Top pitching prospect Gavin Stone making a mark in first big-league camp
PHOENIX — Gavin Stone is making the most of his first big-league camp, and not just because the top pitching prospect has not yielded a run in 6 ⅔ innings of four Cactus League games, including a three-inning, three-hit, eight-strikeout effort in Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Oakland Athletics at Camelback Ranch.
“He’s watched every single inning of every game at home,” manager Dave Roberts said. “For a young player, especially a pitcher, to just sit there and watch games on days he’s not participating is telling.”
Stone, the 6-foot-1, 175-pound right-hander who was named the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2022, has also been soaking up everything he can in the clubhouse and weight room from veterans such as Clayton Kershaw, a three-time National League Cy Young Award winner.
“I’m just watching them day in and day out do their stuff,” Stone said. “Kershaw is here way before I am. I see him every morning when I get here. They’re always working, always grinding. It’s great to see what I need to be like for my career to be just as long as theirs, so hopefully, I can continue to learn from them.”
Stone, a fifth-round pick out of the University of Central Arkansas in 2020, jumped from Class-A Great Lakes to double-A Tulsa to triple-A Oklahoma City in 2022, going a combined 9-6 with a 1.48 ERA, striking out 168 and walking 44 in 121 ⅔ innings. He had the best ERA and fifth-best strikeout rate (12.4 whiffs per nine innings) in the minor leagues.
He is not expected to compete with Ryan Pepiot and Michael Grove for the fifth spot in the team’s opening day rotation, but Stone has definitely made an impression with a lively fastball that sits between 94-96 mph, a mid-80s changeup with great fade and a curveball and slider.
“You see the mound presence, the ability to command the baseball, to pitch from behind when he needs to, to throw a strike when he needs to with a fastball, and it’s just fun to watch,” Roberts said. “It’s what we expect out of Gavin, and he’s only going to get better, which is exciting for us.”
Stone and Bobby Miller are considered the organization’s top two pitching prospects. Most scouts believe Miller, whose four-pitch mix features a riding four-seam fastball that sits between 95-98 mph and touches 100 mph, has the better pure stuff, but Stone appears to be more polished, more big-league ready.
“The pitch mix, I think he just does a fantastic job and understands tunneling and how to make every pitch look the same,” Roberts said of Stone. “When you have plus-fastball command and you can throw a changeup at any point in time and present it as a strike, it’s pretty impressive.”
Stone also exudes confidence on the mound, so much so that triple-A manager Travis Barbary said he would have had no reservations starting Stone in a major league playoff game last season.
“I feel like that’s the key to being a good pitcher and being dominant on the mound, having confidence,” Stone said. “If you don’t, then hitters are going to have better at-bats. So that’s my main focus, to stay as confident as possible, because if I throw my stuff, then I know my stuff is better than their stuff.”
Dustin May guts his way through four innings of 6-3 loss to Oakland
PHOENIX — Dustin May grinded through four innings of a Cactus League start despite an upset stomach on Sunday, giving up two runs on three hits, striking out three and walking three in a 6-3 loss to the Oakland Athletics at Camelback Ranch.
May gave up a one-out single to A’s first baseman Ryan Noda and a two-run home run to designated hitter Shea Langerliers in the first inning.
The right-hander gave up a two-out single to Tyler Wade and walked Zach Gelof and Estuary Ruiz to load the bases in the second before striking out Noda with a nice breaking ball to escape the jam. May retired six of seven batters in the third and fourth inning before exiting.
“He just wasn’t feeling well, but he knew the importance of pitching today, and he did that,” manager Dave Roberts said. “The command wasn’t what we were hoping for, but the main thing is he competed, he made pitches when he needed to and got his pitch count up. We moved a step forward.”
Freddie Freeman made his first start at first base since leaving Tuesday’s World Baseball Classic game with Team Canada because of a minor right-hamstring injury. Freeman, who singled twice as a designated hitter on Saturday, drove in a run with a sacrifice fly in the third.
J.D. Martinez, who will be the team’s primary DH, started in left field, but he is not expected to play the field during the regular season.
“It’s one of those things just to keep him interested, to let him be a complete baseball player,” Roberts said. “It’s good for him. We have a lot of options in the outfield. I think it’s more of trying to be intentional at times to just get them out there.”
Command problems likely will cost Jimmy Nelson an opening day roster spot
PHOENIX — Jimmy Nelson suffered through a second consecutive shoddy exhibition appearance Sunday, walking three batters, hitting one and throwing two wild pitches, increasing the likelihood of the veteran right-hander opening the season on the injured list.
