Thursday, January 24, 2013
Dodgers vs. Angels: Who has the edge?
By Mark Saxon
Who knows, maybe this is the season it finally happens. The Dodgers, having spared no expense, will field a balanced, dangerous team and feel like they are positioned for a World Series run. The Angels, who jacked up their already formidable power with the surprise acquisition of Josh Hamilton, have similar aims.
If there really is to be a Freeway Series in 2013, a lot of things have to go right for both teams. But the team that made -- and makes -- the best personnel decisions likely will go further into October.
Let's break down the key areas of both rosters to try to decipher which team is better constructed to play longer into 2013.
This is the part of the discussion in which Dodgers fans get to gloat and Angels fans have to just sit there and marinate. You could argue -- in fact, you don't really even have to -- that the Dodgers have better pitchers in all five spots.
We know this because one of the Angels starters, Joe Blanton, couldn't have cracked the Dodgers' seven deep. We also know this because one of the Dodgers' starters, Zack Greinke, almost helped the Angels make the playoffs.
Jered Weaver is perfectly ace-like. About 25 teams would put him at the top of their rotation. He has finished in the top five in Cy Young voting three years running and even got a couple of MVP votes last year -- always a cool accomplishment for a pitcher. He won 20 games, had a sub-3.00 ERA for the second season in a row and usually gives you more than 200 innings. And we won't even hold the .250 and .241 BABIPs from the past two seasons against him. Weaver is a fly ball pitcher and he relies on mishits to pitch deep into games. He gets strikeouts when he needs them, which is quite often, actually.
The only reason he doesn't get the edge is that Clayton Kershaw might be the best pitcher in baseball. We don't need SABR to tell us that. It's not that scientific. For the past two seasons he led baseball in ERA and was in the top three in WAR for pitchers. If he's not the most dominant pitcher in baseball, he's in the team photo and it's a small team (probably Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander).
So, the Dodgers get an edge in the No. 1 department, though it's a fairly slight edge because of Weaver's competitiveness and consistency. "Slight" isn't the right word for the rest of the Dodgers' edge in starting pitching.
Greinke has never come close to touching his 2009 Cy Young season, but neither has just about any other active pitcher. Greinke flirted with a sub-2.00 ERA, led the league in ERA+ and WHIP. Nobody could square him up. He gave up 0.4 home runs per nine innings. He was mediocre the following season, probably in part because of a personal crisis, but has gone 31-11 with a 3.63 ERA the past two years. Is he worth $147 million? Is any pitcher? He's as good a No. 2 starter as there is out there.
C.J. Wilson has offered glimpses of dominance, never quite convincing you he can be a stalwart in your rotation. When the Angels needed him most, he struggled most, with a 5.54 ERA in the second half. Plus, he had bone spurs taken out of his elbow in October. Who knows how he'll bounce back from that?
We don't need to go into much detail about the rest of the teams' rotations. Jason Vargas does a superb job of squeezing maximum production from limited talent, but he seems like a candidate to regress next year based on a .254 BABIP last year, plus the fact he was pitching in Seattle. Hyun-jin Ryu is a mystery, of course, but he has a bigger upside based on better stuff and the fact that nobody has faced him yet.
If Chad Billingsley is healthy, the Dodgers are in great shape. If he's not, Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly are still (probably) better options than Tommy Hanson, who has been injury-plagued, and Blanton, who has been home run-plagued. The Angels have good depth with Jerome Williams and Garret Richards. The Dodgers have unparalleled depth with Aaron Harang and a couple of other veterans tucked away.
The Angels rolled the dice last winter by failing to acquire a veteran closer and it proved, perhaps, the fatal blow to their chances. The bullpen was awful early, then good for a while after Jerry Dipoto traded for Ernesto Frieri, then awful again when Frieri hit a rough patch. Ryan Madson, one of the veteran closers they let pass, came around again (this time after elbow surgery) and they finally bit. Dipoto made a nice pickup in Sean Burnett, who held lefties to a .211 average last year.
