Eye on the Enemy: Los Angeles Dodgers showing youthful depth

It’s one thing for a major market organization like the Los Angeles Dodgers to be constant postseason contenders through high priced free agents and an unlimited amount of financial resources. It becomes another when they then create a youthful backbone to make their reign everlasting.

It is known now that the Dodgers trading star center fielder Matt Kemp was in fact a smart decision, considering that his successor, Joc Pederson, is currently leading the team in home runs. A big deal considering that the Dodgers lead the National League in home runs.

They are also finding use in their youth in ways that would normally be under the radar, like Enrique Hernandez for example. The 23-year-old super utility plays nearly every position other than first base, catcher and pitcher.

“There’s a lot of people that can play the outfield and some second and third,” Hernandez said. “Something that differentiates me is that I can play short one day and center the next, and your team isn’t getting any worse defensively.”

Versatility, defensive skills, spot on hitting, and any indication of a personality, have Hernandez as the ideal fan favorite player. The fan favorite is never the star player. That comes with ultimate expectations of being the main reason of the team’s success. Hernandez is the lovable bench player who shines when called upon and has a funny nickname.

Being born and raised from San Juan, Puerto Rico, while not looking like someone who was born and raised here in Los Angeles, his nickname, ‘Kike’, is actually pronounced KEE-Kay. It doesn’t come with an accent mark. It eventually got one during a lower level minor league broadcast when Hernandez was playing in the short season Single-A New York-Penn League.

“Teams started using an accent to avoid controversy,” Hernandez said. “I don’t mind it. It’s in Spanish. If you don’t read it in Spanish, it can be offensive.”

He was a .280 hitter while debuting for the Houston Astros in 2014 before being traded along with staring pitcher Jared Cosart to the Miami Marlins for center fielder Jake Marisnick and third base prospect Colin Moran. Just as he was plotting his preparation to take over the vacant second base spot in Miami for the 2015 season, the Marlins traded him, along with pitcher Chris Hatcher (who is horrible right now), catching prospect Austin Barnes (who recently made his big league debut) and top pitching prospect Andrew Heaney (who was instantly swapped to the LA Angels for second baseman Howie Kendrick) to the Dodgers for Dee Gordon. The news of his second trade over the course of a calendar year came on Twitter from a teenage aspiring baseball journalist, who stumbled onto the scoop — a recent trend in baseball.

“My heart started racing and then it dropped,” Hernandez said. “I went to my house. My parents were sitting in the living room with my two sisters. I’m like, ‘I just got traded again.'”

Hernandez’s biggest impact on the Dodgers is his sound connection with the baseball gods. His mystical rally banana has broken an MLB record 42-inning scoreless streak.

“I said, ‘I’m on the bench, I’ve got to help my team somehow, we’ve got to come up with something,'” Hernandez said. “So I look around and the first thing I see is a banana and I said, ‘This banana is going to be a rally banana’.”

“He’s a different cat. He’s got energy for days. He’s a chatterbox,” pitcher Brett Anderson said. “You need guys like that to keep it fun and keep it interesting with some different personalities.”

Him and his good luck banana will likely continue to grace the Dodgers on their path to the postseason. They’ll need that good luck when dealing the harsh reality of having eight pitchers on the disabled list. The Dodgers had to resort to finding diamonds in the rough and throwing them out there to shine. One of them has; 28-year-old Adam Liberatore.

In the first 15 appearances of his rookie season, the Bellflower, Calif. native has given up only two runs and averages a strikeout per inning. His mixture of well located fastballs ranging from 93-94 MPH and sliders in the low 80s has so far baffled hitters so far this season. It’s amazing to see that he came to the Dodgers as the other guy in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays that brought in Joel Peralta and is in fact the key piece of the trade.

Last year in the minor leagues, Liberatore went 6-1 with a 1.54 ERA and four saves in 54 games in his third turn with the Durham Bulls, with 86 strikeouts and 15 walks in 65 innings. He was also named a Triple-A All-Star that year.

