2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Big Question: Will the revamped front office put the Dodgers over the top?

After losing in the NLCS in 2013, the Dodgers won their second straight NL West title last season before being ousted by the Cardinals during the NLDS. It was bitterly disappointing, especially to see the division rival Giants go on to win the World Series, but such is life with the randomness of the playoffs. However, rather than stand pat and hope for better luck in 2015, the Dodgers decided to shake things up by reassigning GM Ned Colletti and giving big money to Andrew Friedman to lure him from the Rays. Friedman, who was hired as president of baseball operations, then brought on Farhan Zaidi from the A’s to serve as general manager and made a host of other changes throughout the organization.

Friedman and Zaidi were accustomed to making the most out of limited resources with their former organizations, so being free from these shackles allowed them to not only improve around the margins with their new team but also make some bold moves. After letting free agent Hanley Ramirez walk, the Dodgers remade their middle infield by acquiring Jimmy Rollins and cashing in on Dee Gordon’s big 2014 to get Andrew Heaney as a chip for Howie Kendrick. They flipped Matt Kemp to the Padres and landed a new primary catcher (Yasmani Grandal) in the process. They threw money at risk with the backend of their rotation by signing Brandon McCarthy to a four-year, $48 million contract, Brett Anderson to a one-year, $10 million deal and the rehabbing Brandon Beachy for $2.75 million. The Dodgers will pay $30.5 million (between Kemp, Dan Haren, and Gordon) for players who aren’t playing for them this season. Talk about a different world.

This is a lot of turnover for a roster that already had some great pieces in place. Clayton Kershaw, with three Cy Young Awards in the last four seasons, is the undisputed best pitcher on the planet. Meanwhile, Zack Greinke has been excellent during his first two seasons in Los Angeles and Hyun-Jin Ryu has gone underappreciated since coming stateside. Yasiel Puig is one of the most talented and exciting players in the game today and will likely face more pressure to be the face of this offense with Kemp and Ramirez elsewhere. Fortunately, Adrian Gonzalez is a durable and consistent force in the middle of the lineup.

Barring something unexpected, like an injury to Kershaw, it’s hard to not see the Dodgers as the overwhelming favorite to win their third straight NL West crown. Perhaps the gambles in the backend of the starting rotation won’t work out, but they have the prospect depth and the money to make a trade if an in-season upgrade is necessary. However, the great unknown of October lingers. And no front office change or player acquisition can bring certainty.

What else is going on?

  • The dynamic between Don Mattingly and the new Dodgers’ front office will be fascinating to follow. After Friedman joined the Dodgers and Joe Maddon opted out of his contract with the Rays, many immediately assumed that they would be reunited in Los Angeles. However, the Dodgers stood behind Don Mattingly while Maddon ended up with the Cubs. Still, Mattingly wasn’t chosen by them. He was a holdover. Mattingly has never been vocal about his use of analytics in the past, but he said back in January that “you’re a fool” if you’re not using them as part of your decision making. He’s talking the talk, which is a good idea for a person who wants to keep his job, but we’ll have to see if he meshes with the new regime.
  • Kenley Jansen underwent surgery in mid-February to remove a growth from his left foot and is expected to miss the first month of the season. Some speculated that the Dodgers would throw money at Francisco Rodriguez (who eventually signed with the Brewers) or Rafael Soriano (who is still a free agent), but they appear content to rely on internal options to fill in. Joel Peralta was acquired from the Rays over the winter and figures to be in the mix, but keep an eye on Chris Hatcher. Hatcher, who came over to the Dodgers in the Gordon trade, is another former catcher (like Jansen) and quietly posted a 3.38 ERA and 60/12 K/BB ratio across 56 innings last season. There’s some uncertainty with this situation, but they should be able to get by for a month.
  • Juan Uribe currently projects to be the regular third baseman if he’s healthy, but the Dodgers are one of the teams who have been linked to Cuban free agent infielder Hector Olivera. In fact, they reportedly made a $77 million offer before Olivera switched agents. Who knows if that offer was legitimate — he’d probably already be a Dodger by now if that was true — but clearly they like him. He’s 29 and was one of the best hitters in Cuba, so he could be ready to make an impact in the majors right away.
  • While Andre Ethier is on the outside looking in for playing time, rookie Joc Pederson is penciled in as the Dodgers’ regular center fielder this season. He turns 23 in April and is coming off a monster season in Triple-A where he batted .303/.435/.582 with 33 home runs and 30 stolen bases across 121 games. Baseball America recently ranked him as the No. 8 prospect in the game. He put up those numbers in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League and strikeouts are an issue for him, so expect some growing pains, but he should be exciting to watch.
  • Zack Greinke is guaranteed $71 million from 2016-2018, but he has the ability to opt out of his contract after this season and test the free agent market. He would almost certainly fetch more if his 2015 is anything close to his first two seasons in Los Angeles. From that perspective, the Dodgers likely won’t be upset if it works out that way. And heck, they certainly have the money to bring him back if they want.
  • Vin Scully is back in the booth for his 66th season, which is a treat for all baseball fans. Don’t take him for granted.

