2015 L.A. Dodgers: Defense first

Ron Fairly

First baseman-outfielder Ron Fairly was best known as a Dodger, for whom he won three World Series, but had his best years after he was traded for Maury Wills, with the expansion Montreal Expos. Fairly was twice an All-Star in Canada, with the Expos in 1973 when he hit .298 with 17 homers, and 1977 with the expansion Blue Jays, when he hit .279 with 19 homers at age 38. With the Dodgers, Fairly became a regular after hitting .322 and slugging .522 (with 48 walks and only 22 strikeouts) in 301 at-bats in 1961. With the Dodgers from ’62-’66, when they were in the World Series three times, Fairly hit from .271 to .288 four times, and double-figures in home runs four times, but never more than 14. He hit .379 in the ’65 World Series with five extra-base hits, though both of his home runs were in Dodgers losses. Fairly hit .220 and .234 before the trade for Wills, but in Montreal he had his career high for homers (17 in ’72 and ’73), walks (86 in ’73), steals (10 in ’70) and WAR (4.5 in ’73). He had another good part-time year with the Cardinals in ’75 (.301 with an .888 OPS) before playing for the A’s, Jays and Angels his final three seasons. Before his major league career, Fairly won the College World Series with USC; after it he was a longtime broadcaster with the Mariners. Career numbers: 21 seasons, .266 average, .768 OPS, 215 home runs, 1,913 hits, 1,044 RBIS, 1.052 walks (877 strikeouts), 35.2 WAR.

On deck: The Dodgers traded for Jimmy Rollins to play shortstop, but he shouldn’t get comfortable. He’s keeping the dirt brushed for Corey Seager, a 2012 first-round pick who reached Class AA by age 20 and is the younger brother of Seattle third baseman Kyle. There’s a middle brother, corner infielder Justin, who won’t be lining up in the infield with his family anytime soon, if his career .645 OPS in the low minors is any indication. Corey hit 20 homers last year, has a career .304 average, including .349 last year albeit mostly in the California League, and a .526 career slugging percentage. Those are gaudy numbers for a shortstop, which the Dodgers insist Seager is at a Cal Ripken-like 6-foot-4. That’s tight end size, but Seager has played 273 of his 274 minor league games at short. The Dodgers are serious about him manning that position. More cautionary is his worsening plate discipline: he fanned more last year (115 to 89, excluding the fall league in 2013) and walked less (40-46).

Trivia: Clayton Kershaw’s Cy Young last year was the seventh won by a Dodger lefty (Kershaw in 2011 and 2013-14; Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 and Sandy Koufax in 1963 and 1965-66). How many Cy Youngs have been won by Dodgers righties? Name the winners. Answer below.

What he said: Zack Greinke on the new-look Dodgers: “How much better is Kershaw going to be with a different shortstop? He had a 1.7 ERA, so it couldn’t have hurt him too much.” What he meant: “I never had any problems getting Jimmy Rollins out.”

Outlook: Greinke was skeptical when asked about the 2015 Dodgers at this winter’s fan gathering, which, like political rallies, are rah-rah events to fire up the base. Articulating doubt at them is akin to a lack of patriotism during a national crisis, so Greinke’s doubts were more demonstrative than a Tommy Lasorda tantrum.

But who could blame him? The Dodgers dealt away 38 home runs from the middle of their order in Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez, 64 steals from the top of their order in Dee Gordon and a 13-game winner in Dan Haren.

“Well, I guess the best way I can answer that question is that, in the playoffs last year, I thought our team was the best team in baseball,” Greinke said. “To say we’re better than that, I don’t know if you could say that, especially without seeing us play.”

Greinke is the Dodger who said “there is absolutely zero excitement,” for opening the 2014 season in Australia. It’s nice to see this time he’s keeping an open mind.

The 2015 Dodgers are the creation of Andrew Friedman, who built the Rays into a playoff team four times in seven years and won 90 games five times, all without a budget that can afford Pentagon-like expenditures.

The Dodgers can afford to pay Friedman $7 million a year, which isn’t as much as Kemp but enough to get rid of Kemp. That might seem like something the Rays would do, given Kemp’s $21 million salary. It is, but not because of the money.

Friedman wasn’t as interested in value per dollar as much as value on defense: almost every move the Dodgers made improved run prevention more than run creation. To wit: Howie Kendrick (1.4 defensive WAR) was a better defender at second base than Gordon (-0.3) in 2014, despite the latter being younger and faster; Jimmy Rollins (1.0) was a better defender at short than the oft-injured Ramirez, which the Red Sox confirmed by moving him to the outfield; and rookie Joc Pederson will be a better defender in the oufield than Kemp, whose -3.1 defensive WAR seemingly couldn’t have been worse if he’d been AWOL

Kemp’s 2014 defensive WAR wasn’t even his career low (-3.6 in 2010), which is why — added to his team-high 21 double plays — the Dodgers will pay him $18 million to play for a division rival in 2015.

Check back with Greinke for his ranking of the 2105 Dodgers after he’s pitched front of his new improved defense for half a season.

Both Kendrick and Rollins are signed only through this season, which is the biggest difference for Friedman between coasts. It’ll be a lot easier to fill positions with the Dodgers’ payroll than the Rays.

Of course, none of this will matter next fall if Clayton Kershaw pitches like Jon Garland again in the postseason. Kershaw’s postseason ERA is 5.12, or 2.43 runs higher than his regular season one, and in his last two series he’s 0-4 with a 7.15 ERA.

The Pirates lost all three series in which Barry Bonds hit .191 with one homer and two doubles in 68 at-bats; the Dodgers lost the 1952 World Series when Gil Hodges went 0-for-21. The best team in baseball won’t win if its best players don’t play like it.

Trivia answer: Five Cy Young Awards have been won by Dodgers righties: Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe won the very first in 1956, Don Drysdale in 1962, Mike Marshall in 1974, Orel Hershiser in 1988 and Eric Gagne in 2003. The Dodgers’ 12 Cy Youngs are the most won by any team. The Braves and Phillies are tied for second with seven each.

Team song: Warren Zevon: Desperados Under the Eaves

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