The Dodgers Are The 2016 NL West Champions- But How?!

On June 26th in Pittsburgh, Clayton Kershaw had his worst game of the season.  That isn’t saying too much, given that he only had one bad inning- LITERALLY ONE BAD INNING– the entire season, up until that point.  Not only was he arguably having the greatest season for a starting pitcher ever, but outside of Corey Seager, was just about the only Dodger on the field worth the price of admission.  The Dodgers would end up losing that game.  Far more horrifically, they would lose Kershaw himself, to a back injury.  At 8 games back, it appeared to be an early nail in the coffin for the 2016 Dodgers, who looked absolutely hapless for the 4 out 5 games that the 3 time Cy Young award winner was reduced to dugout cheerleader.  Instead, it became a turning point.

Many baseball journalists had foolishly written the Dodgers off in 2014, after just witnessing a massive midseason turnaround in 2013 that saw the team running away with the NL West.  But in Dodger years, with so much turnover both on the field and off the field, 2014 felt like a lifetime ago.  Anyone who’d written the team off after Kershaw got hurt this season, after seeing such a lackluster performance from anyone BESIDES him and Corey Seager, couldn’t reasonably be expected to conclude otherwise.  And yet…

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The 2016 Dodgers, tipping their caps to the man whose been with the team, since before their parents were born. (Source: Los Angeles Dodgers)

Here we are, in the same spot we’ve found ourselves since 2013- with the Dodgers celebrating a first place finish, by a surprisingly comfortable margin. Coincidence or not, the team really seemed to wake up with Kerhsaw’s injury, particularly the offense.  One of the main contributors, Justin Turner, had also anchored the 2014 comeback, when he came out of nowhere to become the Dodgers best hitter in the second half of that season.  (He didn’t quite reach those heights this season, but he wasn’t far off.)  In hindsight, ironically enough, that game in Pittsburgh seemed to be something of a turning point for his season, personally, providing the only offense in that loss.  Joc Pederson, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal also came to life shortly after.  Promising outfield rookie Andrew Toles picked up where Trayce Thompson left off early on,  while Chase Utley and Howie Kendrick turned out to be smart veteran re-signings.

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In a somber moment before the game, Puig pays tribute to his friend Jose Fernandez. (Story here: http://wp.me/p1UqDw-9R)

 

And then there’s Yasiel Puig.  I don’t think the writers at Friends brought out the, “Will They Or Won’t They?” storyline for Ross and Rachel, as many times as we’ve seen Puig go from Hero-To-Zero and back again.  After a fantastic first few games this season, Puig spent the next few months largely in oblivion, losing not only his starting spot, but his spot on the Major League roster.  It’s a true shame, not just for the Dodgers, but for Major League Baseball, a sport that NEEDS Puig to be relevant, if not a star.  The good news is that after spending some time in purgatory (aka Oklahoma), Puig seems closer to being a hero again, helping the Dodgers with their final push towards the finish line by unhinging Madison Bumgarner, in a way that only Puig can.  Well…maybe not ONLY Puig can, but no one does it better!

 

But while the Dodgers offense coming to life somewhat explains their life after Kershaw, the pitching is much more baffling.  Kenta Maeda was good, but rarely got past the 6th inning.  Nobody else achieved a double digit number of quality starts.  The only one who came close- Scott Kazmir with nine- had a 4.56 ERA.  The bullpen, outside of Kenley Jansen, was made up of retreads and no names, yet they got the job done consistently, particularly Joe Blanton- and they were relied upon A LOT.  It sounds inconceivable, but the Dodgers second half steamroll came in an environment where more than half the games were bullpen by committee.

So what does all this mean for the people running this team?  At least in the dugout, first year manager Dave Roberts should be Manager of the Year.  Everyone knows how great Joe Maddon is, but he had a far superior roster.  Giving the award to the Cubs skipper would simply be a recognition for the guy who helms the team with the best record, without any regard to the circumstances.  Dave Roberts managed to deal with one of the most injury-plagued teams in franchise history, and he did so in his first year with the team.  He had to make CONSTANT adjustments, and he met the challenge brilliantly.  We have a few extra weeks before the ink dries overall, but the fact that he even got the team THIS far is already something that he should be proud of.

As for the front office?  That’s a tough one.  Their methods are controversial and often maddening to those of us who appreciate a more traditional, simple approach to baseball.  The smug attitude of some of their defenders can be even MORE maddening.  But it can’t be denied that after two years of constant roster moves, their formula has been successful more than not, even when many of us were convinced that it would fail.  This season, in particular, has been a real triumph for them, not shelling out 9 digit contracts to Zack Greinke- or Johnny Cueto, for that matter- yet finishing with far better records than those teams who did.  Of course, that’s not to count out the Giants for the postseason- it IS an even year, after all.  But in a 162 game schedule, half of which was played without Kershaw, credit needs to be given where credit is due.  So well done, Andrew Friedman and Fahran Zaidi.  Two cheers for them each.  We’ll see what October brings.

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Does this really need a written description? (Source- Los Angeles Dodgers)

And finally, saving the best for last, we have the man who gets to leave Dodger Stadium on a high note.  It is impressive for anyone to be working full-time at 67 years, but to be working full-time for 67 years is unheard of.  Absolutely unheard of.  But for Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers since they played on the other side of the country, whose career has spanned well over half of the ENTIRE HISTORY of “modern” Major League Baseball (counting from about 1901 or so), it was truly a wonderful tribute to have him call one more final walk-off that will go down in Dodger history- courtesy of Charlie Culberson, a man who hadn’t hit a home run all season.  (Naturally.)  And, to top it all off, Mr. Scully managed to share with the world one last talent that he possesses- he can sing!  (There is far more to say, but this post is long enough, and Keith Olbermann can say it much better than I can, anyway.)

