March 21st, 2016

My Spring Training Look at the Los Angeles Dodgers

Prior to the start of Spring Training, Major League Baseball sponsors a media day when the managers of each club meet with the media. This year such a session was held in both Florida and Arizona. Commissioner Manfred met with the press at each session.

At the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, it appeared to me the most popular manager was new Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts. There was a big crowd around his table and he graciously answered every question.

For some, the hiring of Roberts to manage the Dodgers was a surprise. That may be true, but he has the temperament, the communications skills and the baseball background to help the Dodgers turn the next page. The challenge now is to turn the Dodgers beyond a contenting team into a World Series Champion. That’s a great deal to ask. However, the financial and physical resources are in place for the team to succeed. But that’s what everyone has said for the past few years. Don Mattingly has moved on to manage the Marlins, putting his Los Angeles Dodgers experience in the rear view mirror. Now, it’s Roberts’ team.

My first look of the team came last week when they played their Camelback Ranch complex partner Chicago White Sox before a sellout crowd in Glendale.

Clayton Kershaw started the game. He wasn’t his sharpest, but he showed why he is so exceptional on the mound. He was able to throw his repertoire of breaking balls to compliment his outstanding fastball, fooling hitter after hitter in the process. While there were some hiccups along the way, Kershaw can simply dominate a game. Especially one that matters-not those that are played in the spring. It will continue to be difficult to string hits and walks together to score against him. And that’s the key. Unless a ball leaves the park for a home run, it will take multiple mistakes on his part or good luck for a series of hitters to sustain enough of a rally to put runs on the board.

I’ve seen Kershaw get a bit wild at times, but hitters have a tendency to get impatient and swing at bad pitches. He really is a master craftsman worthy of making the Dodgers contenders if he has a solid supporting cast.

The back end of the pitching equation for the Dodgers begins with closer Kenley Jansen. What Kershaw does in the beginning and middle innings of a game, Jansen does at the end. He’s a dominant closer capable of striking out the three hitters he will face in the 9th inning. He struck out 80 last year in 52 1/3 innings. He walked eight.
Yikes! You want to beat Kershaw and Jansen? Better get to Kershaw very early in the game. And regardless of who has pitched that day for Los Angeles, if the Dodgers head to the ninth with a three run lead…fuggedabowdit. Jansen is really, really good.

The Dodgers are very excited about the athletic ability of outfielder Trayce Thompson, who had just begun to hit when the Dodgers got him from the White Sox. I can see him getting lots of outfield playing time. He’s a good defender with a solid throwing arm, good range in the outfield and a bat that is beginning to wake up. There is some pop in the bat that the Dodgers can certainly use this coming season. I like what I’ve seen so far of Thompson.

Scott Van Slyke is one of those guys every team likes to have hanging around. He is versatile enough to play in the outfield and at first base. A big guy at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Van Slyke can come off the bench in the late innings and drill a pitcher’s mistake to the gap. The Dodgers outfield has Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Joc Pederson, and Yasiel Puig in addition to Thompson and Van Slyke. So, Van Slyke’s best chance for playing time may well come as he spells Adrian Gonzalez at first base.

Don’t even begin to think that Howie Kendrick can’t hit anymore. He is still the same dangerous gap hitter he has always been. I saw him rip some ropes against the White Sox Chris Sale-no easy task. Kendrick has always been a high average hitter, but he never won the batting title I thought he was sure to secure while he was playing for the Angels in the American League. But, the Dodgers were very wise to bring him back for his second year with their team. He’s the type of hitter that can rake against both right and left-handed pitching. And he can run well enough to stretch a single to a double.
Kendrick’s return makes the Dodgers a much more dangerous team. And the Angels have never been the same since he left. i think it was a huge mistake for the Angels to ever let him leave their club without extending his contract.

The situation with Alex Guererro remains a total puzzle to me. The Dodgers paid handsomely for his services as an international free agent from Cuba. But he has never been given a chance for sustained plate appearances. I really wonder how he would hit if he got more than last year’s 219 at-bats? Is he that much of a clank in the field that he can’t play defense? If that is really the case, he needs to find a new home as a designated hitter in the American League. I’m just sayin. With Kendrick at second, he likely would have to play third. The Guerrero situation, as are a few others with the Dodgers roster is a bit perplexing.

I’m not nuts about the Dodgers starters beyond Kershaw. I think the balance of the NL West changed dramatically when Zack Greinke went to the Diamondbacks. At one time the Dodgers were loaded with solid starting pitching. I feel that has eroded to the point where prospects like Julio Urias and Jose De Leon will be more important than we once may have believed a couple years ago. Can they count on Kenta Maeda, the right-hander from Japan who joined the club this year? How about Hyun-Jin Ryu? Will he hold up after missing a year with injury? Then there is the chronoligically advancing Scott Kazmir. Is there enough left in the tank? Mike Bolsinger? Hello. So the pitching is a great concern to me. And I think it might be giving the Dodgers brass some acid reflux. They have some offense that can score runs, but will the pitching be enough?

Bottom line after watching them this spring–I think new manager Dave Roberts has his hands full. He’ll have to handle the pitching staff well and mix and match seasoned veterans (especially in the outfield with Crawford and Ethier) to move the club to the finish line. Pitching. Pitching. Pitching. We’ll see. Maybe my concerns are unfounded.

Thanks for following me on twitter @BerniePleskoff.

Tomorrow: Arizona Diamondbacks

That’s it. I’m done. For now.