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April 23, 2013

Western Front

The Rockies and Dodgers Have Swapped Scripts

by Geoff Young

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We know that three weeks isn't enough time to judge a season. We'll do it anyway because that's what we have and that's what we do.

There have been many surprises so far, particularly in the National League West. Here's how the Baseball Prospectus crew saw the division shaping up in 2013:

  1. Dodgers (24 first-place votes)
  2. Giants (15)
  3. Diamondbacks (3)
  4. Padres
  5. Rockies

And here's what it looked like through games of April 21:

  1. Rockies, 13-5
  2. Giants, 12-7
  3. Diamondbacks, 10-8
  4. Dodgers, 8-10
  5. Padres, 5-13

The Giants and Diamondbacks are where we'd expected them to be, and the Padres are close enough. But the Rockies and Dodgers have nearly traded places.

Colorado has benefited from a healthy Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, as well as hot starts from Michael Cuddyer and the apparently still-developing Dexter Fowler. More surprisingly, the Rockies have gotten strong results from a starting rotation that entered the season with serious questions.

Jon Garland? Really?

Their starters' collective 3.75 ERA makes for a good story, as does winning their first eight games of the year at Coors Field. They won't play this well all year, but it's possible that the Rockies are better than we thought. Just as folks underestimated the A's last year or the Padres in 2010, maybe they've done the same with this season's Rockies.

Or maybe it's just 18 games.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, this cannot be the start anyone expected or hoped for from the Dodgers. As I began writing this, they had lost six straight games, by a combined score of 36-13.

The Boston imports have been fantastic, at least on the hitting side. Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Nick Punto have combined to hit .372/.454/.514 in 175 plate appearances. Crawford and González are doing what the money and the fanfare say they should do, and even Punto is inflicting damage in a limited role.

The left side of the infield, thanks in large part to Hanley Ramirez's thumb injury, has been dreadful. Minor-league journeymen Justin Sellers and Luis Cruz are hitting .130/.206/.163 in 103 plate appearances. And although Cruz's story was fun to follow in 2012, the fact remains that he owns a 690 OPS in nearly 5,000 minor-league plate appearances. This does not qualify as an answer at third base. His backups—Juan Uribe, Punto, and Jerry Hairston Jr.—are no less uninspiring.

Then again, with a healthy Ramirez, the Dodgers could get away with stashing a zero at the hot corner. Sellers changes the equation, as does the fact that Matt Kemp's contribution thus far has been limited to staring down Carlos Quentin in the parking lot after a game.

Kemp will hit—it's what he does, and does well—but Clayton Kershaw has out-homered him through the team's first 18 games, which can't have been part of anyone's plan. Kershaw has been strong on the pitching side as well, except for allowing a career-high three homers in his April 17 start at home against the Padres.

But beyond Kershaw, questions abound. Key off-season acquisition Zack Greinke will miss two months after breaking his left collarbone during an April 11 fight with Quentin in San Diego. Greinke's replacement in the rotation, Chris Capuano, incurred a calf injury in his first start. Then, on Sunday, Chad Billingsley joined those two on the disabled list thanks to right elbow pain.

This is where the Dodgers might like to undo the April 6 trade that sent right-hander Aaron Harang to Colorado for catcher Ramon Hernandez. No disrespect to Hernandez, but what does the soon-to-be 37-year-old making $3.2 million offer that Tim Federowicz (a 25-year-old making $491,000) doesn't?

Then again, Federowicz is now up with the big club thanks to Capuano's injury. Which raises the question of whether a team missing huge chunks of its starting rotation really needs three catchers on the roster.

Maybe the Dodgers could trade Hernandez back to Colorado for Garland. Or maybe it's just 18 games.

