Observations on the desert
GLENDALE, Ar—They open the season with the Diamondbacks in Sydney, Australia, which is akin to the Golden Globes. Those games count, but they then open the season for real on Sunday night, March 30 against the Padres, and some have asked if there will be a Vanity Fair post-party, complete with a Red Carpet.
They are, after all, The Dodgers, with a $225M payroll that ups the Yankees by an ARod, or so. They have their own 24 hour SportsNet LA television network with the likes of Orel Hershiser and Nomar Garciaparra, they could make a run at four million fans wading through L.A. traffic to Dodger Stadium, where the bottom of the first inning could be led off by Yasiel Puig, who is a living action drama, and whose lead to the ninth inning could be Brian Wilson, SportsNet LA’s answer to anything Bravo can imagine short of ToneItUp.
They are truly a media event Don Mattingly compares to the daily drama of the Yankees. “And,” says Mattingly, “it’s good. Really good.”
It’s hard not to look at the Dodgers and think that if their pitching is healthy, they are the best National League team west of the Mississippi. Clayton Kershaw is the best in the game, and doesn’t turn 26 for another couple of weeks. Zack Greinke. Hyun-Jin Ryu. Josh Beckett, healthy again after Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Surgery. Dan Haren. Colletti signed Paul Maholm for depth. Former number one pick Zach Lee is nearly ready.
They have a party’s over bullpen that will work that cooling West Coast nightwinds with Kenley Jansen closing after Wilson, J.P. Howell, Chris Perez, Chris Withrow, Brandon League, Ross Stripling…
“It’s really good,” says A.J. Ellis, with understatement. Actually, Ellis has a lot on his mind preparing for Sydney, where in the winter league after strikeouts the catchers throw to first, not third base and the ball goes around the infield counterclockwise, as the water goes down the drain in the Southern Hemisphere. “So when I hit the ball,” asked Ellis, “can I run to third?” That’s what spring training is for.
There certainly are questions to be determined. Cuban signee Alex Guerrero has raised issues about his ability to play second base, which has brought Dee Gordon into the mix, and raised speculation that they could or should look at some sort of trade. There is the four outfielder pileup that Mattingly must address daily, with Matt Kemp coming off ankle surgery, Andre Ethier, Puig and Carl Crawford.
Considering Crawford’s injury history and the vast difference in his speed game from his Tampa days, as well as Kemp coming off two injury-marred seasons, there may be daily feelings to be massaged, but plenty of space to utilize all their skills. Kemp has yet to play, and is being brought along cautiously, but he says he feels “great” and “I’ll be ready for the season. Don’t worry, I’ll be back.”
“Part of the plan with Matt is not to have a plan,” says Mattingly. “I don’t want him worrying about being behind, or not making some deadline. He just needs to get healthy.” Last season, the front shoulder surgery he underwent in 2012 wasn’t fully healed, and since the front shoulder is the key to batspeed, he never had it. He has it now. His batting practice launch sessions have them convinced he will be in for a big season, as long as the ankle is healthy.”
As for Puig in the leadoff spot, Mattingly says “that extra at-bat each game be important. I know he’s not the classic leadoff hitter, but he could do some serious damage with one more at-bat a game.” Unsaid is the realization that Puig is not your middle-of-the-order at-bat grinder (42 RBI, 96-37 K-BB ratio). Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez fill that role.
Ramirez is now 30, reborn in Dodger Blue, the MVP caliber player he was thought to once be. He loves it in L.A., his movie star personality has re-emerged while staying focused on his game. When healthy last season, he had a .402 on base with a .638 slug and 20 homers in 86 games, and if he hadn’t broken a bone being hit by a pitch in the playoffs, he and his fellow ex-Red Sox teammates, might have been in the World Series. “I couldn’t be happier,” he says, and hopes that he will eventually get an extension and stay a Dodger rather than hit free agency. Dodger management has moved forward in the negotiations with a yellow light strategy and likely will not go to seven years, but Hanley is probably their best player, one that can eventually move to third when Kyle Seager is ready to play short.
One gets the sense that the $260M Red Sox deal and the trade for Ramirez were to re-establish the Dodgers as an L.A. entertainment destination as they retool the development arm of the organization. “We need to start developing our own players, our own young kids,” says Mattingly, echoing the sentiments of GM Ned Colletti and Pres. Stan Kasten. A good example is rookie center fielder Joc Pederson, the jewel of Mattingly’s spring.
Pederson is 21. In three minor league seasons, he’s hit .301 with a .394/.503 line. His swing is a thing of beauty, short, simple like Joe Mauer or Grady Sizemore. He is a grinder. Unless there are two outfield injuries, his time may be a year off, but as Mattingly predicts “he will be special,” he represents two important issues.
The first is the dedication to developing players that can free them from too many $20+M contracts. They could have had David Price back in November for a package of Pederson, Seager and 17-year old lefthanded pitching phenom Julio Urias. They would not bite, nor would they engage teams on Pederson.
The second issue is that Mattingly wants to build the grind mentality. “We played the Red Sox late in the season,” says Mattingly, “and they were the best team we played all season. By far. It’s not the walks. It’s the grinding at-bats of five or six or ten pitches, and they do it up and down the lineup. Watch the Detroit series, and that’s how they won, late in games. That’s an offensive mindset we need to develop, and we’ll eventually do it.
Beckett is another fascinating element to the Dodgers. During the 2012 season, Beckett began having problems gripping balls. He was traded on Aug. 25, then last season had serious problems. He met with Dallas TOS expert Dr. Gregory Pearl. “He did a couple of things and knew right away what it was,” says Beckett. “Two days later I had the surgery.” Monday Beckett threw two scoreless innings with three strikeouts, really good angle and says “I feel really good again. This is great.”
When former teammate Daniel Bard was struggling in the minors last summer, former Red Sox shoulder specialist Mike Reinold told him that after the 2011 season, he (Bard) and Beckett showed some loss of shoulder strength. But because it seemed minor and there was no pain, the orthopedic specialists did not seriously consider circulation issues.
“I remember those tests,” says Beckett. “I could barely do them.” Bard re-engaged Reinhold in December, visited Dr. Pearl, had the operation on January 2 and is with the Rangers on a rehab program. “Because there’s no pain involved and a lot of the cases are not dramatic, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and circulation problems may be the most undetected pitching problems out there,” says Rangers trainer Jamie Reed, who has worked on the rehabs of four different players who had the surgery. “It’s something the industry may look into deeper.”
Beckett will never be a Hollywood type, but his comeback would give them a significant veteran presence. They will need that, because with the anticipation and the network and all that goes with that they are going to have to deal with immense pressure. The deals and the signings established them as an entertainment destination, but once the novelty of the opening of the season wears off, there will be no Vanity Fair post parties until…and if…they win the World Series, which could be a grind of 175 games and seven months and a whole lot of injuries and oddities no one imagines in the warm Arizona sun.