The Dodgers had the fourth-best bullpen in the National League, and they pretty much kept it intact by re-signing Brandon League as their first order of offseason business. Now they have excellent depth with veterans in every role, but they lack back-end coherence. League has spent the majority of his career as a setup man and sometimes struggles against lefties. Kenley Jansen could well be the closer by May.
Bullpens are impossible to gauge, but the Dodgers seem to have slightly more proven commodities.
The Angels have the best player in a generation at first base. The Dodgers have the fifth-most productive first baseman, which is far from shabby. Both teams have solid, unspectacular talent at second base and third base. The Angels have a brilliant defensive shortstop, while the Dodgers have a shaky one. The Dodgers have a big upside offensive shortstop, while the Angels have a shortstop who makes limited impact with his bat. Both teams have adequate catchers.
In other words, we're at the only part of the discussion where you could make an argument for either side.
The presence of Albert Pujols (who could make it a lot easier on himself if he homers before May) and slight edges for Howie Kendrick over Mark Ellis and Alberto Callaspo over Luis Cruz tilt it in Anaheim's favor. Just slightly.
If things work as planned, the two best outfields in baseball will play in Southern California.
For years, Angels fans salivated at the idea of Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos in the same outfield. Right-handed hitters probably aren't going to like facing the Angels. They're going to have to place line drives in the gaps perfectly or Trout or Bourjos -- two of the fastest players in the game -- will run them down.
Trout probably should have won the American League MVP last season, and what would have happened if he hadn't spent the first three weeks of the season terrorizing Triple-A? And we haven't even mentioned Josh Hamilton yet. He's probably the most powerful left-handed hitter alive and, when he's in a groove, is capable of doing colossal damage. He's also injury prone, undisciplined at the plate and capable of massive slumps.
The Dodgers figure to get the bulk of their offense from the outfield. If they don't, they could be in trouble. Matt Kemp, like Trout, can justifiably say he was robbed of an MVP trophy two seasons ago. Carl Crawford was a yearly visitor to the All-Star Game before he made an ill-advised (though his accountant would argue) decision to sign in Boston. Andre Ethier is a nightmare for right-handed pitching and, the Dodgers hope, capable of improving against lefties.
Even though Bourjos' bat is questionable at best, the Dodgers have more to worry about because Kemp is coming off shoulder surgery and Crawford is recovering from an elbow reconstruction.
The Dodgers have a more experienced general manager in Ned Colletti. The Angels have the more experienced hand in the dugout in Mike Scioscia. Both teams seem capably guided and well financed by owners willing to spend freely.
One of the key questions for the Angels moving forward is how Dipoto and Scioscia work as a collective decision-making team. There was evidence of some friction last year after Dipoto fired Scioscia's close friend, Mickey Hatcher, and this team doesn't have the look of a Scioscia squad, with only sporadic speed and a questionable bullpen.
Mattingly is going into his third season as a manager, and it says something that Dodgers ownership has yet to pick up his 2014 option. Given the $600 million the owners have spent on players over the past 10 months, Mattingly could very well be in trouble if the Dodgers miss the playoffs. He knows it.
Mattingly has a more easygoing style than Scioscia, but both managers are respected in their clubhouses. Neither Colletti nor Dipoto has been shy about making a trade and both teams figure to lead their leagues in rumor-mill fodder once again this July.
The Angels are banking on an ability to outslug and outmuscle teams while the Dodgers have constructed their team with a bit more nuance. The Dodgers are going to need some good luck on the injury front early, but their pitching figures to carry them to contention even if the offense disappoints once again.
The American League isn't as grueling as it once was, with the Boston Red Sox rebuilding and the New York Yankees showing some rare fiscal restraint. Meanwhile, the National League has begun to close the talent gap, and you could argue that the best overall teams (like the Washington Nationals) are now in the NL.
If the Angels get better-than-expected pitching, they will be a scary team to face in July. If the Dodgers' hitting is as good as expected, they'll be a scary team to face in October. It's going to be an entertaining season in Southern California baseball no matter which way things go.