Monday, February 29, 2016

Inside Scoop: Dodger Spring Training Day 2

Howie Kendrick leads a base-running drill.
Today, I saw first hand the benefits of watching Dodger Spring Training on a lazy Monday. The weekenders that trekked from L.A. packed up for the most part, leaving an even more personal experience for the rest of us.

Clayton Kershaw on his way to throwing session.
Fly On The Wall With Ace Clayton Kershaw: I was all alone watching three-time Cy Young-winner Clayton Kershaw as he took on his customary springtime regimen. After stretching and running, he partnered up with fellow pitcher, Joe Blanton, for long toss, before throwing a short session of his pitching arsenal, including one of signature what-the-hell-just-happened curveballs. I was so close that I could not only hear the snap of Blanton's glove on each pitch, but I was also privy to their banter. Yes, even pro ballplayers yell, "crap, that hurt," when a ball finds its way into the thinnest part of the leather pocket.

Urias & De Leon, future L.A. stars?
Two Future Aces: Two top Dodger pitching prospects that could very well get September call-ups this season threw live batting practice today. Gotta say, the future Dodger rotation looks very promising with flame-throwers Julio Urias and Jose De Leon. Apparently, the two formed a tight bond while playing for the Class A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes team. The front office plan seems to suggest that next year they will both be holding down starting spots for the Dodgers. They already have the fan part of the game down, each signing tons of autographs today.

Fans want Andre to stay.
Dre-Watch Day 2: Still here! Outfielder Andre Ethier looked solid in the field and during batting practice. If the team does ship him out, the L.A. fan base won't be pleased, as was evidenced today when he was mobbed for autographs. Even through his ups and downs, this guy has been a fan favorite for going on 10 years. Dodger fans don't like to see their long-time guys traded. He might not be Mike Piazza, but he would be missed and the fans won't let ownership off easily if they drop him.

Find photo bomber Josh Ravin.
I got Photo-Bombed! Dodger pitcher Josh Ravin brought me a good laugh first thing this morning. I thought it would be cool to have a photo of myself with the Dodger pitching staff working out in the background. In the middle of snapping the selfie, I hear a "can I see your picture, I just photo-bombed you!" Turns out Ravin is one of the fun, goofy ballplayers out there. Nice guy, hope he makes the opening day roster.

Hard core L.A.
Freaky Fun Fans: Only hardcore fans really attend Spring Training before the actual games begin. Today, I found proof of these fans. One guy actually said he would do cartwheels if Dodger first baseman Adrian Gonzalez would convince the usher to let him cross to the side where Gonzalez was signing autographs. Of course, Gonzalez was game, and the dude proceeded to attempt some of the ugliest cartwheels I have ever seen. And then there were the three guys in this photo, who were only too happy to let me snap a picture. 

More to come tomorrow on my last day at Dodgertown.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Musings From My First Day at Dodgertown

In the trenches with the Dodgers.
Dream come true.
My head is still spinning from my first day visiting the Dodgers' spring training complex at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, 
Arizona--definitely a one-of-a-kind experience. I am told the access the Dodgers give their fans at spring training is, bar none, the closest and most personal of any of the 10 teams that work out in Arizona. Most times, just a chain link fence or waist-high barricade came between myself and the players. The atmosphere is relaxed and inviting, allowing fans to feel the game in a way that just isn't possible during the stressful season. Watching the time-worn drills under the hot desert sun and hearing the players humorously rib one another, reminds everyone there, players and fans alike, that baseball is indeed a game. Read on for your first look at the 2016 Dodgers spring training.

Japanese fans giving Kenta Maeda
a hero's welcome.
Penny for your thoughts,
Kenta Maeda Fever: The newly signed Japanese league star pitcher is by far the biggest draw at camp, especially with the Japanese press and fan tour groups. Full-on rock-star screams accompany his every move. He somehow escaped the throngs and sat quietly in a dugout at one point this morning; I managed to catch him taking a breather from it all.

Is Dre here to stay?
Dre-Watch: Everybody's favorite trade target each spring, outfielder Andre Ethier, is still in camp. Trade talks seem to have quieted for now, as the Dodgers still have until April 21 to deal him before his 10/5 rights kick in (10 years of service time in the league, 5 with the same team, a player can refuse any trade). The team will most likely wait to see if Carl Crawford can make it through camp without pulling a hammy or straining his back (is this possible?). Same thing with Yasiel Puig, whose own hamstring pulls last season were almost legendary. Ethier is so solid, but he's also about to turn 34. We'll keep on Dre-Watch.

