Why the Dodgers Won't Have Another NL West Cake Walk in 2014

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Why the Dodgers Won't Have Another NL West Cake Walk in 2014
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Once Yasiel Puig joined the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 2013 season, they looked unbeatable at times.

Through the first 55 games, L.A. looked like a high-priced disaster with a 23-32 record in the cellar of the National League West. But once the Cuban rookie sensation took hold, his team took off and went 59-38 the rest of the way, winning the division with a 92-70 mark, 11 games ahead of the 81-81 Arizona Diamondbacks.

In the end, though, the Dodgers fell victim to a stellar St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff in the NLCS and saw their special season come to an end.

With a new year comes new challenges, and 2014 is sure to be full of them. The club has already started spring training down in Arizona, in preparation for the season-opening series against the Diamondbacks on March 22-23 in Sydney, Australia.

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but there are certainly a few things Dodgers fans have to be weary of as the season approaches. Here's a look at the biggest obstacles standing in the way of Los Angeles heading into 2014, when the team will certainly have a target on its back.

 

Injury Concerns

At a figure near $60 million, it's entirely possible that the Dodgers will pay their top four outfielders more money in 2014 than some other club's entire payrolls.

Many view it as a catch-22 as the quartet of players are certainly talented, but that's a lot of salary going to four guys competing for three spots. As such, trade rumors have surrounded Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier all winter long, and less so for Carl Crawford and Puig.

Here's a look at the 2013 stats for each of the four players.

2013 Dodgers Outfielders Statistics
Name G H HR RBI AVG OBP SLG BB/K OPS+
Carl Crawford 116 123 6 31 .283 .329 .407 28/66 108
Andre Ethier 142 131 12 52 .272 .360 .423 61/95 122
Matt Kemp 73 71 6 33 .270 .328 .395 22/76 105
Yasiel Puig 104 122 19 42 .319 .391 .534 36/97 160

Baseball-Reference.com

Kemp, Ethier and Crawford are all injury concerns going forward and Puig's aggressive playing style makes you wonder how he'll hold up over the course of the 162-game season. In fact, it sounds like Kemp hasn't even started running on the basepaths yet after having offseason ankle surgery.

"Matt will be able to do a lot of things, but he's still a little bit behind schedule," manager Don Mattingly told MLB.com's Ken Gurnick on Monday. "There are certain things he won't do until everybody says it's OK -- running outside -- that's when his ankle and the doctors let us know what he's capable of."

With that in mind, it makes sense for the Dodgers to keep all four outfielders around and let the season play out. This deep-pocketed ownership group, led by Stan Kasten and Magic Johnson, is in a unique position to take the financial brunt of the situation and give Mattingly flexibility to allow all four outfielders regular rest.

In the end, I think this current surplus of outfielders will be a benefit to the team. Meanwhile, the bullpen looks to be in good shape with the back-end trio of closer Kenley Jansen, righty Brian Wilson and lefty J.P. Howell returning in 2014.

The Dodgers also addressed the back end of the rotation by signing free agent veterans Dan Haren and Paul Maholm, while Josh Beckett is set to return and prospects like Ross Stripling and Matt Magill are primed to make 2014 contributions if needed.

The infield, though, is an entirely different matter and could be the source of some major headaches.

 

Infield Production

When healthy, Hanley Ramirez played like an MVP in 2013. In 86 contests he batted .345/.402/.638 with 20 homers, 57 RBI, 10 stolen bases and a BB/K ratio of 27/52. Those are robust numbers for the 30-year-old, who has proved he is still one of the unique talents in baseball.

Thigh and thumb issues were to blame in 2013, but Ramirez also had flare-ups in his back and shoulders, areas of injury that limited him to just 92 contests in 2011.

The steady Mark Ellis won't be at second base for the Dodgers in 2014, as he has been replaced by an expensive experiment in Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero, a natural shortstop. Despite committing a four-year, $28 million contract to the 27-year-old, questions about his defense have some wondering if he'll even be on the opening day roster, per Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times.

While Adrian Gonzalez should be counted on for another solid season of production, the same can't be said about third baseman Juan Uribe.

He cashed in this offseason with a two-year, $15 million deal from the Dodgers after batting .278/.331/.438 with 12 HRs and 50 RBI in 132 contests. But at the age of 34 and with two abysmal injury-riddled years in 2011-12, Uribe is a risk at the hot corner.

At catcher, A.J. Ellis might be a respected veteran with a good pitching staff rapport, but he's not much of a threat in the batter's box these days.

And as Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times noted, the Dodgers don't exactly have a deep bench.

If you take the Dodgers’ projected lineup (and for now I’ll include all four outfielders), they would average more than 30 years of age and with a history of too many injuries.

Their expected 2014 lineup and ages: Catcher A.J. Ellis (33 on April 9), first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (31), second baseman Alex Guerrero (27), Juan Uribe (35), Hanley Ramirez (30), Carl Crawford (32), Matt Kemp (29), Andre Ethier (32 on April 10) and Yasiel Puig (23).

Behind them there is what you might call a huge drop-off. The bench could be made of the likes of Dee Gordon, Justin Turner, Scott Van Slyke and Tim Federowicz.

It wouldn't take much for things to go awry in the infield in 2014, especially on offense. If Ramirez misses time, Uribe regresses and Guerrero is slow to develop, things wouldn't look good, and that's not a far-fetched scenario to consider. 

 

Divisional Foes

For all of their success in 2013, the Dodgers didn't fare well against NL West opponents. In fact, they only held a winning record against the San Diego Padres (11-8), while they fell short against the Diamondbacks (9-10), Colorado Rockies (9-10) and San Francisco Giants (8-11).

Looking at those teams heading into 2014, the NL West figures to be much stronger as a whole.

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The Giants are still talented across the board after last year's disappointing finish at 76-86, which tied them for third place with the Padres. Buoyed by some young emerging starters and a strong bullpen, San Diego might be sneaky good in 2014.

Arizona gave up a lot to get slugger Mark Trumbo via trade, but he figures to provide some nice pop to the lineup along with MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt. The Diamondbacks also bolstered their rotation by signing veteran Bronson Arroyo to a two-year deal earlier this week.

Colorado has a lot of question marks, especially when it comes to pitching, but has a fine nucleus of players in Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Wilin Rosario.

That said, there don't figure to be any pushovers in the division this year, but the Dodgers are still kings of the West until otherwise.

 

2014 Outlook

On paper, the Los Angeles Dodgers have arguably the most talented roster in baseball, studded with stars in the lineup and on the mound. If you look at the 2014 World Series odds at any sportsbook, in fact, L.A. is probably the favorite to win it all.

While I think the Dodgers will repeat as division champions and be one of the best teams in the National League, there is also the potential for a massive failure. One bad losing season and we could be looking at a West Coast version of the Philadelphia Phillies, a team full of high-priced big names that aren't living up to their contracts.

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