Jul 30

Rafael Furcal: The best Dodger shortstop I ever saw

Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireExcept for Bill Russell, Rafael Furcal reached base more than any shortstop in Los Angeles history.

When Rafael Furcal first signed with the Dodgers, he had recently turned 28 and had averaged 152 games and 687 plate appearances over the previous four seasons, with a .342 on-base percentage, .418 slugging percentage and .794 stolen-base percentage. He wasn’t spectacular offensively, but he was solid and a step up from Cesar Izturis and Alex Cora, who mainly manned the position over the previously six years.

Coming from Atlanta, Furcal was no Andruw Jones. Though his first month was below par, Furcal snapped out of it and got better as the 2006 season went on, OPSing .963 after the All-Star break and helping the Dodgers reach the playoffs. Of no small significance, he played in 159 of 162 games and started 156 of them.

Furcal missed the first nine games of the 2007 season and the last 12 as well, but in between he played in 138 out of 141. That year, he didn’t have that great finishing kick (nor did the Dodgers), and finished with only a .687 OPS.

However, it wasn’t really until year three that the Furcal that will linger in the minds of many Dodger fans emerged. He blasted out of the gate like never before as a Dodger, playing in each of the team’s first 32 games with an MVP-caliber .448 on-base percentage and .597 slugging percentage. To put that in perspective, that’s hotter than Matt Kemp this season. And then, he was sidelined until the final week of September.

The Dodgers (thanks in part to a guy named Manny Ramirez) made the playoffs despite this, and Furcal went right into the fire of the postseason. He reached base in seven of his 15 plate appearances in the Dodgers’ Division Series sweep of Chicago, leading a dominant team performance that convinced numerous pundits to make Los Angeles favorites to reach the World Series.

Game 1 of the NLCS remains, for me, the most pivotal game of Rafael Furcal’s Dodger career. In the sixth inning, with the Dodgers leading 2-0, Furcal (0 for 4 that night) rushed a throw and made an error to allow Shane Victorino to reach first base. The next batter, Chase Utley, homered off Derek Lowe to tie the game, and Pat Burrell sent the go-ahead run out of the park one batter later.  It’s not that I’m pinning responsibility for the defeat on Furcal, but that throwing error remains as much a moment of wondering “what might have been” as Cory Wade’s and Jonathan Broxton’s pitches in the eighth inning of Game 4 are.

Furcal came back in 2009 to, without looking at things too closely, essentially repeat his 2007 season – with the main difference being that the Dodgers had the offense to withstand his deficiencies and return to the postseason. Again, Furcal shined in the NLDS triumph and floundered in the NLCS disappointment.

For your typical player, that would have been the beginning of a steady decline, but not for the you-never-know Furcal.  A year ago, here’s what was written on Dodger Thoughts:

At the start of this season, I had practically given up on Rafael Furcal.

Last year was limp, and his brief fireworks in 2008 looked like the death throes of a player just before his back was hijacked by the devil. He seemed, to adapt one of the most malleable and miserable of baseball cliches, an old 32.

Maybe in an honest attempt to be objective, maybe in an attempt to be too clever, I picked Furcal as the Dodgers’ hidden weak link. While everyone else was worried about the starting pitching or Manny Ramirez, I was the one who so smartly pointed out that the Dodgers had a fizzler as the backbone of their infield.

Turns out, that fizzler has been the most valuable shortstop in major league baseball — All-Star snub be damned — according to Fangraphs.

That Furcal has made me look so wrong is wonderful. That he has done it in a year of personal tragedy is wondrous. How did he go back to work so quickly after his father died? And how did he go back so well?

