In Matt Kemp, the club's scouting and player development department has high-definition proof as to the value of foresight and patience.
In the two of them together, the risk of the Dodgers getting tangled in Manny Ramirez's dreadlocks this October has lessened considerably.
There was much talk on a rainy Wednesday here of how the Dodgers that will open the NLCS Thursday against the Phillies are a much different team than the Dodgers who were blistered in five games by the Phillies in last year's NLCS.
Two left-handers in the rotation, the emergence of Game 1 starter Clayton Kershaw, three key lefties in the bullpen, general manager Ned Colletti's July 30 addition of George Sherrill ... no question, the '09 Dodgers have a vastly different and more dangerous look than last October's edition.
But nowhere is that difference more profound than in the fact that this October, the Dodgers lineup no longer is a one-Manny gang.
"Last year, we leaned on Manny a lot," says Larry Bowa, the Dodgers third-base coach and manager Joe Torre's right-hand man. "If Manny goes 0 for 4, we still think we can win.
"Last year, we didn't believe that."
The evidence started trickling in during Ramirez's 50-game suspension during the first half of the season.
By August and September, it was no longer a trickle. It was a roar.
Ethier, the 27-year-old left-hander who was acquired from Oakland when the misbehaving Bradley essentially forced the Dodgers to trade him in December, 2005, posted a career-year with 31 home runs and 106 RBI.
Kemp, the 25-year-old right-hander whom the Dodgers picked in the sixth round of the 2003 draft, popped for a career-high 26 homers and 101 RBI.
Together with Ramirez, L.A.'s outfield totaled 76 home runs. The only starting outfield that out-muscled the Dodgers in the majors was that of the Phillies. Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez and Shane Victorino hit 80.
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Even though the names that will fill Torre's lineup card on Thursday night will be very similar to those who appeared in Game 1 against the Phillies last October, the Dodgers very much are a different team. In large part because Ethier and Kemp very much are different players.
"An enormous difference in both of them," Torre says.
In some ways, Ethier, a Phoenix native, has taken the longer journey. Selected in the 37th round of the 2001 draft by Oakland, Ethier said no thanks and opted instead to play ball at Arizona State. A two-time All-Pac 10 Conference pick there, he finally signed with Oakland after the A's grabbed him in the second round of the '03 draft.
Kemp's raw skills always were evident as he starred in both basketball and baseball at Midwest City High School in Oklahoma. But unlike Ethier, he came to the Dodgers straight from high school.
Each debuted in 2006, and the Dodgers kept them in the shallow end of the pool early.
"I think what helped both of them this year was that, going into spring training a year ago, I had the four guys for the three spots and they were all sort of auditioning all the time," Torre says. "Part of it was because we had signed a center fielder, Andruw Jones, who was going to play center field. And you certainly couldn't ignore Juan Pierre because he played every single game the year before.
"Now, you had to sort of mix in the other two less experienced outfielders."
By the time the Dodgers blew past the Cubs to face the Phillies last October, neither had fully graduated from his apprenticeship. Ethier last year sometimes sat against lefty pitchers. Kemp was prone to the most basic of mistakes, especially on the basepaths.
"Kemp, especially last year, used to beat himself up when he'd make a mistake or mess up on the bases, whatever it was," Torre said. "This year, he lets it go quicker. That, to me, is a huge difference where he doesn't let his next inning or next at-bat be affected by something that went wrong."
|Unlike last season, Manny Ramirez has a lot of help in the batting order. (Getty Images)|
Compared early in his career by many in the industry to being a "young Dave Parker", the comparisons no longer seem so far-fetched.
"He's come quicker than I ever expected him to," Torre says.
The part that most pleases Kemp?
"Y'all call it a slump, but not getting in a funk too much," Kemp says. "Finding it sooner than I did last year when I get in one. This year, I just stay in it for a minute."
Ethier still battles lefties, which is why, in a series that figures to turn on matchups, he bears close watching. While he led the majors with six walk-off hits and four walk-off homers in '09, he also batted just .194 with six homers and 25 RBI in 165 at-bats against left-handed pitchers.
The lefty-happy Phillies, who went with four consecutive southpaw starters against Colorado last round, have plenty of weapons to throw at Ethier (including lefty reliever Scott Eyre).
Ethier isn't exactly the most analytical guy around, and maybe for good reason. Pressed for an answer regarding the area of his game that has grown the most this season, Ethier says, among other things, "Joe told me not to think too much." As former Twins manager Tom Kelly often said, the mind is a very dangerous thing.
"That's been sort of a slower maturation for him," Torre says. "I think sometimes he even surprised himself in how calm he is in some tough situations."
Out from behind Manny's dreadlocks, those situations figure to come at him and Kemp frequently over the next 10 or so days.
"They're very dangerous now," Phillies closer Brad Lidge says. "They were dangerous last year, but you knew they had holes and you could get swings and misses.
"This year, the holes they had, they can foul-ball off now. They're not swings and misses."
"Those guys have come a long way," Bowa says. "You're going to build a team around guys like that."
The Dodgers already have.