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Judge Dodgers on seven straight titles, not the World Series crown they’re still chasing

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It seemed like the oddest of places to celebrate a seventh consecutive National League West title: At Camden Yards, against a bad Baltimore Orioles team, the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrating with a group photo in blue “October Reign” T-shirts and the B&O Warehouse in the background.

Justin Turner sat on the ground in the middle of the congregation, holding up seven fingers. He has been with the Dodgers for six of the division crowns — Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Hyun-Jin Ryu are the three holdovers from the 2013 team that initiated this run — and in many ways Turner is the perfect symbol of how the Dodgers have built this dynasty.

The Mets had non-tendered Turner after the 2013 season, and he inked a minor league deal with the Dodgers with an invitation to spring training and a $1 million salary if he made the big league club. He was merely insurance at second base when he signed in early February 2014, a backup plan if either Alex Guerrero — remember him? — who had just signed out of Cuba for $28 million or prospect Dee Gordon didn’t work out.

Turner, of course, had started to revamp his swing and hit .340 that first season with the Dodgers. He became a star, with top-10 MVP finishes in 2016 and 2017 and he would eventually earn a much larger payout with a four-year, $64 million contract.

Turner was actually a Ned Colletti signing, as Andrew Friedman took over as head of baseball operations after the 2014 season. So give the Colletti front office some credit for this run of division titles — it was under him (and scouting director Logan White) when Kershaw was a first-round pick in 2006 and Jansen was converted from a weak-hitting catcher to fireball-throwing reliever.

Turner, however, exemplifies how a roster of stars has been developed in a variety of means. Yes, money helps and the Dodgers have spent a lot of it, but consider the following:

Max Muncy, like Turner, was free talent, cut loose by the A’s, and has blasted 68 home runs the past two seasons. He’s ninth in the majors in wOBA over the past two seasons.

• MVP candidate Cody Bellinger was a fourth-round pick in 2013 (oh, that was Colletti and White as well).

Walker Buehler, who tossed seven scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts in Tuesday’s win, was a first-round pick, but just the 24th overall selection in the 2015 draft, a stroke of genius as the Dodgers took a chance after he came up with a sore arm at Vanderbilt.

Chris Taylor was acquired from the Mariners in a trade for pitcher Zach Lee, who never even pitched for Seattle.

Kenta Maeda came over from Japan and has been a vital member of the rotation the past four seasons.

Above all, the key under Friedman has been player development at the minor league level. The 2016 draft has a chance to become legendary as Gavin Lux, Will Smith, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin were all drafted that year, reached the majors this year and have a chance to make the postseason roster (Smith definitely, the other three maybe). It’s amazing: A team that just reached two straight World Series came up with four rookies of this caliber the very next season. (Alex Verdugo also has rookie status, although he debuted in 2017.) That’s how you win seven division titles in a row.

Don’t underestimate the impressive nature of this achievement. Here’s the list of teams who finished in first place seven consecutive seasons:

• 2013 to 2019 Dodgers (seven NL West titles)
• 1998 to 2006 Yankees (nine AL East titles)
• 1995 to 2005 Braves* (11 NL East titles)

*: Some will credit the Braves with 14 straight division titles, choosing to skip the 1994 strike season; the Braves were in second place at the time of the strike.

That’s it. Three times. The 1995 to 2001 Indians won six in seven years. The Yankees’ dynasty from 1949 to 1964 included an incredible 14 AL pennants in 16 seasons, but had a high run of five in a row. (Granted, that was before divisions, so they had to beat the entire the league.) The 2007-2011 Phillies won five divisions in a row. The Big Red Machine of the 1970s is considered one of the greatest teams of all time. They topped out at two division titles in a row.

So, yes, this is a monumental run of excellence for the Dodgers. No, it’s not simply because of money. The Yankees will win the AL East this year — their first division title since 2012. The Red Sox have won four World Series since 2003 — and finished in first place just five times.

Of course, mentioning those World Series championships gets us to how a lot of fans — even Dodgers fans — may feel about this seventh title: Show me a ring.

That’s unfair. For one thing, it devalues the regular season we all spend countless hours consuming, enjoying and celebrating. For the players and everyone else in the organization, a division title is extremely important, the first goal every team has when spring training begins. Just look at the celebration and tell the Dodgers this doesn’t mean anything. That’s an insult to all the work they’ve put in and all the games they’ve won.

