Inside the Clubhouse: Dodgers and Padres is now MLB’s premier rivalry

Los Angeles Dodgers, MLB, San Diego Padres

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This week, Inside the Clubhouse looks at the Dodgers and Padres first series, the Cubs hitting rock bottom, the best pitchers in this young season and more.

The first DodgersPadres series has been circled on everyone’s calendars since Major League Baseball released the 2021 schedule. It somehow exceeded all expectations.

It felt more like October baseball than a three-game series in April. Benches cleared Friday night after Dennis Santana hit Jorge Mateo with a pitch. Tempers flared Saturday night between Clayton Kershaw and Jurickson Profar after a controversial catcher’s interference call. Mookie Betts emphatically pumped his chest after a sensational walk-off diving catch to prevent the Padres from tying the game.

“It felt like a playoff series,” Dodgers shortstop Chris Taylor said. “Every game was close and high energy. The fans were into it. They are a very good team. I expect all of our series against them will be similar to this.”

The Dodgers showed they are still the team to beat, and their road to repeating as World Series champions could not be off to a better start. They are 13-3. Each facet of their team appears dominant. That they have done this without MVP outfielder Cody Bellinger, who is out indefinitely with a broken leg, is simply remarkable.

But this is how president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman built his roster. The offense is arguably the deepest in baseball and features Betts, Corey Seager and Justin Turner. They can lean on a rotation that includes two Cy Young Award winners and one of baseball’s best young pitchers in Walker Buehler. Their bullpen is one of baseball’s best and their defense is elite.

These Dodgers are absolutely loaded and appear even better than the team that won a championship only six months ago. The Padres, however, proved that they can at least compete with them.

They narrowly lost the first game and came within inches of extending the second game before winning the finale. But if the Padres hope to eventually dethrone the Dodgers as the kings of the National League, they need to play perfect baseball — and the first 17 games of the season have shown they need to be much better across the board.

Blake Snell and the other starting pitchers need to pitch deeper into games to ease the load on a bullpen that has been inconsistent. They need to be better on defense, as they lead the league in errors. They need to be better with runners in scoring position and get more production out of Tommy Pham, who is hitting only .140 and batting an unsustainably low .154 on balls in play.

The Padres believe that they are better than their 10-7 record shows. They, much like the Dodgers, are battling injuries. Fernando Tatis Jr. is not 100 percent as he plays through a shoulder subluxation. Dinelson Lamet (elbow) could return early this week. Even when they return to full strength, narrowing the gap may require general manager A.J. Preller to acquire another bat and bullpen piece before the trade deadline.

But Padres-Dodgers has already established itself as baseball’s best rivalry. If the first series was this good, just imagine how good it will be when the stakes are higher and both teams are healthy and playing their best baseball.

“It certainly has created a rivalry,” Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “I don’t know if I could have said that my first couple years here, but there certainly is a rivalry now. … It’s just the start of it. It’s going to be fun all year getting to play those guys, and if we get to where we want to go, we understand it’s going to go through them. We welcome the challenge.”

Cubs are nearing rock bottom

The good news for the Chicago Cubs is that their offense can’t get much worse than this. They will not continue to average 3.4 runs per game, which ranks among the worst in baseball.

But it’s more of the same issues that have plagued them in recent seasons and what prompted former president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, to say in 2018 that their offense was “broken.” If these struggles continue, and there are no signs to suggest it’s changing any time soon, the Cubs (6-9) will be the most intriguing team to monitor at the trade deadline.

There are obvious candidates such as free agents-to-be Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez. The Cubs could look to deal Rizzo if they fall out of contention after failed contract negotiations before the season. And if he does hit free agency, some agents and executives have begun connecting Rizzo to the Los Angeles Angels, where manager Joe Maddon is said to “love” the first baseman.

But a name to watch could be Craig Kimbrel, who has once again established himself as one of baseball’s elite closers. A potential Kimbrel deal, as Patrick Mooney of The Athletic wrote, could be an avenue for the team to land a player similar to Gleyber Torres, who they traded to the New York Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in 2016.

