Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hanley Ramirez Underscores the New Dodger Era

     By Ross Newhan

     Quietly, efficiently and, yes, stunningly, Guggenheim Baseball underscored the Dodgers new era with the acquisition of Hanley Ramirez from the Miami Marlins.

     Once one of the most talented and multi-faceted players in baseball (he stole 51 bases each of his first two years and was National League Rookie of the Year in 2006), Ramirez has not come back to his MVP caliber form of 2009 when he was second in voting while batting an NL high .342, but he is still only 28 and could find the change of venue to be an elixer.

     He is leaving one of the year's most disappointing teams for one of the most surprising, and should enhance the Dodgers' division and/or wild card bids, no matter if he plays shortstop or third base or where he bats in relation to Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, although he brings sub-par numbers, which include a .246 batting average with 14 homers, 48 runs batted in and 14 stolen bases.

    Clearly, sub-par or not, the Dodgers will welcome the package, which includes a financial obligation of about $38 million over the next 2 1/2 years and an occasional display of temperament, although this Ramirez is no Manny Ramirez.

    In addition, the Dodgers acquired in Randy Choate another left handed reliever in the deal, a needed and always valuable commodity. Left handed hitters are batting only .150 against the veteran Choate.

   The deal cost the Dodgers a talented young pitcher in Nathan Eovaldi, who at 22 could be given the time to develop by the Marlins, but Guggenheim may not be through.

   The Dodgers are not completely out of the Ryan Dempster picture, although Dempster's Cubs and the Atlanta Braves have agreed on a deal that would send pitching prospect Randall Delgado to Chicago. Dempster, however, has veto rights as a plater with 10 years in the majors and five with the same club, and has yet to approve the move to Atlanta. All indications are that he would prefer the Dodgers, although it is not clear that the Dodgers will meet the Cubs' price, which includes Zach Lee, the top pitching prospect in an L.A. system otherwise comparatively barren.              

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Beane Is Doing This Without Brad Pitt

      By Ross Newhan

     Who needs Brad Pitt or any other actor playing his part? Billy Beane doesn't want to miss a second of the surprising drama that his largely no-name Oakland A's are producing.

     As the A's general manager said on the MLB web site, "no matter how many years you've been doing this, the little kid in you still comes out."

    In this season when two wild card teams in each league will qualify for the playoffs--or at least a play-in game--the A's (a distant 74-88 last year) are shadowing the Angels in the American League West, the equivalent of the equally surprising Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates, who are also making a wild card and more bid in their respective leagues.

   The A's opened a series in Toronto Tuesday night with a 14-2 July record, 8-1, since the All-Star break, and coming off a four game sweep of the New York Yankees.

   Talk about not wanting to miss a second.

   The A's are 20-10 in games decided in the seventh inning or later and lead the majors with 11 walk off victories produced by 10 different players.

   At 51-44 as they played the Blue Jays, the A's were tied with the Angels (who lead the AL wild card race) in the loss column, were two back in wins and were tied with Baltimore for the second wild card spot.

   Can they maintain this recent magic, the improbable sweep of the Yankees and their torrid July, with a roster that is last in the American League in runs but first in earned-run average?

   With his terrific track record and dead honest approach, Beane thought he could contend with Texas and the Angels again in 2014 and that his team needed to be stripped away after last season.

   The stripping included the trading of three All-Star pitchers--Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey and Gio Gonzalez. He took some hits in the Bay Area media, received a truckload of prospects in return and figured the A's could even have an impact this season when he saw the young arms in spring training.

   Suddenly, many of the young pitchers--Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook and A.J. Griffin among them--are not such no-names. Milone, Parker and Griffin are 18-10 and all under 25.

  Another comparative youngster,, Josh Reddick, 25, has 21 home runs. Yet another, Sean Doolittle, a first base prospect until last August, has a 1.86 ERA and become the set up man for Cook, who has 10 saves.

  The A's have the second lowest payroll in the majors and no certainty they will ever have an ATM in the form of a San Jose ballpark, but Cuban Yoenis Cespedes, their one big investment at four years and $36 million, has paid off with 13 homers and 45 runs batted in.

  When the Angels signed Albert Pujols for $240 million and  C..J. Wilson for $77.5 million it made it easer for Beane to believe he was doing the right thing by totally rebuilding with young players.

  Of course, you also have to be flexible. You can't fill a 25-man roster strictly with kids, so the 39 year old Bartolo Colon has thrown 118 innings with an ERA under 4.00 and been a tutor for his young colleagues, and in the opener of the Toronto series the A's started 29 year old Travis Blackley, a recent waiver claim from the Giants, whose nomadic career has included appearances in Korea and the Mexican leagues.

   The A's surprising play may force Beane to give up one of his building blocks before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. He knows the script seldom follows form, and to this point he's produced an unexpected hit. It won't win him an Oscar nomination, but Executive of the Year is another matter.          


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dodgers and Angels Face Tell-Tale July

     By Ross Newhan

    I do not fault Stan Kasten and the new ownership of the Dodgers for posting a letter to fans in which they claimed that "Dodger Pride Is Back."

   Neither do I blame them for boasting of modest and immediate improvements in security, some  concession areas and investments in international scouting and signings.

   A more telling impact in relation to the new ownership's aggressiveness and financial availability could be determined before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

   Beyond the health of the returning Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, the Dodgers need a first baseman, third baseman and shortstop, unless you are thinking Ozzie Martinez can be more than just a shadow of Dee Gordon, whose loss for six weeks or so on the eve of the All-Star break was a major setback.

