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Dodgers hope small tweaks make big difference

Offseason acquisitions could push reigning NL West champs to the next level

LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers cleaned up the contract distractions of Clayton Kershaw and Don Mattingly over the winter, and Hanley Ramirez should get his extension soon. The $8 billion TV deal just kicked in and more upgrades are underway at Dodger Stadium.

So, there's only one empty box left on new ownership's to-do list.

Of course, if winning a World Series was as easy as a check mark, the franchise drought wouldn't date back to Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Last year on the field, the team with a record $230 million payroll took a big step forward, falling two wins shy of reaching the Fall Classic. But critics look at the modest offseason roster tweaks and have reason to wonder if the Dodgers are any better now than they were in October.

Their three biggest free-agent acquisitions were unproven Cuban Alex Guerrero at second base, and reclamation pitchers Dan Haren in the rotation and Chris Perez in the bullpen. They made an offer to -- but not a serious run at -- Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.

A fast start would be nice, especially after last season's stumble out of the gate. But that won't be easy either, as the club has the added travel hurdle of opening the season in another hemisphere, where it will be autumn and not spring.

The early camp focus will be on injury rehabs, especially the career-threatening ankle injury of Matt Kemp as well as surgeries on Chad Billingsley (Tommy John), Josh Beckett (thoracic outlet syndrome) and Scott Elbert (Tommy John).

Mattingly and staff are already concerned with the short offseason, a combination of postseason play that extended 2013 and the season-opening trip to Australia that necessitated an early start to training camp.

And everyone will be keeping an eye on unpredictable outfielder Yasiel Puig because, well, you just never know what he'll do next.

Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 8.

Full squad reports

Feb. 13.

First Spring Training game

Away vs. Arizona, Feb. 26, 12:10 PT.

Opening Day

(Far) Away vs. Arizona in Sydney, Australia, March 22, 1 a.m. PT.

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Will Kemp ever be healthy?
Last year's question mark still hasn't been answered, and this time Kemp's trying to return from two operations and not one -- a cleanup of the previously repaired left shoulder and a truly career-threatening microfracture procedure on an essential bone in his left ankle. He ended last season without power or speed and he needs all five tools to be the impact center fielder he was three seasons back. Until this question is answered, the hand-wringing over which outfielder gets traded is moot.

2. What's on second?
Who? They don't know. It could be Cuban rookie Guerrero, but a hamstring injury in winter ball slowed his transition from shortstop to second base. After watching him in workouts, officials keep saying he needs to play, which usually means somewhere other than the Major Leagues. If he's not a quicker learner, second base could go to non-roster invitee Chone Figgins, if he has anything left. Dee Gordon and Justin Sellers could inherit playing time; Michael Young -- presumably management's fallback preference -- just retired. Defensive whiz Miguel Rojas hit .233 at Double-A last year, so it's hard to take general manager Ned Colletti seriously when he says Rojas is in the mix, but that's his story and he's sticking to it.

3. Can Puig be harnessed, and should he be?
The Wild Horse, as Vin Scully calls him, is a freakish talent, no doubt. He's likely the purest five-tool talent the Dodgers have discovered since Raul Mondesi, if not Roberto Clemente. Management chalks up his repeated mistakes on and off the field to immaturity, although it just might be the way he's wired. They'll find out this year if he's more coachable and better at adjusting than that .214 September batting average suggests. Look for him to open the season as the leadoff hitter.

2013 record
92-70, first place in NL West

Projected batting order
1. RF Yasiel Puig
.319 BA, .391 OBP, .534 SLG, 19 HR, 42 RBIs in 2013
2. LF Carl Crawford
.283 BA, .329 OBP, .407 SLG, 6 HR, 31 RBIs in 2013
3. SS Hanley Ramirez
.345 BA, .402 OBP, .638 SLG, 20 HR, 57 RBIs in 2013
4. 1B Adrian Gonzalez
.293 BA, .342 OBP, .461 SLG, 22 HR, 100 RBIs in 2013
5. 3B Juan Uribe
.278 BA, .331 OBP, .438 SLG, 12 HR, 50 RBIs in 2013
6. CF Andre Ethier
.272 BA, .360 OBP, .423 SLG, 12 HR, 52 RBIs in 2013
7. C A.J. Ellis
.238 BA, .318 OBP, .364 SLG, 10 HR, 52 RBIs in 2013
8. 2B Alex Guerrero
Did not play in 2013

Projected rotation
1. LHP Clayton Kershaw, 16-9, 1.83 ERA in 2013
2. RHP Zack Greinke, 15-4, 2.63 ERA in 2013
3. RHP Hyun-Jin Ryu, 14-8, 3.00 ERA in 2013
4. RHP Dan Haren, 10-14, 4.675 ERA in 2013
5. RHP Josh Beckett, 0-5, 5.19 ERA in 2013

Projected bullpen
Closer: Kenley Jansen, 28/32 saves, 1.88 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Brian Wilson, 0.66 ERA in 2013
LH setup man: J.P. Howell, 2.03 ERA in 2013

The new guys
OF Mike Baxter: Claimed off waivers from the Mets, he's a corner outfielder who hasn't shown a lot of offense in almost 200 Major League games.

2B Guerrero: The Dodgers gave him $28 million for four years to be the second baseman, with an emphasis on his offensive skills. The only problem is, defensively he's been a lifelong shortstop that so far has struggled learning the subtleties on the other side of the bag. A hamstring injury suffered in winter ball is an additional red flag. Colletti says Guerrero "needs to play." Translation: not ready for the Major Leagues.

RHP Haren: He replaces fourth starter Ricky Nolasco, so if he repeats his 6-4, 3.52 after the All-Star break for Washington last year the Dodgers will be satisfied. He's won in double figures every year since 2005 with three All-Star appearances, and not a lot of fourth starters can say that.

