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2013 Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Big Question: Will the big spending lead the Dodgers back to the postseason?

It’s a new world in MLB and the Dodgers are playing by their own rules. While the mighty Yankees are making plans to get under the luxury tax threshold, that’s not a concern for the new ownership group in Los Angeles. The Dodgers are projected to have a payroll around $225 million this season, the highest in major league history. Having a new $7 billion cable deal helps.

After adding big names like Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett in trades last season, the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke to a six-year, $147 million contract over the winter and committed $61.7 million to sign Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu. But for all the spending, the Dodgers still have their fair share of questions.

After ranking 26th in runs scored last season, the offense should be better, but by how much? Matt Kemp is coming off shoulder surgery while Crawford is still rehabbing his elbow following Tommy John surgery. Adrian Gonzalez is healthy by all accounts, but he hasn’t shown much power since his shoulder surgery two offseasons ago. Luis Cruz has a lot to prove after playing well in a small sample last year. And yes, Andre Ethier still can’t hit lefties.

Clayton Kershaw is arguably the game’s best starting pitcher, ranking second in the majors in ERA and first in WHIP and strikeouts over the past two seasons. Greinke’s upside is obvious, but it looks like he’ll get a late start to the season following a sore elbow. Beckett had better results after coming over from the Red Sox last season and should benefit with a full season in the easier league. However, things get a little dicey after that. Ryu is an unknown quantity and hasn’t been overly impressive this spring. The Dodgers are hoping that the ulnar collateral ligament in Chad Billingsley’s elbow will hold up, but they have Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly in reserve in case things go awry.

It’s easy to envision a scenario where the Dodgers run away with things in the National League West, but like with any team, there are also ways that things could go wrong here. Injuries. Underperformance. It happens. This is baseball. Still, the pressure will be on after they came up short last year. If the Dodgers aren’t playing in October, manager Don Mattingly will likely be out of a job.

What else is going on? 

  • The Dodgers’ spending hasn’t been exclusive to the talent on the field. They have also directed roughly $100 million in improvements to Dodger Stadium, including the return of hexagonal scoreboards, upgrades to the sound system, bathrooms, and concourses, the construction of a new clubhouse for players and bullpen overlooks which will create standing-room views for the game. Much-needed upgrades for a stadium which is now the third oldest in the majors behind Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.
  • Can Luis Cruz keep the starting third base job? There’s reason to be skeptical. After hitting just .261/.296/.394 over 12 seasons in the minor leagues, the 29-year-old delivered a surprising .297/.332/.431 batting line in 78 games with the Dodgers last season. The crash back to Earth could be ugly. Moving Hanley Ramirez back to third base (where he likely belongs) could give Dee Gordon another chance at shortstop, but the young speedster still carries plenty of questions of his own.
  • After posting a 2.30 ERA in 28 appearances after coming over from the Mariners last July, Brandon League was retained this winter on a three-year, $22.5 million deal and is expected to open the season as the Dodgers’ closer. The contract is questionable enough, but Kenley Jansen is the best pitcher in this bullpen if healthy. The contract probably gives League some job security out of the gate, but with the Dodgers determined to win now, don’t be surprised if there’s a change at some point.
  • With all the money flying out the door, when will Kershaw get his piece of the pie? The soon-to-be 25-year-old is under team control through 2014, but there is mutual interest in getting a long-term extension done. He remains the best bet to be the game’s first $200 million pitcher.
  • Vin Scully, 85, is set to begin his 64th season of announcing Dodgers games. Enjoy it.

Prediction: It should be a close race with the Giants, but I have the Dodgers in second place in the NL West. They will secure one of the two Wild Card spots, though.

Study: West teams at a disadvantage due to jet lag

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - JULY 14:  A Delta airlines plane is seen as it comes in for a landing at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on July 14, 2016 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Delta Air Lines Inc. reported that their second quarter earnings rose a better-than-expected 4.1%, and also announced that they decided to reduce its United States to Britian capacity on its winter schedule because of foreign currency issues and the economic uncertainty from Brexit.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Every year, when the schedules are released, we often hear about the teams that have it worst. Almost always, those teams are West teams. According to MLB.com, teams in the West division of their respective leagues had the top eight most travel-heavy schedules in 2016. The full list:

Team League Division Miles
Mariners AL West 47,704
Angels AL West 44,945
Athletics AL West 42,119
Rangers AL West 41,128
Dodgers NL West 40,294
Giants NL West 39,341
Astros AL West 38,553
Padres NL West 37,363
Rays AL East 36,916
Red Sox AL East 36,896
D-Backs NL West 35,312
Yankees AL East 35,252
Marlins NL East 35,226
Rockies NL West 33,287
Blue Jays AL East 32,895
Orioles AL East 32,322
Braves NL East 29,236
Royals AL Central 29,077
Twins AL Central 28,948
Phillies NL East 28,351
Mets NL East 26,832
White Sox AL Central 26,538
Cardinals NL Central 26,451
Pirates NL Central 26,134
Brewers NL Central 25,620
Tigers AL Central 25,450
Indians AL Central 25,176
Reds NL Central 25,108
Nationals NL East 24,664
Cubs NL Central 24,271

The averages by division:

  • AL East: 34,856 miles
  • AL Central: 25,176
  • AL West: 42,890
  • NL East: 28,862
  • NL Central: 25,517
  • NL West: 37,119

The maps aren’t up for 2017 yet, but rest assured that West teams will once again have it worst. It’s easy to see why, taking a look at the map on MLB.com. If you draw a line to split Texas in half and go straight up through North Dakota, there are only eight teams to the left of that line, leaving the other 23 condensed on the right side. When West teams aren’t playing intra-division games, they are traveling. That’s often not the case for East and Central teams. The Phillies and Pirates, for example, don’t even have to leave the state to play each other.

As Gizmodo points out, a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a link between jet lag and performance. Sleep scientist Ravi Allada of Northwestern University analyzed 4,919 games, finding that teams that traveled East performed worse than those that traveled West. Allada and his colleagues adjusted for home field advantage and park effects.

Specifically, teams that traveled from the West to the East lost more often than East teams traveling West. They gave up more runs and scored less runs. They hit for a lower batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. They gave up more home runs, accounting for most of the decline in run prevention.

There was a peculiar finding. Allada found that jet lagged home teams performed worse than jet lagged visiting teams. He hypothesizes that “teams may be more cognizant of their schedules when traveling away, thus mitigating jet lag effects,” he told Gizmodo.

The Braves ask Cobb County for $14 million more

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The Braves’ new ballpark in Cobb County Georgia is the gift that keeps on taking.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the Braves have asked Cobb County for $14 million for roads, walkways and other pedestrian improvements around the stadium the team has already paid for but which it says the county is responsible. The county says it’s not responsible for them and that it has already paid nearly $70 million for transportation improvements around the ballpark, including on privately-owned property in the mixed-use development.

The reason this isn’t settled: at the time the deal between the county and the team was struck, there was a provision for the county to pay for $14 million for certain improvements. The Braves, this past September, told the county that it wants to be reimbursed for these projects under that provision and that the $70 million the county has already spent shouldn’t count. For reasons, I guess. It’s a bit complicated, but the AJC story lays it out pretty well. The upshot seems to be “why didn’t the Braves say they wanted the county to pay for these things long ago?”

The answer to that question, I suspect, is “because the Braves have been treated as entitled corporate welfare recipients since this deal was announced and they have learned that they can get away with almost anything.”