Daily Distractions: Who are the Dodgers without Clayton Kershaw?

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw will start tomorrow against the Washington Nationals. (Associated Press photo)

Since the start of the 2009 season until a month ago, the Dodgers have had the luxury of a healthy Clayton Kershaw at all times. In terms of fWAR, Kershaw has been the National League’s best pitcher during that time period. Being healthy helps a player’s WAR and he certainly helps a team’s won-loss total.

But how much? Who are the Dodgers without their best pitcher? Until recently, that’s been hard to say.

Speaking last August about Kershaw’s credentials for the National League Most Valuable Player Award, Don Mattingly said that “as a manager you see how important (he) is every fifth day. He goes deep into games, saves your bullpen, stops losing streaks, extends winning streaks. you can’t hardly put it — it’s just big. He’s got to be considered.”

It’s been 45 days since Kershaw last pitched. In that time, their run differential is plus-9, their record is 17-14, and their bullpen is taxed. Only the Arizona Diamondbacks have gotten more innings out of their bullpen this season, and the Diamondbacks have played two more games. The Dodgers have needed more innings from their relievers on a per-game basis than any major-league team. That’s partly a function of their eight extra-inning games, which leads the major leagues.

It’s also a function of Kershaw’s absence. Last year, the burden that Kershaw took off the Dodgers’ bullpen was something Mattingly had to imagine; this year it is very real. The proof is in the numbers. While the other starters have picked up the slack (they’re 13-5 with a 3.06 ERA, sixth in MLB), the Dodger bullpen has exuded mediocrity. Their 3.79 ERA ranks 15th and they’re going unusually deep into counts against opposing batters. Only three major-league bullpens are averaging more pitches per plate appearance than the Dodgers’. Their high innings-pitched total doesn’t even tell the full story.

How much impact can Kershaw have on an entire pitching staff — an entire team? We’ll check back in another 45 days.

According to an interview Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti did with ESPN, Kershaw will be cleared to throw 100 pitches tomorrow.

“I think he looked sharper in the two rehab games,” Colletti said, “than he did in Australia.”

Kershaw allowed one run in 6 ⅔ innings in Australia.

Some bullet points for a Cinco De Mayo:
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Daily Distractions: MLB clarifies its ‘transfer rule,’ but 7.13 is still baffling to Dodgers catcher.

Major League Baseball gave its players roughly one month to adjust to a new, literal interpretation of its “transfer rule.” Catch the ball, transfer the ball from glove to hand, make sure each of these steps is deliberate enough to be discerned on video review, and you’re good. That sounds simple. In practice, the rule demanded that fielders break a lifetime’s worth of hard-worn habits. Hanley Ramirez got burned on the call once this season, when he lost his grip on the ball after recording what looked like a forceout at second base. The umpire on scene ruled Ramirez didn’t make a catch in the first place.

Friday morning, the league officially changed its mind.

Beginning tonight, MLB announced that umpires will enforce the transfer rule according to a new standard — that is, the old standard. According to a league release, a catch or valid forceout/tag has occurred:

…if the fielder had complete control over the ball in his glove, but drops the ball after intentionally opening his glove to make the transfer to his throwing hand. There is no requirement that the fielder successfully remove the ball from his glove in order for it to be ruled a catch. If the fielder drops the ball while attempting to remove it to make a throw, the Umpires should rule that the ball had been caught, provided that the fielder had secured it in his glove before attempting the transfer. The Umpires will continue to use their judgment as to whether the fielder had complete control over the ball before the transfer.

It was too late for Ramirez, but it was nice to see the league act quickly. That said, there’s still at least one rule that the Dodgers would like to see clarified. Ramirez was involved in this one, too.

From my game story last night, in case you missed it, here’s what happened:

With Hanley Ramirez on third base and (Adrian) Gonzalez on first, (Yasiel) Puig hit a ground ball to Phillies third baseman Cody Asche. Asche fielded the ball deep in the third-base hole and threw to home plate, where Ramirez was out by several feet.