Three games remain in San Francisco, in a series far more crucial to the Giants than the Dodgers, before the REAL fun begins…

As MLB Mourns, Don Mattingly Delivers Touching Words on Jose Fernandez

In the world of Major League Baseball, beyond the usual late-season drama, September 25th, 2016 was supposed to be all about one man- Vin Scully.  The broadcast icon and legendary Dodger play-by-play man since 1950 was announcing his last game at Dodger Stadium, to much well-deserved fanfare.  A whole season of celebration, culminating in ceremonies and tributes over this final regular season weekend, emphasized the “sweet” part of Mr. Scully’s bittersweet departure.

Unfortunately, a tragic event has overshadowed all of that, as September 25th, 2016 will be remembered for the day Major League Baseball lost one of its best pitchers, as well as one of the most exciting players to watch.  There have been plenty of people in the public who have passed this year- many of them seemingly before their time- but none nearly as young as Fernandez, nor with as many good years seemingly ahead.  Death is tragic, and it’s as true as it is cliche that we spend more grief on famous people than the many, many more who we never even know exist.  But that doesn’t make it a bad thing to reflect on athletes or entertainers that we admire for their talent, nor does it make the pain any less real, particularly when those people manage to give us some measure of joy in our own lives, even if THEY have no idea that most of US exist.

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Talking about Jose Fernandez, Don Mattingly can’t keep it together.  (Source: Robert Meyer, USA Today)

This brings us to Don Mattingly, whose pain is VERY real, as he speaks of Fernandez, mere hours after learning of his death- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeNDmkBYAX8. I’ve often been skeptical of those aforementioned famous people, seemingly spending as much (if not more) time on crafting their “good guy (or girl)” images, as they do on whatever it is that made them famous in the first place.  Mattingly, in a similar way to Mr. Scully, has always seemed to transcend all of that, coming across as a genuine, kind-hearted person, in a way that’s rare among other humans, let alone superstars.  This video seems to be another example of that.  It also reflects on how much Jose Fernandez meant to him.

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Yasiel Puig pins a Jose Fernandez jersey to the Dodger dugout. (Source: ESPN)

Mattingly is far from the only one affected so profoundly by this tragedy.  As reported by Dan Arritt via ESPN, ” Yasiel Puig crumpled into his clubhouse chair and put both hands over his face after speaking with reporters about (their) close relationship.”  Puig had been close friends with his fellow Cuban defector since their rookie season in 2013, when Fernandez beat him out for NL Rookie Of The Year.  All over baseball, players such as David Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez have expressed their grief over this shocking loss.  It’s inevitable on the day someone dies, we’ll hear all kinds of great things about that person, from those that knew them the best.  But for someone like Jose Fernandez, whose talent and passion was something evident even to those that didn’t know him, all those tributes become that much easier to accept as sincere.

Tying it all together, Vin Scully gave a very haunting anecdote about Fernandez, talking about how Fernandez once eerily wondered on Twitter that if someone gave the story of your life, whether or not to read the end.  No one, least of all a young guy like Fernandez himself, could ever imagine that his story would end so soon, even before Vin Scully’s career did.  In very different ways, the end of Mr. Scully’s incredibly long career, coinciding  with the tragic end of Jose Fernandez’s short life, remind us how important it is to cherish the people and things that we value, while we have them.

I’ll end this blog entry with an attempt at a lighter note- a humorous GIF that’s made its way around the Internet, courtesy of SBNation- Jose Fernandez catching a Troy Tulowitzki line drive, coupled with Tulo’s sitcom-quality reaction of disbelief.  Fernandez was as entertaining to watch as he was talented.  He will be missed.

Dodger Stadium- Where Old Phillies Go To Die

The Dodger front office is at again, testing the outer limits of just how much Los Angeles baseball fans love their favorite team’s uniforms.  Now with more members of the 2008 Phillies on the roster than Dodgers from that same era, it’s forgivable to wonder whether Andrew Friedman is engaging in some sort of “revenge trading”- not for the Dodgers sake, but his Tampa Bay Rays, who were beaten by that same Phillies team in the World Series.   (And lest ye forget, Jimmy Rollins held the fort down last year, while Corey Seager searched for someone to sublet his apartment in Oklahoma.)  At the end of the previous century, George Steinbrenner employed a similar tactic with the crosstown rival Mets, allowing Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden and others to wear the Yankee pinstripes during their championship run.  Heck, he even hired Tim McCarver for a while!  (It’s little known to most people outside of the New York area, but McCarver was a Met announcer in the 1980’s, prior to being poached by Big Stein.)

"Booooo- different shirt!  Booooo"

“Booooo- different shirt! Booooo!” (photo source: Charles LeClaire, USA Today)

Truth be told, though, this is unlikely to be an important motive, if any motive, for Friedman to make these moves.  Sure, even a “stats guy” like Friedman is bound to give in to human emotions once in a while, and it surely still hurts when he thinks about how close his team came to winning that year.  (Who knows?  Maybe Brad Pitt would have played him in the movies!)  Nevertheless, the fact is, this team has made tons of trade during his tenure, and a few of them were bound to be with the Phillies.  Each one has also proved to be somewhat justifiable- Jimmy Rollins was a defensive upgrade over Hanley Ramirez- not to mention one in the clubhouse- Joe Blanton has been a very good setup man in the bullpen, and Chase Utley has been the kind of player that you’ll someday get to say, “They don’t make guys like that anymore.”  So, maybe Carlos Ruiz can add something to this team as well.

