Monday, 20 April 2015

The Dodgers' Juggernaut

For many decades, the New York Yankees were the predominant powerhouse of Major League Baseball, pouring billions of dollars into the procurement of championships and the creation of a dynasty. However, after years of posturing and planning, the Dodgers finally seem destined to usurp New York as the game's most forceful franchise.

Joc Pederson, the face of a new Dodgers era.
Los Angeles embarked on a philosophical overhaul during the winter, dispensing with methodical General Manager Ned Colletti and, in his stead, forming a mesmeric baseball operations think tank stocked with some of the freshest, sharpest and brightest minds in the industry.

Andrew Friedman, the fresh-faced mastermind who steered the once-hapless Tampa Bay Rays to perennial success on a minuscule budget, was finally seduced by the prospect of running a big market juggernaut, and thus became the Dodgers' President of Baseball Operations; Farhan Zaidi, the self-confessed geek with a Bachelor's Degree in Economics and ten years experience working under the aegis of Billy Beane, was subsequently hired as General Manager in LA; and Josh Byrnes, the former wonder kid with experience running the Padres and Diamondbacks, became the Dodgers' Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations.

These moves alone signalled a paradigm shift from the Dodgers' ownership group, which effectively grew tired of the boom-and-bust uncertainty under Colletti, and instead decided to pursue the very best decision-makers in the game and, thus, take the smartest, most efficient route to the long-awaited championship their exorbitant investment deserves.

Friedman, Zaidi and Byrnes wasted little time in seeking to reshape a successful but nonetheless cumbersome and unwieldy roster. They plunged Chavez Ravine into a strategic revolution, trading troublesome outfielder Matt Kemp and his enormous contract to San Diego, and allowing Hanley Ramirez, a productive but notoriously pouty superstar, to leave for Boston via free agency. Hoping to make the team nimbler and more versatile, in keeping with their small market sensibilities, the new Dodger brain trust replaced those ungainly icons with Jimmy Rollins, a solid veteran shortstop renowned as a strong leader; Howie Kendrick, one of the most consistently underrated stars of the past decade; and Joc Pederson, the fresh-faced, homegrown, cost-controlled phenom.

When constructing their roster for the 2015 season, the Dodgers, this sprawling West Coast behemoth, applied the trailblazing methodologies that, for so long, had brought unforeseen success to the small market ballclubs ran by Friedman and his understudies. They played a different brand of Moneyball, seeking the extra two percent and attempting to squeeze as much production from every dollar as possible. The new executives stuck to their distinguished philosophies, only now, with access to the Dodgers' bottomless pit of cash, they had a much larger crumple zone with which to work.

On paper, the result may be the most expensive team in baseball history. But, on the field, this Dodgers club has the sharpness, chemistry and energy so characteristic of Friedman's Rays, who rode an infectious team spirit to four postseason berths and one unlikely pennant during his tenure.

Quite frankly, through their first twelve games, the Dodgers are playing like a $270 million baseball team. I've had the pleasure of watching plenty of their games thus far, and rarely have I witnessed such a formidable and confident team, nor a team which has found a winning groove with such conviction so early.

Los Angeles soared ominously into sole possession of first place in the National League West this weekend, thanks to a remarkable seven-game win streak which has the team at 9-3. The defending World Series champion Giants, by contrast, sit six games back at 4-10 heading into a pivotal series between the old rivals this week.

As a team, the Dodgers lead the National League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, home runs, run scored and doubles. Last week, Don Mattingly's club swept Seattle and Colorado back-to-back and, during the aforementioned win streak, managed to score at least five runs and collect at least nine hits in each game, including a sixteen-hit barrage in Arizona and a fourteen-hit clinic yesterday at home to the Rockies.

Individually, Adrian Gonzalez has produced an eye-watering start, hitting .469/.527/.939 with 23 hits, 5 home runs, 8 doubles and 14 RBI in his first 12 games; Zack Greinke has pitched flawlessly in his first three outings, going 2-0 with a 1.83 ERA and a 0.712 WHIP; and Andre Ethier has experienced a resurgence, getting on base at a .364 clip and playing superb defence.

