Though Chase Utley May Help The Dodgers, He Never Should Have Had To

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.

“One day, we shall meet again.” And they have. Pat Burrell patiently waits by the phone.

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.

Kiké Hernandez Breakout Performance Surprises Everyone- Except Kiké Hernandez

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.

Don't feel, bad Kiké. Last year, Justin Turner couldn't afford an invisible camera, either.

Don’t feel bad, Kiké.  Last year, Justin Turner couldn’t afford an invisible camera, either.

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.

“Donnie, DON’T!” Managerial Blunder In Philly Leads to Dodger Loss

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.

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.

If you think I'm not giving Cesar Hernandez enough credit, take it from those who know him best. (Source: Twitter)

If you think I’m not giving Cesar Hernandez enough credit, take it from those who know him best. (Source: Twitter)

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.

Somehow Still a Dodger, Captain Clutch Plays The Hero Again…and Again!

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.

At Dodger Stadium, August 2nd, 2015  was Dre Day.  (Source: Jayne Kamin Oncea, USA Today)

At Dodger Stadium, August 2nd, 2015 was Dre Day. (Source: Jayne Kamin Oncea, USA Today)

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.

Deadline Post-Mortem: Low risk, Medium Reward For the Dodgers

“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.

Though often too clever by half, Andrew Friedman's front office crew did some nice work this week. (source: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Though often too clever by half, Andrew Friedman’s front office crew did some nice work this week. (source: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

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.

Though the Dodgers are probably a better team today than they were yesterday, it’s not all rainbows and lollipops.  The amount of money to make this happen was absurd, even though the Dodgers can clearly afford it.  And as usual for Friedman and his crew, the media went overboard in their praise, referring to them (and specifically him) as “brilliant” a few too many times, failing to mention that these moves were needed, in part, because some of their previous ones did not go as planned.  (Full disclosure- Regrettably, I used this term once myself yesterday, mainly out of excitement that the Dodgers received so many potentially contributing Major Leaguers, without giving a single current one back.  But it was as much out of relief than anything else.)  Particularly funny was a local writer, who praised Friedman for getting rid of the “bad debt” of Dee Gordon (among others), then later quoted him on the Dodgers adding Peraza, saying how the team was in need of “foot speed”.  (You don’t say!)  But make no mistake- the Dodgers addressed ALL of their current problems, without creating new ones.  That doesn’t mean it will all work out, as AJ Preller can tell you.  But the reasoning is sound, and while fans may still have to hold their collective breathe on days that Kershaw and Greinke aren’t pitching, at least they may be able to exhale a little bit more quickly.

Get well soon, guys.

Get well soon, guys.

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!