Breaking Down Los Angeles Dodgers' Key Position Battles
The Los Angeles Dodgers will have the highest payroll in baseball in 2014 at an estimated $230 million. And while that ability to spend top dollars has enabled the organization to employ a star-studded roster, they're not a team without question marks.
Here are four spring battles to keep an eye on in Dodgers camp.
When the Dodgers gave Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero a four-year, $28 million deal last October, it was widely assumed that the 27-year-old would be the team's starting second baseman in 2014.
Mark Ellis' club option was declined soon after, reinforcing the thought that Guerrero would be able to make the successful transition from shortstop on the Cuban national team to big league second baseman.
This has not been the case, however, and all indications are that the second base job is up for grabs. Guerrero may start the season in Triple-A where he'll continue to work on his defense and try to get back into a groove offensively after missing the entire 2013 season.
While Guerrero is working hard this spring, as manager Don Mattingly recently acknowledged, per USA Today's Jorge L. Ortiz, Dee Gordon (pictured), Chone Figgins, Miguel Rojas and Justin Turner each have a legitimate shot at claiming the job.
The 25-year-old Gordon, the lone remaining candidate on the 40-man roster, appears to be the front-runner at this time. The left-handed-hitting speedster began to play second base last season in an attempt to increase his versatility after he struggled to show enough ability to stick as a big league shortstop.
There are also plans for Gordon to play in the outfield, although he could focus primarily on second base if he begins to separate himself from the pack in this competition. He's 3-for-12 so far this spring with two triples and two stolen bases.
Rojas, a 25-year-old career minor leaguer, is probably the best defender of the bunch, and he also has four hits in his first nine spring at-bats. He has a .589 OPS in eight minor league seasons, though, so he's unlikely to fool anyone with a strong performance at the plate this spring.
Figgins is trying to make a comeback after sitting out the 2013 season—he failed to make the Miami Marlins last spring. The 36-year-old is far removed from several MVP-caliber seasons with the Angels, which preceded a disappointing three-year stint in Seattle.
He's a long shot, at best, although his capturing of a roster spot would be one of the best storylines of the spring. The switch-hitter is 2-for-11 to start the spring.
Turner has a leg up for a bench spot if the Dodgers opt to send Guerrero to the minors for regular playing time. Don't count the former Mets utility man out for the starting second base job, though, as he could sneak his way into the starting lineup with a solid camp. The 29-year-old has four hits, including a pair of doubles, in his first 12 at-bats this spring.
Prediction: Gordon gets another chance to prove he can do more than just steal bases as he's anointed the starter late in camp. Guerrero will start in the minors, where he'll get at least six weeks to work on his game, and Turner will lock down a bench job. Figgins will retire after being released, and Rojas will join Guerrero in Triple-A.
No. 5 Starter
By signing lefty Paul Maholm to a one-year deal, the Dodgers gave themselves protection just in case Josh Beckett (pictured) isn't healthy enough to start the season on time.
While the 33-year-old Beckett appears to be on the right track after tossing two scoreless innings with no walks and three strikeouts in his spring debut, it's fair to reserve judgement until for at least a few more starts—considering his ineffectiveness over the last couple of seasons (4.76 ERA in 36 starts from 2012-2013) and his injury-riddled 2013 season.
Based on his $15.75 million salary and resume (three-time All-Star; 132 career victories), the job is Beckett's to lose. But Maholm might be one of the best "No. 6 starters" in the league and can't be counted out if Beckett struggles to return to form.
In his first 17 starts of 2013, the 31-year-old went 9-6 with a 3.69 ERA for the Atlanta Braves with 29 walks and 75 strikeouts in 105 innings pitched. His struggles in the second half are the biggest reason why he settled on a one-year deal for a guaranteed $1.5 million. But he belongs in a big league rotation, and the Dodgers will allow him the opportunity to try to beat out Beckett.
