For a group that seemingly shrugged off the “small sample size” of Matt Kemp’s red-hot 2014 ending, the Dodger front office sure have put a fair amount of stock into 31 at-bats from Chase Utley. To be fair, it’s been a GREAT 31 at-bats since the longtime Phillie icon came back from his latest stint on the disabled list. Plus, there are thousands and thousands of previous Utley at-bats coming into this season, which will unquestionably put him on a Hall of Fame ballot one day, if not the Hall of Fame itself. However, it’s those at-bats in between the first 6,000+ and the last 31 at-bats- more specifically, the 218 of them where he was batting .179 prior to going on the DL- that could be troubling.
Name recognition aside, the potential for this move to make an earth-shattering difference either way doesn’t seem to be all that likely. Regardless of how Chase Utley plays for the duration of 2015- or even IF he plays for the duration of 2015- his success is not critical to the Dodgers’ success. Of course, it would be NICE if he can play somewhat like his old-self instead of like an old man, but if not, Kiké Hernández has shown that he is more than capable of holding down the fort in Howie Kendrick’s absence. In fact, Kiké’s performance has been so solid, it makes this move rather curious to begin with, though not as curious as the deafening silence from the media, old and new, about the initial trade last December, which ultimately led to this latest move being made.
There’s no need to rehash the whole Dee Gordon saga again, at least not right now. But it would be negligent to not at least MENTION that the former Dodger and current All-Star starter has emerged as the player many of Dee Gordon’s fans always suspected he could become. By contrast, the Dodgers have now added a SECOND second base veteran to the mix, before the first season without Gordon has even been completed. And they’re doing so at a considerable cost, both on the field and in the payroll. (Did we mention that the Dodgers are also still paying Dee Gordon, as well?!) All of this seems to have gone unnoticed by most, outside of the few Dodger fans not currently fuming at Don Mattingly for causing global warming. Bloggers, print writers, and those that generally spend a lot of time thinking about the Dodgers seem to have overlooked how unnecessary this would all be, had Friedman’s crew not been so busy calculating how quickly Gordon would “regress to the mean”. So whether this Utley trade works out or not, the reaction to it is already quite different than the kind that Ned Colletti would get for a similar move, even moves that, in hindsight, seem more understandable than the one that sent Dee Gordon to Miami.
Attempting to get past the water under the bridge- which is hopefully sturdier than the one to Kenley Jansen– there could still be some upside to this deal. The fact that Utley HAS shown some life in his bat very recently could be a well-timed bandage for these wounded Dodgers. Plus, there’s potential for a nice storyline to come out of this, as well. If there is one guy where “clubhouse presence” isn’t a myth, it would be this guy. Winning over a notoriously surly fanbase with his blue collar appeal, Utley now gets to wear the blue color of the team he rooted for as a kid. Dodger fans have forgiven Jimmy Rollins rather easily for his past “sins”. Should Utley even RESEMBLE his former self, as he has done over the past two weeks, Rollins’ former-former double play partner should also be easily embraced by a fanbase that he once belonged to as a kid, growing up in Southern California. (Utley was even drafted by the Dodgers in high school, prior to attending UCLA.)
The latest chapter of this grand experiment begins in Houston, where the Dodgers take on a team roughly equal in talent, if not payroll. With a mere month and a half to go in the regular season, it’s unlikely there will be yet ANOTHER chapter added by this all-too-active front office, but if so, let’s just hope it’s one that deals with the bullpen.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before- a versatile, energetic but unspectacular infielder is discarded by his lowly team. In a move that barely registers on the radar, the Dodgers acquire the player in question, rewarding him with a salary that doesn’t constitute 1% of the team’s gaudy overall payroll. Early in the season, the young player struggles with the limited playing time he’s given. This doesn’t bother the fans much, though, seeing how most of them don’t even know who the guy is! Then, injuries to starters change his fate. Quietly at first and then with increasing fanfare, the player flourishes. The player goes from expendable utility player, to super-utility player, to potential star player.
It’s pretty incredible that a team with so many well-known (and well-paid!) players can find such great fortune with someone so low-cost, whom hardly anyone ever heard of. Even more amazing is the fact that it happened two years in a row. With Hector Olivera’s departure to Atlanta, Justin Turner had finally been assured his rightful place in the Dodgers’ everyday lineup- in the MIDDLE of it, in fact! Being exactly one year behind Turner, Kiké Hernandez might have to wait a little bit longer. But if he keeps this up, it’s only a matter of time before he finds himself completing that final transition to everyday player, as well.
Hernandez’s evolution this season has been fun to watch. Starting out as a quirky fan favorite- kind of a modern-day Mickey Hatcher- Hernandez gradually became a force to be reckoned with. Probably the least heralded player of the seven involved in what was essentially a 3-way trade between the Dodgers, Marlins, and Angels, Hernandez has probably been the most productive zsince the All-Star break. This has to be a relief for Andrew Friedman and company. It was always an extreme risk to trade Dee Gordon, a budding star, for one year of Howie Kendrick. (Giving up Dan Haren without a dollar of compensation didn’t help, either.) No matter how good Howie was going to be this season- and to be fair, he has been quite good- it was all going to be about whether he could get the Dodgers to, if not THROUGH, the World Series. (Those aren’t terms that I came up with- that’s how the trade was set up from the day it was made. We’ll leave Chris Hatcher and Austin Barnes out of the equation, until given reason to do otherwise.) When Howie went down with a somewhat serious looking hamstring injury last week, it looked like the short-term nature of the trade might have gotten that much shorter.
