Los Angeles Dodgers

  • What Season Are They Watching?: Despite being 10-6 since making the year’s most controversial trade, and having stretched their lead in the NL West to 5.5 games, the Dodgers are still dealing with criticism of their trade-deadline moves.

    This is a classic case of letting the story drive the facts. The Dodgers have been more successful since the deal despite playing through a relatively difficult portion of the schedule, They’ve done so while getting effectively just one start from the best player they acquired in those deals. Despite the supposed impact of the loss of their “heart and soul” in Paul Lo Duca, the team has yet to lose consecutive games since the trade, bouncing back from every loss, even a couple of heartbreaking ones, with a win.

    The problem is the shape of the six losses, or more accurately, of three of them. With Monday night’s 4-2 defeat to the Marlins, the Dodgers have lost three games post-trade in which they led or were tied after seven innings. They hadn’t lost a single game they led in the eighth all season prior to dealing away Guillermo Mota. That, combined with the brutal performance of Darren Dreifort (0-3, 12.15 ERA in 6 2/3 innings) since the deal, has made the Dodgers a big target.

    While Dreifort’s struggles have cost the team in three games, the Dodgers are putting themselves in more situations in which the seventh and eighth innings are not high leverage. They’ve scored five or more runs in a win seven times since the deal. Some of the innings that Mota pitched have been taken by Dreifort, and some by Eric Gagne, but some have been taken by rookie Yhency Brazoban when the boys in blue have had bigger leads than they used to. (It would be nice to point to Hee Seop Choi here, but he’s not hitting much, just .192/.333/.346 as a Dodger. Steve Finley, on the other hand, is at .421/.477/.605 since the trade.) Another Mota-frame was taken by Brad Penny, who pitched through the eighth in his one start before being injured.

    If a chemistry problem is going to surface in the absence of Lo Duca, shouldn’t it have done so by now? The day after the deal, Dreifort blew an eighth-inning lead in San Diego to cost the Dodgers a game. The next day, the team won a 12-inning battle–on the road, against a division rival–to get that two-game swing back. The Dodgers also bounced back from Dreifort’s meltdown last Thursday in Cincinnati, traveling to Chicago to beat the Cubs the next day. They followed that with an emotional, come-from-behind win on Sunday in Chicago. This, in no way, resembles a team that lacks a heart or a soul.

    That is not to say that an extra right arm wouldn’t help. Dreifort is clearly a problem in the eighth inning. He doesn’t throw strikes, for one, which means he’s forever creating rallies on his own. Despite being a former starter, he has shown a big split in his record after 15 pitches this season (.226/.306/.343 on the first 15, .250/.455/.417 thereafter), which means that when he doesn’t have a 1-2-3 inning, he’s ill-equipped to get out of messes he creates. While Jim Tracy can’t just relegate him to low-leverage relief, he may have to find out which of Brazoban, Duaner Sanchez and Wilson Alvarez–assuming Kazuhisa Ishii keeps his rotation spot when Penny returns–he trusts the most for those occasions when Dreifort gets into trouble. A minor waiver deal isn’t out of the question.

    Nevertheless, the Dodgers are a better team in their current configuration. They have more options for eighth-inning relief now than they did solutions for their offense previously. They’re playing better baseball and putting more distance between them and their NL West rivals. The Dodgers have improved for the future, they’re going to the playoffs, and they’re going in part because of the moves Paul DePodesta made at the trade deadline. How much better than .625 are they supposed to play?

  • OBP is Life. Life is OBP.: The Dodgers are eighth in the National League with 545 runs, on pace to score 761. The 761 runs would be their sixth-most ever in Los Angeles, with two of the higher totals generated during the peak-offense years of 1999 and 2000. They’re right around the league average in runs scored; if they finish above that figure, it would be just the ninth time they’ve done so since coming across the country in 1958. This is one of the best Dodger offenses since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

    The Dodgers also have a .336 OBP this season. With the NL OBP at .329, the Dodgers are on pace to better the league average in that category for the first time since 1978. (They matched it in 1985 and 1991). They might set a franchise record; no Los Angeles Dodger team has ever bested the league OBP by more than eight points.

    This time, correlation is causation.

  • Coming Up!: As they did last season, the Dodgers should be able to count on Edwin Jackson for some stretch-drive help. When Jackson returns from a right forearm injury, Jim Tracy will have the option of keeping Ishii in the bullpen, or perhaps going to a six-man rotation down the stretch. Much of the strategy wil be dictated by the standings.

    There’s not much more in the system that will make an impact in September. Infielders Antonio Perez and Joe Thurston will likely come up for pinch-running duty. Right-handed reliever Brian Falkenborg will come back to L.A., and you might see struggling prospect Joel Hanrahan make his debut at some point.

Minnesota Twins

  • All Bullets, No Gun:For the third time in four seasons as contenders, the Twins were disappointments at the trade deadline. Just as in 2002, the team let the clock strike 3:00 p.m. CDT on July 31 without pulling the trigger on any trade. Only last year, when they acquired left fielder Shannon Stewart from the Blue Jays, have the Twins been able to materially improve their team in July. (At least ’04 didn’t resemble ’01, when the Twins made themselves worse in an effort to get better by trading Matt Lawton for Rick Reed.)

    Terry Ryan gets a lot of deserved credit for building a winning team under difficult circumstances. It wasn’t so long ago that Bud Selig declared the Twins dead, a team targeted for execution following the 2002 season. Despite the Twins’ on-field success, the team’s brutal lease has kept them from realizing significant revenue increases, so while Ryan’s payroll has increased, he still works under a low budget ceiling. His player-development system continues to cough up productive hitters.

