Los Angeles Dodgers: 10 Biggest Questions Heading into Spring Training

Matthew SeukunianCorrespondent IFebruary 29, 2012

Los Angeles Dodgers: 10 Biggest Questions Heading into Spring Training

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    Entering the offseason (which is now over), spring training (soon to begin) and the regular season (soon to come), the Dodgers had dozens of questions that needed answers. Now, with spring training right around the corner (The Los Angeles Dodgers kick off their spring training run Monday March 5th against the Chicago White Sox), those questions can be answered.

    There are questions about the outfield, the infield, the pitching staff, the guy(s) catching, the coaching staff, the GM, the money situation, the fan situation, the ownership situation, the ownership situation and the ownership situation.

    The beauty of March and spring training is that as baseball resumes, the questions lessen about ownership, money and attendance, and instead resonate back to what matters, baseball. Considering the struggles the team has faced on the field (as well as off), baseball questions are appropriate and necessary. We need to question our under-performing franchise in times like these.

    Here are the 10 biggest questions facing the Dodgers heading into spring training (in no particular order).

Who Is Going to Be the New Owner?

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    We’ve all been to an amusement park before, and seen a carousel in motion. The Dodgers’ ownership carousel is slowing down, the horses and ponies and unicorns are not bobbing up and down as quickly, and the people standing around waiting to see who is left on it when the ride ends, can see the group (once as many as 20 bidders) now down to seven.

    I have written several times this offseason (see links in previously slide) about what the ownership situation, or lack thereof, means for the current state of the team as well as the team’s future. The process in which a new owner will be chosen is long, boring and will unfortunately not please everyone. They might as well be sitting around a table playing a game of Jenga.

    That being said, the ownership drama is not looming over the team as much as it has in the past, thanks to the finish line in this ownership race being so close. Fans are now collectively rejoicing, saying something that goes more or less like this, “Wow, that bloodsucking leech McCourt will actually be out, except he magically gets to keep the parking lots and profit off our attendance numbers. But that’s good enough for me; we get a new owner who actually has money, and a brain!”

    I have no answer to this question (I will have an answer to the next nine), but until we as fans know, it is the biggest question surrounding the team going into the season.

Is Matt Kemp Overconfident?

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    Before I dive into this idiotic comment and dissect its irrelevance and stupidity, it is important to point out that Kemp did pull off a 39-40 last season in only 161 games (a game against the Nationals was rained out and never made up). So for all we know, Kemp could have had a 40-40 2011, becoming only the fifth guy in baseball history to do so (the other four being Bonds, Soriano, Rodriguez, Canseco).

    Now, to defend Kemp (who is my favorite active player) he did “call” fifty-fifty with some swag, and confidence. Kemp said, as Yahoo Sports reported, “Man, I believe in myself to the most. I have confidence I can achieve it. I try to set my expectations as high as I can. I think I’m capable of doing it."
    Hard for me to call a quote like that “idiotic,” “irrelevant” or “stupid”. But I will nonetheless.

    Only two guys in the history of baseball have had a 50 home run season and a 50 steal season, but neither Barry Bonds nor Brady Anderson ever did them in the same season. Kemp is delusional. That or he forgot Dodger Stadium is a pitcher's park (no Dodger player has ever hit 50 home runs in a season because they play 81 games at the Ravine).

    The simple truth is this—the Dodgers haven’t had a relevant moment in what seems like ages (really, two seasons). They are a middle of the pack team with a few truly talented guys and a lot of scrubs. They need the 2011 Kemp, again. He was a quiet, get the job done, support my teammates and “lead by action” kind of guy. It really was beautiful to watch all year long.

    With statements like this coming from him, I wonder if he will be that guy again in 2012. The question was, “is Matt Kemp too confident?” I am going to say no, he is not. As idiotic, irrelevant and stupid as it sounded at first (and still does for the most part), the team, the fans and the city need something to believe in, and hold on to.

Will Clayton Kershaw Take a Step Back?

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    I know, I know, this question sounds preposterous. I just angered every Dodger fan (casual to die hard) reading this instantly. But before you scroll down to type in some angry vulgar comment telling me how little I know, consider the following.

    Going back to 1999, let’s analyze the season after someone wins the Cy Young. There are two exceptions to such analysis, Randy Johnson (won four consecutive from 1999 through 2002) and Tim Lincecum who came out of nowhere winning back to back in 2008 and 2009. Some of the guys who have won it recently have fallen off the following year for various reasons (most often injuries). The list goes as follows, Gagne (’03), Clemens (’04), Carpenter (’05), Webb (’06), Peavy (’07) and Lincecum (’09).