Enter Kiké Hernandez. After spending the first few days of Kendrick’s injury looking at newly acquired prospect Jose Peraza, the Dodgers made Hernandez the everyday second baseman. (Peraza was sent back to Oklahoma, to make room for Turner’s return from the disabled list.) Hernandez continued to do what he had been doing for some time, both in the field and at the plate. The only difference is that now, he gets to play the same position on an everyday basis. While it’s only been a few days at the time of this post, the results have been head-turning, especially his 435 foot homerun into the left-field pavilion on Saturday. Of course, a few games isn’t enough to make ANY kind of meaningful judgment on what someone can do at the big league level. But at the time of this posting, Hernandez has 147 at-bats this season, or roughly the amount that Justin Turner had last year, before people started taking him seriously. Unlikely as it may seem, for the second year in a row, we are starting to see the same thing happen again.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence that Kiké Hernandez is for real, is the fact that HE says he is for real. When asked about his super-utility player status, the young man who has gained a reputation as a goofball becomes as serious as a military commander. (During high school, Hernandez attended the American Military Academy in Puerto Rico.) To whomever asks him the question, Hernandez responds- without a hint of sarcasm- that he is NOT a utility player, has never been one, and does not intend to be one now. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) He is also quick to point out that he is only 23 years old, and while respectful of the fact that Howie Kendrick is the team’s second baseman if healthy, being someone else’s understudy is not part of his long-term career plan.
This is all very impressive stuff, let alone from a 23 year old, playing in his first (almost) full Major League season, with a brand new organization. In spite of all this, it is too early to know if he’s for real. But with such a unique combination of poise, perspective, and confidence without arrogance, it should give Dodger fans, along with ALL fans of baseball*, reason to hope that he is.
*Okay, maybe not Giants fans.
You’re not making this easy on me, Don Mattingly.
Already falling back on old bad habits in New York last week, by having Scott Van Slyke sacrifice bunt on a 3-1 count during a tie game on the road, the fifth year Dodger manager managed to one-up himself on Monday night in Philadelphia. With the Boys in Blue yet again finding themselves in a tie game on the road, only this time with the home team up to bat, it was more critical than ever to keep the bases as cleared up as possible. However, with the go-ahead runner already on 2nd base in Alex Wood’s Dodger debut, Mattingly elected for him to walk Cesar Hernandez.
Look, I will readily admit that I don’t know enough about the current Phillies to tell you anything useful Cesar Hernandez, which is exactly the point. If a player is not easily identifiable outside of his own fanbase, he’s probably not worth a free pass. Moreover, any time a manager DOES order an intentional walk, it should be in an urgent situation- a franchise player at the plate, or last licks with an open base, or the pitcher on deck with two outs, and so forth. What it should NOT be is for the SOLE purpose a lefty-lefty matchup, particularly when the guy at the plate is more than capable of getting himself out.
It gets worse. Not only is Cesar Hernandez a considerably less worthy hitter than Mike Schmidt, he is also a considerably less worthy hitter than the guy batting two spots behind him in Phillies’ CURRENT lineup. At the time the intentional walk was issued, there was only one out.
A tie game, the lineup’s leadoff hitter just walked intentionally, only one out. Do you see where I’m going with this? (If so, that puts you one step ahead of Don Mattingly here!) Even if the next hitter, Odubel Herrera, batting with two on is somehow preferable to Cesar Hernandez batting with one on, only the improbable double play ensures that the number three hitter, Maikel Franco, does not get an at-bat in this inning. Franco is a rising star on a team desperately in need of one, and easily a superior hitter to Cesar Hernandez. Not only did Herrera NOT hit into a double play, he managed to get on base, setting the stage for Franco to do this against reliever Joel Peralta. (Well, at least that’s ONE WAY to keep the bases as clear as possible!)
In his playing days, Don Mattingly received respect and admiration from fans, players and coaches alike, not just because of his superior play, but also his work ethic, determination, and a seemingly impossible combination of modesty and confidence. Many of those traits have helped him succeed as a manager, for the most part. But we’ve also witnessed some troubling things from him that we HADN’T seen as a player- most alarmingly, an inability to learn from some of his worst strategic blunders. It’s not just his handing out baserunners to the other team, or his handing out outs to his own during close games. It’s also the surrounding circumstances that have made these moves so head scratching, and quite possibly led directly to Dodger losses. At certain times, it feels like a time warp, as though we’re reliving those close 2013 playoff losses all over again. (2014 wasn’t his fault, no matter how differently many Dodger fans feel about it. But that’s for another discussion.)
The hope here is that because these mistakes are being made in July and August, perhaps they can be prevented in October. I’m often at odds with self-proclaimed stat gurus, but I do appreciate much of their in-game approach, particularly their aversion to intentionally giving up outs, or intentionally awarding baserunners. Hopefully, Andrew Freidman’s crew is on it, because someone’s going to need to get through to the man known as Donnie Baseball before the postseason, should the Dodgers be good enough and lucky enough to get that far.
Andre Ethier was not supposed to still be here. Constantly rumored to be part of deals that involved- among others- Mark Teixiera, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Montero, and most recently CJ Wilson, Ethier survived them all. It’s debatable whether he even WANTED to survive those deals, particularly in recent years. But after the Dodgers couldn’t unload his contract for anything close to fair value, they figured it was better to instead trade Matt Kemp. This enraged many fans (hello, everybody!) and surely even the front office would have conceded that of the two franchise cornerstones, Ethier is the one they’d rather part with.
Thank goodness they didn’t. Not only has Ethier had a better season offensively than Kemp, but he’s been a far better fit in the field, as well. Though notably moody at times, Andre Ethier is also willing to play all three outfield positions, something that Matt Kemp is not. With Yasiel Puig manning right field for the foreseeable and Joc Pederson in center, Kemp would have been inserted into left field, a place that he truly hates, for whatever reason. Had Ethier been traded and Kemp stayed put, it’s difficult to imagine how that would have played out this year- let alone the fact that Yasmani Grandal would not be here.
But all this is big picture stuff. On Sunday, the reason(s) for keeping Ethier was far more apparent. After newbie Jim Johnson wrecked other newbie Mat Latos’s chance for a victory by allowing a game-tying home run to the Angels, Ethier picked him up in the bottom of the 8th inning with a dramatic, go-ahead home run to centerfield. The Angels tied up the game in the 9th inning with 2 outs, giving Mike Scioscia’s free-falling club from Orange County a brief feeling of elation- emphasis on brief.In the bottom of the 10th, Ethier came to the plate with Adrian Gonzalez on, and crushed a line-drive, walkoff home run- and into the Angel bullpen, just for effect! It was a dramatic hit from a dramatic player, and reminded Dodger fans of something that they used to see on a regular basis. It was good to see it again.
