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As some of you know, both Ryan and I studied politics at Cal and now work in it in different capacities. Politics and baseball are some of the most interesting things to us, and we have noticed many ways that the two tend to overlap. For this reason, I am starting a new running series entitled “Politics and Baseball” that will hopefully be as entertaining for you as it is for me. Future themes will involve the use of political sabermetrics, which is a term I’ve been playing around with in my head for a while, but for right now I am going to write about how trades and deals that are made throughout the year between baseball teams reflect the way that deals get done in Sacramento or Washington.

Trade Blocking

The NL West is all jammed up. All 5 teams are technically still in contention, with the Dodgers and Giants underperforming, the D Backs playing well, and the Padres and Rockies surprising some people.

NL West Standings

Because the standings are so tight, with the year half over, there is no clear “seller” or “buyer.” Everyone is still willing to make a deal that improves their team, and no team is looking to mortgage this season to start rebuilding for next year yet. So, with this backdrop, enter Ricky Nolasco. There are, of course, many pitchers that are rumored to be moving teams soon (Bud Norris, Jordan Lyles, Matt Garza, etc.), but Nolasco represents a special case in that his contract is up at the end of this year, the Marlins have no hope of contending this year, and the Marlins have come out and said whoever takes on the rest of Nolasco’s contract can get him first without giving up top-tier prospects.

All 5 of the contending NL West teams (except maybe Arizona) need starting pitching help right now. The Giants rotation is not as vaunted as it once was, the Dodgers entered the year with 8 starters but are down to 3 or 4 capable ones at this point, the Rockies staff is performing well, but they need some help on the backend with no true ace, and the Padres have had their share of injury troubles as well. For these reasons, everyone in the NL West seems to be in on Nolasco, but his salary is not low (half a season at $11.5 million) and that his contract expires at the end of year making him just a rental, meaning that a team has to make a conscious decision that they are going to try and contend for this year before making a move for him.

You’d be angry too if you had to pitch for the Marlins. Photo courtesy: blogs.sun-sentinel.com

This is where money comes in handy. As in politics, money cannot win you a race alone, but it certainly helps. The Dodgers seem to still have money to burn from their lucrative TV contract and Magic Johnson trust fund, meaning they find themselves at an advantageous position. Though the Dodgers are technically in last place, they are only 6.5 games back of first, and thanks to their extra cash supply, they can afford to make a move for Nolasco now, blocking the other teams in the West. Assuming Nolasco does well, the Dodgers can simultaneously help themselves and prevent a good player from winding up on a rival.

In California state politics, there is a June 30 filing deadline for all California legislative candidates. This deadline marks the first time that a candidate discloses how much money he/she has raised. Besides keeping them honest, it is there to show viability and give an idea of who the frontrunners in a race might be. By making a move for Nolasco now, the Dodgers can show viability that, despite their place in the standings, they are a contending team and one that intends to do everything possible to get to October. In the same way that a political candidate can dissuade other challengers from running by starting off strong with lots of donations and endorsements, so can the Dodgers dissuade some of the other teams in the West, such as the Padres and Rockies, from getting too confident in their current position and making moves that might improve their club before the deadline. Obviously, it will be tough to dissuade the Giants from contending in the same way that an incumbent who is down in the polls would still want to run for re-election. Still, wrapping up early endorsements from star players can definitely help improve your chances.

There is a lot of campaign left, and the race is still wide open, but whichever team makes the move for Nolasco the soonest gives themselves a huge advantage for the rest of the year. It is low-risk in that Nolasco is a proven innings eater and that the Marlins have said they won’t require big-name prospects in exchange. And more importantly, the longer Nolasco is on a team other than the Marlins, the more chances he has to help that club. He is wasting wins on the Marlins currently, and the sooner a team goes out and gets him, the sooner he becomes a productive member of that team and starts generating wins. This type of move should be made more often in the major leagues, but many teams are risk-adverse and like to wait until the trading deadline when they have a clearer picture. For just this reason, the Dodgers, or any other team in the West that is willing to take on his contract, can improve themselves now by trading for Nolasco. This will give the team that gets him the best chance of making the playoffs, while dissuading other candidates from running. Whichever team makes a conscious effort to improve themselves first puts themselves in the best position to contend in October. My bet is the team that goes out and gets Nolasco now will be the one you see in the playoffs come seasons end.

