SweetSpot: Chad Billingsley

The Los Angeles Dodgers don't need Hanley Ramirez to suddenly convert back into vintage, MVP-candidate Hanley Ramirez.

Certainly, the Dodgers have hopes Ramirez will exceed the .246/.322/.428 line he put up with the Marlins. But even if he fails to improve -- and there's evidence that declining bat speed possibly created by a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery is the primary culprit -- he's still a big upgrade over what the Dodgers have been getting at third base or shortstop. Dodgers third basemen entered Wednesday's games ranked 23rd in the majors in OPS at .681; Dodgers shortstops ranked 25th with a .604 OPS.

Ramirez had a promising debut on Wednesday night, going 2-for-4. He tripled off the center-field wall and scored in the second inning and delivered a two-out RBI single in the sixth. He drew a leadoff walk in the 12th but didn't advance past first base, and the Cardinals scored in the bottom of the frame to win, 3-2.

The lack of offense from anyone besides Ramirez points to some larger issues, namely that he alone isn't going to push the Dodgers past the Giants. Here are five big-picture keys for the Dodgers winning the West:

1. Andre Ethier: Where has your power gone?
On June 12, Ethier signed a contract extension that will cover at least five years and cost $85 million. The deal was met with mixed reviews considering Ethier's age (30) and declining power numbers since 2009. He hasn't done much lately to inspire confidence in that deal by hitting .261 with just two home runs in 157 at-bats since May 22. Ethier's numbers are up a bit from 2011 thanks to 25 doubles, but he's still slugging under .400 over the past two months. You need better results from your cleanup hitter.

2. Production from the leadoff spot
Thanks to abysmal production from shortstop Dee Gordon, Dodgers leadoff hitters ranked 26th in the majors with a .278 on-base percentage and 30th in OPS. Somebody needs to tell Don Mattingly that it doesn't matter that Gordon could challenge Usain Bolt in a sprint around the bases: He's about as appropriate of a leadoff hitter as Magic Johnson. It's not clear what the Dodgers will do once Gordon returns from his thumb injury, but batting leadoff should no longer be in his job description if he gets his starting spot back.

In fact, considering the continued ineptitude of Juan Uribe at the plate (.196/.255/.297), it seems the Dodgers' best lineup would feature Ramirez at shortstop and utility man Jerry Hairston at third base. While Ramirez is likely only adequate at shortstop, it's not like Gordon is Ozzie Smith out there. His minus-13 defensive runs saved are tied with Derek Jeter for worst among shortstops. Half-season defensive numbers have to be taken with small sample caveats, but I don't think the Dodgers would lose by replacing Gordon with Ramirez.

In Gordon's absence, Mattingly has primarily alternated Bobby Abreu and Hairston in the leadoff spot, based on if a right-hander or left-hander starts. Even though Abreu has, shall we say, lost a step or four, he can at least get on base at an acceptable clip (.345).

Also, why not move catcher A.J. Ellis out of the eighth spot? No, he doesn't have a lot of power -- although he is third on the team in home runs with seven -- but he has a .389 OBP. This could give the Dodgers a lineup something like this:

LF Abreu
C A.J. Ellis
CF Kemp
RF Ethier
SS Ramirez
3B Hairston
2B Mark Ellis
1B James Loney

Against a left-hander, move Hairston into the leadoff spot and slide in Juan Rivera in left field. However ...

3. James Loney: Isn't it time?
To cut bait, you mean? Yes. I'm sure Mattingly, as a gifted glove man back in his day, appreciated a defensive first baseman. But enough is enough. Loney is hitting .248. He doesn't get on. He doesn't have power. He's tied for the National League lead in double plays grounded into. So ... umm ... can't they find somebody better to play first base? How about a guy like Daniel Murphy of the Mets? Not a power guy, but he can base a bit. Or they could revisit Carlos Lee, who earlier vetoed a trade to the Dodgers before the Astros traded him to the Marlins.

4. Chad Billingsley: Good ... or mediocre?
The Dodgers have received terrific production from free-agent signings Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang and I'm not worried that Clayton Kershaw's ERA has skyrocketed all the way up to 3.14. That leaves Billingsley as the one who could up step up the final 60 games. While his 4.15 ERA nearly matches his 4.21 mark of 2011, there are indicators he is pitching better: His SO/BB ratio of 2.97 is vastly improved over last year's 1.81. Still, he remains a frustrating enigma; it's clear Mattingly doesn't have a lot of confidence in him, as he's pitched more than six innings in four of his 19 starts.

5. Tim Lincecum!
The best sign for Dodgers on Wednesday might not have been Ramirez's two hits, but Lincecum getting pounded by the Padres. After two good starts against the Astros and Phillies, Lincecum gave up 11 baserunners, five runs and two home runs in a 6-3 loss. I would argue that the Dodgers' best chance of winning the NL West rests not Ramirez's bat or Kemp's return from injury or Mattingly's figuring out a batting order, but on Lincecum's right shoulder.