Never able to figure out lefties, Ethier has not quite been the player that Dodger fans had once hoped for. Nevertheless, the good has far outweighed the bad. In one final twist for the afternoon, Molly Knight notes in her new book “The Best Team Money Can Buy” that Andre Ethier once complained about playing in day games, saying he was a better player at night. (The numbers back this up.) But he isn’t complaining today, nor are Dodger fans. As his teammates congratulated him with a Gatorade bath, the longtime Dodger outfielder never looked happier to still be playing in Los Angeles. For Dodger fans on this Sunday afternoon, the feeling is more than mutual.
“You see what you expect to see.” –Professor Dumbledore to Snape
It’s hard not to give in to personal biases. Ruben Amaro can sign a veteran to a ridiculous contract, and the fans will call him out. Theo Epstein might do the same thing, and MLB message boards across the nation will light up, trying to interpret its “true meaning”. But as lauded as the perceived curse-breaking GM in Chicago might be, outside of the man in Oakland, there’s probably not a front office in baseball that operates more like a Rorschach Test than the one in Dodger Stadium.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. After enthusiastically greeting the hiring of the long-on-brains, even-longer-on-money front office last October, I quickly soured on them. Two massive trades, involving some of the most popular, exciting players on the team, followed by expensive free agent signings of two ex-Oakland starting pitchers that seemed to scream, “You just don’t GET it!” was enough for me to wonder if I could continue rooting for this organization. Fortunately, the moves turned out to be much better than I thought- though still not nearly as good as OTHERS thought, but I digress- and my enthusiasm ultimately overpowered my cynicism. But that doesn’t mean I bought in to Andrew Friedman’s program. Now that the 2015 trade deadline has come and gone, I may at least start to reconsider.
I know that many Dodgers fans had their hearts set on a Hamels, a Price, or a Cueto. To some extent, so did I. But the price of those guys, in terms of player personnel, may have been higher than Friedman and Fahran Zaidi were comfortable paying. (Ironically enough, it looks like Scott Kazmir may have been the one to go after early on, but hindsight is 50/50.) Instead of going for one great starter that would have potentially made the Dodgers thinner in the future, they opted for two good starters in Mat Latos and Alex Wood, at cost that should have zero impact on the team going forward. (The budget, of course, is another matter, but this is nothing new these days.) Also not to be overlooked, the team solidified the bullpen with Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan, and brought over a prospect, Jose Peraza, that may end up being the Dodgers’ second baseman next year, and hopefully beyond. Personally, I continue to be regretful about the guy who should STILL be the Dodgers’ second baseman- and I say that, fully aware that Howie Kendrick and Enrique Hernandez are having nice seasons- but that’s over now. What Friedman and company did was the next best thing to make up for it.
Perhaps the most underrated part of this trade is what it says about the front office’s faith in Justin Turner. In the offseason, the Dodgers paid an enormous amount of money to sign Cuban defector Hector Olivera, an infielder that they didn’t need. Olivera did well in the minors, but Turner performed even better in the MAJORS. Even so, for a while it appeared that the Dodgers were determined to put Olivera into the lineup, regardless of what Turner was doing. The biggest indication seemed to be SNLA announcers referring to him as “the Dodgers’ third baseman of the future”. (Outside of Vin Scully, it’s pretty clear by now that the rest of the announcers, great as they are, operate within the company lines.) We often hear about players doing “what’s best for the team.” By trading away Olivera and giving the nod to Turner, the Dodgers’ President of Baseball Operations did just that, and it shouldn’t go unnoticed.
As for the team itself, they are holding onto first place- barely- though not without some serious concerns. Justin Turner has been placed on the DL for an infection, which will hopefully clear up within the next few days, for his sake and his team’s. Less threatening in the physical realm but more so on the field, Clayton Kershaw is dealing with a sore hip, but he claims that pitching Saturday afternoon will not be a problem for him. (Let’s hope that’s true, along with the idea he will be able to say the same thing AFTER the game.) Dodger fans not enamored with Dee Gordon should at least take interest in the man assigned with the tall task of facing off against Kershaw today, Andrew Heaney, who was flipped for Howie Kendrick hours after being traded for Gordon. Should be fun!
All things considered, the Dodgers managed to hold their ground fairly well in recent weeks, as the July 31st “Treadline” (thank you, Alanna Rizzo!) drew nearer and nearer for them*. For their part, the front office has done a nice job holding THEIR ground so far, not making any panicky decisions, in spite of this somewhat desperate situation. However, they don’t deserve to be commended, until we see what they DO have planned, especially seeing how they’ve let at least one good opportunity to bolster their depleted starting rotation, in the form of Scott Kazmir, pass them by. By the end of this week, we’ll have a lot more to talk about. But speaking of Scott Kazmir, with the A’s coming to Chavez Ravine and considering the men who currently occupy the Dodgers’ front office, this seems like the perfect opportunity to examine the Moneyball reality- more accurately “Billyball”, but we’ll stick to the more well-known name association- how it relates to the Dodgers.
