Daily Distractions: ‘Analyzing’ the Dodgers-Diamondbacks ‘rivalry.’

The rivalry between the Dodgers and Giants has coasted for more than a century on a steady undercurrent of organic circumstances. There have been personal grudges (Wilbert Robinson vs. John McGraw), geographical allegiances (Manhattan vs. Brooklyn; San Francisco vs. Los Angeles), beanballs and brushbacks (Juan Marichal vs. John Roseboro). The fan violence is beyond unhealthy but there it is, holding up the ugliest corner of the narrative. It’s raw. It’s real.

And really, what says “raw” and “real” more than this:

The Arizona Diamondbacks have a pool to protect when the big, bad, overpaid Dodgers invade Chase Field for three games starting Friday. You know, when they “renew a rivalry” that has already been renewed three times in spring training and twice in Sydney. To protect the pool, the good people of Phoenix deployed their finest … mermaid, flanked by another woman dressed as the Jolly Green Giant and a dude wearing a Neptune costume. We can only hope that Arizona Sen. John McCain approves.

How seriously can we take a “rivalry” symbolized by a woman wearing a dolphin’s tail?

Seriously enough that MLB.com ran with the headline “Dodgers, D-backs return to ‘pool party’ scene.” The topic will probably get some airtime on Phoenix sports-talk radio. Maybe in Los Angeles too, unless the Lakers decide to “relieve Mike D’Antoni of his coaching duties” (or however someone gets fired these days … do coaches still get fired?).

Here’s a better storyline: Who wants these games more, a 3-8 Diamondbacks team that has been outscored 67-45, or a 6-4 Dodgers team that just split a pair of 10-inning burners against arguably the most talented club in the American League? It’s early April, not an important juncture in the baseball season. Though, for what it’s worth, no team is farther out of first place in any division than Arizona (four games).

Maybe that matters. Maybe it doesn’t. Until someone drops a shark in the pool, let’s not dwell on the pool.

In the meantime, here is the Diamondbacks’ PR director doing some kind of shoulder-shake dance. Or something:

 

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Daily Distractions: Julio Urias gets his Mexican food, and Dodgers fans in Rancho Cucamonga get their prospects.

Julio Urias

Julio Urias struck out Will Venable and Yonder Alonso and got Chris Denorfia to ground out in his only spring training inning. (Associated Press photo)

This is a rough map of all the Mexican restaurants in Rancho Cucamonga.

Julio Urias is waiting.

On March 15, after he pitched a scoreless inning against the San Diego Padres — something Brian Wilson couldn’t do last night — Urias still didn’t know where he would begin the regular season. At least the Dodgers’ prized pitching prospect had no trouble identifying the hardest part of being uprooted to the United States at 16.

“It wasn’t really hard except for the food,” he said in Spanish. “The food was probably the hardest part for me.”

Fortunately for Urias, now 17, there are many options in the neighborhood of the Dodgers’ Single-A affiliate in the California League.

As we reported yesterday, Urias will be assigned to Rancho along with 2013 first-round draft picks Chris Anderson and Tom Windle, along with Corey Seager, the Dodgers’ first-round pick in 2012.

In case you’re counting at home, that’s four of the club’s top 10 prospects (per MLB.com) playing in one spot, about an hour east of Los Angeles.

Urias, Anderson and Windle all finished last season with Class-A Great Lakes, and each saw action in one Cactus League game. The Dodgers drafted Anderson and Windle in the first and second rounds of the 2013 draft, respectively, out of college. Urias was signed as a free agent out of Culiacan, Mexico.

Pitcher Zach Lee and outfielder Joc Pederson will begin the season with Triple-A Albuquerque. So will Matt Magill and possibly Onelki Garcia once he’s healthy.

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Daily Distractions: Dodgers infielder Miguel Rojas has a message for the protesters in Venezuela.

Miguel Rojas

Dodgers infielder Miguel Rojas is a non-roster invitee to spring training. He is closely monitoring the political protests in his native Venezuela. (Associated Press)

Miguel Rojas is watching the news reports from his native Venezuela closely. His wife, Mariana, lives about five minutes from the capital of Caracas. At least five have died in the course of the political protests that began Feb. 12 and turned violent not long thereafter. Here are some videos of the gunfire that erupted last night in Caracas.

“That stuff is pretty scary,” Rojas said Thursday, “because all my family is there.”

