Ranking the Los Angeles Dodgers' Most Important Players Heading into 2014

Nate LoopFeatured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2014

Ranking the Los Angeles Dodgers' Most Important Players Heading into 2014

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    The Dodgers' owners have taken the term "win at all costs" to its utmost extreme. The most expensive roster in baseball is full of players who are imbued with a very straightforward task: Win the World Series.

    It's not about Dodger Dogs anymore, but Dodger Dollars. Can all the mountains of cash the Guggenheim Partners have ponied up over the past two years deliver a championship to a fanbase deprived of the ultimate victory since 1988? 

    The money has definitely brought in some big name players to Los Angeles, and the knowledge of their buying power does add a certain element of swagger to the team. And there must be some trust in the current list of names on the payroll, due to the fact that the Dodgers didn't take a chance on Robinson Cano or snag Masahiro Tanaka.

    This puts extra focus on the players in place from a roster that remains largely intact from last season.

    Some of these players will be vital to the Dodgers' chances of winning it all in 2014.

    Criteria

    Since this article is all about the player's importance in 2014, we're not too worried about the size/length of a player's contract, player age (unless it may significantly hamper performance) or long-term potential.

    The rankings are based on the skills and ability to deliver wins that will be provided to the Dodgers organization over the next 10 months, as well as the effect it would have on the team if they were lost for the season. Those who are expected to be relied upon, essentially, are the most important.

    Injury concerns are a factor as well, as that hinders a players dependability and can even magnify their impact in some cases. 

    Let's take a look at the Dodgers' most important players heading into next season.

Honorable Mentions

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    Andre Ethier, OF

    A projected fourth outfielder might not find themselves on any list of a team's most important players, but Ethier is projected to inhabit a unique role this year for the Dodgers.

    He will of course fight with Carl Crawford, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp for playing time this season, but due to his abysmal hitting against lefties (.221 average in 2013) and lack of a clear fielding advantage over the other three, looks to be the odd man out.

    Still, he has shown flashes of greatness in the past, and Crawford and Kemp are always injury risks at this point in their careers. He can pinch hit and spell players when need be and is just a bad slide away from being back in the starting lineup.

    Brian Wilson, RP

    The man with the beard blacker than deep space was just about unhittable in his 18 appearances with the Dodgers last season, posting a 0.66 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.

    The Dodgers didn't pick him up just to make a cameo appearance last year, and Wilson has the potential to add electric stuff to the bullpen and continue to prove doubters wrong after coming off Tommy John surgery with few suitors lined up. His experience as a closer also means he provides great cover for Kenley Jansen in the event of an injury.

    A.J. Ellis, C

    Ellis is featured in the link above, as his steady veteran presence is a boon to the Dodgers pitching staff. He is also capable of some very timely and clutch hitting as well, which is magnified by the light-hitting provided by his backup Tim Federowicz. Ellis provides stability not only for the pitching staff, but for the bottom of the lineup as well.

10. Matt Kemp

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    He's won two Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers. He was arguably the best player in the league just three short years ago.

    But Matt Kemp's star has fallen over the past couple of seasons, and his uncertain injury status contribute to his lower ranking on this list, despite being one of the most recognizable players in baseball.

    The stats say Kemp played 73 games in 2013, but very few of those felt like they should count as truly complete games, considering Kemp was often ailing or generally ineffective (.328 OBP, six home runs and 33 RBIs). He had the lowest OPS (on-base plus slugging) of his entire career as well; such was the deflated nature of his play.

    When you have a fully operational Matt Kemp though, the question "what can't you do with a player like that?" comes up much more often than it would for just about any other player in the league on any other team.

    Having Matt Kemp healthy for the majority of the season would do a lot towards solidifying the Dodgers outfield. His speed and work with the leather would also make the Dodgers defensive outfield possibly the rangiest in the league.

    However, it is mostly possibilities at this point, but the undeniable talent still remains, and the Dodgers could certainly use that reinforcement.

9. Juan Uribe

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    Juan Uribe doesn't look the part of a hero until you see him connect with one of his prodigious upper-cut swings.

    He isn't always an all or nothing hitter, but as the announcer notes at the end of the video, it is amazing what you can do when you can't bunt. 