First because of Moneyball the book, then compounded by Moneyball the movie, Billy Beane has been given latitude by fans and critics that no other GM has gotten. To the hard core SABR crowd, he is a beacon of light against the cranky, condescending Bill Plaschkes of the world. (Never mind such condescending remarks FROM Moneyball about “stupid” General Managers, who went for high school pitchers like Zack Greinke and Matt Cain, while “card counting” Billy Beane gunned for Joe Blanton and Jeff Francis. But I digress.) For that reason, the praise is always louder when things work, while the criticism is always muted or covered in qualifiers when it doesn’t. Never was this more evident than last season, when Beane took an enormous risk with lasting consequences, trading the A’s flashy, cleanup-hitting outfielder, Yoenis Cespedes, for Jon Lester, a rental. (Granted, an OUTSTANDING rental, but a rental nevertheless.) Any other GM who trades their cleanup hitter for a rental player, with anything short of a World Series appearance- let alone losing THE WILDCARD GAME- would have gotten destroyed in the press, not to mention by legions of fans, perhaps even getting fired in the end. But while there were a fair number of grumbles, Beane’s defenders- of which he has many- mostly drowned them out and shrugged, stating that Cespedes was overrated and that Billy had to “go for it”. This, of course, runs counter to EVERYTHING that Billy Beane supposedly stands for, famously stating that the playoffs are a “crapshoot”. And I’ll say this for Beane- he didn’t back down from that after the 2014 late season meltdown, claiming that Jon Lester helped the team win games. This is true, but it’s also true that Cespedes’s presence in the lineup very well could have helped them win more, avoiding a position where the A’s were forced to play in the wildcard game AT ALL. The final insult of this midseason trade occurred AFTER the season, when the A’s didn’t even get a DRAFT PICK after Lester walked, seeing how he was a midseason acquisition.
From there, it got even worse for the A’s. Famous for using the “small market” excuse in good times and bad, Beane still somehow managed find $30 million under the couch cushion to sign Billy Butler, a designated hitter in decline. He then flipped Josh Donaldson, a budding, cost controlled star first acquired by Beane while Donaldson was still in the low minors, for four comparatively low-impact players- the ultimate “quality-for-quantity” exchange. By any measure, the whole sequence of events was a debacle, except for the one used by Beane’s army of apologists, who actually use the Pythagorean Theorem to “prove” the A’s are simply unlucky, claiming that their run differential shows they are a much better team than their record would otherwise indicated. A’s fans who don’t feel enamored with the “genius” of Billy Beane might think otherwise. (For the record, citing a Math theorem, normally taught in 10th grade Math, is more surreal than any caricature that a critic of sabermetrics could ever conjure up.)
If history is any guide, Beane’s fans will counter that the Donaldson deal has not played out yet, that we will have to wait a few years to see how it truly plays out. We could be charitable and grant them this point, especially seeing how Donaldson HIMSELF was one of those low-minor prospects that ended up working out. But that’s also part of the problem- even if someone from the Donaldson trade DOES work out long-term, he won’t be with Oakland long enough for the fans to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Such is life as an Oakland A’s fan, with Billy Beane and his fans/defenders/apologists/whatever-you-want-to-call-them claiming victory, while the team on the field cannot. And therein lies the difference between Beane and Andrew Friedman.
Okay, Let’s Get Back To The Dodgers Now!
Many within baseball’s inner circle(s) regard Andrew Friedman to be just as sharp and effective as Billy Beane himself, if not more so. But outside of those circles, he is regarded as someone who has been handed the keys to MLB’s most expensive kingdom. Many have claimed that if Friedman can take methods first made popular by Beane WITH a real budget to work with, there’s no stopping him. It is far too early to evaluate what he’s done with any certainty, but the early results so far, while certainly not bad, are also a little bit underwhelming.
There is no denying Friedman’s success in Tampa, but that was a place where almost nobody cared about baseball to begin with. Oakland may indeed be a “small market”, but they have a team that has had a fair amount of historical success since the early 1970’s, which has helped paved the way to a dedicated fanbase. Andrew Friedman got his team in Tampa further in the postseason than Billy Beane ever did with his in Oakland. However, Brad Pitt never played Andrew Friedman in the movies, so Friedman’s lasting legacy has yet to be written. It’s fair to assume that a significant part of it will be in the next few days. Since all we can do until July 31st is speculate, how about the job that he’s done so far?
The Dodgers are in first place, but after a relentless surge by the always streaking Giants- partially thanks to an assist from Beane’s hapless crew- it is just about a virtual tie at this point. Besides, contrary to the conventional wisdom that he inherited a mess, the increasingly maligned and misremembered 2014 Dodgers won 94 games. So it’s not like he was inheriting what’s left of the Philadelphia Phillies. And while the two extremely controversial, franchise-changing winter meeting deals have so far worked out far better than many of us Dodger fans imagined (particularly the Kemp for Grandal & Rollins deal), the lack of starting and relief depth has really taken its toll on the team. Friedman and his defenders have often hinted at bad luck as to the reason for this, but that seems a little too convenient, especially seeing how James Shields is pitching fairly well for the Padres, while Dan Haren does the same for the Marlins, while still on the Dodgers payroll. It’s unfair to claim clairvoyance for Matt Kemp’s regression and Yasmani Grandal improving in every major category, while shrugging off Brandon McCarthy, a sabermetric favorite who was signed for $48 million, claiming Friedman couldn’t be blamed for an injury that was different than many had previously anticipated. (We still don’t know how Brett Anderson, who has pitched well but seems like a potential ticking time bomb, will rebound after HIS latest mishap.)
So we’ll see how it all plays out over the next three days. The one thing that we DO know is that Fahran Zaidi, Friedman’s top lieutenant and official general manager of the Dodgers, did not successfully use his Oakland connection to bring Scott Kazmir to Los Angeles, if he even tried. Should this be commended, or criticized? We’ll probably know by the end of the week.
So Who Do The Dodgers Get, And Who Do They Trade?
Well, we know who the Dodgers SHOULD get, above all others- a #3 starter worthy of a championship-aspiring team, and an 8th inning guy. Tyler Clippard, ANOTHER guy who played for Oakland, is heading to New York now. Is Jonathan Papelbon REALLY that bad of a guy that the Dodgers can’t show a LITTLE bit of interest in him? And please hold off on the, “Too much remaining on the contract” stuff- not with the way THIS ownership and front office have spent money. Maybe he just refuses to be an 8th inning guy. Who knows?
As for starters, we DO know that it will probably come down to Cole Hamels and David Price, seeing how we can scratch Johnny Cueto and Kazmir off the list. But what will it take to get one of them to call Dodger Stadium home, and will it be worth it? Corey Seager and Julio Urias appear to be off limits. Generally speaking, “Prospects are suspects until proven otherwise”, as radio talk show host Ben Maller likes to say, but these two are not ordinary prospects. Corey Seager is the number one prospect in baseball, even if his recent hitting in AAA hasn’t reflected that. (He did move very quickly through the minor league system.) Julio Urias is fairly close behind, a fact that’s all the impressive given that he’s still a teenager. Sure, these guys might not pan out, but then again, neither may Cole Hamels! Ultimately, it would probably be best if the Dodgers would trade a couple of top prospects BESIDES those guys, throw in an established Major Leaguer and pay for the bulk of his salary (hey, what’s one more to the Guggenheim group?), and call it a day.