Prediction: The Dodgers will win the NL West handily.

La Russa steps down as White Sox manager over heart issue

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CHICAGO — Tony La Russa stepped down as manager of the Chicago White Sox on Monday because of a heart issue, ending a disappointing two-year run in the same spot where the Hall of Famer got his first job as a big league skipper.

La Russa, a three-time World Series champion who turns 78 on Tuesday, missed the final 34 games with the underachieving White Sox. He left the team on Aug. 30 and doctors ultimately told him to stay out of the dugout.

La Russa has a pacemaker implanted in February and doctors later found another heart problem that he has not detailed.

“It has become obvious that the length of the treatment and recovery process for this second health issue makes it impossible for me to be the White Sox manager in 2023,” he said in a statement. “The timing of this announcement now enables the front office to include filling the manager position with their other offseason priorities.”

Chicago began the season with World Series aspirations but was plagued by injuries and inconsistent play. It was 79-80 heading into Monday night’s game against Minnesota.

“Our team’s record this season is the final reality. It is an unacceptable disappointment. There were some pluses, but too many minuses,” La Russa said. “I was hired to provide positive, difference-making leadership and support. Our record is proof. I did not do my job.”

Bench coach Miguel Cairo took over after La Russa stepped away. The White Sox showed a spark right after the change, winning 10 of 14. But they dropped eight straight in late September, dashing their playoff hopes.

La Russa, who is close friends with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, was a surprise hire in October 2020, and he directed the team to the AL Central title last year.

But the White Sox sputtered throughout much of 2022, and there were chants of “Fire Tony! Fire Tony!” at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“At no time have I been disappointed or upset with White Sox fans, including those who at times chanted `Fire Tony,”‘ La Russa said. “They come to games with passion for our team and a strong desire to win. Loud and excited when we win, they rightly are upset when we play poorly.”

All-Star shortstop Tim Anderson and sluggers Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert missed significant time because of injuries. Catcher Yasmani Grandal and third baseman Yoan Moncada also had health issues, and they underperformed when they were on the field.

There were embarrassing breakdowns, too, like when the White Sox ran themselves into the first 8-5 triple play in major league history during a loss to Minnesota on July 4.

La Russa continued to be a lightning rod for fans who weren’t thrilled with his hiring in the first place. His lineups came under question as did his decisions in games.

Some fans chanted for La Russa’s dismissal following a strange call for an intentional walk to to the Dodgers’ Trea Turner despite a 1-2 count on June 9. Bennett Sousa had just bounced an 0-2 slider, allowing the runner to advance from first to second.

With the base open, La Russa chose to walk Turner even though there were two strikes. It backfired when Max Muncy smacked a three-run homer, propelling Los Angeles to an 11-9 victory.

Another moment that raised eyebrows happened early in the 2021 season.

During a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati, La Russa was unaware of a rule that would have allowed him to use Jose Abreu as the automatic runner at second base rather than closer Liam Hendriks in the 10th inning.

With a 2,900-2,514 record over 35 years with Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis, La Russa trails only Connie Mack on baseball’s career wins list. He moved past John McGraw last season.

But there were big questions about whether La Russa was the right person for the job when the White Sox hired him to replace Rick Renteria. He hadn’t filled out a lineup card since 2011, when St. Louis beat Texas in the World Series. There were doubts about how someone known more for his scowl than smile would mesh with a fun-loving team that had just delivered the White Sox’s first playoff appearance since 2008.

Then, shortly after his hiring, news surfaced of an arrest on misdemeanor DUI charges.

La Russa blew out a tire on the Lexus he was driving in a collision with a curb that February in Arizona, after going to dinner with friends. The case was filed on Oct. 28, one day before the White Sox announced La Russa’s hiring.

He ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving and was sentenced to one day of home detention, a fine of nearly $1,400 and 20 hours of community service.

La Russa also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in Florida in 2007 after police found him asleep and smelling of alcohol inside his running sport-utility vehicle at a stoplight.

La Russa captured championships with Oakland in 1989 and the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011. The former big league infielder and Sparky Anderson are the only managers to win the World Series in the American and National leagues.

He got his first major league managing job at age 34 when the White Sox promoted him from Triple-A to replace the fired Don Kessinger during the 1979 season. He took over that August and led them to a 522-510 record over parts of eight seasons.

The 1983 team won 99 games on the way to the AL West championship – Chicago’s first playoff appearance since the 1959 Go-Go White Sox won the pennant. But La Russa was fired in 1986 by then-general manager Ken Harrelson after the White Sox got off to a 26-38 start, a move Reinsdorf long regretted.