This is the first step to the ultimate goal: the Dodgers’ first World Series title since 1988. While it’s unfair to say this division title doesn’t mean anything, it is fair to suggest that following this seventh title and following two straight World Series defeats, the Dodgers will enter the postseason with more pressure and expectations on them than any other team. But that’s a discussion for another time. If you’re a Dodgers fan and didn’t enjoy the celebration in Baltimore because only the October tournament matters, than I don’t know what to tell you. The journey is the joy.

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Corey Seager hit a three-run homer in the top of the first inning, then poured on another two-run homer in the third to give the Dodgers a 6-0 lead.

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Cubs, Giants to raise minor league pay early

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The Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants are pushing ahead with pay raises for minor league players this season, days after Major League Baseball mandated salary bumps beginning in 2021.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer and Giants baseball executive Farhan Zaidi confirmed the wage hikes Tuesday.

MLB informed teams on Friday that it would be raising minimum salaries for minor leaguers in 2021, according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press. Those increases, ranging from 38% to 72% depending on the level, mean players will earn between $4,800 in rookie ball to $14,000 at Triple-A.

Hoyer said the Cubs’ pay bumps will take effect this season and will mirror those made by the Blue Jays in 2019, when Toronto became the first club to boost pay by giving all minor leaguers 50% raises. Hoyer said the idea was pushed by the Ricketts family, which owns the franchise.

“They obviously had read about all the teams talking about changing it,” Hoyer said. “They read about the Blue Jays and they’re like, ‘We need to do this.’ We put a tremendous emphasis on player development. We put a tremendous emphasis on our minor league talent, and the Ricketts family were pretty adamant that we treat them as well as anybody.

“So that’s the move we’re going to make, and we’re proud to do it. I’m really happy and proud that they wanted to do it and they just sort of took it on as kind of an ownership project, which is great.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Giants’ pay bumps will be slightly more aggressive than the MLB-mandated minimums, with Triple-A players earning $15,000 for the five-month season. By comparison, the major league minimum is $563,500 this year, and the top players make over $30 million annually.

A group of minor leaguers filed a lawsuit against major league teams in February 2014 claiming their meager salaries violated minimum wage laws. While the case has not yet gone to trial, Congress passed legislation in 2018 stripping minor league players from protection under federal minimum wage laws.

San Francisco, which already had a reputation among minor leaguers as being relatively player-friendly after eliminating clubhouse dues and providing nutritious food, is also giving players a hand with housing. Rookie-ball, short-season and low-Class A players will be provided free housing. Class A Advanced players will be placed with host families, and Double-A and Triple-A players will be given $500 housing allowances each month.

Zaidi, entering his second season as president of baseball operations with the Giants, said the club would take feedback from players and could make further adjustments in 2021.

“There was really some momentum behind it before I came into the organization, but just from a personal standpoint, I’m excited that we were able to do it,” he said. “I think that it does a lot of good for the organization. I think it’s the right thing to do, and we’re kind of looking forward to having it in place.

“It’s a quality of life issue,” he added. “It’s a convenience issue. It’s a time issue, and just getting a better sense of all that, something we’ll continue to evaluate.”

MLB’s mandated raises come as the league is negotiating with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body of the minors, to replace the Professional Baseball Agreement that expires after the 2020 seasons. MLB proposed cutting 42 of the 160 required affiliated teams during those negotiations, a plan criticized by small-town fans and politicians at the local and national level.

MLB also has sought assistance from minor league teams in paying salaries and for facility upgrades in those negotiations.

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Rockies GM Jeff Bridich says he’s yet to sit down with Nolan Arenado

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Colorado Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich says he doesn’t feel an urgency to clear the air with third baseman Nolan Arenado.

Bridich displayed no worries about his relationship with his best player Tuesday night when he spoke at the Cactus League media day.

The executive says he’ll have a conversation at some point with Arenado, who recently said he felt “disrespect” from Bridich and disappointment in the Rockies’ direction.

“Today was Day Two, (and) yesterday was Day One with him in camp,” Bridich said. “We’ve seen each other. We haven’t sat yet, but I trust that we will. He’s just like all the other players. We’ll find time to sit down and interact, both with myself and others, so I trust we’ll find the right time for that.”