Of course, no trade talks would be complete this year without discussing Yasiel Puig. Forget his attitude- if things continue the way they have been going over the past few weeks, it may start to look like the Dodgers would have been better off keeping Matt Kemp! (For the record, I’m not actually saying this. It’s just striking how a mere three weeks ago, it was a foregone conclusion that the Dodgers dodged a bullet by trading Kemp, while his numbers are now within striking distance of Puig’s.) Nevertheless, the Dodger experience without Kemp, Dee Gordon, and Hanley Ramirez has lost some personality. I’m all for professionalism, but this year’s team, quiet honestly, has been a little bit dull at times. I’m not arguing to keep Puig based on THIS, but sports is, ultimately, entertainment. There’s still too much there to give up on the guy so (presumably) early in his career. Having said that, the Dodgers would be ill-advised to NOT trade him for the right price. But what IS the right price? In my mind, it’s not anyone over 30, not even Cole Hamels. This front office already gave up too early on one potential young star in Gordon. If they’re going to trade another one with such a high ceiling, this time, they’d better get one back with a similar profile. (On a sidenote, how crazy would it actually be for the Dodgers to trade Yasiel Puig on his bobblehead night?)
Meanwhile, On The Field…
The Dodgers finally return home, clinging to their lead by a thread, facing the same hapless A’s we’ve already spent so much time discussing in this post. Unfortunately, the first game is anything but favorable, with ace Sonny Gray taking the hill. Wednesday is looking a little bit better, with Clayton Kershaw on the mound, facing…somebody. I’m not sure who it is, and I’m not interested enough to check. The only thing I know is that it’s not Scott Kazmir.
*I started writing this post at the beginning of the weekend, and I’m not letting what happened the past few days change that first sentence!
The Return of DonnieBall- For Dodgers at Citi Field, Bunting Strategy Proves To Be The Wrong Strategy
I really had hoped that I wouldn’t have to write a post like this again.
It had been well over a year since I could recall Don Mattingly ordering a sacrifice bunt in a situation that absolutely didn’t call for it. Specifically, the last one I could truly remember was Andre Ethier, ordered to move Dee Gordon (DEE GORDON!) over to second base- and in a game that the Dodgers were losing! These days, sacrifice bunting is a controversial strategy in MOST baseball circles, to put it mildly, especially among the sabermetric community. While I take issue with that group in many respects- wait until my upcoming Moneyball-related post- I’m pretty much with them on this one. Even so, there are at least a few situations where I can tolerate a sacrifice bunt from someone with a batting average higher than .180. For the Dodgers, Sunday’s extra inning heartbreaker in Queens, New York was not one of those times.
After mounting an inspired comeback in the 9th inning against the Mets to spare Zack Greinke another hard-luck loss, the Dodgers managed to make it to the 10th, where Mets killer Jimmy Rollins managed a leadoff walk. The next batter, Scott Van Slyke, struck a pose that struck despair into the hearts of Dodger fans- he squared to bunt, as though he was a relief pitcher who hadn’t picked up a bat since Little League. Almost as though to show Mattingly how bad a strategy sacrifice bunting was in this situation, Rollins was ambitious enough to steal second. Didn’t matter. The Mets’ actual relief pitcher had trouble finding the plate. Didn’t matter. With a count of 3-1, Mattingly had Van Slyke hand the Mets an out, on a silver platter, applauding from the dugout as though something good had just happened. Others didn’t feel that way. “Wow,” Mets’ announcer Keith Hernandez exclaimed in disbelief. Sadly, Dodger fans did not, as we’ve seen this all too many times before to be surprised. (Still, many of us managed to exclaim something.)
This wasn’t even the end of it, though. The next batter up was Joc Pederson, a man who currently specializes in three things- walks, home runs, and especially and unfortunately, strikeouts. None of these things are conducive to a “productive out”, the only type of outcome that even REMOTELY justifies sacrifice bunting. Going for a one run inning on the road in extra innings is bad enough. Doing so on a 3-1 count? Even worse. Doing so with a guy who, under the circumstances, is more likely to produce an at-bat which will produce anything BUT one run? Inexcusable, particularly for a manager who has been given the occasional nickname “Buntingly”, and supposedly improved his strategic acumen (or at least, surrounded himself with better people).
I have defended “Donnie Baseball” many times, holding onto the belief that his skills in dealing with personnel are more important than his occasional head scratching in-game decisions. He often gets too much of the blame when his star players come up short, or his front office does not give him the best players to work with. But this is not one of those times. Joc Pederson exploded onto the seen, showed a lot of promise, and already does some things very impressively. But it has become increasingly that against good pitching, he is often overmatched. In this at-bat, Pederson ultimately did what he does more than anything else- he struck out, and the Dodgers would ultimately strand Rollins on third base. This is not to give the young Dodger centerfielder a lot of grief- just his manager.
As for the rest of the game, it was all too predictable from that point. The Mets would win on a walk-off in the bottom of the inning. Adding insult to injury, the winning hit was delivered by Juan Uribe, of all people. Dodger fans will always remember Uribe fondly for hitting one of the greatest post-1988 home runs in team history, against the Atlanta Braves, in the 2013 NLDS. How did it happen? Uribe failed to get the sacrifice bunt down- twice, no less- at which point Mattingly called off the bunt sign in the nick of time, setting the stage for Uribe to play hero. It seemed that perhaps the Dodger skipper had seen the light, going so far as questioning why he had put the bunt on in the first place. That self-doubt didn’t last a single game, as he employed it against the Cardinals in extra innings during the next round. (The Dodgers didn’t score then, either, and ultimately lost the game.) And here we are now, nearly two years later, having the same scenario play out right in front of us. It’s all too predictable, and tiring to talk about. And if Juan Uribe’s presence wasn’t enough to show Mattingly the fallacy of this, chances are that nothing will. The Dodgers and their fans should just hope that they are not even presented with such a situation in mid-October, should they be so lucky to make it that far.
