Buster Olney: Los Angeles Dodgers

The future of MLB in Cuba 

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
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 President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro AP Photo/SABC PoolBarack Obama and Raul Castro are seeking to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
There is a temptation to say that the possible normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States could lead to rapid and significant changes in professional baseball, because we've all heard the harrowing stories of escape from the island of players from Orlando Hernandez to Yasiel Puig. We've seen the talent of players, such as Jose Abreu, who is widely regarded as one of the three or four best hitters in baseball after just one season of Major League Baseball.

But while there is general relief in the industry that change in the politics between two countries so close to each other geographically is imminent, there is also skepticism among executives familiar with baseball in Cuba that the landscape of baseball will see a marked shift anytime soon.

The inevitable first domino, some executives say, is that the incredible prices being paid to defectors from Cuba -- most recently, the Diamondbacks' signing of Yasmany Tomas to a $68.5 million deal -- will plummet. Maybe this won't affect the bidding on Yoan Moncada, the infielder who worked out for scouts last month in Guatemala, but some club officials believe that eventually the market will be undercut by the prospect of change.
videoSAN DIEGO -- In keeping with tradition, the Rule 5 draft was held on the final morning of baseball's winter meetings Thursday, and typically, executives pull roller bags into and out of that room, dying to get to the airport after four boring days of sitting around waiting for their phone to ring and picking through plates of stale room service nachos.

But that was not the feel this year. No, there were wry smiles all over the place as scouts and club officials chuckled over how this year's meetings turned into some kind of transaction stock car race. The Cubs and White Sox slammed against the news of each other; the Dodgers lapped the field in a Wednesday sprint that carried into Thursday morning; the Red Sox lost the Lester 500 but hit the checkered flag with three pitchers.

In the usual way, there were lots of winners and some losers -- the Giants, for example, who own October every other year but have gotten off to a slow start this winter, missing out on Pablo Sandoval and Lester. They want to make a deal sooner rather than later, assistant GM Bobby Evans says. But in light of the fact that these were not your typical winter meetings, we're going next level on the whole winners and losers thing

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Dodgers' makeover extreme -- and needed 

December, 11, 2014
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videoSAN DIEGO -- The new inhabitants of the Dodgers’ front office are well aware of the media portrayal of them as nerds wielding mechanical pencils stuffed into pocket protectors. “The sooner we get past us being the story,” one Dodgers official said, “the better it will be.”

After what happened here Wednesday, however, there is no chance that Andrew Friedman and his staff will able to exist in the shadowy fringes. Not since Whitey Herzog assumed control of the Cardinals and remade them into a track team with a flurry of moves have we seen a front office so decisively alter the composition of a roster and a team.

Based on the choices they have made, however, a more appropriate representation of Friedman’s gang could be as a cleanup crew dressed in hazmat suits, because they have quickly waded into the messiest parts of the organization, from the clubhouse culture to the club’s subpar defense, and taken care of business.

Which is what is needed. The Dodgers' level of dysfunction last season was extraordinary. Manager Don Mattingly is even-keeled and circumspect, and is not someone who overreacts, given his experience of playing in New York in George Steinbrenner’s worst years as owner. But he was so moved, so frustrated by what he saw in the Dodgers' players and their treatment of each other

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Miss on Jon Lester? Here's Plan B 

December, 9, 2014
Dec 9
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James Shields, Francisco Liriano & Max ScherzerUSA TODAY SportsJames Shields, Francisco Liriano and Max Scherzer are all still out there.
SAN DIEGO -- A week ago, some folks within the Giants organization thought they had little or no shot at signing Jon Lester. In the past 72 hours, that changed. Now the hope is building for the Giants, backed by their own significant offer. The Cubs have hoped all along that they might be able to get Lester, and some within the Red Sox offices have believed that all things being equal, Lester would value the comfort of a known quantity, his former team.

The Dodgers have always had the ability to throw more money on the table, and while that doesn’t mean everything in these talks, it puts them in the conversation.

For Lester, the choices are distinct.