Nelson, who signed a guaranteed $1.2-million major league contract in February after missing the 2022 season because of Tommy John surgery, threw 14 pitches, 13 of them balls, in a 6-3 loss to the Oakland Athletics at Camelback Ranch. He walked four of five batters against the Texas Rangers on Thursday.
“I had a good conversation with Jimmy on the bench, and I think the thing for me is, we’ve all got to be mindful that this guy hasn’t pitched in almost two years,” manager Dave Roberts said. “So there’s the structural part. He’s got a new arm. What was normal to him back then is not normal now.
“There’s a command part of it too. Every athlete wants to kind of be good right now. But just understanding that it’s coming and it’s just gonna take some time.”
Nelson missed the 2020 season with the Dodgers because of back surgery. He returned in 2021 and went 1-2 with a 1.86 ERA in 28 games for the Dodgers, striking out 44 and walking 13 in 29 innings, before blowing out his elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery in August.
The Dodgers re-signed Nelson believing he could be a valuable multi-inning reliever, but they also signed Shelby Miller for a similar role and Nelson has not pitched well enough to earn an opening day roster spot.
“I don’t want to just say that right now,” Roberts said. “The most important thing is to get him to feel comfortable and confident and convicted [in his pitches]. Once we break camp, we’ll just kind of see where we’re at. But to give a hard date on when he needs to be ready, I just think that’s unfair to him.”
Chris Taylor snaps spring funk with two-run homer in win over White Sox
PHOENIX — Into Chris Taylor’s gloomy spring a little sun shined Saturday, the Dodgers utility man crushing a tie-breaking two-run homer to left field in the seventh inning of a 6-4 Cactus League victory over the Chicago White Sox at Camelback Ranch.
“Yeah,” Taylor said, when asked what it was like to square up a ball so thoroughly, “I forgot what that felt like.”
Taylor entered Saturday with an .091 average (three for 33) and a team-leading 14 strikeouts in 12 spring games, and he struck out in two of his first three at-bats Saturday after reaching on an infield single in the first.
But Taylor turned viciously on a hanging 3-and-1 breaking ball from White Sox right-hander A.J. Alexy in the seventh and drove it far over the left-field fence for his first extra-base hit of the spring, snapping a 4-4 tie.
A freak ankle injury is likely to keep Tony Gonsolin out of the Dodgers’ rotation for a couple of starts at the beginning of the season.
“It’s really not about the hits — it’s about the quality of at-bats,” Taylor said. “I’ve been having trouble moving [the ball] forward and finding barrels, which is more frustrating than the batting average, and the strikeouts are frustrating. I’m progressively trying to work through it and get a better feel.”
The Dodgers need Taylor, 32, to rebound from an injury-plagued 2022 season in which he hit .221 with a .677 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 10 homers, 43 RBIs and struck out 160 times in 118 games, a 35.2% strikeout rate that trailed only Joey Gallo among major league hitters with 400 plate appearances.
Taylor, who signed a four-year, $60-million deal after earning his first All-Star selection in 2021, had elbow surgery before last season, and a late-season neck injury contributed to his struggles.
He has been tinkering with his swing all spring in an effort to regain the feel he had in 2021, when he hit .254 with a .782 OPS, 20 homers and 73 RBIs.
“I feel like I’m close,” Taylor said. “I feel like I’ve kind of figured some stuff out the last two days, and I feel like I’m trending upwards.”
First baseman Freddie Freeman played on Saturday for the first time since leaving Tuesday’s World Baseball Classic game with Team Canada because of a minor right-hamstring injury.
Mexico WBC manager Benji Gil is known for his candor and his frank approach. He wants to make it clear that he is doing all he can to be an MLB manager.
Freeman singled to center field twice, scored a run and walked in three plate appearances as the designated hitter before departing in the fifth inning. He is scheduled to start at first base on Sunday.
“I checked all the boxes I needed to today,” Freeman said. “I didn’t baby it at all. I ran curves [around the infield dirt] on a back field [on Friday] and ran as hard as I could and made it through that. I came in today and wasn’t really that sore. If I was going to baby it, then I shouldn’t have been out there.”
Right-hander Michael Grove, who is competing with Ryan Pepiot for the fifth rotation spot, gave up two earned runs and five hits in 3⅔ innings, striking out six and walking none.
Reliever Yency Almonte, who has been slow in his return from an elbow injury, threw a one-two-three inning in his first appearance of the spring, and Brusdar Graterol threw his fifth scoreless inning of the spring.
