By Jon Weisman
One week from Opening Day, it’s safe to say that injuries have dampened Spring Training for the Dodgers this year, like picking the wrong line at Philippe’s 30 minutes before game time. If there’s an upside, it’s that aside from the injuries, there’s been a feast for the baseball senses. Nearly everyone on the field is meeting or exceeding expectations. Here are some of the brightest (and, knock on wood) healthiest lights at Camelback Ranch this month:
- Kenta Maeda: When Maeda signed his long-term, incentive-laden contract that seemed to hint at imminent health concerns and general skepticism about his ability to adapt to North American baseball, maybe you just hoped he’d make it through Spring Training without melting down like Toht’s face in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The proof will be in the regular-season pudding, but you couldn’t have asked for more this month than a 1.05 WHIP and 18 strikeouts against five walks in 19 innings. And that’s with Maeda still learning not only opposing batters from scratch, but umpires as well.
- Justin Turner: A month ago, we just hoped Turner would be on his two feet by the end of March. That he is 11 for 17 with six doubles, a homer, three walks and one lone strikeout is wonderful — that he is running the bases as free and easy as we’ve seen him in ages is a delight.
- Louis Coleman: The right-handed reliever had been on the Dodgers’ radar back when he was with Kansas City, so it wouldn’t be accurate to say he came out of nowhere. But given that the Dodgers acquired him after pitchers and catchers reported — and that since then, he has struck out 11 batters without allowing any walks or runs — we can safely call him a happy surprise.
- Scott Van Slyke: I’ll admit, this is mostly a straight Spring Training stats play. Van Slyke is hitting .415/.500/.732 with more walks than strikeouts, but I couldn’t tell you whether or not that’s just Cactus League noise. To his credit, though, Van Slyke has done nearly all his damage in the beginning of games when an opponents’ front-line pitchers are in, and he’s done it without regard to whether the pitcher is right-handed or left-handed.
- Austin Barnes: There’s no one who doesn’t want Yasmani Grandal to begin the season healthy. There’s also no reason to fear Barnes partnering with A.J. Ellis for as long as Grandal is sidelined, not after a spring in which Barnes has looked so confident offensively and defensively.
- Cody Bellinger: There’s any number of minor-leaguers that could be on this list, but there was something in particular about Bellinger that called to mind how composed Corey Seager seemed one year ago. Bellinger has a .571 on-base percentage and .731 slugging percentage with five strikeouts in 35 plate appearances, combined with capable defense at first base or the outfield. That’s a tasty amuse bouche from the 20-year-old.
- Clayton Kershaw: Because he’s still Clayton Kershaw.
- Yasiel Puig: Did anyone notice anything about Puig between the helicopter rumors a month ago and his sore hamstring over the weekend? Here’s something you might have missed: In 37 plate appearances, Puig has a .914 OPS, but perhaps more importantly, he has struck out only five times.
- Joc Pederson: It’s easy to project insecurities about Pederson’s second-half performance from 2015 when looking at him at the plate in March 2016. The strikeouts have remained, but the home runs and walks mostly evaporated, and his stance has been evolving. He’s a work in progress, but that being said, isn’t that what Spring Training is for? In the meantime, it’s been clear that Pederson is trying to use the whole field, and I see little reason not to be optimistic that he won’t find the equilibrium he needs. There’s just so much talent there, and after all, he only turns 24 next month. I’m not sure it’s smart to underestimate him.
- The No. 5 starter: When Fangraphs ranked the Dodger starting rotation No. 2 in the Major Leagues today, you could hear the guffaws around the baseball world. In fact, you might have heard them even if Frankie Montas, Brett Anderson and Mike Bolsinger hadn’t joined Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy in the all-M*A*S*H starting rotation. But the truth remains that few if any teams are better equipped, over the course of the entire season, to generate a competitive pitcher for every single game. There might be some trial and error evolved, but when all is said and done, it’s going to make a difference to have Julio Urias, Jose De Leon and Ross Stripling, among others, poised to join those with big-league experience. And yes, that includes October, too.