Los Angeles Dodgers: 4 Things Still Left to Do Before Spring Training
The Dodgers, who claim to be gearing their organizational philosophy more towards developing the farm system and spending less on flashy free agents, are now rumored to be the front runner for flashy free agent Masahiro Tanaka's services.
This comes after spending a four-year contract on Cuban second baseman Alexander Guerrero and overpaying Brian Wilson and J.P. Howell (granted, these moves were necessary) to return to the bullpen.
So despite the ownership going back on their word about financials, the Dodgers are poised to repeat as NL West champions and have an even better team than the one which lost in six games in the 2013 NLCS.
But no team is perfect—the Dodgers still have some glaring holes to fill, and fans probably won't get comfortable with the 2014 team until those needs are addressed. Read on to find out where the Dodgers can still improve before spring training.
1. Sign One More Starter
Whether it be Tanaka or one of a crop of lesser free agents still out there, the Dodgers need to shore up the rotation even further. A top three of Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu is already pretty devastating for opponents, but questions abound.
We know what Kershaw and Greinke are capable of, but will Ryu have the same type of success he found in his rookie year? He has all the tools to do so, but hitters will adjust to him and he'll have to be moving quick to counter-adjust himself.
Dan Haren is the current fourth starter, with some mash-up of the injured Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett holding the fifth slot upon their respective returns. Youngsters Stephen Fife and Zach Lee could also see some starts at the back of the rotation in 2014.
Haren was quietly one of the most efficient pitchers in baseball in the second half of 2013 but has struggled to regain his ace form over the last few seasons. If he can continue to build on last season's momentum, the Dodgers may have found a gem. That's a big "if," though.
Nobody knows if Billingsley or Beckett will respond well after their injuries, but both also have Haren-esque bounce-back potential. Top pitching prospect Lee will likely see some Major League innings in 2014, but don't count on him to be a regular. And Fife filled in admirably last year in big spot starts for the Dodgers.
So, with the propensity for regression or injury in the rotation, the Dodgers definitely need to make a move to get one more guy in there to follow the big three. If they do end up signing Tanaka, that'll more than do the trick.
2. Determine the Starting Outfield
Having four talented, albeit highly paid, outfielders for three starting spots isn't necessarily a bad problem to have. Especially when three of the four have battled significant injury problems at some point over the last three seasons.
The Dodgers will roll into spring training with Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig on the roster and top hitting prospect Joc Pederson nearly ready for the show in Double-A. Unless one of the players gets traded, there will be one odd man out every day.
Manager Don Mattingly and the players seem to understand that it will be a juggling act and that all but Puig might lose some at-bats because of the setup, but there have yet to be any reports of displeasure because of it.
Still, Mattingly has his work cut out for him. Crawford and Ethier struggle significantly against left-handed pitchers, so that will make lineup formation against southpaws a cinch (Puig in right field, Kemp in center field, one of the others in left field). But what to do when a righty takes the bump?
Chances are Ethier will play in center, Crawford in left and Puig in right—at least to start. Kemp's injury concerns are the most current and most worrisome, so until he proves that he's physically ready to be back full time, he will get a lot of regular rest.
Even if he does come back full strength, Kemp has been off and on the disabled list for almost two full seasons. Though he showed flashes of his old self in short healthy stints in 2013, the only way he'll work himself back into a Puig-like everyday role again is if he is healthy and productive.
My best guess is that over the course of the 2014 season, assuming all four stay in Los Angeles, Kemp and Puig will hold regular roles with Crawford and Ethier splitting time depending on matchups. Whatever the conclusion, Mattingly needs to make some kind of determination to quell the curiosity of fans and media.
3. Replenish the Bench
Everyone loves the fire and personality that Dee Gordon brings to the Dodgers. But the simple fact is that in multiple attempts at the big league level so far, Gordon has completely wasted his talent. He can't defend, makes bad baserunning decisions and strikes out much too frequently.
But as it stands now, he's a front runner to be the primary backup middle infielder for the Dodgers in 2014. He would join the fourth outfielder from the group in the last slide, catcher Tim Federowicz, outfielder Mike Baxter and first baseman/left fielder Scott Van Slyke if the season started today.
Van Slyke can be a power threat off the bench, though not necessarily a trustworthy one, and Baxter is a somewhat unknown commodity for Dodgers fans. Federowicz will be there backing up A.J. Ellis every day, and one of those star outfielders will provide an intriguing pinch-hitting option late in games.
But is Gordon, who can play his primary position of shortstop, second base and a little outfield, really the best backup infielder the Dodgers can muster? He needs more seasoning in Triple-A until he becomes confident and consistent enough to contribute regularly for the big league team.
As it stands now, if Hanley Ramirez, Juan Uribe or Guerrero get injured, the Dodgers are in a lot of trouble. Relying on Gordon, Justin Sellers or any number of other offensively-challenged, ill-prepared minor league infielders to fill those potential holes is a dangerous proposition.
While I'd like to see the Dodgers add some more pop to the bench (thinking a corner infielder with good power and pinch-hitting experience), it is more important to get a competent backup for second base, third base and shortstop.
There are a few guys who can play all three, but two of them—Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto—left the Dodgers in free agency already. Michael Young may be an unpopular option with fans and sabermetricians, but right now, he would be a large improvement over the other options.
4. Re-Sign Their Best Players
This is no exaggeration: Kershaw and Ramirez are the Dodgers' best pitcher and hitter, respectively. The former is a two-time and defending Cy Young winner in the National League. He's the game's best pitcher at age 25 and only getting better.
The latter came alive in his first full season in Los Angeles, despite battling injuries and DL time for much of 2013. He is a former batting champion who has developed an impressive combination of patience and power at the plate as he hits his prime.
Besides being ridiculously good at baseball, Kershaw and Ramirez have one thing in common—they both need extensions.
Mattingly was finally locked up to a multi-year deal with the Dodgers, but before they go any further with free-agent negotiations, the ownership group needs to step back and examine the two players who are most important to their success in 2014.
Kershaw will become the first pitcher to earn a contract over $200 million, but seems content to let the season play out and test the free-agent market. The Dodgers (and its fans) want to keep the homegrown southpaw in Dodger blue for the remainder of his career, but if an agreement isn't made by spring training, he may be headed elsewhere.
Ramirez has publicly expressed interest in retiring in Los Angeles (as has Kershaw, just less frequently and less adamantly), and the Dodgers seem excited to bring him back. We know the team can afford both players, but the biggest challenge is actually agreeing on terms.
The Dodgers don't want to extend an injury-prone player like Ramirez for a large number of years if it will put them in an expensive conundrum in his declining mid-to-late 30s. Chances are they'll look to extend him for four or five years at a higher annual salary, if Ramirez will agree to such a deal.
As for Kershaw, they could throw a 10-year deal at him for any amount of dollars and it would be a good move. Because he's so young, Kershaw can be counted on to have many more great years, barring injury. But can the Dodgers put together a package of years and money to Kershaw's liking? They better figure out both soon, or risk losing them to free agency.
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