Miguel Vargas making smooth transition to second base so far
PHOENIX — Any concerns the Dodgers had about Miguel Vargas making the transition from third base to second base, a position the rookie made only 25 starts at in five minor-league seasons, seem to ease by the day in Arizona.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Vargas, considered the best pure hitter in the farm system for the last year or two, has looked comfortable and confident at a position that will require more athleticism and range now that infield shifts have been banned.
In Friday’s game against the Chicago Cubs, Vargas started two double plays, going to his left to make a lunging stop of a hard Eric Hosmer grounder on the first one, and turned a double play with shortstop Chris Taylor.
Vargas, who is batting .292 (seven for 24) with one homer and three doubles in 12 spring games, was not scheduled to play in Saturday’s Cactus League game against the Chicago White Sox at Camelback Ranch.
“Each day, each week, there’s been a marked improvement,” manager Dave Roberts said. “The game isn’t speeding up on him. He’s on time with his pre-pitch [preparation]. That comes with repetitions.”
Vargas seems to be building a good rapport with new shortstop Miguel Rojas, the former Miami infielder who was a 2022 Gold Glove Award finalist and ranked second behind Dansby Swanson with 15 defensive runs saved last season and tied for fifth with 10 outs above average, according to FanGraphs.
“I think Miguel Rojas is going to make Vargy considerably better, quicker,” Roberts said. “I just love the way that Rojas plays with urgency. As a young player, you just can’t appreciate what that means on the major league level defensively, and so I think that Vargas is really starting to understand that.”
Vargas, a 23-year-old from Cuba, spent several days in Miami this winter working out with Rojas, who was acquired from the Marlins on Jan. 11 as a utility infielder but will take over at shortstop after Gavin Lux suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier this spring.
“It’s one of those things where the work started in the winter,” Roberts said. “I guess it’s just a bet on the person, the player, to kind of try to dominate the defense and get up to speed.”
Dodgers get the best of Cody Bellinger in 9-7 exhibition win over Cubs
MESA, Ariz. — The Dodgers got their first look at Cody Bellinger in a Chicago Cubs uniform Friday, the former Dodgers center fielder making his first spring appearance against his old team after missing the first two Cactus League games between the clubs.
Bellinger walked in the second inning, grounded into a double play in the fourth and hit a two-run triple to right field in the sixth inning of the Dodgers’ 9-7 exhibition victory at Sloan Park.
“It was different seeing him out there in a Cubs uniform,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It was good seeing him. I wished him well. But hopefully that’s the only triple he gets against us.”
The Dodgers scored eight runs on seven hits in a 35-minute top of the fourth inning. J.D. Martinez hit a three-run home run to left-center field and a two-run double to left-center in the inning for his first extra-base hits in 36 at-bats this spring and Jason Heyward hit a two-run double to right.
“I think it felt really good for him to square up a baseball,” Roberts said of Martinez. “He’s a traditionally slow starter, so for him to get on track and have some good at-bats today was good.”
Bellinger had a flurry of great at-bats for the Dodgers in 2019, when he won National League most valuable player honors after hitting .305 with a 1.035 on-base-percentage, 47 homers and 115 RBIs, and he played Gold Glove-caliber defense throughout his six years in Los Angeles.
But the left-handed-hitting slugger’s career faded into a haze of injuries and endless swing adjustments. Bellinger batted .203 — tied for the third worst in the major leagues — with a sixth-worst .648 OPS over the next three seasons.
Bellinger, who made $17 million in 2022, was projected to receive an $18-million salary in his final season of arbitration, according to MLB Trade Rumors. The Dodgers chose to non-tender Bellinger in November, and Bellinger signed a one-year, $17.5-million contract with the Cubs.
“I think the net of [Bellinger’s career in Los Angeles] was that it was a great run for Cody, for the Dodgers,” Roberts said. “I wish we could have done more to support him and get some more consistency for him. But our hope is that the change of scenery will kind of tap into something that’s already in there that we know. I’ll always root for Cody.”
Bellinger had some stretches of explosiveness and productivity in the playoffs, clubbing three homers with a .911 OPS in 12 games through the NL Championship Series during the Dodgers’ 2020 World Series run, and he was one of the team’s best hitters in the 2021 postseason, batting .353 with a .906 OPS in 12 games.
But a labrum tear in his right (non-throwing) surgery that required surgery after the 2020 season and a broken fibula in April 2021 slowed Bellinger, who went on the injured list three times in 2021 and struggled to find a consistent swing and approach.
