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April 7, 2010

On the Beat

Wednesday Update

by John Perrotto

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It is as though the Dodgers have become totally defined by the divorce proceedings of their owner. The sun shines fully on Frank and Jamie McCourt these days while a team with a roster full of young stars and coming off consecutive National League West title seems to go unnoticed.

The potential impact of the divorce was clear in the offseason. The Dodgers did not make any major moves, such as adding a front-line veteran starting pitcher, and they did not offer their free agents arbitration for fear they would be taken up on their offer and had the payroll expanded. The most telling point of the Dodgers' financial problems came when leaked documents in the McCourt case showed that their plan was to keep the team's payroll flat deep into this decade.

General manager Ned Colletti insists he has not felt restricted in what he can do to improve his club. However, the Rockies, wild-card winners a year ago as they almost made up a 15 1/2-game deficit to overtake the Dodgers in the NL West, are considered the division's favorites this season. Colletti, though, is far from ready to count his team out.

"I like our team a lot," Colletti said. "I see no reason why we can't win a lot of games."

After settling for re-signing Vicente Padilla, the Dodgers will be counting heavily on left-hander Clayton Kershaw and right-hander Chad Billingsley at the top of a rotation that is iffy with Hiroki Kuroda and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger at the bottom. Kershaw is 22 and has just 51 starts and 278 2/3 innings of major-league experience, not a lot for a presumptive top starter, while the 25-year-old Billingsley has made 100 starts and worked 634 innings.

Both youngsters handled last season much differently. Kershaw pitched 171 innings but actually got stronger in the second half as his ERA was 2.27 and he held opposing batters to a miniscule .200/.289./259 slash-stat line in 71 1/3 innings following the All-Star break after posting a 3.16 ERA and allowing .188/.318/.299 in 99 2/3 innings in the first half. Billingsley, conversely, fell off a cliff after pitching in the All-Star Game as he had a 5.20 ERA and a .271/.345/.436 allowed line in 71 innings following the break on the heels of 3.38 ERA and .227/.316/.399 in 125 1/3 innings in the first half.

The Dodgers believe Kershaw will continue his ascent toward becoming one of the top pitchers in the NL and there is nothing in his past performance to suggest otherwise. However, the same could have been said for Billingsley at mid-July last season, and he wound up being dropped from the starting rotation in September and relegated to long relief in the postseason.

"We're asking a lot of both of them," Colletti said. "However, we also have a lot of confidence in them. They are both very talented and they have shown that they are very capable of pitching well at the major-league level. We probably rushed Clayton to the major leagues, bringing him up when was 20 (in 2008), but he has been not only been able to handle it but has thrived. In Chad's case, he had nothing but success from the time he came to the major leagues (in 2006). I really don't think anything that happened in the second half of last season was more than a young pitcher struggling for the first time in his career. It happens to everybody at some point in their career."

Adding to the urgency of the Dodgers needing big seasons from Kershaw and Billingsley is that the bullpen is mishmash beyond closer Jonathan Broxton and set-up men George Sherrill and Ramon Troncoso. Rule 5 draft pick Carlos Monasterios makes up part of the middle and long relief corps along with three former starters nearing the end of their careers: Ramon Ortiz, Russ Ortiz, and Jeff Weaver.

Though the Dodgers led the major leagues by allowing 3.77 runs a game last season and are a pitching-rich organization, it might behoove them to break tradition and try to outscore foes this season. They certainly have a bevy of younger regulars with various degrees of upside in catcher Russell Martin, first baseman James Loney, second baseman Blake DeWitt, center fielder Matt Kemp, and right fielder Andre Ethier. Of those five, none are older than Ethier at 28.

"Four years ago, everybody was talking about this group of guys coming up and what they can do," Ethier said. "But that was all talk. They had the faith in us back then. Now we're living up to what they thought we could do. We're going to score runs."

However, the Dodgers' young lineup was pushed over the top by the addition of Manny Ramirez when the left fielder was acquired from the Red Sox at the 2008 non-waiver trading deadline. Ramirez had a .404 TAv in 53 games for the Dodgers that season but that figure slipped to .333 last year when he was forced to sit out a 50-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.

"Everyone sees Manny as a happy-go-lucky guy, but he cares," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "He cares a lot more than people think. When I talked to him over the winter, the first thing he told me was that he was working on some new things to help his swing. I know he was embarrassed about last season and he wants to make up for. I really think he's going to have a great season. If he does, then our chances of having a great season as a team are a lot better."

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No other manager in the major leagues today is quite like the White Sox' Ozzie Guillen. He dominates the media's coverage of his team with his steady stream of chatter, much of it controversial and all of it unvarnished.

Cynics say Guillen does it to draw attention to himself and White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy was admittedly unsure of what to make of the skipper when he came over from the Padres in a trade last July 31. However, Peavy now clearly sees the reasoning behind Guillen putting himself front and center.

