Monday, 20 April 2015

The Dodgers' Juggernaut

For many decades, the New York Yankees were the predominant powerhouse of Major League Baseball, pouring billions of dollars into the procurement of championships and the creation of a dynasty. However, after years of posturing and planning, the Dodgers finally seem destined to usurp New York as the game's most forceful franchise.

Joc Pederson, the face of a new Dodgers era.
Los Angeles embarked on a philosophical overhaul during the winter, dispensing with methodical General Manager Ned Colletti and, in his stead, forming a mesmeric baseball operations think tank stocked with some of the freshest, sharpest and brightest minds in the industry.

Andrew Friedman, the fresh-faced mastermind who steered the once-hapless Tampa Bay Rays to perennial success on a minuscule budget, was finally seduced by the prospect of running a big market juggernaut, and thus became the Dodgers' President of Baseball Operations; Farhan Zaidi, the self-confessed geek with a Bachelor's Degree in Economics and ten years experience working under the aegis of Billy Beane, was subsequently hired as General Manager in LA; and Josh Byrnes, the former wonder kid with experience running the Padres and Diamondbacks, became the Dodgers' Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations.

These moves alone signalled a paradigm shift from the Dodgers' ownership group, which effectively grew tired of the boom-and-bust uncertainty under Colletti, and instead decided to pursue the very best decision-makers in the game and, thus, take the smartest, most efficient route to the long-awaited championship their exorbitant investment deserves.

Friedman, Zaidi and Byrnes wasted little time in seeking to reshape a successful but nonetheless cumbersome and unwieldy roster. They plunged Chavez Ravine into a strategic revolution, trading troublesome outfielder Matt Kemp and his enormous contract to San Diego, and allowing Hanley Ramirez, a productive but notoriously pouty superstar, to leave for Boston via free agency. Hoping to make the team nimbler and more versatile, in keeping with their small market sensibilities, the new Dodger brain trust replaced those ungainly icons with Jimmy Rollins, a solid veteran shortstop renowned as a strong leader; Howie Kendrick, one of the most consistently underrated stars of the past decade; and Joc Pederson, the fresh-faced, homegrown, cost-controlled phenom.

When constructing their roster for the 2015 season, the Dodgers, this sprawling West Coast behemoth, applied the trailblazing methodologies that, for so long, had brought unforeseen success to the small market ballclubs ran by Friedman and his understudies. They played a different brand of Moneyball, seeking the extra two percent and attempting to squeeze as much production from every dollar as possible. The new executives stuck to their distinguished philosophies, only now, with access to the Dodgers' bottomless pit of cash, they had a much larger crumple zone with which to work.

On paper, the result may be the most expensive team in baseball history. But, on the field, this Dodgers club has the sharpness, chemistry and energy so characteristic of Friedman's Rays, who rode an infectious team spirit to four postseason berths and one unlikely pennant during his tenure.

Quite frankly, through their first twelve games, the Dodgers are playing like a $270 million baseball team. I've had the pleasure of watching plenty of their games thus far, and rarely have I witnessed such a formidable and confident team, nor a team which has found a winning groove with such conviction so early.

Los Angeles soared ominously into sole possession of first place in the National League West this weekend, thanks to a remarkable seven-game win streak which has the team at 9-3. The defending World Series champion Giants, by contrast, sit six games back at 4-10 heading into a pivotal series between the old rivals this week.

As a team, the Dodgers lead the National League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, home runs, run scored and doubles. Last week, Don Mattingly's club swept Seattle and Colorado back-to-back and, during the aforementioned win streak, managed to score at least five runs and collect at least nine hits in each game, including a sixteen-hit barrage in Arizona and a fourteen-hit clinic yesterday at home to the Rockies.

Individually, Adrian Gonzalez has produced an eye-watering start, hitting .469/.527/.939 with 23 hits, 5 home runs, 8 doubles and 14 RBI in his first 12 games; Zack Greinke has pitched flawlessly in his first three outings, going 2-0 with a 1.83 ERA and a 0.712 WHIP; and Andre Ethier has experienced a resurgence, getting on base at a .364 clip and playing superb defence.

However, the most starling players have been Kendrick and Pederson who, together, have embodied the Dodgers' transformation from a controversial bunch of egotistical superstars to a fresh, positive, energetic, and even lovable team that is incredibly fun to watch.

Kendrick, acquired from the crosstown Angels during the offseason, has always been one of my favourite players. He's the type of player only true baseball fans can totally appreciate; the type of player who has a tremendous effect beyond the box score.

In essence, Howie is just a great all-around ballplayer, in the truest sense. He is a savant in the batters box, taking an aggressive approach and seemingly making hard contact in every plate appearance, spraying line drives from gap to gap and getting on base habitually. In the field, he's extremely competent, taking groundballs cleanly and swooshing throws across the diamond. And, perhaps most importantly for a Dodgers club addled by controversy in recent years, Kendrick is a champion in the locker room, bringing an infectious joy and enthusiasm to his work.

Pederson, meanwhile, is just a great kid. Drafted in the eleventh round of the 2010 draft, the precocious centre fielder has worked hard to compliment his tremendous natural ability with a genuine understanding of the game. An innocent, 23-year old livewire with blazing speed, prodigious athleticism and a powerful swing, Joc forced his way onto the Major League roster by hitting 33 home runs and stealing 30 bases last year in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, a feat only previously achieved by three other players, including immortals such as Tony Lazzeri and Lefty O'Doul.

The new front office, inclined to trust youth, traded Kemp, a former MVP, to pave the way for Pederson, who hasn't disappointed. His defence has been scintillating, his bat has been more than adequate and, perhaps most importantly, his smile has been a welcome change for the Dodgers, who have appeared lifeless and corporate in recent years.

Accordingly, after years of pretension, Los Angeles looks more ready than ever to finally win a World Series championship. Sure, Gonzalez will cool down and return to the mortal realm, and Pederson will encounter the usual rookie troubles at some point, but, by similar measures, Yasiel Puig will undoubtedly heat up, and Clayton Kershaw will return to the immortal realm.

Ultimately, that's the essence of this new Dodgers experiment: they're now team, rather than a dysfunctional and arrogant collection of All-Stars. It's a case of addition by subtraction, and, as ever, Friedman looks to have got his sums just right.

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