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.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Brewers 9, Reds 4: Milwaukee beats the Reds for the sixth time in seven tries this year. Orlando Arcia homered and drove in three. Jett Bandy had three hits and two RBI. The Brewers had 14 hits in all. Some bad news: Eric Thames left the game with a tight hamstring. He says he’ll be OK, however. And get manager Craig Counsell’s explanation of the injury is quite the humble brag:

“It just kind of tightened up over the day,” Counsell said. “It is really the on-base stuff. He’s just been on-base a whole bunch, running the bases, scoring from first, so just a whole bunch of baserunning.”

“He’s just been so awesome that all of his awesome beat-the-Reds muscles are tired. Maybe he’ll be better when he’s done beating the hell out of the Reds.

White Sox 5, Royals 2: It was tied at two until Avisail Garcia’s two-run home run in the sixth. Jose Quintana struck out ten in only six innings of work, allowing only an earned run. Rick Renteria said he was going to let Quintana pitch the seventh if the game was tied, but took him out once Garcia hit that bomb. At only 99 pitches I’m sure a veteran like Quintana would’ve been OK for another inning, but I always do scratch my head when the W is what determines when a starter is taken out.

Indians 7, Astros 6: Michael Brantley had an RBI double in the first inning and added a two-run single in the fifth. He’s hitting .318/.384/.561 with four homers and 15 driven in in 17 games. They should probably just award the Comeback Player of the Year Award now.

Yankees 3, Red Sox 1: It was Aaron Judge‘s birthday. In celebration he hit a two-run homer and made this spectacular catch, diving into the stands at Fenway:

The ump initially said it was no catch, but it was overturned on replay. The Yankees have won 11 of 14.

Orioles 5, Rays 4: Not a great night for the Rays. First, they gave up two runs on this little league homer of a disaster of a play:

 

Then, with a 4-3 lead in the 11th inning, they let the O’s come back and win it like this:

single
single
walk (bases now loaded)
sac fly (run scores)
walk (bases now loaded again)
walk

Alex Colome did everything until the second-to-last walk, then Danny Farquhar came in and walked in the winning run on four friggin’ pitches. I’m guessing Kevin Cash put his foot through a soda machine or something. At least I would’ve.

Phillies 7, Marlins 4: Maikel Franco hit a grand slam and the Phillies won their fifth game in a row. Franco had three hits in all. Sellout crowd too. No, not because the Marlins were in town. But because it was $1 hot dog night.

Pirates 6, Cubs 5: Pittsburgh needed six pitchers to get through this one, but they got through. Jon Lester allowed five runs on six hits and still hasn’t won a game this year. I suspect we’ll soon be hearing a lot about how it’s all attributable to David Ross being gone, whether there’s any truth to that or not. The game was most notable for Pirates second baseman Gift Ngoepe becoming the first player from Africa to play in the majors. He singled in his first at bat, too. The South African said this after the game:

“To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special. There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing.”

Pretty cool.

Mariners 8, Tigers 0: James Paxton has been one of the few bright spots for the M’s in the early going. Here he tossed seven shutout innings, striking out nine and allowing only four hits. Two driven in a piece for Jean SeguraGuillermo Heredia and Nelson Cruz.

Braves 8, Mets 2: Julio Teheran allowed only two runs while pitching into the seventh while Mets starter Robert Gsellman didn’t fool anyone, allowing five runs in the first inning. In all he allowed six runs — five earned — on ten hits without making it out of the fifth. The Braves end a six-game skid.

Rangers 14, Twins 3: The Rangers avoid a sweep. It was relatively close until late in the game when Ryan Rua hit his first career grand slam and Shin-Soo Choo hit a three-run homer in Texas’ eight-run eighth inning. The Rangers also had a four-run sixth inning in which they only recorded two hits. A hit-by-pitch, a wild pitch and a passed ball helped things along.

Nationals 11, Rockies 4: On Tuesday night Trea Turner hit for the cycle. Last night he fell a triple short of doing it again. Bryce Harper had four hits as he continues his early season tear. The top of the Nats’ order is brutal for opposing pitchers. Adam Eaton, Turner, Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy combined to go 13-for-24 with three homers and all 11 RBI on the night. It’s not surprising the Nats have the best record in baseball right now.

Padres 8, Diamondbacks 5: Down 5-3 in the ninth, San Diego put up a five-spot to come from behind. Ryan Schimpf did most of the damage, hitting a go-ahead, three-run homer off of Fernando Rodney. You’ll be shocked at his strategy in that situation:

“Just try not to do too much, really. Just trying to get ready for something to hit, trying to square something up.”

No word on whether he’s happy to help the ball club.

Angels 8, Athletics 5: Matt Shoemaker picks up his first win since being cracked in the skull with a comebacker last season. He tossed five innings, allowing two runs while scattering seven hits. Cameron Maybin helped his cause by going 3-for-4 with three driven in.

Giants 4, Dodgers 3: L.A. had a three-run lead heading into the bottom of the seventh but the Giants came back. Michael Morse, back with the Giants for the first time since 2014, hit a tying, pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning. Then in the 10th, Hunter Pence hit a game-winning sacrifice fly with the bases loaded.

Blue Jays vs. Cardinals — POSTPONED:

I can’t sleep tonight
Everybody’s saying everything is alright
Still I can’t close my eyes
I’m seeing a tunnel at the end of all of these lights
Sunny days, where have you gone?
I get the strangest feeling you belong
Why does it always rain on me?
Is it because I lied when I was seventeen?
Why does it always rain on me?
Even when the sun is shinning I can’t avoid the lightning

Video: Gift Ngoepe singles in his first major league at-bat

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
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Pirates infielder Gift Ngoepe, just called up from Triple-A Indianapolis, singled in his first major league at-bat on Wednesday evening against Cubs starter Jon Lester. It was a well-struck ground ball up the middle in the bottom of the fourth inning. Unfortunately for him, the Pirates could not bring him around to score.

Ngoepe, who was pinch-hitting, stayed in the game to play second base.