L.A. Dodgers or San Francisco Giants? Who Has the Advantage at Each Position?
The rivalry between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants is one of the best, most historic, and longest running in baseball—perhaps all of sports—going back to the days when both teams called New York home.
When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957, then owner Walter O’Malley was so intent on keeping the rivalry with the Giants alive that he convinced their owner, Horace Stoneham, to move his team to California, as well.
The rivalry has been unusual in that it has been consistently competitive, with both franchises having won 21 NL pennants and 6 World Series titles. While the two teams have each made playoff appearances over the past few seasons, highlighted by the Giants’ World Series victory in 2010, last season was disappointing for both.
The Giants failed to defend their NL West crown—or even make the playoffs for that matter—denying them a shot at a title defense, and the Dodgers needed a hot finish just to get above .500 despite an MVP-caliber season from rising star Matt Kemp.
Both teams will be headed into spring training looking to improve on their 2011 team performances. With pitchers and catchers reporting in just a few short days, let’s take a look at the Dodgers and Giants, position by position, to find out which team has the brighter prospects for 2012.
Catcher: Buster Posey vs. A.J. Ellis/Matt Treanor
The catcher position is somewhat of a question mark for both teams, though for very different reasons.
The Giants are hoping that Buster Posey will return to the all-star form he showed as a rookie in 2010 following a gruesome ankle injury that caused him to miss most of 2011. With his stellar bat and solid defensive abilities, a healthy Posey will mean as much to the Giants as any free agent signing this past offseason.
After getting a surprisingly strong season from veteran Rod Barajas in 2011, the Dodgers are going with a platoon of journeymen A.J. Ellis and Matt Treanor this year. L.A. clearly isn’t looking for any offense out of their catchers in 2012, and will instead hope that the tandem can deliver solid defense and keep opponents honest on the base paths.
First Base: James Loney vs. Aubrey Huff/Brandon Belt
The Dodgers and Giants will be looking for exactly the same thing from their respective first basemen: bounce-back seasons from veteran players.
For the Dodgers, James Loney failed to take the expected next step in his development as a hitter. The 27-year old raised his batting average back to expected levels after a tough 2010, but he failed to improve his home run total, and at this point it’s doubtful that he ever will.
After a late career renaissance in 2010, and being one of the biggest reasons behind the team’s World Series drive, to say that Huff’s 2011 season was a let down would be a huge understatement. It could be that at 35, he’s finally starting to wind down as an every day player.
Luckily for the Giants, they have the versatile and talented Brandon Belt at their disposal. While he will need to cut his strikeout rate down considerably, Belt showed some impressive power when given the opportunity last season. They will certainly be looking to give him more at bats in 2012, especially if Huff struggles early.
Second Base: Mark Ellis vs. Freddy Sanchez
Again, the Dodgers and Giants have more similarities here as both teams will be starting 34-year-olds known for their defensive prowess. The Giants’ Sanchez has better range and is capable of the occasional spectacular play, but Ellis is defensively sound in his own right, and will make a good double play partner for the young Dee Gordon at short stop.
Sanchez is a better hitter at this point in his career, delivering a solid average in the .290 range, while Ellis slumped to a combined .246 last season in stints with the A’s and Rockies. Neither player has much power, nor are they a threat to steal bases.
Shortstop: Brandon Crawford vs. Dee Gordon
The 23-year-old Gordon gave Dodgers fans something to cheer about after being called up late in the season, hitting .304 with 24 stolen bases in only 56 games. The Dodgers are hoping that he can solidify both the shortstop and lead-off positions for the next 10 years after getting disappointing returns from veteran Rafael Furcal the last two years.
Second-year player Crawford won’t come with nearly as much responsibility as Gordon. The Giants are simply expecting him to provide stellar defense up the middle to support their lights-out rotation. He will likely sit in favor of the more offensively gifted Ryan Theriot when the team faces left-handed starters.
Third Base: Pablo Sandoval vs. Juan Uribe
After a terrible 2010 season, Kung Fu Panda rededicated himself to his conditioning prior to the 2011 season, and despite missing considerable time with a broken hand, the effort paid off. Sandoval raised his average to .315 and added 23 home runs in only 117 games played.
If he can stay healthy, an All-Star appearance and batting title are not out of the question for the 25-year-old star.
The Dodgers aren’t anticipating anything close to All-Star numbers from Uribe, and would instead settle for a return to his 2010 form following an injury-riddled 2011 campaign. While not a threat to hit for average, Uribe did deliver 24 homers and 88 RBIs in 2010, production that would significantly help an otherwise power-starved infield.
