The 2014 Dodgers will have Yasiel Puig for a full season.
On paper, the Los Angeles Dodgers might be the best team in baseball. They may have been last year, as well. But a lot still needed to go right for them to turn around what was quickly becoming a disastrous season.
After a June 21 loss at San Diego, the last-place Dodgers fell to 30-42 and were 9.5 games behind the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks. If not for the newly promoted Yasiel Puig, a healthy Hanley Ramirez and a rejuvenated Andre Ethier leading the team to an NL West title with an astonishing 62 victories in their last 90 regular-season games, this talented roster would've been one huge disappointment.
If we learned anything from their 2013 season, it's that the Dodgers are capable of being a nearly unbeatable team when things are firing on all cylinders. And when a lot of things go wrong, as can be the case for many teams throughout a season, they don't have the depth to overcome it.
A lot can still go wrong in 2014. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered.
Was Puig's MVP-caliber rookie performance a result of teams having limited information on him with only 63 games of minor league experience under his belt when he debuted in the majors? And if so, will he make the proper adjustments in order to maintain his production?
Can Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez stay healthy for a full season?
Will Josh Beckett come back strong from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery? Will Chad Billingsley return at all from May 2013 Tommy John surgery? Did the Dodgers sign the Dan Haren who posted a 5.61 ERA in the first half of last season or the Dan Haren who finished strong with a 3.52 ERA in the second half?
After one good season following two horrible seasons, which Juan Uribe will show up in 2014? Can second baseman Alexander Guerrero make the transition from Cuba to the major leagues?
While it's clear that this Dodgers team, on paper, is championship caliber, there are far too many questions to call the Dodgers a lock to even return to the playoffs. If more things go right than wrong, though, there's a good chance that they'll cruise to their second consecutive division title.
While they certainly have the financial resources to have made a splash in free agency this offseason and the farm system talent to have acquired an impact player, the Dodgers opted for a more conservative approach.
Signing staff ace Clayton Kershaw to a record $215 contract extension could be considered a "splash" because of the dollar value. But it will have no impact whatsoever on their 2014 season. They gave a homegrown, elite player a market-value deal a year before he could become a free agent. As far as offseason priority lists are concerned, they likely accomplished No. 1.
Not making significant changes to a team that won 62 of its last 90 regular-season games and advanced to the National League Championship Seris before being eliminated by the St. Louis Cardinals isn't a bad thing. There were a few holes to fill, and general manager Ned Colletti did a solid job in filling them.
Juan Uribe, who posted a .769 OPS and was a Gold Glove finalist at third base, was re-signed to a two-year, $15 million deal. While it's a risky move, given his awful performance over his first two seasons with the team, the 34-year-old was clearly the best free-agent option available, and the trade market didn't appear to offer much more. The lack of internal options also likely forced the team's hand.
With Mark Ellis departing as a free agent after his 2014 club option was declined, he is expected to be replaced by Cuban Alexander Guerrero, who signed a four-year, $28 million deal in October. The 27-year-old, who is projected to have above-average power for a middle infielder, will be making the transition from shortstop to second base.
The team already appears to be in good shape with Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu holding down the first three spots, but the addition of free-agents Dan Haren (pictured) and Paul Maholm will help stabilize the back of the rotation with Josh Beckett returning from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery and Chad Billingsley out at least half the season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
For just one year and $10 million, the Dodgers brought Haren back to his hometown, where he'll try to carry over his success from a strong second half with the Washington Nationals.
The bullpen was solidified in a big way with the re-signing of lefty J.P. Howell and setup man Brian Wilson to go along with the addition of free-agents Chris Perez and Jamey Wright. Along with lefty Paco Rodriguez, that group shouldn't have a problem getting the ball to closer Kenley Jansen.
The early start to the Dodgers' regular season—they open on March 22 against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Australia—makes it highly doubtful that center fielder Matt Kemp (pictured) will be ready on Opening Day. Manager Don Mattingly doesn't think the 29-year-old, who is recovering from ankle and shoulder surgeries, will be ready on time, according to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.
Mattingly wouldn't rule him out, however, although it's more likely that they ease him back to action after an injury-marred 2013 season in which he played in only 73 games.
Starting pitcher Chad Billingsley underwent Tommy John surgery last April and isn't expected to return prior to June or July. Setbacks are common in this particular recovery, though, and it's no lock that the 29-year-old right-hander will make it back at all.
Reliever Scott Elbert is also recovering from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent in June. The left-hander isn't expected back prior to the second half of the season.
Josh Beckett (recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in July) is reportedly on track for a normal spring training, according to Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. The signing of Paul Maholm could indicate, however, that the team plans on easing him back into action and could place him on the disabled list to start the season.
With his team struggling early on in 2013, it was no certainty that manager Don Mattingly (pictured) would last through the season. But after the team's amazing run that resulted in an NLCS appearance, which triggered a vesting option for Mattingly to return in 2014, the two sides agreed to a new three-year contract extension last month.
Mattingly, who is now under contract through 2016, will have the majority of his coaching staff returning for next season.
On the heels of some questionable late-inning decision-making by Mattingly in the postseason, bench coach Trey Hillman was fired and replaced by Tim Wallach, who was promoted from the third base coach position. Replacing Wallach is Lorenzo Bundy, who was the organization's Triple-A manager for the past three seasons.
The dismissal of Hillman didn't appear to sit well with his friend Mattingly, who had expressed hope that his entire coaching staff would remain intact. But the new contract extension should allow the team to move forward and focus on the upcoming season.