At the same time, though, this is not just an ordinary trade of past-their-prime backup catchers.  AJ Ellis, a man who owes his entire existence to his great-grandmother literally missing the boat (and what a boat it was!), worked exceptionally hard to improbably become the longest tenured player in the Dodger organization.  By all accounts, he is one of the smartest men in baseball, and has been integral to the Dodgers success, since finally nailing down a permanent spot on the big league club’s roster in 2011.  Additionally, he is Clayton Kershaw’s best friend on the team, and well liked by all.  While Friedman’s previous trades of fan favorites worked out much better than most of us expected, this one carries the additional baggage that AJ Ellis was a team favorite.  If keeping an easily-identifiable core group together for fans isn’t important to the numbers-minded executives running the Dodgers’ front office- and clearly, it isn’t- how about the risk of rupturing team chemistry?

In fairness to Friedman, the Dodgers’ winning percentage has been good during his tenure so far, in spite of an almost unfathomable amount of injuries.  (Seriously, how has this team managed to get into first place, using bullpen-by-committee?!)  And given that a few of his most controversial moves have actually worked out- let’s face it, the Matt Kemp trade is increasingly looking like an outright victory for the Dodgers- there’s only so much outrage one can muster, before seeing the results of these transactions.  But none of this means that the criticism shouldn’t be taken seriously, either.  Also, while it’s dangerous to be sentimental in the age of free agency, so much roster turnover for the Dodgers really does make it feel like we’re rooting for a fantasy baseball team- someone else’s fantasy baseball team!  Either that, or a roster from a Phillies’ Old Timers game, in the not-too-distance future.

See? Jason Stark agrees with me!

See? Jason Stark agrees with me!

A couple of more Phillie-related notes- first, it’s incredible to think that for the second time in as many years, the trade of an iconic Phillie almost led to the Dodgers’ being no hit by the Giants.  Whether a curse, a coincidence, or just letdown from losing AJ Ellis is anyone’s guess.  Regardless, it’s something that you can expect to happen, about as much as you can expect to be struck by lightning twice.  (Also of karmic note is that Ross Stripling was on the losing end for the Dodgers.  You might recall that earlier this year against the Giants, Stripling almost made some very unlikely history of his own.)  And finally, Adrian Gonzalez can sleep well for the remainder of the season, knowing Ryan Howard’s arrival to Chavez Ravine will probably have to wait until 2017, out of respect to Vin Scully.  Sure, Friedman just defied Clayton Kershaw’s wishes, but good luck pulling that stunt on Mr. Scully, whom the Dodgers just renamed their MAILING ADDRESS to!

April 8th, 2016- We’re Not In San Diego Anymore

What a difference two days makes.  What a difference two PITCHES makes!  After dominating the Padres in historical fashion, the ’27 Yankees 2016 Dodgers took their roadshow up north. Initially, it seemed to be more of the same, as the Dodgers took a 4-0 lead into the 5th inning at AT&T Park, a mere one inning away from the MAJOR LEAGUE RECORD for pitching the most innings of shutout ball to start a season. Ultimately, the team missed its mark. Boy, did it ever.

Dave Roberts got his first taste of what it truly means to be a Dodger manager, in the post-Gagne era. With the team looking comfortably ahead against the Giants, Alex Wood suddenly became hittable, as we often saw in 2015. Rather than give him the early hook, Roberts stuck with his starter, only to watch the once comfortable lead become a deficit in the 6th inning. The somewhat debatable move of leaving Wood in too long was made moot by an all too familiar site- the Dodger middle relief, throwing gasoline on the fire, leading to the Dodgers’ first loss of the season.

But those managerial decisions and pitching performances pale in comparison to what happened the next game, the fifth of the season for the Dodgers overall. Ross Stripling had an impressive minor league career halted by injuries, leading to Tommy John surgery. With the Dodgers’ rotation in dire straits, Stripling won out the #5 spot, albeit with little expected from him. That changed Friday night, in a game that will no doubt go down in Dodger infamy.

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He’s earned another start.

It all started ordinarily enough, with the rookie battling command issues, rookies often do. When he DID get the ball over the plate early on, the results didn’t seem anything special. Sure, he hadn’t allowed a hit, but that was largely thanks to spectacular plays by Joc Pederson and a newly revived Yasiel Puig.  But as the game continued and Stripling settled down, his performance got stronger, to the point where Stripling did something that hadn’t been done since a previous century.  That’s a previous century, not THE previous century, as in the 19TH century- in front of friends and family, including his fiancee, Ross Stripling had taken a no hitter into the 8th inning.  The whole thing seemed surreal, as Dodger fans wondered if the 26 year old could really do it.  We’ll never know.

The Fire, Or The Frying Pan?

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Just one of those days.

One of the great ironies of the night, for an organization that seems to specialize in irony these days, is that the move to take Ross Stripling out of the game wasn’t as controversial as it initially seemed.  He was at 100 pitches on a cold, rainy night, still recovering off of a potentially career threatening surgery.  Had he been at 100 pitches in the 9th inning, it would have been a different story.  But given that there were 5 outs left, new manager Dave Roberts was in an extremely tough spot- imagine if Stripling had gotten another 2 or 3 outs, but needed 20 pitches to do it.  At that point, he’s in the 9th inning at 120 pitches, at a point where Dave Roberts REALLY has to make a brutal decision- take him out, to preserve Stripling’s career while denying a chance at Major League history, or leave him, and risk another Johan Santana situation, minus Santana’s financial security.  Roberts’ deserves credit for making a difficult decision, and not being phased by public pressure in doing so.

You Don’t Have Don Mattingly To Kick Around Anymore

The initial reaction of Twitter was actually fairly supportive of Roberts, given the circumstances, along with the fact that Roberts is a new manager, with a certain Doc Rivers-style gravitas that his predecessor seemed to lack.  However, the result of the decision seemed all too Mattinglyesque- on the second pitch from reliever Chris Hatcher, the Giants did something they hadn’t done in the previous hundred against Stripling- they not only got a hit, they got a hit over the fences, tying the game at two.  After working so hard to get out of the doghouse last season, Hatcher managed to get right back in it, on one lousy pitch- and we do mean lousy!

hatcherHatcher seemed to realize it, too.  After being squeezed by the home plate umpire on the next pitch, he lashed out in a way that probably had little to do with the pitch.  Dave Roberts came rushing out of the dugout, protecting his pitcher, getting himself ejected from the game in the process.  It’s just as well, because he probably didn’t want to be in the dugout at that point, anyway.