Now that we are a few weeks into the season, let’s take stock. The Rockies and Braves play each other with the best records in baseball on the line. Former aces look mortal and sluggers are slumping. Everyone is overreacting, but it is important to remember: we are only a few weeks into the season! It’s a small sample size. Still, it doesn’t take long until a sample becomes a trend. With that in mind, here are the hot and cold starts and what to actually believe.

Hot Teams

Boston Red Sox 12-6 (.667) 1st Place AL East as of 3/23

Last year, the Red Sox finished in last place and were part of the salary dump trade to the Dodgers that people saw as a team giving up. And yet, here they are a year later sitting at first place in the AL East with a team and city that is playing for something beyond the standings. 

The Boston offense is producing well, and Mike Napoli looks like he is happy to be out of Texas. Big Papi is back from the DL and the top of the order is healthy (Ellsbury) and getting on base (Pedroia). The offense is doing well, but the success of the Red Sox so far comes down to one thing: pitching.

Last year, the Red Sox starting pitching was among the worst in the league. This year, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester are leading the way. Neither has lost a game yet on the season, and they look like the pitchers everyone expected them to be. So, do you believe it? Well, kind of. The fried chicken fiasco and the attitude of Josh Beckett are long gone. With that departure, the young Boston pitchers lost a bad influence and look like they are taking to new manager John Farrell well. Also important is the arrival of Allen Webster with the big league club. Webster was part of the trade with the Dodgers, and despite all the big names involved, is looking like he might be the diamond in the rough.

The Red Sox picked a great time to get hot. The city of Boston needs something to root for right now, and I think everyone in America is happy that they are succeeding. For now. The Red Sox aren’t going to keep up their current pace, but I am a believer in the younger, healthy rotation. If they can stay healthy, and the offense can continue to put runs on the board, there is no reason that Boston shouldn’t keep winning baseball games. Sports are always important when they come to signify something other than just the standings, and that is happening in the city of Boston right now. In the words of Big Papi:

Colorado Rockies 13-5 (.722) 1st place in NL West as of 3/23

The Rockies have surged out of the gates this year, surprising, given their last place finish in 2012. A healthy Tulowitzki, CarGo and Wilin Rosario lead the offense, while Jorge de la Rosa (2-1, 2.82 ERA) and Jhoulys Chacin (3-0, 1.46 ERA) anchor the staff.

The Rockies are doing well despite almost no roster turnover from last year, with 21 of the 25 roster spots returning from 2012, and no major free agent signings in the offseason. The main thing to focus on with the Rockies, as with any team, is health. Tulo is an all-star caliber shortstop who’s worst enemy is health. If he is healthy, he transforms any lineup. The Rockies offense is legit. Dexter Fowler is having a coming-out party and Rosario is showing that his offensive prowess last year was no fluke. 

Photo credit: Bleacherreport

The Tulo Mullet – Never forget.

However, the pitching will not hold up. Chacin just went on the DL and won’t be back any time soon. De La Rosa has shown potential throughout his career, and could be legit, but the rest of the staff is a shambles. Garland is coming off shoulder surgery, and can’t be trusted to hold up for an entire season. The bullpen is a strong point, but whether they can continue their success all season will come down to the managing of rookie manager Walt Wiess. 

The Rockies are currently scoring 4.22 runs per game, and the offense is capable of continuing at this pace. They may just surprise everyone and be a .500 team, but the starting pitching will not hold up. Expect a come back to earth, as early as tonight against the Braves.

