Opening Day Expectations for the Dodgers Are At A Decades-Long High. But Why?

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Before answering the question of this admittedly loaded subject title, it’s worth saying that the Dodgers certainly appear to be one of the best teams in baseball, as has been the case for nearly four years.  Corey Seager will probably get even better, Clayton Kershaw is still the best, and after a brief offseason scare that they might land somewhere else, underappreciated Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner are back in LA for 2017, and probably beyond that.

The rest of the team looks pretty good, as well.  At least for the spring, Chase Utley seems to have discovered the fountain of youth.  Even if not, he won’t be the primary second baseman, anyway- Logan Forsythe, the only major acquisition for this year’s Major League roster, also had a great spring.  The outfield has the now-familiar core, anchored by centerfielder Joc Pederson.  The pitching is a bit of a question mark- we’ll get to that in a second- but Rick Honeycutt and company always seem to get the best out of them.

Arguably, the best thing the Dodgers seem to have going for them is the same thing they’ve had going for quite a while now- the rest of the NL West.  Do you even remember the last time someone besides the Dodgers or Giants won the NL West?  (Actually, the Diamondbacks did in 2011, but that was the only time in the past 9 seasons.  Also, for the current Diamondbacks, 2011 might as well have been 1911.)  That trend is likely to continue for 2017.  So when the regular season competition is almost exclusively between two teams, winning the division at worst should be like a coin flip for the Dodgers.

However…

None of that justifies the overwhelmingly and exceptionally high marks the Dodgers are getting for 2017, with Opening Day just hours away.  The talented Grant Bisbee, an SB Nation blogger for McCovey Chronicles, refers to the Dodgers as “the class of baseball”. This isn’t TOO surprising, as Bisbee’s loyalties towards the SABR ideology is about as strong as his loyalty to the Giants.   However, when seeing how Bill Plaschke- household curmudgeon and perennial whipping boy for The New School- has also gotten onboard, it’s clear that something is amiss.  ESPN’s baseball department, such as it still is, is not quite as overly optimistic on the Dodgers, with The Boys In Blue “only” the third favorite pick for champions, right behind the 2016 participants.  Still, the team receives very high marks all around, from people who do this sort thing for a living.  Which leads us back to the original question, “Why now?”

Before examining 2017 further, consider what happened at the end of 2016.  This is a team that made it past the Nationals by the skin of their teeth in the NLDS, and while they were competitive against the Cubs in the next round, there is no question who the better team was.  What has happened since, to create this surge in optimism?  Other than Logan Forsythe, the most significant signing has been Sergio Romo.  While Dodger fans can be forgiven for abandoning their hostility towards the flamboyant 3x World Champion for San Francisco- being a sports fan these days requires short memories about these sorts of things- there should be no forgetting of Romo’s contribution towards the Giants collapse last year.  Don’t let that 2.64 ERA fool you- part of the reason the Dodgers incredible, Kershless late-season comeback was a success, was because of the failures of the Giants bullpen.  Romo was every bit a part of that failure.  Does the 34 year old have enough left to turn it around?  Possibly- if he even stays healthy enough.  But this can’t justify the reasoning that the Dodgers have gotten that much closer to the Cubs, or perhaps even the Nationals.

romo.pngAnd speaking of bullpens, this seems to be a compelling reason- for some, anyway- as to why the Dodgers will repeat, perhaps even surpass, their success of last season.  But keep in mind that until the 2016 squad came along, there was no precedent- NONE- for a bullpen that was used so heavily, to have an even winning record, let alone one that ended up in the postseason.  In fact, there has never been a bullpen that was used so heavily period- probably the main reason why Dave Roberts deservedly won NL Manager of the Year.  For the 2017 Dodgers to live up to their reputation, though, they will have to get some length out of their starters, as opposed to repeating the unprecedented late season success of last season’s bullpen.  That, above all else, is going to be the key to whether or not the Dodgers even make it to October, let alone how far they make it into October.

And just how likely is it that this team WON’T overuse their bullpen this season?  One of the more curious aspects of the Friedman/Zaidi era is the much rosier (or should we say blue colored) interpretation of the facts, versus the glass-is-half empty recollection of the Colletti era.  What used to be seen as question marks and logjams are now seen as “depth”.  Sure, the Dodgers have lots of starting pitchers to choose from, but how many of them, not named Clayton Kershaw, can be relied upon?  Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda, the guys who couldn’t be asked to go more than 5 innings per game in the postseason?  Brandon McCarthy and Hyun Jin-Ryu, with their injury histories?  The promising Julio Urias, who won’t even start at the Major League level this year?

