Chicago White Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers

Springtime Storylines: Am I gonna talk myself into liking the Dodgers’ chances this year?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season.  The latest: Divorce Court, with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Season 2.

The Big Question: Despite all the drama surrounding these guys, am I gonna talk myself into liking the Dodgers’ chances this year?

So much of the Dodgers’ zeitgeist is dominated by McCourt doom and gloom — more of that below — that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are some things to like here.  First and foremost is the rotation which is pretty darn good. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a sucker for rotations, and I may be a cheap date when it comes to them too. All I know is that on paper Kershaw-Billingsley-Lilly-Kuroda-Garland seems pretty nice. At least if Garland’s oblique injury doesn’t prevent him from contributing, but it’s still a good front four.

Still, we must remember that this was a team that only won 80 games last season, and for them to be interesting, additional wins have to come from someplace. They’re probably looking at a decline behind the dish with the loss of Russell Martin. James Loney could improve, but I wouldn’t wager on it being a significant improvement. I think Matt Kemp is poised for a nice return to 2009 form and I believe that Andre Ethier will still be solid in right.  I’m less confident in the health and effectiveness of Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake, I’m still scratching my head at the Juan Uribe signing and I worry about the depth of this team.

All in all I see improvement, but I don’t see enough of it to scare the Giants or Rockies. If they start hot I know I’m gonna get sucked in, but as I sit here soberly considering it at the moment, I don’t think they have the horses. Please remind me of this when I wax effusive in some random late April “And That Happened” entry.

So what else is going on?

  • The McCourt divorce saga drags on, with some observers believing that the litigation and attendant shenanigans could last all season.  It’s easy to overstate the effect this will all have on the team on the field in 2011 — the roster is the roster at this point — but it will be interesting to see what happens if the Dodgers are competitive and need a little boost to get over the hump.  Will Frank, watching every penny, decline to make a move?  Or will the prospect of missing the playoffs due to the failure to make a move cause him to suck it up and go for broke (and for those playoff revenues)?  The point is that, no matter how the team does this year, it’s impossible to predict management’s decisions without at least some acknowledgment of the divorce looming over everything.
  • It will be fun to watch the Manny haters in the L.A. press this season.  Yeah, Manny is gone, and there were no shortage of scribes who celebrated his departure. But what happens if Manny posts a .900 OPS in Tampa Bay while a left field consisting of Jay Gibbons, Marcus Thames and too many at bats given to Tony Gwynn Jr. fails to deliver in L.A.?  Don’t get me wrong — as far as platoons go, I could see Gibbons/Thames being pretty darn interesting, at least offensively speaking — but it’s no lock, the defense will be ugly regardless and I do think Manny will hit a ton this season.  Oh, I shouldn’t worry. I’m sure someone will explain how the Dodgers’ offensive woes in 2011 are all Manny’s fault.
  • Everyone — myself included — has snarked at Don Mattingly’s managing gaffes during interim gigs in recent years, but I want the guy to succeed and think he’ll be just fine.  Let’s be clear about something: Joe Torre is a Hall of Fame manager, but Mattingly is not replacing the Hall of Fame version of Joe Torre. I got the sense he was really mailing it in last season, with the only real part of his old self shining through being his worst tendencies like, say, overworking certain members of the bullpen.  I don’t place too much stock in attitude and all of that, but the Dodgers need a fresh start, and Mattingly may very well be able to give it to them.
  • The most interesting thing to watch all year will also be the most talked about: Matt Kemp’s attempt to return to superstar status. Even if the Matt Kemp hate got a bit too much to handle, 2010 was a bad year for him. The 2009 version of the guy was someone who displayed the skills of a damn smart baseball player: picking good pitches at which to hack, making good choices on the basepaths and taking good routes to the baseball on defense. Something caused that stuff to slide sideways last season, and if he gets back on track in those departments this year, both his and the Dodgers’ stock will be vastly improved.

So how are they gonna do?

I think Clayton Kershaw breaks out this year and the return of Billingsley and Kuroda — and a full year of Ted Lilly — will make the Dodgers a competitive team.  But I think there are too many holes in the lineup for the Dodgers to seriously contend. If everything breaks right for them, and if things break seriously wrong in San Francisco and Colorado, the Dodgers could make things interesting. I think the smarter bet, however, is to pencil Los Angeles into the third place slot.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.