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LA skippers find seats heating up

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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This week, the 2013 Major League Baseball season will be one-quarter complete. That leaves plenty of time for disappointing teams to recover and surprising teams to flop. One year ago today, the San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers had identical 16-17 records. They turned out all right.

At this stage of the season, though, we can’t dismiss every trend by invoking the worn-out aphorism: It’s early.

We may not be able to draw conclusions, but we can take note of what we’ve seen. Here are the top seven storylines to date — one for each week of baseball we’ve witnessed.

Hollywood drama

When spring training began, the question in SoCal baseball circles was whether the Dodgers and Angels would meet in a Freeway Series to decide the 2013 world champion.

Now, speculation centers on whether Don Mattingly or Mike Scioscia will lose his job first.

How did this happen? The usual way: Pitching problems.

The Dodgers started well, with a 6-3 record including their April 11 victory in San Diego. But that was the game in which Zack Greinke sustained a broken collarbone in his donnybrook with Carlos Quentin. The Dodgers are 9-18 since, the National League’s worst record in that span. They are last in the NL West, seven games back of first-place San Francisco.

Greinke’s absence isn’t the lone explanation for the skid — Chad Billingsley landed on the DL, too — but, ironically, the sharp downturn could be viewed as a source of encouragement now that Greinke’s return appears imminent. If Greinke stabilizes the rotation, the Dodgers again could look like their 6-3, mid-April selves.

Mattingly may be in greater immediate jeopardy than Scioscia, for a very simple reason: His contract expires at the end of this year, while Scioscia is signed through 2018. Chatter about Mattingly’s job security would have reached a crescendo over the weekend if the Dodgers hadn’t beaten the Miami Marlins twice in a row after dropping Friday’s series opener.

The Dodgers, though, have a better chance of recovering this year than the Angels. Their fixes are straightforward: Greinke needs to perform like a $147 million pitcher, and Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier must drive in runs. The Angels’ problems are more fundamental. Their pitching staff has allowed the third-most runs in the American League, the lineup lacks athleticism, and the sore-footed Albert Pujols may never again hit for the power he once did.

A Freeway Series in October looks unlikely.

Yankees and Red Sox, together again

Be honest: You missed the haughty greatness of this rivalry, didn’t you?

The Red Sox were a dysfunctional, last-place team in 2012. No more. General manager Ben Cherington changed the roster last winter, manager John Farrell did the same to the clubhouse, and the result has been a competitive club in the evenly matched AL East. But the luster from their fast start has faded amid a number of pitching injuries, particularly to relievers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, and the Red Sox are a league-worst 2-8 since May 3.

During spring training, I said the Red Sox would finish over .500 but out of the playoffs. That may prove true. Apparently, though, I completely botched my assessment of the Yankees. I thought they would finish last. Instead, they’re in first with no signs of slowing down. They have won five in a row, the resurgent Vernon Wells is two homers from equaling his 2012 total of 11, and they’re about to get Curtis Granderson back from the disabled list.

CC Sabathia is on pace for (another) stellar, 200-inning season despite questions about his diminished velocity, Mariano Rivera’s cutter remains as devastating as ever . . . and . . . well . . . I should have known better.

Umpires are the story, which is never good

Surely, “Angel Hernandez” and “Fieldin Culbreth” were trending topics on Twitter during the past week — Hernandez for blowing a home run call despite assistance from instant replay, Culbreth for not knowing a basic baseball rule.

We don’t need to rehash the events here, other than to make the following point: Baseball must follow through on past statements about expanding instant replay in 2014, and MLB needs to train and maintain a separate team of video analysts (in a central location, likely New York) to conduct the sort of review Hernandez botched in Cleveland.

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Think about it: Hernandez made the initial on-field call. Why should he be entrusted with the decision to uphold or overrule it? (In the legal system, the same person can’t be a circuit judge and appellate judge on a single case.) Umpires aren’t hired for their ability to look at television monitors and detect the point at which baseballs change direction. So, they shouldn’t be asked to do so in a narrow time window under intense scrutiny.

I promise: Baseball could have its pick of 22- to 40-year-olds who would love to sit in a room full of TVs — and be excellent at it.

