Kenley Jansen

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WBC’s extra-innings rule cheapens Puerto Rico’s win, sadly

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Puerto Rico is headed to the finals of the World Baseball Classic after walking off 4-3 winners in 11 innings of captivating baseball that started on Tuesday night and ended early Wednesday morning in the Eastern time zone. Well, the first 10 innings were captivating, the 11th and final inning was not.

WBC rules stipulate that, in extra innings starting with the 11th, each team will start its inning with runners on first and second base. The rule is meant to speed the game along because, after all, it is an exhibition game and these players have commitments to professional teams. Managers can’t get two innings out of relievers because of the risk of injury. That was the case in the ninth for Netherlands as Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect inning on nine pitches but did not return for the 10th, as the Dodgers had an agreement in place. One can understand that aspect of the rule, as unfortunate as it is for fans.

The rule is also designed to try to make games more interesting. Fans don’t like 18-inning games, we’re told, so this rule is designed to make sure games end in the 11th or 12th innings, if possible. The result, though, is a predictable and boring affair.

Here’s how things went for Netherlands in the top of the 11th: Three bunt attempts, the last of which was successful in advancing both runners. Intentional walk. Ground ball double play.

Here’s how things went for Puerto Rico in the bottom of the 11th: Successful bunt on the first try. Intentional walk. Sacrifice fly.

Wow. Exciting. Puerto Rico fans were understandably ecstatic that their team had advanced into the finals. Other baseball fans were snoring and not because it was 1:30 AM. The game was otherwise exciting. Both teams traded homers to open the first inning. There were several outstanding defensive plays by both sides. The 10th inning had some benches-emptying drama.

Unfortunately, the extra-innings rule cheapened Puerto Rico’s victory over Netherlands. Part of the beauty of baseball is strategy. By giving both teams runners on first and second to start their offensive half of the inning, the strategy has already been decided. When the Dominican Republic and Colombia went 11 innings on March 12, the D.R. also elected to bunt to lead off the 11th. Colombia didn’t because the D.R. went on to score seven runs, but it would have had the deficit only been one or zero runs. Also on March 12, Japan led off the top of the 11th with a bunt. Because Japan scored twice, Netherlands did not bunt to lead off its inning. Four out of four teams in a classic position to bunt elected to do so. Three of those four teams saw their next hitter intentionally walked.

Bunting is not fun to watch. With fields that usually stretch about 330 feet down each foul line, seeing a player intentionally hit the ball into the ground 10 feet in front of home plate feels like a waste. Doing it as a predetermined strategy only makes it more boring.

Fans also watch the game because they want to see the talent of the players. How can they see that if two of the players are put on base for free, then the outcomes of the next two at-bats are almost 100 percent predictable? (Bunt, intentional walk.) If I were a fan of a team in the WBC, especially one with players not commonly on an international stage, I’d feel robbed by this rule.

Fortunately, the extra-innings rule isn’t coming to Major League Baseball anytime soon. Commissioner Rob Manfred suggested the rule, but it was broadly panned, and he retracted any enthusiasm for the idea. It will be implemented in the minors, but it has more practical application there since games don’t carry nearly the same weight of importance.

The extra-innings rule, though, is just a symptom of an underlying problem: timing. Having WBC games in March clashes with the Major League Baseball schedule as it coincides with spring training. Players on MLB teams are therefore caught in a bind: Do they participate and show pride for their countries? Or do they consider their futures with their MLB teams — which provide them their livelihood — choosing to either not participate or, in Jansen’s case, participate in a limited capacity? As mentioned, part of the intent of the extra-innings rule is to make it so teams don’t need to rely on any particular reliever for six innings of work because the game went 18 innings and the team had run out of pitchers. If the WBC were held, for example, in the winter (hosted, obviously, in more tropical climates), players and teams on their behalf might be more willing to go a little longer.

Maybe with some more scheduling creativity, we might see an 11th-inning walk-off sequence that goes triple-single or double-double rather than bunt-intentional walk-sacrifice fly. That would leave us all with a better taste in our mouths.

Puerto Rico walks off against Netherlands in 11th inning to advance to WBC finals

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The World Baseball Classic’s extra-innings gimmick helped decide which of the two teams playing Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning would advance to the finals. Puerto Rico ultimately walked off a 4-3 winner in the bottom of the 11th against the Netherlands.

The game started off interestingly enough with both teams trading two-run home runs. Wladimir Balentien crushed his off of Jorge Lopez in the top half at Dodger Stadium. Carlos Correa returned the favor, victimizing Rick van den Hurk in the bottom half.

Puerto Rico broke the 2-2 tie in the bottom of the second when T.J. Rivera swatted a solo home run to left field, also off of van den Hurk.

Netherlands tied it with a two-out rally in the fifth. Balentien doubled — and very nearly homered again — Jonathan Schoop was intentionally walked to bring Shawn Zarraga to the plate. Zarraga lined a double to left field, plating Balentien, but Schoop was out at the plate on an umpire-reviewed play at the plate.

