Can the Dodgers save me from ‘The Next Knuckler’ syndrome?

Brandon League delivers a pitch for the Dodgers
Now that it’s springtime, a gentleman’s thoughts turn to … Brandon League? (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY)

Just how desperate am I for some baseball action? I’ve actually been watching guys who are pushing 40 try to learn how to throw a knuckleball on TV!

It almost resembles a car accident on the interstate. You’re driving along and you see the carnage on the side of the road, but you can’t help checking it out to see what happened.

“The Next Knuckler” has been airing on MLB Network, and I admit it – I got sucked in! Is it just me, or doesn’t it look like anyone can hit that floating pitch that’s devoid of spin? One thing the show has done is give me more of an appreciation for guys like Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield.

Well, while I watch Josh Booty get his booty kicked out of the Arizona Diamondbacks spring camp after winning “The Next Knuckler,” more important things warrant my attention. Things are heating up in Glendale, Ariz.!

The Los Angeles Dodgers officially kick off their spring games Feb. 23, and some interesting developments have materialized. As Nelly so aptly put it: “It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes!”

Here is what is catching my eye in the Dodgers’ spring camp:

Luis Cruz, come on down, you’re the next contestant on “The Third Is Right” – When I think of $200 million payrolls, World Series expectations and Hollywood stars, I don’t immediately think of Cruz. In fact, if I didn’t have and bookmarked on my computer, I probably wouldn’t even know Cruz from Adam’s house cat. But it’s a case of “In Cruz We Trust” in 2013 at third base for Don Mattingly and the Dodgers’ management. That became official when it was announced that former phenom shortstop Dee Gordon will be optioned to triple-A Albuquerque once spring training is over. Cruz is a guy who has never played more than 78 games in a MLB season over his four-year career. Cruz is also a starting MLB player who makes around $400,000, which is like going to South Georgia and not seeing a guy with a tobacco can ring in his back jeans pocket. If Cruz falters, the Dodgers have options. Jerry Hairston, Jr. is a capable reserve. Mattingly can also get on the Bat Phone and recall Gordon from the minors and slide Hanley Ramirez from short to third.

• Are you ready for an Average Joe closer in Los Angeles? – Play the word association game with me, OK? You know how it goes. I say a word and you then say the first word that pops into your pea brain. Me: “Dominating MLB closer.” You? Perhaps “Heat” or “Power” or “Fastball?” Whatever response those words elicit, it’s probably not something like “plate nibbler.” However, that’s how you can describe the Dodgers closer for 2013 – Brandon League. Gone are the days of former Los Angeles closers like Eric Gagne, Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton. Each of those guys had a lights-out fastball. They could rock back on the mound and blow a fastball by opposing hitters to get consecutive strikeouts with runners on base and only one out. League is more of a guy who needs a 6-4-3 double play to get out of a ninth-inning jam, but he’s our guy at the end of games. League is a 29-year-old with a losing record over his nine-year MLB career. He is a guy who has a 3.60 career ERA and has only averaged 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Feel free to be as unimpressed with League’s stats as I am. Once again, the Dodgers do have options in the ninth inning if League fails to get the job done. Former closers Kenley Jansen and Javy Guerra can step in and toe the rubber, but the job is League’s for the time being.

Yasiel Puig is on the fast-track to stardom in Los Angeles – Puig, the 22-year-old Cuban outfielder who many feel the Dodgers overpaid for last year ($42 million), is catching eyes. Baseball America rates Puig as the 47th best overall prospect in all of MLB. Puig has all the tools you look for in an outfielder – power, speed, strong arm, etc. In his first season so far in the Los Angeles system, Puig hasn’t disappointed. In just 82 plate appearances thus far in the rookie league and single-A, Puig has hit .354 with five homers and 15 RBIs. Those numbers projected over an entire season might be something like 30 homers and 100 RBIs. The Dodgers have a stacked outfield right now with Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, but Puig definitely gives them future options. If Crawford doesn’t pan out, Puig could slide into left field. He could also move to center and allow the Dodgers to move Kemp. Puig could also free the Dodgers to trade Ethier and then move Kemp to right field. Whatever the scenario, it will be fun to watch Puig’s development through the minors.

Here’s to the end of “The Next Knuckler” and the beginning of some spring training baseball!

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