Bellinger hit .165 with a .542 OPS, 10 homers and 36 RBIs in 95 regular-season games in 2021 and .210 with a .654 OPS,19 homers and 68 RBIs in 144 games in 2022.
“I don’t know,” Roberts said, when asked if there was anything more the Dodgers could have done with Bellinger. “As a coach, you want to feel like you do everything you can, and I think we did.
“Obviously, some of it has to do with the player, and Cody would be the first to tell you that. As an organization, you always want to do the most you can for a player, but sometimes you just don’t have any answers.”
Julio Urias will work with one less day of rest in WBC as manager Benji Gil blasts schedule
MIAMI — Mexico manager Benji Gil didn’t hold back when reacting to the World Baseball Classic’s decision to move up his team’s quarterfinal game against Puerto Rico to Friday, arguing the change unfairly benefits the United States.
The winner of Pool C was originally slated to play Saturday against Pool D’s runner-up. Mexico won Pool C. Puerto Rico finished second in Pool D. But there was some fine print: Team USA would play Saturday’s quarterfinal game at LoanDepot Park if it advanced from Pool C no matter what — whether the Americans finished in first or second.
As a result, Team USA, the Group C runner-up, will face Venezuela, the Pool D winner, Saturday.
“It’s a disadvantage, 100%, 100%,” Gil said Friday before his team’s game. “But it’s not going to matter. I mean, we’re going to do everything that we can. We’re not looking for excuses. We’re not going to make an excuse if we win and we’re not going to make an excuse if we lose. But before it’s played, it’s 100% a disadvantage.”
Both Mexico and the U.S. flew from Phoenix after finishing group play Wednesday while Puerto Rico and Venezuela were already in Miami because Pool D was played at LoanDepot Park. The U.S. held a workout Friday.
By playing Friday instead of Saturday, Mexico and Dodgers ace Julio Urías also gets one day less of rest after throwing 62 pitches across five innings last Saturday against Colombia.
“I’m not saying it’s a disadvantage because Puerto Rico didn’t travel,” Gil said. “They were here, and that’s fine, that’s the way it should be. But at the end of the day, before the tournament happened, the 1 seed was playing on Saturday, and then when stuff got complicated, it became the U.S. plays on Saturday no matter what.”
Both Mexico and the U.S. finished 3-1 in Pool C, but Mexico won the group by upsetting the Americans in their head-to-head matchup.
But there could also be a disadvantage for the U.S. if it beats Venezuela to advance to the semifinals. Saturday’s quarterfinal winner would face Cuba on Sunday and play on consecutive days. With a win Friday, Mexico would face Japan in the semifinals on Monday.
“It’s nothing against the U.S., all right?” Gil said. “If it’s because of TV, I’m telling you right now, if I’m not here, I would be watching the game. And I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, well, I’m not going to watch the U.S. game because it’s on Friday.’”
Tony Gonsolin to open season on injured list; Ryan Pepiot, Michael Grove up for final rotation spot
PHOENIX — Manager Dave Roberts confirmed what has become apparent for the past week or so: Tony Gonsolin, who suffered a left ankle sprain while jogging off the practice field March 6, will start the regular season on the injured list, opening the fifth rotation spot for prospects Ryan Pepiot or Michael Grove.
“To say that he’s going to start the season, obviously we know that that’s not gonna happen,” Roberts said of Gonsolin before Friday’s Cactus League game against the Chicago Cubs in Mesa, Ariz. “So what that means beyond that, I just don’t know right now.”
Gonsolin, who had a breakout season in 2022, going 16-1 with a 2.14 ERA in 24 starts and making the National League All-Star team for the first time, has extended his long-toss program to 150 feet and been able to bear weight on the ankle.
But when asked if Gonsolin was close to throwing off the mound, Roberts said, “He’s closer than he was yesterday … but I don’t know what that means.”
The more definitive status of Gonsolin puts even more emphasis on the final Cactus League starts for Pepiot, who gave up one run and two hits in three innings, striking out four and walking two, of Friday’s start against the Cubs, and Grove, who will take a 4.15 ERA in four spring games into Saturday’s scheduled start against the Chicago White Sox.
Pepiot has a 2.00 ERA in four spring starts, striking out 13 and walking three in nine innings. He was pulled after three innings Friday because of some minor discomfort in his side, but Roberts said the condition shouldn’t impact Pepiot’s next start.