It’s far too early to write off the Cubs. But the Yu Darvish trade signaled that they would like to shed payroll and if their struggles continue, all bets are off come July 30.

Phillies may have miscalculated with their pitching rotation

The Philadelphia Phillies took a quantity over quality approach to addressing their rotation, adding Matt Moore and Chase Anderson instead of a more established pitcher such as, say, Taijuan Walker or Jake Odorizzi.

So far, that decision has looked like a mistake. While Anderson has a serviceable four ERA in nine innings, Moore has not lived up to his $3 million contract as his ERA rose to 9.82 after allowing six runs (five earned) in 2 ⅔ innings against the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday night.

The Phillies insist that it is too early to overreact to Moore’s slow start, but they signed him to stabilize their rotation. He has done anything but that early on and if his struggles continue, there are no easy answers to replace him.

Vince Velasquez could be an option, but his inconsistencies last season were a primary reason the Phillies felt the need to sign Anderson and Moore. It would appear unlikely that top prospect Spencer Howard is an option as president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has said that he is on a strict innings limit.

This would be an ideal time for the Phillies to have Walker or Odorizzi in their arsenal. Of course, the team lost most of its financial flexibility this season once it signed J.T. Realmuto to a five-year, $115.5 million contract and wants to maintain flexibility in future seasons when the team figures to be more competitive.

Signing Odorizzi and Walker would have impacted that. But in not signing either, the Phillies took a gamble with their rotation. It’s already backfiring on them.

My personal favorite pitchers so far in 2021:

Jacob deGrom, New York Mets: Let’s get the obvious out of the way. deGrom is not just the best pitcher of this generation, but well on his way to being one of the best pitchers in baseball history. He has allowed only one earned run in 20 innings with 35 strikeouts and is sitting 99-101 mph with his fastball in his age-32 season. It is a shame that the Mets have not maximized his performance, but his individual numbers have him on pace for another Cy Young Award and an eventual first-ballot Hall of Fame selection.

Shane Bieber, Cleveland: Bieber has already won an All-Star Game MVP and a Cy Young Award. Somehow, he is only 25 years old. Bieber has 16 straight games with at least eight strikeouts, recently passing Corey Kluber for the longest such streak in franchise history. He has struck out 10+ batters in each of his first four starts this season, becoming the first pitcher in baseball history to do so since the mound was moved to its current distance in 1893. He is just entering the prime of his career and should only get better from here, putting him in a strong position to eventually land the richest contract given to a pitcher in baseball history.

Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers: Burnes entered the season as my sleeper Cy Young Award candidate and he has not disappointed. He has five ‘plus’ pitches in his arsenal and has overpowered opposing hitters with them, especially his upper-90s cutter that he is using more under the guidance of pitching coach Chris Hook. His numbers — 0.49 ERA, four hits, one run and 30 strikeouts in 18.1 innings — have arguably made him the most dominant pitcher in the National League not named Jacob deGrom.

Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox: There is a wide-ranging belief among scouts and executives that Giolito will be baseball’s next young star starting pitcher, if he isn’t already. He threw a no-hitter last season, has had an ERA hovering around 3.40 the last two seasons and appears primed to take that leap in 2021. While his arsenal has largely remained the same, heavily featuring a fastball and slider, he has made tweaks to his changeup this season that have increased its deception and movement that have White Sox officials salivating at his short and long-term outlook.

Trevor Bauer, Los Angeles Dodgers: Bauer’s time with the Dodgers has not started without controversy, but he has picked up where he left off last season. He allowed only two runs with 32 strikeouts in innings 1-6 in his first four starts. He was dominant in his biggest test yet against the San Diego Padres, finishing his six-inning appearance by striking out Fernando Tatis Jr., and has given the Dodgers everything they envisioned when they added him to a rotation that already featured Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urias and Dustin May.

Honorable mentions: Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees; Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay Rays.

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