At that point, the  baseball gods turned against the Dodgers quite viciously.  A couple of well struck fly balls in the top of the 9th died at the warning track.  Against Joe Blanton in the 10th, Dodger nemesis Brandon Crawford’s did not.  Game over.

What Next?

As this move has historic consequences, Dave Roberts is going to have to answer it, and he should.  The case for what he did was strong, but that hardly makes it a “no-brainer”, as some of the new-age baseball folks appear to believe.  (Many of these are the same people who have no problem with THIS play ending a game, but that’s for a whole other discussion.)

kenleyMany fans are also seething about Kenley Jansen not ever being brought into the game.  The argument about bringing closers into tie games on the road has gained serious traction in recent years, which is the height of second guessing.  Making this move at the “right” point is totally arbitrary, because it guarantees that either the manager will be bringing in middle relievers later in the game, or will be wearing out the closer’s arm.  If this philosophy had been embraced for this game, Jansen would have been brought into the 9th inning, meaning those middle relievers that have everyone fuming would have been seen in extra innings, anyway.  It is a no win situation.  Literally.

Less second guessing goes into the argument about Joe Blanton.  He should not be on the roster, let alone in this game.  Watching sabermetric bloggers convince themselves that the Blanton signing was a good one, supposedly based purely on analytics instead of loyalty towards Andrew Friedman, was either amusing or infuriating, depending on one’s point of view.  (I’d highly recommend seeing it as amusing- it’s much healthier that way.)  Keep in mind this conclusion was based on two admittedly outstanding months from Blanton with the Pirates at the end of the 2014 season.  Also keep in mind that this is from the same group that dismissed- to the point they even acknolwedged- two outstanding months from Matt Kemp in 2014, with a much larger sample size than Blanton’s…not to mention an overall career far more distinguished, as well.  Some of Friedman’s moves might be vindicated at the end of the season.  This one almost certainly won’t be, and if the Dodgers need to go to Blanton in other critical, non-Kenley situations, they’re in trouble.

Mr. Brightside

In spite of two losses in San Francisco, every bit as dispiriting as the three wins in San Diego were dominant, there are a lot of good signs for the Dodgers so far.  Stripling and Kenta Maeda are the obvious ones.  The “good” Scott Kazmir showed up for his Dodger debut, and Alex Wood at least looked decent through most of his start.  Nearly everyone is hitting, and quietly, Yasiel Puig has returned to from- an amazing feat, considering Yasiel Puig doesn’t usually do ANYTHING quietly.  Oh, and Clayton Kershaw will be pitching the next game for the Dodgers.  So, there’s that.

We’ll need to see the rotation a full 3 or 4 more times before we can reasonably conclude what this team is capable of, but the earliest indications seem to be that the 2016 Dodgers will be a force to be reckoned with.  Just don’t get too comfortable, until you hear this song playing in the 9th inning!

Dodgers Opening Series Recap- I Can’t Even…

maedaI’m not a millennial, but I don’t really know what else to say.  The level of dominance shown by the Dodgers, along with the futility of their “opponents” to the south, is something that is difficult to comprehend.  Such a historically lopsided display renders any talk about the Matt Kemp trade moot for the time being, other than to say I feel kind of sorry for him.  (I’m sure he’ll get over it.)

We’re used to Adrian Gonzalez tormenting his former team.  But watching Yasiel Puig becoming Yasiel Puig again, Clayton Kershaw CONTINUING to be Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda doing this IN HIS MAJOR LEAGUE DEBUT, and pretty much everything else go right for these guys was something really special.  I’d say something facetious at this point about wishing the Dodgers could start the season against the Padres EVERY year, but that already seems to be the case, doesn’t it?  Usually, it seems to go pretty well for the Boys in Blue, if not quite THIS well.

Just to be clear, it’s still very, VERY early.  We still have spots #4 and #5 in the rotation to look at.  And roughly 90% of the remaining 159 games will NOT be played against the San Diego Padres.  Nevertheless…WOW.

As for the Padres, should anyone from that organization be reading this post, here’s a helpful tip from a few exits up the 5- find out which of the fans in attendance are from San Diego county, and offer them a discount to the next series with the Dodgers.  Or a coupon.  Or SOMETHING.  Because if you think there were too many Dodger fans at THIS series, wait ’til you see what happens if this kind of play continues…YIKES.

 

 

Opening Day 2016- The Andrew Friedman Project Is Now On Full Display

Once again, Opening Day is upon us.  Once again, two thirds of Los Angeles will not get to listen to Vin Scully and company broadcasting most of the games on television.  In a certain way, the ill-advised Time Warner cable deal has become a microcosm (or macrocosm?) of the Guggenheim-Era Dodgers so far as a whole- promising, expensive, yet ultimately misguided.  The channel as a whole is often terrific, but when the majority of fans can’t experience it for themselves, the quality of the channel takes a back seat to the quantity of people that can enjoy it.

On the field, the Dodgers have earned a similar reputation.  A team that has fielded such talent has such little to show for it.  That really was reflected by the mood in the stands in 2015, as Bill Plaschke correctly labeled it as “joyless”.  There are a few reasons to believe 2016 will be better, but more than a few to believe it will be worse.

The Good News

Justin Turner has quietly become one of the best hitters in baseball, and if not for injuries that dramatically slowed down his production at the end of 2015, he may have even gotten some MVP points in the voting.  (He did have a torrid NLDS, which was sadly forgotten after Daniel Murphy almost singlehandedly prevented the Dodgers from moving to the next round.)  It was a huge relief when the front office (finally!) realized that Turner was the 3rd baseman of future right now for the Dodgers.  Hopefully, that will continue to be the case for several years, so long as he stays healthy.