All is not lost, though, as the Dodgers have managed to hold onto first place, heading back to Los Angeles. (Barely, but they have.) The always streaky Giants have streaked the wrong way lately, from a “blue” point of view, thanks in part to the Oakland A’s, waving the green, yellow and white flag of surrender. And now the Dodgers face that same pitiful team, hopefully with the same results as the archrivals. The Moneyball post can’t come soon enough. I’d better get started on it.
When they’re at the plate, they lead their league in home runs and on-base percentage. When they’re in the field, they lead their league in fielding percentage. The two men at the front of their rotation might be the best starting pitchers in baseball, and one of them perhaps the best regular season pitcher of his generation. Their closer isn’t too bad, either. And, most important for the immediate term, the 2015 Los Angeles Dodgers have a decent first place lead in their division, with more than half the season behind them. And yet…
At the time of this posting, the team is unsure who their fourth and fifth starting pitchers will be the rest of the way, while their third- who really should be a #4, for a team with championship aspirations- has an arm that can fall off any minute. Their atrocious baserunning is far more worthy of a last place team, than a first place one. No one can seem to agree on a lineup that makes sense for them, especially their manager, who almost literally puts up a different one every night. (Seriously, how did he get so many combinations in there? Is it even mathematically possible?!) And their middle relievers cannot be trusted. (Then again, whose can be? If they could be, they wouldn’t be middle relievers!)
But even though the second paragraph is longer than the first, it’s only because negativity is just more interesting to talk about. Truth be told, the good has outweighed the bad for the Dodgers in 2015, and it’s not really close, no matter WHAT fans in the team site’s comment section say. But there is a lot of work to be done for the Dodgers to get to where they want to go. Forget their bullpen woes- they are dangerously close to having Kershaw and Greinke pitching on one day’s rest! So with that, we have a few questions to ponder, with no ready made answers- but one way or another, we will have answers soon enough…
Seriously, what do the Dodgers do about the back of the rotation? There are few certainties in life, other than death, taxes, and the Dodgers trading for a starting pitcher in the next two weeks. That’s not to say that Brett Anderson, Mike Bolsinger, and Carlos Frias haven’t done a good job, all things considered. But thinking ahead a few months, I don’t think these guys should pitch more than one game per postseason series COMBINED. Beginning with Anderson, whose job security is easily the strongest of the three, we have someone whose ERA and walk-to-strikeout ratio would indicate that he’s a #2 or #3 starter. His opponents’ overall batting average would indicate otherwise. The Dodgers defense up the middle has improved dramatically this season, for obvious reasons, which is probably a key contributor to Anderson’s good season so far. But how much can the Dodgers trust this to continue? How long can they watch him give up 7 or 8 hits again, while somehow managing to hold the opposing team to 2 or 3 runs? Granted, it worked for Hyun Jin-Ryu for two full seasons, so it’s possible. But “possible” is not a desirable adjective, for a team still looking for its first title in over a quarter of a century.
As for the other two? Bolsinger’s numbers have actually been as good, and in some respects, actually better than Anderson’s. But he had just gone through a six week period where it looked like the league caught up to him, prior to a very effective start against the Milwaukee Brewers, right at the break. He’s going to face an outstanding Nationals lineup on Saturday, and how he does could determine his fate the rest of the way with the Dodgers’ rotation, or perhaps as a valuable trade chip. And I don’t know what to make of Carlos Frias at this point, so I’m not even going to try. (The Brandon Beachy resurrection experiment did not go well in his only start, so we’ll have to see if he gets another one.)
How about the bullpen? Most of the stats that shine a more favorable light on the Dodgers’ relievers can be attributed to Kenley Jansen, their outstanding, longtime closer. The supporting cast has been okay, for the most part, but much like the back of the rotation, that’s not enough for a team with the kind of goals that the Dodgers have in mind. In particular, they desperately need a setup guy, and a potentially perfect one is out there in Philadelphia, waiting for the taking. The problem is that with what we know about Jonathan Papelbon, he might not be so willing to go for a role as an eighth inning guy. How much would he be willing to put his considerable ego aside, in the name of winning? Even if so, how much would the Dodgers be willing to give up for him?
But enough about pitching already.
What can we expect from Joc Pederson? In a sense, the All Star festivities were a microcosm of the rookie centerfielder’s season, so far. Joc wowed the masses in a refreshingly exciting, reformatted Home Run Derby, with his amazing pure power on display for all the world to see. As we suspected, his performance was far more inspiring than Puig and Kemp in recent years, who are more gap-power, go-with-the-pitch kind of hitters. But the next day, in a game that got the typical All-Star game buzz of recent years- which is to say, not very much- Pederson quietly struck out in both of his at-bats. (How ironic is it that a game “that counts” now, means that much less to fans than it used to? But I digress.) Few remembered those two at-bats in the game, but many are still abuzz about him stealing the show the day before. In terms of star appeal? That’s great! I’d rather see him hit the ball over 400 feet dozens of times, than hit a couple of singles the other way. But with the Dodgers in the national’s capital, getting ready to face some of the best non-Dodger pitchers in the National League this weekend, I have to admit I’m a little bit worried. Joc’s “true outcome” approach at the plate worked pretty well the first six weeks or so of the 2015 season. The past six weeks? Not so much. (And we won’t even talk about his baserunning, until he works with Davey Lopes enough for us to have something to talk about.) None of this is to take away from his incredible play in centerfield, specifically one that was so spectacular, it may have cost Bud Black his job. It’s also not to take away from the kind of IN-GAME power we saw from him, the first two and a half months of the season. But in spite of an upside as high as his vertical, Joc Pederson has been overmatched at the plate at times, and increasingly so in recent weeks. If he doesn’t start hitting again soon, it will only be a matter of time before fans and media finally to start to notice.
