By Don Wanlass
With six weeks to go in the baseball season, it’s safe to say who the Dodgers most valuable player is this year.
Relief pitcher Kenley Jansen is the obvious choice. The closer went on the disabled list last week after suffering an irregular heartbeat in Colorado and the Dodgers’ bullpen proceeded to lose the next five games — all in the Rockies’ or Giants’ last at bat.
It also is obvious that Dodgers President Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi made a big mistake by not doing more to strengthen the bullpen at the end-of-July trade deadline.
The bullpen has been the biggest weakness for the Dodgers all season. Jansen is one of the best closers in the game but the Dodgers haven’t had anyone who could consistently get the game to Jansen once manager Dave Roberts pulled his starting pitcher, which happens way too early too often.
Scott Alexander had been the most consistent reliever outside of Jansen until he was pushed into the closer’s role Aug. 13 after Clayton Kershaw battled for eight innings.
Alexander, not used to the high-pressure role of being a closer, wilted under the pressure, the Giants scored four runs in the top of the ninth to defeat the Dodgers, 5-2.
The next night, Kenta Maeda, recently moved from the starting rotation to help the bullpen, became the closer du jour. The Dodgers had tied the score 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth.
Maeda gave up base hits to the first two hitters and with two outs Alen Hanson lined a single to center field and the Giants won again, 2-1.
In the first eight innings of the two games with the Giants, the Dodgers had given up two runs. In the ninth, without Jansen, they gave up five.
That’s not how you win baseball games, especially in a heated pennant race.
It’s funny how the social media bandwagon jumpers who were calling for Jansen to be traded three weeks ago are now singing his praises, but absence does make the heart grow fonder.
Jansen could return sooner than expected. A day after he left the team, he was expected to be out four to six weeks, but after taking some tests, Jansen could be cleared to return after his next doctor visit Aug. 20. The Dodgers will still be in the race for the National League West title by then.
In the meantime, they will try to use their excess of starting pitchers to help out the bullpen. Maeda and Ross Stripling will become relief pitchers until Jansen returns. The Dodgers also might accelerate the recovery progress of Julio Urias from shoulder surgery as another option.
The Dodgers have three relief pitchers on the disabled list but they are the same type of pitchers. Daniel Hudson, Josh Fields, Tony Cingrani are part of the problem, not the solution. And the Dodgers aren’t the only team in the major leagues that has this problem.
The front office did what it could to strengthen the offense at the trade deadline by acquiring Manny Machado and Brian Dozier. Those two also have improved the up-the-middle defense of the team, turning a sparkling double play against Colorado Aug. 12.
But the Dodgers didn’t want to pay too much (go over the payroll luxury tax for the season) and so there was no more help for the bullpen, except for John Axford, who gave up six runs in his first appearance and then joined the disabled list.
And Jansen going on the disabled list also seems to have hurt the offense, too. Since scoring 21 runs against the Milwaukee Brewers Aug. 2, the Dodgers have scored only 30 runs in the last 11 games and eight of those came against Colorado in one game last week.
The Dodgers are in another funk. All teams go through them for one reason or another every year. Last year at about this time they were going through a stretch where they lost 15 of 16 games. They survived that and they may be able to survive being without Jansen for another week or so. But he is the team most valuable player.
PLAYER UNIONS: When it comes to sports labor unions, baseball players have it better than any other sport. Football players probably have the worst union representation.
Of the four biggest professional sports leagues (hockey being the fourth), football is the only one that doesn’t offer guaranteed contracts in case of an injury.
It also offers little recourse when a player blossoms into a great player as a rookie and is stuck with a rookie contract for five years.
Such is the case with Aaron Donald, the Rams gifted defensive tackle who is sitting out the preseason for the second year in a row. Donald is scheduled to make about $6 million this year under his rookie contract.
Considered by many to be the best defensive lineman in football, Donald wants to be paid on the basis of his ability, but the Rams only have to pay him what his contract says they have to pay him. And next year they can slap the franchise tag on him and hold his contract down for another two years, if they so desire.
The Rams insist they are willing to extend Donald’s contract and make him the highest paid defensive player in the game, but it didn’t happen last year when he finally reported the first week of the regular season, and it hasn’t happened yet, this year.
The NFL Players Union has caved in to the owners the last couple of contracts. It may take a dreaded work stoppage for the players to gain concessions from the owners, and most players, who have short careers for the most part, don’t want to miss out on the money they would lose by going on strike.
It’s a tough decision for players to make.
BACK-TO-SCHOOL: This was my least favorite time of the year back when I went to school. Summer vacation was always more fun than school, even if I didn’t go anywhere.
This year, the Los Angeles Unified School District did something unusual. The 600,000 students in the district received phone calls from Southern California athletes encouraging them to stay in school and work hard throughout the school year.
“Parents, please make sure your children get to school on time and are ready to learn,” Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said in one of the messages, sent on the eve of the start of the school year. “Kids, education is the key to a better life.”
Kuzma asked students to go to school every day, listen to their teachers, work hard and make good decisions.
The phone calls are a part of a larger effort by Superintendent Austin Beutner to increase student attendance and academic success.
“We know attendance matters as students who attend school regularly do better in school,” Beutner said. “Our L.A. sports heroes care about kids coming to school because our students are the future of our community. We all have a stake in helping students succeed.”
In addition to Kuzma, six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix, Los Angeles Rams star running back Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado and Hockey Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille also left messages along with Sebastian Lletget of the Los Angeles Galaxy, Jerome Robinson of the Los Angeles Clippers and Sydney Wiese of the Los Angeles Sparks.
As a kid, a phone call from an athlete would have had a major affect on me. If the calls convinced 10 kids in the district to stay in school and study hard this year they will be well worth the effort.