Furcal is a player of tremendous ability — he quite possibly will leave the Dodgers at the end of 2011 as the greatest-hitting shortstop in their long history — and, if it may still be said, somewhat maddening inconsistency. At times like these, with a .443 on-base percentage and .667 slugging percentage since June 4, he is arguably the best player in the game, punctuated by the spring in his defensive step. But even this year, Furcal has had his struggles. Thanks to more injuries and more ill production, Furcal reached base only 13 times compared with 11 strikeouts over a six-week span from April 22 through June 3. To put it in the best possible light, Furcal has an uncanny ability to remind you that he is all too human.

He’s one of us. Until he’s not.

Furcal will cool off again, maybe starting tonight. And one of these days, months or years, he won’t heat back up again. After all, he’s an old 32, right? But someday, after it’s all over, I hope I remember these inspiring weeks, when Furcal not only found life worth living in a dark hour, he made it that much more rewarding for the rest of us.

Should Rafael Furcal’s trade to St. Louis become official, some will look back on all the money spent on Furcal and all the games missed, not to mention his lost year of 2011, when he managed to reach base only 41 times in four months. I’ll look back on Furcal as a guy who, each time he was signed, was worth taking a risk on. He was the most brilliant Dodger shortstop of my lifetime as a follower of the team. While I wish and hope for nothing but the best for Dee Gordon, his fleet and healthy feet will have some fly shoes to fill.

Jul 30

A quick word about Kuroda and no-trade clauses

Some online are questioning why Ned Colletti gave Hiroki Kuroda a no-trade clause. The answer is that it has value, just like money. Without the clause, Kuroda would have been much less likely to stay with Los Angeles as opposed to going elsewhere, such as back to Japan.

It’s not clear at all that Kuroda would have taken a higher salary in exchange for not having a no-trade clause, but even if he had, what you then end up doing is paying him even more than he is worth, based on what at the start of the season was a relatively unlikely scenario of the Dodgers’ wanting to trade him. Plus, the added salary itself be an added impediment to getting a trade done.

So no, the Dodgers don’t end up getting X players in exchange for Kuroda, and on some level, as Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness argues, that’s certainly a shame. But what they did get was four months and counting of a quality pitcher that they otherwise might not have had. Back in the offseason, when they were still trying to win in 2011, that’s a good deal.

Jul 30

Dodgers close to trading Furcal to Cardinals

As a player with 10 years in the majors and five with his current team, Rafael Furcal would have to approve any trade involving him. But there’s little reason to think he would block the deal that is close to being made, according to Jayson Stark of ESPN.com, that would send Furcal to St. Louis.

The Dodgers, who are currently committed to paying Furcal’s 2011 salary, would reportedly end up paying a good portion of it even if the trade goes through. But it would give them the chance of receiving some immediate player compensation, while fully launching the Dee Gordon opera into its overture.

St. Louis would be hoping it gets the Furcal who played well enough (and enough, period) to make the All-Star Game just last year.

Jul 12

Dodgers send Thames up the Rivera

Mark Goldman/Icon SMIJuan Rivera has a .700 OPS in 730 plate appearances over this season and last, but he’s been better against lefties.

In a less-than-inspirational exchange, the Dodgers have acquired outfielder Juan Rivera from Toronto, plus cash, in exchange for a player to be named later or cash (presumably if the organizations can’t agree on the player).

In a separate but related move, the Dodgers designated Marcus Thames for assignment. Here’s more from my news story:

Rivera, who turned 33 last week, was batting .243 with six homers and 28 RBIs in 275 plate appearances this season. He had a .305 on-base percentage and .360 slugging percentage for the Blue Jays after coming to Toronto from the Los Angeles Angels in the January trade that sent Vernon Wells west. The year before, Rivera had a .312 OBP and .409 slugging for the Angels in 455 plate appearances.

He is in the final year of a three-year, $12.75 million deal, making $5.25 million this year.

The 34-year-old Thames, who signed a one-year, $1 million deal with the Dodgers the same week as Rivera went to Toronto, was hitting .197 with two homers and seven RBIs with the Dodgers over 70 plate appearances in an injury-marred season that showed him ill-suited to play in the field. He had a .243 OBP and .333 slugging after posting .350/.491 numbers with the New York Yankees in 2010, playing the majority of the time as a designated hitter.

