Dodgers eager for full season with new faces
The billionaires with Guggenheim Baseball Partners are counting on it. An offense that once relied too much on Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier now has marquee hitters Adrian Gonzalez at first base instead of James Loney, Hanley Ramirez somewhere on the left side of the infield instead of Juan Uribe and, if the injury gods cooperate, Carl Crawford in left field.
If all five are healthy and manager Don Mattingly can get them hitting to their potential, it's a batting order no pitcher will want to face.
The radical makeover of the roster, however, has put Mattingly in a challenging new spot. Instead of mixing and matching with role players happy to do what they are told, he now has a nucleus of wealthy stars and accompanying egos with which to deal. And he's expected to win with them, no excuses.
"I think the expectations are fine," said Mattingly, who will have a roster next year earning nearly $200 million, double from this year's season-opening team.
"I think we should just live up to them. It's always going back to the same thing for me. Just because there are expectations, that means on paper you look good. How many times have we seen teams on paper not do anything? A lot. You always look at things. You have to perform, you have to execute, you have to work. In my mind, you have to make things happen."
Even with the core returning, management as a whole is in a spot with the gifted Ramirez. He said he'll play anywhere but clearly wants to play shortstop. That's where he will play in the Dominican Winter League to improve his range (and try to win the World Baseball Classic starting job over former teammate and rival Jose Reyes).
Ramirez's defense at the position has been adequate, but some in the organization believe he belongs at third base, where he was moved by Miami to make room for Reyes. Nobody's sure how Ramirez would react if pressured to play third, although Mattingly has made a point of countering the questionable reputation Ramirez brought with him.
"He's proven to be a pretty darn good guy," Mattingly said. "No issue about hustling or any of that. We think he can be better, but we think everybody can be a little better."
Mattingly said Ramirez is "capable of anything he puts his mind to," which is Donnie-speak for challenging Ramirez, not only for better defense but a change in offensive approach to rediscover the batting champ within and not swing for the fences every at-bat.
If Ramirez is determined to play shortstop, that would leave Dee Gordon in limbo. If Ramirez goes to third base, what becomes of Luis Cruz, the most pleasant surprise of the year?
A key to the season, as well as the August blockbuster deal with Boston, is the health of Crawford. He can be an offensive catalyst and complete an all-Gold Glove outfield if he rebounds from wrist and Tommy John elbow surgery, but those are gigantic ifs. In any case, he's not likely to be ready until May 1. And with a $100 million commitment to him, management isn't likely to go after yet another name outfielder or re-sign Shane Victorino.
While Crawford rehabs, the Dodgers will give $42 million Cuban signing Yasiel Puig an extended Spring Training look.
First base: The James Loney experiment finally gave way to Adrian Gonzalez, who should anchor the infield well into the next TV contract. He struggled with his swing after the trade but still drove in runs. The Dodgers would love if he could become the next Fernando Valenzuela to their Mexican fans, but they will settle if he's just the real Adrian Gonzalez at the plate.
Second base: Mark Ellis delivered as advertised. An exceptional fielder, he was versatile enough offensively to bat leadoff and tough enough to return from a scary leg injury that required emergency surgery. The .228 average against right-handed pitching is a concern.
Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez said he's willing to play third base, but he wants to play shortstop. So, if the Dodgers want a happy Ramirez, he'll be the shortstop, even if the defense can be a little rough and it means making Dee Gordon expendable. Gordon's game-changing speed is enticing atop the batting order, but the .228 average and .280 on-base percentage before his thumb injury indicated that rushing him to the Major Leagues might not have been the best call.
Third base: Whether it's popular Luis Cruz or Ramirez, it won't be Juan Uribe. There will always be a management tendency to distrust the legitimacy of a career Minor Leaguer like Cruz, but Don Mattingly compares him to late bloomers Casey Blake and Gary Ward and seems to prefer Ramirez at short and Cruz at third.
Catcher: Forced out of character by a reduced payroll, the Dodgers let journeyman Rod Barajas go and gave the starting job to farmhand A.J. Ellis. That might have been the best decision of last winter. Even Ellis didn't expect to hit 13 homers, along with 52 RBIs. Most of all, the staff loves his work ethic and adherence to the pitching game plan.
Left field: If Carl Crawford is healthy, he's the $100 million answer. But investment aside, can management count on him? And how much insurance is needed, at least early in the season? Tony Gwynn is still under contract, but does the club also bring back Juan Rivera, who has an option? Or rush $42 million Cuban Yasiel Puig, who will be coming out of Class A at age 22? Or piece things together with Gwynn, Jerry Hairston off hip surgery, Alex Castellanos, Elian Herrera, etc?
Center field: If Dr. Neal ElAttrache can fix his shoulder in Friday surgery, Matt Kemp is convinced he can resume his 50/50 quest and regain his status as the best player in the game. The Dodgers hope so, because they proved this year they can't win without him in one piece.
Right field: With an $85 million extension, Andre Ethier returns. The mission is to improve his production against left-handed pitching without destroying his confidence as a right-handed hitter. It's a struggle well into its third managerial regime. Shuffling him all around the batting order hasn't helped matters.
Starting pitching: Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang is a pretty good starting four. The fifth could be Chad Billingsley, if he doesn't need Tommy John elbow surgery; Ted Lilly, but he's coming off shoulder surgery; free agent Joe Blanton, if he re-signs; or free agent Ryan Dempster, who has been on the radar for four years.
Bullpen: Javy Guerra, who opened the season as closer, suffered two injuries and lost the job to Kenley Jansen, who will undergo serious heart surgery later this month. Brandon League, acquired to provide middle help after losing the closer job in Seattle, regained his form and finished the season closing in place of Jansen. League is a free agent and the new deep-pocket owners might be willing to pay him closer wages to start the season with an overload of flamethrowers. League said he wants to return.