Omar InfanteJason Miller/Getty ImagesOmar Infante is feeling lighter than air after getting away from Miami's mayhem.
In response to Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez complaining about the team's attendance -- the Indians rank last in the majors in per-game average -- I wrote a little bit about Cleveland's attendance in Clearing the Bases. Susan Petrone of "It's Pronounced Lajaway" had an analogy today, comparing Indians fans to an abused dog: It will take time for the Indians to earn the fans' trust.

That makes sense; one decent season and a good 40 games won't send fans flocking to the ballpark. Still, the attendance problems are a little odd; this isn't Tampa Bay, where the fans have never shown up, or Pittsburgh, where the Pirates haven't fielding a winning team since 1992. This goes beyond waiting for a team to win or a city's economic climate, although all that factors in a bit. It's perhaps worth noting that when the Indians had their great attendance run from 1995 through 2001 the team was not only good (six playoff seasons in seven years) but the Browns were also absent from 1996 to 1998. The Cavs, a strong team through much of the '90s, collapsed in 1999 and suffered through a string of terrible seasons. So the Indians built up a following right at the exact right time. The Oakland A's similarly attracted their largest gates when the Raiders were in Los Angeles.

In most cities, baseball attendance can be cyclical and bandwagon. A decade ago, the Mariners led the major in attendance; but after years of boring, lousy baseball, the Mariners now rank 28th. The Indians, however, aren't boring or lousy. They're in first place. I suspect the front office needs to do a better job marketing the team. And if the team keep winning, the fans will eventually start showing up again.

Remember one week ago? I know many of you wanted to kill off the Yankees and Red Sox. Both teams were 0-3 and in such dire straits that Bill Simmons had a special podcast with his buddy JackO -- a Yankees fan -- to commiserate in their pain.

Well, it's not so easy to get rid of the wicked witches of the East. The Red Sox pummeled the Rays over the weekend, scoring 31 runs in a three-game sweep in games started by David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore.

The Yankees, meanwhile, took two of three from the Angels to climb above .500, although they did miss Jered Weaver and Dan Haren while getting shut down by C.J. Wilson. (Hey, we don't want Yankees fans to get too comfortable.)

OK, in all seriousness, it's a reminder of the hysteria that's easy to ensue when a team with high expectations doesn't go 7-3 out of the gate. A similar sense of panic exists in Philadelphia, where the Phillies are 4-5 and scoring barely three runs a game. It's early, folks.

Before the Yankees and Red Sox meet this weekend, the Yankees will have an excellent opportunity to pad their win total with a four-game series against the hapless Twins, looking like a good bet early on to challenge the Astros as baseball's worst team. Don't expect much run support for Carl Pavano, who faces Freddy Garcia on Monday night on ESPN and ESPN3 (7 ET): The Twins have scored three runs or fewer in seven of their nine games.

Outside of Derek Jeter (.366, four doubles, two home runs) and Nick Swisher, most of the Yankees hitters are off to lukewarm starts. Robinson Cano has one RBI, Alex Rodriguez is hitting .222 with one home run and Mark Teixeira (a career .235 hitter in April) is off to his usual slow start with a .222 average and zero home runs.

But with four games against the Twins, look for Cano and Teixeira to enter their showdown with Boston with at least one home run on their ledger.

Series of the week

Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals, Tuesday through Thursday

Johnny Cueto (1-0, 2.25) vs. Kyle Lohse (2-0, 1.35)
Mat Latos (0-1, 5.59) vs. Jaime Garcia (1-0, 4.22)
Bronson Arroyo (0-0, 2.63) vs. Adam Wainwright (0-2, 11.42)

In some regard, the Cardinals were baseball's most impressive team through the first 10 games of the schedule. They methodically took two of three from the Brewers, Reds and Cubs, as well as beating the Marlins on Opening Day. Their plus-23 run differential is the best in the majors, as is their 57 runs scored. So far, the Cardinals' bench is shaping up as a possible strength. Matt Carpenter stepped in for the injured Lance Berkman (who should return Tuesday) and has driven in 10 runs in just 22 at-bats. Tyler Greene and Daniel Descalso provide flexibility in the infield. And so far, Yadier Molina (.353/.421/.735, three home runs) is showing his offensive growth in 2011 was for real.

The Reds have scored just 31 runs in 10 games. Outside of Joey Votto and Zack Cozart, the offense hasn't done much. I was worried about Scott Rolen's ability to produce heading into the season and Dusty Baker's cleanup man is off to a .121 start (4-for-33, no home runs, one walk). Baker has also given rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco just 12 at-bats, and Drew Stubbs is still having big issues making contact. Yes, Brandon Phillips missed some games, but there appear to be some red flags about the Reds' offense. The Reds can hardly afford to let the Cardinals put six games between them this early in the season, but that's what they're facing if St. Louis sweeps the series.