Maholm matched Beckett with two shutout innings in his spring debut, although he didn't walk or strike out any batters.
Prediction: Beckett will hold up throughout the spring and win the No. 5 spot, while Maholm will begin the season in the bullpen. Some way, somehow, Maholm will still end up making 12-15 starts for the Dodgers this season. Injuries are nearly unavoidable for a major league rotation.
Aside from Andre Ethier, who will likely serve as the Dodgers' fourth outfielder once Matt Kemp is fully healthy, the bench is unsettled.
Tim Federowicz has the edge as the team's starting catcher, although Drew Butera is also on the 40-man roster and could push him for the job.
Both catchers are solid defensively, although neither offers much at the plate. The 26-year-old Federowicz, however, has a career .805 OPS in the minors and has a much better shot at helping the team out with more than just his defense.
Former Brave J.C. Boscan is also in camp, though the non-roster invitee with the best shot to win the backup catcher job is veteran Miguel Olivo, who has always had a good combination of power and arm strength. The rest of his game is subpar, however, which is why it's hard to see him beating out either Butera or Federowicz.
One of the starting second base candidates, and possibly two of Dee Gordon, Chone Figgins, Miguel Rojas and Justin Turner will fill a bench role.
Scott Van Slyke has the inside track as a first baseman/left fielder and top right-handed hitter off the bench, while Mike Baxter has a decent chance because of his reputation as a solid left-handed pinch-hitter (8-for-28 in 2013; 21-for-67, 12 2B in career).
One other non-roster invitee with an outside shot is first baseman Clint Robinson, a former Royals farmhand, who had six hits in his first nine at-bats of the spring.
In a recent media session, manager Don Mattingly compared 29-year-old Robinson's swing to former big leaguer John Olerud, who had a career .863 OPS in 17 big league seasons.
Robinson would likely have to outplay Baxter by a wide margin to earn a bench spot. His chances would also increase if Matt Kemp were to need a disabled-list stint to start the season.
Prediction: No surprises as Federowicz, Van Slyke, Turner, Baxter and Ethier fill out the five-man bench to start the season.
Five of the seven pitchers projected to fill out the Dodgers' bullpen—J.P. Howell, Brandon League, Chris Perez, Brian Wilson and Jamey Wright—are veterans signed to guaranteed major league deals and are out of options. Unless they're injured, traded or released, they'll be on the 25-man roster.
The other two are right-hander Kenley Jansen, who is quickly becoming one of the top closers in the game, and lefty Paco Rodriguez, who was one of the better rookie relievers around in 2013.
In other words, it's an uphill battle for any other pitchers hoping to win a spot in the bullpen. It's not impossible, though.
While the Dodgers aren't likely to release the disappointing League, who is still owed $17 million through the 2015 season, don't be surprised if one of his body parts, whether it be his elbow, shoulder or back, ends up being "sore" just prior to Opening Day, and he begins the season on the disabled list in order to accommodate a more deserving pitcher.
He's not helping his cause either this spring, after he allowed two earned runs on two hits and two walks in his lone inning of work.
Rule 5 draftee Seth Rosin (pictured) could be that more deserving pitcher. In two relief appearances, the 25-year-old right-hander has tossed four-hit ball over five shutout innings with no walks and eight strikeouts.
He'll need to be placed on waivers if he doesn't make the 25-man roster, and offered back to his former team, the Philadelphia Phillies, if he clears waivers.
Chris Withrow, who was impressive as a rookie in 2013, could also force the team's hand, although he's been shaky early on with five walks and two earned runs allowed in 3.1 innings pitched. Right-hander Red Patterson, who had a solid season in Triple-A last season (3.03 ERA, 4.1 BB/9, 9.2 K/9), is off to a strong start with 4.1 shutout innings and could draw attention if he continues to put up zeroes.
Prediction: Rosin sneaks onto the roster with League landing on the DL with a yet-to-be-determined injury.