BP under the Arizona sun.
Overheard At The Batting Cage: I watched a handful of infielders take batting practice, and third baseman Justin Turner was keeping things light. "Come on, [second baseman Howie] Kendrick, I know that one won't get [catcher A.J.] Ellis from first to third!"

Cody Bellinger turning
heads and making believers.
Future Dodger Star In Camp: Non-roster invitee first baseman/outfielder Cody Bellinger was hitting the snot out of the ball during batting practice. One solid line-drive after another. He easily had the best hacks of the group he was hitting with, including stalwart vets, Turner, Kendrick, Chase Utley, and A.J. Ellis, as well as young standouts Corey Seager and Enrique Hernandez. The cool thing was hearing all the vets ooohing and aaahing after each stinger that came off of his bat. Nice confidence builder for the 20-year-old, to be sure. Who knows, he might get a September call-up this year.

Grandal signing
autographs after practice.
Catcher Yasmani Grandal: looked good in the batting cage and behind the plate. His form on the field and chipper nature with fans suggests his off-season shoulder surgery was successful.

Still and always will be Tommy.
Tommy Lasorda, still full of piss 'n' vinegar: Dressed in full uniform with a dollop of zinc oxide on his nose, Tommy was behind the wheel of his own golf cart, closely watching and commenting on batting practice. Then he signed autograph after autograph. How old is this guy?

I'll be out there again tomorrow, soaking up the Arizona sun and watching the boys in blue.

Friday, February 26, 2016

I'm Off To Arizona and Dodgers Spring Training!

Spring Training 2016!

Spring training signals a fresh start: Young prospects strutting their stuff, sweating it out, trying to make the big club; old vets shaking off the rust from a long winter; rookies enduring camp pranks; a group of guys from all different cultural backgrounds, working to form a family to achieve the goal of winning a World Championship.

This weekend, for the first time in my life, I will get a chance to witness Dodger Spring Training in person. I have always wanted to visit Dodgertown, but the trek from California to Vero Beach, Florida, was just too far, so you can bet I was excited when the club moved its spring training to nearby Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona.

I purposely chose the early part of spring training for my visit. There won't be any game action at this point, but the chance to see how the players prepare themselves for the long season ahead, and the kind of access fans are allowed to the players and coaches is the draw for me. I am curious to watch the team build its chemistry in the early-going; to investigate the progress of players coming back from injury, such as pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu, third-baseman Justin Turner, and catcher Yasmani Grandal, etc.; to evaluate the up-and-coming young talent who could make the club later this season or next. This insider's look is really a baseball junkie's dream, and I am ready.

Dodgertown, here I come!
So get ready for my "Postcards From Spring Training" updates!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Bonds Says God Knows He's A Hall-of-Famer

Sure glad God knows he's a Hall-of-Famer.
Really, Barry? I'm sure Spring Training sportswriters peppered you with questions about your continued Cooperstown snubbing, but you really need to go the "no comment" route at this point because you just sound ridiculous. I don't consider myself a religious person, but I would think those who do are probably pretty offended by your most recent remark. I'm sure God is keeping track of your baseball "problem" since its importance in the world is so great.

Seriously, every time Barry whines about not making the Hall of Fame, I get pissed off. You made your bed, and you will be lying in it forever, Barry. No Hall of Fame for you. I'm sure this year's Cooperstown voting chapped his hide pretty raw, as his virtual boyhood baseball twin, Ken Griffey, Jr. flew right in. But everybody understands that Griffey's outstanding career was syringe-free. Well, everybody but Barry gets it. My guess is that Barry really has convinced himself that he only used flaxseed oil and never did anything wrong. Just like O.J. believed he didn't kill Nicole and Ron. Superstar athletes and entertainers are different from the rest of, it's a known fact!

BFFs Barry & Alex talk the finer "points"
Okay, just needed to get that off my chest. Best of luck to Barry teaching the Miami Marlins how to hit this season. Hope he and Don Mattingly have a wonderful time together.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dodger Team Chemistry: Is This Finally The Year?

