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Thursday, February 20, 2014
Five reasons Dodgers are biggest lock

By David Schoenfield


In the video above, Eric Karabell and I debate whether the Dodgers are the biggest lock in baseball. Eric's argument is there's no such thing as a lock and he presents some valid issues facing the Dodgers. The discussion was sparked by Baseball Prospectus' projected standings, which have the Dodgers as the only team winning as many as 90 games -- and 98 at that.

I don't necessarily have the Dodgers as my No. 1 team, but here are five reasons they are the biggest lock to win their division.

1. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke

My dad's generation got to watch Sandy Koufax. We get to watch Clayton Kershaw. He's led the National League in ERA the past three seasons, on his way to matching Koufax's 1962-66 run of five consecutive ERA titles. He's the best pitcher in baseball and owner of perhaps the best pitch -- a curveball that is almost unhittable. Batters hit .096 against it in 2013, with zero extra-base hits, zero walks and 80 strikeouts. They called Dwight Gooden's curve Lord Charles, and Vin Scully once dubbed Kershaw's breaker Public Enemy No. 1, though it hasn't caught on the way it should.

Then there's Greinke, who quietly went 15-4 with a 2.63 ERA in his first year with the Dodgers. After missing a few starts in April and early May with a fractured collarbone, Greinke hit his stride once he was healthy and went 9-2 with a 1.57 ERA over his final 16 starts. Think about that: The Dodgers may have a Cy Young winner in 2014 and there's a decent chance it won't be Kershaw.

2. Yasiel Puig is going to have a monster season

I get it. Puig is unpredictable off the field and thus unpredictable on it. He could hit .300 with 30 home runs or hit .240 with 15. I lean to the former and expect Puig to be one of the leading MVP candidates in the National League. Here's one I reason I believe in Puig:

First 52 games: 6.3 percent walk rate, 23.9 percent strikeout rate
Second 52 games: 10.5 percent walk rate, 20.9 percent strikeout rate

The great hitters control the strike zone and Puig showed drastic improvement in this regard as his rookie season progressed. And remember, this was after drawing no walks in 58 at-bats in spring training. Another reason I like him is he can hit to the opposite field -- five of his 19 home runs went to right-center or right field and he hit .348 when going to the opposite field.

Here's another way to look at it: Puig's heat map on batting average for 2013. Where do you pitch him? He kills the inside pitch, in part because he stands off the plate. You can go outside, but he's good at going to the opposite field -- and getting better at laying off pitches off the plate. Good luck, pitchers.

Puig
Pitchers have nowhere to hide against Puig.
3. Four good outfielders isn't a bad thing

Everyone seems worried about the crowded outfield picture. Matt Kemp's relatively harmless "I'm not a fourth outfielder" comment stirred the media into a minor frenzy. Here's the deal: Yes, it probably won't be easy for Don Mattingly to deal with four egos if Puig, Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford are all healthy. But these things usually work themselves out, via trade, injury or subpar performance. Depth is a strength, not a problem.

4. A dominant bullpen

I love this bullpen, one that I think will be the best in the game, with apologies to the Braves, Royals, Pirates and other strong units. You start with Kenley Jansen, who struck out 38 percent of the hitters he faced last year. Brian Wilson is back after a strong performance down the stretch and in the postseason. You have Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell from the left side; they combined to hold opposing hitters to a .180 average. Chris Withrow is the sleeper guy out there, a guy with a good arm who never put it together as a starter in the minors, moved to the bullpen and saw his fastball tick up to 96 mph on average, a reason batters hit .165 off him. You have Jose Dominguez who made nine big league appearances last year; he's been clocked at 100 mph.

After all that, you still have veterans Jamey Wright and Chris Perez, who saved 123 games for the Indians the past four seasons.

5. The most winnable division

While there are reasons to believe in the Diamondbacks, Giants, Padres and even the Rockies, the Dodgers would appear to have the biggest gap over their division rivals than the other division favorites.

The Red Sox have to battle the Rays and Yankees. The Tigers finished just one game ahead of the Indians last year and the Royals weren't much further behind. The A's and Rangers should be locked up in another duel. The Braves and Nationals will be co-favorites in the NL East. And while the Cardinals will be the heavy favorite in the NL Central, you don't have to stretch your imagination for storylines in which the Reds or Pirates take the division.

Those reasons make the Dodgers the easiest lock of any division.

And I didn't even mention Hanley Ramirez.