Or was he?

Mattingly popped out of the third-base dugout, asking for help. He demonstrated to the home-plate umpire, Mike DiMuro, what he saw from Philadelphia’s Ruiz: A catcher with both feet planted in front of home plate as Ramirez was bearing down.

According to the rule, which was ratified by MLB and the Players’ Association in spring training, “Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the Umpire, the catcher, without possession of the ball, blocks the pathway of the runner, the Umpire shall call or signal the runner safe.”

The problem for Mattingly was that Asche delivered a perfect strike to Ruiz in plenty of time to retire Ramirez. Hunter Wendelstedt initiated a crew chief’s review and baseball’s two new rules for 2014 suddenly collided, an instant replay being used to determine whether a catcher illegally blocked home plate.

Three minutes and 18 seconds later, the call stood. Ramirez was out.

Just before the next inning, I saw Dodgers catcher Tim Federowicz in the dugout demonstrating how to block home plate to pitcher Josh Beckett. After the game, Federowicz was still upset and confused by the sequence of events.

“I honestly thought that call was going to be overturned,” he said. “The only thing in their favor is that (Ruiz) got that ball in plenty of time. He probably got it a good 10 feet before the play. That’s what the final decision was probably on. My whole thing is, why have the rule saying you can’t block the plate without the ball, and he blocks the plate without the ball?”

Here’s a still image, taken from the video of the play, that shows where Ruiz was stationed when he caught the ball (unfortunately I couldn’t grab an image just before Ruiz made the catch):

Hanley  Ramirez

Whether Ruiz is illegally blocking Ramirez’s path to home plate represents a judgment call, too. Could Ruiz be more out of the way of the baseline? Of course. But, as noted at the time, Asche made an accurate throw. If Ruiz plants his mitt in the baseline and his body in foul territory to receive the throw, and Ramirez (who left on contact) sprints home at full speed and slides inside the baseline, Ruiz is in jeopardy of not being able to make the tag.

Maybe Wendelstedt factored this into his judgment. Rule 7.13 goes on to state that “it shall not be considered a violation of this rule if the catcher blocks the pathway of the runner in order to field a throw, and the Umpire determines that the catcher could not have fielded the ball without blocking the pathway of the runner.”

Watching the sequence in real time, Federowicz felt that Ruiz didn’t need to lay his right leg in the basepath in order to make the catch. Therefore, Ramirez should have been ruled safe.

“Hanley has nowhere to slide and he’s still out? I guess Hanley’s allowed to hit him in that situation,” Federowicz said. “But again, they scare all these runners from being able to do that. Nobody really knows the correct rule right now.”

Some bullet points for Arbor Day:
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Dodgers’ intrasquad game is in the books; Dee Gordon, Hanley Ramirez make some noise.

Hyun-Jin Ryu

Hyun-Jin Ryu allowed home runs to Dee Gordon and Hanley Ramirez in the first inning of the Dodgers’ intrasquad game on Sunday. (Associated Press photo)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Dee Gordon and Hanley Ramirez hit home runs against Hyun-Jin Ryu in the first inning of the Dodgers’ 4-inning intrasquad game Sunday at Camelback Ranch. Those accounted for all the runs in a 3-1 victory for Team Wills (drafted by Matt Kemp) over Team Koufax (drafted by Zack Greinke.)
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Daily Distractions: Reviewing the Dodgers’ unsurprising off-season.

Brian Wilson

Reliever Brian Wilson re-signing with the Dodgers might constitute the biggest surprise of the off-season. (Getty Images)

Accountability matters here, so I decided to take a look back at a little list I made in October.

In it, I ranked the Dodgers’ 12 in-house free agents in order of their likelihood of re-signing. Here’s how I ranked them:

12. Edinson Volquez
11. Mark Ellis
10. Chris Capuano
9. Jerry Hairston Jr.
8. Skip Schumaker
7. Brian Wilson
6. Michael Young
5. Carlos Marmol
4. Nick Punto
3. Ricky Nolasco
2. Juan Uribe
1. J.P. Howell

In light of Marmol’s contract with Marlins — he agreed to terms yesterday — that leaves only Capuano still unsigned among the 12 players.