    That’s actually the problem. The Twins have a backlog of players at the hitting positions, a backlog that started in 2002 and has grown in the intervening seasons. Yet only twice–in dealing Lawton and Bobby Kielty–has Ryan leveraged that backlog to improve the Twins in the short term. The guys who aren’t getting enough playing time for the Twins now, like Michael Cuddyer, Michael Restovich and Matt LeCroy, are the same ones who have been underutilized the past couple years. Meanwhile, the team has muddled through with inferior players up the middle and a thin rotation.

    The Twins have been as successful as they’ve been in large part due to the inability of their competition to show competence. The White Sox haven’t been able to turn their superior talent and underlying performance into wins for three seasons, which is why flawed, .525-talent Twins teams have won consecutive division titles and are in line for a third. As we’re seeing now, though, the White Sox are no longer the problem. The Indians have passed them, and they present a much bigger challenge. For the Twins to maintain their recent success, they’re going to have to do more than produce players; they’re going to have to shape the talent into a baseball team.

    Building a team to the point where its core talent can win is a big part of being a GM. Once that point is reached, however, the job changes. Ryan has yet to prove he can make that adjustment, and until he does, it’s an open question whether the Twins can be more than the biggest fish in the smallest pond.

  • Cringeworthy: Having barely survived the weekend’s trip to Cleveland–the Twins trailed for 2.5 games before tying Sunday’s contest in the sixth and winning it in the 10th to keep a two-game lead–things don’t get any easier. The Twins are near the start of a three-week nightmare in which they play nothing but contenders: the Yankees and Indians at home, the Rangers and Angels on the road, and then the Rangers at home one last time. With so much of the Twins’ record a function of a weak schedule, the next few weeks will tell us a lot about whether they can compete with the AL’s best.

    The good news for the Twins is that the Indians play basically the same set of teams in that period, and in fact, have an even tougher schedule through the second week of September. It’s possible that neither one of these teams will reach Labor Day much above .500.

  • Coming Up!: With Jesse Crain and Justin Morneau on the roster, the Twins have already called up their biggest impact minor leaguers. After Sept. 1, you can expect prospect Jason Kubel to make his major-league debut, although he’s unlikely to play much of a role. Michael Restovich will return, as will Alex Prieto.

    The exciting possibility is that J.D. Durbin will be up for some starts. Durbin, the Twins’ top pitching prospect, has 23 strikeouts and three walks in three starts for Rochester since being promoted to Triple-A. With Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse producing more hits than Motown, Durbin could not only have an impact in September, but he could be the Twins’ best choice to start Game 3 of the AL Division Series, assuming they get that far.

San Francisco Giants

  • They Needed That: As they landed in Philadelphia Friday morning, the Giants were just 12-15 since the All-Star break, and they’d gone from NL West contenders to just hanging on for the wild card. While Jason Schmidt was building a Cy Young case–and Noah Lowry one for Rookie of the Year–the rest of the pitching staff was in tatters. Even with Schmidt and Lowry, the team had allowed nearly six runs a game since the break, far too many even for a team with Superman.

    The Giants arrived in Philly a mess, and they left as the front-runner in the wild-card race.

    How did they do it? By finding a team in even worse shape than they were. The Jints pounded Brett Myers and Eric Milton for for 12 runs in 8 2/3 innings on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, they capitalized on a tiring Vicente Padilla–not a week removed from the DL–for two seventh-inning runs in an eventual 3-1 win.

    In a 162-game season, how well you do is defined by your talent and your performance, but sometimes, it’s also about catching a break. The Giants caught the Phillies at just the right time, and they not only took advantage to improve their own record, but they probably buried a potential wild-card rival in the process. They’re still not as good as the Cubs, but they control their own destiny in a three-team race with six weeks to play, and have a soft schedule coming up. For a team that looked done last Wednesday, that’s pretty good.

  • Even More Good Stuff: Last Friday, the Giants asked waivers on Neifi Perez for the purpose of releasing him. Perez had lost his shortstop job to Deivi Cruz in one of the least-interesting job battles of all time. The Giants recognized that Cody Ransom brought more to the table than Perez, and with Pedro Feliz able to stand around at shortstop on occasion, Perez was merely a bench player with no bat, no speed, and a defensive reputation.

    It’s times like this that I like to remember that, on July 25, 2001, there were people defending the Royals’ acquisition of Perez as part of the deal in which they traded Jermaine Dye. Since that day, when he was traded away from the Rockies, Perez has hit .241/.275/.308. Perez’s career road line, on the day he was traded, was .243/.284/.340. He never could hit, and that he made as much money as he did in this game is entirely a function of getting lucky and signing with the right franchise.

  • Coming Up!: This is a thin system, which will be reflected in the September call-ups. Lowry and Brad Hennessey are already in the rotation. Merkin Valdez and David Aardsma will be back in September, if not sooner, to bolster the bullpen in front of new capital-C closer Dustin Hermanson. (How do you get the scarlet “C”? Convert your first few save opportunities.)

    Outfielder Jason Ellison has hit well at Fresno, and will likely make his debut as Barry Bonds’ legs on September 2 or so. He’s a perfect fit with the collection of fourth outfielders the Giants have, and a much better choice than Todd Linden or Tony Torcato.

    The intriguing possibility is that Jesse Foppert could make a few starts. Foppert has missed just over a year following Tommy John surgery, but has been making rehab appearances for a month and could be ready for action in September.