Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Wild Dodger Pace Amid A Slow Evolving Plan

      By Ross Newhan

       Ultimately, the goal of Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi is to turn the Dodger roster younger and less expensive while retaining the competitiveness that the market demands--a noble goal that at this point is somewhere beyond anyone's rainbow. At this point, given the breadth, scope and pace of their current activity, it is impossible to predict what the roster will look like an hour from now, let alone when "younger and less expensive" will be fully implemented.

        As for competitiveness, the ability to retain and sustain the 94 win, division title level of 2014, that aspect is also incredibly hazy amid a roster turnover than in all liklihood is not finished.

        The new Dodger management team has made 11 trades in 26 days, some major and some minor, some merely stockpiling and some lineup impacting, some stand alone and some interrelated, and on Dec. 11 who knows what the lineup or 25 man roster will look like on April 6 when Los Angeles opens the 2015 season against San Diego.

        The fact that Matt Kemp will be in a Padre uniform rather than a Dodger uniform on that date helps exemplify the magnitude of the Friedman/Zaidi pace and plan, which may still include a trade for Cole Hamels or David Price or the signing of a free agent pitcher of the caliber of Max Scherzer or James Shields.

        Seldom has an often fickle fan base been fed so much off-season fodder, but whether the mid-season standings will match the excitement provided by a remodeled front office over the last few weeks--and last 24 hours in particular--is a very big question that only time will tell.

         Second baseman Dee Gordon has taken his 64 stolen bases to the leadoff position in Miami. Kemp and his resurgent bat (25 homers, 89 RBI) will be playing left field in San Diego. Dan Haren has departed the back of the Dodger rotation and will either join Gordon in Miami or retire, the Dodgers giving the Marlins  $10 million either way.

          On Dec. 11, a possible Dodger lineup looks like this:

          Jimmy Rollins, SS
          Carl Crawford, LF
          Yasiel Puig, RF
          Adrian Gonzalez, lB
          Jose Uribe, 3B
          Howie Kendrick, 2B
          Joc Pederson, CF
          Yasmani Grandal and A.J. Ellis, C

           The absence of Kemp in that lineup represents a major power outtage, but the Dodgers will be saving  about $75 million of the $107 million he was owed over the next five years, defused the timebomb that was their congested outfield situation (at a time when there was limited trade interest in Crawford and Andre Eithier) and opened center field for the touted Pederson, who still has to prove himself but who many in the organization believed should have been starting last year.

           Pederson, shortstop Corey Seager and pitcher Julio Urias represent the Big Three of the Dodgers farm oriented rebuilding plan and all of them were and are ownership designated untouchables. Pederson now gets his chance while Seager, at 21, gets another year at triple A while the acquisition of Rollins for two minor leaguers provides a quality stopgap and veteran clubhouse presence at a critical position that Hanley Ramirez could no longer play. Rollins, the all-time Philadelphia hit leader, is 36 but stole 28 bases last year, hit 17 homers and, according to a wide array of scouts, satisfactorily retains his defensive skills.

          Rollins is in the last year of his contract, as is his new double play partner Kendrick, acquired from the Angels when the Dodgers made a quick flip of pitching prospect Andrew Heaney, obtained in the seven player trade with Miami. Kendrick, like Rollins, is a respected presence and a .292 career hitter during his eight years with the Angels. Conceivably, Seager will be the shortstop and the $28  million Alex Guerrero will be the second baseman in 2016, when Kendrick considers free agency and Rollins retirement.

           As it stands, with Kemp gone and Grandal representing only modest return, Pederson will be facing increased pressure, Puig will be trying to shake his second half struggle and Gonzalez and Uribe will be hoping to resist the ever present clock. Rollins,  Kendrick and Grandal may pick up some of the Kemp/Gordon slack, and the Dodgers retain a Big Three of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jim Ryu at the top of a rotation augmented in the last 24 hours by the signing of free agent Brandon McCarthy to replace Haren. At 31, with a career record of 52-65, the Dodgers, counting on McCarthy's positive analytics and a 7-5, 2.89 ERA in 14 season-closing starts with the Yankees in 2014, may have over-paid at four years and $48 million, but overpaying is the nature of the free agent pitching game.

          Plus, despite that long-range goal of a less expensive payroll, the Dodgers still have the Guggenheim resources and an $8 billion TV contract in a $9 billion industry, and at their current pace the shadows of Hamels, Scherzer, Price and Shields are hard to ignore. There is still an opening in the Dodger rotation, a long way until opening day and no indication that the Friedman/Zaidi cell batteries are dead.

         Stay tuned is the only certainty on Dec. 11.                                

