This is the core on-field issue for the Dodgers this spring. True, there are other, more sweeping issues for this operation. A highly contentious divorce case at the ownership level could determine the overall direction of this fabled franchise for years to come. But between the lines for 2011, it's pitching, certainly, hitting, perhaps.
The Dodgers were 11th in the National League in runs scored in 2010, averaging 4.12 per game. Their only significant lineup addition this winter was infielder Juan Uribe. While Uribe had career highs in home runs (24) and RBIs (85) for the Giants last season, his lifetime on-base percentage of .300 offers less encouragement.
New manager Don Mattingly is convinced that the performance of the 2010 Dodgers offense was an aberration and that the 2011 season will be a return to form for this lineup.
"We pretty much led the league in hitting in '09, right?" Mattingly said Tuesday. "We've got pretty much the same guys. We had a bad second half [in 2010]. Up until the [All-Star] break last year we were a pretty good offensive club. We can go down the whole list; everything went bad in the second half for this club. We just weren't a good club.
"I have no reason to think that this isn't the same offense that we had two years ago, or up until the break last year. We're going to have to go out and prove it. We can talk about it all we want. But it will come down to if we're going to be able to produce on the field."
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That is fine. And it is true that the Dodgers tied for the NL lead in team batting average in 2009, and finished a very respectable fourth in runs scored, averaging 4.81 per game.
But a problem for the current Dodgers is that because they have relatively little power, getting back to a more acceptable offensive output would require a lot of contributions from a lot of members of the lineup a lot of the time. The Dodgers were 15th in the NL in home runs last season. Even in the good old days of 2009 they were only 11th.
Making the Dodgers' task tougher is the degree of difficulty that will be found in the National League West. The Giants are the defending World Series champions and need no further introduction. The Rockies are one of the game's most talented clubs, and if they are not sidetracked by injuries as they were last season, they will be legitimate contenders. The Padres have lost Adrian Gonzalez, the core of their offense, but they will often be a difficult opponent because of the quality of their pitching. Oh, for more games against the Diamondbacks.
"This West Division is pretty rough out here," Mattingly said.
The Dodgers' second-half demise left them with an 80-82 record in 2010. Their pitching looks better than that record.
Even with Jon Garland out until mid-April with an oblique strain, and Vicente Padilla out after forearm surgery, the Dodgers rotation is in significantly better shape than most with Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda.
These are pitchers of demonstrated worth. There may be no one with the track record of an ace, but Kershaw, who turns 23 later this week, has the potential to develop into a true No. 1.
He had ERAs of 2.79 and 2.91 the last two seasons. This spring, he has continued to prosper. Kershaw gave up five earned runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday, but these were the first earned runs he had given up in four Cactus League starts.
In the bullpen, the Dodgers have another crucial instance in which they would like a return to the level of performance from 2009 and the first half of 2010. That would be the case of closer Jonathan Broxton. He had a 2.11 ERA before the break last year, but 7.13 after it. Broxton lost the closer's role in August, but Mattingly has expressed full confidence in Broxton as his closer. At 26, Broxton should not be in an irreversible career decline.
The Dodgers have made some helpful additions to the bullpen, including Matt Guerrier and Blake Hawksworth. Non-roster invitee Mike MacDougal, formerly a closer for the Royals, may be pitching his way into the bullpen.
In total, the Dodgers' pitching looks sound, and the way the hitting looks depends on whether you see the norm as 2009 or the second half of 2010. Having sound pitching and question marks about run production beats the opposite combination. But for the Dodgers to prevail against genuinely difficult divisional competition, a return to the 2009 form by the offense would be a necessary development.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.