1 Yasiel Puig, RF
2 Carl Crawford, LF
3 Hanley Ramirez, SS
4 Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
5 Matt Kemp, CF
6 Juan Uribe, 3B
7 A.J. Ellis, C
8 Alexander Guerrero, 2B
Puig proved as a rookie that he was capable of carrying the offense. A healthy Ramirez did, as well, in the second half of the season. Gonzalez (pictured), at age 31, would appear to still have that ability. The oft-injured Kemp is not far removed from being one of the best all-around players in the game. Crawford was once a star, and fourth outfielder Andre Ethier has also been a well-above-average hitter for a majority of his career.
So, yes, this lineup is capable of greatness. Even if a few of those players don't produce, they can still be good enough.
It's one filled with question marks, though, throughout the star-studded first five spots of the lineup and with the potential of a black hole forming at the bottom of the lineup if Juan Uribe reverts back to his 2011-2012 form and Alexander Guerrero isn't able to handle major league pitching after coming over from Cuba.
1 Clayton Kershaw, LHP
2 Zack Greinke, RHP
3 Hyun-jin Ryu, LHP
4 Dan Haren, RHP
5 Josh Beckett, RHP/ Paul Maholm LHP
The Dodgers resisted the temptation to outbid the Yankees for Masahiro Tanaka, which would've set them up to become one of the best "on paper" rotations in recent memory. Instead, they settled on Dan Haren and Paul Maholm to strengthen the back of the rotation behind staff ace Clayton Kershaw (pictured), Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu.
That group is plenty good enough, especially if Haren can carry over his success from the second half of last season (3.52 ERA) and Maholm pitches as he did in the first half (3.98 ERA).
If Josh Beckett comes back strong from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, the depth of the group is even stronger, with Stephen Fife a solid fill-in possibility and prospects Zach Lee, Chris Reed and Ross Stripling all inching closer to the big leagues.
A potential reinforcement also looms for late in the season if Chad Billingsley can return at full strength from Tommy John surgery.
CL Kenley Jansen, RHP
SU Brian Wilson, RHP
SU Chris Perez, RHP
MID Paco Rodriguez, LHP
MID Brandon League, RHP
MID J.P. Howell, LHP
LR Jamey Wright, RHP
Early in the offseason, it appeared that the Dodgers would lean on young relievers Rodriguez and Chris Withrow to step into the integral setup roles in 2014. But that changed quickly, as the bullpen was transformed into a veteran-filled strength after the re-signing of Wilson (pictured) and Howell and the free-agent signings of Perez and Wright.
With two former All-Star closers now setting up for Jansen, who is quickly becoming one of the most dominant closers in the game, a very effective pair of lefties and a potential late-inning option down in the minors in Withrow, the Dodgers figure to be in excellent shape over a 162-game season.
In an ideal scenario, the Dodgers would not have to count on any of their top prospects in 2014 because it would mean that their core of star players are living up to expectations and avoiding the disabled list.
But unlike the beginning of last season when their lack of depth in the minors played a major role in their inability to compete with several key players on the disabled list, they are in much better shape this season.
Joc Pederson, who posted an .878 OPS with 22 homers and 31 stolen bases in Double-A last season, will be waiting in the wings at Triple-A should the Dodgers outfield struggle to remain healthy. Since Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp have seemingly been hurt more than they've been healthy during the past two seasons, chances are strong that the 21-year-old Pederson will make his big league debut in 2014.
As was proven in 2013, rotation depth could disappear in a hurry. So while prospects Zach Lee, Chris Reed and Ross Stripling appear to be at least seventh, eighth and ninth on the starting pitcher depth chart, respectively, it wouldn't be a surprise if at least one or two of them were called upon during the season. For now, that trio is likely to make up three-fifths of the rotation in Triple-A Albuquerque.
Relievers Onelki Garcia and Chris Withrow are also likely to bide their time on the Triple-A roster, although that duo could be at the front of the line should the Dodgers need help in their bullpen.
Withrow has dropped off the projected 25-man roster because of all the veteran signings the team has made, but he certainly proved in a 26-appearance big league stint in 2013 (2.60 ERA, 34.2 IP, 20 H, 13 BB, 43 K) that he was ready to make an impact and could be a force in the late innings when given a chance.
Barring a rash of injuries that would deplete the team's starting rotation or outfield, the team's top close-to-major league ready prospects—outfielder Joc Pederson and starting pitcher Zach Lee would qualify—aren't expected to make an impact in 2014.
If there is one player that could surprise amongst a roster full of players who have already established themselves as impact major leaguers, it's Dee Gordon (pictured), who stole 59 bases in 130 games between Triple-A and the majors last season.
The former shortstop could push Alexander Guerrero for the starting second base job, but his ultimate role could be as a utility man whose blazing speed could give the team a major weapon off the bench late in games.
A part-time role for the 25-year-old, who has struggled to hit at the major league level, could prove to be ideal, as his weaknesses as a hitter and defensive shortstop would be tougher to expose by giving the team a shot in the arm two to three times per week.
As long as Josh Beckett proves that he's healthy and Cuban Alexander Guerrero isn't a complete bust in the spring, there isn't much to settle on this Dodgers team.
But just in case, the team signed Paul Maholm to fill the No. 5 starter spot if Beckett is either not completely healthy in his return from surgery or if he's just ineffective, which has mostly been the case over the past two seasons.
If a Maholm versus Beckett battle fails to surface for any reason, there are some dark-horse candidates that could also jump into the mix, including Stephen Fife (3.04 ERA in 10 starts as a rookie in 2013) and pitching prospect Zach Lee, who is slated to pitch in Triple-A for the first time in 2014.
Guerrero's competition isn't fierce, and the starting second base job appears to be his to lose, but there are several candidates that would be in the mix should he falter. Speedster Dee Gordon figures to have the edge, although Justin Turner (pictured), Chone Figgins and Miguel Rojas are all non-roster invitees that will get a look.