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On Sunday morning, a keen talent evaluator sent a text message that did a tidy job of summing up the state of baseball in Los Angeles proper these days: “Dodgers are 41-13 when Bellinger starts.”
Bellinger, of course, is Cody Bellinger, who arrived in the major leagues April 25 as a temporary injury fill-in. Today he is merely the National League’s answer to Aaron Judge, a rookie who leads his league in home runs – he hit two more Sunday – and has buoyed his team beyond internal and external expectations. And unlike Judge’s Yankees, the Dodgers are riding a glorious upswing capped by a 10-game winning streak that has helped them surge to the best record in the National League at 51-26.
In the middle of it are Bellinger’s 24 home runs. And Justin Turner going all Tris Speaker with a .393/.478/.555 line. Not to mention Alex Wood, who pitched all of 60 innings last year, starting this season 8-0 with a 1.86 ERA, 66.7 percent groundball rate and 10.51 strikeouts per nine. Most impressive of all may be Kenley Jansen, who had spent 2017 walkless before Sunday, when Nolan Arenado took a free pass. Jansen’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is now 52 to 1 over 32 2/3 innings.
Oh, and that Kershaw guy, who’s bound to gin up some best-pitcher-ever talk if he keeps this up.
Now, the evaluator did warn that the Dodgers are “vulnerable” – that Bellinger and Chris Taylor and Austin Barnes have been great but are in the throes of their first big league action, and that their rotation is a veritable game of Operation, and that season-ending injuries to Andrew Toles and Julio Urias harm their depth. To which the rational response was: “Do you really believe that?”
And the answer was no. He doesn’t necessarily buy the 107-win Dodgers – they’re on pace for that now after Sunday’s 12-6 sweep-clinching victory against the Rockies – but he does think they’re mighty good: star-laden, deep, with capital in money and talent. Simple overachievers do not win 16 of 17 games like the …
1. Los Angeles Dodgers have, outscoring their opponents (120-63 through Sunday) in the process. Whereas the Astros’ gloves can be of concern and the Nationals’ bullpen is a landfill fire, the Dodgers do not present any clear, apparent weaknesses.
• They have the third-highest on-base percentage in the big leagues, the eighth-best slugging percentage and are slashing .265/.367/.459 with runners in scoring position.
• Their starting pitchers’ 3.52 ERA is second the major leagues.
• Their bullpen has the second-best ERA in the game, at 2.91, and a nearly 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
• Both Defensive Runs Saved and FanGraphs’ defensive metric, which takes into account Yasmani Grandal’s elite skills behind the plate, rank them as a well-above-average fielding team.
With Bellinger and Corey Seager, the Dodgers can superstar you to death. With Taylor and Barnes and Kike Hernandez, they can utility you into submission. With Kershaw, Wood and the resurgent Brandon McCarthy, they can suffocate you. And with Jansen, Pedro Baez and the resurgent Brandon Morrow – when Brandon Inge unretires, joins the Dodgers and turns into DiMaggio, you’ll understand why – they can handcuff you.
Here is perhaps the most impressive thing about the Dodgers this season: In 77 games, they have allowed just 268 runs. That’s 3.48 per game, nearly a half-run fewer than the …
2. Arizona Diamondbacks, who happen to be the second-stingiest team in the big leagues. And considering the run environment in baseball today, prevention is a far more difficult skill to find than firepower.
Consider the 2015 Cardinals, who allowed only 525 runs all season. It was the lowest total in a non-strike-shortened season since 1969, when the 109-win Orioles yielded 517. No doubt an impressive season by the Cardinals – but the Dodgers actually have been better at preventing runs than them and the Diamondbacks are nearly as good.
In 2015, teams averaged 4.25 runs per game. Today, it’s 4.68. The Cardinals allowed 23.8 percent fewer runs than average. The Dodgers are at 26.3 percent and Arizona at 17.3 percent. The Dodgers are something of a surprise. The Diamondbacks are a shock.
It goes back to their rotation, the best in baseball this season. Zack Greinke is pitching like a million-dollar-a-start ace. Robbie Ray, a strikeout god last season, has shown the power of peripheral prediction by turning into one of the best young starters in the game. Zack Godley, drafted and developed by the Cubs and sent to Arizona in the Miguel Montero deal, has a monster curveball and a 60 percent groundball rate to match.
