For Dodgers, '09 is a distant memory

LOS ANGELES -- The mood in the clubhouse that cold October night in Philadelphia was dark, but not depressed. The Dodgers had lost to the Phillies in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series for the second year in a row, and yes, this one hurt more than the first because of all the things they thought they'd learned from where they'd fallen short in 2008.

But they'd also lost to a team that was clearly better and more complete, a team that had gone through its growing pains and matured -- through experience and with outside help -- into one of the best teams in baseball.

In the best-case scenario, the Dodgers would come out the other side of those back-to-back championship series losses older, wiser and ready to bloom into what the Phillies had become after they were swept by the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 playoffs.

"It's a different approach that we still have to graduate to," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti told me in the clubhouse after that Game 5 loss in 2009. "We're getting closer, but we're not there yet."

Two seasons later that vision is a distant memory. Too much else has happened. Too little has gone right for the Dodgers.

And yet, when both teams took the field this week for a three-game series at Dodger Stadium, only a few of the main faces on either team had noticeably changed.

How did so much unravel for the Dodgers in such a short time period? How did what seemed like the beginning of something turn into an ending?

The once-promising Dodgers young core of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney, Jonathan Broxton, Chad Billingsley, Russell Martin, Clayton Kershaw and Hong-Chih Kuo could be whittled in half by next season if Broxton leaves as a free agent and Loney and Kuo are non-tendered. Only Kershaw and Billingsley are under contract or team control beyond 2012.

By next season a new group of promising young players -- guys like Dee Gordon, Javy Guerra, Jerry Sands, and Nate Eovaldi -- will get a chance at doing things better than the group before it.

But before this current group dissolves so short of its potential, it's worth doing a postmortem on how that cold night in Philadelphia became the zenith of this group's run together and not the beginning of something bigger.

Over the past week I've spoken with players, managers, coaches and player development personnel within the organization. Their explanations range from specific and analytical to esoteric and existential.

The only constant is the sense of disappointment at what could've been.

"We obviously had some great momentum going in 2008 and 2009, to get within a couple wins of the World Series, but for probably a variety of reasons, we slipped in 2010 and 2011," Colletti said.

"It's tough. It's tough to keep it going. You have to have great focus on all levels, by all people to continually get better. ... But we're trying to predict human performance and behavior, it's one of the more impossible things to do."

The Manny effect

For manager Don Mattingly the answer is simple. In 2008 and 2009, the Dodgers had Manny Ramirez. In 2011 and really, for most of 2010, they did not. His presence made everyone else around him better.

His addition in 2008 helped everything fall into place. Without him, the Dodgers simply didn't fit together anymore.

"We're not a whole lot different [in personnel]," Mattingly said. "We still have 'Dre [Ethier], Matt and James. The biggest difference is that added guy and that was Manny [Ramirez].

"We had that extra thumper in the lineup. When he came, it changed the offense. He was a guy you could put in the middle of the order and make everyone around him better."

That was probably more true in 2008 than 2009, when Ramirez missed 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy. But even in 2009, you can see the trickle-down effect Ramirez's bat had in the lineup as seven of the eight Dodgers regulars had on-base percentages over .352 and the eighth, Rafael Furcal, had an on-base percentage of .335 and scored 92 runs.

In 2010, of the Dodgers regulars, only Ethier, Furcal and Blake DeWitt had OBPs over .352. This year only Jamey Carroll, Kemp and Ethier do.

Russell Martin's fade

When Colletti became the Dodgers GM in 2005, all he heard around baseball was how fortunate he was to have inherited the so-called "fab five" of minor league prospects who seemed destined for major league success: Martin, Loney, Billingsley, Broxton and Andy La Roche. Later, Kemp and Ethier would join that group, giving the Dodgers the kind of young core that could contend for the World Series every year for the better part of a decade if the players stayed and grew together in a healthy way.

Martin was always going to be the captain of that group. He had character and the ability to lead a group of men far beyond his years. By 2008, he was a two-time All-Star, a fan favorite and well on his way to becoming one of the most valuable catchers in the game.