What can we expect from Yasiel Puig? It’s been a tough season to evaluate for everyone’s favorite non-A-Rod lightning-rod. He missed a lot of time, and hasn’t quite gotten going. But for such an extraordinary talent with an extraordinary personality, his numbers have been…well, ordinary. He still has an amazing ability to make everything and everyone around him that much more interesting, whether he’s throwing guys out, hitting the ball in the gap, or annoying opponents and teammates alike. But while watching Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Manny Machado run laps around him, Puig still has the potential to break out any moment, much like he did the first hundred at-bats of his career, and again in May 2014. For all the hoopla about his attitude and lapses in work ethic, it’s his health that might be the biggest concern. But so long as he can keep from getting too banged up while keeping his head in the game, Yasiel Puig is still more than capable of reminding the baseball world that he’s still here, just in case they forgot.
Who will be a Dodger in two weeks, that isn’t one right now? We don’t have a name yet, but we do have two probable positions. If you’ve been reading this post from top to bottom, you should already have the answer- a #3 starter, and a setup guy in the bullpen! The organization certainly has the resources and personnel to get him. Be it David Price, Johnny Cueto, Cole Hamels, or someone we haven’t even considered, the front office will be judged not just by the outcome of the new guy(s), but by the personnel they will be sending out of town. Which brings us to the next question…
Who will NOT be a Dodger in two weeks, that IS one right now? Wow, this is a tough one. The Dodgers face a real Catch-22 on this question. The Dodgers have some guys that are more than capable of helping other teams win some games, more than they can help their own team. (Alex Guerrero and Andre Ethier are two that come to mind.) But any team willing to deal with the Dodgers, probably wouldn’t NEED to win right now, and would rather have young players for the future, whom the Dodgers are loathe to part with. The Mets are one possible exception, with a subpar offense, tons of pitching, and shockingly, only two games away from first place in their own division. So they might match up well. Outside of that? If they really want any of the guys mentioned by name in the previous paragraph, the Dodgers might have to part with Corey Seager or Julio Urias, something the front office, understandably, is loathe to do. It really depends on how much competition they have with other teams, for the precious few frontline starters on the selling block- and make no mistake, there will be a LOT of competition.
But it’s not just players that they can trade for. There are plenty of guys in the minor leagues that can help out, too, one of whom seems closer to a call-up than any other. This begs the question-
What Do The Dodgers Do With Hector Olivera, Once He Gets Here? Health issues aside, Olivera has torn up the minor leagues, is 30 years old, and is currently signed for $62 million. Seeing how my anger for much of the controversial offseason was, in hindsight, wasted energy, I’ll try to be careful about doing the same thing here. Nevertheless, the front office clearly likes to put their own prints on everything they do, and I hope they don’t feel the need to justify this seemingly over-the-top signing any time soon. More specifically, Justin Turner has easily been the best Dodger third baseman since Adrian Beltre, and enough time has passed now to believe it’s not a fluke. Whatever the smartest guys at 1000 Elysian Park have planned for Mr. Olivera, it should not come at the expense of Mr. Turner.
And speaking of the best hitter on the team…
Can We PLEASE Get Some Lineup Stability Already?! Without a traditional leadoff hitter, and uneven performances from more than half of the everyday players, the lineup that makes the most sense seems to change week-to-week. But they do have three established professional hitters- Howie Kendrick, Justin Turner, and Adrian Gonzalez. (If Yasmani Grandal keeps this up, we can add him to the list, but it’s still too early.) Those three guys should be at the top, in that order- Kendrick because he has a little bit more speed, Turner because he has a little bit more pop, and Gonzalez because he’s the run producer. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?
None of this is a knock on the job Don Mattingly has done this season. In fact…
When Will The Fans Ease Up On The Dodger Skipper Already?! Okay, this isn’t so much of a question, as it is a request. Also, we already know the answer to this, as fans haven’t even seen the Dodgers IN the World Series in over a quarter-century. (It’s also pretty clear that no Dodger fan wants to be reminded that Clayton Kershaw is a mortal, especially in October.) But with the team is humming along in first place, the reception that Mattingly’s name receives at the Stadium’s lineup introduction would seem more appropriate right now in Philadelphia. Weirdly, the hostile reaction seems to be getting STRONGER, as though every day that we get further from 1988 is on Mattingly. But it’s not. There are plenty of reasons for fans to get mad when things aren’t going their team’s way. But when things ARE going their team’s way, it’s best to just try to enjoy it.
Which leads us to the final question before the (nominal) second half commences…
Will The Good Times Last? The good news is that the Dodgers will have a less breakneck schedule for the rest of the season, with enough off days to give everyone breathers. The bad news is that the Dodgers have an awful record against teams with winning records, and that’s most of what they’ll be seeing for a while. But it doesn’t have to be bad news. With a fairly commanding lead in a weak division, this team can start looking at what it needs to do, to adjust to stronger competition- and that goes double for the front office.
The Dodgers restart against one of the best teams in baseball, in Washington DC in a few hours. Something tells me this may not be the only time the Dodgers stop by there in 2015. We’ll see.
While All Star game participation is not the best indication of a winning team, it’s pretty safe to say that when 1/5th of your team’s roster is heading there, they’re probably in good shape. It’s an even better indication when the manager is joining in on the festivities.
Here is a celebratory look at how these half-dozen Boys in Blue made their way to the hometown of the Reds-
Joc Pederson – In light of the Dodgers’ most common batting order this season, it seems appropriate to leadoff with Joc here. Normally, a rooking hitting .230 with 105 strikeouts would not be the starting centerfielder of the All Star game, if he’d be there at all. But Joc Pederson is not a normal rookie. Already one of the better defensive centerfielders in Los Angeles Dodger history, along with already being one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball today, Pederson has anchored an outfield that has needed anchoring for YEARS. His game-saving plays have become regular features on sports highlight shows, as have his Mantle-esque, tape measure home runs. Pitchers have adjusted to him in recent weeks, and he will need to adjust back. For now, though, he has a tailor-made swing for the Home Run Derby, which should serve him far better than it did for his talented but miscast Dodger predecessors, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig.