Honorable Mentions:

Atlanta Braves 13-5 (.722) 1st place, NL East – legit. The offense with the additions of Justin Upton and Evan Gattis will have pop all year provided they can keep the strikeouts down. The pitching, including Paul Maholm should continue to keep runs off the board. The team is currently best in the majors with a ridiculous 2.36 ERA, and while this may come up a bit, the Braves are still the team to beat in the NL.

Oakland A’s 12-8 (.600) 2nd Place, AL West – legit (kind of). The A’s have succeeded so far thanks to an incredible 5.26 runs per game so far. There is no way they will keep this up. Coco Crisp is about to hit his season high in homers in the first few weeks. Jed Lowrie is hitting well, but has never been able to stay on the field for a full season. The A’s are a legitimate contender this year, but they will do it with their pitching, not their hitting. The hitters are on a hot streak right now, but the runs per game will come down, and it will be on the pitching staff to pick up the slack for the A’s to make it to the playoffs for the second year in a row.

Cold Teams

The two teams I will be talking about here are actually not doing terribly. They are only a few games below .500 and will both likely climb in the standings soon. However, they are included here because the expectations for success were so high. The Dodgers and Jays will both be fine and both be contenders by the end of the year, but they are both off to cold starts, and here is why:

LA Dodgers 8-10 (.444) 4th place, NL West

The Dodgers have run cold so far this year. Everything starts and ends with pitching, and even Clayton Kershaw has looked mortal (not counting opening day when he crushed my Giants). Zach Greinke landed on the DL after a brawl with Carlos Quentin. The rest of the staff has looked average, but none have stood out. Meanwhile, the offense is bipolar. Big name acquisitions such as Adrian Gonzalez (.385 avg) and Carl Crawford (.338 avg) are hitting great, while local stars Matt Kemp (.235 avg) Andre Ethier (.230 avg) are slumping badly. The hot and cold starts should even out, as good hitters don’t stay cold for long. That being said, there are some real problems with this team.

Photo Credit: USA Today

Not a good way to start a season.

The left side of the infield is weak. Shortstop and third base is currently a merry-go-round of average to bad players, and even when Hanley Ramirez comes back from the DL, the Dodgers will have below average defense and average offense at third or short depending on how they structure their lineup card. Kershaw is fine, but the rest of the staff could have troubles. Ryu is still adjusting to American baseball, Greinke is out indefinitely, Billingsley is having Tommy John and done for the year, Lilly is coming off another surgery, and Josh Beckett’s best years are far behind him. The bullpen is not yet reliable, and manager Don Mattingly has not yet figured out the intricacies of managing a bullpen over the course of the season.

There is a lot to worry about with the Dodgers, maybe buying a championship isn’t as easy as we thought.

Toronto Blue Jays 8-12 (.400) 5th place, AL East

Speaking of buying a championship: the Toronto Blue Jays are also having some troubles with their new roster. Fresh off relieving the city of Miami of their baseball team, the Jays are struggling to put it all together. Jose Reyes was lost to injury on a bad slide during an attempted steal of second base. Jose Bautista is still dealing with some nagging back issues, and the Jays are 2-4 without him in the lineup. Meanwhile, starters Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle have yet to contribute much in a Jays uniform.

Photo Credit: NY Daily News

Reyes may only be able to watch the Jays for most of this season

The Jays are batting .227 as a whole, good for 3rd worst in baseball behind the Mariners and Marlins. Meanwhile, the pitching staff has given up the second most runs in baseball behind only the Astros. If we go based on the numbers alone, the Jays should actually have a worse record than 8-12 at this point. They have been bailed out a bit by the long ball (21 on the year) and the arrival of J.P. Arencibia as a power threat, but the Jays seem to be trending in the wrong direction. A healthy Bautista will do a lot to curb some losses, but the Jays do not seem to be doing any better with the 2012 Miami Marlins roster than the 2012 Miami Marlins did.