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The brightest non-Kershaw spotlight will be shined on this guy (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

To the right of the Turner (as well as this paragraph) is one of the few pieces of great news for the team’s future- Corey Seager.  Too many times we’ve touted some hotshot kid as “The Next So-And-So”, but after watching Corey Seager for a month last season, one suspects that the phrase “The Next Corey Seager” might truly become part of the baseball lexicon one day.  Unlike Joc Pederson, Seager instantly showed the kind of maturity at the plate that indicates pitchers will not be able to adjust to him, as much as he will adjust to them.  His fielding could use some work, but he’s young enough that one can expect this to happen.

The best news of all for the Dodgers is that Clayton Kershaw will be starting one out of every five games, meaning that they will be favored to win, at least one out of every five games.  It’s the other four out of five games that we need to worry about.  And with that, we bring you…

The Bad News

Every day that Clayton Kershaw doesn’t pitch will be a question mark, though in fairness, Kenta Maeda pitched far better than many expected in spring training.  If he can continue that into the regular season while staying healthy, this could be one  of the few moves by Andrew Friedman that can be applauded by people outside of Friedman’s unofficial fan club.  But even if that is the case, spots 3, 4 and 5 look very troubling.  Scott Kazmir and Alex Wood, who have had success at times in their careers, had disastrous spring trainings.  It’s tough to even contemplate the #5 spot, when the #3 and #4 are such question marks, at best.

Meanwhile in the bullpen, the situation is the same as it ever was, only now with a possibly disgruntled Kenley Jansen.  After the Dodger front office was shamed into revoking what looked like an outstanding trade for Aroldis Chapman, the team never found a backup plan.  (The Yankees ultimately acquired Chapman with little backlash, while the public outrage almost completely dissipated.)

The Los Angeles Dodgers have traditionally been built on pitching, while this year there isn’t much of a foundation.  With so many unanswered questions on Opening Day, the team will likely not get very far, until they have more answers.

Beyond the team’s troubling pitching situation, there are some other questions marks that have a little bit more hope.

The Unknown

The right side of the infield to start the season is Adrian Gonzalez and Chase Utley.  In 2009, this would have arguably been the best right side in baseball.  In 2016?  It really depends on how much of their “old selves” they still have in there.  Gonzalez, while being more streaky than most analysts realize (or own up to), is still young enough to put up good numbers, perhaps even enough for another All Star appearance.  He has been great at the start of each season for the Dodgers, and with torrid hitting this spring, 2016 shouldn’t be an exception.

Chase Utley might be a different story, as he hasn’t looked good in several years, although he did have a very good spring- by contrast to Enrique Hernandez, a surprising star of 2015, who had an atrocious spring.  Howie Kendrick should be the starting second baseman once healthy, but the vastly underrated former Angel has been less dependable in recent years.  Jose Peraza looked pretty good, but he was shipped off to another team for other moving parts, as is done with regularity these days on the Dodgers.

Catching is going to be a problem.  AJ Ellis got a late start to his Major League career, and unfortunately, it looks like he’s close to the end of it now.  Yasmani Grandal was misused last year, when it was clear to all with eyes that he was hurt.  The man who proved so many naysayers wrong (myself included) now looks like damaged goods.  Until he can come back and look like the guy we saw from May through July, the book has NOT been closed on the Matt Kemp trade just yet- particularly the way Kemp has been hitting this spring.  While you’re at it, and while we’re on the subject of catchers, check out Tim Federowicz’s spring training numbers sometime.

Last but not least, we have the outfield, now in it’s fourth full season of flux.  Truth be told, it SHOULDN’T be as much of a question as it’s been in the past, although it probably is at the moment.  With Andre Ethier’s unfortunate fluke injury, Scott Van Slyke has stepped up, and shown that he DESERVES the starting spot in left field.  Unfortunately, the Dodgers appear to be moored to the “platoon” philosophy, even though Carl Crawford has mostly been awful for some time.  Seeing how the majority of pitchers are right-handed, Crawford will also likely get the lion’s shares of at-bats.  Perhaps Van Slyke’s performance- assuming he can continue to show what we’ve seen this past March- will force the Dodgers’ hand, much like Justin Turner did at third base.

In centerfield we have Joc Pederson, who shows great instincts for running down fly balls, but so far, very little else.  Yes, he hit some mammoth home runs, and drew a fair share of walks.  But even with his gaudy numbers early on, it was apparent he had holes in his swing, that were eventually exploited.  Has he fixed them?  Early indications are that he has not.  (His baserunning game needn’t be discussed, until he develops one.)

But the burden of proof on Pederson’s shoulders pales in comparison to the other young gun in the outfield, former phenom Yasiel Puig.  Another offseason marred in controversy, followed by another pedestrian spring training, has the few people still paying attention to him wondering what’s to come next.  It wasn’t that long ago whether pundits openly questions whether he was the next Roberto Clemente, or the next Raul Mondesi.  At this point, Mondesi would be a considerable upgrade. As Mike Trout and Bryce Harper run laps around Puig, the “he’s still young” excuse won’t last much longer.

And Off The Field…

With all the controversial moves Andrew Friedman and his lieutenant Fahran Zaidi made last offseason, it seemed fair to expect that results for 2015 would fall on his/their shoulders.  That didn’t happen.  Don Mattingly was blamed for nearly everything that went wrong, and was even criticized at times for moves that worked out!  (Anyone remember all the questions about Kershaw being taken out too early in game 4 of the NLDS, after the Dodgers WON THE GAME?!)  Mattingly made his fair share of mistakes, but he also led 3 first place finishes in a row, gaining little credit while taking in nearly all of the blame.