If the D-backs are real – and at 48-28, it’s pretty safe to say they are – it’s as much because of a bullpen that has exceeded any reasonable expectations. Fernando Rodney wasn’t just awful the first month of the season. He was so unsightly that multiple scouts who had seen him figured he’d be released by May Day. Well, since the beginning of May, Rodney has thrown 17 2/3 innings and allowed two hits. Hitters are 0 for June against him. Opponents’ OPS over the last two months is under .200.
Add in the single best setup man in baseball so far this year, Archie Bradley – look it up – lefty T.J. McFarland (69 percent groundball rate, the second best in MLB) and Andrew Chafin (59 percent groundballs, 12.58 strikeouts per nine) and that’s quite the back end.
The Diamondbacks aren’t just doing this inside the division, where they’re 21-15. Their interleague record of 9-1 is the best in baseball, with the only loss coming to Justin Verlander. There is plenty of baseball to play yet, and if the Diamondbacks do manage to stay in contention all the way through the end of the season, the …
3. Kansas City Royals may well be the team against whom the Diamondbacks clinch their first postseason berth since 2011. Their last series of the year is in Kansas City, and the more the Royals continue to win, the likelier it is that will be an emotional wallop for both sides.
The core of the Royals’ World Series-winning team is almost certain to splinter this offseason, and that series will serve as a last hurrah. The Royals have neither the inclination nor the finances to re-sign Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar. Even one of them returning would be something of a surprise, particularly if the Royals use it as an impetus to begin a rebuild in earnest.
This, even after a recent stretch during which they won 13 of 17 games, would be a cogent strategy to start executing this season. That’s not the Royals’ style, though. The winning jag gave them all the reason they need to stick with what they’ve got and try to win, even if they’re only at .500, even if they’ve got a negative run differential on the season, even if their meager farm system more or less prevents them from acquiring an impact-type player at the trade deadline.
If there is a calculus for the Royals holding, it is this: The combined potential of them sneaking into a playoff spot because of the general mediocrity of the American League plus the idea of Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain all getting free-agent deals worth $50 million-plus (each of which would net the Royals a pick after the first round of the 2018 draft) is greater than the negativity born of selling plus whatever prospect haul they could manage by dealing them.
Because of how tight the AL is, this could be an easy sellers’ market, in which case the Royals may leave significant value on the table by holding. They’re as determined as ever to do so, though, even if this current run is a mirage and the real Royals poke their heads out before it’s too late. It’s the same trap into which the …
4. Seattle Mariners had fallen until Houston served them a nice glass of gut punch over the weekend. The Mariners – the delightfully streaky Mariners – had just finished winning six consecutive games, including a sweep of Detroit that more or less put the Tigers into sell mode.
The issue with the Mariners being stuck in the middle is that there’s really only one direction in which they could go. Seattle doesn’t control a ton of tradable assets. Nobody wants Hisashi Iwakuma’s bum arm. Or Yovani Gallardo’s ineffective one. Jarrod Dyson and Steve Cishek could bring back something, but not something altogether significant. Danny Valencia is on his seventh big league team in eight seasons for a reason. Their desirable players all have long-term contracts that aren’t worth trading absent a full-on rebuild or enormous deals that would limit their markets.
It leaves the Mariners, whose farm system may be worse than the Royals’ – and that’s saying something – like the guy with a decent house but dingy basement. He goes into the store, decides on his supplies, goes to pay and gets rejected for insufficient funds. The Mariners’ prospects make it such that GM Jerry DiPoto needs to do his shopping at Goodwill.
He’s capable of that. Ben Gamel arrived for a couple teenaged pitchers, and while his .456 average on balls in play won’t continue, he has been a force at the plate. The gloves of Dyson, Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger are weapons, and Seattle’s defensive alignment with them has won them games. Outfield defense alone can’t do it. They need a healthy Jean Segura. They need Felix Hernandez to pitch like Felix Hernandez. They need James Paxton not to get hurt. And even if they get all of those things, catching the …
5. New York Yankees for a wild-card spot won’t be easy. And before anyone from the Bronx or its radius wastes a breath thinking this is consigning the Yankees to the wild card, it just as easily could be the Red Sox. The AL East isn’t a race. It’s the Anchorman fight scene.
