Giants manager Bruce Bochy began 2013 by almost killing a photographer with his opening drive at the AT&T Golf Tournament at Pebble Beach when his errant shot narrowly whizzed by her head. It was that kind of season for Bochy, who never could straighten out the Giants on their way to a disappointing 76-86 record. Bochy, the master game manager in 2012, was as lost as his team in 2013 as he even got caught with his club batting out of order. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly didn’t fare much better in early 2013, as he was unable to cash in on the millions being spent by ownership to make the team a winner. Those Dodgers’ owners are a tough crowd: Even after winning an amazing 42 of 50 games in the second half to reach the post season, Mattingly still had to go through an embarrassing period of uncertainty before the Dodgers finally signed him up for three years.
As the teams begin to gather for the start of spring training, the pressure is clearly on Mattingly to win it all. The baseball buzz has the Dodgers as a favorite to win the West. In an MLB.com article listing the top 10 teams in the game for 2014, the Dodgers were ranked fourth. The Giants didn’t make the list, but the A’s were eighth. Ouch! The Giants can flash some well-earned fancy jewelry, but the baseball world has never viewed the team as the gold standard for success. Perhaps motivational guru Hunter Pence can use that underdog role to again put a charge into his frat brothers, but the key to another ring ceremony is how well Bochy can keep the starting rotation on course.
A Few Spring Things:
* Both teams have new slogans for 2014. The Dodgers: “Live, Breathe, Blue.” The Giants: ”All Together — Stronger Together.” Did I get you all revved up Dodgers and Giants fans? I didn’t think so. I wonder if the Dodgers really thought their slogan out. Here’s how I read it: “Live, breathe the Southern California air, turn blue.” The Giants didn’t get too original with their slogan. It’s been used in similar forms for promotions by Hyundai Motors, nationwide food co-ops and Greece (“All together, building a stronger future for Greece.”)
* A more practical slogan for the wealthy Dodgers is “there’s an app for that,” because the club has the money to order up whatever is needed to upgrade as the season goes on. Facing holes in the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation because of uncertainty over injury comebacks by Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett, and the departure of Ricky Nolasco, the team added veteran starters Dan Haren and Paul Maholm. The Dodgers needed a regular, reliable second baseman so they gave promising but untested Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero $28 million over four years. Guerrero’s impact is up in the air because of a hamstring problem and inexperience, but the signing is proof the Dodgers will dial up whatever is required.
* Speaking of Cuban defectors, rookie sensation Yasiel Puig had an exciting off season. When we last saw him, he was speeding wildly around the bases for a triple after initially jogging to first when he thought his deep blast was out of the park. Speed is the operable word here. The suddenly rich Puig apparently has one of those vehicles that can go from zero to traffic school in five seconds. He was nailed for driving 110 mph in a 70 mph zone in Florida. He previously was caught going 97 mph in a 50 mph zone in Tennessee. In both cases he was cleared of reckless driving. Hmm. This spring training, I’m sure the Dodgers will try to find the maturity app for Puig. But what father-figure Mattingly should do is tell Puig the story of Roy Campanella. The great Dodgers catcher of the 1950s was paralyzed in a crash when he lost control of his car on an icy road in 1958, and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Puig seems to have a shot at being at the top of the baseball world with fame and money. But reckless or not, his irresponsible driving actions threaten to end it all for him in a moment.
* Among the questions facing the Giants this season will be if the signing of free agent starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo by Arizona might possibly keep San Francisco out of the post season. Assuming every game counts in a tight fight for either a wild card or even division title, Arroyo could be a difference-maker. Arroyo is a Giant-killer, as well as a respectable pitcher and innings eater overall, going 14-12 with a 3.79 ERA for Cincinnati in 2013. Arroyo would have been a great fit as a fifth starter for the Giants, even if that meant the popular Ryan Vogelsong was left off the roster or given a lesser role. Arroyo, with his off-speed mastery, is a perfect match for hitter-unfriendly AT&T Park. And now that he is pitching within the division, the Giants will have to face him three or four times. In his last four starts against the Giants, he has allowed three runs in 27 innings. In the NLDS in 2012, he had a perfect game for 5-2/3 innings on the way to a 9-0 Reds win. The Giants could come to regret not pursuing Arroyo.
* The letdown by the Giants starting rotation last year, with the exception of Madison Bumgarner, gives Giants fans a reason to take the exhibition games more seriously this spring. Normally, if a starter gets lit up in a spring training outing or two, the team writes it off that the pitcher was just getting loose and will be ready for the bell when the season starts. I doubt fans will buy that this year. They are going to want to see Matt Cain demonstrate his top pitching form, Tim Lincecum show that he is relearning the art of pitching to offset the decline of his heat, and Vogelsong and newly signed Tim Hudson give signs that their injuries of 2013 are behind them.
* Beyond the pitching, the Giants’ MIP (most important player) for 2014 might be first baseman Brandon Belt. We were led to believe that a simple change in the way he gripped the bat led to his offensive surge in the second half of 2013. Whatever the reason, Belt has the look of a hitter who could become a constant power-RBI man in the third spot of the order. A true breakout season by Belt could be the offensive game-changer for the Giants. His spring training performance will be worth following to see if he is making strong, consistent contact.
* Unlike the Giants, the Dodgers don’t have key players who need to show they can play during the spring games. Their biggest goal is break camp for the regular season with good health. Slugger Matt Kemp is unlikely to be ready following ankle surgery, but the Dodgers are counting on outfielder Carl Crawford and shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who both missed significant time in 2013, to play a good share of games this season. In fact, the Dodgers’ roster is sound enough that their MIP might be new bench coach Tim Wallach. The Dodgers got a bit out of hand last season, with Puig’s unpredictability, the normally restrained Adrian Gonzalez making goofy Mickey Mouse ears at the Cardinals in the NLCS, and the bizarre jump into the pool after clinching at the Diamondbacks’ ballpark. Mattingly could use the veteran presence of Wallach to help him keep the Dodgers steady and focused
* The Giants blamed some of their 2013 troubles on the shorter off season because of post season play and longer training camps necessitated by the World Baseball Classic, so it will be interesting to see if a similar scenario bothers their rivals. The Dodgers, who played in October, had their off season cut even shorter because they had to report to camp a week earlier to get ready to open the regular season March 22-23 against the D-Backs in Australia. This means the Dodgers need to have Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, their likely pitchers for those games, ready for serious work earlier than usual. If nothing else, the flight and time change, and then coming back to camp before heading to Los Angeles seems like a rough way to prepare for April. If the Giants lead the Dodgers — and the D-Backs — after the first month of the season, they might want to send a thank-you text to Bud Selig for fouling up their competition’s schedules.
* Mattingly referred to the Dodgers as “America’s Team” last year, and that overstatement does have some credence early. The Dodgers will not only draw national focus for the Australian Games, but also open the season on ESPN’s Sunday night game March 30. If the Dodgers are perfect, the Giants, who don’t play until March 31, will start the season 1-1/2 games behind the Dodgers. And if the Giants lose the opener, the Dodgers magic number to beat out the Giants will be 159, which ironically was about what Bochy might have shot that day in his round at Pebble Beach.