Rojas has seen the videos. He said his wife is fine, and she’s planning to fly out tomorrow morning.

“She told me in the afternoon is when things start getting bad,” Rojas said. “At night is when the motorcycles go out because they (the citizens) can’t recognize them.”

As much as anything, Rojas is frustrated by his own feelings of helplessness. At a time when independent news outlets have been muffled by the Venezuelan government, Twitter is soaring in popularity as a medium for protest. The government is trying to block images posted to Twitter from within the country.

Rojas isn’t on Twitter, but he has a message for his countrymen.

“I want to get my word to every Venezuelan guy in the street to keep doing that,” he said. “Make us feel like we can be proud of them, that everything’s going to end in a good way. I send my thanks to them because I can’t do anything right now.”

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Daily Distractions: Putting Josh Beckett’s optimism in its proper context.

Josh Beckett

Josh Beckett had a rib removed from the right side of his rib cage in July. (Associated Press)

In his first interview of the spring, Dodgers pitcher Josh Beckett declared himself healthy and ready to pitch when the 2014 season begins.

Beckett’s optimism is nothing new. He was so upbeat about his recovery from thoracic outlet surgery last August that one reporter was compelled to ask if Beckett intended to pitch at some point in the postseason.

But Beckett’s optimism is like the cushioned cork at the center of a baseball. It’s surrounded by layers of yarn and cowhide and leather stitching that need to be unwound. By itself, Beckett’s healthy optimism and optimal health are great developments, but they need to put in context.

For one thing, Beckett is 33 years old. His record the past two seasons is 7-19. His early-career track record is stellar: a World Series MVP award at age 23; 80 wins and a 116 ERA+ in the span of his 25-to-29-year-old prime; an all-star appearance with Boston as recently as three years ago. But then you point to Beckett’s age, and his last two seasons, and you wonder what he’s doing in the starting rotation of a team with a $240 million-plus payroll.

Then there’s the nature of thoracic outlet surgery. It hasn’t been in baseball as long as Tommy John surgery, for example. Chris Carpenter had the procedure recently — Beckett told reporters yesterday that Carpenter’s thoracic outlet syndrome was worse than his own — as did Daniel Bard, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Shaun Marcum. That’s a short list. It doesn’t offer nearly large enough a sample size to conclude, with the same degree of certainty, how long Beckett will need to make a full recovery.

So we have Beckett’s word, his medical reports (you and I don’t, but the Dodgers do), and his track record, and not much else. Then we have a locker in the Camelback Ranch clubhouse with Paul Maholm‘s nameplate overhead, and should it really come as a surprise that the Dodgers took out a $1.5 million insurance policy in the form of a sixth starter?

Not really. And that’s not a reflection on Beckett or his health, so much as the Dodgers’ financial wherewithal. As the Dodgers learn what Beckett can do post-surgery, there’s less at stake in the final outcome of the process. Management can sit back, watch, and be happy for Beckett if he makes a full recovery. And hey, maybe you get a fifth starter at the end of camp.

How’s that for some annual start-of-spring-training optimism?

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Daily Distractions: Which non-roster invitees have a chance at making the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster?

Clint Robinson

Who is non-roster invitee Clint Robinson, and does he have a chance of making the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster? (Answer: Not really) (Getty Images)

With the addition of Justin Turner on Wednesday, the Dodgers have extended spring training invitations to 17 non-roster players:

Infielders: Turner, Chone Figgins, Miguel Rojas, Brendan Harris, Clint Robinson
Outfielder: Joc Pederson
Catchers: JC Boscan, Griff Erickson, Chris O’Brien, Miguel Olivo
Pitchers: Sam Demel, Carlos Frias, Zach Lee, Daniel Moskos, Red Patterson, Chris Reed, Ross Stripling

Two years ago, Jamey Wright made the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster out of camp as an NRI. Last year, no non-roster invitees made the roster — though you figure Kevin Gregg was close. The Dodgers’ surplus of starting pitchers squeezed Gregg out of a job in Los Angeles, and he eventually became the Chicago Cubs’ closer.

So recent history says that the 17 NRIs are competing for one job at most. Not all have a realistic chance of making the team. In most cases, injuries will dictate the winner of the logjam. That’s particularly true for Pederson, the catchers and the pitchers.