Debate on the Justin Upton trade is ongoing

Justin Upton will return to Chase Field Monday night for his first game in Arizona as a member of the Atlanta Braves. He leads the majors with 12 home runs, which makes this a little like having the most attractive spouse, coolest job and fastest car at the high school reunion.

Upton clearly was the best player in the trade, and he’s proven that so far. Chris Johnson, the third baseman who went with Upton to Atlanta, is hitting .307. But we can’t necessarily call the deal a lopsided win for the Braves — at least on a macro level. Atlanta is 21-16, after being swept by San Francisco over the weekend. Arizona is 21-17. Not much difference there.

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Martin Prado, the established major leaguer Arizona obtained, has posted mediocre numbers this season, and starter Randall Delgado is struggling at Triple-A (0-3, 9.09 ERA, 8 starts). Two of the prospects Arizona obtained — Triple-A right-hander Zeke Spruill and Class A infielder Brandon Drury — are performing well in the minors. Double-A shortstop Nick Ahmed isn’t.

Asked earlier this season what he wanted the fans of Arizona to know prior to his return, Upton said, “If anything, I’d say I feel like I gave everything to that organization. I loved playing there. I still live there. Early in my career, the city gave me a warm welcome and gave me everything until the last game of last season. I have no regrets about my time there. I enjoyed it.”

Can the Blue Jays be fixed?

The past few days illustrated why it’s difficult to be optimistic about the Blue Jays’ chances to regain traction in the American League East.

The Jays were 8-1/2 games back of first place when they opened a three-game weekend series against the Red Sox. The Red Sox were one of three teams tied for the division lead. Well, the Jays took two out of three . . . and left town trailing by 9-1/2, because the Yankees swept the Royals and moved into sole possession of first place.

Toronto will play better — and already has, now that Jose Bautista is heating up. But the Jays pitching staff is too depleted by injuries and underperformance to reel off the prolonged winning streaks they need to reach first or second place. Of particular concern, right-hander Josh Johnson — a free agent after this season — doesn’t appear close to returning from a triceps injury.

NL witnessing an influx of young stars

Last year, we had the celebrated rookie seasons of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Without a megawatt star on the order of Harper, Trout or Manny Machado, this year’s rookie class is impressive because of its depth — at least in the National League.

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The NL should have an intriguing Rookie of the Year debate, with starting pitchers Shelby Miller (St. Louis), Jose Fernandez (Miami) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (Los Angeles) the early candidates. A number of the NL’s top players now in their first full seasons — Matt Harvey, Starling Marte, Jean Segura — accrued too much service time last year to have rookie status.

The hype surrounding Harvey won’t dissipate anytime soon. Some analysts have called him the best pitcher in baseball this year. He’s 4-0 with a 1.44 ERA for the Mets — who happen to be hosting this year’s All-Star Game. Think there’s a chance he’ll be there?

Terry Francona’s Indians are winning — quietly, for now

If you’re taking nominees for this year’s Orioles or Athletics — the contender no one saw coming — I’d like to submit the Cleveland Indians for consideration.

The Indians weren’t supposed to emerge as the primary challenger to Detroit in the AL Central. That was the Royals, remember? And to be fair, Kansas City still may be that team. (Mike Moustakas snapped out of his early-season malaise with homers on three consecutive days.) But the Indians made a statement over the weekend, taking two of three in Detroit and pulling into a first-place tie with the Tigers.

Cleveland can hit for power, much like Baltimore and Oakland last year. The Indians’ lineup — which added Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds since last season — ranks sixth in the majors in runs. The maturation of Carlos Santana has changed the lineup, too. “They’re a very good hitting team,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland observed. “They’re a different team. They’re a good team — very good.”

The starting rotation is the biggest question, and Ubaldo Jimenez has won three starts in a row. If Jimenez can pitch like a No. 2 or No. 3 starter, the Indians should remain in the wild-card race at the very least.

Tagged: Orioles, Red Sox, Angels, Indians, Tigers, Royals, Brewers, Yankees, Blue Jays, Braves, Dodgers, Nationals, Mets, Pirates, Cardinals, Padres, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Zack Greinke, Jose Bautista, Carlos Quentin, Chad Billingsley, Martin Prado, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Carlos Santana

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