Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Three Dodger Young Guns

Always larger than life.
As I was heading out of the Dodger spring training complex one last time before returning to the Bay Area, I thought about all I had seen and heard the past three days. My main impression: while the Dodgers still have a veteran-heavy (and very injury-prone) roster, the team’s young players are poised to begin making their mark in a noticeable way this season. They look ready, and it’s a good thing because the team probably won’t make the playoffs without significant contributions from young guys like:

Joc Pederson after BP.
Joc Pederson: Everybody is talking about how important it is for baseball’s number one prospect, Corey Seager, to have a breakout season (more on Seager below). However, it is centerfielder Pederson, who is an even bigger key. His power numbers last season were incredible for a rookie (26 homers on the team was second only to veteran Adrian Gonzalez), but his big, loopy home run swing killed his production in the second-half when pitchers made their adjustments. The good news is that Pederson is working like crazy with new Dodger hitting coach Turner Ward this spring. His huge front leg kick is gone, replaced with an easy, measured step forward and an approach that seems to favor line drives to all fields. It looks like the team is seriously considering him to bat lead-off, as long after every player had quit for the day, I saw Pederson bunting ball after ball under the mid-day, scorching desert sun. I don’t think I saw him try to bunt for a hit at all last season, so this seems to be an indication that he could be tapped for the top spot in the lineup.

Corey Seager looks ready.
Corey Seager: Last September, under the pressure of a pennant drive, Seager proved he could do it all at the major league level--high batting average, power, nice fielding, and incredible poise for a 21-year-old. Even so, manager Dave Roberts says he isn’t expecting Seager to do any more than a typical rookie. Did Roberts say this to keep Seager from going mental? Probably. He looked super solid in all the workouts I witnessed. His fielding is smooth; line drives scream off of his bat; his demeanor is calm and professional. He will hit a wall at some point, like almost all rookies do, but there are enough veterans to pick up the slack and let Corey blossom at his own pace this year.

Yasiel Puig making nice this year.
(photo courtesy of Cindy Murphy)
Yasiel Puig: Like it or not, the Dodgers’ success this season probably comes down to right fielder Puig. Still a tender 25 years old and raw in some areas (base running and throwing to the cut-off are much better but still issues), Puig needs the classic bounce-back season very badly. The flashes of brilliance he showed in his rookie season were lost last year in a series of badly managed hamstring injuries, questionable clubhouse demeanor, and off-field personal issues. Thankfully, so far this spring, all signs point to a more mature Puig in every way. Word from the outset has been that he is working hard on the field, which I saw all three days I was there, and the rumor that he slimmed down to keep the hamstrings healthy definitely looks to be true. But maybe most importantly, I noticed the jovial interactions with his teammates--and in English! Maybe the language barrier was the problem all along? With only his outward bravado to go on, maybe his teammates just didn't get him until now. All I know is that the team chemistry looks great, and this version of Puig has as much to do with the good vibes in camp as anything. 

If all three of these young players lock in this season, the Dodgers' chances of making a deep playoff run are as high as they have been since 1988. And we all know what happened that year. The Giants like to say that the even years belong to them, but we'll see.

Now that's dedication!
And finally, I thought I would end my stay at Dodgertown with a crazy fan.

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