The Dodgers are off to a hot start with a 13--6 record through Sunday, tied with the Cardinals for the best record in the National League, and, not coincidentally, they have the best run differential (+36) in the NL. They've established themselves as the team to beat in the NL West, and perhaps in the league. And two of the biggest reasons for their success weren't even in the organization on Valentine's Day. Manny Ramirez, the hero of the 2008 drive to the playoffs, found few suitors in the free-agent market and returned to the Dodgers with a two-year deal on March 4. He's picked up where he left off a year ago, hitting .328, with a .463 on-base percentage. Less heralded, but just as critical to the Dodgers' start, was the signing of free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson on Feb. 20. Hudson pushed Blake DeWitt out of the lineup, and while DeWitt remains a solid lefty-hitting prospect, Hudson's superior defense alone makes his $3.4 million base salary a bargain. But beyond that, Hudson was batting .351 with a .438 OBP through Sunday and had stolen four bases without being caught.
By waiting out Ramirez and agent Scott Boras last winter to bring the slugger in for far less than the $100 million that Boras sought when the off-season began, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti not only made the team better but also became the rare G.M. to take on the superagent and win. Colletti's patience, despite his team's desperate need for an additional bat—the alternative was Juan Pierre—may have been the finest moment of Colletti's mixed four-year tenure in L.A.
While Colletti deserves credit for his efforts—which also include trading for Andre Ethier, re-signing Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake and bringing back lefty Randy Wolf—this remains a team built around homegrown talent. Under assistant G.M. Logan White, who has been with the team since 2002, the Dodgers have consistently drafted well, had success signing international players and developed prospects who advance through their system to the majors. The core of this team, from Matt Kemp (.972 OPS, 5 for 5 in steals) to James Loney (.405 OBP) to Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley (a combined 52 strikeouts in 47 1/3 innings) to closer Jonathan Broxton (15 strikeouts and a 0.96 ERA in eight appearances) is homegrown in a way consistent with the great Dodgers teams of the 1950s and the '70s.
This isn't a hot start built on playing a weak schedule, or winning some close games while being outscored overall, or having a mediocre player or two have the month of his life. This is a team with a strong eight-man lineup and solid frontline pitching that is beating up its primary competition. Depth may be an issue, but it's the only one. The Dodgers have the look of a team that will once again be playing deep into October.
It's a testament to G.M. Andrew Friedman and his staff that the phrase "last-place Rays" doesn't sound right. The team's leap from doormat to World Series runner-up raised expectations, which makes the team's 7--12 start—acceptable once upon a time—a disappointment. The Rays are still playing the strong defense that helped them win the AL East last year, converting 71.7% of the balls in play against them into outs, third best in the AL. Their pitchers, though, are walking 22% more batters and striking out 10% fewer, a combination that has them giving up more than half a run per game than in '08. Last season's bullpen heroes, Dan Wheeler (9.45 ERA) and Grant Balfour (7.94), have been particularly bad. Unless the pitchers start throwing more strikes, it'll be hard for the Rays to keep pace in the AL East death slog.
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BALANCING ACT The Dodgers' under-27 core, which includes Russell Martin behind the plate, is arguably the game's best.