And once they get to the bullpen, what can the team expect at that point?  Middle relief is fickle, in general, so how about we just skip to the 9th, and talk about Kenley Jansen.  Although arguably the most dominant closer in Dodger history- at least in terms of longevity- we still don’t know the effects of last October on him.  Kershaw got most of the accolades for his surprise save against the Nationals, but it was Jansen who was asked to save the team- literally and metaphorically- time and time again, including the game that Kershaw closed out.  Whether that can continue, given his past usage, remains to be seen.

Back To The Brightside…

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In just a few hours, it will be Time For Dodger Baseball once again.  There is too much past history and too much future promise to dwell on the questions and concerns brought up in this blog.  It’s just that with glowing reviews this offseason, it was at least worth CONSIDERING the kinds of things that will pop up eventually, especially seeing how few bloggers, journalists, and baseball analysts HAVE looked at the downside.  But during the spring, Justin Turner hit like Ted Williams, Clayton Kershaw pitched like Clayton Kershaw, and everyone else should be just about ready for the season now.  Who knows- maybe Yasiel Puig can remind us why we were so excited about him a few years back.  Maybe.  We’ll see.

 

’til next time…

Recap of NLCS at Dodger Stadium – 1 out of 3 Ain’t Good (…plus, In Defense Of Steve Bartman)

Well, a three game sweep by either team seemed pretty unlikely from the start.  However, with the Dodgers in full control for Game 3 and Adrian Gonzalez coming across the plate for what almost certainly looked like the first run of Game 4, Dodger fans couldn’t help but to wonder.  But alas, their hopes, much like Adrian Gonzalez’s would-be run, were not to be.  That probably-blown call, followed by some poor Dodger defense, combined with a few lucky hits for the Cubs against Julio Urias, seemed to be a turning point in the series so far.  Rather than actually run on Jon Lester, the Dodgers opted merely to try distracting him.  (It didn’t work.)  Joe Blanton could only be the “good” Joe Blanton for so long, particularly given how many times the Dodgers have called upon him this season.  He really looks like he has nothing left in the tank now.  The rest of the middle relief, so incredibly effective for the greatest two-and-a-half month stretch in the history of a bullpen-by-committee, has also fallen apart this series.  At the moment, things are looking sort of bleak.

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Caption not required. (source: trippingbaseballs.mlblogs.com)

Far from being over, though, there is plenty of reason to think the Dodgers have a reasonable chance of winning two games straight, even going into what is certain to be a rabid scene in the Windy City.  Having a fully rested Clayton Kershaw is a scenario that any team would want, regardless of where they were in the series.  While it’s understandable from an emotional standpoint why fans would be upset that he didn’t pitch in Game 5, this would have been a mistake on several levels.  For one thing, although the box score says otherwise, an already overused Kershaw had nothing left in the 7th inning of Game 2.  Only good fortune saved Dave Roberts from a Mattingly-esque fate, for leaving him in the game, for a batter (or two) too long.  For another, having him on short rest AGAIN would have gotten him into the sixth inning, maybe the seventh.  Then what?  Put Kenley Jansen in for another multi-out save?  And, even if THAT plan works, what happens in Game 6 and 7?

Oh, and by the way, though it’s been a while since Dodger fans experienced it (maybe not as long as Cubs fans, but still), there is a whole other round of playoffs after this.  What happens then, have Kershaw pitch in three games, and hope his arm stays intact?!  The 28 year old Ace-of-Spades has already been used more frequently than Orel Hershiser was in 1988, and while Dodger fans old enough to have fond memories of that October, Hershiser’s career was never the same after that.  (He did manage one more great year in ’89, but his arm gave out after that.)  We haven’t even mentioned that Kershaw missed about two months because of a bad back, and for those not close enough to 30 to understand this, those never go away.  (Kershaw himself will be 29 at the beginning of next season.)  The Dodgers will need pitchers besides Clayton Kershaw to contribute if they are going to win it all, and the massive usage that some are suggesting- to go along with the massive usage he’s already taken on- will not be worth it, if the team “only” goes on to win the National League pennant.

bill_murrayAs for the rest of the team, much like Game One against Jon Lester, the offense looked better than the Game 5 box score suggested.  This time, it wasn’t so much against Lester himself, but against the relievers, Pedro Strop and Aroldis Chapman.   Hopefully for the Dodgers, that’s a sign of things to come, as opposed to two bored relievers in a blowout.  Game 6 on the way Saturday night.  Bill Murray and much of the rest of the country will be watching.