But success didn't sit well with Martin. He took pride in playing every day, but it started hurting his production. Some of his teammates, especially those who had come to admire him, took notice.

It wasn't so much that his slide affected anyone else's performance. But when a leader falters, who is there to lead?

By the end of 2009, Martin was clearly worn down. He hit just .239 in the second half of 2009, including an abysmal .207 in September and October. In 2010, he hit a career-low .248 and played in just 97 games. The Dodgers decided to non-tender him in the offseason and he signed with the New York Yankees, where he was hitting .228 prior to Wednesday's game.

Regression to the mean

In the simplest terms, DeJon Watson's job is to develop minor league players who can help the big league club.

In reality he is something of an alchemist, a former scout charged with figuring out which players can make it to the majors, how to get them there in the best shape possible, and then perhaps most importantly, giving Colletti the best read he can on their character so the GM can decide whom to count on down the road.

Once a player gets to the majors, Watson can only hope for the best and that he's done enough.

Though he did not feel comfortable specifically commenting on Martin's, Loney's or Broxton's struggles the past few years, his insights on player evaluation are insightful.

"Players, they're so fluid. They're going to have really good years, other years when they're going to be down, but you expect them to come back and play to their average," said Watson, the Dodgers' director of player development.

"Once they get established after those first three years in the big leagues, they tend to be what they are, or at least play to their average until they get to the backside of their careers."

So are there any lessons that can be learned from the places the previous group fell short that can be applied to the players who've been groomed to take their places?

"I think a lot comes down to the player and his character and his skill set because the dynamic of the game changes so much from the minor leagues to the majors," Watson said. "It's such a big difference.

"You really have to weigh the pros and cons of each guy and his character in deciding how you put your team together."

The divorce

It's not lost on anyone that Frank and Jamie McCourt announced their separation during the 2009 playoffs. It's also too easy to attribute all of the team's on-field struggles to the divorce and the franchise's subsequent financial purgatory.

The truth is the Dodgers had been playing with a thin checkbook well before 2009. As early as 2008 there were red flags about the McCourts' ability to pursue the top talent in baseball to support the Dodgers' budding young core. In the winter of 2008, free-agent pitcher CC Sabathia publicly let it be known he was interested in playing in Los Angeles, but the Dodgers never became serious players in the negotiations.

That came on the heels of the lopsided deal with the Cleveland Indians in July 2008 in which the Dodgers had to include prized prospect Carlos Santana in a trade for Casey Blake so the Indians would cover the remainder of Blake's salary.

Since the McCourts announced their separation and began divorce proceedings, the Dodgers have been reduced to bit players on the free-agent market, choosing instead to sign veterans to short-term contracts and rarely getting in on the negotiations for the top free agents. It has hamstrung the organization in ways too numerous to detail.

Still, Colletti has managed to cobble together one of the better starting staffs in baseball with Kershaw, Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda and Ted Lilly.

"In 2009, everybody said we lacked the pure ace," Colletti said. "I would say we've certainly got one in Kershaw. But baseball is such a domino effect to winning and losing.

"To have those type of years like '08 and '09, you need everybody to be basically injury free, a lot of your players to have good years, and you need two or three guys to have their best years. That's how a team wins 95 games and goes to the World Series."

Withering on the vine

For Ethier there is only frustration, at himself, at what has happened around him, at what could've been.

Tuesday afternoon, as he prepared to take the field against the team the Dodgers once measured themselves against, he could only shake his head, take a deep breath in and let out a long exhale.

"It feels like it's far off, but at the same time, the taste is still familiar in your mouth," he said, when asked how things could've fallen so far, so fast since that cold October night in Philadelphia.

"When we play these guys, a lot of apparitions come to mind of some of those games we played against them."

So what happened on the way from there to here?

"Just stuff changing, I guess," Ethier said. "Obviously other teams have gotten a lot better. ...

"There's a lot of what-ifs we could find that would make this better. Obviously it's frustrating to be in this position, but we each have to swallow the things we've been dealt better."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.