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Sandoval/RamirezUSA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoThe Red Sox signed two big hitters this offseason. Now, they need to make a splash on the mound.
SAN DIEGO -- As the winter meetings kick off, here are the most significant needs for 12 teams that view themselves as top contenders in 2015:

1. Boston Red Sox: A starting pitcher

Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval are unique in this winter’s market in that they each have the ability to hit good pitching, and so it’s possible that Boston’s offense will rebound in a big way next season. But it really won’t matter unless Boston finds a way to make up for the departures of Jon Lester and John Lackey -- maybe even by re-signing Lester.

As of this morning, the Red Sox rotation looks like this, according to their website:

1. Clay Buchholz
2. Joe Kelly
3. Rubby De La Rosa
4. Allen Webster
5. Anthony Ranaudo

As a reminder, Boston’s ranking in ERA after the All-Star break, when it mostly competed without Lester and Lackey:

30. Minnesota Twins, 4.99
29. Colorado Rockies, 4.51
28. Chicago White Sox, 4.47
27. Boston Red Sox, 4.27

If not Lester, then the Red Sox need James Shields; if not Shields, they need Jeff Samardzija, Doug Fister or one of the other high-end starters on the market.

As the Lester bidding nears a conclusion, John Henry flew to meet with Lester one-on-one, writes Rob Bradford and Alex Speier. The Red Sox should bolster their rotation by using trade chips rather than signing pitchers to long-term deals, writes Brian MacPherson.

Max Scherzer would also be available, writes Michael Silverman.

Here’s the problem with that for Boston:

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If the Dodgers really want Jon Lester and he doesn’t have any personal objections to playing in Los Angeles, a rival evaluator mused Thursday, then the Dodgers will get him. Plain and simple. Their pile of money is much larger than any team other than the Yankees -- who are not in the Lester bidding -- and if Lester’s decision comes down to the dollars alone, they will win.

But only the Dodgers and Lester’s agent, Seth Levinson, know exactly how

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Andrew FriedmanKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsLongtime Rays GM Andrew Friedman was hired Tuesday to run the Dodgers' front office.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Andrew Friedman takes over as president of baseball operations for a Los Angeles Dodgers franchise that has a payroll three times larger than what he's worked with in the past, with an all-time great pitcher in Clayton Kershaw and a ton of talent in both the major leagues and the minors.

Here is Friedman's partial to-do list:

1. Work out a deal with his former team, the Tampa Bay Rays, and hire manager Joe Maddon

Dodgers officials made it clear Tuesday that Don Mattingly is their manager, with two years remaining on his contract. Maddon, who has one year left on his contract, is saying all the right things about not wanting to leave Tampa Bay. But what needs to happen next is for Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to sit down with Maddon -- like, today -- and ask him: Will you commit to the Rays with a long-term extension?

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Can Andrew Friedman thrive in L.A.? 

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
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Andrew FriedmanKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Friedman is the independent film producer who must decide if his artistic qualities can survive at a big-budget studio.
Editor's note: Buster originally wrote this Friday, Oct. 10. It has been updated to reflect the Dodgers' hiring of Friedman on Tuesday.

L.A. has seen Andrew Friedman's story before. In the movies.

Friedman, the longtime general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, is the equivalent of the indie film producer who has done masterpieces, the talk of Sundance, of Cannes, work that hardened reviewers love.

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Mattingly/CollettiStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesNed Colletti and Don Mattingly are under fire following the team's NLDS loss, but should they be?
As Bill Shaikin notes, the Dodgers now must decide what to do with general manager Ned Colletti and manager Don Mattingly. If the Dodgers' leadership is honest with itself, it will recognize the circumstances are a whole lot more complicated than whether Mattingly should've used Scott Elbert in Game 3, or if Colletti built an adequate bullpen.

The Dodgers were sold 2½ years ago and their club operation has been in hyper-drive since then, as the organization worked to do everything at once: rebuild the roster and the farm system, rebuild the organization's star power, restore the faith of a dormant fan base, rebuild interest and win.

For the most part, they've been successful in doing all of that. The franchise has been rebuilt as a power, they've filled Dodger Stadium, their farm system has improved dramatically and they've made the playoffs the past two seasons.