The Dodgers are carrying four outfielders (Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig) with large guaranteed contracts. The fifth is Scott Van Slyke, who has value as a corner outfielder/first baseman with power off the bench. Pederson, who turns 22 on April 21, can turn heads in camp if his .912 OPS in the Venezuelan Winter League was no fluke, but that might be all he can do. There’s no job for him without another significant injury hitting the outfield — and remember that Kemp still isn’t running on his surgically repaired ankle.

Among the catchers, all A.J. Ellis and Tim Federowicz need to do to reprise their 2013 Opening Day jobs is stay healthy. Olivo, who’s played in more than 1,100 major-league games since 2002, knew that when he signed with the Dodgers on Jan. 17. He’ll try to push Drew Butera for the primary catcher’s job at Triple-A Albuquerque.

The pitching staff is also surprisingly stacked with veterans who are difficult to displace. Lee, Stripling, Reed, Patterson and Frias are competing to make an impression and learn the ropes in their first camp, not land an Opening Day job. Demel and Moskos have major-league experience but are slotted for roles in the Albuquerque bullpen and rotation, respectively.

So that leaves us with the infielders. Second base is an open competition until Alex Guerrero learns the position defensively. Until we see him in camp, it’ll be hard to pin down Guerrero’s learning curve. Other than starting third baseman Juan Uribe, and light-hitting utilityman Justin Sellers, Dee Gordon is the only player on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster with experience at second base. He only learned the position last year. There’s a reasonably wide opening here.

Rojas will go as far as his bat will take him – historically, he’s struggled to hit at the Triple-A level.

The same goes for Figgins, whose 68 OPS+ the last three seasons isn’t enough to justify a 40-man roster spot. Figgins will have to prove in camp that his bat speed at age 36 is as major-league ready as his foot speed and defensive versatility — he’s played 647 career games at third base, 274 at second and 27 at shortstop. No other player in camp is quite as versatile, and the longtime leadoff hitter will help his cause if he can steal a base.

In some ways, the 33-year-old Harris is a slower version of Figgins. He’s able to play third base, shortstop and second base, and carries a light bat (.695 career OPS).

Robinson is a 28-year-old first baseman whose career consists of 3,337 at-bats in the minors and four in the majors. With at least two first basemen ahead of him on the depth chart in camp, Robinson’s chances of getting a major league at-bat this season range from slim to none.

Turner is an above-average fielding second baseman and has been for parts of five major-league seasons. What really makes him stand out in this group is his track record at the plate. Turner is the definition of an average hitter, as a 100 OPS+ and 0.9 oWAR last season attest. Baseball-reference.com’s version of oWAR rated Turner a 1.6 in 2011, his only full major-league season.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and general manager Ned Colletti have agreed that second base can be a defensive position in 2014. But if they want to give the second-base job on Opening Day to an above-average fielder and an average hitter, Turner might be the only man in camp who fits that description.

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Daily Distractions: California Superior Court judge tosses class-action lawsuit against Dodgers, Lakers, TWC.

SportsNet LA

The Dodgers’ new network, SportsNet LA, is launching Feb. 25. (Photo courtesy of SportsNet LA via Facebook)

A California Superior Court judge tossed out a class-action lawsuit filed against the Dodgers, Lakers, and Time Warner Cable on Tuesday, citing federal laws designed to protect the rights of cable providers. Judge Amy D. Hogue ruled that California’s Unfair Competition Law couldn’t be invoked to relieve Time Warner subscribers of the burden of unwanted fees or channels.

This blog space has focused on the Dodgers’ $8 billion, 25-year television contract to the extent that it impacts the team and its fans — the Time Warner subscribers who are bracing for a rate hike, and non-TWC subscribers who are being asked to “Demand Your Dodgers Now.” That makes sense. This is a Dodgers blog, after all.

But what about the non-Dodger (and non-Laker) fans who don’t want to pay for two channels they don’t plan to watch? That’s the group who filed the class-action suit. Their lead attorney, Max Blecher, summarized their position: “People should have the right to say ‘no.’ ”

Here’s how that position was eloquated in Judge Hogue’s nine-page ruling:

1. TWC plans to pass some the cost of its licensing deal with the Dodgers to its enhanced basic cable customers by increasing the cost of service by an estimated $4 to $5 per month. The Dodgers … knew and consented to the fact that the costs of the licensing agreement would be passed on to TWC enhanced basic cable customers without an opportunity for customers to opt-out of including those channels in their enhanced basic cable subscription.