Rivera will join a left-field mix with the struggling Dodgers that includes Tony Gwynn Jr., Trent Oeltjen and Eugenio Velez, with Jerry Sands and Trayvon Robinson in the minors.

Dodger left fielders have two home runs and a .618 OPS this season, the worst in the National League.

There will be a lot of panic in some parts about whom the player to be named later might be, though I don’t have much fear on this front that it will be a significant prospect. And the cash from Toronto should cover a good part of what Rivera is owed this season.

So, this seems mostly to be a concession that Thames can’t hack it as a National League, non-designated hitter, whereas Rivera might fill the Thames’ role and contribute in the field a little.

At the same time, Rivera is pretty clearly a player in decline offensively — much more than Thames was going into this season — so I get no joy out of seeing him taking up space on the roster on the odd chance that he’ll bash a homer against a lefty once in a while.  (Rivera has two home runs and a .909 OPS in 65 plate appearances against lefties this season.)

Of course, the Dodgers are still carrying Eugenio Velez, but that’s another story.

Clearly, Ned Colletti hasn’t quite given up on the divisional race, though this hardly means he’s gone all in.

Jul 04

Dodgers add Velez to bench so that Gordon can play every day in minors

A day after sending Casey Blake to the disabled list and activating Rafael Furcal, the Dodgers gave Dee Gordon his ticket back to Albuquerque and purchased the contract of Eugenio Velez, who had a .371 on-base percentage and .463 slugging percentage while playing second base, third base and the outfield for the Isotopes.

The 29-year-old Velez has played 225 games in the majors, all with the Giants, for whom he had a .300 on-base percentage and .388 slugging percentage. He had his exhibition season with the Dodgers cut short this year by an ankle injury.

* * *

James Surowiecki’s Financial Page column for the New Yorker, “Dodger Mania,” turns out not to be about our local baseball team.

Jun 18

A low down dirty shame

One thing I noticed about the sixth-inning-gone-wrong in the Dodgers’ 7-3 loss to Houston on Friday was how the hitters who did the most damage to Ted Lilly were diving for pitches.

Carlos Lee went down and away to loop a 200-foot single to drive in the run that broke a 1-1 tie. The first-pitch breaking ball was not in the strike zone. Then, with the bases loaded, Clint Barmes hit a 1-0 slider over the plate but down at his knees, slicing a two-run double just inside the right-field line about 250 feet down.

The topper came on a two out, 3-2 fastball to Jason Bourgeois – first seen here in my 2002 article on Single-A ball in Savannah, right around the time I started Dodger Thoughts – that was over the center of the plate, but all Bourgeois did with that was hit a grounder up the middle that Aaron Miles flagged, only to miss on the throw to second, allowing two runs to score.

In the meantime, Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com can tell you about the Dodgers’ lack-of-patience woes at the plate.

Not the Dodgers’ night, or their week, or their month, or their year.

* * *

Kenley Jansen, one of three injured Dodger relievers coming off the disabled list in the short term, returns to the active roster today. The trio of returnees will create some tough cuts in the Dodger bullpen, starting with Josh Lindblom, who is being sent to Double-A for the time being.

Note where Lindblom ranks on the following lists …

Opponents’ OPS in 2011 for recently active Dodger relievers
.624 Josh Lindblom
.629 Matt Guerrier
.637 Blake Hawksworth
.686 Scott Elbert
.749 Mike MacDougal
.777 Javy Guerra
.996 Ramon Troncoso

Opponents’ OPS in past 28 days for recently active Dodger relievers
.588 Blake Hawksworth
.624 Josh Lindblom
.686 Matt Guerrier
.840 Scott Elbert
.851 Mike MacDougal
.863 Ramon Troncoso
.868 Javy Guerra

Jun 09

Dodgers demote Jerry Sands, bring up Trent Oeltjen

Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw

The Dodgers are going to give Jerry Sands a breather from the major leagues, replacing him on the active roster with lefty-hitting outfielder Trent Oeltjen, who had a .429 on-base percentage and .583 slugging percentage at Albuquerque. Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has details.