Monday, November 3, 2014

Trout: An Evolving MVP By Any Metric

   By Ross Newhan
     It is impossible now to find a major league front office that doesn't devote space and study to analytics, the advanced metrics that annoy veteran scouts and often create internal debate and disagreement.

     Take the case of Mike Trout, who next week is expected to be named recipient (and deservedly so) of the American League's Most Valuable Player Award in voting by a committee of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America.

      Miguel Cabrera, the recipient in both 2012 and 2013, will not again leave the Angels center fielder in runner-up position.

    At 23, Trout has produced three full seasons of historic dimensions, compiling numbers matched only by an illustrious few.

    Batting second for a team that led the major leagues in wins last season, Trout led the AL in runs and RBI (111), matched his career high with 39 doubles and reached a career high in home runs (36).

    Strangely, however, even with his MVP progression and the wider recognition as the game's best player, Trout has been the subject of internet and talk show discourse regarding where he is as a hitter and where he is headed.

     In a web blog titled "The New and Not So Improved Mike Trout", on the sabermetric haven that is,  Tony Blengino writes that Trout became a power-before-hit guy in 2014 as opposed to a hit-before-power guy in his first two  seasons.

    Blengino suggests that Trout swapped outs for power, producing in the process a dramatic increase in pop ups and strikeouts--"free outs for pitchers."

      Some of the metrics can't be disputed. They are part of Trout's 2014 box score. For instance:

      As his average fell below .300 for the first time (to .287), Trout's strike out rate jumped from 19% to 26% and he led the AL in strike outs at 184 (compared to 136 in 2013). His pop up rate almost doubled, and the number of at bats ending in fly balls put him in the 90th percentile.

     That lower batting average and fewer ground balls resulted in his stolen base total dropping from 49 and 33 in his first two seasons to 16 this year.

      In addition, while batting a composite .262 in August and September before going 1 for 12 as Kansas City wiped out the Angels in the division series, no major league hitter saw more pitches--almost 40%-- that Fangraph describes as "high and hard."

      An obvious vulnerability?

      A conscious effort for power above all else?

      It's a matter of how the metrics are interpreted.

      "Look, we all have a tendency to pick things apart," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said from his Westlake Village home. "We win more games than any team in the major leagues and the only thing people remember is the series with Kansas City. Were we disappointed with that? Of course. Was it the way we wanted it to end? Certainly not.

       "With Mike, a couple categories weren't what people might expect but you have to look at the whole picture, and this guy is still the best offensive player in baseball, the best player. I mean, the thing we tried to do for Mike this year was put him in a position where he could hit with more guys on base, which is why we moved him (from leadoff) to No. 2 in the batting order, and I certainly think he responded."

      For Scioscia and his hitting coach, Don Baylor, it's all a matter of Trout evolving and pitchers adjusting. The name of the game in other words.

      "I saw the league change its approach more than Mike change his style or objective," Baylor, the 1979 MVP, said from his LaQuinta home. "Mike likes the ball down, likes to take the first pitch and go from there. Guys like (Don) Mattingly, (Rod) Carew and (Wade) Boggs were the same way but recognized that at times you have to be more aggressive.

     "Mike understands. He's young, still learning, and pitchers are going to try and exploit any possible weakness  Yes, he was worked high and hard, but he also saw breaking balls away, fastballs and cutters in, and with all that he had an MVP season and recognizes that the main thing now is to whittle down the strikeouts, put the ball in play, put pressure on the defense with his speed. Nothing good happens on a strike out except for giving the bat boy more work."
     Added Scioscia: "For anyone to suggest that Mike was trying to force anything or that he changed anything in his style or approach I strongly disagree. I mean, people tend to look past the fact that he's still a very young hitter who is going to continue making little adjustments that any hitter will as they gain experience and evolve into the type hitter they are going to be long-term. He certainly has the power to hit that many home runs again and he certainly has the ability to hit .310 and .320. And, as he continues to evolve and gain the experience that all hitters need, I think you'll see the strike outs shrink and the situational component improve."

       Situational component? Is there really a need to throw up a defense for a player of Trout's caliber?

       What 23 year old in any endeavor isn't evolving?

       And given Trout's three year production it seems realistic to think, as Scioscia and Baylor believe, that an adjustment here and there and a little more aggressiveness early in the count should help restore his batting average and turn some of those pop ups and fly balls into line drives and ground balls, benefitting his speed.

      The bottom line, perhaps, is that for all of those often indecipherable metrics (WAR, OPS,  BABIP), Trout is about to emerge with an acronym that tells a more complete story: MVP.  