However, the most starling players have been Kendrick and Pederson who, together, have embodied the Dodgers' transformation from a controversial bunch of egotistical superstars to a fresh, positive, energetic, and even lovable team that is incredibly fun to watch.

Kendrick, acquired from the crosstown Angels during the offseason, has always been one of my favourite players. He's the type of player only true baseball fans can totally appreciate; the type of player who has a tremendous effect beyond the box score.

In essence, Howie is just a great all-around ballplayer, in the truest sense. He is a savant in the batters box, taking an aggressive approach and seemingly making hard contact in every plate appearance, spraying line drives from gap to gap and getting on base habitually. In the field, he's extremely competent, taking groundballs cleanly and swooshing throws across the diamond. And, perhaps most importantly for a Dodgers club addled by controversy in recent years, Kendrick is a champion in the locker room, bringing an infectious joy and enthusiasm to his work.

Pederson, meanwhile, is just a great kid. Drafted in the eleventh round of the 2010 draft, the precocious centre fielder has worked hard to compliment his tremendous natural ability with a genuine understanding of the game. An innocent, 23-year old livewire with blazing speed, prodigious athleticism and a powerful swing, Joc forced his way onto the Major League roster by hitting 33 home runs and stealing 30 bases last year in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, a feat only previously achieved by three other players, including immortals such as Tony Lazzeri and Lefty O'Doul.

The new front office, inclined to trust youth, traded Kemp, a former MVP, to pave the way for Pederson, who hasn't disappointed. His defence has been scintillating, his bat has been more than adequate and, perhaps most importantly, his smile has been a welcome change for the Dodgers, who have appeared lifeless and corporate in recent years.

Accordingly, after years of pretension, Los Angeles looks more ready than ever to finally win a World Series championship. Sure, Gonzalez will cool down and return to the mortal realm, and Pederson will encounter the usual rookie troubles at some point, but, by similar measures, Yasiel Puig will undoubtedly heat up, and Clayton Kershaw will return to the immortal realm.

Ultimately, that's the essence of this new Dodgers experiment: they're now team, rather than a dysfunctional and arrogant collection of All-Stars. It's a case of addition by subtraction, and, as ever, Friedman looks to have got his sums just right.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Unlikely Friendship of Trout & Pujols

Something magical is happening in Anaheim, where perhaps the two greatest offensive players of the past twenty years are hitting back-to-back at the heart of the Angels' order.

Mike Trout, the cherubic face of a brave new era, and Albert Pujols, the wily hero of a time gone by, continue to set the American League alight, breaking records, producing big hits, and honing an unlikely friendship that is beguiling to watch.

At 23, Trout looks predestined for the immortal realm. A barrel-chested stallion blessed with precocious agility and a sumptuous swing, the reigning AL MVP already has 99 home runs, 103 stolen bases and 582 hits through the first 500 games of his Major League career, enabling him to chase the greatest ghosts of this great old game.

Pujols, now 35, is able to relate to Trout's journey because, once upon a time, he was Trout. In the early-2000s, Pujols was the bright-eyed kid with a starling array of skills. He was the most feared hitter in baseball. He was baseball's star attraction. He was the king.

Albert has achieved almost everything to which Trout presently aspires. MVPs? Pujols has three. World Series rings? Pujols has two. Home runs? Pujols launched the 522nd of his career last week, passing Ted Williams, Frank Thomas and Willie McCovey for 18th on the all-time list.

Albert has lived Trout's life, as the ultimate icon on whose shoulders the hopes and expectations of a baseball-crazed nation are placed. This puts Pujols in a unique position, in that he's able to teach, coach and advise his princely teammate, who, in turn, benefits from the wisdom of a man who has completed the journey on which he is about to embark.

In many ways, Albert is the past master, the veteran savant, the former head of state. Trout is the apprentice, the prodigious newcomer, the heir to Pujols' crown. They've been teammates for three full seasons, but the dynamic between them has never been so intriguing. At this point, Trout is obviously the better player. He's now outgrown Albert's shadow and, as the bona fide megastar of baseball, has designs on rewriting the record books. On the other hand, Pujols has taken a step back with age, yet, after redefining himself, still has a legitimate shot at etching his name deeper into the aforementioned annals.