In addition, the Dodgers outrighted minor-leaguer Luis Vasquez from the 40-man roster to Single-A Rancho Cucamonga.

Have no fear about Sands — despite his recent slump, his initial foray into the bigs should be viewed in a positive light, providing some great moments as well as some knowledge of how he has to improve.

As for the major-league roster, I wonder if this move sets the stage for Casey Blake to play some left field, as was discussed months ago.

* * *

It’s Clayton Kershaw Day on the Internet, with several pieces on the Dodger lefty:

  • Tim Kurkjian of ESPN.com is exceedingly complimentary, noting that no 23-year-old major-league pitcher (according to the Elias Sports Bureau) had ever had as many career victories and as low a career ERA while striking out more than a batter per inning before Kershaw.  Kershaw says he benefited from his fast start.

    “The Dodgers did me a huge favor calling me up as early as they did,” Kershaw told Kurkjian. “I took my lumps, but I’m better off for it. What I’ve learned to this point has been huge for me.”

    The biggest adjustment came this year when he added a slider in part because, “I couldn’t control my curveball.” Manager Don Mattingly agreed, but added, “No one [umpires] calls the curveball [for strikes] anymore. No one swings at it. So, you can’t throw it. But his slider and changeup have become very good. When I first saw him, he could throw a fastball for a strike on the inside part of the plate to right-handed hitters. Now he can throw the ball to both sides of the plate, against right-handed and left-handed hitters. His bullpens are now art. He throws five pitches in, five away. He moves the ball around. It’s boom, boom, boom.” …

  • Dave Cameron of Fangraphs names Kershaw as a finalist for best southpaw in the National League, before going with a Phillie.
  • David Schoenfield of ESPN.com also makes the case for Kershaw as a top young lefty in MLB, before giving Tampa Bay’s David Price a slight edge.
  • According to the Dodger press notes, since making his major-league debut in May 2008, no pitcher with at least 400 innings has a lower opponents’ batting average than Kershaw (.221 batting average, 7.3 hits per nine innings).
Jun 06

Dee-Day: Whirlwind of roster changes ends with Gordon callup

Norm Hall/Getty ImagesUnderneath that helmet is newest Dodger major-leaguer Dee Gordon.

Jerry Sands getting an early promotion to the bigs didn’t surprise me much. Nor did Rubby De La Rosa.

But Dee Gordon getting the call — now that’s a commitment to youth.

With Rafael Furcal once again relegated to the disabled list for weeks, the Dodgers have called up the 23-year-old Gordon from Albuquerque, where he had a .361 on-base percentage and 22 steals in 25 attempts, but also only 14 walks and nine extra-base hits (.370 slugging) in 50 games. (Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has the news story.)

Gordon has also had many questions about his fielding, particularly his ability to make the ordinary play (as opposed to the extraordinary one). On the bright side, his surge of errors in April has slowed considerably.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that while everyone has always raved about Gordon’s blinding speed, that .880 stolen-base percentage is a new bright spot. No one’s expecting power from Gordon, so if he can just get on base and stay out of his own way defensively, he could be a thrill to watch.

Gordon is not in tonight’s starting lineup, but unlike with someone such as Ivan De Jesus, Jr., you don’t call someone like Gordon up to ride the bench. Cynics might wonder if Gordon is being showcased for a trade, but I’ve never gotten the sense he’s someone the Dodgers want to part with.