As For Bartman…

bartmanWith the Cubs up 3 games to 2 and headed back to Chicago, the Steve Bartman references were inevitable- and let’s face it, it would be silly not to at least mention him in passing.  However, after 13 years of retrospect, as well as an excellent 30-for-30, with an in-depth look at the vicious scapegoating that he endured (with some stuff about Bill Buckner thrown in for good measure), it would seem that it was well passed time to put the incident in perspective.   Unfortunately, that’s just not how things are done around here, particularly in the media.  It’s a lazy, ready-for-made TV narrative- of COURSE it had to be a poor, clueless schlep, sitting in the front row of “The Friendly Confines” Wrigley Field , extending this “curse”.  Like Ken Bone in recent times (albeit different circumstances), the media were all too willing to make this anonymous man into a household name.

The problem is that it wasn’t true- well, for the most part.  Yes, Bartman reached over and deflected the ball from Moises Alou, but he didn’t do anything different than most of the fans surrounding him, as announcer Steve Lyons pointed out during the broadcast in the very next game.  (As a sidenote, why do fans still do this?!  If there’s one thing the “Bartman incident” should have taught ALL of us, it’s that fans in the first row of foul territory should make a conscious decision, BEFORE the game, to allow their team’s fielders every chance possible to catch a ball.  But I digress.)  Even more damning, the Cubs still had a comfortable three run lead and just two outs to go in the inning, but completely fell apart on their own.  Most notably, Alex Gonzalez’s error- undoubtedly enough to get the runner at second, and possibly even an inning-ending double play- would almost certainly been enough to stop the bleeding.  No one would have remembered Bartman, any more than they remember Yasmani Grandal missing an easy popup in Game 2 of this NLCS.

But none of the surrounding circumstances stopped some very public officials, fanning the flames against the unsuspecting lifelong Cubs fan, although karma would deal some pretty hefty blows to some of most high profile ones.  Then-Governor Rod Blagojevich said that he’d never pardon Steve Bartman, if ever given the chance- a statement that turned out as ironic as it was cruel, in light of where he ended up.  Then-Manager Dusty Baker had no problem assigning much of the blame to Bartman, when prompted to do so by the media.  The journeyman manager has not won a deciding game since.  (Most recently, his ordering of a sacrifice bunt, with the bottom of the order coming up, is about as much of a reason as any why he’s not getting another shot at a pennant at Wrigley, albeit this time in the visiting dugout.  He should take responsibilities for OWN decisions, before assigning blame to fans for his team’s woes.  But again, I digress.)  Even Jeb Bush got into the trolling act a bit, offering Bartman “sanctuary” in the state of Florida.  And, while we’re on the subject of trolling and Jeb Bush…..well, never mind.  This is the wrong site for that sort of thing.

Most of all, though, the media couldn’t wait to run with the story, and the game tonight gives them all the opportunity to rehash the narrative all over again.  It seems to provide them with some sort of weird nostalgia, to think back to one of the most undeserving character assassinations in recent American history.  MLB Network reran a clever-but-cruel (and okay, pretty funny) Bob Costas-narrated mockumentary, reimagining Steve Bartman as the hero, culminating in a *spoiler alert* victory over Barack Obama for a seat in the United States Senate.  I wouldn’t feel so guilty about laughing, or so compelled to be a Debbie Downer about it, if the man didn’t literally have to go into hiding for his “sin”.  (On the flip side, enjoying Will Ferrell’s fictional rendition of the late Harey Carey calling the play can be done guilt-free.)  Bottom line- whatever bit of responsibility Steve Bartman holds for the 2003 Chicago Cubs, pales in comparison to the responsibility held by the 2003 Cubs, as well as all the blame that he took for it.

Ending this post on a more positive note, particularly since I have almost NEVER said anything nice about Bud Selig, he deserves credit for being one of the few public figures to defend Steve Bartman, essentially telling Cub fans to stick to blaming goats, not fans, for their misfortune.  Even more noteworthy, former Cub great (and drafted Dodger) Rick Sutcliffe considered bringing Bartman out for the opening pitch of the 2003 World Series.  It turned out to be a moot point, of course.  The 2016 Dodgers are hoping, seemingly against all odds, that will continue to be the case.