The Dodgers are loaded on paper, but that means nothing without individual player improvements. There's quite a range: Matt Kemp needs to stay healthy, Andre Ethier needs to learn to hit lefties and Dee Gordon needs to learn how to hit anything.
In all seriousness, there are many things each player resolves to work on over the months they aren't in season. And I have things I hope each Dodgers player has worked on in their time off, because this may be a World Series-or-bust type of season.
For the sake of brevity, I've only included players still on the 40-man roster who had major league service time in 2012 as a Dodger.
Kemp is an all-out player in every meaning of the phrase. He has five-tool potential, including that incredible speed and range in the outfield. But if there are any improvements to be made to Kemp's game, it's realizing his importance to the ballclub and scaling back on the headfirst dives and full-speed runs into walls. Because the chances of that happening are very slim, Kemp could make an improvement to his strikeout rate.
I touched on it in the intro, and it really goes without saying that the main improvement Ethier needs to make (as has always been the case) is learning to hit southpaws. Ethier can mash and is one of the most clutch hitters in baseball. But teams now save their lefty relievers for him and can almost entirely neutralize that big bat late in games. Teammate Adrian Gonzalez is a very good hitter against left-handed pitchers, so Ethier should consult him at the very least.
Where do we start with Crawford? One reason I think Crawford might thrive in L.A., aside from the fact that he'll be fully healthy, is that he has no reason to try to do too much. When he was signed to a massive deal by Boston, he was pressing at the plate and his offensive numbers dropped significantly. We need Crawford to be a contact hitter who can play small ball for this offense.
Herrera was quite a surprise for the Dodgers last year, hitting .251 as an anonymous replacement. But he started hot and cooled off considerably, so consistency will be key for him in 2013. That, and learning how to hit away from Dodger Stadium, where his average was .119 points higher.
It's hard to judge Castellanos given his limited service time so far. But one thing that's always been an issue for him is that he strikes out a lot, walks a little. As with many young players, Castellanos could definitely improve on his plate discipline.
Now that A-Gon is healthy, there's not much that can slow him down. He's one of the more consistently solid bats in the league usually. But one reason he's always thrived is because he hits extremely well to the opposite field. Gonzalez needs to learn the gaps at Dodger Stadium and get the left-field stroke back to stay the dangerous hitter he was in San Diego and Boston.
For me, there's no question: Cruz needs to improve his splits when he's behind in the count. Even the best hitters go down 0-2 and 1-2 in the count here and there. But when Cruz was in that situation, he hit just over .200, as compared to over .460 when he was ahead. Aggressiveness early is great, but learning to shorten up and hit off-speed, out-of the-zone two-strike pitches will lead to great overall improvement.
Jerry Hairston Jr.
One of Dodger Nation's favorites from last year announced Monday that he would retire if the Dodgers win the World Series in 2013 (via the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez). That's a lot of motivation for him to stay fresh down the stretch, unlike last year. Injuries bothered him, but his statistics were dipping after a good start in April and May anyway.
Literally, everything. He needs to get on base more, make more contact, keep his eye on the ball, lay off pitches in the dirt, not open his front shoulder, get in shape, play more consistent defense and justify his contract. Basically, he's a lost cause.
I'm no batting coach, but one thing I noticed consistently in watching Ellis last season was his inability to turn on inside pitches. While I have no hard evidence to back this up, Ellis seemed to mostly give away that inside corner, on which he was rung up a lot. Honestly though, Ellis could put up the same offensive numbers as last year and I'd be completely satisfied.
One knock on Ramirez his entire career, aside from attitude, has been his strikeout rate. Last year between Miami and Los Angeles, he put up 132 K's as opposed to 54 walks. If he can improve that eye at the plate, he's even more dangerous with the bat. Another concern is Ramirez's shoddy fielding at shortstop. The Dodgers would love to see him become a better fielder.
Stop trying to rip doubles. It's as simple as that. Assuming Gordon will only see the field if somebody gets injured, he needs to be that speed-demon pinch-hitting, bunting, off-the-bench threat that he should be already. One reason Gordon's numbers plummeted last season was because instead of hitting line drives the other way or taking grounders back up the middle, he was trying to get loft on the ball. That's not his game. He needs to learn to stick to what he can do and make the most of it.
This is a tough call for me, as we didn't see Punto play a lot in Boston and he hardly got into games as a Dodger. I guess the best improvement for Punto to make is just to become a better all-around role player. He could be invaluable as a backup at multiple positions this year.
I love Justin Sellers, if only for his insane, better-than-Jeter dive into the stands last year. But his bat could use a little work. He's always been fairly good at getting on base in the minors, but struggled in the bigs. My main thing is his 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position last season just won't cut it.
For me, the question is consistency. Can Ellis keep up his solid offensive return and continue to call a good game for the entirety of a long 162-game season? By no means do I expect the guy to start and catch all 162 games, but he really tired out down the stretch last year in what was his first full season starting. Conditioning is key this Spring, A.J.
FedEx barely qualifies under my parameters, as he only accumulated a few at-bats in the big leagues last season. But in the minors, he's been a gap hitter who racks up a decent amount of doubles every season. That's got to be his game as a backup for Ellis this season: driving the ball into the gaps and putting up good enough power numbers to stay up.