With a contract running through 2021, Albert will likely join the prestigious 3,000-hit club and become just the ninth player to hit 600 home runs. He may even reach the stratospheric plateau of 2,000 career RBI. Meanwhile, with the prospect of perhaps fifteen big league seasons ahead of him, Trout also figures to have a genuine shot at 3,000 hits, 500 or 600 home runs, 500 stolen bases and 2,000 RBI. 

Thus, in essence, Trout is already chasing, and hoping to outperform, the records and legacy set by Pujols. Arguably, Mike is playing alongside Albert, whilst simultaneously chasing the ghost his achievements will undoubtedly leave.

Pujols is already one of the all-time brilliant baseball players, but Trout's blend of scintillating skill at such an early age gives him a unique opportunity to become the greatest player who ever lived.

Accordingly, one would expect a sense of animosity or discomfort in the relationship between the two players. We've see it before, with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, where the established hero resented the adulation heaped upon the raw phenom who succeeded him. 

But, with Trout and Pujols, there is no bad blood, no jealousy. They're seemingly anathema to one another, in terms of ethnicity, upbringing and even physique, but they share a story and a mutual quest. The story? That of the baseball hero, striving for greatness from an early age. The quest? To jointly drive the Angels to a World Series championship.

Therefore, what we're watching is truly unique in the history of baseball. We're witnessing a special bond between a Dominican sage and an all-American wonderkid; a smiley, heartfelt affection between the departing icon and the arriving hero. We're witnessing two of the most exciting, entertaining and enthralling players of all-time bat second and third for Anaheim, on the hallowed road to Cooperstown.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

My 2015 Major League Baseball Predictions

With Major League Baseball making its long awaited return this weekend, number-crunching experts and semi-serious fans everywhere are making their annual predictions. It's always one of my favourite milestones on the baseball calendar; when everything seems crystal clear and appears preordained. We all think we know what's about to happen. We all are convinced by our prognostications. We all make lists and mock standings to be reviewed at season's end. So, without further ado, here are mine, with comments and explanations included after each division.

American League East predicted standings
1. Yankees
2. Orioles 
3. Red Sox
4. Blue Jays
5. Rays

This may no longer be the best division in baseball, but it could be considered the most unpredictable. In essence, the American League East contains five teams that could be great, mediocre, or horrible. The potential range is quite incredible. 

For instance, the Yankees have question marks about health and age, especially in the starting rotation, but I think they improved enough over the winter, on defence and in the bullpen, to give themselves a genuine opportunity to compete. I think they'll surprise a lot of people this season.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the Orioles are always a very strong tram under the meticulous stewardship of Buck Showalter, but the loss of three impact players, namely Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller, may be difficult to overcome.

The Red Sox added Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, two of the marquee free agents on the open market, but I just don't buy the hype. Let's not forget that this team lost 91 games last year, and, at present, they not only lack a proven ace, but also a legitimate number two starting pitcher. With a fairly average rotation, a ridiculously crowded outfield, and worries about age and players returning from injury, I think Boston has too many question marks to seriously compete.

In terms of Toronto, I liked the addition of Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson to an already stacked lineup, but the Blue Jays' core, centred around Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Reyes, is ageing considerably. The loss of frontline starter Marcus Stroman was a major blow, and I just question whether the window of opportunity is closing for a team that still relies too heavily on Mark Buehrle and RA Dickey.

Finally, with regard to Tampa Bay, I believe this team will be slightly better than most people are predicting, but the loss of franchise linchpins such as David Price, Ben Zobrist, Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon within the last year leaves the Rays gawping at a rebuild.

Final comment: Yankees win division by two games

American League Central predicated standings
1. Royals
2. Indians
3. Tigers
4. White Sox
5. Twins

Suddenly, the American League Central seems wide open. Once prone to duopoly amongst a few runaway teams, this division has, thanks to bold and adept management at front office level, become the most difficult to predict in all of baseball.