Starting at the top of the list, it came as little surprise that the Dodgers re-signed Howell and Uribe. Nolasco was offered four years and $49 million from the Minnesota Twins. Since not many 31-year-old pitchers with a career history of below-average ERAs in the National League get four-year contracts from American League teams, Nolasco did the logical thing and signed the contract.

The Dodgers reached out to Punto about re-signing, but the Oakland A’s wanted him more. Billy Beane made a quick push and signed Punto for one year and a guaranteed $3.25 million. The Dodgers really didn’t have a chance to be interested in Marmol; they were more interested in Wilson and Chris Perez for set-up roles, and both pitchers accepted the Dodgers’ offers in December.

Young retired. So did Hairston. Schumaker and Ellis were swept away by better offers from a pair of NL Central teams, the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, respectively.

Volquez got a one-year, $5 million contract from Pittsburgh, where he’ll compete for the fifth starter’s job on a good Pirates team. Not unexpected.

Come to think of it, as busy as it was, the off-season mostly stayed true to expectations. Clayton Kershaw re-signed. Don Mattingly got a new, longer contract. The Yankees threw a ton of money at Masahiro Tanaka.

In Uribe and Howell, the Dodgers re-signed the two players who were the best fits to re-sign. The Dodgers wanted a durable veteran to fill the number-four starter’s job on a short-term contract; Dan Haren is a durable veteran who was content with a short-term contract. Haren’s history shows less risk than that of Nolasco, who got the longer-term deal he wanted from the Twins.

Ned Colletti reached outside the organization for bullpen help from Jamey Wright and Chris Perez. Neither could be considered a real surprise: Perez replaces Ronald Belisario, who was non-tendered in his final arbitration year, and Wright becomes the long reliever the Dodgers never really had in 2013.

Even though the final bill hasn’t come in yet, the cost of building the Dodgers’ bullpen is already staggering. Together, Dodger relievers will earn roughly $26 million in actual salary in 2014. That doesn’t include deferred signing bonus payments, salaries for players with 0-3 years’ service time (such as Paco Rodriguez, Chris Withrow and Jose Dominguez), or the actual closer — Kenley Jansen, who has yet to re-sign. That’s an eye-popping number.

 

The biggest individual surprise might be Wilson, who drew interest from the Yankees and Tigers — two teams that expect to contend in 2014 — to be their closer. Instead, he chose to be baseball’s highest-paid eighth-inning man in Los Angeles for $10 million and a player option for 2015.

For a team that reached the NLCS in 2013, no major changes were needed. We got none.

My spring training preview runs tomorrow.

Some bullet points for a Grenadian Independence Day:

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Daily Distractions: What will the Dodgers do with their 39th and 40th roster spots?

Miguel Rojas

Miguel Rojas (bottom) could figure into the Dodgers’ infield depth, as the 40-man roster is currently constructed. (Getty Images)

The Dodgers will have 38 players on their 40-man roster once the contracts for J.P. Howell and Juan Uribe are finalized.

Here’s how that breaks down:

Relief Pitchers (13):
RHP Kenley Jansen
RHP Brian Wilson
LHP Paco Rodriguez
LHP J.P. Howell
RHP Brandon League
RHP Chris Withrow
RHP Jose Dominguez
RHP Javy Guerra
LHP Scott Elbert (will likely begin the season on the 60-day DL)
LHP Onelki Garcia
RHP Yimi Garcia
RHP Pedro Baez
LHP Jarret Martin

Starting pitchers (9):
LHP Clayton Kershaw
RHP Zack Greinke
LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu
RHP Dan Haren
RHP Josh Beckett
RHP Chad Billingsley
RHP Matt Magill
RHP Stephen Fife
RHP Seth Rosin