Left-handers hit just .176/.228/.243 against Liberatore last year, with 34 strikeouts in 79 plate appearances and just five walks. In the last three seasons, split between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham, Liberatore allowed one home run to lefties in 263 plate appearances, hitting just .175/.251/.235 against him, with 91 strikeouts (34.6 percent) and 20 walks.

Dodgers top baseball executive Andrew Friedman knew what he had in him when he was the executive vice president of baseball operations in Tampa Bay and made sure to include him in the Peralta trade. Here he is now as one of the Dodgers top relievers so far this season.

He also had the same eye for Austin Barnes as well when he included him in the Miami trade package for Dee Gordon and Dan Haren. The 25-year-old catcher made his big league debut a couple weekends ago against the rival San Diego Padres and went 1 for 3 in his only game so far.

“Getting the first one out of the way was great,” Barnes said. “I grew up playing the game. You want to get your first big league hit. You don’t like losing the game like that but it is what it is.”

Even though the Dodgers also acquired Yasmani Grandal in the offseason to be their starting catcher, and has five home runs and an on-base percentage of .402, Barnes was always meant to be the next man up eventually. One of his biggest advantages came in Triple-A when he was learning to catch all of the many young pitchers who are now surfacing in with the big league club today.

“I caught a lot of these guys in spring,” Barnes said. “I still remembered them. [Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt] was going over hitters every inning, going over what we wanted to do with all that.”

“He got to know all his pitchers,” Mike Bolsinger said of Barnes, who caught 29 of the Triple-A club’s first 41 games. “He really went out of his way to find out what type of pitcher you were. I think that’s what makes you a good catcher. You’re dealing with new people every day. It’s not like up here where you’re dealing with a set of people. You’re catching a new pitcher almost every start, especially down there with what was going on up here. He did it well.”

With the injuries to two of the Dodgers’ main starting pitchers (Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu), the starting rotation now is filled with new faces and most importantly, faces who has experienced catching with Barnes.

“He received the ball well,” said Bolsinger, who with a 1.15 ERA in five starts, has demonstrated that the Diamondbacks’ trash can become the Dodgers’ treasure. “You feel comfortable when somebody tries to steal on him. He has a really strong arm. He puts up good numbers offensively too. He can hit. Good defensively blocking pitches. You feel real comfortable throwing stuff in the dirt to him. Just overall makes you feel pretty relaxed out there when you’re pitching.”

Barnes hit .290 with three home runs and 13 RBI in 100 Triple-A at-bats with the Oklahoma City Dodgers this season. His minor-league career track suggests that he will be a contact hitter with the celling of Brewers All-Star Jonathan Lucroy. The 25-year-old was a ninth-round draft pick in 2011 out of Arizona State University, where he second base and third base. He became a full-time catcher in the minor leagues, and wants to stay there.

“I thought I could do it,” Barnes said. “I just believed that I could become a full-time catcher. I do like playing the infield, but I just believed I could do it. I thought I could hit back there too and hopefully all of that continues.”

More youth may be on the way for the Dodgers, through way of injuries or poor play from their veteran stopgaps. Even though it is still a bit early, veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins is beginning to look like the guy who leaves the team where his identity is closely linked to and becomes a mediocre afterthought with multiple teams as his career comes to a close.

After spending 15 years as an icon with the Philadelphia Phillies (and take it from someone who grew up in Philadelphia, he was), the 36-year-old shortstop looks like a Bizarro version of himself with the Dodgers. Bizarro Rollins is hitting below all of his career averages and is making his walk-off home run on Opening Day seem like a distant memory.

“I think Jimmy has been fine for a little while actually,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said while showing support and patience for Rollins. “I don’t know if the numbers have sowed it out, but just from what we see watching him at the plate and contact and everything else, I feel like Jimmy’s been swinging the bat well.”

Rollins still has experience and veteran wisdom on his side, and that has still given him confidence in his ability to eventually break out of the slump.

“Some times, like hitters do when they get in trouble, you start thinking and you get caught in between,” Rollins said. “It’s just working through that. It’s taking longer than anyone would like, especially me. But I have an idea, a plan at the plate. It’s a matter of not overthinking it and executing it.