2. TWC customers who subscribe to the enhanced basic cable package have no way of unsubscribìng from the costs of the Dodgers and Lakers networks, despite the fact that up to 60 percent of customers would do so if given the choice.

In response, TWC contended that the plaintiffs “entirely fail to address the ‘safe harbor effect’ of the CCA” — the federal law that allows cable providers to “bundle” channels in the same manner as SportsNet LA and TWC SportsNet (the Lakers’ network). The federal “safe harbor” law takes priority over California’s Unfair Competition Law. The judge agreed.

Blecher said he might file a notice of appeal if it can be argued that the judge’s ruling went too far. So this fight might not be over. The plaintiffs have at least one strong ally in Congress.

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Daily Distractions: Four Dodgers make MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list; what that means.

Corey Seager

Dodgers prospect Corey Seager ranked 34th on MLB.com’s list of the top 100 prospects in baseball. (Associated Press photo)

If you’re looking for a sign of progress from the Dodgers’ farm system, here’s one: MLB.com released its annual list of the top 100 prospects yesterday, and the Dodgers occupied four spots.

Four decent spots, too: Shortstop Corey Seager came in at number 34, outfielder Joc Pederson at number 36, and pitchers Zach Lee and Julio Urias at 63 and 64.

Compare that to a year ago, and the Dodgers’ system seems to be inching up. Pederson was the highest-ranked Dodger in 2013 at number 44, Seager at 48. Lee slipped a bit — MLB.com had him ranked 57th in 2013 — but Urias vaulted 25 spots from 89th overall.

Don’t get bogged down too much in the specifics. One quick general takeaway is that, in a perfect world, 30 MLB teams would have an average of 3.33 prospects ranked in the top 100. On the high end, then, the Dodgers are still only slightly above average. The Astros, who picked first in the June draft each of the last two years, had seven prospects among MLB.com’s top 100. The Angels, who haven’t had a first-round pick since 2011, had none.

Upward movement is always good. In 2011, the first year that MLB.com ranked prospects, the list ended at number 50. The final slot belonged to a Seattle Mariners pitching prospect from Yucaipa named Taijuan Walker. Walker jumped up to number 4 in both 2012 and 2013, then slipped to number 6 in 2014 — after posting a 3.60 ERA in three starts in 2013. He’s slotted to start this season in the Mariners’ rotation.

MLB.com’s number-45 prospect in 2011 was Matt Harvey. If a 6.1-WAR season at age 24 is what the Dodgers can expect from Pederson or Seager (and not Tommy John surgery), they’ll take it. That’s an extreme example of course, and it’s too soon to issue passing or failing grades on any 2011 prospects. Paco Rodriguez was in college in 2011.

So the immediate meaning of this list is that several teams are in better position to trade for David Price than the Dodgers. The long-term meaning? Who knows.

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Daily Distractions: How Dodger Stadium will turn into a hockey venue.

Dodger Stadium hockey game

Dodger Stadium’s transformation into a hockey venue began Monday. (Instagram)

Dodger Stadium opened its outfield gate Monday, and the transformation began.

A crew of about 200 local workers spent their day trudging on and off the field, carrying the components of a giant stage deck that was laid over the infield. Then came the plywood, then the 30-foot long aluminum pans holding enough refrigerant to cool a 2-inch thick sheet of ice to 22 degrees Farenheit.

Over the next 12 days, the transformation from baseball field to hockey venue will be complete. The Kings and Ducks are scheduled to play the first outdoor hockey game in Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. as part of the NHL’s “Stadium Series,” a slate of five outdoor games this winter.

The stories of the meticulous transformation, the man behind it, and the preposterousness of playing an outdoor hockey game in Southern California, will wait for another day. NHL ice-maker Dan Craig, Kings president Luc Robitaille, and Dodgers president Stan Kasten filled in some of the smaller blanks yesterday:

• Robitaille said that 50,000 tickets have been sold, and the venue will accommodate up to 54,000 for the game. That’s 2,000 less than Dodger Stadium’s baseball capacity. So where can’t you sit? Kasten said he wasn’t aware of any sections that will be blocked off. It could be that another 2,000 seats will be added if there’s enough demand.

• There will be no seats on the field.

• In order to level the playing field (literally), Craig’s team used a laser from the bottom deck of Dodger Stadium to measure the incline of the field. The pitcher’s mound has been leveled; that’s where the penalty boxes will go. The Kings’ and Ducks’ benches will be in the shallow outfield.