There are problems, unquestionably, and inefficiencies and waste along the way.

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10 crucial matchups in the ALCS, NLCS 

October, 8, 2014
Oct 8
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Jarrod Dyson and Caleb JosephGetty Images/USA Today SportsJarrod Dyson and his aggressive Royals are set to take on strong-armed catcher Caleb Joseph.
ST. LOUIS -- Ten key matchups in the AL and NL Championship Series that begin Friday and Saturday, respectively:

1. The Orioles vs. the Kansas City running game: This is like a steel-cage match within the main event. The Royals have run aggressively in the postseason, with 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts, including seven in their wild-card game against Oakland. Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson are setting new standards for brazenness.

But the Orioles are excellent at controlling the running game, and with the layoff before the start of the ALCS on Friday, you can bet O's manager Buck Showalter and his staff are preparing for the Royals' roadrunners. They already have some great countermeasures in place, such as:

Chris Tillman: Nobody steals against him because he delivers his pitches to the plate so quickly. Opponents have tried to steal 13 times on him over the past two years and have been successful twice. To repeat, that's two steals in 13 attempts.

Caleb Joseph: The catcher has a great arm, and during the season he threw out 23 of 57 baserunners.

Wei-Yin Chen: He has allowed just nine steals (in 13 tries) over the past two years.

The Royals' best chances may come against the Baltimore bullpen, using Gore and Dyson. Teams try to run on Darren O'Day because of his unconventional delivery (10 steals in 15 attempts over the past two seasons), and there have been only six attempts over the past two years against Andrew Miller (with four steals).

No team stole more bases than the Royals did during the regular season, while only seven teams allowed fewer steals than Baltimore.

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Victor Martinez and Russell MartinGetty ImagesFree agents-to-be Victor Martinez and Russell Martin should be in demand this offseason.
Lockers are being cleaned out these days, first in Oakland, then Pittsburgh, Detroit and Anaheim. Goodbyes are being said, perhaps temporarily or maybe for longer than that.

Victor Martinez's season is over, and maybe his time with the Tigers is finished as well. Russell Martin got a standing ovation in the last inning of the wild-card game last week as the Pirates' season waned to a close, and the fans chanted his name, but nobody knows if he'll be back.

Both will be highly coveted this winter, and with multiple suitors, and while the Tigers and Pirates are expected to pursue their respective veterans, the bidding could be extraordinary.

Martinez is coming off a season in which he was arguably the best pure hitter in the majors, batting .335 with 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 70 walks and 42 strikeouts. Nobody had a greater ratio of walks to strikeouts, and it wasn't even close. Martinez will turn 36 in December and will be viewed as a DH-only player by some teams, at a time when the industry generally is veering away from full-time DHs.

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Jordan ZimmermannPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesJordan Zimmermann was dominating the Giants, but was pulled with two outs in the ninth.
LOS ANGELES -- If there’s a common denominator in the first extraordinary week of the playoffs, it is this: There is no perfect time for a manager to pull his starting pitcher.

On one day, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was criticized for leaving Clayton Kershaw in the game too long, and the next day, he was questioned about perhaps pulling Zack Greinke too soon.

Ned Yost called for relief for James Shields after 88 pitches and would’ve never been forgiven by the Kansas City fan base if the Royals hadn’t come back to win their wild-card game against Oakland. On Saturday, Matt Williams may have unwittingly contributed to the list of longest games in history by removing Jordan Zimmermann after just 100 pitches and a stretch in which he retired 20 of 21 batters.

Generally, there are a few things are at play here

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Josh DonaldsonBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsIf a teardown of the A's happens, Josh Donaldson is likely to go.
PITTSBURGH -- When you hear Ralph Branca tell the story of Bobby Thomson’s historic home run, he offers a full appreciation of that moment, but the hurt is still there. Dennis Eckersley bears the same tone when speaking of Kirk Gibson’s home run, that small ache about a swing that changed lives.

This is what lies before the Oakland Athletics, whose wild-card game loss to the Kansas City Royals Tuesday night was a microcosm of their season -- the great start, the enormous lead right in the middle, the collapse, the late revival, and then a finish that will forever haunt them.