From there, it was five innings of both teams’ pitching shutting down the opposition. The game went to extra innings after Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth inning for the Netherlands. Edwin Diaz started the 10th for Puerto Rico and things got interesting after Jurickson Profar struck out. Balentien swung hard and fouled off a first-pitch fastball from Diaz. He stared Diaz down and nodded as if to say, “You got away with that one.” Diaz threw him another fastball — this one at 100 MPH — and Balentien again fouled it off. He again stared down Diaz, nodding, and then saying a few words. With his third pitch of the at-bat, Diaz threw up-and-in at Balentein. Neither Balentien nor his teammates liked the pitch all that much and some Netherlands players scattered onto the field. Order was quickly restored and home plate umpire Lance Barksdale issued warnings to both benches. Diaz ended the at-bat by painting the outside corner with a 99 MPH fastball. Schoop struck out to end the inning.

Puerto Rico put its leadoff runner on base in the bottom of the 10th, but Carlos Correa grounded into a double play and Enrique Hernandez struck out against Loek Van Mil to send the game to the 11th.

The 11th inning, of course, features an abnormal rule. From the 11th inning on, each team will start with runners start on first and second. Needless to say, most managers choose to bunt to put the go-ahead run on third base. Netherlands executed this in the top of the 11th, so Puerto Rico intentionally walked Yurendell Decaster to load the bases with one out. Curt Smith then grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Puerto Rico took advantage of its opportunity in the bottom half. Yadier Molina moved Carlos Correa to third and Xander Bogaerts to second with his bunt, so Netherlands chose to intentionally walk Javier Baez, bringing up Eddie Rosario. Rosario lifted a fastball to shallow center field. Jurickson Profar caught the ball and fired home, but it was a weak throw and Correa scored easily, securing the 4-3 walk-off victory for Puerto Rico.

Netherlands is eliminated after a valiant run through the WBC. Puerto Rico is headed to the finals, playing the winner of Tuesday night’s game between the United States and Japan.

2017 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 2017 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers flexed their payroll muscle over the winter not to bring in new talent, but to keep talent in town. The club re-signed starter Rich Hill to a three-year, $48 million deal in mid-December. It inked third baseman Justin Turner to a four-year, $64 million contract just before Christmas. Closer Kenley Jansen agreed to stay with a five-year, $80 million deal. The Dodgers also acquired infielder Logan Forsythe from the Rays in January, signed reliever Sergio Romo to a one-year, $3 million deal, signed outfielder Franklin Gutierrez at one year, $2.6 million, and brought second baseman Chase Utley back at one year, $2 million.

The Dodgers went 91-71 last year, finishing first in the NL West. They advanced past the Nationals in the NLDS into the NLCS where they were stopped in six games by the eventual champion Cubs. One can understand GM Farhan Zaidi’s reluctance to alter the roster in a significant way.

Going into 2017, the Dodgers’ success starts and ends with Clayton Kershaw. There’s not a better pitcher on the planet and his ability to make 33 starts or not will play a big role in whether or not the club makes it into the postseason. Not just because of Kershaw himself, but because the Dodgers don’t have the most reliable pitching depth health-wise. Last year, Kershaw was bothered by a back injury and made only 21 starts. But when he was on the mound, he was his usual dominating self, finishing with a 12-4 record, a 1.69 ERA, and a 172/11 K/BB ratio in 149 innings. Had Kershaw not gotten injured during the summer, he almost certainly would have won his fourth National League Cy Young Award.

Kenta Maeda slots in behind Kershaw. The right-hander had a terrific debut in Major League Baseball in 2016, winning 16 games with a 3.48 ERA and a 179/50 K/BB ratio in 175 2/3 innings. The Dodgers don’t have a lot of reliability in the rotation, but after his first season in the bigs and given everyone else’s health issues, Maeda is the most reliable starter at the moment.

Hill returns into the middle of the rotation. Due to a blister issue, Hill made only six regular season starts for the Dodgers after they acquired him from the Athletics on August 1. The lefty put up a sterling 1.83 ERA with a 39/5 K/BB ratio in 34 1/3 innings, continuing his remarkable reinvention which started in September 2015. The 37-year-old lefty was in independent baseball as recently as two years ago and now has a lucrative multi-year contract under his belt.

Scott Kazmir is tentatively in the rotation. He’s been bothered by a hip issue this spring and has had limited action as a result. He recently made a simulated start but his fastball velocity was in the low-80’s, concerning manager Dave Roberts. Kazmir will throw in a minor league game soon and the Dodgers hope he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. Obviously, it’s no guarantee. The left-hander last season finished with a disappointing 4.56 ERA with a 134/52 K/BB ratio in 136 1/3 innings.