Catchers (3):
A.J. Ellis
Tim Federowicz
Drew Butera

Infielders (5):
1B Adrian Gonzalez
2B/SS Alexander Guerrero
SS Hanley Ramirez
3B Juan Uribe
2B/SS Justin Sellers

Outfielders (6):
Carl Crawford
Matt Kemp
Andre Ethier
Yasiel Puig
Mike Baxter
Nick Buss

Utility (2):
2B/SS/CF Dee Gordon
1B/OF Scott Van Slyke

One trade or one injury between now and Opening Day can shake up the roster. Already, we can count Scott Elbert (who had Tommy John surgery in June) as a placeholder for the 38th spot.

But if you’re Ned Colletti, having filled the big holes already with plenty of free agents still available on Dec. 18, how do you budget those last two spots?

One clue might have come this morning in an interview Colletti gave to 710-AM in Los Angeles. Speaking of the second base position, he mentioned Guerrero, Gordon and Double-A prospect Miguel Rojas as candidates for major-league competition. Rojas is a 24-year-old from Venezuela whom the Dodgers picked up as a minor-league free agent a year ago. One reason why the Cincinnati Reds might have let Rojas go after seven seasons in the organization: He batted just .186/.226/.233 in 44 games at Triple-A in 2012. Rojas batted .233 with 10 steals in 130 games at Double-A Chattanooga in 2013, then batted .235 in the Venezuelan Winter League. He is as defense-first as defense-first second basemen get.

Gordon has less than four innings of major-league experience at second base, but the Dodgers are trying to expand his versatility in the field. He batted .348 with four stolen bases in 12 games in the Dominican League — playing center field. The Dodgers also invited 8-year major-league veteran Brendan Harris to camp on a minor-league contract; that Colletti didn’t mention Harris was probably a simple error of omission.

Still, it was an insight into the Dodgers’ lack of depth compared to spring of 2013, when Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto, Luis Cruz, Jerry Hairston Jr., Gordon and Sellers were all capable of filling in somewhere.

The Dodgers could keep their final roster spots open, thinking that Harris and Rojas (or someone else) will be able to grab them in camp. Colletti said he’s comfortable making second base a defensive position next season — which was often the case with Mark Ellis anyway. But as long as Guerrero’s major-league ability remains a question mark, this seems to be the Dodgers’ biggest area for improvement.

Some bullet points for a Wednesday:

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Reports: Dodgers to re-sign J.P. Howell for two years, $11.25 million, plus option.

J.P. HowellJ.P. Howell will return to the Dodgers for at least two years, according to multiple reports Monday, with the two sides compromising on a third-year option that would pay Howell more than any left-handed reliever on the market this year.

The contract reportedly guarantees Howell $11.25 million through 2015. The third-year option, worth $6.25 million, vests if he makes 120 appearances over the next two seasons. It’s a realistic benchmark for Howell, who appeared in 67 games in 2013, going 4-1 with a 2.18 earned-run average.

In total, the 30-year-old has the potential to earn $17.5 million over the life of the contract – $1 million more than the Rockies gave lefty specialist Boone Logan over the next three years.

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Daily Distractions: The market has been set for J.P. Howell, but will the Dodgers go along?

J.P. Howell

Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell went 4-1 with a 2.18 earned-run average in 67 games for the Dodgers in 2013. (Getty Images)

For a left-handed set-up man like J.P. Howell the market has pretty much been set. Right?

Javier Lopez got three years and $13 million from the San Francisco Giants.

On Friday, Boone Logan got three years and $16.5 million from the Colorado Rockies.

Howell was just a nudge better than those two in 2013 while doing essentially the same task, retiring left-handed batters in close games before the ninth inning. He’s 30; Logan is 29 and Lopez is 36. If the market trend continues, Howell can probably make a good case to earn a little more money than Logan. Say, three years and $18 million.

The Dodgers don’t necessarily see it that way.

They have one left-handed specialist in Paco Rodriguez. Another, Scott Elbert, could be ready to join the team at midseason. Right-hander Carlos Marmol has had good historical success against lefties as well, though the Dodgers haven’t had much communication with him since the off-season began.