Saturday, October 4, 2014



    That was largely the issue when Don Mattingly went to the mound to check on Clayton Kershaw in the seventh inning of Game 1 Friday--90 plus pitches in, five hits by the last six St. Louis batters and 90 plus degrees with adrenelin even higer. Total trust in Kershaw insisting he is not fatigued despite the evidence and no trust in the bullpen, no way to get to Kenley Jansen. When Mattingly is finally forced to make the move after the Matt Carpenter three run double, former infielder Pedro Baez comes out of the beleaguered bullpen and gives up a three run homer to Matt Holliday. For all of their world record payroll the Dodgers are attempting to negotiate the post season with little relief---from their bullpen, let alone the heat.


   So while baseball's premier pitcher goes down this also has to be asked: Has baseball's premier player ever looked worse in two consecutive games. Mike Trout is not only failing to deliver (among several other Angels), he is giving the impression that he doesn't even want to be there--long walks out of the batter's box after each pitch and poor hacks on just about everything KC is throwing him. Time, perhaps, for Trout to consider swinging at the first pitch instead of starting most ABs 0 and 1.    

Sunday, September 28, 2014

     By Ross Newhan
     Clayton Kershaw is blowing through history, knocking off one legend after another and erasing any lingering perception that a pitcher shouldn't win the MVP as well as Cy Young Award. He wins both in the NL. The AL: Mike Trout, MVP; Corey Kluber, Cy Young.
      ROOKIE: Billy Hamilton, NL; Jose Abreau, AL. MANAGER: Don Mattingly, NL; Buck Showalter, AL. BEST FREE AGENT ACQUISTION: Nelson Cruz, Baltimore. LASTING DEREK JETER MEMORY: Always in right spot at right time, particularly in October. BUILD YOUR OWN STADIUM: I don't doubt Arte Moreno when he tells Bill Shaikin that he can afford it, but then why did he so strongly enforce the luxury tax payroll line instead of adding a quality free agent pitcher during off season, a potential killer now in the question mark Angel playoff rotation. WORLD SERIES: Dodgers over Detroit in six.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Bud/Jerry Split? It May Portend Labor Battle

                By Ross Newhan

                The split is akin to Ben leaving Jerry to start his own ice cream company.

                 In this case it's Jerry dumping Bud, as in Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox, and Bud Selig, commissioner of baseball.

                 These longtime friends and mutual supporters are now operating on different sides of the street, and at stake is the selection of the next commissioner (Selig is retiring in January) and, perhaps, 21 years of labor peace.

                 A Reinsdorf organized coalition, including Angel owner Arte Moreno, is attempting to derail the election of longtime Selig advisor and deputy Rob Manfred,  baseball's chief operating officer and labor leader. Selig announced his decision to step down last September and vowed to stay out of the selection process but little has taken place during his tenure without his voice and participation and there is no doubt that Manfred is his choice as successor, no doubt he is dismayed by Reinsdorf's opposition.

                 The scenario, which I hinted at on Twitter and Facbook a few weeks ago without having the full details that were reported in depth by the New York Times on Thursday, was further confirmed to me by a high placed National League executive describing Selig as being "bewildered and betrayed" by Reinsdorf's opposition "given how close they have been over the years." In addition, the executive said, "it is impossible to predict how all of this plays out."

                The election of Selig's successor was expected to be held in the fall, but Selig, attempting to thwart Reinsdorf's bid to expand the Manfred opposition, has called for a vote at next week's owners meeting in Baltimore. Manfred would require 23 of the 30 votes, and Reinsdorf may already have enough support to create chaos in the process, the NL executive said, adding that some owners, no matter what they feel about Manfred, are concerned that Selig is now attempting to steamroll his election.

                The alternatives:

               Tim Brosnan, baseball's business leader, has been a candidate from the start, and recently emerging from Reinsdorf's closed door lobbying is Tom Werner, the noted TV producer, member of the Boston Red Sox ownership group and  former owner of the San Diego Padres.

             Werner's 1990s tenure at the helm of  the Padres was far from a success, ending in a fire sale of players, and it is unclear how the majority of owners view his overall baseball acumen and stature.

            Why have Reinsdorf, Moreno and others jumped ship on Selig/Mansfred?

            That, too, is hazy, but multiple sources have told me that despite two decades of labor peace and the industry's multi billion dollar revenue growth the long dormant disparities among the internal interests and revenue streams of 30 owners are festering again, the tremors reminiscent of those succession of damaging labor battles in the '80s and '90, clearly manifesting for some owners in the belief that Manfred has not been tough enough on the union in recent negotiations and may lack the business skills to maintain and expand the game's growth.