Not the Dodgers. Sigh.
It's painful to admit for Dodger fans, but the last time the team really displayed great team chemistry was in 1988. Yep, Ronald Reagan was president, ping-pong became an Olympic sport, and like, totally, the Dodgers won the World Series for the last time. I don't know if it's fair to draw a direct correlation between the two, but one does have to wonder: All things being equal, is a chronically weak clubhouse chemistry holding the team back from achieving the ultimate goal?

1988 Dodgers. The last time
they liked each other.

I would answer this question with a resounding yes. The 1988 club overcame a long list of shortcomings on the field to beat a "Bash-Brothers"-led powerhouse Oakland A's team that was far superior on paper. Little-know, cast-off-types like Mickey Hatcher, Franklin Stubbs, Jeff Hamilton, Mike Marshall, Alfredo Griffin, etc., who would have ridden the bench on any other World Series team, were thrust into the starting line-up by manager Tommy Lasorda, and they flat-out thrived. The literally unstoppable Orel Hershiser and his take-know-prisoners battery-mate, Mike Scioscia, led the way on the field, and their famously injured star hitter and resident ass-kicker, Kirk Gibson, cheered from the bench for the entire series after his famous home run set the tone in Game 1. This squad defined team chemistry. Gibson hated the media and detested the spotlight, while their young pitching stud, Hershiser, carried around a low-key, awe-shucks persona. In other words, ego was not a factor on this team at all. The big guys were humble, the little guys were overjoyed to be starters, and they all played together as one cohesive team.

Lasorda didn't take crap,
and the players loved that.
And let's not forget Lasorda, because the manager plays a key role in fostering or screwing up team chemistry, without a doubt. Some people might remember Lasorda as Mr. Hollywood or the old guy who sometimes napped on the bench during games in his later years, but when the Dodgers were on top of the N.L. West in the 1980s, he exuded just the right amount of relentless positivity along with the willingness to take on cruddy umpires and visiting "Beat L.A. Fans" (Remember those days at Candlestick Park where Giants fans rained batteries and f-bombs upon Dodger players?). The team played hard for Tommy and each other. Beautiful team chemistry.

As the saying goes, "the fish stinks from its head to its tail." Yes, Donnie, I am talking about managers like you. Former Dodger manager, Don Mattingly, was well-liked by his players for his laid-back demeanor. But having players like the manager doesn't necessarily create an environment for players to like each other. It's great that Donnie wasn't a jerk, but I contend that former star players don't make the best managers/leaders, in terms of fostering clubhouse chemistry. Instead, the genetic makeup of the manager who can attain and maintain a team that feels like a family is this:

Catchers can take anything.

  • Worked hard in the minor leagues, but fell short of a real major league career (Lasorda).
  • Played a leadership position on the field, usually catcher (notable guys in this category include, Giants manager/San Diego Padre catcher, Bruce Bochy, former Dodger catcher/Angel skipper, Mike Scioscia, St. Louis Cardinals manager/catcher Mike Matheny and, of course, Joe Torre, another backstop, who won more-than-I-can-count championships managing the Yankees). 
  • Fought like crazy to make it to the majors but was never a star (this list is long, but a recent example is K.C. Royals manager, Ned Yost, who was, yes, a back-up catcher for a few years).
What's not to like about this guy?
While new Dodgers manager, Dave Roberts, is not a former catcher, he was a scrappy outfielder who spent most of his first 8 seasons in the minors developing his fielding, base running, and slap-hitting approach, and was never a star. After his MLB debut with the Indians in 1998, he was sent back to the minors, and bounced up and down until he was traded to the Dodgers in 2001. It wasn't until the next year that he became their starting centerfielder and lead-off hitter. He was your classic grinder who worked hard and eventually played a vital role in helping the Red Sox win their World Series in 2004 (stealing the key base against Yankee star closer, Marino Rivera, in Game 4 of the ALCS). His teammates loved playing with him because of his positive attitude and willingness to do anything it took to win. He earned huge respect when he was a coach with the Padres and beat Hodgkin's Lymphoma and came back the next year. It also doesn't hurt that the guy knows how to make friends with everybody since he grew up a military brat, moving around his whole life. He is also half Japanese, which should help with integrating new pitching acquisition, Kenta Maeda. 