Three pitching matchups to watch

1. Monday: Roy Halladay (2-0, 0.60) vs. Tim Lincecum (0-1, 12.91, Phillies at Giants (10:15 p.m. ET)

Halladay has been terrific while Lincecum has been terrible and is coming off the shortest outing of his career on Wednesday, when he couldn't escape the third inning in Colorado. Lincecum is 4-1 with a 2.61 ERA in nine career starts against the Phillies -- teams that had better offenses than this Phillies team, of course. Wednesday's Cliff Lee-Matt Cain matchup ain't exactly chopped liver, either. Yes, I just used that phrase.

2. Wednesday: David Price (1-1, 4.82) vs. Brandon Morrow (0-0, 2.57), Rays at Blue Jays (7:07 p.m. ET)

Tampa Bay's brutal April schedule continues with a Monday morning Patriots Day affair in Boston, three in Toronto and then a bit of a reprieve with three at home against the Twins. Price is coming off a poor stint against the Red Sox in which he had issues locating his fastball and threw 83 pitches in three innings. Morrow has gone seven innings in each of first two starts, a good early sign for somebody looking to prove he can pitch 200 innings for the first time.

3. Saturday: Neftali Feliz (1-0, 2.25) vs. Justin Verlander (0-1, 2.25), Rangers at Tigers (1:05 ET)

Yes, please. The Tigers will prove to be a sterner test for Feliz than the Twins and Mariners. Feliz used his changeup successfully in seven shutout innings against the Mariners in his first start, less so on Sunday against the Twins. He's still a work in progress as a starter, and while nobody doubts his fastball, we'll see if his secondary stuff can catch up. Many still consider moving him to the rotation a bit of a risk, considering his strikeout rate as a closer in 2011 didn't exactly reflect domination (54 strikeouts in 62.1 innings). So far he has seven K's in 12 innings.

Player on the hot seat: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers

After hitting .306/.361/.510 with 26 home runs for the Cubs, the Brewers signed Ramirez to help replace Prince Fielder. So far he's hitting .114 without a big one.

Player to watch: Chad Billingsley, Dodgers

Billingsley has made two strong starts -- one run with a 15-1 strikeout-walk ratio -- raising hopes that the Dodgers will have a strong No. 2 starter behind Clayton Kershaw. Billingsley suffered through the worst season of his career in 2011 as he walked 84 batters, but made some mechanical adjustments this spring. "Success breeds confidence," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt told ESPNLA's Tony Jackson. "They go hand in hand. Right now, you're seeing him totally in control. He isn't right on target with every ball he throws, but we're not seeing that wildness. I like to call them well-thrown balls, and we are seeing a lot of well-thrown balls coming out of his hand. Those are quality pitches. He just needs to do that consistently."

Heat map of the week

Courtesy of Mark Simon and Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats and Information, we have to do a Matt Kemp heat map. Baseball's hottest hitter is just the fourth player since 1920 hitting .450 with at least six home runs and 16 RBIs through his team's first 10 games. The typical major leaguer hits a home run on every nine to 10 of the fly balls he hits, but Kemp's first nine fly balls have resulted in six home runs. He's hit the ball to the opposite field six times, resulting in five hits and four home runs. And in at-bats ending in curveballs, he's 5-for-5 with three singles, a double and a home run.

Kemp Heat MapESPN Stats & InformationFour of Matt Kemp's six home runs so far have gone to right field.
Denard SpanBrace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireElvis Andrus chases his man, but Denard Span says, Catch me if you can.

Matt Kemp is better than you

April, 15, 2012
Matt KempVictor Decolongon/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp hit another home run Sunday as the Dodgers won their ninth game of the season.
It was about as perfect a day as you can dream up for the Los Angeles Dodgers. On the 65th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Vin Scully returned to the broadcast booth after missing five games, Matt Kemp homered again, and the Dodgers turned a bizarre triple play in the ninth inning of a tie game and then walked off in the bottom of the inning with their ninth win in 10 games.

On a day when baseball honored Robinson's legacy by having every person in uniform wear No. 42, Kemp's red-hot start -- six home runs in 10 games, including four in his past three, along with a .487 batting average and 16 RBIs -- seemed apropos: An African-American player wearing a Dodgers uniform making his statement about being the best player in the game.

"Thank u Jackie Robinson!!!" Kemp tweeted earlier in the day, before belting a solo home run to right field off Edinson Volquez in the third inning of L.A.'s 5-4 win over the Padres.