           Ultimately, are owners prepared to scrape the consensus building and revenue sharing of Selig's tenure in a 2016 fight with the union to reshape the economics, awakening a dormant and bitter relationship? The union, you can bet on, has heard the drumbeat---sounded more loudly by the opposition to Manfred.      




Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Don't Blame Wainwright

      By Ross Newhan

      I'll join the chorus:

     Adam Wainwright did nothing wrong.

    He threw a fastball to Derek Jeter, participating in the celebration of a moment after taking his glove off and putting it on the mound with the baseball, clapping for Jeter as he led off the All-Star, All-Jeter game.

    The fastball that Wainwright then threw was still 90 plus and Jeter still had to hit it.

    The problem was, is, that the Commissioner has turned this annual exhibition--in this case celebration of a wonderful player in his final year--into something that counts, and we have seen repeatedly how home field advantage in the World Series DOES count.

     The bottom line: This was a fun game inside a fine tribute, but the All-Star game should count for nothing but league pride, if that still existis in an era in which league boundaries have been diluted by those nightly interleague games and players switching leagues with the drop of a dollar.

 . The Commissioner overreacted to the 2002 tie, and there was Wainwright, paying his respects by, perhaps, taking a little something off his fastball and trying to keep it semi-straight, while forgetting that this exhibition isn't just an exhibition any more.

    Who can blame him--in that emotional moment-- if confused as to what it is or should be?

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A's, Angels Stir Up AL West: Baseball's Best?

              By Ross Newhan

              With the two best records in the American League entering play Saturday, and a third West Division team, Seattle, tied for the fourth best, both Oakland and the Angels have been doing more than watching fireworks on the holiday weekend.

              The A's--operating from what General Manager Billy Beane has always maintained is a narrow financial window (''there are no five year plans in Oakland," he is fond of saying)--produced their own fireworks with the blockbuster trade with the Chicago Cubs, landing two starting pitchers for top prospects.

              The Angels snuck in at a less explosive level, sending two lower level prospects to Arizona for a veteran left handed reliever, Joe Thatcher, in an ongoing attempt (following the acquisition of Jason Grilli and departure of Ernesto Frieri) to stabilize their bullpen.

              The A's transaction, in particular, set the stage for what might be a wild month ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and underscored Beane's belief that his team has to go for it when the opportunity is there. The A's have reached the playoffs seven times in his 16 years as GM but never the World Series, and the trade with Chicago represents another defining juncture for two teams at distinctly different places on the competitive road.

              Already boasting the AL's best rotation ERA, the A's acquired starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, who boast the 10th and 15th ranked ERAs in the National League and who significantly improve Oakland's depth. Hammel can become a free agent at the end of the current season while Samardzija can leave at the end of the 2015 season, but this is now and that is then, and there was concern in Oakland about the club's ability to hold off the Angels with a rotation led by right hander Sonny Gray, in his first full major league season, and lefty Scott Kazmir, who hasn't pitched more than 158 innings in a season since 2007.

             The center piece of the trade from the Cubs standpoint was 20 year old shortstop Addison Russell, who was the A's top draft pick two years ago and was perceived to be Oakland's potential shortstop as soon as next year if Jed Lowrie leaves as a free agent at the end of the current year. Again, however, that is then and this is now, and prospects are prospects until they are something more. Beane has never backed away from trading prospects, having now traded five of his last nine top picks, including outfielder Billy McKinney, who was the 24th overall selection in the 2013 draft and who was sent to the Cubs with the very highly touted Russell.

            How the latter fits into the Cubs long range shortstop picture isn't clear considering incumbent Starlin Castro, 24, is signed for five years and $44 million after this season, and Javier Baez, another highly regarded prospect at 21, is in the wings. Nevertheless, as a scout for an American League team told me in regard to Russell, "if this kid doesn't become a big league star I don't know my business."

            The Angels, by contrast, added an important bullpen piece in southpaw Thatcher, who had a 2.63 ERA for Arizona in 37 appearances, primarily at the expense of outfielder Zach Borenstein, who was their 2013 Minor League Player of the Year but only their ninth rated prospect according to Baseball America.

            It isn't clear if General Manager Jerry DiPoto is done working on the bullpen, or done improving his pitching overall, but this much does seem clear:

            Between the A's, Angels and swiftly improving Mariners, the West has become the AL's strongest division--maybe MLB's strongest--and it's conceivable that all of those three will have more to say before the trade deadline as they set the stage for a furious second half in which the division title is the obvious prize.

           No wants to face the heat and uncertainty of a one game wild card play-in.