"What Ozzie does a lot is take the attention off the players, especially in some tough games where there could be some scrutiny toward the players," Peavy said. "It seems like that's when Ozzie goes on one of his tirades. I think it takes away the scrutiny; it takes a lot off the players' back. I don't know if it's designed, but it certainly works. In a city like Chicago, the media can get on you and ride you hard. I think it's a good way to go about things and it certainly helps the players indirectly."

Guillen believes it is part of his job to make himself assessable to the media and answer their questions honestly. He has no problem being what he calls "the face of the club" in an era when many managers defer that responsibility to their players.

"If this boat is going to sink, it's going to sink with me staying on it," Guillen said. "I'm not going to let this boat sink and run away like some managers try to do. If you want to call that the face of the ballclub, the captain of the boat, the pilot of the plane, I will die before they do. That's my job. I'm never going to blame other people for how bad we're playing. How many times have you heard me say, 'Hey, I'm the one trying to get the best out of my players and I'm not doing my job?' How many times have I said that? A thousand? Not too many managers are saying that.

"People can say I do that because I won the World Series, people can say I'm like this because I'm a (bleep), or I'm (owner) Jerry Reinsdorf's boy, (GM) Kenny (Williams') friend ... any way they want to put it. But when we stunk (in 2007), I put myself first and then my coaching staff right there behind me. There have been a few times where I have said, 'Why don't you ask those guys out there (the players)?' There are times I had to say that because I don't think the players were caring on those particular days. But it all comes back to me."

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It's one of the oldest clichés in baseball. A team wins its opener and immediately talks about it being only one game of 162.

However, there was none of that talk in the Pirates' clubhouse after they beat the Dodgers 11-5 on Monday before 39,024, the fourth-largest crowd in PNC Park's 10-year history. After going 62-99 in 2009 and setting a major North American professional team sports record with their 17th consecutive losing season, the Pirates don't pooh-pooh any victory, especially in front of a full house.

"It was more important than just another win," said left-hander Zach Duke, who pitched five innings for the victory. "The way last season ended left a bad taste in the mouths of the guys in this clubhouse and also the fans' mouths. I think it was important to start the year off on the right foot. Now, the key is to build off it."

The Pirates seem destined to stretch the losing streak to 18 seasons, particularly after a dismal 7-21 record during the exhibition season. Yet they insist that they have the ability to surprise some people.

"This team has a great group of guys," said catcher Ryan Doumit, the longest-tenured regular on the team. "They're a lot of fun and we have a lot of great personalities and great talents, talents with high ceilings. We're just having a lot of fun and good things can happen when you're having fun."

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 MLB Rumors and Rumblings:The Brewers weren't able to work out a trade with the Nationals but they are more than willing to trade right fielder Corey Hart for pitching help. … The Diamondbacks are leaning toward calling up Kris Benson from the minor leagues rather than Billy Buckner when they need a fifth starter for the first time April 17. … Rockies manager Jim Tracy plans to sit switch-hitting center fielder Dexter Fowler against tough right-handers as he did on opening day when the Brewers pitched Yovani Gallardo. Carlos Gonzalez will move to center field from left field on those days and Seth Smith will start in left. Tracy also plans to split playing time at catcher evenly between Chris Iannetta and Miguel Olivo. … Cubs outfielder Xavier Nady, who missed almost all of last season with the Yankees because of Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow, will play left field in his spot starts in an effort to take strain off his arm. The Cubs' other reserve outfielder, rookie Tyler Colvin, is expected to get two or three starts a week. … The Giants have shown a willingness to sacrifice some defense for offense after finishing last in the major leagues in runs scored last season, which is why they are playing John Bowker in right field and Aubrey Huff at first base. However, Nate Schierholtz will often replace Bowker and Travis Ishikawa will frequently take over for Huff for defensive purposes when the Giants are leading late in games. … Ryan Perry is the Tigers' set-up man for now but it appears Joel Zumaya will eventually move back into this role of getting the lead to closer Jose Valverde. … Left-handed reliever Ron Mahay, who signed as a free agent in spring training, will be called up from extended spring training by the Twins as soon as he shows he is able to pitch on back-to-back days. … Though outfielder Nolan Reimold has been taking ground balls at first base, he is just the Orioles' fourth option at that position behind Garrett Atkins, Ty Wigginton and Luke Scott. … Always-innovative Rays manager Joe Maddon says he will base his decisions on when to play Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac or Ben Zobrist at second base, Matt Joyce or Gabe Kapler in right field when Zobrist is shifted to second, and catchers Dioner Navarro and Kelly Shoppach based as much on analyses of hitters' styles against specific pitchers as lefty/right matchups or who's hot and who's not.  

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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