Arenado and the Rockies are one week shy of the anniversary of the five-time All-Star’s agreement on an eight-year, $260 million contract extension with his only big league club. The three-time NL homers leader’s relationship with the Rockies has undeniably deteriorated in the ensuing months, with Arenado being frustrated by hearing his name in trade rumors and by Colorado’s relatively inactive winter.

Bridich publicly believes he can smooth over any differences with his most important player and asset.

“I think it’s a natural part of being a team and competing as a group from year to year,” Bridich said. “You try to be on the same page as much as you can, and that takes a conversation. It takes time, and sometimes there are natural disagreements or there is miscommunication over time, and so you continue to work to right the ship.”

Bridich didn’t acknowledge he’s got to do any repair work with Arenado, and the GM remains confident in Arenado’s professionalism. He doesn’t expect any on-field reflection of the slugger’s dissatisfaction.

“You think back to less than a year ago when you were on the dais and you’re talking about (Arenado’s) extension,” Bridich said. “All those things we said publicly in terms of the elite level of talent, the elite level of production, the elite level of work ethic, the elite level of his own expectation to play well and to be one of the best players in the game, all of that still rings true right now. I mean, there’s absolutely no wavering in the confidence in him.”

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Slumping Chris Davis considered retirement after 2019 season

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SARASOTA, Fla. — Chris Davis was so despondent last September about his prolonged woes, the slumping slugger considered drastic action: He thought about walking away from the Baltimore Orioles, the game of baseball and a rich contract.

A two-time major league home run champion with a seven-year, $161 million deal, Davis has struggled mightily the past two seasons.

In 2018, he hit just .168 — the lowest among all qualified major league batters — with 16 home runs and 49 RBIs, along with 192 strikeouts in 128 games.

Last year wasn’t much better. Davis hit only .179 with 12 homers and 36 RBIs in 105 games. He also began the season hitless in his first 33 at-bats, extending an overall hitless streak that reached 54 at-bats.

Those sad stats were a long way from the 53 home runs he hit in 2013 and the 47 more he launched in 2015. That last bunch of long balls persuaded the Orioles to hand him the biggest contract in team history, a seven-year pact worth $23 million per season.

His overall totals in the first four years of the contract: a .192 batting average with only 92 homers, 230 RBIs and a .679 OPS. Plus a whopping 745 strikeouts, more than one-third of his plate appearances.

After his numbers fell so dramatically, Davis acknowledged he had contemplated retirement.

“I’d be lying if I told you that wasn’t at least talked about towards the end of the season last year and this offseason,” Davis said. “I know what I’m capable of. I know what I expect of myself and I don’t want to continue to just struggle and be a below-average, well-below-average producer at the plate.”

Davis, who will be 34 on March 17, decided to return to the Orioles. He’s added 25 pounds of muscle with hope that it will help bring back his lost power.

“I was really, really thin at the end of the season,” Davis said. “I think it was a combination of just physical and mental stress, and I just got back to kind of some of the basics. I wanted to get my weight back up, get my strength back up, and not focus so much this offseason on trying to stay lean but really trying to get as strong as I could. Feel a little bit more physical, physically strong, physically fit. And felt like I did what I wanted to do.”

But there’s pressure on Davis. Including deferred money, Baltimore still owes him $93 million, and he says he wants to earn that money.

“I don’t think that’s fair to these guys,” Davis said. “And I don’t think, honestly, it’s fair to our fans, or to anybody that’s associated with Baltimore. But I still think that there is something left in the tank and I think that that’s really a conversation that we’re going to have to have at the end of this season.”

“I have three years left after really two just grinding years, but I still think that there’s some time to kind of right the ship. So that’s a conversation I’ll have to have again at the end of the season.”

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde says he likes what he’s seen from Davis so far.

“The ball really came off his bat,” Hyde said after Davis’ first batting practice on Monday. “I talked to him quite a bit in the offseason. He worked really hard in the gym and in the weight room.”

Davis conferred with his wife, Jill, and he’s ready for another attempt to equal those eye-popping numbers of the past.

“The only reason I would walk away, or would have walked away at the end of the season last year, is if I physically felt like I couldn’t do it anymore, and that’s not the case,” Davis said.

NOTES:

RHP Hunter Harvey and INF/OF Trey Mancini, who had been sidelined by illness, were cleared to return to the field, Hyde said.

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