the league.

Don Mattingly has never managed a real professional baseball team before. One of a professional baseball team manager's more difficult chores is running the bullpen, figuring out day after day which of his seven relievers is the right reliever for this particular enemy hitter at this particular moment.

Granted, usually it comes down to the talent of the pitchers rather than when and how they are used.

Here's today's Question, though ... Has Don Mattingly learned enough over the years, sitting next to Joe Torre, to run a championship-caliber bullpen? The answer might determine whether the Dodgers win the National League West by a game or three, or lose it.

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