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Bochy staying positive amid Giants slump 

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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San Francisco GiantsAP Photo/David TulisManager Bruce Bochy and the Giants have posted losing records in June, July and now September.
LOS ANGELES -- Hours before the Giants stepped in front of the pitching bulldozer otherwise known as Clayton Kershaw on Wednesday evening, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy had a quandary: What should be done if his team were to lose yet still have a chance to celebrate?

At that moment, it was possible that for only the second time in baseball history, the winning and losing team in the same game would clinch. If the Brewers lost Wednesday and the Dodgers beat the Giants for the NL West title, San Francisco would still have wrapped up a playoff spot. Given Kershaw's lifetime 1.44 ERA against the Giants, this scenario obviously was very possible.

Bochy had watched a lot of this same group of players win the World Series in 2010 and 2012, and on one hand, the notion of donning goggles and spraying champagne right after a loss to the Dodgers might've seemed odd, and maybe a little beneath them.

But Bochy had also seen this group of players journey through a long and difficult season, recovering after the All-Star break after squandering a huge lead in June, playing through injuries to Angel Pagan and Mike Morse. When the season ends, 20 teams will go home, and if the Giants had earned the right to go to the playoffs, Bochy decided, this was something worth celebrating. No matter whether the Giants won or lost Wednesday, they had earned the right to feel good about themselves given the work they had put in over the long spring training and the six-month season.

So win or lose Wednesday, Bochy had given the go-ahead for the champagne to be sprayed in the modest visitors' clubhouse, and why not, given the circumstances? The Giants are limping toward the playoffs, after a lost weekend in San Diego, after learning that Pagan will miss the rest of the season. A celebration might've reminded this group of players just how far they've come, and what's possible moving forward.

In the end, Bochy's deliberations didn't matter. The Brewers won, staying alive in the race, so the only way the Giants would have doused each other Wednesday night would happen if they beat Kershaw, which, even in May, might've earned them a parade, given his dominance. But it was not to be: Kershaw held the Giants to a run over eight innings, lowering his ERA to 1.77, increasing his strikeouts to a staggering 239, improving his final record to 21-3, and he mashed the first triple of his career.

After Tim Hudson departed, the Giants utterly collapsed into a morass of walks and defensive mistakes, and the bottom of the eighth inning lasted more than a half-hour, with a sold-out Dodger Stadium crowd preparing to celebrate.

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Stats versus strengths for Kershaw 

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
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Los Angeles DodgersAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillA.J. Ellis, left, and Clayton Kershaw have forged an excellent working relationship.
Guest bloggers are stepping in for Buster Olney this week to write the lead item, while Buster still has his news and notes below that. Today's guest blogger is Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis.

Almost exactly two hours before he takes the mound every fifth day, Clayton Kershaw lays out the precise game plan he intends to use for each hitter in the opposing starting lineup.

Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and I sit on each side of a training room table as Kersh runs through the batters. Honey and I always come to those meetings armed with information on the tendencies of our opponents: We not only look at what they have done against left-handed pitchers both recently and historically, but how they’ve approached at-bats against our ace specifically.

To fully prepare for his start, Kersh studies the scouting reports we print out prior to each series, and then he goes back and finds the two pitchers most similar to himself, such as Madison Bumgarner and Cole Hamels, and watches their starts versus the given opponent in their entirety. Although Honey and I have done the work and are prepared, Kersh leads the meeting. We try to help by offering up small tidbits on a particular hitter’s strengths and weaknesses, and by filling him in on any personal history that stands out. Kershaw’s tone is always serious. He keeps the conversation brisk. It’s now my job to remember his plan of attack and call pitches accordingly.

In the three years I have been humbled to catch Kersh, I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut and not offer up information that goes against his typical arsenal of pitches. Even though the stats may lead me in a different direction, we are both keenly aware that his strengths are what separate him from the rest. Except for when we forget.