    Uribe had a nice bounce-back year in 2013 after his first two dismal, injury-plagued seasons in Los Angeles. He may have relaxed and benefitted from low expectations last year, but his importance in the team grew as he clubbed 12 home runs with 50 RBIs and posted a very respectable 4.1 WAR (wins-above-replacement).

    Now he may not be expected to repeat at age 34, but the Dodgers should be looking for a solid campaign as they lack cover at the infield spots.

    Uribe's also a key component to locker room stability.

    Uribe knows what it takes to win in the postseason—if that weren't the case, there would be no Uribe in a Dodger uniform anyways—and was able to cultivate strong relationships with Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez, helping both players adjust to the scrutiny of the Los Angeles media by keeping things lively and fresh in the locker room.

    However, Uribe is 34 and may not ever be able to produce quite the way he did in the halcyon days of 2010 with the San Francisco Giants, where he earned his World Series ring.

8. Carl Crawford

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    Carl Crawford has to prove his worth in a big way this upcoming season, and the pressure is already on when you factor in some recent statements made by Don Mattingly.

    According to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, Don Mattingly may be using Yasiel Puig in a leadoff role quite often this upcoming season.

    While Puig certainly has the dynamism to be a strong leadoff hitter, this takes left fielder Carl Crawford out of his normal spot in the lineup, meaning he may be asked to produce in a variety of ways for the Dodgers this season.

    Crawford would be a great threat from the second spot in the lineup, as he stole 15 of 19 bases last season despite his hamstring problems. He didn't have the green light nearly as often as he did in the past but still made the most of his attempts when called upon.

    He also offers a bit more in the outfield than Andre Ethier in terms of coverage, and would have the best range outside of Puig if Kemp cannot get healthy.

    And while he's never been a great power hitter (career high 19 home runs in 2010), he can improve his on-base percentage and provide value and a veteran presence at the top of the lineup backing up Puig.

7. Kenley Jansen

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    A 1.88 ERA and 28 saves in limited closing duty will raise expectations and magnify importance fairly quickly. Jansen, the former minor league catcher, is set to have an excellent year in 2014 at the age of 26 and will be counted upon to protect many Dodgers leads provided by the strong rotation, bullpen and solid hitting lineup.

    He has a thin resume as a closer, but his shutdown performances allowed him to permanently wrestle away the title from the disappointing Brandon League.

    Closers are replaceable and unreliable over the long run, but Jansen doesn't project that way, considering his age and devastating cut fastball, and he especially doesn't project to be anything less than crucial in 2014.

    And if you watch that video, keep an eye on that buzz saw of a cutter; Jansen only needs that one pitch (he threw it nearly 95 percent of the time according to this excellent piece by Grantland's Michael Baumann) to break bats and break spirits out on the diamond.

     

6. Hyun-Jin Ryu

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    The Dodgers have enough pitching talent that Hyun-Jin Ryu makes it onto the list at number six, and he's the third option in the team's starting rotation.

    Ryu had an incredible rookie campaign in 2013, using his arsenal of tricky off-speed pitches to constantly keep hitters off balance. He went 14-8 with a 3.00 ERA and 1.203 WHIP, all excellent numbers. What truly set him apart was his performances at Dodgers Stadium.

    Perhaps emboldened by the support from fans from Los Angeles' Koreatown, Ryu posted a 2.32 ERA within Chavez Ravine, which bodes well for his future.

    On the other hand, batters now have a full season in the books to try and get a read on Ryu, and his softer stuff could be vulnerable if the league figures him out. The video above shows how he used his changeup and slider to devastating effect, but neither pitch has incredible bite on it, which leaves the door open to potential regression.

    However, Ryu is buffeted by the fact that he will go against other team's starters projected to be much weaker than him. He is the lynchpin in the rotation that takes it from top-heavy to one with potentially tantalizing depth.

5. Adrian Gonzalez

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    As the above video clearly states, Gonzalez's numbers have dipped in the past few years, but he was quietly consistent in 2013, and the Dodgers will look for him to continue his production from first base in 2014.

    He hit .297 with 22 home runs and 100 RBIs in 2013—great numbers but still more of an imitation of the kind of hitting he was capable of in San Diego. He will turn 32 this season but can still be counted on for solid production out of first base, typically a less physically demanding position.

    The Dodgers cannot afford to lose his steady bat even if it is in a slight decline. He played 157 games last year and was a constant fixture in a lineup that, despite all of the wins, was often in a state of flux due to the health concerns of players like Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp.

