With spring training on the horizon, teams are making last-minute adjustments to finalize rosters and make sure all the right players get a shot at big league jobs. There are always tweaks to be made and final cuts to be delivered.
This year is no exception. The task actually gets harder for a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have brought in top-notch talent off the free-agent market and have some strong candidates for starting jobs at multiple positions.
Not least of which is the starting rotation, which boasts no less than eight options to snag a spot. Then there's the question of Luis Cruz at third base and whether he can play well enough to keep a hold on that spot in the lineup.
Let's take a look at the five things the Dodgers need to do before spring training games start.
We know a few things. First, Clayton Kershaw is the ace and Opening Day starter. Second, Zack Greinke and Josh Beckett have two spots behind Kershaw. Third, Hyun-Jin Ryu likely has the fast track for the fourth starting spot.
And then things start to get tricky. Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly all have cases for the fifth spot in the rotation, and all five would be great options there. Though the Dodgers could go on a spot-starting committee basis, it will likely come down to who looks sharpest early on.
For my money, it will be Billingsley or Harang, moving both lefties to the bullpen (or to a different team, via trade). It all depends on who's throwing the best bullpens, and if Billingsley is fully healthy. Either way, it would be great to have a clear-cut picture of what the rotation will look like sooner rather than later.
Matt Kemp. Adrian Gonzalez. Andre Ethier. Hanley Ramirez. In some order, those will be the men stepping into the box for the Dodgers in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth spots. But who is setting the table for them?
History and conventional wisdom say it will be a combination of Carl Crawford and Mark Ellis. But Crawford is coming off an injury and nobody knows what kind of offensive prowess he'll bring to the table. If he gets his Tampa Bay game back, the speed alone makes him the obvious choice to hit leadoff.
But Ellis is a professional hitter who lacks the typical leadoff attributes, such as a super high on-base percentage or blazing speed. But he will take a walk, he makes contact and goes the other way quite well.
Personally, I prefer Crawford, but it all depends on how each guy is swinging the bat in these next couple weeks.
The Dodgers didn't give Brandon League big money for no reason. He is their closer, though it's the opinion of this writer that Kenley Jansen will get the job by the All-Star break. It's not that I don't like League or his repertoire of pitches—it's just hard to have faith in a guy with such a mediocre closing history.
All that being said, the Dodgers have a large group of impact arms in the 'pen, especially after bringing J.P. Howell on board this winter. As it's set on paper, Jansen will be setting up League and Ronald Belisario has a hold on the seventh inning.
But what if Howell or Paco Rodriguez come out guns blazing? Where does Shawn Tolleson fit in?
It would be beneficial to all if there were clear-cut roles for individual players within that unit. Getting into the mindset before regular-season games even start could go a long way in boosting confidence for certain players.
My brain and heart agree that Luis Cruz should maintain his starting spot at third base before spring training games begin. I think he did enough to get the first shot at the job, and I think Don Mattingly will reward him as such.
But the Dodgers have flirted with Scott Rolen on the free-agent market and have bench guys like Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston Jr. who could easily fill those roles if Cruz falters. Both of those players fit better in part-time roles, so my bet is on Cruz.
Give the kid some confidence and make it known that he will undoubtedly start at third base to begin the spring. Not having to look over his shoulder in the preseason will be of huge help to Cruz and gives him a fair shot to showcase his skills.
I don't mean release, like...release. Heck no. I mean unleash. Let Dee Gordon, Elian Herrera, Tim Federowicz and Alex Castellanos take their shots. Give Zach Lee and Chris Reed some high-pressure responsibility.
Even if the farm system is somewhat thin in comparison to most, the only way to know what you have is to stretch it.
Fans want to know if Gordon can be a contributing piece in the future. So has he improved his plate discipline and defense? Is Federowicz going to be an upgrade from Matt Treanor?
Will Castellanos get the first shot at a call-up as an outfielder, or will that honor go to Yasiel Puig? Before spring training games start, I want these young guys getting as much attention as possible. This is when they should be proving themselves to Mattingly and the rest of the coaching staff. Let them have at it!