As countdowns to the beginning of the season have begun for Los Angeles Dodger fans, pitchers and catchers have reported and the start of spring training is just around the corner. While there are still a few questions, it’s important to know what to look for and expect as camp opens.
With a couple of major question marks and exceptions, the lineup probably will look much like it did last season. However, manager Don Mattingly will be able to use his discretion in a couple of spots.
That being said, though, here is what I expect the Dodger lineup to look like on March 22, when the Dodgers open the season in a series against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Sydney, Australia. These guesses are partly based on last season, partly on reported rumors and partly on just my expectations.
Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
Indications out of Dodger camp are Mattingly wants Yasiel Puig to hit leadoff, according to Ken Gurnick at MLB.com, and this is a fantastic idea. Puig was actually the Dodger with the second-most appearances in the leadoff spot last season, and he is well suited to the role.
He gained a reputation as a free swinger, but that label is not entirely accurate. In August 2013, I explored his plate discipline and found that while he was not Joey Votto, he had enough patience and understanding to succeed at the plate.
That article—which covered only the first two months of Puig’s career—proved prescient. His walk rates in August and September were each more than 10 percent (11.6 in August and 10.1 in September), indicating that his ability to draw walks and successfully get on base was more likely to be a legitimate skill than a fluke driven by small sample sizes.
So, while walks are not the be all and end all for leadoff hitters, on-base percentage kind of is. Puig’s job in the leadoff role is to get on base and set the table for the batters behind him.
An obvious consequence of batting Puig leadoff was that Carl Crawford would be bumped to second, sandwiching him between Puig and Hanley Ramirez, two right-handed batters, Ken Gurnick of MLB.com also reported.
Crawford had a decent 2013 season, and he is kind of a stereotypical No. 2 hitter. He is very good at putting the bat on the ball, with his 2013 strikeout rate nearly six percentage points better than league average. Also, he is still fast, with his speed score better than the league average during every year of his career.
He doesn’t have the power one would like to see from a left fielder, but he actually suits the Dodger offense decently well. The low-strikeout speed guy is an archetype that the Dodgers don’t have anywhere else in their lineup, and so Crawford fills a role.
Hitting Hanley Ramirez third is probably a no-brainer, if we assume the top two in the lineup will be Puig and Crawford. Despite that Ramirez was the most common cleanup hitter in 2012-13, the lineups over the last three weeks of the season that featured a Puig/Crawford combination had a right-handed hitter (whether it was Ramirez or Kemp) in the 3-slot.
Given what happened last year, Mattingly would be wise to hit Ramirez as high up in the order as he can, so the Dodgers’ star shortstop gets as many plate appearances as possible. In 2013, Ramirez was one of the team’s most valuable players, despite playing just 86 games. So while it is exceedingly unlikely that he has recovered all of his talents from his younger days in Miami, the Dodgers would be thrilled to get a reasonable facsimile of that production.
Continuing with the lefty-righty trend puts Adrian Gonzalez next in line. While he is not the same player he used to be—his isolated power (ISO) has declined precipitously since his peak 2009 season, and he is not putting up a wRC+ (a cumulative offensive statistic for weighted runs created in which 100 is the league average) over 140 anymore—he is still a productive and net-positive hitter who helps the Dodgers.
However, he’s not your prototypical cleanup hitter. As mentioned, he simply isn’t a power hitter anymore. Of 2013’s 25 qualified first basemen, Gonzalez’s .168 ISO ranked 19th. He gets his value from the fact that he doesn’t strike out much (he ranked fifth) and that he plays every day, but he simply is no longer a spectacular player.
Mattingly, though, has no real option but to hit Gonzalez fourth because it enables him to split up the lefties and reduce the chances for a late-inning, lefty-specialist reliever to get multiple outs. The only possible alternative would be a healthy Matt Kemp to push Gonzalez down the lineup.
Juan Uribe most likely will begin the season hitting fifth, but he will not end the season in this same place. He had a spectacular 2013, but his 116 wRC+ was the highest of his career—and 34-year-olds tend not to all of a sudden reach their peak.
But his 2013 performance suggests that he deserves this place in the lineup, and Mattingly proved last season that he was unfailingly loyal, despite circumstances dictating that he probably shouldn’t have been. A quick glance at the lineups from last April shows Luis Cruz hitting fifth and sixth, despite all indications that he would fall off and fail to repeat his 2012 performance.
Mattingly will probably stick to the same trend in 2014, unless Matt Kemp is healthy on Opening Day, and then all bets are off. However, it seems unlikely that Uribe will justify the faith being placed in him. After all, he was absolutely horrible the past two years (.204/.264/.293 in 2011 and .191/.258/.284 in 2012), so we can’t expect him to have recovered all of his talents this late in his career.
Andre Ethier’s spot in center field, of course, is contingent on Matt Kemp's continued lack of health. In early February, Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times suggested Kemp will not be ready for Opening Day, so Ethier likely will fill the role that he did last season, when he played 74 games in center.
Hitting the lefty-swinging Ethier sixth allows the Dodgers to maintain flexibility deep into their lineup, as they will continue to alternate left/right three-quarters of the way through.
Whether or not Ethier is up for a full season in center remains to be seen. He is an above-average hitter—but not so far above average that he justifies his place in the lineup with just his bat. His 120 wRC+ in 2013 ranked 19th among qualified outfielders.
Additionally, his defense was not particularly good last year. His advanced fielding metrics show a negative defender in center, which is not a surprise, given that he doesn’t have elite speed and is 31 years old.
A.J. Ellis spent much of last season hitting sixth and seventh, and that is probably about where he’ll fall to begin 2014. The 8-spot will be reserved for Alexander Guerrero (at least until he proves himself), and Ellis has proven that his ability to get on base and work make him a valuable member of a major league lineup.
The right-handed hitting catcher has a career 105 wRC+ that is driven mostly by the last two seasons—which is when he’s had most of his legitimate playing time. And, in those last two years, his 107 wRC+ ranks seventh among all catchers with at least 900 plate appearances.
As indicated, Ellis’s success is driven by his ability to get on base. He has little power—career .122 ISO—but his walk rate in each season during which he’s received even semi-legitimate playing time has been above average.
This spot—both in the lineup and on the field—is a big question mark. Whoever breaks camp as the starting second baseman will hit eighth from the outset. The Dodgers hope to allow their newcomer, Alexander Guerrero, to adjust. I expect the second baseman to be Guerrero. However, according to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times, it very well could be Miguel Rojas, Dee Gordon or Brendan Harris.
However, there appear to be questions about Guerrero’s readiness for the major league season. This piece from ESPN LA’s Mark Saxon contains excellent information, but a quick summary is that Guerrero’s transition to second base has not gone as smoothly as hoped for because of hamstring injuries suffered during winter ball.