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…

What A Relief…Pitcher! Kershaw (and Jansen) Carry The Dodgers Across The Finish Line

Oh, where to begin. What can be said about the longest 9 inning game in postseason history, a game with a box score that looked like something out of spring training, where the closer recorded almost as many outs as the starter, yet STILL managed to not even close the game himself?!  Actually, I think that last sentence says plenty- and they don’t pay me enough to recap everything that went into THAT game- whomever “they” may be, and however much “they” may be paying me…which is to say, absolutely nothing.

Forgive the bizarre opening paragraph, but it just seems appropriate for such a bizarre game.  The starting pitcher- who I think was Rich Hill, it’s hard to remember- didn’t last passed the 3rd inning.  And let’s face it, if anyone had told you that the road team’s starter had been knocked out in the 3rd inning of a winner-take-all game, while the home team had the likely Cy Young award winner pitching a shutout into the 7th inning, you’d be reasonably sure how the game would end up…unless, of course, the road team was the 2016 Los Angeles Dodgers.  Not to get ahead of ourselves, but this team’s success has been every bit as improbable as the 1988 squad to this point, perhaps even more so.  That team at least had a solid starting staff.  This team’s starting rotation was basically Clayton Kershaw and about a dozen question marks.  (Literally a dozen- look it up!  And who is Nick Tepesh?!)  Granted, a few of those “questions marks” were talented- most notably Kenta Maeda and Julio Urias- but none could be relied upon to go deep into games, that is when they were even healthy enough to pitch at all.  And yet, it was when Kershaw went down that the team really got rolling, mounting an incredible second half comeback, riding a bullpen-by-committee into a division title.  Now, they have ridden a bullpen-by-committee into the NLCS.

It wasn’t without some help from the other side, though.  Taking some misguided advice from his third base coach, Jayson Werth ran into an easy out at home in the 6th, killing his team’s momentum, not to mention the inning.  Joc Pederson wasted no time claiming that same momentum on the very next pitch in the very next inning, thereby ending the shutout, the tie, and Max Scherzer’s night.

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Onward! (source- Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times)

As it turned out, though, the Dodgers were just getting started.  A seemingly endless stream of Washington pitching changes couldn’t stop the Dodgers’ momentum- nor could three straight failed sacrifice bunt attempts, courtesy of Charlie Culberson- with pinch hitter Carlos Ruiz ultimately giving the Dodgers the lead, and Justin Turner adding to it.  This game was far from over at that point, however.  After ex-Dodger Chris Heisey’s two run homer put the game within reach for the Nationals, Dave Roberts went to Kenley Jansen- in the SEVENTH INNING with no outs yet recorded.  Without reliving the mayhem all over again, the most notable play on the Nationals’ side was Dusty Baker, a manager good enough to consistently get hired but not good enough to stop needing to look for work, ordering a sacrifice bunt- with the bottom of the order coming up, no less- while his team only had 6 outs left in the season.  After a career high 51 pitches for Jansen, the game still had two outs left, while Jansen had NOTHING left.  Dave Roberts then went to Clayton Kershaw- again, naturally- who had just thrown 110 pitches on short rest just two days earlier.  The first batter up was relatively new Dodger nemesis Daniel Murphy, whose .438 batting average for the series was deceptively low.  (That is not a joke.)  Kershaw got him to pop up, then struck out the Nationals’ final position player remaining on the bench, to take the team to the NLCS, in a scene that was as exhilarating as it was exhausting.


WHAT WE’VE LEARNED SO FAR

Whatever happens from this point forward, it must be said that Andrew Friedman’s front office deserves some serious recognition for what’s already been accomplished.  They were panned for their duct tape approach to putting together a pitching staff, instead of spending money on Johnny Cueto, or re-signing Zack Greinke.  And yet, this duct tape continues to pitch deep into October, while Greinke and Cueto watch at home, or play fantasy football, or whatever keeps them occupied in the offseason.  I’m still not sold on the constant swirl of roster moves, both on the field and off the field, and I miss seeing a Post World War II running game on the bases.  But you can’t argue with results, and right now, they’re getting it done.   (Also, Dave Roberts was clearly the right manager for this team.)


WHAT NEXT?

Thanks to their next opponent’s historical reputation of unprecedented futility in American sports, the Dodgers will likely not gain many fans outside of Southern California.  But make no mistake- if there’s a real-life “Bad News Bears” in this series, it’s unquestionably the Boys in Blue, particularly with Jansen and Kershaw compromised for at least the beginning of the series.   Sure, the media will play up the “Lovable Losers” angle for the Cubs, but this Cubs team happens to have the best record in baseball.  Besides, for fans under 30, there’s really no difference between whether their team last won it all in 1908, or 1988.

 

 

 

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!

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.

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!