Pepiot and Grove have big league experience, Pepiot going 3-0 with a 3.47 ERA in nine games, seven of them starts, for the Dodgers last season, and Grove going 1-0 with a 4.60 ERA in seven games, six of them starts.
Pepiot said Gonsolin’s injury — and the rotation opening it has created — won’t change his mindset in these final weeks of camp.
“I don’t want to look too much into it, or else I can go down a rabbit hole and try to press too much, which is kind of one of the things I did last year,” Pepiot said. “So just going out, executing pitches, continuing to work every single day. …
“Whether it’s me, whether it’s Michael or somebody else [who gets the fifth-rotation spot], we all have a job to do and help the team win. So whoever they feel gives the team the best opportunity to do that, then all power to them.”
What will Roberts be looking at over the final two weeks of March to determine which pitcher wins the final spot?
“I think it’s just seeing how they execute pitches, how they handle situations, adversity, the consistency,” Roberts said. “I think some of it is obviously spring training, but some of it is a little bit of past performance, and looking forward and looking out. Both of those guys are great.”
Struggles of veteran right-hander Jimmy Nelson muddle bullpen picture
PHOENIX — The Dodgers bet $1.2 million in a guaranteed major league contract to Jimmy Nelson in February that the oft-injured right-hander would be a key contributor to their bullpen.
That is looking like a losing proposition this spring.
Nelson, who missed the 2020 season with the Dodgers because of back surgery and had Tommy John surgery in August 2021, walked four of the five batters he faced in Thursday night’s 3-1 exhibition loss to the Texas Rangers and now has eight walks and no strikeouts in 2⅓ innings of four appearances this spring.
“It wasn’t good,” manager Dave Roberts said Thursday night. “I don’t think there’s anything else to say about it. He didn’t have command, period, with the curveball, the slider, the fastball. I know he expects more from himself, and as we get closer [to the regular season], you gotta tighten some things up.”
If Nelson can regain the form he showed in 2021, when he went 1-2 with a 1.86 ERA in 28 games for the Dodgers, striking out 44 and walking 13 in 29 innings before blowing out his elbow, he would be a valuable multi-inning reliever.
But the Dodgers also signed veteran right-hander Shelby Miller for a similar role, and if Nelson can’t pitch effectively enough for Roberts to rely on him, the Dodgers may have little choice but to designate Nelson for assignment at the end of camp.
“He has to go out there and have better command of the baseball,” Roberts said. “We’re expecting him to pitch meaningful innings for us. What we do as a pitching staff is flood the strike zone. And that’s something that he’s got to get better at.”
Roberts said Nelson is “fine physically,” though Nelson’s velocity was a tick down Thursday night, and that Nelson has “looked OK” during his bullpen sessions.
“The work has been good,” Roberts said. “Tonight just wasn’t where we needed it to be.”
Jason Heyward’s swing is a ‘work in progress.’ He’s still a safe bet to make Dodgers roster
PHOENIX — The Dodgers have latched onto the little signs of progress this spring, the promising moments when Jason Heyward’s new-look, retooled and continued “work in progress” swing, as manager Dave Roberts called it, has looked more like a finished product at the plate.
Such as when the veteran outfielder hit two home runs in the first week of spring training.
Or during live batting practice sessions at the start of camp, when he laced line drive singles the other way.
Dave Roberts remains strong proponent of WBC despite Edwin Diaz injury
PHOENIX — Manager Dave Roberts said “my heart sank” when he saw New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz get carried off the field in a wheelchair after suffering a major knee injury celebrating Puerto Rico’s victory over the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic in Miami on Wednesday night.
Diaz, perhaps baseball’s most dominant reliever and a key piece of what the Mets expect to be a championship-caliber club, suffered a right patella tendon tear and was scheduled to undergo season-ending surgery Thursday.
“You see his brother crying [on the field] …” Roberts said Thursday. “I’m a baseball fan, so when you see a player of that magnitude lose a season, certainly to something as benign as celebrating, it’s sad.”
Noah Syndergaard looks sharp in minor league game against White Sox
PHOENIX — With Wednesday night’s rainout pushing Clayton Kershaw’s exhibition start back to Thursday night against the Texas Rangers, Noah Syndergaard, who was originally scheduled to start Thursday night, pitched in a triple-A game against the Chicago White Sox on Thursday afternoon.
Syndergaard threw 60 pitches over five innings, giving up one unearned run and one hit, striking out one and walking none.
“It went well,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He was very efficient. Everything was in the zone.”