By Jon Heyman
April 30, 2010

An early soap opera has broken out in Hollywood. The Dodgers, good enough to win the NL West and reach the NLCS each of the last two years, are 8-14, dead last in the division, with a declining payroll and in desperate need of some veteran leadership. And now they're facing a new issue.

In his weekly radio spot on the club's flagship station, KABC, general manager Ned Colletti referred to the defense and baserunning of star young center fielder Matt Kemp as "below average." Kemp is said by friends to be annoyed that he was the only player mentioned by name. Colletti's defense for seemingly singling out Kemp -- "I don't see the same player I saw at the end of last year,'' the candid Colletti said -- is that Kemp is the only one he was asked about.

Colletti's words clearly didn't have an immediate impact on Kemp. As the Dodgers dropped five straight this week, his play worsened in New York during a sweep by the Mets and he continued his defensive slide by misplaying a hit by Ryan Doumit into a two-run-triple in a loss to the lowly Pirates Thursday night in Los Angeles.

Kemp has cleared the air with Colletti, who said in a phone interview that Kemp "has a chance to be the best player in the history of the franchise,'' a history that includes Hall of Fame center fielder Duke Snider and many other greats. While Kemp is among the league leaders in runs, home runs and RBIs in spite all the obvious frustration surrounding him, defensively, something is amiss. Even his positioning in New York seemed to be an issue. While Kemp won a Gold Glove last year -- probably in part due to his hitting exploits, some spectacular plays and a high assist total (13) for a center fielder -- the team would be wise to hire someone like former All-Star major league outfielder and L.A. native Eric Davis to assist with the outfield play.

Among the Dodgers' talented corps of kids -- which includes outfielder Andre Ethier and first baseman James Loney -- Kemp is surely the most infuriating to his bosses. Kemp is viewed by everyone around the team as "good kid'' who works hard -- he spend lots of time with hitting coach Don Mattingly and several extra weeks working out before spring training at the San Diego camp of his agent, Dave Stewart -- but still needs direction and attention.

While Dodgers manager Joe Torre has talked to Kemp multiple times, the legendary skipper is used to a Yankees clubhouse with superstar veteran leadership that can police itself. However, Dodgers coach Larry Bowa "isn't afraid to get in anyone's face,'' according to a Dodgers person (and really, anyone who knows Bowa), and Ethier and Kemp are said by a friend to "push each other." Friends also say Kemp "respect[s] the hell out of Mattingly,'' and the two seem to have a great rapport inside the batting cage.

But the probable source of the Dodgers' woes remains unspoken in this entire episode. Kemp's inconsistent attention span and the the team's surprisingly poor start are directly attributable to their disappearing payroll, which has gone from $122 million two years ago to $100 million last year to $83 million (plus a few deferred dollars for Manny Ramirez, Orlando Hudson and Randy Wolf) this year.

The Dodgers' payroll is not reflective of a major-market team -- not one that expects to contend, anyway -- and is now actually lower than that of the small-market Brewers (which is owned by Los Angeles investment man Mark Attanasio) and considerably lower than that of the Minnesota Twins, a team that had been famous for low spending. What's made the stinginess seem worse, the Dodgers' deep cuts come at a time when the lavish personal spending of their owners, the McCourts, is becoming public through their divorce documents in what's become an embarrassing sideshow.

John Lackey, who left the Angels for the Red Sox as a free agent in the offseason, would have been the obvious winter import. He was a ready-made Southern Californian ace with a bulldog rep who could have guided talented youngsters Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley, who haven't shown expected improvement yet. But the Dodgers didn't even have the money for L.A. native Wolf, who was said to have been upset to have been turned down for his offer to return for slightly less than the $29 million he took with the Brewers.

With no money to spend on veteran stars, the Dodgers appear to have a leadership gap in their clubhouse now, which could prove problematic for a team that relies so overwhelmingly on young talents. But that's no excuse according to one Dodgers official, who said, "These players have been around a few years and been to the playoffs the last two."

Nevertheless, the departures of Wolf, Hudson and Juan Pierre are being felt because all three are viewed as clubhouse guys (though club insiders say Hudson was getting on Torre's nerves by inquiring too frequently about his decreasing playing time). The offseason trade of veteran outfielder Pierreto the White Sox, which saved the Dodgers a couple million bucks, is a bigger clubhouse loss than anyone realizes, as Dodger-connected people say he was an excellent influence on Kemp

What's left is the tranquil Casey Blake, 40-year-old backups Brad Ausmus and Garret Anderson and utilityman Jamey Carroll.