But it's also worth noting on this day of celebration that USA Today reported the percentage of African-American players on Opening Day rosters this year was 8.1 percent, down from 8.5 percent a year ago, with both figures dramatic decreases from 1975, when 27 percent of big leaguers were African-American.

The Dodgers feature Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, who struggled through 5.1 innings in getting a no-decision on Sunday, but it is Kemp who has become the face of the franchise after his near-MVP season of 2011 when many thought he was baseball's best all-around player. Kemp may not like the notion, but he's also symbolic of the type of player baseball must do a better job of attracting: Known for his basketball exploits in high school in Oklahoma, the Dodgers drafted Kemp in the sixth round in 2003 and convinced him to sign. His bonus of $130,000 was in line for that round; Kemp didn't have the grades for a Division I basketball scholarship and instead chose baseball.

We're lucky he did. He's insanely hot right now, one of those stretches in which you can't pitch to him. He went 3-for-4 with a walk on Sunday; he went 3-for-4 with two home runs on Saturday; he homered and drew three walks on Friday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kemp is one of just four players since 1920 hitting .450 with at least six home runs and 16 RBIs through his team's first 10 games, joining Dante Bichette (1994 Rockies), Lou Brock (1967 Cardinals) and Willie Mays (1964 Giants). His raw power allows him to wait for pitches and drive them to the opposite field -- four of his six homers have gone to right. The Dodgers play again Tuesday in Milwaukee, and I suspect the Brewers are going to be very careful with him.

At the start of the season, ESPN.com ranked the top 500 players in baseball. Kemp came in 13th; I thought it was a little low, but it was somewhat understandable if you factored in Kemp's disappointing 2010 when he hit just .249. But after hitting .324 with 39 home runs and 40 steals in 2011, Kemp intimated during spring training that he'd like to travel where no major leaguer has before: 50-50. While that goal may be difficult to reach, it also made a statement in my mind: Kemp isn't content being one of the best players in baseball; he wants to be the best. No questions asked.

The biggest roadblock to that happening will be his strikeout rate. He will strike out a lot -- 159 times in 2011, which ranked seventh in the NL. After a miserable spring training in which he struck out 26 times with just two walks in 65 at-bats, there were concerns that he'd start slow or that he'd lost control of the strike zone. But he flipped the switch on Opening Day and has been unstoppable since. The best sign for Dodgers fans: only seven strikeouts through 10 games. Kemp's .380 average on balls in play in 2011 matched Adrian Gonzalez for best in the majors; as hard as Kemp hits the ball, that figure wasn't necessarily a fluke, but some regression is likely. Fewer strikeouts, however, means more balls in play, which means a better likelihood of him hitting .300-plus again.

And if that happens, the debate may end up being: Who's No. 2?

* * * *

As for the Dodgers, everyone is already quick to point out that they've beaten up on the Padres and Pirates so far. Fair enough, I suppose, but 9-1 is still 9-1. The Dodgers are just the 11th team since 1990 to start 9-1 (the last team to start 10-0 was the 1987 Brewers). Here's how the previous 10 fared:

2011 Rangers: 96-66, reached World Series
2009 Marlins: 87-75, missed playoffs
2003 Yankees: 101-61, reached World Series
2003 Giants: 100-61, division champs
2003 Royals: 83-79, missed playoffs
2002 Indians: 74-88, missed playoffs
1996 Orioles: 88-74, won wild card
1994 Braves: 68-46, strike season
1992 Blue Jays: 96-66, World Series champs
1990 Reds: 91-71, World Series champs

Not including the '94 Braves, that's an average record of 91 wins and 71 losses. Only one of the teams finished under .500. Look, it's not a guarantee that the Dodgers are headed to the playoffs, but it certainly has to be viewed as a positive sign. They're 9-1 even though Kershaw hasn't won any of his three starts (though he has a 2.35 ERA). James Loney is hitting just .148. Leadoff hitter Dee Gordon, who delivered the game-winning hit on Sunday, is struggling with a .200 average and .273 on-base percentage.

But there are some signs that the Dodgers may be more competitive than most envisioned. The bullpen has a chance to be one of the best in the league with Kenley Jansen setting up Javy Guerra and a solid corps of middle men including Matt Guerrier and Josh Lindblom. Chad Billingsley had a rough 2011 (career-worst 4.21 ERA as he walked 84 in 188 innings), but he's been brilliant through two outings, allowing one run with a 15/1 strikeout/walk ratio. Aaron Harang's 13 strikeouts on Saturday may be a fluke but, hey, he's the team's fifth starter. Suddenly a rotation of Kershaw, Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano and Harang looks like it could be decent, especially in the NL West, not exactly a division full of mashers.

It's too early to make strong declarations, but I leave the first 10 days of the season with this thought: Kemp is on a mission and the Dodgers are looking like baseball's surprise team.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

  • Sports Illustrated's Joe Sheehan responds to the likelihood that baseball will be adding a second wild-card team. Joe perfectly sums up the problems I also have with the second wild card. In fact, I would argue the problems are so obvious, and the benefits so minor, that baseball will eventually eliminate the second wild card after a few years (or after Bud Selig retires).
  • Here's a report from ESPNBoston that says Red Sox players are iffy on the extra wild card. The quotes from the players exactly echo Joe's points.
  • Brandon Cloud has an in-depth look at pitching in Coors Field and points to an interesting piece of data I wasn't aware of: fastballs are more affected at Coors than breaking balls. Why? One reason is that all pitches travel faster at Coors; this means gravity has less time to affect the movement of the pitch (Ubaldo Jimenez had much more movement on his two-seam and four-seam fastballs on the road). Movement on breaking balls is affected as well, but not as much, in part because off-speed pitches are moving slower than fastballs. What does it mean as to what kind of pitchers the Rockies should want? Check out Brandon's piece.
  • Wally Matthews of ESPNNewYork writes about Bobby Valentine, who apparently has the Bombers on his brain.
  • Joey Matschulat has a nice rundown of the Jairo Beras situation with the Rangers. Beras is a Dominican teenager the Rangers just signed for $4.5 million, but there is a dispute over his age and thus his eligibility to be signed before July 2. MLB has launched an investigation.
  • Charlie Manuel says the Phillies need to bunt more. Crashburn Alley's Bill Baer has a response.
  • This made me chuckle: Somehow, MLB Network rated Brian McCann the seventh-best catcher in baseball. As Ben Duronio suggests, that's pretty low for a catcher who compares favorably to two guys named Gary Carter and Mike Piazza. There's no way to measure this, of course, but if McCann isn't the most underrated player in baseball, he has to be near the top of the list.
  • Speaking of catchers, Chip Buck of Fire Brand sends Jason Varitek off into retirement.
  • Tony Jackson of ESPNLA has a piece on Chad Billingsley, who is making some adjustments to his mechanics after a disappointing 2011.
  • Harper Gordek has his picks to SOAR and CRASH with the Nationals this year. He likes Wilson Ramos but isn't a believer in Edwin Jackson.
  • Charles Piece of Grantland has an excellent essay in defense of Ryan Braun. Maybe you disagree with Pierce's stance that Braun was a victim or that baseball ultimately played the role of an authoritarian SOB. But it's hard to deny this paragraph: "Can someone seriously argue that it is ethical to take a drug to make a performance possible, but unethical to take a drug that makes that performance better? Isn't making a performance possible at all the ultimate performance enhancement? If there had been a drug that would have given us five more seasons of Sandy Koufax at the top of his game, how would that have been a bad thing, everything else being equal? Sports are rife with drugs. Without drugs of one sort or another, the NFL season would never begin, and the baseball season would end sometime in June owing to a lack of participating teams."
Jon Weisman of the Dodger Thoughts blog has a good piece on the ups and downs of Chad Billingsley, leading me to think of five other players whose performance has left me a little confused this season.

Drew Stubbs, CF, Reds: He thought he was a breakthrough performer last season with 22 home runs and 30 steals. But the strikeout rate is even higher this year (he leads the NL with 170), and while he plays a good center field and has swiped 32 bases, his .248/.321/.380 batting line isn't impressive for the Great American Ballpark. His .612 road OPS -- combined with all those whiffs -- has you wondering about his future.

Andre Ethier, RF, Dodgers: Ethier appeared to be heading to a monster season after his 30-game hitting streak in April and May. But he's hit a lackluster .251 with a .712 OPS since the streak ended. After making $9.5 million this season, he has one more year of arbitration before hitting free agency. He's not a good defensive outfielder and turns 30 in 2012. He suddenly doesn't look like a $10 million-a-year player anymore.

Justin Smoak, 1B, Mariners: After posting a .920 OPS in April, Smoak looked like the hitter everyone had projected when Seattle got him from Texas last summer in the Cliff Lee trade. But he hasn't hit much since and has been out since early August after getting hit in the face with a groundball. His .220/.317/.387 line may have been aggravated by a thumb injury and blisters that he tried to play through. Nonetheless, he's now played 200 big-league games and has a career average of .219.

Rick Porcello, P, Tigers: Bottom line ... despite the stuff, he doesn't get enough batters out, with a 5.17 ERA, high WHIP and low strikeout rate. He's still so young (22) that he can improve, but unless he develops a strikeout pitch, he's never going to be more than the No. 4 or 5 starter he is right now.

Wade Davis, P, Rays: Another pitcher with good stuff and high expectations, Davis has battled inconsistency in his second season. Despite his power arm, he's averaging even fewer strikeouts per nine than Porcello, as he's dropped from 6.1 as a rookie to 4.8. His 4.28 ERA looks OK, but he's pitching in a good pitcher's park with a pretty good defense behind him. Does he still have No. 2 potential or is he a bottom-of-the-rotation fodder?

Who confuses you? Discuss below.
Some stuff to check out ...
Eric Karabell and Keith Law discuss some injury situations, some bad pitching and some good matchups to watch on Tuesday's Baseball Today podcast.
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka was awful Monday night. What are Boston's options? Is it time to rethink how good the Red Sox are?
  • Ryan Zimmerman heads to the DL. Who plays third base for the Nationals?
  • Rafael Furcal out four to six weeks with a broken thumb. Will we see prospect Dee Gordon get a shot?
  • Mailbag: More on Manny and PEDs, what college players should Mariners fans be watching, players who are wasted in the minors.
  • Tuesday's games: David Price versus Jon Lester; Chad Billingsley versus Tim Lincecum; Trevor Cahill on the mound with a new contract.
  • Keith's thought on the save.
Only 2,424 games left in the regular season ... (and, yes, I mean that in a good way).

A quick tour of stuff to pay attention to today:

1. You couldn't ask for an easier opponent for Roy Halladay to set the tone for Philly's fab rotation than the Astros, a team that finished 15th in the NL in runs in 2010. Halladay allowed four runs in two starts against Houston last season. I predict fewer than that today.

2. Terry Francona isn't messing around. He's starting Mike Cameron in right field instead of J.D. Drew. Why? Because Rangers starter C.J. Wilson destroyed lefties a year ago (.144/.224/.176).

3. Speaking of Wilson, he has as much on him as any pitcher in the majors. Can he prove his transition from the bullpen in 2010 wasn't a fluke?

4. Ubaldo Jimenez takes on the Diamondbacks. Will he start out again like he's Bob Gibson circa 1968?

5. Mets-Marlins should be fun with Josh Johnson going for Florida. He spent spring training trying to refine his changeup. Hard to believe he can get any better than last season. (Oh, former Mets GM Omar Minaya believes the Mets will be better than people think. Of course, he has no idea how bad I think they'll be.)

6. David Price faces the Orioles, which gives us a chance to check out Tampa's revamped bullpen and Baltimore's new lineup with Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee. Price allowed one run in two starts against the O's last season.

7. Chad Billingsley starts for the Dodgers after signing his big contract extension. Other than Clayton Kershaw's dominant outing, the good news for the Dodgers on Opening Day was Matt Kemp drawing three walks. He'd never done that before. Considering plate discipline has been an issue, let's see if this is a sudden improvement in his approach.

8. Miguel Tejada. After a shaky spring training and a crucial error on Opening Day, Giants fans are already worried about shortstop. The backups are Mike Fontenot and Mark DeRosa, so there isn't really a good in-house option if Tejada falters.

9. Cubs manager Mike Quade. Apparently he rode the train to Wrigley the past couple of days and went unrecognized. Something tells me Lou or Dusty never did that.

10. Justin Morneau. He's in the starting lineup and let's hope he's fully recovered and as good as ever.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.
The Dodgers apparently do have some spare change in their pockets, because they signed Chad Billingsley to a three-year contract extension through 2014, with a club option for 2015.

[+] EnlargeChad Billingsley
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesChad Billingsley was 12-11 last season with a 3.57 ERA.
If the option is exercised, the deal is worth $46 million -- $11.5 million per season -- a good deal for the Dodgers to secure the services of a quality right-hander who slots in nicely as the No. 2 starter behind ace Clayton Kershaw.

The best thing about Billingsley is his reliability: He's one of just 33 pitchers to make at least 30 starts each of the past three seasons, and of those 33 only Felix Hernandez was younger. Of the 43 pitchers to make at least 90 starts over that span, he's 21st in ERA+ and 28th in innings pitched. His career high in innings is 200 in 2008, so the main thing keeping him from becoming a top-20 starter is increasing his workload into the 220-inning range. The Dodgers did push him a little more at times last season (four starts of 120-plus pitches) so it will be interesting to see if Don Mattingly believes Billingsley has the stamina to pitch deeper into games. (Data from Baseball-Reference.com.)

* * * * *

In other Dodger news, Andre Ethier didn't back off his comments suggesting this could be his last season in L.A. Jon Weisman over at Dodger Thoughts wrote about this and pointed out Ethier is just the fifth Los Angeles Dodgers player to record three straight seasons with an OPS+ of 130 or greater.

There's no doubt Ethier is a big-time masher (well, at least against right-handers), but I'm not sure he's worth a big extension like Billingsley. For one thing, Ethier is 29, so he's already reached his peak. Two, his troubles against lefties (.247/.311/.370 career) are problematic. Finally, he's a lousy right fielder, negating some of his hitting value. All the defensive metrics out there rate him as one of the worst outfielders in the game. As good as he is with the stick, I'd be hesitant about signing him for more than $10-11 million per season. (Although Ethier is being a bit overdramatic when stating he could be nontendered after this season.)

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.
Eric Karabell and Keith Law go around the diamond on Tuesday's Baseball Today podcast and discuss:
  • Mat Latos' shoulder injury and The Verducci Effect.
  • Chad Billingsley close to a new contract with the Dodgers: Is he a breakout candidate?
  • Tough to make a conclusion on Justin Morneau's comeback.
  • Rangers trade Matt Treanor to the Royals, opening up more playing time for Mike Napoli.
  • Trying to understand the roster moves of the Royals.
  • Much, much more ... including emails, an imaginary team of top prospects and Michael Pineda.

What's next for the Dodgers?

October, 22, 2009
As Matthew Leach writes, the just-eliminated Dodgers are pretty well set for next season, with one real exception:

    The rotation is the area of greatest uncertainty. Left-hander Clayton Kershaw, who started Game 1 of the NLCS, is back, as is righty Chad Billingsley. Hiroki Kuroda, hampered by injury late in 2009, is under contract. That's three-fifths of a rotation, but it still leaves two openings. And there may or may not be an ace, depending on how quickly and how much Kershaw develops.

    The absence of a clear-cut ace stood out when the Dodgers faced the Phillies and Cliff Lee.

    "I think they have a clear No. 1 guy," said outfielder Andre Ethier. "That's the biggest thing. No disrespect for our pitchers, the way they've performed, but when you've got a Cliff Lee, a veteran guy who knows how to pitch and has pitched well and is carrying some hardware with him, you've got a great guy to lead off your staff."

    No. 1 starters aren't easily acquired, though. They're expensive and rare in free agency, and command a king's ransom in trade. A more reasonable goal is to fill out the back of the rotation. Los Angeles holds expensive options on both Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla, and it's tough to see either one being picked up. Randy Wolf, who started Game 1 of the Division Series, is a free agent, and while the Dodgers would be happy to have him back, they might balk at a multiyear commitment.

Well, that depends on how multi the multi is, right? Over the last three seasons, Wolf is 32-25 with a solid ERA and two-and-a-half times as many strikeouts as walks. Sure, he's been hurt sometimes -- though not lately -- and he barely grazes 90 with his fastball. But go back and look at the sort of contracts that veteran pitchers -- pitchers not as good as Wolf -- have signed over the years. I don't think the Dodgers should shoot for the moon, but a two- or three-year deal is perfectly appropriate.

Granted, it's true that without Wolf or Padilla (another free-agent-to-be) the Dodgers have only three-fifths of a rotation. About the lack of an ace -- well, Kershaw finished the season with the fifth-lowest ERA in the National League. That's pretty good. Sure, you'd like to see him issue fewer walks and pitch seven innings per start rather than six. But he doesn't turn 22 until next spring and presumably has some unrealized potential. Oh, and if that doesn't work out, Billingsley is only 24 and has a 3.55 career ERA.

No guarantees, obviously. But I wouldn't bet against one of those guys getting into a Cy Young discussion at some point in the next two or three seasons. Everybody wants their own CC Sabathia or Lee or Tim Lincecum, but there are only so many of those guys to go around. And with all of them apparently locked up for a while, the Dodgers will probably just have to come up with one of their own.

Greinke's Cy Young competition

June, 18, 2009
From a few days ago, George Bretherton on the AL's best pitchers:
    Who says it's a two-horse race for this season's American League Cy Young Award?
    Kansas City's Zack Greinke (8 wins, 1.72 E.R.A.) and Toronto's Roy Halladay (10 wins, 2.53 E.R.A.) deserve front-runner status, but indications are that the field for the A.L. award will be crowded.

    Three other starters -- Detroit's Edwin Jackson, Anaheim's Jered Weaver and Seattle's Erik Bedard -- have E.R.A.'s under 2.50, and could make a summer charge.

    From off the pace, Detroit's Justin Verlander (9.00 E.R.A. after four starts) and Boston's Josh Beckett (7.22 E.R.A. after five starts) are moving into contention. Verlander (7-0, 1.10 E.R.A. since April 27) was so good in Wednesday's 2-1 complete-game win over the White Sox that Chicago's John Danks raved about Verlander's "almost PlayStation stuff."
Remember when Zack Greinke was obviously the best pitcher in the universe? Players do have a tendency to regress to their mean, though. After Wednesday night's game, Greinke's ERA is 1.96 (and it would be 2.05 if not for an exceptionally questionable scoring decision). After allowing two or fewer runs in each of his first 10 starts, Greinke has given up four, seven, three and six runs in his last four starts.