To make room for Gordon and Marcus Thames, who was activated from the disabled list, the Dodgers designated Juan Castro and Jay Gibbons for assignment. This is also something of a surprise, given the Dodgers’ proclivity to protect depth — and by 2011 Dodger standards, the .668 OPS for Gibbons and .619 OPS for Castro aren’t the worst you could imagine. Sands could easily have been sent to the minors. But clearly, general manager Ned Colletti buys into the reality that they’re not going to miss much by losing Castro and Gibbons. (There’s also the not-slim possibility that the pair could end up back in Albuquerque if they clear waivers.)

Perhaps the way the young Dodger bullpen replacements have risen to the occasion has influenced Colletti.

Finally, the Dodgers optioned John Ely and De Jesus to make room for the return of Blake Hawksworth and Juan Uribe from the DL.

On the current 25-man active roster, 15 are below the age of 30.

* * *

Three years ago, I transcribed a Vin Scully excerpt on the anniversary of D-Day. This rubbed some people the wrong way, and a long discussion ensued in the comments of that thread. Just want to link to it to say I hadn’t forgotten what Scully said, nor the response that followed. It was a learning experience for me.

Jun 04

Dodgers call up Ely, De Jesus

Rafael Furcal and Jon Garland are officially on the disabled list, replaced for the time being by Ivan De Jesus Jr. and John Ely. Vicente Padilla has had a setback, which is why he’s not being activated. Juan Uribe and Blake Hawksworth could displace the Ely and De Jesus within days, however.

Ely will pitch out of the bullpen – Rubby De La Rosa is still scheduled to start Tuesday.

Jun 03

Garland injury opens path for De La Rosa to starting rotation

We’re still waiting for the official word, but Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com is reporting that Jon Garland will be placed on the disabled list (for the second time this season) with a right shoulder problem.

The immediate roster replacement would be Vicente Padilla, who will be activated from the disabled list, but more significantly, it could mean Rubby De La Rosa will make his first major-league start Tuesday in Philadelphia.

Update: Whatever’s going to happen is apparently not happening before today’s game, according to this note from the Dodgers.

May 29

Whooosh – there it is: Kershaw, Dodgers blow out Marlins

Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw

So that’s what a breeze feels like.

Sailing into a storm most of the season, the Dodgers enjoyed a day with the wind entirely at their backs, with Clayton Kershaw in near no-hit form and the offense practically an arcade, leading to an 8-0 breeze over the Marlins.

The Dodgers took two of three from Florida for their first series victory since April 22-24 in Chicago. If you’re any kind of believer – and praise be onto you if you are – this is where it starts, all the ifs and buts transforming into actual results.

Whether they can extend this one-game winning streak, matching their longest since May 13 (yes, that’s right), is of course up in the air, but if in fact it’s a blip on the losing radar, it was a blip to be savored.

Kershaw’s marquee game in my mind remains his showdown victory over Ubaldo Jimenez of Colorado 12 1/2 months ago, but as Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness points out, today was Kershaw’s finest statistical outing ever – a Kershawnal Best, if you will – allowing two hits and one walk while striking out 10 in his second career shutout. The second hit off Kershaw was a ball that Jay Gibbons lost in a battle with the sun and an unusually ferocious wind, which would have been exceedingly painful for fans had Omar Infante not singled softly to left in the third inning.

In any case, Kershaw, who lowered his ERA to 2.62 and now leads the major leagues with 87 strikeouts, was in complete control.

“He was hitting both sides of the plate and throwing inside on lefties, which you don’t see that much from a lefty,” Florida’s Wes Helms told The Associated Press. “Kershaw just commanded all of his pitches today, and he had above-average stuff. He knows how to bury his curveball and his slider. He’s not going to leave it over the middle of the plate. I mean, you get geared up for that heater, and his slider’s hard enough that you can’t hold up when it’s in the dirt.”

It was a Hershiseresque day all around for Kershaw, who had as many hits at the plate as he allowed. The 23-year-old, who was 10 for 132 entering this season, is 6 for 25 in 2011. His two hits were only 13 percent of the Dodgers’ 15 off Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco, who was forced to stick it out for five innings after Florida blew out its bullpen Saturday. The total tied a Los Angeles record for the most off a single starting pitcher (Mario Soto of Cincinnati was the last victim, in 1982).