    In his four years in the league, Kershaw has steadily improved each season culminating with one of the most special seasons any Dodger pitcher has ever given us fans. The beauty of Kershaw is that we, as fans, know him to be a stand up guy morally, a family man and the hardest of workers, all of which compliment his talent.

    He showed signs of brilliance, relentlessness and domination so often in 2011 that I ordered MLB Extra Innings from DirecTV when I went away to school so I could watch him pitch every fifth night. It’s understandable, after a season like that, to see why he might take a step back, but I am here to answer that question with an emphatic “no.”

    Rest assured Dodger fans, Kershaw will be back and better than ever. It’s February 29th, and I’m calling a repeat. I can hear it now “ladies and gentleman, your 2012 NL Cy Young, Clayton Kershaw.”

Will Andre Ethier Bounce Back?

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    In 2009, Ethier hit .272 with 31 homers and 106 RBI. He won a Silver Slugger award and finished sixth in MVP voting. The best part of his year, by far, was his six walk-off hits (four of which were homers). His 2010 season was good but not great (.292/23/82) and his 2011, plagued by a potential knee injury (and a lot of drama than ensued because of it) was even worse (.291/11/62).

    Throughout his career as a Dodger Ethier has shown signs of incredible power (he had a three home run game in 2009) and consistent contact (he had a 30 game hit streak in 2011). With the success that Matt Kemp had in 2011, without much help from Ethier, I would like to think that Ethier had a spark lit underneath him watching his teammate succeed.

    When the team was good in 2008 and 2009, thanks a lot to the godlike arrival of Manny Ramirez, Ethier was great, but he flew under the radar (something that may have secretly angered him) because of the sheer spectacle that was Mannywood. Dodger fans, his teammates and the franchise need him to find himself in 2012 and return to the Ethier we grew to love.

    I think the answer to this question is an emphatic “yes." I think Ethier returns to form, stays healthy and contributes like it is August of 2009.

Is Dee Gordon Going to Get the Job Done?

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    Dee Gordon had two separate stints in the big leagues in 2011, the second of which was spent mainly on the disabled list, but when he was healthy and playing, he played well. He showed why fans should be so excited when he hit .304 last year (a number that I will happily take for my leadoff guy), but his OBP was not much better (a mere .325), which should, appropriately, have fans concerned.

    The best of the best for Gordon in 2011 was his speed and ability on the bases (something that was being ranted and raved about for weeks leading up to his debut). In just 56 games last year, Gordon stole 24 bases (meaning in a full season he would have stolen 70).

    With the hopeful return of Andre Ethier, the inevitable return of Matt Kemp and the addition of Mark Ellis (who will hopefully hit second behind Dee), the top half of the Dodgers order has some serious potential. It all starts with Dee. His height and weight (5'11", 150 pounds) are still a concern because with no power threat, pitchers will truly go right after him, and we don’t know with certainty if he can answer the call.

    I like to stay optimistic as often as possible, and with Dee, the optimism is there. I expect a season where he hits about .300, gets an OBP of about .350, steals bases like there’s no tomorrow and gets things going every time he leads off.

Can A.J. Ellis Handled the Catching Duties?

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    In four years with the club Ellis has only played in 87 games, 31 of them came last year. When you step back, analyze the situation and realize that the regular starter behind the dish last year was Rod Barajas, I really start to question Ellis’ ability to get the job done. Was he really worse than Barajas last year? I didn’t think that was possible.

    I always point out to people, when discussing what it takes to win a World Series, that a catcher is incredibly undervalued. Imagine (in recent years) those Yankee teams without Posada, the Red Sox without Varitek, the Cardinals without Molina. Going back in time you have Berra, Bench, Piazza, Pudge, Fisk and so on. A.J. Ellis is not quite in their class—he isn’t even in the same school district.

    When I slap myself after talking about the Dodgers and the World Series in the same sentence, I come to my senses and realize the team has so many problems; Ellis shouldn’t be such a huge concern. He is after all a defensive minded catcher, the eighth (last) hitter in the lineup and he has shown some upside in the past.

    He had a .392 OBP last year and managed to belt a whopping two home runs in 103 at-bats (not too bad for a catcher), so believe it or not I will say “yes” A.J. Ellis will get the job done behind the plate. He may not at-bat, but we’re Dodger fans, we’ll take what we can get. 

Will Fans Show Up?

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    Have you heard? The Anaheim Angels are putting up “El Hombre” billboards featuring Albert Pujols all across Los Angeles. They also think that their overrated new starter (yeah, I’m talking to you C.J. Wilson) and their soon to be over-the-hill slugger (shots fired, Albert) will draw Dodger fans away from Chavez Ravine.