The Roberts list of positive attributes goes on and on.
Can Puig make nice with his teammates?
So the players will love playing for Roberts, and he seems to have all the right tools from his past to bring them together. But what are the chances the other things needed to have great team chemistry will fall into place this year? Well, they have their star pitcher to lead them in Clayton Kershaw, their understated star position player in Adrian Gonzalez, and their unsung guys who have earned respect with their hard-nose play, such as Justin Turner, Enrique Hernandez, Howie Kendrick, and Andre Ethier. Throw in back-up catcher, A.J. Ellis, who fits the I'll-do-anything-for-my-team mold, and a happy family could finally be formed. Oh, but wait a minute, what about that chemistry-killer, Yasiel Puig, you say? Crap. You know this is keeping Roberts up at night, because it might be the key to the whole season. I think this is why Roberts won the managerial job--I believe he convinced the Dodger brass that he can bring the polarizing Puig into the fold. And if Roberts is able to do this, the Dodgers just must be partying like it's 1988 at the end of this October.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Farm Systems: Dodgers Over Giants In A Landslide

MLB Pipeline released its 2016 list of the Top 100 Prospects in baseball last Friday, and the results are crystal clear: The Dodgers are killing the Giants in this key aspect of the game. Not only was Dodger shortstop, Corey Seager, named the #1 prospect, but 19-year-old lefty starter, Julio Urias, snagged the #4 slot. Right-handed pitchers, Jose De Leon (#24), Grant Holmes (#62), and Frankie Montas (#95) also cracked the Top 100. Where did the Giants' farm system figure into the equation? The team only landed one player on the list, towards the bottom, with shortstop Christian Arroyo coming in at #82 (and that position is pretty much locked up for the next six years with the newly-minted Brandon Crawford).

Corey Seager, #1 prospect, looking good.
Dodger Farm System On The Rise
When Guggenheim Baseball purchased the Dodgers in 2012, CEO Mark Walter smartly hired Stan Kasten, the architect of the Atlanta Braves' extremely successful teams in the 1990s, to revive a Dodger roster that was DOA from the Frank McCourt years. The plan Kasten laid out was straightforward and harkened back to his tenure with the Braves: Great teams are built within, not through free agency. And he had the proof in his back pocket. The Braves teams he oversaw won more games from 1987 - 2003 than any other team in MLB, and consistently competed for a world championship with home grown superstar pitchers, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery, along with all-star third baseman, Chipper Jones.
Julio Urias, not too shabby at #4.
Kasten immediately went to work on re-building the Dodgers' farm system, and in fewer than 4 years, the team is beginning to the reap the benefits. Last season, centerfielder Joc Pederson, only 22 years old, made the club, brought stability to the outfield, and hit the second-most homers (26) on a team that led the National League in that category. Seager, of course, was the rare September call-up last season that made a huge splash with his .337 average, four home runs, 17 RBIs, 17 runs scored and two stolen bases in only 27 games. Dodger insiders see Urias and DeLeon joining a young rotation led by another home-grown player, 3-time Cy Young winner, Clayton Kershaw, in 2017, if not near the end of the upcoming season.
Yep, I am the lone Giant top prospect!

WTF Happened, Giants?
Which leads me to the Giants. What the heck has happened here? Only 1 Top 100 Prospect? One could argue that all the farm hands are already on deck, especially with their current infield built from within--catcher Buster Posey, first baseman Brandon Belt, second baseman Joe Panik, shortstop Brandon Crawford, and newly installed third baseman Matt Duffy. Second-year right-hander, Chris Heston, joins home-grown stud, Madison Bumgarner, in a rotation that will also feature largely forgotten homey, Matt Cain. No doubt, the evidence is there that the Giants have had a fantastic farm system in the past, but going forward, I question the team's ability to continue to compete for world championships with 1 top 100 prospect in their minor league fold. The Giants' World Series victories came at a steep price to their youthful ace starting pitching staff, as Cain's and Tim Lincecum's arms have pretty much fallen off due to their post-season workloads. Is this the year Bumgarner's arm ends up in the same hospital? The front office obviously doesn't have any answers on the farm to the team's rotation woes, as is evidenced by the expensive acquisitions of free agent pitchers, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. I smell a problem here, and costly free-agents aren't going to cut it in the ever-competitive National League.

Giants fans, if you have a different take on your team's farm system, I would love to hear your voices. So please chime in below in the comments section!