Will Adrian Gonzalez be an impact hitter in 2013?
Just how confident are the Los Angeles Dodgers and general manager Ned Colletti in their projected lineup for 2013?
If Colletti was happy with how his team's batting order is shaping up, would rumors of the Dodgers trying to trade Andre Ethier in an attempt to clear space for Nick Swisher or Michael Bourn have any life to them?
Perhaps so, since the Dodgers have become sort of the fantasy team for reporters, analysts and fans. With a seemingly unlimited payroll available, the Dodgers have been associated with virtually every top free-agent hitter during this offseason. Sign Josh Hamilton! They have the money!
Given how Colletti has stockpiled starting pitching, maybe the current belief in Chavez Ravine is that the Dodgers can't have enough of anything. Pitching? Hitting? Bench players? More, please!
But in his attempt to hoard as much talent as possible, has Colletti—along with those who follow the Dodgers—actually underrated his lineup?
Following the Dodgers' offensive (which has a double meaning here) performance in 2012, it's understandable that Colletti would prefer to add as many bats as possible.
Only four teams in MLB scored fewer than the 637 runs the Dodgers put on the board last season. Even after acquiring Adrian Gonzalez at the waiver trade deadline, the Dodgers scored 91 runs in September, averaging 3.5 runs per game.
Gonzalez put up decent numbers for the Dodgers, but wasn't the impact power bat the team was hoping for following its blockbuster trade with the Boston Red Sox. He hit .297 with a .785 OPS, 10 doubles, three home runs and 22 RBI in 157 plate appearances.
However, Gonzalez wasn't lighting it up in Boston either. He compiled 15 home runs and 86 RBI for a Red Sox team that performed far below expectations. With Gonzalez not looking like an MVP-caliber player, the assumption seems to be forming that he may not be that sort of hitter anymore.
Yet we're talking about a player one season removed from hitting .338 with a .957 OPS. Gonzalez also slugged 27 homers with 117 RBI and tied for the MLB lead with 213 hits. The Red Sox wanted an impact hitter and appeared to have one.
Could it really have gone downhill so fast for Gonzalez? Getting out of Boston looked like the change of scenery he needed. Following a full offseason away from the drama at Fenway Park and beginning the 2013 season with the Dodgers would seem to be recuperative for him.
Gonzalez's dip in power is a concern, but as The Boston Globe's Peter Abraham explained in an article last season, the first baseman was still trying to work out his swing after surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Having a healthy shoulder actually got him into bad habits as he tried to lift the ball with his swing, rather than take a line-drive approach. Perhaps the Dodgers' new hitting coach, Mark McGwire, will help him iron out those tendencies.
Another player who came over from Boston and is battling diminished expectations is Carl Crawford. Wrist and elbow injuries limited Crawford to 161 games in two seasons with the Red Sox, during which he hit .260 with a .711 OPS.
Crawford eventually had Tommy John surgery on his left elbow last August, but could miss the beginning of the 2013 season and might be out until May.
Once he's able to join the Dodgers' lineup, however, the batting order will have a top-of-the-order hitter (though probably not a leadoff batter) who can get on base, hit for some power and provide some speed on the basepaths.
But as with Gonzalez, there might be some question as to whether or not Crawford can be the same five-tool player he was with the Tampa Bay Rays. Until he shows he can be that sort of hitter again—and is able to prove his defensive abilities in Dodger Stadium's more conventional and spacious outfield—doubts will shadow him.
Third baseman Luis Cruz is likely one more reason that observers are underrating the Dodgers' lineup.
Cruz isn't the prototypical slugging third baseman. He hit six home runs in 78 games last season. But he did hit .297 with a .753 OPS, providing a boost for a Dodgers infield that didn't supply much run production until Hanley Ramirez was acquired from the Miami Marlins.
Ideally, Cruz would be the Dodgers shortstop this season, with Ramirez playing third base. But as we saw last year when Ramirez had to move to accommodate Jose Reyes in Miami, Ramirez doesn't like playing the hot corner.
The Dodgers are giving Ramirez the opportunity to improve his defense and win the shortstop job. In all likelihood, he'll be the starting shortstop come Opening Day.
That leaves Cruz to play third base again. While he did surprise with his batting average and played strong defense at third, can Cruz repeat that performance in 2013?
Cruz spent all of 2011 in the minor leagues, between the Texas Rangers and Dodgers organizations. In his prior three major league seasons, he was a part-time player at best, hitting under .250 with an OPS below .600.
Was 2012 a breakout season for the 28-year-old infielder or a one-year fluke?
Until Cruz proves he can hit well enough to be the Dodgers' third baseman over a full season, there will surely be plenty of rumblings that the team either needs to acquire an upgrade at the position or move Ramirez to third. With the risk of making Ramirez unhappy, however, Colletti will probably seek outside help if it comes to that.
Since the Guggenheim Baseball Management group took over ownership of the team, the Dodgers have proven that they're not afraid to constantly tweak their roster. That likely won't change during the 2013 season. Because of that, there will frequently be the sentiment that the lineup can be even better.
However, the Dodgers batting order may already be plenty good enough.
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