During the offseason and spring training the big stories about Puig was related to off the field issues like traffic offenses and the amazing story of his exit from Cuba. For all of the success Puig was having on the field there were still question marks about how the young star approaches the game, his tendency for make errors on the base paths and his approach to the game. When the Dodgers opened the season in Australia first baseman Adrian Gonzalez purportedly took Puig aside to challenge him to improve multiple areas of his game. Some of the indiscretions of Puig, led some baseball analysts to question whether or not Puig would continue his ascension to superstardom.Well, what a difference a month makes. Six weeks into the season Puig is arguably the best player in the National League, with numbers that rival those put together by fellow Southern California star Mike Trout during his first two seasons. While the Dodgers are in third place and struggling to keep pace with the Giants in the division, Puig is playing like an MVP. His combination of speed and power has ignited the top of the Dodgers lineup, along with second baseman Dee Gordon. Forty-three games into the season Puig has demonstrated better patience at the plate, and is in the midst of a fifteen game hitting streak. Puig leads the Dodgers with a .333 average, 33 runs batted in, a .422 OBP and a tremendous 1.012 OPS. Like a true MVP candidate Puig has shined with runners on base. With runners in scoring position Puig is hitting .408 with 28 RBI. With two outs and runners in scoring position Puig’s average rises to .455 with 18 RBI.
Can Puig win the MVP?From a sheer performance standpoint he should be a top candidate. The key is whether or not the Dodgers get out of their early season doldrums. The Dodgers poor record is a bit of a mystery considering the individual position areas have performed well. The bullpen has struggled at times, blowing some late game and extra innings lead, but that should turn around. The Giants have started strong but as spring turns into summer the Dodgers should heat up and make their run towards the top of the National League West.
Puig will have stiff competition from players like Troy Tulowitzki, Giancarlo Stanton and fellow Dodger Adrian Gonzalez. Tulowitzki and Stanton, who have led their respective teams to surprising starts, are the top two candidates so far. The Marlins and Rockies will likely fall back to the pack while the Dodgers should contend. If Puig can continue his impressive numbers he should be right in the thick of the MVP conversation.
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The three-game sweep was marked by solid pitching by the Dodgers, specifically Hyun-Jin Ryu, and an offensive tear by first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. The Dodgers first baseman hit another home run on Sunday, a tape measure shot, giving him five on the season. Gonzalez has now hit twenty-seven home runs at Chase Field, tops among visiting players. Gonzalez, in a performance that will surely win him National League Player of the Week, hit three home runs and drove in ten during the weekend series. The Dodgers outscored the Diamondbacks 22-11 over the three-game series.The Dodgers roughed up the Diamondbacks pitching staff, a common occurrence this season. After losing Patrick Corbin to Tommy John surgery during spring training the Diamondbacks are moving forward without their ace. Fellow starters Wade Miley and Trevor Cahill have been pedestrian at best, leaving a huge hole in the Diamondbacks rotation. The Diamondbacks pitching struggles are confounded by the fact that they traded young left-hander Tyler Skaggs to the Los Angeles Angels as part of the Mark Trumbo trade. A move designed to add power to the roster, Trumbo’s acquisition came at a high cost. The Diamondbacks traded two of their top three prospects, Adam Eaton and Skaggs for Trumbo. The big power hitter had a strong start to the season before cooling off over the weekend. He has tremendous power numbers but is a marginal player at best on defense. Eaton is off to a strong start in Chicago, hitting .354 with nine runs batted in, while Skaggs has put together two solid starts with the Angels, giving up just four earned runs in fifteen innings pitched. Arizona then traded third base prospect, Matt Davidson, off to a strong start in Chicago, for White Sox closer Addison Reed. Reed is a solid young closer, but in the long run giving up Davidson may turn out to be a mistake.
The moves were predicated on the belief that the Diamondbacks are a contender this season, a belief held by GM Kevin Towers and the rest of the Diamondbacks front office. The truth is the Diamondbacks are at best a .500 team (which they have been each of the past two seasons), who just lost their top starting pitcher. With an inconsistent batting lineup, a middle-of-the-road starting rotation and a league average at best bullpen the Diamondbacks could be in for a long season. This past weekend was another reminder of the uphill battle the club continues to face in Phoenix. The weekend crowds were large, but that included a massive number of Dodgers fans. Judging by the applause of the fans it is hard to tell at times who the home team was.Arizona will head to Los Angeles next weekend needing to turn things around versus the Dodgers. Arizona had their way with the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in 2013, largely due to the performance of slugger Paul Goldschmidt. Since then the series has been extremely one-sided. If the Dodgers manage another convincing series win next weekend you have to wonder if manager Kirk Gibson could be on the hot seat.
Here are three things to watch in the NLCS:
Elite Starting Pitching: The Los Angeles Dodgers boast arguably the top 1-2 pitching combination in all of baseball in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. The Dodgers twenty-five year-old lefthander Kershaw is the odds on favorite to earn his second Cy Young Award in four seasons. Greinke, who the Dodgers acquired via free agency this offseason, has long been one of the dominant right-handers in the game and won 15 games this season against only four defeats with an outstanding 2.63 ERA. In the Dodgers 3-1 series victory over the Braves in the NLDS Kershaw had two outstanding starts, striking out 18 batters in just thirteen innings pitched with just one earned run given up. Due to the Dodgers decision to start Kershaw in game four of the Braves series the Dodgers will start Greinke in game one, followed by Kershaw on Saturday.