The Royals surprised everybody in advancing to the World Series last autumn, and I truly believe the experience of playing in that pressurised environment, especially Game 7, will be positive for this group of young and mercurial players. I see Eric Hosmer, Yordano Ventura and Lorenzo Cain taking major steps forward into superstardom, and, on the whole, Kansas City marching deep into October once again.

I actually really like this Indians ballclub, with Michael Brantley and Corey Kluber approaching their prime years, and Brandon Moss added to a potent lineup. The front office is tremendous, blazing a trail through the league, and, in Terry Francona, they have one of the best managers in the game. Yet the Indians haven't won a World Series since 1948 and, though I'd love to see it happen, I just feel the Royals' sense of destiny will leave Cleveland on the outside looking in for another year.

As for the Tigers? Well, I just don't quite know what they are at this point. Yes, they have all-world talents in Miguel Cabrera and David Price, and, yes, Ian Kinsler, Anibal Sanchez and Victor Martinez are very good supporting acts, but I have serious reservations about the depth of this organisation. GM Dave Dombrowkski could trade snow to Eskimos, but I just feel Detroit is coming to the end of a golden era, and this may very well be the year they finally fall of the cliff.

With regard to the White Sox, I admired the aggression of management in acquiring Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, Melky Cabrera, Emilio Bonifacio and Adam LaRoche, and the South-Siders will undoubtedly improve in every facet of the game, but all of those different elements will take time to mould cohesively, which could lead to a rather tempestuous clubhouse culture.

Finally, in such a loaded division, and with such a dismal Major League roster, the Minnesota Twins face a year-long battle to avoid 100 losses. A battle I think they'll win. Barely.

Final comment: Royals win division by four games

American League West predicted standings
1. Mariners
2. Angels
3. Athletics
4. Astros
5. Rangers

The American League West perennially ranks amongst the most entertaining divisions in baseball, with three or four juggernaut teams fighting to the finish. This year will be no different, as the fierce rivals prepare for another wild gunfight.

At long last, Seattle has enough ammunition to mix it with the big boys. General Manager Jack Zduriencik has worked meticulously in recent years, first establishing a core around the Hall of Fame talents of Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano, then adding a strong blend of elite homegrown prospects and external free agents to form a potent team. Mike Zunino, Kyle Seager and Taijuan Walker are all primed to take huge leaps forward this year, whilst Nelson Cruz joins Hishashi Iwakuma and Austin Jackson in creating a brilliant veteran nucleus. Ultimately, it's difficult to find a weakness with this Mariners team, which has designs on the first World Series in franchise history.

They'll be pushed all the way, however, by a fascinating Angels team that I simply love to watch. The dynamic between Albert Pujols, the greatest player of the last generation, and Mike Trout, the definitive icon of the present era, is enthralling to watch, and, I believe, capable of taking Los Angeles' a long way this year. Moreover, Erick Aybar and Kole Calhoun are great ballplayers, and Mike Scioscia is a fantastic manager, for a team that needs to take the next step, deep into October.

At this point, we don't know whether the Mariners and Angels will fight hand-to-hand, or be part of a wider battle involving the typically unpredictable Oakland A's. Billy Beane blew up his team over the winter, trading away Josh Donaldson and Jeff Samardzija rather inexplicably. However, Oakland did add Ben Zobrist, Brett Lawrie, Ike Davis and Billy Butler, who seem to fit the team's culture perfectly, and still possess a strong pitching staff when healthy, so they cannot be totally written off. 

With regard to the Houston Astros, I believe they're finally ready to take a step forward this season. It might be a baby step, but a step nonetheless. They now have a powerful lineup that will pile up the home runs (and strikeouts!), and the young core should continue to develop. In such a competitive division, the 'Stros may struggle to break .500, but their days in the 100-loss doldrums are well and truly over.

Meanwhile, over in Arlington, the prospect of replacing Houston in the cellar is very much reality for the Rangers, who are suffering something of a physical and philosophical crisis in the wake of major injuries to Yu Darvish and Jurickson Profar. In the long-term, I just don't know where this franchise is heading, but, this year, it won't be anywhere pretty.