* * *

Despite their early-season struggles, the excitement that accompanies spending “all the money” remains high. Fans are coming out at a ridiculous rate to watch the Dodgers play. The sample is small, and at some point a lack of on-field success could trump the buzz of breaking the proverbial bank, but the investment so far seems to be worth it. Here are the top five teams in home attendance through April 21:

  1. Dodgers: 47,112 per game through 9 dates
  2. Giants: 41,793 through 9
  3. Cardinals: 41,638 through 6
  4. Angels: 39,570 through 9
  5. Rangers: 38.597 through 9

And here are the top five increases from 2012 through an equivalent number of home dates this year:

  1. Dodgers: +10,745 per game through 9 dates
  2. Orioles: +8,451 through 9
  3. Blue Jays: +7,877 through 13
  4. Nationals: +7,177 through 9
  5. Angels: +5,113 through 9

Maybe fans are grateful to have the McCourt era behind them. Or maybe it's just nine games.

* * *

Allow me to digress for a moment. While perusing attendance data, I noticed something disturbing. Here are the bottom five teams in attendance so far in 2013, along with their win totals from last year:

  1. Indians: 15,195, 68 wins
  2. Mariners: 18,532, 75
  3. A's: 19,309, 94
  4. Marlins: 19,586, 69
  5. Pirates: 20,616, 79

The A's are down 4,300 per game from 2012 through 10 home dates. I'm reminded that seven of those 10 came against the Mariners and Astros, but still. Someone should be outraged by this. On what planet do the Marlins deserve more support than the A's?

Maybe... oh, never mind.

* * *

We were talking about the Dodgers and their losing streak, which stood at six as I began writing this. When the Orioles scored three in the first inning against rookie right-hander Stephen Fife (recalled to replace Billingsley) on Sunday, I felt validated.

The established narrative continued unfolding beautifully, until the fifth, when the Dodgers' bats awoke. They scored four runs that inning and went on to win, 7-4, breaking the skid. Even Kemp had three hits, damaging the “contribution thus far has been limited” assertion while lending credence to the “Kemp will hit—it's what he does, and does well” line.

Always give yourself an out. If you present both sides of a story, one of them is bound to be right. Unless there are more than two sides, in which case you're out of luck.

Do we include Sunday's results and ruin a perfectly good tale about the Dodgers' poor start? Or do we use those results to reinforce the larger point that the season is long?

Circumstances change. They are constantly changing. For example, the Rockies placed starter Jhoulys Chacin on the disabled list on Sunday due to a “left lower-back strain.” Chacin, who made just 14 starts last season and didn't pitch particularly well, had posted a 1.46 ERA in his first four starts of 2013.

How will the Rockies respond to the loss of their nominal ace? How important is their signing of Garland—who hadn't pitched at any level since June 2011—at the end of spring training, after he exercised his option to be released from the Mariners?

* * *

As if on cue, the Rockies broke their part of the narrative on Sunday as well. Juan Nicasio spun four hitless innings before departing with one out in the fifth and 96 pitches to his credit. Nicasio and the Colorado bullpen turned a 3-0 lead into a 5-4 loss.

After Arizona scored once in the eighth and twice in the ninth, the Rockies put runners at the corners with two out in the bottom half of the ninth. J.J. Putz then got Eric Young Jr. to tap gently back to the mound for the final out, ending Colorado's eight-game winning streak.

The Rockies' early-season success remains a great story despite last-minute script revisions that called for A.J. Pollock to chop a Wilton Lopez offering just over the glove of a drawn-in Jonathan Herrera (listed at 5-foot-9) at third base, opening the door for Alfredo Marte's game-tying groundout and Gerardo Parra's game-winning sacrifice fly.

Depending on the Rockies' eventual fate, this single game in April could be viewed as the beginning of the end or as a point from which they later rallied. One of them is bound to be right, unless there is a third option. The same holds for the Dodgers and their comeback in Baltimore.

There is plenty of story yet to be told. Maybe what comes next will surprise us, maybe it won't. My money is on that annoying third option. My money is on both.

16 comments have been left for this article.

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