The Cardinals have their own trio of outstanding starters in veteran ace Adam Wainwright and rookie Michael Wacha. Wainwright closed out the Pittsburgh series with a dominating start in game five. He’s joined in the rotation by Wacha who pitched seven perfect innings in Pittsburgh in game four before giving up a solo home run in the seventh inning. Wacha exited the game with just one hit allowed and one earned run in an incredibly boisterous road environment. The twenty-one year- old was a late call-up who nearly pitched a perfect game during the regular season. The remainder of the Cardinals postseason roster is to be determined, with a choice between Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller.
The Season Series: The Dodgers took five of seven from the Cardinals this season including taking three of four in St. Louis in early August. In the August series the Dodgers received outstanding starting performances from Ricky Nolasco, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Greinke. Ironically the lone Cardinals victory was the one game started by Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw gave up just two earned runs but the Dodgers were unable to provide their starter much run support, ending the Dodgers club record fifteen game road winning streak. In the first game of the series Greinke out-dueled Wainwright in a tight battle.
For the Dodgers to prevail they’ll need Nolasco and Ryu to recapture the form they showed during the late summer Dodgers hot streak. After being acquired by the Dodgers from the Marlins Nolasco was outstanding, but struggled at the end of the season, perhaps due to throwing so many innings this season. Ryu, the Korean rookie, had a strong regular season but struggled in game three of the Braves series. The playoff schedule may allow the Dodgers to go with a three-man rotation, but it’s likely they’ll have to start Nolasco in game four back in Los Angeles. They’ll need the right-hander to recapture the form he showed right after his acquisition.
The Cardinals Lineup: The Cardinals don’t have the superstar they once had in Albert Pujols, but do have one of the deepest and most efficient batting lineups in baseball. The Cardinals are third in baseball in runs scored and on base percentage and fourth in batting average. The Cardinals had five players drive in at least seventy-five runs this season, with four regulars batting over .300. Second Baseman Matt Carpenter led the NL in hits, batting .318. Superstar catcher Yadier Molina hit .319 with 80 runs batted in. Molina is on track for his seventh gold glove. Allen Craig led the National League in batting average with runners in scoring position, hitting .315 with 97 runs batted in. Both Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran hit near .300 with between 22 and 24 home runs and 80 runs batted in. The Cardinals lineup will be a big challenge to the Dodgers pitching staff. One bright spot for the Dodgers is the Cardinals inconsistent offensive showing in the NLDS. After leading the Cardinals all season in batting Carpenter hit just .067 in the NLDS with David Freese, Matt Holliday and John Jay also struggling at the plate.
The biggest key to victory for the Dodgers is getting off to a strong start in St. Louis, just like in Atlanta. If Greinke and Kershaw can be their dominant self the Dodgers have a strong opportunity to reclaim home field advantage upon their return to Los Angeles. The Cardinals are a battle tested club with significant postseason experience. The spotlight won’t be too big for them and the Dodgers will face a hostile environment this weekend in St. Louis. With Wainwright starting game five the Dodgers have the luxury of avoiding the Cardinals ace in St. Louis. Wainwright will likely start game three in Los Angeles. The Cardinals game one and two starters are still to be announced but likely will be either Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller or Lance Lynn in game one and Michael Wacha in game two. Lynn struggled in game two versus the Pirates and Kelly and Miller both have very little postseason experience. The veteran Dodgers club may have an advantage versus the very young Cardinals rotation as the pressure gets ramped up even more in the NLCS.
Prediction: The Dodgers ride Kershaw and Greinke into the World Series, out-dueling the young Cardinals rotation. Dodgers win 4-2.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were able to pull off the blockbuster trade of the season as they recently acquired Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto from the Boston Red Sox, and only had to give up James Loney and four prospects. The Dodgers are currently in the number two spot in the NL West, and only 3 games behind the SF Giants as of Aug. 25. The Dodgers have been in the playoff hunt all year despite having to deal with the injuries to star player Matt Kemp who is hitting .333 with 17 home runs even with the missed time.
Now that the Dodgers have added All-Star first basemen Gonzalez and starting pitcher Beckett, they should become the immediate favorite to overtake the San Francisco Giants and win the NL West. The Dodgers now have possibly one of the best offensives in the National League and have bolstered their pitching staff that already has reigning Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw and solid starters Chris Capuano and Chad Billingsley. Beckett has had a disappointing season for the Sox so far this year, with a 5-11 record with an ERA above 5. Hopefully the change of scenery for Becket helps him relax and play better as it did for infielder Hanley Ramirez who the Dodgers traded for earlier in the year from the Miami Marlins.
The other players involved in the trade that the Dodgers receive, Crawford and Punto, won’t have a significant impact for the Dodgers, Crawford won’t play for the rest of the season and Punto is mainly a defensive skilled infielder. The Dodgers will unfortunately have to pay Crawford’s ridiculously high salary that includes five more seasons and a total of $102.5 million at the beginning of next season. This will hamper their ability to sign players in the future with so much money tied up in current players, but as for their hopes to reach the playoffs this year and in the future, this trade seems like the right thing to do for the Dodgers and should help them make a deep run in the playoffs this season.
The second silver lining for the Dodgers is that they play in the same division as the Padres and Rockies who are both have a winning percentage under .500. The Dodgers have a total of 12 games vs. either of those teams along with six games left vs. the Giants, which could help the Dodgers overtake the number one spot in the West if they are able to win the majority of those games. However, as of now, the Dodgers are not only one spot out of the playoffs for their Division; they are also a game and a half behind the second Wild Card team the St. Louis Cardinals, who the Dodgers get to face four more times this year. Each game in that four game series could be one of the most important games of the season as it could dictate if the Dodgers get a spot in the playoffs or not.