Early on, the Yankees were the trident-throwingest of the bunch and the Red Sox the ones saying, “Jean Yawkey is a saint!” The Yankees’ fade has been ugly, with losses in nine of their last 11 games, including Sunday’s 7-6 loss to Texas. In those 11 games, the Yankees’ starting pitching, which kept its head afloat as the Baby Bombers propelled them into first, cratered. Thirteen home runs allowed in 60 innings led to a 6.00 ERA, and it’s got them in the middle of the Sonny Gray hullaballoo that’s only going to intensify over the next month.
Gray is thus far the belle of the trade-season ball, though it’s early yet. What’s becoming more obvious is that it’s not just the Yankees, Astros and Cubs that are in on Gray. The …
6. Boston Red Sox have quietly sent some of their most respected evaluators to his last two starts. This could fall under standard due diligence, but one source familiar with their intentions said the Red Sox are keen for Gray – and when president Dave Dombrowski targets a player, the price for other teams jumps accordingly.
Yes, Doug Fister looked fine Sunday, but the prospect of him being a long-term solution at the back end of the rotation isn’t nearly as appealing as adding Gray to a rotation with Chris Sale and a bunch of question marks. Considering one of those costs $210 million (greetings, David Price!) and the other is the reigning AL Cy Young winner (here’s to regression, Rick Porcello!), giving up yet another prospect haul is far from ideal.
Another possibility, according to another source, is that Dombrowski pursues a power-hitting third baseman and stack a relief pitcher to fill the role Tyler Thornburg was supposed to before his season-ending surgery. Closer Craig Kimbrel has been almost unhittable this season. And with Kimbrel and Joe Kelly locking down leads, another arm to give the Red Sox a trio like the 2014 Royals or 2016 Yankees might be too tantalizing for Dombrowski to pass up. The issue – the same one the Nationals are confronting – is whether that sort of impact reliever actually exists.
Getting Gray may be easier than the third base-reliever combo. Every team wants someone like him, more because of what they believe he can be rather than what he has been. The …
7. Chicago Cubs have made a habit of doing that, though it’s their starting pitching this season that has failed them and made the acquisition of someone like Gray a priority.
The Cubs lost again Sunday, their second in three days to the Marlins, who are bad enough that the organization is in the midst of a do-we-just-sell-or-do-we-tear-this-thing-down-to-the-studs debate. Chicago is 38-37. Eight teams in the National League have more runs than the Cubs’ 350. It’s a wonder they haven’t allowed more runs than 326 considering the trouble of their starters and defense. Sunday exemplified it. The first fielding attempt by the Cubs was an Addison Russell error. The Marlins went on to score three unearned runs that inning and won 4-2.
This isn’t panic time yet, but it is a reality check for the Cubs. Sending Kyle Schwarber – their fulcrum during the World Series last year, their leadoff hitter this year, their expected leader of the future – to the minor leagues last week told the other 24 players in the clubhouse: Screw-around time is over. Because if this is the sort of team that’s going to go 10-17 against .500-or-better teams as it has, the kind of team content with splitting a series against the Marlins with one against the Nationals on deck, maybe it actually will be the …
8. Milwaukee Brewers’ year. Much as this remains a long shot, the Brewers’ ability to stay afloat as Ryan Braun has missed more than half the season shows not just fortitude but the sort of talent that makes them either a real NL Central contender or perhaps the only team that can stop three NL West teams from making the postseason.
Travis Shaw is the third baseman the Red Sox wish they had, a would-be All-Star if he didn’t happen to share a league with Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon and Jake Lamb. Eric Thames is still OPSing well over .900. Domingo Santana himself was plenty of return in the Mike Fiers-Carlos Gomez trade, and the Brewers still have Josh Hader and Brett Phillips primed to contribute. With Keon Broxton and Orlando Arcia and Jonathan Villar, there are three prime athletes at up-the-middle positions.
“The Brewers,” one scout opined this week, “are deep as [expletive].”