    He's also a three-time Gold Glove winner, further evidence of his dependable nature. The Dodgers have plenty of flashy players, but every championship caliber squad needs a solid foundation, and the giant Gonzalez will be called upon to provide that base for the rest of the team.

4. Zack Greinke

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    Since you can never have too much pitching, Greinke makes it to number three on this list based on that, and the fact he provides peace of mind to many Dodgers' faithful.

    Zack Greinke is quite the haymaker as the latter half of the Dodgers enviable one-two punch combo at the top of their rotation. 

    He posted the fourth best ERA in the National League last year at 2.63 and finished eighth in the Cy Young award voting. He provides excellent cover for Clayton Kershaw and creates nightmares for any team that draws both pitchers in a three-game series over the course of the season.

    Greinke provides bonus value due to the fact that he can hit the ball as well. He posted a .328 average last year—in case anyone from the American League asks what that strange number is doing next to a pitcher's name.

    As the video states above, when your former All-Star pitcher has one of the best years of his career and is healthy heading into the next season, there are few arguments to be made against that kind of outlook.

3. Yasiel Puig

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    The above video is a highlight reel exemplifying the burgeoning power of the young star; Puig's potential is undeniable and, oftentimes, uncontainable.

    He burst onto the scene in 2013 with an unforgettable summer that helped turn the Dodgers embarrassingly slow start to the season into a historical stretch of wins that catapulted the team back into the World Series conversation once it was all said and done. 

    These feelings won't have dissipated too much by the time the 2014 season rolls around, and Puig has more to carry on his shoulders than most 23-year-old ballplayers would. His dynamic presence and obvious talent carries him towards the top of this list.

    He posted a 5.0 WAR rating in just 104 games of play and finished at a .319 average with 19 home runs and 42 RBIs.

    Considering his potential and the injury risk of the Dodgers' other outfielders, the hopes are that the Wild Horse can pick up the nuances of the game, which could mean improvement in his baserunning (he was caught stealing a team-high eight times) and the angles he takes on certain fly balls in the outfield that lead to costly errors.

2. Clayton Kershaw

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    A classic Vin Scully call for Kershaw's signature pitch: A lethal curveball that seems to just sap the life out of batters as it tails down towards the catcher's glove.

    Say what you want about what the Dodgers paid for the best pitcher in a generation, but the money is locked in for long past 2014, so the focus is on what Kershaw brings to the Dodgers this season as a pitcher.

    If you want to win in the postseason, you need a dominant pitching staff, and the ace is where the conversation always starts. Kershaw is good enough you could almost end it there as well: 2.60 career ERA, two Cy Young awards and a 6.5 WAR in 2013 from a player who only takes the mound every five days.

    Whether its for toughing out a win over the long haul that is the MLB season, or a guy who can almost assuredly deliver two games of a seven game series, there is no better bet in baseball than Kershaw.

    And yet he makes it to number two on this list. Why? Well part of the reason is how good his pitching mates are; the other has to do with the fact that the number one player on this list needs to be monstrous for the Dodgers this upcoming season, day in and day out.

1. Hanley Ramirez

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    How does Hanley Ramirez rank ahead of Clayton Kershaw on this list?

    Well, the Dodgers rotation is so deep that should Kershaw have a subpar season or, heaven forbid, face some time on the disabled list, the rest of the pitching staff would be competent enough to help the Dodgers keep pace in the National League.

    But there is no way the Dodgers infield, or the entire lineup for that matter, fills in a Hanley Ramirez sized crater over the course of a season, especially considering the uncertainty at second base.

    It's that flawless swing you can see in the video above that allowed Hanley Ramirez to have one of the better half seasons by a shortstop in recent memory.

    In just 86 games, Ramirez hit .345 with 25 doubles, 20 home runs and 57 RBIs.

    Half a season got him eighth in the National League MVP race; half a season gets him these great expectations.

    It would be asking a lot for Ramirez to repeat that kind of astronomical performance over an entire season, but his dominance arguably had more to do with the Dodgers turnaround than the electrifying Puig or the rock solid pitching staff.

    Without a great season from Ramirez, the Dodgers have no middle infield, and the health of Gonzales or the outfield platoon can't be counted on enough to supplement what he and his perfect swing bring to the Dodgers.