…Ramirez is eligible to return to the Dodgers’ lineup on July 3, and barring a major collapse over their next nine games, which come against three .500ish teams, his team will have weathered his loss just fine. They were 21-8 when the news of his suspension broke, with a +55 run differential, both major league bests. Since then they’ve gone 25-16 with a +30 run differential, both National League bests, and they’ve held the Hit List’s top spot since the first regular season rankings. At the time, they had a 6½-game lead over their closest pursuers, the Giants, an 8½ game lead over their expected rivals, the Diamondbacks, and an 83.3 percent shot at the playoffs according to our plain-vanilla playoff odds. Now they lead the Giants by 8½ games, with the Diamondbacks DOA at 17 games back, and their overall odds at 97.8 percent. That’s about as pretty as a team can sit.
Pierre hasn’t homered all year, but his overall slugging percentage is 50 points higher than [James] Loney, 98 points higher than [Rafael] Furcal, and 133 points higher than [Russell] Martin. Indeed, the supreme irony of this entire fiasco is that the ridiculously expensive slap-hitting speedster who had been relegated to fourth outfielder status has gone bonkers upon being restored to the lineup. Pierre collected multiple hits in 14 of the first 20 games after the suspension, and has now done so in 19 of 41, including a three-hit effort in the most recent ESPN Sunday Night Game of the Week against the Angels. Thanks to an unsustainable .368 batting average on balls in play, he’s third in the batting race at .337, and his .392 OBP and .433 SLG would both be career highs.
Furthermore, his .198 MLVr trails only Ramirez (.641), [Casey] Blake (.249) and [Matt] Kemp (.211) among Dodger regulars, which raises the question of what happens once Ramirez returns. Last week, manager Joe Torre told reporters he’d be headed back to the bench, but given Andre Ethier’s slump in Ramirez’s absence (.233/.296/.404) and struggles against lefties (.195/.279 /.377), it’s not hard to envision a potential Ramirez-Pierre-Kemp alignment working its way into Torre’s rotation; Pierre is hitting .411/.476/.518 in 65 PA against lefties, the kind of small-sample performance Torre might find impossible to resist.
The larger question is whether Pierre’s play has boosted his value enough to make him attractive to other teams, and the answer is “probably not.” He’s about halfway through his absurd five-year deal, owed $10 million this year, $10 million next year, and $8.5 million in 2011. It’s unlikely any team is willing to assume the approximately $22 million he’ll still have coming after the trading deadline; in the current economic climate, even half that might be a stretch, and with the Dodgers already eating $21 million worth of Andruw Jones pie between here and 2014, it’s tough to envision them having an appetite for much more — unless Steve Phillips, who from the ESPN booth has lobbied for the Dodgers to take care of Pierre so often you’d think he was his agent, suddenly finds himself in a GM chair. Suffice it to say that there’s no threat of that these days.
…Back to Ramirez, it will be interesting to see how the fan base and the mainstream media, both local and national, handle his return. Prior to his suspension, he had mostly enjoyed a nonstop lovefest even given this winter’s contentious negotiations. So long as he can still produce — even if not at the level he had done since last August — the majority of Dodger fans will likely warm to him, rationalizing that he’s paid his debt to society. His transgressions will almost certainly generate some boos in opposing ballparks, but that’s hardly new given his tenure playing the villain in Boston; on the other hand, his sixth-place showing in the All-Star balloting suggests he’s also got his supporters outside the city of angels. But expect that the moment the Dodgers finally lose three games in a row — amazingly, they’ve yet to do so — you’ll see a spate of articles from the usual hacks on Manny’s tired act and the way his return has disrupted the team chemistry, hanging poor Juan Pierre out to dry at a time his career was undergoing a renaissance. That train is never late.
Of course, as I note in the article, the team’s pitching has plenty to do with their surviving without Manny; they’re allowing fewer runs per game than any NL team, they lead in BP’s starter- and reliever-based win expectancy metrics, and they’re getting by with Jeff Weaver and Eric Milton having made eight starts. That those two as well as free agents Randy Wolf and Casey Blake and nobodies like Ramon Troncoso and Ronald Belisario have been contributors to the team’s success even as the Loneys and Martins have disappointed reflect favorably on Colletti and his staff, for all of their various missteps. Even a blind chicken finds a few kernels of corn now and again.