  One more reliable starting pitcher also wouldn't hurt if the cracks that began to appear in Manager Don Mattingly's first half mirrors are going to be repaired amid the pressure and reality of the second half.

  Of course (and pardon the cliche) it takes two to tango, and no matter how aggressive General Manager Ned Colletti attempts to be with Guggenheim Baseball's wallet, you can't make a trade by yourself.

 As I have written previously, the new playoff system provides for two wild card teams in each league.. At the break, almost two thirds of the 30 teams are statistically alive. Are they alive enough to trade a prospect or a significant player in an attempt to improve--and improve the team with which they are negotiating?

  Sometimes, more isn't better, and all of these potential wild card teams--as I have noted previously-- may be delude into thinking they are already set, and the trade market could be comparatively quiet.

  Whether the return of Kemp and Eithier alone is enough to allow the Dodgers to hold off San Francisco and Arizona in the West and the onslaught of all those other potential wild card teams is a  significant risk.

  If the new ownership really wants to do some boasting, a major trade is needed, although what the Dodgers can find to give up out of a sadly barren farm system isn't immediatly apparent.

  The Angels also face a tell-tale July.

  They have the best record in baseball (42-24) since the April 28 arrival of Mike Trout, but they face a murderous schedule starting in New York Friday night, and what once seemed to be the best rotation in baseball has been pretty much reduced to Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson now that Dan Haren is on the disabled list, Ervin Santana is 4-9 with no indication of improvement and the fifth starting spot is pretty much a game of musical chairs.

  General manager Jerry DiPoto could trade Peter Bourjos but has voiced reluctance to do that, and no one is anxious to help a team that has been drawing national attention since the signing of Albert Pujols, the arrival of Trout and the continued development of Mark Trumbo. DiPoto also faces a potential roster clouding decision when Vernon Wells comes off the disabled list with two years and $42 million left on his contract.

  The immediate hurdle, however, is the schedule.

  Starting Friday night the Angels play 13 consecutive games against division leaders New York, Texas and Chicago, plus seven against division contending Detroit and Tampa Bay.

  Both the Angels and Dodgers have shots at their division titles, along with wild card entry to the playoffs. It is interesting that what they do--on and off the field--in the first three weeks of the second half could determine their fate.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Mattingly Continues to Remove All Doubts

         By Ross Newhan

         The Dodgers passed the baseball milepost that is July 4 in a virtual tie with San Francisco for the National League West lead, and with the return of Matt Kemp and Andre Eithier now within eye-sight.

        Whether Ned Colletti and the new ownership can pull off a significant trade for a first baseman (Carlos Lee is welcome to stay on his Houston ranch), third baseman or fifth starting pitcher before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline is uncertain given that two wild card teams in each league qualify for the playoffs and a vast number of the 30 teams seem deluded into thinking they already have a playoff roster.

       However, one thing is certain as the Dodgers begin the statistical second half of a 162 game schedule:

      With the possible exception of Clint Hurdle with the Pittsburgh Pirates or Davey Johnson with the Washington Nationals, no one is more deserving of the first half's Manager of the Year award--if such an award officially existed--than Don Mattingly.

       Operating with mirrors up from a conspicuously barren farm system, maneuvering a retread bullpen and recycled position players of the Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreau caliber and keeping his mind on managerial business amid the ownership turmoil, Mattingly's Dodgers maintained the league's best record until the missing bats of Kemp and Eithier and the broken bats of James Loney and Juan Uribe stripped his team of any offense.

     The Dodgers still reached the holiday milepost with the league's second best record--the Nationals had one more win--and the second half expectation of a playoff run with the return of Kemp and Eithier and the possibility of a deadline trade.

     There was a time, after Mattingly replaced Joe Torre at the end of the 2010 season, when the Dodgers absorbed a measure of media criticism for selecting a successor who had no managerial experience at any level despite his coaching experience under Torre in both New York and Los Angeles. Yet, even last year, as the distraction of the ownership mess began to surface, Mattingly continued to remind the Dodgers that each game carried its own significance and merit.

    The Dodgers were 14 games under .500 on July 6 but didn't quit. They won 11 of their last 12 series, 25 of their last 35 games, and matched division champion Arizona for the best record in the league after Aug. 21, finishing 82-79.

    Despite the owership distractions and lineup injuries, the Dodgers went to bat Wednesday 23 games over .500 since the first week of last July, and if Mattingly--with his calm but determined demeanor--has proven his ability to critics and cynics over that period, he, perhaps, has proven something to himself.

   There is no question but that he was disappointed when the Yankees chose Joe Girardi to replace Torre as manager after the 2007 season. He was Donnie Baseball. No one was more pin-striped or popular in New York. In retrospect, however, Mattingly is grateful he didn't get the job. He was going through a divorce, his personal life coming apart, and under the pressure of  the Bronx he admittedly would not have been able to stay focused on his job.

   Torre brought Mattingly to Los Angeles with him--an indiction of the respect in which Torre held Mattingly, both personally and baseball wise--and after taking a brief hiatus to deal with his family situation, he joined the Dodgers as hitting coach after the 2008 All-Star break, replaced Torre at the end of the 2010 season and married his new wife, Lori, that December.

   Mattingly will acknowledge that the marriage has been an elixer at a pivotal point in his life, and the Dodgers--under their new ownership--have every reason to acknowledge that their managerial marriage has been a similar elixer, any doubts removed on the milepost morning of a surprising season that figures to be even more of a sparkler in the second half.