The baseball world looks to Houston on Sunday night, when the Astros get the honor of kicking off the new season in celebration of the team’s move to the American League. The baseball world then will look away, as the Astros endure a rebuilding project so severe that they might pay less to all of their players this year than the New York Yankees will pay Alex Rodriguez.
Starting Monday, the spotlight shines on Los Angeles.
In the 46 years that most valuable player and Cy Young awards have been given in each league, never have players from the same market won all four awards.
Never have the Dodgers and Angels met in the World Series. If this is the year -- and expectations never have been greater -- then the Baseball Writers’ Assn. of America could set up shop in L.A. and hand out the annual awards at the beach.
There is no shortage of candidates. On the Dodgers’ side, Clayton Kershaw won a Cy Young Award two years ago and finished second last year. Zack Greinke won four years ago. Matt Kemp finished second for an MVP award two years ago, Hanley Ramirez second four years ago.
On the Angels’ side, Mike Trout finished second for an MVP
award last year. Josh Hamilton won three years ago, and Albert Pujols won for the third time four years ago. Jered Weaver finished third for a Cy Young last year, second the year before, fifth the year before that.
This season could bring a great fall, or it could be a great fall. Over the seven months that will determine whether this year’s Dodgers and Angels are tops or flops, here are nine names to watch:
Zack Greinke is the money man in the Dodgers’ rotation for now, but one reason he could flourish here is that he can work in the shadow of Kershaw, the ace. If Kershaw leads the majors in earned-run average this year, he’ll become the first to do so in three consecutive years since Hall of Famer-in-waiting Greg Maddux. Kershaw won a Cy Young Award at 23; his catcher, A.J. Ellis, got his first major league at-bat at 27.
He set career lows last season in batting average and home runs. He had more strikeouts than walks for the first time since he was a rookie. He is coming off knee surgery, and he has an off-and-on foot injury. He did not hit a home run last year until May 6 or get his average above .200 for good until May 15. Once is an aberration. Twice would be a sobering reminder that the Angels still owe Pujols $238 million -- $55 million more than Arte Moreno paid to buy the team.
The Dodgers do not have a middle-infield prospect close to major league ready, but they do have the fattest wallet in baseball. As a second baseman -- and as the best position player eligible for free agency next fall -- Cano will be linked to the Dodgers all summer. If the New York Yankees resume their traditional spending next winter, agent Scott Boras could masterfully play old money and new money against one another.
He was the fourth player to hit at least .320 with 30 home runs at age 20; Mel Ott and Ted Williams are in the Hall of Fame, and Alex Rodriguez would be a lock but for his steroid use. If Trout gets on base ahead of Pujols and Josh Hamilton, the Angels’ offense could be unstoppable. If he does not, panic might ensue. Of the Angels’ eight giveaway items featuring individual players, five are Trout items, including a cap with a trout jumping out of the front.
The Dodgers do not have an entrenched veteran or power hitter at third base, making that position perhaps the most logical for an in-season upgrade. The San Diego Padres might not trade Headley, who in 2012 led the NL in runs batted in, within the division. They might not trade him at all, since he cannot file for free agency until after the 2014 season. If they do, given the thin Dodgers farm system, would L.A. swallow Andre Ethier’s contract and pay Headley too?
Angels Manager Mike Scioscia and General Manager Jerry Dipoto agree that Bourjos has to hit to stay in the lineup. The tension between Scioscia and Dipoto could flare anew if the manager measures his leash on Bourjos in weeks and the general manager measures his in months. Dipoto put together a fly-ball pitching staff with the dynamic Bourjos in mind for center field, then removed the top alternative to him by trading Vernon Wells.
The Dodgers aren’t concerned about the makeup of Adrian Gonzalez or Carl Crawford; a player getting trashed on the way out of Boston is like a player hitting well in Colorado. However, the Dodgers’ season might go the way the injured Ramirez goes. Best case: He is a 25-homer complement to Gonzalez and Matt Kemp, smiling as the Dodgers pile up wins. Worst case: He can no longer play shortstop, and he alienates teammates as he did in Miami.
Baseball America ranks the Angels’ farm system as the worst in the game and rates Cowart, a third baseman, as the only Angel in baseball’s top 100 prospects. After trading 13 young players over the past four years -- for Scott Kazmir, Dan Haren, Zack Greinke, Alberto Callaspo, Chris Iannetta and Ernesto Frieri -- the Angels might have to use money rather than prospects for July upgrades.
If the Tampa Bay Rays make no progress toward a new ballpark by year’s end, their highly regarded general manager may finally consider running a team with money. If the Dodgers do not win, maybe their controlling owner throws money at the general manager trained on Wall Street. The Angels tried to get Friedman before they hired Dipoto, but they weren’t letting the new GM bring in his own manager. The Dodgers already hired Friedman aide Gerry Hunsicker. Could they get Friedman by buying out the contract of Joe Maddon, the popular Rays manager and an L.A. guy?