    The last time I checked, Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp were a better pull than Wilson+Pujols. I also believe the Dodgers have a superior stadium, history, fan base, broadcaster and the in game experience isn’t too shabby either (who doesn’t love singing “I Love L.A.” after a W?).

    Given the unfortunate start to the 2011 season and the fallout of the Bryan Stow incident, it is understandable why attendance slipped last year. But now that the buzz regarding the new owner is in play and the fans have young talent to come out and see (a full year of Dee Gordon and Jerry Sands), in addition to the stellar veteran play (Kershaw, Kemp, Ethier and once in a blue moon Loney), I expect Dodger fans to be back and better than ever.

    Fans will show up in support of the team and as the new owner does his thing, so too will the fans.

Should Juan Rivera Start over Jerry Sands?

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    While the earlier questions were the kind you ask because you’re worried or concerned or nervous, this question is strictly a baseball question. Who should be starting in left field, over-the-hill Juan Rivera or unproven Jerry Sands?

    When the Dodgers brought Rivera over at the All-Star break last year, it was because of the lack of depth throughout the club. Tony Gwynn Jr. was not quite getting it done and neither was young call-up Jerry Sands (though his future is still brighter than bright). Rivera, when he joined the team, didn’t do much, but he did add depth to the lineup.

    The Dodgers realized that having another big bat with the potential to hurt an opposing team on one swing never hurt. That was something Jerry Sands (whose rookie numbers were .253/.338/.389) had not been able to do in his time in the spot.

    This year though, the question arises. Do you start Rivera and lose Sands' experience, at bats and maturity time? Or do you start Sands, figuring he may not put up the numbers Rivera would (not at first, at least)? It is a tougher dilemma than most people think.

    Luckily for Mattingly and the club, Sands can also play right field (if something, god forbid, goes wrong with Andre) or first base if Loney reverts to his old self (he caught fire after the All-Star break in 2011). Regardless of where Sands plays, I think it has to be sooner rather than later.

Just How Bad Will Ted Lilly Be?

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    Since becoming a Dodger midway through the 2010 season, Lilly is 19-18 with a 3.74 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. Now, to give Lilly the respect he deserves, he has always been a .500 guy. His career numbers are 125-110 with a 4.16 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP. Not bad for your third starter (where he is currently slotted in the Dodger rotation).

    My fondest memories of Ted Lilly as a Dodger came early on, when as most true fans will remember, he started his career in Dodger Blue 5-0. In his first five starts, he pitched 34.1 innings, allowing just 28 hits, six walks and 14 runs, while striking out 36. Lilly electrified the rotation, the team and the fans. I thought, “Wow, we finally made a move and got a guy that just needed a change." Boy was I wrong.

    Since then, as his numbers show (and numbers never lie), he has underachieved, underperformed and at times seemed completely uninterested. How Lilly is still in the rotation is a testament to how lost and confused the organization is at times. The Dodgers have plenty to be excited about down on the farm, and I think they should be giving what they have a taste.

    If Lilly struggles early on, which he will do (I see him being really, really bad this year), you need to sit him down. Find someone in the league via trade, or call someone up you have been grooming. Tried and tested is not the way to go anymore in Chavez Ravine.

Is Jansen-Guerra Going to Become Dynamic?

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    After Clayton Kershaw there is not much to be excited about in terms of arms other than the potentially dynamic 1-2 punch that is Kenley Jansen and Javy Guerra. Jansen, 24, and Guerra, 26, came strong of late (Jansen in 2010, Guerra in 2011) and have risen to the top of the bullpen as young guys with powerful arms, good control and plenty of upside.

    Jansen, originally drafted by the Dodgers as a catcher (converted to a reliever in 2009), had an incredible 2011 when considering how subpar the bullpen normally is. He had a 2.85 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP and 96 strikeouts in just 53.2 innings (this would become a new MLB record for strikeouts per nine innings at 16.10).

    Guerra was called up to the big leagues when former closer Jonathan Broxton went out with an injury to his throwing elbow (although I just think he ate one too many double doubles). Broxton had a strong run in Los Angeles, but he was quickly forgotten because Guerra’s impact was felt immediately.

    Guerra finished 2011 with a 2-2 record, but saved 21 of his 23 opportunities. He had a 2.31 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP, and he struck out 38 guys in 46.2 innings. Those numbers don’t leave much to be desired, they instead provide much to be excited about.

    If Jansen and Guerra can stay healthy, the Dodgers will have themselves a young and dynamic eighth and ninth inning duo; the kind that wins you ball games. With Kershaw at the helm and quality arms behind him (minus Lilly), Jansen and Guerra will be valued and loved by the team and the fans.