RHP Perez: Not often is a reliever considered a reclamation project after saving 24 games the previous season, but Perez was actually released by the Indians at the end of a season in which he was distracted by a drug arrest and lost the closer job. With Jansen and Wilson ahead of him on the depth chart, Perez will be asked to replace Ronald Belisario in the seventh and eighth innings.

RHP Jamey Wright: Okay, he's not exactly new at age 39 and the club acknowledges it made a mistake letting him get away last year after a solid 2012 as the bullpen handyman. That wrong is now "wrighted" with the veteran that gives the bullpen a true long reliever and a stable leader.

Prospects to watch
RHP Pedro Baez: Comparisons to Jansen are natural for this converted infielder. All you really need to know about his potential is that Sandy Koufax watched one of his bullpen sessions last spring and said he couldn't wait to see him in a game.

RHP Jose Dominguez: He tweaked a quad in August, said he was fine after the game and never was seen on the mound again. Said to be healthy now, he can light up the radar gun like nobody else in the organization.

RHP Zach Lee: If he never tops a rotation (despite an expensive signing), Lee should be a legitimate big league starter because of a four-pitch arsenal and off-the-chart intangibles. He could arrive later this year.

INF Rojas: He draws comparisons to Omar Vizquel for amazing glove work and range, but that's never been enough to overcome a .233 career Minor League batting average and get him to the show in eight pro seasons.

RHP Seth Rosin: Rule 5 picks rarely stick, but even on this deep pitching staff Rosin could be an exception based on early scouting reports. He's a strike thrower, so he's got that going for him.

RHP Ross Stripling: With Lee generating the publicity, Stripling has been under the radar but might have a higher ceiling as a fifth-round pick out of Texas A&M in 2012. He jumped from Rookie Level in 2012 to success at Double-A the second half of 2013 and that's moving pretty fast.

On the rebound
RHP Beckett: He's 7-19 the past two seasons and coming off surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, but he's "only" 33 and the Dodgers are just hopeful of getting a decent first half from him as the fifth starter with Chad Billingsley due back by July.

RHP Billingsley: So far no setbacks for Billingsley in his rehab from Tommy John surgery. He's 29 and in the last year of his contract, so the motivation is definitely there for a second-half salary drive if he's healthy enough.

LHP Elbert:Tommy John surgery is bad enough, but that was the third time doctors went into his elbow since he last pitched. He's not expected to be game-ready until mid-season.

OF Ethier: He played center field better than anyone expected and didn't let a fractured leg keep him out of the lineup through the playoffs, so he gets gold stars for toughness and teamwork. On the other hand, he set or tied career lows in RBIs, average and OPS. And his right-field position seems to have been given to Yasiel Puig.

INF Figgins: He's quite the enigma for tanking after signing a four-year, $34 million contract with Seattle, but maybe he can reclaim his form with lowered expectations. If he's just close to being what he was, he could be the starting second baseman. On the other hand, he's been released by the Mariners and the Marlins, so he's a real wild card.

RHP Javy Guerra: He came into Spring Training two years ago as the incumbent closer, but suffered three injuries and wasn't the same last year after shoulder surgery. He made only nine big league appearances last year, but he's still on the Major League roster so the club hasn't completely given up on him.

OF Kemp: Breaking the weight-bearing talus bone in the ankle and requiring microfracture surgery is nothing routine, especially for a center fielder whose game demands speed and quickness. It's generally an uncommon injury in baseball, but similar to those that hobbled much older players Derek Jeter and Magglio Ordonez. So, for all of the upbeat reports, Kemp's health -- and ability to return to elite status offensively and defensively -- is very much an unknown.

RHP Brandon League: A 2.30 ERA after his acquisition from Seattle in 2012 earned League a three-year contract, but that ERA rocketed to 5.30 last year and there wasn't even an injury to blame. He began last season as the closer and ended it by being left off the postseason roster.

LHP Paco Rodriguez: For five months, he was as tough as any lefty reliever around. But his September tailspin continued into October and he was left off the NLCS roster. So Rodriguez needs to show that he just ran out of gas from frequent usage and not something worse. Management paid handsomely to bring back Howell just in case.

Long gone

RHP Belisario: That sinker is filthy, but management tired of Belisario's random behavior with his salary about to jump and a glut of replacement candidates on the reliever market.

LHP Chris Capuano: When he was healthy, he did whatever was asked and more, including starting on three-days' rest that helped trigger the miraculous comeback. Originally signed when the club had money problems, the restocking of expensive arms over the past two seasons shuffled him out of the picture.

INF Mark Ellis: Management's desire to get younger might be a miscalculation in the case of Ellis, whose second-base job was given to unproven Guerrero, ready or not. The Cardinals aren't dumb and they think Ellis still has some quality left in his game. He was as reliable as advertised in his two seasons with the Dodgers.

INF Jerry Hairston: Time caught up with the 37-year-old, who couldn't stay healthy and now embarks on a career change onto the Dodgers broadcasting team.

RHP Nolasco: He'll go down as one of Colletti's better in-season acquisitions, a real life preserver after injuries to starters Beckett, Billingsley, Ted Lilly and Capuano. But the Dodgers had no interest in paying anywhere near the four-year, $49 million deal he got from the Twins.

INF Nick Punto: The Dodgers had no complaints with what they got from Punto, both on the field and in the clubhouse. But, at least verbally, they are committed to a younger bench.

INF Skip Schumaker: The Dodgers traded for Schumaker primarily to be a left-handed complement at second base to Ellis, who also was not re-signed as management added Guerrero in hopes of getting younger at the position.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for

Los Angeles Dodgers, Andre Ethier, Kenley Jansen, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez