LOS ANGELES – Just as they did as defending champions two years ago, the Giants open their season not with a banner raising but in the den of their archrivals.
The difference this time: The Dodgers have new ownership, new resolve and, apparently, a new printing press churning out $100 bills in some hidden antechamber at Chavez Ravine.
The Dodgers open the season with the highest payroll in baseball history, estimated at $230 million. Since last summer, they’ve added Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Brandon League, and for kicks, we’ll throw in Skip Schumaker.
Some were free-agent signings. Some were salary dump trades. All were expensive.
It was like an open casting call for one of those credit card commercials with the plundering Norsemen: Have wallet, will travel.
Meanwhile, the Giants quietly and efficiently re-signed Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro and Jeremy Affeldt. They’ll open the season with a roster almost identical to the group that coalesced for six elimination victories and then exploded to a four-game sweep over the favored Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
Barring any late or unforeseen roster decisions, the Giants will return 21 of 25 players from that postseason roster – and one of their four newcomers is outfielder Andres Torres, who won a 2010 World Series ring with them. The others are bit players: No.5 outfielder Cole Gillespie, long reliever Chad Gaudin and homegrown backup infielder Nick Noonan.
It sets up for the most compelling division race in the big leagues. Not only have the Dodgers eclipsed the Yankees in spending, but you have to believe that the Dodgers-Giants rivalry is eclipsing Yanks-Red Sox as baseball’s rivalry that truly merits watching.
The showdown starts Monday afternoon, with left-hander and 2011 Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw facing off against perfect game author and postseason stalwart Matt Cain. Then it’s another lefty, Ryu, against Madison Bumgarner. The series concludes on Wednesday with a pair of right-handers who hope to get started on an NL Comeback Player of the Year campaign: Josh Beckett and Tim Lincecum.
There’s only one way to find out how the Dodgers and Giants will stack up, and that’s on the field. But before they play the first of 19 head-to-head games, here’s a look at how they match up on paper.
Clayton Kershaw bedeviled Tim Lincecum in 2011 but he happened to match up more often with Ryan Vogelsong last season, and the Giants found a way to shade one of their toughest adversaries. Perhaps this is the year Matt Cain draws Kershaw multiple times. If so, those promise to be riveting games. The Giants’ starting five took the mound in 160 of their 162 regular-season games, but the club doesn’t have much depth if injuries crop up this time around – and those arms have logged a lot of innings the past three years. So it was a relief when the Giants watched Vogelsong and Bumgarner, especially, look crisp most of the spring. The Dodgers, by contrast, have tons of innings in reserve, with Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano and Chad Billingsley all in the fold. But none of them can replace what’s expected from Zack Greinke, whose debut will be pushed back because of a tender elbow. It’s hard to imagine Lincecum regaining his previous form, but he’s in better shape and the metrics for balls in play suggest there’s no way he’ll be as bad as last year. It’s close, but Greinke’s elbow tips the scales in the Giants’ favor. If both sides get hit with injuries, though, the Giants could find themselves swimming out of their depth.
Neither Brandon League nor Sergio Romo fits the prototype of a hard-throwing closer, and both clubs figure to mix and match at times in the ninth inning. But League didn’t throw the final pitch of the 2012 season, as Romo did while fearlessly striking out Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. Expect Romo’s experience to carry into this season, even if his knees and elbow always will bear watching. There’s a reason the Giants signed Jeremy Affeldt and Santiago Casilla to three-year contracts. They keep the ball in the park and their stuff plays against hitters from either side of the plate. George Kontos looks primed to build on a solid season, too. The Dodgers have their hard thrower in Kenley Jansen, who struck out 99 in 65 innings and appears to have recovered from a heart irregularity that required surgery. The Giants are more seasoned and offer a better variety of looks out of the ‘pen, though. They entered last postseason ranked fourth out of the five NL playoff teams in bullpen ERA, but you’d never know it from the way they executed.
A.J. Ellis is a good receiver and he’s got a nifty on-base percentage. But … Buster Posey. For nine years, too.
Adrian Gonzalez isn’t known as a particularly passionate player, but he was a member of that 2010 team that lost the NL West to the Giants on the final day of the regular season in 2010. So that might fire him up. He’s a solid defender and on-base base presence, and while there are places you can pitch him, he will hit your mistakes into the pavilion. Brandon Belt hit eight home runs as part of a huge spring and he might be the best defensive first baseman in the league. The sky’s the limit, but Gonzalez is the proven power hitter.
