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March 28, 2013

On the Beat

Great Expectations

by John Perrotto

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Chad Billingsley, then an 18-year-old kid from the small town of Defiance, Ohio who was far away from home in Vero Beach, Florida, hung on every word his coaches and instructors spoke as the members of the Dodgers’ 2003 draft class prepared to begin their professional baseball careers. They talked about the pride of wearing Dodger blue, the tradition of one of the most-recognized franchises in professional sports, and how players who wore the Dodgers uniform were supposed to carry themselves just a little bit differently than those in other organizations.

Three years after being a first-round pick, Billingsley was in the major leagues. However, reality set in. The Dodgers weren’t different than anyone else in Billingsley’s eyes, just part of the FOX corporate empire. The perception among the players was even worse after the franchise was sold to Boston parking magnates Frank and Jamie McCourt, who turned the Dodgers into their personal ATM while living an incredibly extravagant lifetime. Then came one of the most public and acrimonious divorces in memory.

 “I never saw the real Dodgers,” Billingsley said. “I never felt like I was in a special situation. The whole thing about Dodger tradition just wasn’t there. It was a little disillusioning. It wasn’t the way it had been explained to me when I got drafted.”

That all changed last year, though, when Mark Walter, Stan Kasten, Magic Johnson, and the Guggenheim Baseball Group bought the club from Frank McCourt for a $2.15 billion, the largest transaction in professional sports history. Since the ownership change, the Dodgers have traded for such players as shortstop Hanley Ramirez, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, left fielder Carl Crawford, and right-hander Josh Beckett and signed right-hander Zack Greinke to a six-year, $137-million deal over the winter. Los Angeles will have the highest payroll in baseball history this season at around $220 million and, though it might seem like he is living below the poverty line on this team (he’s in the second year of a three-year, $35-million contract), Billingsley finally feels like baseball royalty.

“Now I understand what everyone talked about,” Billingsley said as he sat in the Dodgers’ spring training clubhouse in Glendale, Arizona recently. “Ownership has come in and did everything it said it would to restore this franchise back to the place it should be. We’re one of the premier franchises in the game now, and it’s a good feeling. There is a lot of pride in this clubhouse. It’s an exciting time to be a Dodger.”

It’s hard not to be excited. The Dodgers already had one of the best players in baseball in center fielder Matt Kemp and one of the best pitchers in lefthander Clayton Kershaw. The pitching staff is so deep that it has eight legitimate major-league starters, and many scouts and front office types feel set-up man Kenley Jansen is better than closer Brandon League. It’s no wonder the Dodgers are already talking like the season will be a failure if they don’t reach the World Series for the first time in 25 years.

“The expectations are high, both inside and outside the organization,” Dodgers second baseman Mark Ellis said. “We know everyone is going to be watching us after all the moves we’ve made over the last year, but we don’t look at that as a bad thing. You want expectations placed upon you.  We expect to have a great team this year and to win a lot of games.”

No one with the Dodgers is under more pressure than manager Don Mattingly. The Dodgers declined to pick the 2014 option year on his contract during the offseason, meaning he needs to win this year to keep his job. However, even Mattingly admits, “with the talent we have, there will be something wrong if we don’t win this year.”

However, the Dodgers aren’t without questions as they try to overtake the Giants in the National League West and reach the postseason for the first time since 2009. Greinke has had elbow trouble in spring training and Billingsley, the No. 3 starter, is pitching with a torn elbow ligament. Ramirez will miss the start of the season as he recovers from thumb surgery, while Crawford is trying to come back from Tommy John reconstructive surgery on his elbow. Yet the Dodgers have so much depth, in addition to the aforementioned eight starting pitchers, that rookie outfielder Yasiel Puig was optioned to Double-A Chattanooga earlier this week despite hitting .526/.508/.842 with three home runs, four stolen bases—and no walks—in 57 plate appearances during exhibition play.

“You look at our team, and I think we’re deeper than any team in the major leagues,” Billingsley said. “Man-for-man, I don’t think there is a team that can match us talent-wise.”

There are also some intangible questions about the Dodgers, most noticeably how a mishmash of stars thrown together from different organizations will mesh. Last year, the Dodgers went 18-18 after making the August 25 blockbuster trade with the Red Sox that brought them Gonzalez, Crawford, and Beckett.