Gibbons, Andre Ethier and Rafael Furcal each had three, including Furcal’s first homer of the year, a two-run shot to the right-field bullpen that gave the Dodgers their initial lead after Kershaw led off the bottom of the third with a single. Ethier reached base in all five plate appearances, while Dioner Navarro went 2 for 4 to complete a 7-for-18 week.

Dodger life is good today, for the second time in three days.

* * *

  • Bob Timmermann has a great essay at L.A. Observed’s Native Intelligence about a simpler time, a simpler time when all we had to do was be mad at Tom Niedenfuer and Jack Clark.
  • Zach Lee gave up six runs in one-third of an inning of his return to active duty with Great Lakes today. He allowed three hits, two walks and two hit batters, writes Hugh Bernreuter of the Saginaw News, who also had a nice piece on Ramon Martinez earlier this week.
  • Josh Lindblom officially arrived today, with Kenley Jansen going on the 15-day disabled list and Travis Schlichting being designated for assignment. Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has details. That makes five top relievers on the Dodger disabled list: Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Vicente Padilla, Blake Hawksworth and Jansen.
  • Gary Carter’s diagnosis is grim, but no one is giving up, writes Ian Begley for ESPNNewYork.com.
  • Stadium Journey reviews the Chattanooga Lookouts ballpark.
May 25

Dodgers add Ian Snell to minor-league roster

Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com passes along the following:

HOUSTON — Veteran major league right-hander Ian Snell signed a minor league contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday, barely two months after he retired during spring training. Snell had gone to camp with the St. Louis Cardinals but failed to make the club.

DeJon Watson, the Dodgers’ assistant general manager for player development who signed Snell, said Snell initially will go to the team’s spring-training complex in Glendale, Ariz., to get his arm back into shape after the two-month layoff, then eventually will report to the Dodgers’ Triple-A Albuquerque affiliate.

Snell, 29, last pitched in the majors last season for the Seattle Mariners, going 0-5 with a 6.41 ERA in eight starts and four relief appearances and also spending some time in Triple-A. Originally a 26th-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Snell has a career major league mark of 38-53 in seven seasons, with a 4.80 ERA.

From 2004-2008, Snell struck out 7.7 batters per nine innings in the majors. That fell to 5.4 over the past two years, covering 191 1/3 innings.

May 24

Rubby De La Rosa gets the call

The Dodgers’ accelerated youth movement continues today with the promotion of pitcher Rubby De La Rosa from Double-A to the big leagues.

De La Rosa follows Jerry Sands as the second active Dodger who began last season in Single-A ball. (Correction: Make it three, as Kenley Jansen also qualifies.) De La Rosa has a 2.92 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 40 innings this season for Chattanooga.

He figures to be a top candidate for the starting rotation as soon as next season, but while this move will put him in the bullpen, it might help preserve an arm that had only thrown 180 professional innings before this season. Chad Billingsley and Pedro Martinez are among the starting pitchers who spent early portions of their major-league careers in relief.

In the process, the Dodgers gave up on Lance Cormier, designating him for assignment rather than sending Ramon Troncoso back to the minors and making room for De La Rosa in some other fashion.

May 13

Dodgers Juan up themselves again with Castro

Juan Castro is healthy again, and Aaron Miles has firmly beaten out Ivan DeJesus Jr. for starts at second base while Casey Blake and Rafael Furcal are both injured. So though it’s not a decision for fans of a youth movement, it makes sense for the Dodgers to bring up Castro from Albuquerque and send DeJesus down.

Hector Gimenez was moved to the 60-day disabled list to make room for Castro, who was 11 for 24 with two walks in Triple-A, on the 40-man roster.

When Furcal returns, Russ Mitchell will almost certainly go back to the Isotopes.