Two of their most prominent veterans, Hall of Fame-caliber slugger Ramirez and Opening Day starter Vicente Padilla, are generally thought ill-suited to lead the kids. One Dodgers-connected person said he doesn't believe Ramirez or Padilla has been a negative clubhouse influence (Padilla is actually said to have been a positive influence on rookie pitcher Carlos Monasterios, who gets his first start Saturday), and Ramirez does indeed demonstrate the importance of hitting work and provides an offensive anchor (not to mention needed levity). Still, one friend of Kemp's said, "What's Manny going to say? He doesn't give a [hoot] about defense. He tells [Kemp], "If you put up numbers, you're going to get paid.'''

Perhaps coincidentally, Kemp is off to a Manny-like start, carrying the team offensively at times while occasionally appearing nothing short of spacey in the outfield and on the basepaths. Even if Ramirez didn't say those very words, he's a living, breathing, $25-million-a-year-making example of the kind of money one-dimensional greats can make. Kemp signed a $10.95-million, two-year deal this winter but it's hard to believe that contract has adversely affected his play, especially since he was turned down for a much longer deal (he is believed to have used Nick Markakis' $60-million contract as a potential comp).

In that phone interview, Colletti expressed faith in the ability of the team and Kemp to turn things around. "We're going to be fine,'' the GM said. "We're still a good club, and they'll figure it out. And Matt Kemp will end up having a great year all the way around.''

• There have been an unusual number of players having great comeback seasons, but perhaps the most surprising of all is Kelly Johnson. The Diamondbacks, who had tried to trade for Johnson in the past, were there to pounce when he was non-tendered in the offseason, and he has responded with a big start for them. "We liked him for a long time,'' GM Josh Byrnes said. "We've always thought he could hit.'' Johnson has nine home runs, 18 RBIs and a .320 batting average, including six homers and 12 RBIs in the last seven games.

• The D-backs are suffering from an unusual number of injuries. Kris Benson and Leo Rosales joined Conor Jackson and Brandon Webb on the disabled list Thursday. Some good news: Webb's arm is finally feeling better, and he is expected to advance from throwing on flat ground to a mound soon.

• The Rockies are really stung by injuries, with starting pitchers Jorge de la Rosa and Jason Hammel joining Jeff Francis on the DL. "If anyone can survive this it's the Rockies,'' one NL scout said. "They have more depth than anyone.''

• Giants manager Bruce Bochy should have let Tim Lincecum finish out his game against the Phillies on Wednesday rather than summon closer Brian Wilson, who lost a 4-1 lead with one out to go. Lincecum was throwing only 92 mph but his changeup was unhittable. According to a scout, he was stacking three changeups in a row at times and still couldn't be hit.

Cole Hamels impressed scouts in the same game for a lively fastball that was regularly at 93 mph. "He's back,'' one scout declared.

• Velocities are down all around baseball. It's the talk of scouts everywhere.

• The Red Sox recall David Ortiz's big second half last year but they won't necessarily have the luxury to wait for him to start hitting this year. He would appear to be a candidate to be released at some point this season if he doesn't turn things around.

• It's odd that the Red Sox sought offensive improvement at shortstop, and so far are getting less from what turned out to be a switch with Toronto. Alex Gonzalez, who signed with the Blue Jays in the offseason after playing in Boston last year, has five homers and 12 RBIs, while Marco Scutaro, who took the opposite route, has two homers and seven RBIs for the Red Sox.

• The Yankees are worried about Javier Vazquez. But as one competing GM said, "If Javy Vazquez is all they have to worry about, they're in pretty good shape.''

Robinson Cano can't be stopped.

Brad Penny's resurgence in St. Louis irks some Boston people. One noted, "He couldn't do [blank] for us.'' It's happened before. Remember Joel Pineiro? He went 1-1 with a 5.03 ERA out of the bullpen for the Red Sox in 2007 before being traded at the deadline to St. Louis, where he became a starter and went 6-4 with a 3.96 ERA the rest of the year and eventually a 15-game winner.

• The Mets went from last to first in four days. Remarkable.

Paul Konerko is timing his big start well (first player to 10 homers) as he is a free agent at year's end.

• Congratulations to Detroit's Magglio Ordonez, who can still rake; he notched his 2,000th hit Thursday.

• Reds rookie Mike Leake, a rare player to have made his big-league debut before logging a game in the minors, is impressing folks with his toughness and smarts.

• The Orioles are unwatchable. That may explain their disappearing attendance.

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