Final comment: Mariners win division by three games

National League East predicted standings
1. Nationals
2. Marlins
3. Mets
4. Braves
5. Phillies

Seemingly everybody on Earth is picking the Washington Nationals to win the National League East in a landslide, and with good reason, but there is more depth to this division than immediately meets the eye. It will be more entertaining than people think.

Of course, barring a major disaster, the Nationals will win the East, due, in large part, to a starting rotation which looks almost unbeatable. Washington added Max Scherzer to Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark during the offseason, effectively giving themselves three aces and two bona fide number two starters. When coupled with an underrated offence I believe will be boosted by career years for Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper, that rotation gives the Nats a truly scary complexion. They have a legitimate shot at winning 100 games, if not considerably more.

The Marlins also made waves during the offseason, signing Giancarlo Stanton to the largest contract in North American sports history, and adding a host of very competent and exciting players, such as Dee Gordon, Martin Prado, Mat Latos, Dan Haren and Michael Morse. I love the homegrown core of Stanton, Christian Yelich and Jose Fernandez, and feel this team has a championship somewhere in its medium-term future. We will begin to tangible see strides toward that goal this year.

I also believe the Mets will improve this season, thanks mainly to a precociously talented starting rotation headlined by Matt Harvey and Jacob de Grom. If they can stay healthy, that is a terrific one-two punch. Offensively, the Mets may still be challenged, but Michael Cuddyer, David Wright and Curtis Granderson may still have something to give. Ultimately, I think the Mets will finally get back above .500, but a sustained playoff bid is still highly unlikely.

The Braves took a step back in trading Evan Gattis and Jason Heyward, but I still find the young core of Julio Teheran, Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons very exciting. They'll likely tread water in a tough division, which is basically the most pointless existence possible for a Major League Baseball team.

As for the Phillies? Well, we all enjoy watching a metaphorical train wreck, especially when it concerns one of the more easily hated teams in North American sports, and Philadelphia ought to provide a show this summer. Right now, it's difficult to overstate just how screwed the Phillies are. They have a woeful group of players tied to exorbitant salaries, a frozen front office which appears deeply anachronistic, and a farm system which is at best mediocre. The future is truly grim for Philadelphia, which, in my opinion, will suffer its first 100-loss season since 1961 this year.

Final comment: Nationals win division by thirteen games

National League Central predicted standings 
1. Cardinals
2. Pirates
3. Cubs
4. Reds
5. Brewers

This has become a powerhouse division in recent years, with a collection of uber front offices tussling for supremacy. I can envisage every NL Central team improving in 2015, some marginally and others significantly, contributing to what promises to be a typical intriguing race.

Ultimately, however, I still see the Cardinals outclassing everybody else. We really should just take a moment to admire the exemplary manner in which John Mozeliak and Mike Matheny run this team. The former has built a monster, with experience and youth, elite talent and enormous potential, whilst the latter has managed it supremely, delivering three successive NLCS berths in as many seasons on the job. As an organisation, the Redbirds got even better this summer, as if that were possible, trading for Jason Heyward to add yet more length to a sensational lineup. St Louis is primed for another run at a World Series championship. This time, I believe they'll do it.

Meanwhile, the Pirates will also challenge for a postseason berth, and I envisage them comfortable securing a wildcard. Pittsburgh has a thrilling lineup, full of exciting and dynamic young talent, and headlined, of course, by Andrew McCutchen. This year, I can see it all clicking into place for the Pirates, who will approach 95 wins and keep the Cardinals honest atop the Central.

Chicago is braced for what may be the Cubs' first contending season since 2009. The all-encompassing rebuild, spearheaded by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, took a considerable leap forward this winter, with the Wrigley Field construction project beginning, Joe Maddon arriving as manager, and a new core of solid Major League talent being assembled around Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero. Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Jorge Soler should have big impacts once they get on a diamond together, and I predict an improvement of 10 or 12 wins for the Cubs, enabling them to flirt with the second wildcard into September.