Left Field: Jerry Sands/ Juan Rivera/Tony Gwynn, Jr. vs. Melky Cabrera
At a still young 27, Cabrera posted career highs with a .305 average, 201 hits, 102 runs scored, 18 home runs, 87 runs batted in and 20 stolen bases. While his stolen base success rate needs to improve, the Giants are hoping that he will continue to build on his breakout season as their new left fielder.
Rookie Jerry Sands could win the job outright this spring, but a strong finish to the 2011 season by Rivera and the stellar defense provided by speedy Gwynn, Jr. ensures that both players will receive considerable playing time. It is unlikely that either of the three will perform at a high enough level to secure the job outright.
Center Field: Matt Kemp vs. Angel Pagan
Matt Kemp finally combined his limitless talent with a serious approach to the game last season and the results were spectacular!
Kemp came up just one home run shy of a 40/40 season and finished second to Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun in the National League MVP race, a vote I’m certain would turn out in Kemp’s favor if recast today. Expect more greatness from Kemp in 2012.
Angel Pagan did a mostly fine job filling in for the injured Carlos Beltran for the Mets last season, and the Giants are hoping that he can duplicate that success in San Francisco.
Along with Melky Cabrera, the Giants are expecting Pagan to solidify the top in their lineup and add a much-needed speed dimension to their offense.
Right Field: Andre Ethier vs. Nate Schierholtz/Huff/Belt
Entering his final season before free-agency, this is a make or break year for Ethier’s future in a Dodgers uniform.
If he doesn’t get off to a good start and show signs of returning to his 2009 and 2010 form, the Dodgers will look to move the reigning Gold Glove winner prior to the trade deadline. They would love to make him one of the franchise’s building blocks, but he’ll have to earn it.
The Giants’ right-field situation is likely to be some sort of a platoon, and much of it will depend on how the battle at first base plays out. The loser between Huff and Belt will likely share time with incumbent Nick Schierholtz, with Pagan also getting some nights off in center and shifting to the corner as well.
As much of an area of strength as this is for the Giants, it is every bit as much of an unknown for the Dodgers.
The Giants’ rotation, led by two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, is deep enough that they could afford to trade promising yet inconsistent lefty Jonathan Sanchez to the Royals to acquire Cabrera.
Matt Cain is well established as the No. 2 starter, with the emerging Madison Bumgarner and last year’s surprise Ryan Vogelsong following.
With his huge contract, the Giants are still stuck with Barry Zito in the fifth spot in the rotation, though they are much less dependent on him than they were when he first signed with the team.
After reigning NL Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw, the rest of L.A.’s rotation is a huge question mark.
Will Chad Billingsley ever become a consistent All-Star caliber pitcher and perfect complement to Kershaw?
Can they get one more solid season out of the aging Ted Lilly?
Will Aaaron Harang’s resurgence in San Diego carry over to the equally pitcher friendly Dodger Stadium?
The answers to all of these question will go a long way toward determining whether the Dodgers will contend in the NL West, or struggle to be a .500 team again.
Big Advantage: Giants
Relief pitching is, collectively, the most difficult area of a team to project from year to year. Part of that is due to high turnover, but it’s mostly a product of inconsistent and unproven performance, and these two teams are no different.
The Dodgers bullpen was statistically one of the NL’s worst last year, but the bad performances early opened up some opportunities for young arms to shine. Players like Kenley Jansen, Josh Lindblom and Scott Elbert seized those opportunities, but given their youth and inexperience, who knows if they’ll build on their success in 2012?
The Dodgers added some veteran arms this offseason in Todd Coffey and Mike MacDougal, but it remains to be seen how they will blend in with the young group.
San Francisco’s bullpen was one of the NL’s best last season highlighted by the emergence of Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla, and Jeremy Affeldt’s solid rebound from an off year in 2010.
The one serious question mark may be the performance of former Dodger Guillermo Mota, who despite continuing to post high strikeout numbers, has struggled a bit the past five seasons, which may just be age catching up to him.
Closer: Javy Guerra vs. Brian Wilson
Unproven youth versus injury plagued All-Star. Who will prevail in 2012?
The Dodgers may have uncovered a gem in Guerra who, in limited opportunities, impressed with 21 saves in 23 chances last season. He will start the season as the full-time closer, but history has shown that one year’s diamond in the rough, could turn right back into a lump of coal the following season.
A healthy Brian Wilson is about as reliable as they come, but he was plagued by elbow problems last year, and his return to full strength is still in question heading into spring training.
If Wilson is healthy, then he is unquestionably a weapon at the end of games that few teams have at their disposal.