Is there really anything to improve on? Kershaw was two strikeouts away (literally—R.A. Dickey finished the season with 230 strikeouts to Kershaw's 229) from a second straight season winning the National League ERA, WHIP and strikeout titles, which might have swung the Cy Young vote in his favor again. All Kershaw can do better is stay healthy, for everyone's sake.
Beckett only gave us a small sample size as a Dodger last season, but he was pretty solid over those seven starts. He held a 2.65 ERA in the month of September, and Dodger fans are hoping that carries over to 2013 with a full season in a pitcher-friendly league and ballpark. Beckett needs to improve on keeping the ball down when he's in the stretch and figure out a way to not get torched by lefties.
Cappy proved to the Dodgers and the fanbase last year that he has the tools to be a middle-of-the-rotation guy. He had an incredible first half before completely collapsing in the second half. So, similar to A.J. Ellis, Capuano needs to condition himself for the entire season. And if he can work on continually mixing up his stuff to keep hitters guessing, he could be surprising—again—in 2013.
Health. That's all. Please be healthy, Ted. Because this team (well, any team really) can use as much starting pitching depth as possible. And when Lilly is healthy, he's still really good (5-1, 3.14 ERA, .203 batting average against in eight starts in 2012). Lilly is a veteran who knows what he's got, so it's in his and the club's best interest to make sure he's strong and healthy heading into 2013.
If I had my way, Harang would get off to a great start in 2013. Last April was rough before he really turned it on and posted some beautiful monthly numbers (let's just forget about July's 4.02), including being under 2.90 in both May and June. Harang was a nice surprise last season, and if he's mentally and physically ready to go from day one this year, he could be a game-changer.
The curious case of Chad continues—this guy has baffled Dodgers fans for years with his immense talent and filthy repertoire, but mediocre success. He struggles against lefties, with runners in scoring position and in the early months of summer. Clearly, he needs to work on hydrating himself, pitching from the stretch and keeping the ball away to lefties. And I'm only half-joking.
I know he's technically a starter, but unless there is a plague of injuries to the eight-deep starting rotation, Fife's only chance at the big leagues with the Dodgers in 2013 is out of the bullpen. He was good as a spot starter last year but could really improve upon his performance with runners in scoring position. That's easier said than done, but a 6.23 ERA in those situations is pretty ugly.
Elbert has a little help in 2013, as free-agent lefty J.P. Howell will join him and Paco Rodriguez in the 'pen. Elbert was the only go-to lefty we had for most of last season before going down with an arm injury. When healthy, he was dominant, especially at home. But I'd like to see him bring his road ERA, which was just under 4.00, down.
Guerra managed to finish the season with a nifty 2.60 ERA, but it was a roller coaster ride. He started the year with a big, ugly ERA as the Dodgers closer before getting drilled with a line drive and losing the ninth-inning job. He also had some injury issues throughout the year, but finished strong. If Guerra consistently gets ahead in counts this season, he'll be great—and a nice change in the bullpen with his lower velocity.
I wish I could tell you more about Guerrier's time as a Dodger, but he's spent most of it on the DL. When he came back from an injury late last season, he actually looked pretty good. That being said, he kept leaving the ball up, and we paid for it. Guerrier coughed up a couple close games by giving up long balls. Getting the movement to lead the ball back down to the lower half of the zone will be key for him.
Rodriguez was an absolute revelation last season when called up from the minors out of nowhere to help fill the void left by Elbert. He had a 1.05 ERA in his short stint and was huge in clutch situations. Rodriguez earned himself a spot on the roster, but it will be interesting to see if he can stick. He will have to improve that 1.50 WHIP (albeit a small sample size) against righties, though.
A tendency to overthrow is what haunted the young Tolleson last year. But he really was phenomenal for the Dodgers, seemingly coming through every time he was called upon (which was a lot). I have high hopes for this season, but he's going to have to take his time, take a breath and make his pitches instead of trying to force a fastball in more often than not.
There wasn't a whole lot of time to judge Wall last season, as he appeared in only seven big league games. But one thing he's always had trouble with is keeping runners off base. He has a lot of potential and can get guys out once they reach, but it's a recipe for disaster in the long run.
Jansen is a big dude, so I don't necessarily blame this all on him—but he definitely struggles with his mechanics occasionally. It's hard to keep that big body in sync, especially at such a young age. But if he gets them down pat, he will be the Dodgers closer before 2013 ends. He has the parts, he just needs to get the engine running properly and keep that confidence up.
The biggest demons Belisario seems to have to conquer every year are personal. But on the mound, he's pretty much unhittable. If I have to pick one improvement for him to make, it would be to make sure he keeps that dirty sinker down in the zone. That's really the only time he gets hurt.
The Dodgers new, very rich closer has some work to do. Yes, he was fantastic in a short stint with the team last season. But his career numbers don't reflect such dominance. I have faith but wouldn't be surprised if Jansen replaces him at some point in 2013. Why? Because, like Belisario, his ball moves a lot. His issue is putting it in a spot where hitters can't tee off on him.