The Reds won't be far behind, but their success depends overwhelmingly on the production of Joey Votto, Brandon Philips and Jay Bruce. In an ideal world, those guys would rebound to prime performance, but we don't live in an ideal world, meaning Cincinnati will again miss out on the playoffs. 

As for Milwaukee? Well, this may be the most Brewers team ever assembled: average, mediocre, and generally banal. They won't seriously challenge for the postseason, nor will they totally stink. They have a very good core, centred around Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gomez and Matt Garza, but this is still the Milwaukee Brewers, and they will still finish 81-81.

Final comment: Cardinals win division by five games

National League West predicted standings
1. Dodgers
2. Giants
3. Padres
4. Diamondbacks
5. Rockies

For quite some time, the National League West has been the strangest of divisions. It contains the powerhouse Dodgers, the dynastic Giants, and three other teams who flitter in and out of consciousness. Yet, over the last fifteen seasons, the division has been pretty weak, judging by the average number of games required to finish first (92). However, expect that to change in 2015, with fireworks waiting around every corner.

Of course, the winter was dominated by the Dodgers philosophical restructuring, with fresh-faced number-crunchers Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi leading a revolution at Chavez Ravine. The new management team dumped Matt Kemp, once considered a franchise cornerstone, to ease an outfield logjam and allow phenom Joc Pederson to flourish, whilst also replacing Hanley Ramirez with Jimmy Rollins. I absolutely love the Dodgers' pickup of Howie Kendrick, who has been one of the most underrated players for more than a decade now, and believe he will have a major impact. Of course, Friedman and friends can't go far wrong with Clayton Kershaw anchoring the rotation, and I envisage the indomitable southpaw hurler leading Los Angeles to another division title in 2015.

The Giants can never be written off, having won three of the last five World Series titles despite never being pre-season favourites. However, this is an odd numbered year, meaning things tend to go awry for San Francisco, which has already lost Pablo Sandoval to free agency and Hunter Pence to injury. Yet Brian Sabean, one of the greatest executives currently working in sports, and Bruce Bochy, one of the finest managers in baseball history, usually find a way to steer the orange ship back to October. They may have to settle for a wildcard spot once again, but, hey, they've done it before.

After witnessing the Giants win another title, and seeing the Dodgers make gains during the winter, San Diego acted fast, acquiring Matt Kemp, James Shields, Justin Upton and Wil Myers to finally give Padres fans hope. San Diego has enjoyed only one winning season in the past seven years, with the Friars finishing 20 games behind the division champions, on average, since 2011. The offseason overhaul will go some way to repairing that, perhaps propelling the Padres into a wildcard conversation, but I still see this as an imperfect and unbalanced team that could just as easily finish below .500 as above it.

The Diamondbacks and Rockies, who make up the numbers out West, are themselves no strangers to losing. In fact, since 2009, these two teams have managed just three winning seasons between them. A fourth isn't coming any time soon, with both Arizona and Colorado facing season-long battles to avoid 100 losses, let alone ascend the .500 barrier.

Final comment: Dodgers win division by seven games

Postseason predictions
Attempting to predict the postseason permutations at this stage is largely ridiculous, but here's my attempt, for the sake of light entertainment.

AL Wildcard                                   NL Wildcard
Orioles @ Angels                          Giants @ Pirates

ALDS                                              NLDS
Angels - Mariners                         Giants - Nationals
Yankees - Royals                         Dodgers - Cardinals

ALCS                                              NLCS
Royals - Mariners                        Giants - Cardinals

                               World Series
                          Mariners - Cardinals 

                        2015 World Champions
                                 Cardinals

Quick-fire predictions
A few rapid predictions to round out my season preview.

AL MVP - Mike Trout
NL MVP - Clayton Kershaw
AL Cy Young - Felix Hernandez
NL Cy Young - Clayton Kershaw
AL Rookie of Year - Mookie Betts
NL Rookie of Year - Kris Bryant
Most wins - Nationals, 103
Most losses - Phillies, 102
Biggest improvement - Red Sox
AL breakout player to watch - Taijuan Walker
NL breakout player to watch - Christian Yelich