Would they like Howell back? Sure. They’ve been more talkative with Howell’s camp than perhaps any left-handed reliever to this point. But general manager Ned Colletti suggested Saturday he isn’t as desperate for help in that area as the Giants and Rockies were when they signed Lopez and Logan, respectively.

“You have to make the right decisions despite sometimes what other teams were doing,” Colletti said, speaking generally about the market for left-handed relievers. “Some teams do it because they don’t have anybody else. It’s something done out of desperation. I get that. We’ve had to do it too from time to time. But (Howell) is another guy we’ve had a lot of conversations with. We’re still trying to get him signed.

“Whether we do or not, we’ll always figure it out. We might not figure it out on Dec. 14.”

After reportedly signing Juan Uribe on Saturday, bolstering the bullpen is Colletti’s top task. The market seems to be pointing in one direction for Howell, but the Dodgers might ultimately decide to go a different direction.

Some bullet points for a Monday morning:
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Daily Distractions: Predicting the Dodgers’ agenda for the Winter Meetings.

Juan Uribe

Juan Uribe is the Dodgers’ first choice to play third base in 2014. (Associated Press photo)

Tuesday was such a busy day for free agent signings and trades around baseball, one website asked what many major league beat writers were probably thinking: “Who needs the Winter Meetings”?

For the Dodgers at least, next week could be a productive one. The Brian Wilson deal isn’t official yet, despite reports that he passed his physical. Assuming that contract has been signed by the time Dodgers officials land in Orlando, Florida, here’s what will top the to-do list:

1. A third baseman. General manager Ned Colletti is still hoping to bring back Juan Uribe, who is reportedly seeking a three-year contract. If the Dodgers are willing to go to a third year, there must still be a gap in dollar figures being exchanged by the two sides. Maybe they can overcome their differences in a week. Maybe not. If the Dodgers aren’t ready to commit to Hanley Ramirez as their third baseman for 2014, they might be best suited to resolve the position via trade if Uribe signs elsewhere. The free-agent crop at third base is really that thin.

2. A left-handed reliever. The Dodgers have a nice stable of right-handers among Kenley Jansen, Wilson, Chris Withrow, Brandon League and Jose Dominguez. Other than Paco Rodriguez, who petered out around the time of his 66th appearance in 2013, they don’t have a single established lefty reliever who will be healthy to start next season. (Scott Elbert underwent Tommy John surgery in June.) Re-signing J.P. Howell seems like the logical move, even if he is seeking a three-year contract. At age 30, Howell is a less risky investment than, say, Randy Choate, who was 37 when the Dodgers wouldn’t give him a three-year contract at this time last year. Javier Lopez raised the market value by signing a 3-year, $13 million deal to stay in San Francisco and Howell’s numbers are comparable. If the Dodgers can’t re-sign Howell, they may turn to a veteran such as Scott Downs on a shorter-term deal.

3. A bench. After losing Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto as free agents, the Dodgers lost arguably the two most proven quantities on their bench. Backup catcher Tim Federowicz, first baseman/outfielder Scott Van Slyke, outfielder Mike Baxter and whatever-he’s-playing-these-days Dee Gordon are all in line for bench jobs. The Dodgers would like to bring in another infielder as insurance if Alexander Guerrero isn’t ready to be the everyday second baseman. They could also shake up the equation by accepting trade offer for Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier or Carl Crawford.

Some bullet points to tide you through the weekend:
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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.

Some bullet points for a Lebanese Independence Day:
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Ranking the Dodgers’ twelve in-house free agents.

J.P.  Howell

Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell became a free agent on Thursday. (Getty Images)

As noted here this morning, the Dodgers have 12 in-house free agents after they declined the options on second baseman Mark Ellis and pitcher Chris Capuano.

Not all 12 will be back, but here’s an educated guess at the likelihood of each player returning to the Dodgers, ranked in order of least likely to most:
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