Now, Donnie Baseball is gone.  Dave Roberts is brand new, and very well-liked.  (One prediction I can nearly guarantee- this season, we will be reminded by Charlie Steiner of The Stolen Base on multiple occasions.)  The results of this year TRULY will fall on Friedman’s shoulders, and there will be plenty to question.  One question already worth asking is what would the mainstream Dodger bloggers be saying if Ned Colletti had let Zack Greinke go to a team within the division, while spending tens of millions of dollars on Brett Anderson, Scott Kazmir, and Joe Blanton.  (The favorable parsing of Blanton’s small sample size by the blogging community has been particularly amusing.)  If this plan doesn’t work, no amount of sabermetric wizardry will be able to save Friedman from the media and fans.

Ending On A High Note

There is still a lot to like about this team, even with the many issues it faces.  They have some young arms in the minors, who might be able to help down the road.  At least half their lineup looks like a real threat, and teams have gotten by with much less offensive firepower than that.  And hey- if Alex Wood and Scott Kazmir can find their better selves within, and Chris Hatcher can keep his confidence up, while Kenley Jansen puts his bitterness aside, there just might be hope yet.

And of course, we can all still appreciate Vin Scully one more season- not having Time Warner is no excuse, as the airwaves are free (for now).  And with that…

It’s Time For Dodger Baseball!

Murphy’s Law Sinks 2015 Dodgers

Say this about the Dodgers over the past decade or so- even though they’ve always had the decency to get eliminated anywhere from fairly early on to VERY early on, they nevertheless find new, creative, and increasingly painful ways to break the spirits of their fanbase.  Late inning meltdowns, close plays that don’t break their way- and yes, questionable managerial decisions that come back to haunt them later.  But this?  A guy stealing third base on a WALK?!  That’s a new one.

It’s a shame that all of the great Dodger narratives from 2015 will now be largely overlooked, if not completely buried- Justin Turner’s revenge against his former team in the NLDS, the greatest 1-2 punch in a starting rotation since Koufax and Drysdale, the emergence of a potential superstar shortstop for years to come- even the historic nature of Chase Utley’s slide will be far less impactful than originally thought, outside of some possible rule changes/enforcements to come.  It’s hard to imagine there will be even the slightest bit of, “Aw shucks, at least we made it,” sentiment after this season’s end, especially seeing how surprisingly joyless the fanbase generally seemed much of the time, even though the team itself was pretty successful.

There will be two narratives that probably WILL survive the 2015 season- one of them complete nonsense, the other debatable.  First, the idea that the Dodgers “should” win because of their gaudy $300+ million payroll was ridiculous.  Outside of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, most of that money was going to solid but overpaid, aging veterans (Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford), pitchers that ultimately did not justify their value (Brandon McCarthy and, to a lesser extent, Brett Anderson), guys that weren’t on the team anymore (Matt Kemp, Dan Haren), or even guys that were NEVER on the team to begin with (Bronson Arroyo)!  However you may feel about these transactions, the fact that all this money was being doled out shouldn’t make ANYONE feel more entitled to Dodger wins, than if that money was being spent on you and me.  From the beginning, the 2015 Dodgers were a good team, but they were NOT a superteam.

The second narrative has to do with how the Dodgers scored their runs throughout 2015- relying on the home run, while disregarding aggressive but smart base running.  They did improve on the base running later in the year, with the addition of Ron Roenicke as third base coach, and Chase Utley as backup second baseman.  But ultimately, this team did not know how to play “smallball” very well, even with those late season improvements.  A lot of people dismissed this theory, but it’s exactly what played out in the NLDS.  Against the Mets’ young power arms, they could not hit the ball over the fences (with the exception of game 3, and only after they were already being blown out), and ultimately ended up stranding A LOT of baserunners.

Who's on third for the Dodgers? Nobody. Absolutely nobody.

Who’s on third for the Dodgers? Nobody. Absolutely nobody.

But don’t forget to give credit to the Mets, too.  They had deeper starting pitching, and as hot as Justin Turner was, Daniel Murphy was hotter.  Almost symbolically, Turner’s shocking steal of third base was one-upped by Daniel Murphy’s steal of third on a WALK, a play that will go down in Mets lore and Dodgers infamy for years to come.  The Dodgers’ fate was then sealed when Murphy hit the go-ahead home run (of course he did) in his next at-bat, against Zack Greinke.  Although the game still had a long way to go at that point, it sure didn’t feel that way.

And speaking of fate, what of Don Mattingly’s?  Right now, it doesn’t look good for him.  Is he willing to be a so-called “lame duck” manager in 2016, something he was unwilling to do a couple of years back?  He’d better be, because he sure as heck isn’t getting an extension.  And even if he IS willing to be a lame duck, would Andrew Friedman’s crew be willing to allow it?  DodgersFYI discredited game 1 rant notwithstanding, nothing Mattingly did was particularly egregious this series, even though the endless second guessing will only be amplified at this point.  (Until I heard analysts and talking heads criticizing him for taking Kershaw out of game 3 on short rest after a WIN, I assumed unhinged criticism of Mattingly was limited to Dodger fans.)  However, the perception of Mattingly as someone who has strategic shortcomings seems to be justified at times.  Even if the front office admires Mattingly as a person and former playing great, it’s not hard to imagine that they are looking to install a boss on-the-field, who is more like-minded to the bosses off-the-field.

But what of the minds of these front office guys?  They made a lot of moves and spent a lot of money, ultimately resulting in several less wins in the regular season, and one only more in the postseason, than the squad that Ned Colletti put together one season earlier.  They gave up a young, rising star in Dee Gordon, and traded a sometimes disgruntled franchise player in Matt Kemp to a team within their own division.  It worked out for 2015, as Howie Kendrick was solid as always, Kiké Hernandez was a surprisingly good player, and Yasmani Grandal was the best hitting catcher during the 1st half of the season.  But none of that matters now, as the team is going home early, again.  These trades will be judged in what happens in the years to come.

