Just a short jaunt northward from San Diego go the Cardinals, to take on the Dodgers in the latter half of their West Coast Swing. What they find when they get there, though, will be much further from the Padres than the drive would indicate.
Whereas the Padres are a team sinking, falling further and further from contention under the weight of aging veterans, injury issues, and a weak farm system that has failed to bolster the major league roster, the Dodgers are very much a team just beginning to come together.
The young talent in LA doesn't quite compare to the collection that the Tampa Bay Rays have amassed, the Dodgers still have one of the stronger stables of up-and-coming players.
That's no to say that the Dodgers don't have their own issues, of course. They've been hit by the injury bug themselves a bit, though nowhere near what the Padres have dealt with.
Rafael Furcal, the Dodgers' All-Star shortstop, has been out for the past couple of weeks with a back sprain. He's hoping to be back during this weekend series, offering a significant upgrade at the top of the LA lineup. Personally, I hope we don't see him until at least Saturday, as he has worn out Adam Wainwright so far in his short career, with Furcal going 5-9 against the Cards' starter.
The Dodgers' big off-season acquisition, Andruw Jones, has also been on the DL with torn cartilage in his knee. It's a little less certain when Jones will be back, as his injury is most likely the type that will require surgery. Jones has been fairly awful this season so far, although, of course, the knee injury has surely been a contributing factor to his struggles.
The real story of the Dodgers, though, isn't the veteran cavalry they may have on the way, but the youth that have stepped in and played in the interim. The entire left side of their infield right now is composed of rookie players, with Blake Dewitt, the Sikeston, Missouri native, playing third base and Chin-lung Hu, who most assuredly is not from Sikeston, at shortstop.
Both players have performed admirably, with Dewitt hitting well enough, (.325/.390/.504) that the Dodgers are being forced to reconsider what may be done with their former heir apparent at third, Andy LaRoche. LaRoche has been out since Spring Training with a tendon problem in his hand, and it's unclear what sort of situation he'll walk back into when he does get healthy. Is it possible to get Wally Pipp'd before your career really even starts?
Hu, one of my favorite trade targets of late last season, will most likely look a little familiar to long time fans of the St. Louis Cardinals. You may not recognize the face, or the name, but a fan base that spent so many years watching Ozzie Smith will certainly recognize the way that Hu plays shortstop.
An absolute defensive monster, with a bat that has made significant strides in his last couple years of development, I had desperately hoped that maybe the Cards would find some way to swing a trade for the young Taiwanese import when they fell out of contention late last year.
Alas, it was not to be. Apparently, we were still contenders, as long as we still had Miguel Cairo on the payroll. Sigh... Hu will still most likely lose his starting job when Furcal comes back, but make no mistake, Hu is a big part of the Dodgers' future.
James Loney, another young player with a bright future, mans first base for the Dodgers. Loney is an excellent defensive first baseman, and a pure hitter. He doesn't have quite the power that a lot of teams look for out of a first baseman, but he's still quite adequate. Mark Grace, the former Cubs standout, is probably a good comparison for Loney, though Loney does probably have a bit more over-the-fence power than what Grace did in his career.
Behind the plate is, quite possibly, the most impressive of the Dodgers' youth brigade. Russell Martin is, hands down, the best young catcher in the National League. You can argue whether he should have won the Gold Glove last year, (many, especially here in St. Louis, maintain that Yadier Molina was robbed) but you can't argue with his overall game. He's hitting .304/.419/.399 so far this year, and offers a plus glove, a plus arm, and plus leadership to boot. The rare catcher who even runs well enough to steal the occasional base, Martin is the closest thing to a true five tool catcher you're going to see in the National League. His power numbers have been down a bit this year, but it's easy to look past that when the rest of his game is so over the top good.
The only member of the Dodger infield who isn't a young, homegrown product may, in fact, be the one that Cardinal fans are the least pleased to see. Jeff Kent, card carrying member of the Cardinal Killer Society, will take his customary place at second base for Los Angeles, though his numbers certainly don't look customary, at least not for Kent. He's had it very tough in the early going, hitting only .234 so far, and has been particularly brutal lately, hitting only .148 in the month of May. He does, however, have three hits in the last two games, so he may, unfortunately, be heating up just in time to see St. Louis roll into town. Even a Kent who's been fighting it is still an unwelcome sight for those of us who remember the 2002 NLCS against San Francisco.
In the outfield, the Dodgers run out Juan Pierre, a member of the All Bad Contract Team, in left field, Andre Ethier in right, and Matt Kemp in center. Ethier, who came to the Dodgers in the deal with Oakland for Milton Bradley, is a solid young player, with a profile a bit like James Loney's at first. Ethier plays a very nice defensive right field, hits for a very good average, and gets on base. He does not, however, hit for the kind of power you usually see from a corner outfielder, making him a bit of a 'tweener. Kemp is a physical wonder, with well above average speed, power, and arm strength. He is, however, still a very raw player, with very little plate discipline and occasional lapses in fundamentals. It's still tough not to be excited by what he brings to the table tools-wise, though.
On the pitching front, the Dodgers have one of the better starting rotations in the league, with Brad Penny anchoring a staff that includes former World Series hero Derek Lowe, whom the Cardinals will see tonight, young power righty Chad Billingsley, and, quite possibly in this series, will be joined by one of the most terrifying pitching prospects in all of baseball, Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw, a lefty, may make his Major League debut against the Cardinals, most likely on Saturday. He's a true ace in the making, with a fast ball that cruises easily in the mid 90s and sometimes even higher, a killer curve ball, and a change-up that's coming along nicely. Kershaw may also look a little familiar to Cardinal fans, simply because we all spent so much time watching another young lefty phenom by the name of Rick Ankiel.
If Kershaw does come up and manages to stick, which many think he will, it would be a big boon for the Dodgers, who have had issues this year shoring up the back end of their rotation. The presence of yet another strong arm would give them four legitimate above-average starters, and, while it may still not be enough to catch the Diamondbacks, the Dodgers would have to be the favorites to capture the NL Wild Card, I would think.
Overall, the Dodgers are a very good young team that's just really starting to really gel as a unit. Logan White, the Scouting Director for Los Angeles, has assembled a collection of young talent that should serve the Dodgers very well in the near future. If the Padres represented a team collapsing slowly under the weight of all the various maladies that can afflict a baseball team, the Dodgers represent the exact opposite, a team very much on the rise, just coming into focus as a serious contender for the foreseeable future.