• Kasten got assurance from the NHL that the rink construction won’t interfere with the ongoing renovation projects outside the bullpen areas. “We’ll just have to direct people around some of the fenced-off areas,” he said.

• Craig’s crew will not work during the day. A tarp will be covering the rink area to shield the sunshine.

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Daily Distractions: Dodgers, others still waiting on first domino to fall in free-agent pitching market.

Masahiro Tanaka

Masahiro Tanaka will not be able to come to the United States until a new posting system is agreed to by MLB and NPB. (Associated Press photo)

Tim Hudson is off the board.

So is Jason Vargas.

So when will the Dodgers jump into the free-agent fray and sign a starting pitcher?

A few days ago, I was doing an interview with a Japanese television station that was interested in gauging the level of interest and awareness about Masahiro Tanaka in the United States. Frequently, the question of how good Tanaka might perform in the U.S. was raised; as the presumed cream of the free-agent crop, I guessed that the bar is being set pretty high.

And because he is considered the cream of the crop, Tanaka has the potential to hold up the market until MLB and NPB can agree to a new posting system. In my interview I theorized that a new posting system might cause a domino effect on the entire free-agent pitching market, with Tanaka becoming the first domino to fall.

That appears to be the case now, at least for the Dodgers and several other teams that have been linked to Tanaka. The Giants and Royals must have decided internally that they weren’t going to enter the bidding war, so they moved on with Hudson and Vargas, respectively. Confirmation was buried in this story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press which mentions, among other things, that the Minnesota Twins have shown “initial interest” in signing Chris Capuano:

Bidding on Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka has yet to open as Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball continue to haggle over a new posting system.

A Twins official recently called Tanaka “a key domino, from the financial to the ability.”

“For sure,” the official added, “he is a major linchpin in the pitching market.”

So while the Dodgers kick the tires on some of the second-tier free agent pitchers — Dan Haren has been reported, and there are certainly others — those pitchers might be nothing more than Plans B, C, D, E, and so on.

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Daily Distractions: Finally, a major-league job for a longtime Dodgers minor-league coach.

Matt Martin

Matt Martin, right, coached in the Dodgers’ organization for six years (Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers)

Matt Martin took the long way to the major leagues.

Given the newly created title of defensive coordinator today by Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, Martin has strong ties to the Dodgers organization, but is unknown to the casual major-league fan. That’s because he spent 18 years as a minor-league coach, including five years as the Dodgers’ minor-league infield coordinator (2007-11), and one year (2012) as the coordinator of Arizona instruction at Camelback Ranch and manager of the Arizona Fall League Dodgers.

De Jon Watson, the Dodgers’ vice president of player development, called Martin “an extremely hard worker” who is “really sound on infield defense.”

“Matt’s bilingual and he’s worked his tail off to be fluent in Spanish,” Watson said. “He really has a good rapport with most of the players I’ve worked with.”

Young players were Martin’s specialty. When the Dodgers moved to Camelback Ranch, “we wanted a strong entry-level teacher who can walk these guys through the daily grind, preparation, how to know the uniform,” Watson said. “It was a teaching position.”

Why did it take Martin so long to get a major-league job? Watson couldn’t say.

Gabe Kapler, who worked with Martin while in Dodgers camp in 2011, indulged his theory in a recent article for BaseballProspectus.com:

Partially because he’s different and opinionated, and because baseball is notorious for disliking both attributes. His appearance and teaching style are drastically divergent from the MLB cultural norm. In a world where conformity feels safe, Matt can come off as threatening—not in the least to players, but certainly to other staff members.

When he disagrees with you, he will let you know, no matter who you are. Sometimes without filter and often times when he shouldn’t. Sugarcoating doesn’t sit well with him. He views it as disingenuous.

“Matt will give his honest opinion, even if he stands alone,” (Dodgers manager Don) Mattingly told me.

Standing alone, it turns out, is not conducive to ladder climbing.

Mattingly also told Kapler that Martin is known for his loyalty. Watson said the same thing.

Martin parted amicably with the Dodgers to become the Baltimore Orioles’ minor league infield/Latin American field coordinator last year. Climbing the next rung on the ladder, in any business, is often about who you know, and Ausmus and Martin knew each other from Ausmus’ brief time in the Dodgers’ organization.

It’s a slow baseball news day, yes. Also a good time to flesh out the interesting back stories that don’t often get told.

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