The last spot in the rotation is up for grabs. It won’t go to Julio Urias, as he has not been stretched out this spring and will almost certainly begin the year at Triple-A Oklahoma City. Brandon McCarthy appears to be the favorite for the job but he has A) not had a great spring; B) has been injury-prone during his 11-year career; and C) has been ineffective for most of the last three years. Hyun-Jin Ryu is also under consideration after missing the entire 2015 season and making just one start last year. Brock Stewart was a candidate but he was recently shut down due to tendinitis in his right shoulder, so he won’t be ready for the start of the season. Ross Stripling will likely be used as rotation depth as he posted a 3.96 ERA over 14 starts and eight relief appearances last year.

Jansen returns to his role as the Dodgers’ closer. He’s racked up 180 saves over the last five seasons, something only two other relievers – Craig Kimbrel (209) and Aroldis Chapman (181) – have done. Despite playing in L.A., Jansen flew under the radar until last year, when he finished with a 1.83 ERA and a ridiculous 104/11 K/BB ratio in 68 2/3 innings. He made his first All-Star team last year and he’ll likely get there a second time in 2017.

Romo will set up for Jansen assuming he’s healty. Romo has been bothered by a back injury lately in spring training. The right-hander pitched nine outstanding years with the Giants, ascending to the closer’s role in 2013, but a shaky ’14 cast him out of favor, but he rebounded with a 2.98 ERA in ’15 and 2.64 last year. Romo is 34 years old and sits in the mid- to high-80’s with his fastball, but the Dodgers found quite a bargain in signing him.

Pedro Baez has been battling a thumb injury this spring but is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season. He’ll handle the seventh inning ahead of Romo and some occasional eighth innings. The right-hander posted a 3.04 ERA with an 83/22 K/BB ratio in 74 innings. Jansen-Romo-Baez makes for a scary back of the bullpen.

On offense, let’s start with Turner at the hot corner. Turner reinvented himself several years ago after floating from the Mets to the Dodgers and has become one of the best at his position despite still never having made an All-Star team. Since joining the Dodgers for the 2014 season, Turner has hit a combined .296/.364/.492 with 50 home runs and 193 RBI in 1,383 plate appearances while playing quality defense. As a result, Turner has the sixth-most Wins Above Replacement among third basemen in that period of time, according to FanGraphs. The only knock on Turner is his durability. Despite playing 151 games last year, he played in 126 in ’15 and 109 in ’14.

Corey Seager returns to shortstop after winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2016. He hit .308/.365/.512 with 26 home runs and 72 RBI in 687 PA. He’ll turn 23 at the end of April which means we likely haven’t seen Seager’s final form yet. He was the best at his position in a field that included the likes of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Xander Bogaerts. Seager could follow Kris Bryant’s footsteps in winning the ROY one year and the MVP the next.

Forsythe will handle second base for the Dodgers as one of the few new faces in camp. Last year with the Rays, he hit .264/.333/.444 with 20 home runs, 52 RBI, and 76 runs scored in 567 PA. Veteran Chase Utley will back Forsythe up and may get the occasional start against a right-handed pitcher.

Adrian Gonzalez, of course, will handle first base for the Dodgers again. Going by adjusted OPS (OPS+), 2016 was Gonzalez’s worst offensive season since he became an everyday player in 2006. Still, he was productive, batting .285/.349/.435 with 18 homers and 90 RBI. Almost 35 years old, Gonzalez is likely hitting the decline phase of his career, but he still has plenty left in the tank. There is one issue – Gonzalez has been dealing with an elbow injury and won’t play in any spring games until at least Thursday. The Dodgers expect him to be ready for Opening Day, however.

Yasmani Grandal will catch and handle the pitching staff on a regular basis. Now 28 years old, the veteran of five seasons is coming off of a campaign during which he hit .228/.339/.477 with 27 HR and 72 RBI, setting career-bests in the latter two departments. He’s one of the best offensive catchers in the league at a position that really isn’t relied upon for offense, so that will serve as a big plus for the Dodgers again. Austin Barnes will back Grandal up behind the dish.

The Dodgers’ outfield is in a state of flux. Andre Ethier played in only 16 games last season due to a broken leg and he’s currently battling a back injury. Yasiel Puig was demoted to the minor leagues last year. Joc Pederson is completely lost against left-handed pitching, putting up a .469 OPS against them last year. Beyond Pederson starting against right-handers and Puig getting a shot to prove himself, nothing else is set in stone in the Dodgers’ outfield. Andrew Toles, who impressed with an .870 OPS in 115 PA last season, may get more time in the outfield corners. Gutierrez put up a solid .780 OPS in 98 games last year, but he has long been a health risk. Scott Van Slyke had the worst season of his career and then underwent wrist surgery last August.

Needless to say, health will be a determining factor in the Dodgers’ ability to rediscover success in 2017. At near or full health, the Dodgers are one of the best teams in the National League. Without the likes of Kershaw, Hill, and Gonzalez, they are a slightly above-average team. I’ll make a perhaps foolish bet on most of their key players missing minimal amounts of time, allowing them to stave off the Giants in the NL West.

Prediction: 93-69 record, 1st place in division