Already etched in stone is the pitching situation.  Brandon McCarthy was hurt early on, as he has been throughout his career (although this was a new injury), and Brett Anderson, in spite of some good stretches during the season, was nothing special overall- not for the amount of money the Dodgers spent on him, while still paying Dan Haren to pitch elsewhere.  There was some high praise for these moves early on from the analytics crowd, but in the end, left the Dodgers with a shallow rotation.

You’ll have to forgive this post for being so grim, but as it’s being written, this is not exactly a time to reflect on the positive.  Big changes are coming, and if the people that Guggenheim hired to make those changes do their jobs right, the team will be better for this in the long run.  And the foundation isn’t all that bad, with Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager and a few others to build around.  Most important of all, though, they better figure out a way to make sure that the rest of Los Angeles actually gets to WATCH this team after these changes are made- hopefully, with a fully recovered Vin Scully at the mic, to let us know about it all as it happens.

Until next season…

NLDS Game 4 Recap- Kershaw Flips The Script

After Yoenis Cespedes’s fluky, swinging bunt single to lead off the 7th inning, it really did feel like we were watching a rerun. Not only had everything played out uncannily similar to last year’s NLDS to that point, but the stage was set for that to continue beyond, with Clayton Kershaw, pitching masterfully on three days rest (again), looking like he was about to get into some unlucky trouble (again).  Even more uncanny was the fact that Lucas Duda, a power hitting lefty who normally can’t hit lefties all that well, was just 2 batters away, exactly as Matt Adams had been the year before.  But this was a different year, and the Dodgers were facing a different team.  The next batter, Travis d’Arnaud, fouled out to first base, and that alone gave a feeling that Kershaw, as well as the rest of the Dodgers, might have different luck this year.  At least for one night, that proved to be the case.

The guy on the right started the rally, the guy on the left finished it. (Source: Jake Roth, USA Today)

The guy on the right started the rally, the guy on the left finished it. (Source: Jake Roth, USA Today)

It wasn’t easy from that point forward, which made it all seem that much better when it was over.  Duda would hit the ball pretty well to centerfield, but it was tracked down by Kiké Hernandez.  Wilmer Flores, Met fans’ hero-in-waiting, crushed the ball down the line, as Justin Turner, the hero-in-action, snared it and threw to first, for an easy out.  (As if the Mets needed ANOTHER reminder on “The One That Got Away”, Turner also hit what would be the deciding blow, a two run double, in the third inning.)  And even Don Mattingly, the manager who can do no right, even when he does, would be able to live for another day or two, as all his pitching moves worked out perfectly.

But this night wasn’t about Don Mattingly or Justin Turner.  It was about Clayton Kershaw, saving the Dodgers season and quieting the critics, if not silencing them completely.  The fact of the matter is, as Ron Darling pointed out on the TBS broadcast, much of Kershaw’s postseason “implosions” were due to bad luck.  Even in game 1 this year, when he walked 3 batters in the fateful 7th inning, most of the pitches were pretty close.  Baseball, more than any other sport, has a random quality to it that can almost be cruel at times.  While Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams delivered the knockout blows squarely on Kershaw last year, everything up until both of those points were ground balls and soft line drives.  It still amazes me that of those five singles prior to Carpenter’s epic (and for Dodger fans, TRAGIC) at bat, not ONE of them could find a fielder’s glove.  This time, fate would be a little bit more kind to Kershaw, in no small part because Kershaw himself was incredible.

Now, For The Other Ace

The difference between Game 4 being “a nice little story” versus “one for the ages” for Kershaw, now lies with Zack Greinke.  Facing Jacob DeGrom, a man who the Dodgers have done absolutely NOTHING AGAINST EVER, Greinke will probably have to be every bit as good as Kershaw was on Tuesday night, and perhaps a little bit better.  Chris Hatcher and Kenley Jansen will probably be relied upon again, at least if everything goes according to plan.  There are eight guys in the lineup, so there’s no point in singling any one of them out for a breakout performance.  And while I hope this next sentence serves as a jinx, don’t expect Corey Seager to suddenly stop looking like a rookie, against one of the best pitchers in the game.  But no matter what happens, at least we know that this season will not end like 2014.  Hopefully for the Dodgers at this time next week, it will not have ended at all.

Game 2 NLDS Recap- Utley Being Utley Helps Save The Dodgers Season

For Many Reasons, This One's Going To Remembered For A Long Time (Sean Haffey, Getty Images)

For Many Reasons, This One’s Going To Remembered For A Long Time (Sean Haffey, Getty Images)

No one who is familiar with Chase Utley should be all that surprised at what he did in the seventh inning of game 2 at Dodger Stadium, because he has been doing that sort of thing throughout his career.  In the current climate of outrage, that is probably seen as an insult, but it is actually anything but.  It is almost a rite of passage for older generations to complain about younger generations being too soft, too pampered, and too rich to really care about anything.  Chase Utley, while not exactly a young man at this point, is still young enough to play professional sports, but old enough that he no longer has to prove anything to anyone.  And yet, here he was, with the season on the line for the Dodgers, doing what it took to keep them alive this October, regardless of his OWN safety.  Lost in all the outrage over the unfortunate injury to Ruben Tejada was the fact the Utley sacrificed HIMSELF in the process, as well.

There is no sugarcoating here about what Chase Utley did.  His slide was definitely late, and by his own admission, was designed solely to prevent Tejada of making the throw to first base, to double up Howie Kendrick.  But it also needs to be said that part of the reason WHY Tejada got hurt was because he pivoted away from the baserunner, putting himself in a VERY awkward position to try making a throw to first.  Colliding with Utley in the air, Tejada crumpled to the ground and broke his leg.  It was an ugly sight, but like Buster Posey before him, the injury had as much to do with awkward positioning of the guy who got hurt, as it did with the collision itself.  However, outside of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and the traditional old-guard baseball community, most people do not see it that way.  To them, Chase Utley is the villian.