“It doesn’t shake you,” he said of the slump. “Being a veteran player, you already have a track record, you’ve already established you can play here. Yes, you still want everybody to know that you can still play here, but you also get that it’s a long season. You can’t get down, you can’t get discouraged.”

When the media asked Rollins if he ever though this was the beginning of the end for him, he responded with, “Only on bad days.”

“A bad day is when you have a bad game and your team loses,” he said. “You have a bad game and your team wins, it’s not. When I say a bad game, you had no idea at the plate and you felt lost.”

Serving as Rollins’ hour glass is spunky shortstop prospect Corey Seager. Drafting Seager with the 18th overall pick back in the 2012 MLB First Year Player Draft comes with accelerated expectations. The spunky 21-year-old has already established himself as one of the best hitting shortstops in the minors in just three professional seasons. Mind you, this is a kid that went straight from high school to the same level as the best college players ascend to.

Seager is currently blazing through the minors with a .375 batting average and a 1.082 OPS in 20 games at Double-A Tulsa and hitting continuing his domination right now at Triple-A Oklahoma City. However, according to ESPN prospect expert Keith Law, his physical growth is what is currently keeping him from truly being MLB ready. His Double-A manager, Razor Shines, believes differently.

“He’s better than everybody else, it’s just that simple,” he said. “It’s the way a young Willie Mays was better than everybody else or the way a young Hank Aaron was better than everybody else. I don’t think you can explain it. I think he’s this gifted. He is by far the best player I have ever managed.”

Grandal batted behind Seager during his rehab assignment in OKC and was impressed with what he saw in him.

“I’m really impressed,” he said. “He’s got good hands too, made a couple plays up the middle. But I’m really impressed with the bat.”

Rollins may want to turn his bat up as soon as possible, because if he is still struggling by the time of the All-Star Game, he may become instant trade bait.

It’s not a secret, is it?” Rollins said. “You never know what upper management’s going to do and you can’t even try to guess,” he said. “It’d be foolish to concern yourself with those matters.”

Speaking of more youth, the 2015 MLB Draft is fast approaching and it is gaining more and more meaning as the years go by and the overall athlete improves and spills over to baseball.

For some can’t-miss draft prospects, it is taking less time for them to reach the show. Carlos Rodon was the Chicago White Sox’s first round draft pick last year and he is now in their bullpen. They have been talking about the possibility of Kyle Schwarber (also a 2014 first round draft pick) being called up to the Chicago Cubs because manager Joe Madden said his bat was Major League ready.

Kris Bryant was the Cubs’ top choice in 2013 and was treated as a celebrity in Minnesota during the All-Star Futures Game last year.

“I saw Kris Bryant in the airport getting escorted out by police because he was being swarmed by fans,” Seattle Mariners prospect and Gilbert native D.J. Peterson said.

He’s now the Cubs’ Evan Longoria. Michael Lorenzen was a competitive balance pick that same year and is now with the Cincinnati Reds’ starting rotation. Mike Zunino was drafted third overall in 2012 by the Seattle Mariners and became their starting catcher the next year. I can come up with many more examples.

With the Dodgers, they were lucky to select Clayton Kershaw in 2006 and have Seager in 2012, but for every one of those, there’s a Luke Hochevar (2005) who refuses to sign twice and later makes it to the bigs with the Kansas City Royals, or a Chris Withrow (2007) and Ethan Martin (2008) who doesn’t live up to potential in the minors and becomes used as trade bait to land a rental, or even an Aaron Miller (2009) who doesn’t even get past Double-A.

They have a top draft prospect in their own backyard in pitcher Dillon Tate of UC Santa Barbara, but he’s likely to picked early. Instead, they may settle for Justin Hooper, a high school pitching prospect in Oakland.

When the Dodgers finally shed their old and expensive skin for something more fresh and formidable, they may finally reach the World Series and stay there, something they haven’t been able to do in three decades.


About: Tony Capobianco


Sports Kave senior writer and podcast host

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