Anyone forget that Marco Scutaro carries a 20-game hitting streak into this season? He won’t hit .360 again, but his league-best contact skills are of great assistance to an offense that plans to score by being efficient on the bases. The Dodgers have Mark Ellis, Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto – three guys who can be feisty at the right times. We’ll take the NLCS MVP, though.
Henley Ramirez will be out another six to eight weeks after having thumb surgery following an injury in the World Baseball Classic. The Dodgers will be compensated by the WBC’s insurance policy for the time that Ramirez misses, so don’t you worry your pretty little head about that. Ramirez was a force in this league just three years ago, and he does like to hit home runs off Romo. But Crawford enters the year as a Gold Glove favorite, and the Giants believe his bat will contribute more than a year ago.
Luis Cruz will play shortstop while Ramirez is out, so Juan Uribe, a massive bust, has to give the Dodgers something in the final season of his three-year contract. Pablo Sandoval’s elbow is no trifling matter, and as capable as Joaquin Arias might be, the Giants would prefer not to risk exposing him as an everyday player. It should be clear right away whether Sandoval’s elbow can handle the strain. Either way, Arias beats whomever the Dodgers happen to throw out there.
Carl Crawford had a setback in his recovery from Tommy John surgery this spring, but he’ll start on opening day. He’s the biggest X-factor in this division, and if he can approximate the numbers he put up in Tampa, the Dodgers lineup would go from fearsome to downright beastly. The Giants are hoping to get modest numbers from Andres Torres and Gregor Blanco in a platoon, with minor leaguer Francisco Peguero as a fallback option. The Giants get a defensive edge, but Crawford’s upside is worlds above the best the Giants could expect from this position.
Matt Kemp is no slam dunk to be an impact performer again. He really struggled to make contact this spring and is coming off shoulder surgery. So this one grades out a little closer than you might think. The Giants couldn’t conjure a better fit for leadoff and center field than the guy they already had, even if they didn’t want to give a fourth year to Angel Pagan. Until last season, the rap on Pagan was that he couldn’t stay healthy. The Giants are counting on him to go to the post now that he’s getting paid, since their fallback options aren’t so palatable. If Pagan can keep hitting the way he did for Puerto Rico in the WBC, the Giants will see immediate returns on their investment.
The Giants decided against giving a long-term contract to Hunter Pence. The Dodgers did wrap up Andre Ethier through 2017, but his name comes up in trade rumors every year. Neither right fielder is considered a centerpiece player, but both are productive stars who delivery fairly predictable levels of production. Pence was terrific as an RBI man and motivational speaker last season, even if his average wasn’t pretty. He showed better pitch recognition skills this spring and appeared driven to put up better all-around numbers in his walk year. Ethier is a first-half performer who always seems to hit a slump after the All-Star break. Both players should have no shortage of RBI opportunities. Pence is more durable, but Ethier’s OPS was 69 points higher last season.
The Giants won’t hit the fewest home runs in the majors again, but they won’t be in the upper half, either. They’ll need to park a few more because they don’t have Melky Cabrera, who was leading the majors in hits, runs and batting average when he got suspended Aug. 15 for testosterone. As much as everyone likes Blanco and Torres, they can’t hope to approach Melky’s production in those four months. Posey is the NL MVP, but he simply cannot do it alone – and Sandoval’s elbow is a concern out of the gate. The Dodgers can beat you with power as well as speed. If they can keep Kemp and Crawford out of the trainer’s room, the Dodgers could outscore the Giants by 100 runs.
Brandon Crawford, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Crawford. Oh yeah. And Brandon Crawford.
The Giants simply don’t win two World Series in three years without Bruce Bochy’s acumen for getting the most out of his roster. He came to San Francisco seven years ago seen as an uninspiring hire to steward the club through the Bonds Era. Now, he’s viewed as a genius tactician and a Hall of Famer. As for Don Mattingly, I was going to ask him something, but I forgot. Maybe I can double back to him later.
The Dodgers still lead the Giants in West Coast World Series titles, 5-2. But their last one came 25 years ago, when Posey was still in diapers. They spent a lot of money to become relevant again. The Giants? They already are.
Continuity is so important when you play 162 games. The Dodgers might have more overall talent on paper, and perhaps Mattingly can bring all the pieces together. But the Giants already know who they are and what they’re about. They’re still the team to beat in the NL West.
Predicted NL West final standings
Diamondbacks 83-81 79