Having Their Cake And Eating It Too

Ruben Tejada getting hurt was unfortunate, and Met fans and players are understandably furious.  The New York media is going to have a field day with this.  The Dodgers should be prepared for retribution.  Surely, many will cheer if/when it happens- not just Met fans- which is another thing to think about.  If Utley’s ultra-aggressive baserunning is so deplorable because it led to an UNINTENTIONAL injury, why in the world would it be a GOOD thing to cause an INTENTIONAL one?  If the answer is, “Because Utley started it,” then what if retribution will be on someone besides him?  (It probably will be, seeing how Utley barely even plays now.)  Would it be okay, just because the guy was wearing a Dodger uniform?  How is that any more acceptable in a civilized society than what Utley did?

Moral posturing in everyday civilization is hard enough, let alone in professional sports.  In one clip of many we see in modern day America, sadly, wondering “what’s wrong with baseball these days”, Keith Olbermann laments the lack of “menace” in today’s game.  He made some good points about things that have been lost along the way, in well-intended but misguided efforts to make baseball safer.   He states, with sincerity, that he does not advocate violence, yet also looks back wistfully at a Cubs-Mets game, where players DID get hurt in a game of beanball, while no one complained about it, nor demanded rule changes.  And this points to where we are today.  In our American sports, and probably sports throughout the world, we demand hard fouls, brushback pitches, and vicious tackles.  When our team is losing and not doing these sorts of things, we scream that they are “soft” and have no heart.   But then, on the occasion something DOES go wrong, we demand rule changes, and tsk-tsk at this sort of brutish behavior.  So which one is it?  Because on some level, sports IS sort of brutish- sometimes VERY brutish- as professional athletes have been trained throughout their lives to do what it takes to defeat their competition.

As for what happened to Ruben Tejada, perhaps something should be done on SOME level, but what, exactly?  Are we really going to start calling automatic double plays whenever a baserunner takes a hard slide into a fielder?  How exactly do we define hard slides?  We saw what happened when “The Buster Posey Rule” was first implemented, ironically to PROTECT catchers, yet ultimately resulted in awarding runs for players that were nowhere NEAR home plate when the ball arrived in the catcher’s mitt.  Rules that create safety often diminish competition.  (Think about the frequency that pass interference has been called in the NFL during recent years.)  Major League Baseball will need to think hard about this, before coming up with yet ANOTHER rule that could further diminish its “menace”.

What Else Happened In The Game?

Clearly, Daniel Murphy misses Justin Turner (source: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA Today)

Clearly, Daniel Murphy misses Justin Turner (source: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA Today)

Too bad there’s so much focus on one play, because so much else went on during Saturday night’s exciting Dodger victory.  Adrian Gonzalez looked like an amateur against Mets’ flamethrower Noah Syndergaard for three at bats, then delivered the go-ahead, two out double in the seventh inning.  Howie Kendrick, Kiké Hernandez and Chris Hatcher yet again served as a reminder that life after Dee Gordon might not be so bad, after all, while Justin Turner served as a reminder to the Mets on what they missed out on.  For the second night in a row, Corey Seager looked like a rookie at the plate, but made a catch in the field that would make one think otherwise.  (Sort of a role reversal of what we were expecting.)  Zack Greinke pitched well, in spite of allowing two home runs, but he truly missed out on what could have been the signature moment of the evening.  After Terry Collins elected to intentionally walk the #8 hitter AGAIN, after almost getting burned by Kershaw in game one, he stuck to the same strategy.  And once again, he almost got burned.  ALMOST.  AGAIN.  Greinke crushed a ball into the gap, but it hung up just long enough to be caught in right field.  Too bad, but at least in THIS game, it didn’t matter much in the end, thanks to that 7th inning rally.

Finally- and BLISSFULLY- there is nothing to discuss about Don Mattingly’s managerial decisions.  Oh, what the heck, we’ll do it anyway, but just for a few sentences.  Everything he did was nearly spot on, as evidenced by the result.  But pinch hitting for Andre Ethier with a three run lead, especially given Ethier’s RBI double early on, seemed excessive.  But at least nearly everyone got in the game.  Even Puig was brought in at the end, to a nice ovation.

What Next?

Brett Anderson versus Matt Harvey is a mismatch on paper, but regardless of the outcome, there will be a game 4.  The first two games of this series were eerily similar to the first two of last year.  Hopefully, the script flips from this point forward, although Dodger fans need to temper their expectations for game 3.  At the very least, the vibe from Dodger Stadium after this year’s game 2 versus last year’s was much more positive.  Hopefully, that will continue, as the team plays in a place that was built to look like Ebbets Field.  If that isn’t good karma, I don’t know what is!

NLDS Game 1 Recap Recap- Whoops!

radnerThis is the kind of thing that can give those who blog from their mothers’ basements a bad name. Watching the game on television, all I saw was a manager taking out one of the best pitchers in baseball, at the most critical point in the game, without so much as a consultation. It turns out there was a reason for that- this particular pitcher was done. Finished. He had nothing left in the tank, so there was nothing left to discuss. If anything, a prolonged conversation might make things worse. Either the pitcher would have to act tough, and talk his way into a game that he had no business continuing in, or the manager would have been forced to look like he was not respecting his pitcher’s input. Either way, Don Mattingly did the right thing, in spite of popular opinion, which is completely consistent with the way he has led his team from day one.

Make no mistake, though- his job is still very much on the line, and he will be judged by some very difficult standards, particularly with his team losing the first game of yet another playoff series.