And that’s what makes them dangerous. Fellow executives have lavished GM David Stearns with praise on his quick rebuild. Stearns cut his high-level teeth with Houston, though, and it’s there he learned not to rush things. If the right deal comes along for an outfielder, the Brewers’ surplus – Braun, Santana, Broxton, Phillips, prospects Lewis Brinson and Ryan Cordell, even utilityman Hernan Perez – affords Stearns a world of possibilities.
Another starter to complement the unlikely three-headed monster of Chase Anderson, Jimmy Nelson and Junior Guerra? Sure. A legit setup guy to join Corey Knebel, the best closer in baseball this year not named Kimbrel or Jansen? If he wants. The good news is, Stearns has another month to figure it out, to see just how real his team is. At times, they look it, and at others, they look like one merely fortunate enough to be in the right division. Speaking of, if the …
9. Washington Nationals don’t win 100 games this season, something went very wrong. In the NL East, there is the worst team in baseball (Philadelphia), the most injury-plagued (New York), another that wants to dismantle (Miami) and one near .500 only after fattening up recently on the Marlins and Giants (Atlanta). The Nationals are 45-30 with a plus-88 run differential. The rest of the East is 128-170 and minus-186.
And still, there is that aforementioned landfill fire that is the Nationals’ pen. Their 3.80 starters’ ERA is the fourth best in baseball – and without Jeremy Guthrie’s career-ending 10-runs-in-two-thirds-of-an-inning start, it would be 3.61, barely behind the Diamondbacks starters’.
The bullpen, on the other hand, is Dusty Baker’s very own hand of seven-card dud. Their 4.91 ERA is 28th in baseball. Shawn Kelley, now on the DL, is allowing an inconceivable 4.5 home runs per nine innings – and for most of the year, that wasn’t even the worst on the team. That belonged to Joe Blanton, who carried his October propensity for allowing long balls into this season, when hitters have whacked eight home runs in 82 plate appearances.
When you’re putting up 18 runs, as the Nats did Saturday, the bullpen doesn’t much matter. Offenses – even great ones like Washington’s – cannot function in overdrive for 162 games, leaving some in the hands of capable relief pitchers. Absent that, the Nationals may well fall short of those 100 wins. And they definitely will stumble before reaching that World Series that continues to allude them.
So the onus is on GM Mike Rizzo to navigate the minefield facing him. Everyone knows he needs relief. Everyone will try to gouge him accordingly. And Rizzo may just have to close his eyes, clench his teeth and say yes, because the opportunity is there, even with the …
10. Los Angeles Dodgers now 42-13 when Cody Bellinger starts. That’s .764 baseball. A 124-38 pace. And while it can’t get a whole lot better, the Dodgers are good enough to sustain some facsimile of this run, mostly because they can reinforce themselves when and where need be.
From within? Sure. Outfielder Alex Verdugo is barely 21 and hitting .344 at Triple-A. One scout called Willie Calhoun a “left-handed Jose Altuve” – and, yes, it’s because Calhoun is pint-sized, too, but the bat, like Altuve’s, is not just contact-oriented (36 strikeouts in 267 at-bats) but powerful (16 home runs). The best of them all may be Walker Buehler, whose 100-mph fastball would play awfully nice in front of Jansen.
If the Dodgers want to go the trade route, they’ve got depth at all levels of their farm system. And as much as they were counting on Urias to fortify the rotation in the second half, his shoulder surgery isn’t nearly the killer it would be for other teams. The Dodgers were built to withstand injuries and teams like the Diamondbacks and Rockies – the latter of whom, frankly, haven’t been a very good hitting team beyond Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Mark Reynolds.
The Dodgers’ lineup teems with solid options for Dave Roberts, and their starting-pitching depth offers him different paths to keep fragile arms healthy, and their chance to get better is almost unfair.
This is 28 teams’ nightmare and Major League Baseball’s dream. Not only are the Yankees cutting fat and on the cusp of juggernaut status because they committed to kids and reared them properly, now along come the Dodgers, no longer larded with a $300 million payroll only to stumble along the way. These are the new Dodgers, the lean player-development machine that churns out big leaguer after big leaguer, impact player after impact player, win after win.