Yasmani Grandal– I’m not going to lie. Had you asked me on Opening Day who would be the least likely Dodger to end up in Cincinnati this week, I’d probably go with this guy. Originally drafted BY the Reds as one of the most promising catching prospects in baseball, Grandal was sent to San Diego as a centerpiece of the Mat Latos deal, where he had a very successful rookie campaign in 2012. Then, he got busted in the Biogenesis scandal, tore up his knee, and seemed destined for MLB’s scrap heap. Fortunately for the Dodgers, Andrew Friedman and company saw something there that a lot of us didn’t.After a slow start offensively, Grandal hasn’t looked back since early May, often being among one or two other guys doing ANYTHING in the Dodger lineup, through some rather lengthy team slumps. But as valuable as he’s been at the plate, his game calling behind the plate is what really sets him apart, drawing praise from none other than fellow All-Star Zack Greinke- not a guy who hands out compliments very easily. His pitch framing abilities have been widely praised amongst the sabermetrics community, and his rate of throwing out runners has improved dramatically from last season’s campaign. If “Yaz” can keep up this pace throughout the remainder of the season, he will not just be an All Star- he will be Comeback Player of the Year.
(Special tip of the cap to Rob Neyer for going out on a limb, contemplating that Grandal could be an All Star before the season even began.)
Adrian Gonzalez– As of right now, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that Gonzalez has had a Hall of Fame career. However, he has consistently put up numbers that quietly guarantee he will, at the very least, be on a Hall of Fame ballot. A blockbuster trade by the Dodgers that drew lukewarm praise at the time, also being criticized as too costly to be worth the price, Gonzalez is the only player on EITHER side of that trade, still making key contributions to his team. (No disrespect intended to Carl Crawford, who has been sidelined most of the season.) But not only has he been valuable, he been exactly the player whom the Dodgers envisioned since day one- a steady, middle of the order “gap power” threat, with steady, occasionally spectacular, defense at the corner. Moreover, though he is a mild-mannered guy, he turns up the intensity when necessary, such as when he nearly dove into the stands in the 9th inning of today’s win against the Brewers, narrowly missing a game ending catch. He leads by example, and neither apologizes, nor makes excuses, when things don’t go the Dodgers’ way- just calls it as he sees it. Though he has put on way more different uniforms than a player of his caliber ever should, even in the era of free agency, he will hopefully end his career one day, in the Dodger uniform that he wears now.
Zack Greinke– Okay, we’re done with the warmup act. Now, we can get to the headliners. Look, we all know how important the three Ohio-bound position players have been for the team, but ten years from now, no one will look back at any of their numbers and say, “Now THAT was a season to remember!” The same cannot be said of the Dodgers’ two phenominal aces, anchoring not just their own team, but the entire National League. When one thinks of the Los Angeles Dodgers historically, one thinks of starting pitching, and that has rarely been more true than this season. If Zack Greinke isn’t starting the game on Tuesday, Major League Baseball will need to open an investigation.
Incidentally, many of the same things said about Adrian Gonzalez can be said about Zack Greinke. Among them, he’s not Hall of Fame bound (yet), but is certainly Hall of Fame ballot bound. He was signed in a deal with measured praise at the time- an upgrade who supposedly wasn’t worth the price, when in actuality, it has been a bargain. Also similar to Gonzalez is his quiet determination- not a very animated guy, to say the least, but as fierce a competitor as one can imagine. (Note the way he takes his at-bats.) And finally, like the Dodger first baseman, Zack Greinke has changed teams far more than someone of his ability should.
On almost any other team, someone of this description would be an Opening Day starter. But not the Dodgers, because of the next guy.
Clayton Kershaw– Much as it was appropriate to start this player list with Joc Pederson, it’s appropriate to save the best for last, ending it was Clayton Kershaw, as he was the last person to be added to the National League squad, somehow. It’s an annual tradition for a successful fanbase’s team to seethe about their guy(s) getting snubbed, but Dodger fans were primed for once-in-a-generation, next level outrage. I’ll be honest- on some level, I was kind of looking forward to it! The very idea of the Giants’ skipper, so publicly snubbing the best pitcher in baseball (even if that wasn’t his intention), was going to make a fun narrative for years to come. Now, we have Kershaw, making another ho-hum mid-July appearance, something that he might not have even wanted to do! (We’ll never know.) But regardless, if you’re going to leave off someone who is both the reigning Cy Young AND MVP winner, you’d better have a really good reason to do so. Bruce Bochy did not. He is fortunate that circumstances bailed him out.
As for Kershaw himself, yes, he’s having an “off year” by HIS measures, mainly due to lack of run-support, and a few more home run balls than he’s accustomed to giving up. But by any other measure, he is still an Ace-of-Spaces, even on a team WITH Zack Greinke. If past seasons are any indication, he will only get stronger as the summer goes on.
So that’s the player list, but we promised SIX Dodgers at the beginning of this, so here’s one more:
Don Mattingly– Making his first All Star appearance since 1989- then as a player, obviously- he is a rare controversial selection for many fans of his OWN team. Seeing how the Dodgers have been in first place all season, it’s been puzzling to listen to the fan reaction when Mattingly’s name is announced at Dodger Stadium, prior to the starting lineups. And yes, we all know about his shortcomings strategically, but that’s hardly a reason not to give a polite applause for your first place team’s skipper! (In small but clearly audible cases, there have actually been BOOS.)
The fact is, Mattingly will never be Joe Maddon. But he has always been a high character guy, demanding the best effort from his players while simulataneously supporting them when they give it. He has navigated through ownership scandals, players demanding more playing time, and various other personnel conflicts. We will see what the rest of the season brings, but so far, he has been the right man for this team, and his selection is well deserved.
With Bud Selig now retired, we hope that we will be able to retire the “This-Time-It-Counts” silliness after this year, as well. But while it’s still with us, let’s also hope that at least this time around, the cause that Greinke, Kershaw and everyone else will be contributing to, will ultimately be their own this October.