Interleague play usually takes away the most valuable tool of setting any game plan: data on head-to-head matchups. In the recent Freeway Series with the Angels, Kersh and I both fell victim to this trap. Kershaw hadn’t faced the Angels since 2011, and had a limited history with the majority of the Halos. It’s no secret across baseball that Kersh loves to pound right-handed hitters inside. His combination of angle, deception and command make it extremely hard to square up an executed fastball on the inside corner.

The trouble is the Angels have a bunch of great hitters who feast on pitches on the inner half. So in our pregame meeting, we decided to scrap Kersh’s strength and try to work the outer half of the plate toward those hitters' statistical weaknesses. Three innings and three earned runs later, we both realized we compromised our typical game plan in favor of the numbers our computer spewed out regarding hitters' results versus left-handed pitchers who probably do not own two Cy Young Awards or pitch with the will and ferocity Kersh does.

Realizing the error of our ways, we went back to what Kersh does well, and he cruised the rest of the way. After giving up seven hits and striking out just one batter in his first three innings because of our dumb game plan, Kersh allowed no hits and struck out six in his final four frames. Lesson learned.

As a catcher who loves the cerebral side of this great game, I enjoy the patchwork process of preparing a series for each pitcher on his start date. Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus set the example in his two years as a catcher with the Dodgers for exactly what I need to do. To avoid information overload, Brad taught me to run through this checklist:

1. How aggressive is the hitter on the first pitch?
2. Does that change with runners in scoring position?
3. Where exactly does the hitter do his damage?
4. On what types of pitches?
5. In or away?
6. Ahead in the count only?
7. What are the hitter's two-strike chase zones on both fastballs and off-speed pitches?

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images"He's a brilliant encyclopedia of information, and he's always looking for more research to gain an advantage," A.J. Ellis says of Zack Greinke.
Whereas we've learned that Kershaw needs to stick with his strengths and do what he does best regardless of the situation, this is a checklist that intrigues Zack Greinke. He’s a brilliant encyclopedia of information, and he’s always looking for more research to gain an advantage. He especially wants to know, and hopefully avoid, the specific areas where each hitter’s power is located. Zack is the most inquisitive student of the game I've ever met, and he breaks down video as well as anyone I've caught.

Zack studies the two-strike chase zone numbers intently. With the arsenal of pitches at his disposal combined with his ability to locate, he relentlessly attacks these zones with two strikes.

All of this information is vital to Honey and I as we try to determine a way to get major league hitters out. I mention Honey again because I must admit that I'm unable to memorize all of these figures as the game and series progress, so I rely on him to give me his notes mid-game. His help is invaluable.

But at the end of the day the question ultimately comes to this, as it did with Kersh versus the Angels: Am I going to rely on a set of numbers, or on my pitcher's strengths? Just because a hitter can do damage against a left-hander's slider in general doesn't mean I'm not calling Kersh's slider. If a hitter has great numbers against split-fingered fastballs, I am still going to work in Dan Haren's split. I've learned there has to be a marriage of stats and strengths. I try to find that balance every time I throw a sign down.

As the game progresses and relief pitchers trot in, the focus always seems to trend toward strengths. Most relievers don’t offer up a big variety of options in their repertoire, but they make it up for it with the velocity and movement of the pitches that they do throw. These last few crucial innings of a game usually turn into a battle of my best against your best. We don’t overthink it. Even if the best fastball hitter in the game is in the box with the game on the line. I’m still going to call for Kenley Jansen to throw his invisible fastball right by him. Those moments are what makes baseball so great.

The caveat in all of this is how fortunate I am to be on the receiving end of this incredible pitching staff. All of my starters have the ability to be creative and adapt from start to start. They can all locate multiple pitches, which affords me the ability to match up their strengths with the stats. Their strengths also change and can be adjusted as a particular game goes on. This speaks to the athleticism and pitch-making ability these starters have.

The relief corps is a collection of seasoned veterans who have each battled through every possible scenario. They each possess put-away weapons for all types of hitters. But when it comes down to it, and the bases are loaded with two out and it’s time to make a pitch, be assured the batting averages, slugging percentage and hard-hit stat rates are all pushed aside, as my teammate on the mound shuts out all the noise and sticks with his strength.


And now we return to Buster's regularly scheduled news and notes …

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