Can you feel the excitement?
Though most of the news out of Dodgertown has not been thrilling, unlike some Dodger fans, I have excitement about the upcoming season. The Dodgers have suffered some injuries, but injuries are a part of every baseball season. Yes, Gary Sheffield, the best Dodger hitter in 2000, wants to be traded, but the Dodgers can win without him. I hear things out of Dodgertown that excite me. For the first time since 1994 I feel the Los Angeles Dodgers have a genuine chance to make the playoffs.
For the first time in several years, the Dodgers have a manager with some excitement. Though Jim Tracy does not jump up and down when the Dodgers have done something well, he does use facial expressions to express his happiness. Many people are concerned Tracy does not have major league managerial experience. Neither Walt Alston nor Tommy Lasorda had major league managerial experience when they became the Dodger manager, but both went to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Tracy has observed Felipe Alou for six years as his bench coach and Davey Johnson for two years as his bench coach. Unlike Johnson in 1999, Tracy knew the Dodger organization.
The Dodgers have a formidable starting rotation for the first time since the 1980s. Kevin Brown again is expected to be the Dodger ace after having the lowest ERA in the National League. Chan Ho Park should build on his eighteen-win performance in 2000. After signing a long-term rich contract, Darren Dreifort hopes to have his best performance.
During the winter the Dodgers signed Andy Ashby to be their fourth starter. Ashby always has loved pitching at Dodger Stadium, and his best year was 1998 when he had Kevin Brown as a teammate.
The Dodgers have a competition for their fifth spot in the Dodger rotation. Ramon Martinez, returning to the Dodgers, must be considered the front runner for this spot, but the Dodgers must determine if Martinez has fully recovered from shoulder surgery in 1998. Talented Eric Gagne hopes to prove to Tracy that he belongs in the major leagues. If both Martinez and Gagne fail to impress, Luke Prokopec and Carlos Perez have a slim opportunity to make the rotation.
The Dodgers had the best bullpen in the National League in 2000, and they kept the same personnel as in 2001. Barring an injury, the Dodger bullpen should be as good as they were in 2000 or better.
This spring Tracy tries to locate a left-handed reliever to get out left-handed batters because every team in the National League West, except the Arizona Diamondbacks, has a dominating lefty batter. The Dodgers invited several lefties to spring training. Though Jesse Orosco, who has appeared in the most games by a major league pitcher ever, has struggled this spring, Tracy likes Orosco’s experience.
The Dodgers must improve their defense, but it should be better than it was in 2000. Unlike Johnson, Tracy plans to consider a player’s defensive skills and not only his offensive skills. Often this spring Tracy has said the Dodger pitching will be as good as the defense behind the pitchers who mostly are ground-ball pitchers.
Last year Mark Grudzielanek was learning how to play second base and committing many errors. However, this year Grudzielanek feels comfortable at second base and should make fewer errors. With a year of major league experience Alex Cora should have more range at shortstop and make fewer errors. Both Tom Goodwin and Marquis Grissom are better center fielders than Devon White, who had lost a step, and Todd Hollandsworth, who was never a center fielder. Though many people questioned the competence of Chad Kreuter, Paul LoDuca, and Angel Peña as every day major league catchers, they have good throwing arms and good blocking skills. They are not well-known, but their defense will be a marked improvement over Todd Hundley’s.
Not as in the recent past, the Dodgers do not have many hitters who make their living by hitting home runs. If the Dodgers trade Gary Sheffield, they have only Shawn Green and Eric Karros who have hit thirty or more home runs. When Adrian Beltre returns to the lineup, he probably cannot hit many home runs in his weakened condition. The Dodgers will probably rely on linking hits together, advancing runners, and running the bases to score runs.
Unlike Davey Johnson, Tracy seems to understand the importance of “small ball.” I hear the Dodgers are practicing bunting. During the off season the Dodgers hired Maury Wills as an organizational coach. Wills made his living as a Dodger in the 1960s bunting and stealing bases. Daily Wills works with several Dodgers on their bunting and base running.
This spring the Los Angeles Dodgers are returning to what made them successful in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This old-fashioned kind of baseball is exciting to watch. I feel this year will be special for the Dodgers. Dodger fans need to keep the faith in the Dodgers.