Overall, Greinke's still got the best numbers in the American League. But if we consider recent trends (though not so much) and less-recent history (much), we have to figure that Verlander and Halladay -- assuming he comes back quickly from his injury -- will be in the mix, and I wouldn't discount the chances of Felix Hernandez or Beckett, either (not to mention dark horses like Kevin Slowey, who's got nine wins already).

Greinke hasn't pitched all that bad in his recent starts. He's just been a little less lucky and a little less sharp -- last night he somehow managed to walk Chris Young twice -- and he's gotten little support from his relatively untalented teammates. He is among the best pitchers in the league, but I now consider him a real underdog for the Cy Young, if only because he's not likely to get much run support the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, in the National League, Tim Lincecum's making a serious bid to win his second straight award, though he too will have to cope with lousy run support from his mates. If that doesn't work out, Chad Billingsley's a solid candidate. And then there's Dan Haren and Javier Vazquez, both enjoying brilliant seasons but with only nine wins between them.

Throwing pitches, throwing darts ...

April, 8, 2009
Tom Verducci on who should be worried this year about this year's Year After Effect:
    Mike Pelfrey was ready for me in the Mets spring training clubhouse, as if he knew I was coming.

    "Look at me," the Mets right-hander said one day last month. "I'm a pretty big guy." Yes, sir. Pelfrey is 6-foot-7. Thankfully, he is a rather pleasant, mild-mannered guy.

    I didn't feel threatened, but my theory about young pitchers getting overworked was precisely in Pelfrey's crosshairs. Pelfrey was familiar with my rule of thumb that pitchers 25 and under are at risk of injury or significant regression in the year after their clubs boost their workload by 30 or more innings.


    So I agreed with some of what Pelfrey presented. He turned 25 in January and is a big guy, so maybe he withstands his 48-inning jump better than someone younger and smaller. That said, I'm still not taking him off my list of the most at-risk young pitchers of 2009 based on the Year After Effect. There is a reason why the Mets had an innings threshold in mind for Pelfrey, a reason why the Yankees have treated Joba Chamberlain with kid gloves and a reason, going further back, why Oakland was very careful to manage the innings growth of its young starters almost a decade ago when I first learned about this growing trend: Too much too soon is risky stuff.

    This year I red-flagged 10 pitchers -- and the list includes some of the greatest young arms in the game. Here are those pitchers and the innings jumps that put them on the list ...

The list: Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Chad Billingsley, Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw, Dana Eveland, Mike Pelfrey, John Danks, Jair Jurrjens, Jon Niese.


    How much should those guys be worried? Over the previous three years I red-flagged a total of 24 young pitchers at the start of those seasons. Of those 24 at-risk pitchers, 16 were hurt in that same season. Only one of the 24 pitchers managed to stay healthy and lower his ERA: Ubaldo Jimenez of Colorado, a guy I said would be less at risk because of his powerful body type.

    In the early years of my tracking the Year After Effect, the Royals notoriously pushed young pitchers to awful results (Jose Rosado, Chris George, Runelvys Hernandez, Mac Suzuki, etc.). The Pirates have supplanted the Royals as the worst offenders (Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Tom Gorzelanny). It's one thing for the Mets to push Pelfrey with a playoff spot at stake, but it's hard to explain why a rebuilding franchise would put young starters at risk in meaningless games in September.

    Last year I red-flagged seven pitchers: Jimenez, Gorzelanny, Ian Kennedy (Yankees), Dustin McGowan (Blue Jays), Chad Gaudin (Cubs), Yovani Gallardo (Brewers) and Fausto Carmona (Indians). Except for Jimenez all of them broke down with injuries -- some of them serious, not all arm-related -- and combined to go 29-32. None won 10 games. Previous blowouts that were red-flagged included Francisco Liriano, Gustavo Chacin, Anibal Sanchez, Adam Loewen and Scott Mathieson.

I'm sure you see the gap in this analysis ... Where's the control group? We know -- we've known for a long, long time -- that young pitchers who pile up innings are susceptible to injuries. The Holy Grail of baseball is something that will keep young pitchers from ruining those oh-so-valuable gears and levers and pulleys that allow them to somehow perform their superhuman feats. But are young pitchers who boost their workload by 30 innings more injury-prone than pitchers who boost their workload by 20 innings? Is a 24-year-old pitcher who goes from 120 innings to 150 innings more likely to get hurt than a 22-year-old pitcher who goes from 175 innings to 190 innings? Do pitch counts matter, at all?

Verducci's method strikes me as terribly arbitrary. That doesn't mean it doesn't work. But without a control group -- without some basis for comparison -- we can't really know if pasting the photos of a bunch of young pitchers on the wall and throwing darts wouldn't work just about as well. And one thing I'm sure about: the Red Sox and Rays and Cardinals and Indians and Padres and another half-dozen (at least) teams aren't throwing darts.

Not exactly.