The baseball teams in the city of Los Angeles have been spending big over two consecutive offseasons, and the Dodgers and Angels have emerged as early favorites to reach the World Series. The oddsmakers have placed both teams at 7-1 to win it all, numbers challenged only by Detroit and Washington. Is the Hollywood Hype justified?
Are the Dodgers and Angels set to create an All-LA World Series and end the sports malaise that disappointing showings by the Lakers and USC football (not to mention last year’s stretch failings from the two baseball teams) have created? TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage continues spring training with a look at the two monied favorites from the City of Angels.
LA Angels: You read and hear the positives from the rest of the sports media, and I don’t dispute the star power that exists on this team. But I think the flaws the Angels have below the glittering surface are being too easily passed over as everyone salivates over a lineup with Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton at its heart.
Let’s start with Pujols himself. It’s easy to look at his 30-home run season and .516 slugging percentage and tell yourself that if Albert did this in a year when he had a terrible first month, what he’s going to now that he’s settled into his new home. I get that. But Pujols’ lower-than-normal numbers to end the year weren’t just the result of his awful April. It’s a continuing pattern. His on-base percentage has gone down four straight years. The slugging percentage is down three straight years. Albert is 33-years-old, so it’s not like this is coming out of nowhere.
Now let’s move to Mike Trout. You don’t have to knock the kid to say he’s unlikely to repeat his .399/.564 effort in on-base percentage and slugging, and the focus of spring training are how he’s put on some extra weight, isn’t happy about being shifted to left field and got a raw deal on his contract, still in the exclusive control of the club in this early part of his career. Designated hitter Mark Trumbo is a great power hitter, but a classic slugger from the old school, who doesn’t hit for average or take walks. In other words, a drag on the lineup when he’s not going deep. Howie Kendrick has had bad years two of the last three seasons, Erick Aybar hasn’t been a good offensive player since 2009 because he doesn’t take walks and Alberto Callaspo doesn’t offer any power at the third base spot, and even his contact hitting is suspect.
The starting pitching has similar questions. The Angels made a nice move in picking up 26-year-old Tommy Hanson, but while I like the chance they took, it does have to be acknowledged that Hanson has never matched the promise of his ’09 rookie campaign when he went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA. Last year’s ERA was 4.48 and that was with Atlanta against DH-less lineups. Joe Blanton has been brought in as the fifth starter, but he hasn’t a good season in several years and has started to become injury-prone. Finally, the bullpen was a huge problem in 2012, and new closer Ryan Madson has had some setbacks in his recovery from Tommy John surgery and is not a sure thing to be ready for Opening Day.
None of this sounds like a World Series favorite. Now let’s acknowledge this team’s very real strengths. Jered Weaver is good for 30-plus starts and a five-year track record tells us he’ll at least be a good, solid starter and might make a Cy Young push. C.J. Wilson and Jason Vargas have similar levels of reliability and performance appropriate to the #2 and #4 spots in the rotation they both occupy. Hanson’s upside is still very real. The bullpen has a lot of depth, including the addition of Sean Burnett in setup, an area that was a problem all of last year and Ernesto Frieri, the one bright spot in the ’12 relief corps. I don’t think the Angels will have the same problems at the end of games even if they to survive without Madson.
And then there’s that whole Pujols-Hamilton hitting back-to-back. For all the grief Hamilton took at the end of last season in Texas, he ended up with a .354/.577 stat line and hit 43 home runs. All of those numbers were improvements on his 2011 season. He can certainly keep it rolling, Pujols could nudge his numbers back up and when these guys are hot, no pitching staff in the world will slow them down. Let’s also not forget the star in the dugout and that’s manager Mike Scoscia. If there’s one guy you’d want to try and solve depth problems, this would be the man to pick.
What it ultimately comes down to is that I can see the scenario where the Angels win the World Series. But I can also see the scenario where they win 84 games and do nothing more than tantalize with some hot streaks when Pujols and Hamilton are in rhythm. And it’s the latter scenario that’s not being focused on enough.
LA Dodgers: The Dodgers are the exact opposite of the Angels—they have depth galore, and while they’ve gotten headlines for their star-shopping, the city’s National League team has shown more attention—or least more money—when it comes to adding some veteran depth.
The star power starts with the pitching and Clayton Kershaw. It’s hard to believe the lefty is only 24 years old. We already know he’s good for 200-plus innings and a sub-3.00 ERA. It’s just a question of whether he wins another Cy Young. Zack Greinke is somewhat overrated and overpaid—his only ace-caliber year has been the ’09 Cy Young season in Kansas City. But even at career norms, Greinke is a reliable #2 and the mere fact we can utter the phrase “Cy Young season in Kansas City” tells us enough about how good the 29-year-old really can be. Josh Beckett has had two bad years in the last three and is 32-years-old, but the pressure is no longer on him to be the ace and if this team gets to October, is there anyone else you want on the mound?
Adrian Gonzalez was the centerpiece of the big August trade with Boston and he needs a bounceback year. Gonzalez slugged under .500 for the first time in his career. He needs to find the power stroke and centerfielder Matt Kemp needs to keep his hamstrings healthy. If he stays in the lineup, a Kemp-Gonzalez duo will be almost as good as it gets—just not quite as good as Pujols-Hamilton.
But the Dodgers have the quality depth in the lineup and that includes depth among the top players. Andre Ethier may not be slugging .500-plus anymore like his halcyon days of 2008-09, but the rightfielder is still a very complete offensive player. Hanley Ramirez has had two off years, but his power started to come back last year, with 24 home runs, and if he can bring the OBP along with it, the Dodgers have four potential stars. The longshot will be if Carl Crawford can get himself healthy, something that got another setback this week with reports that the left fielder won’t be ready for Opening Day.
Where I’m really impressed with the Dodgers is their stockpiling of veterans who will know their roles. I’m talking about someone like a Jerry Hairston, who can play literally any position on the diamond. Or Skip Schumaker, a quality infielder from St. Louis’ 2011 World Series champs who can either push Mark Ellis for the starting second base job or fill in at any other spot. Nick Punto struggled in Boston last year, but the 36-year-old had a .388 OBP in part-time duty with St. Louis the year before. To the list of vets with rings on their fingers, let’s add Juan Uribe, who won in 2005 with the White Sox and 2010 with the Giants. All of these are players who can help off the bench and aren’t going to gripe about playing time.
I also like the bullpen. There’s no flashy names, but I think Brandon League will work out as the closer. He had 37 saves in 2011 with Seattle. If League is…well, out of his league, just give the job back to Kenley Jansen who notched 25 saves a year ago. Javy Guerra, only 27-years-old, has had consecutive good years in setup work. Don Mattingly also has three veterans—Matt Guerrier, J.P. Howell and Ronnie Belisario, who fit the classic mold of relievers who can go almost any direction. If even one of them comes up with a good year, the Dodgers have a pen that can go all the way.
In short, I like this Dodger team. Whether I like them enough to justify the odds they’re getting is another question and final predictions won’t come until the morning of Opening Day. But for now let’s focus in on the Over/Under win projections for both teams in Las Vegas.
The Angels are set at 92.5, with the Dodgers a half-win behind at 92. I’m going Under with the Angels. I see them falling anywhere from 84-95 wins and that’s just a lot more room on the Under side. The Dodgers are very tough—I might like them, but this is a very tight number. Oddsmakers make it tough to bet favorably on a trendy team, and the Magic Johnson-owned Dodgers are certainly that. I have to lean Under by a hair.