“It’s different this year because we’ve had a spring training together,” Billingsley said. “Last year, we were all trying to learn each other on the fly, and that made it a little awkward. This year, we’re a team. We all know each know and like each other. There is a feeling of unity.”

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Greinke became a sabernetricians’ favorite when he mentioned Fielding Independent Pitching after winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2009 with the Royals. However, Greinke feels his affinity for FIP had a negative effect on his pitching in 2010 and 2011.

“I started pitching to try to have a good FIP instead of pitching to win games,” Greinke said. “I started worrying too much about trying to get a lot of ground-ball outs instead of just concentrating on getting outs any way I could. It definitely changed the way I pitched for a while.”

Greinke’s ERA was 2.16 and his FIP was 2.38 in his Cy Young season. In the three years since, his FIP has been better than his ERA.

However, Greinke says he still believes there is value in FIP. “I use it to try to get a gauge on some of the younger pitchers to try to figure out what kind of talent they have,” he said. “It’s still a good stat, but I’ve just learned that it doesn’t tell you everything about a pitcher.”

Greinke admits he is intrigued by the abundance of PITCHf/x data that has become available in recent years. However, he is somewhat wary of relying too much on it when he sits down to develop a game plan for facing opposing hitters.

“From the things I’ve read, the cameras still aren’t completely calibrated the same in every park, so there is some distortion,” Greinke said. “I look forward to when it all becomes standardized. That’s when the data will become better and more usable.”

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The Yankees don’t hold Turn Back the Clock nights at Yankee Stadium. After all, they’ve worn the same style of uniforms and played in the same Bronx neighborhood for approximately 857 years, so it would be hard to turn back the clock short of replacing manager Joe Girardi with Stump Merrill.

However, the Yankees made a Turn Back the Clock trade Tuesday when they acquired outfielder Vernon Wells from the Angels for two minor leaguers. It was a move reminiscent of those 1980s Yankees that tried to make a reclamation project of seemingly every former star. Amazingly, the Yankees also agreed to take on $13.9 million of the $42 million left on the final two years of the seven-year, $126-mllion contract Wells signed with the Blue Jays prior to the 2008 season.

“Unless putting on the pinstripes truly has some magic power, I don’t see how this is going to turn out well for the Yankees,” said one scout who has watched Wells often in recent years. “The bat is slow and he tries to pull everything, and that’s not a good recipe for a right-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium. I never understood how he got superstar money when he was never a superstar, but the Angels did well to get the Yankees to eat almost one-third of what’s left on his deal. Hell, (Angels GM) Jerry DiPoto should win Executive of the year for pulling that one off.”

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Right-hander Kyle Lohse was finally released as a hostage of the new free-agent compensation system when he signed a three-year, $33-million contract with the Brewers on Monday. Despite missing all but the final few days of spring training, Lohse says he will be ready to pitch in the major leagues by the second week of the season.

Teams were hesitant to sign Lohse because they had to forfeit their first-round draft pick—unless it was a protected selection—along with the money allocated for that pick in the team’s draft pool. However, one front-office type thinks the Brewers made out pretty well in the deal despite sacrificing the 17th overall draft selection.

“Lohse’s value was overinflated to begin with because he had a 16-3 record last season,” the FOT said. “He’s not an ace, and he wasn’t going to get ace money regardless of how persuasive (agent) Scott Boras can be. Three for $33 [million] and the No. 17 pick is just about right in today’s market for a guy who is probably a 2 ½ starter, somewhere between a No. 2 and No. 3.”

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The Cardinals came within out of getting to the World Series for a second straight season last year. However, they have had a difficult spring. Right-hander Chris Carpenter and shortstop Rafael Furcal sustained season-ending injuries, and closer Jason Motte and third baseman David Freese will begin the season on the disabled list. Manager Mike Matheny even had to return to St. Louis for a few days to undergo back surgery.

“I’m starting to get a bad vibe about their club,” said a scout who has watched the Cardinals a lot this spring. “Getting so much bad news this early in the year kind of wears you down. It has always seemed to me that when spring training doesn’t go very smoothly for a team, then neither does the regular season. I just have a gut feeling it’s going to be one of those years for the Cardinals.”

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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