For a team that came within two wins of the World Series last year and is returning nearly all of its key players this season, it's tough to find many weaknesses when looking at the Los Angeles Dodgers as they prepare for the 2014 campaign.
The batting order and pitching rotation are stacked with high-priced talent while the overall roster features a mix of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance. On paper, the Dodgers appear to be the clear favorites not only in their division but the entire National League.
As the team heads into its third week of spring training, there are still some potential weaknesses that need to be addressed as Los Angeles prepares for its Opening Series in Australia against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
1. Travel Schedule
The trip to Australia presents a real dilemma for the Boys in Blue.
While representing the MLB in its global outreach efforts can be seen as a feather in the Dodgers' cap, it also means that their spring training will be be cut short by two weeks. The team leaves for Sydney next Sunday, March 16, and will play only three times over the following 10 days.
As the rest of the league will get to continue shaking off the rust during the tail end of March, the Dodgers will have to journey halfway around the globe to play just two meaningful games.
This schedule has left Dodgers' management with relatively little time to evaluate players at Camelback Ranch—especially those competing for the second-base job—before the team packs up and flies across the Pacific Ocean. The final 25-man roster is due on March 21, at which point the team will already be in Australia.
Besides cutting into valuable practice time and preventing manager Don Mattingly from getting an extended look at the variety of players on display at spring training, the Australia trip has the potential to induce problematic jet lag for Dodgers' players.
Mattingly was a coach with the New York Yankees when they opened the 2004 season in Japan. He told MLB.com's Ken Gurnick that it was "rough" crossing the International Date Line twice in the span of two weeks and readjusting to very different time zones—as his Dodgers will have to do.
"We came back with four spring training games and that was miserable and we started bad," said Mattingly, referring the New York's 11-19 record out of the gate that year despite a star-studded roster similar to this year's Dodgers. "Those are the things I worry about. The bell rings, those two games count, then you come back and say [three exhibition games against the Los Angeles Angels] don't matter. I worry about bad habits."
2. Second Base
Second base is the only position on the field where the Dodgers do not have a starter set in stone.
After letting veteran Mark Ellis walk this winter, Los Angeles signed Cuban defector Alex Guerrero to a lucrative contract over the winter with hopes that the natural shortstop could step in as the everyday starter at second base. However, the process hasn't been quite that simple.
Guerrero's initial development at second base was cut short when hamstring issues limited the 27-year-old to just 12 games in winter ball, opening the door for other candidates like Dee Gordon.
Once considered the Dodgers' shortstop of the future, Gordon's role on the team took a major hit upon the arrival of Hanley Ramirez and he spent most of 2013 in Triple-A after struggling to hit consistently at the big-league level.
Besides adding 13 pounds of bulk this winter, Gordon also worked on his hitting mechanics with Cincinnati Reds' Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, according to MLB.com's Ken Gurnick. The sample size is small, but Gordon's two triples and three runs batted in suggest the advice is helping.
Still, Gordon's calling card has always been speed and he is a perfect 8-for-8 in stolen base attempts this spring. Guerrero has not attempted a swipe.
Guerrero made his first real noise of the spring last week with a grand slam against the Reds, but he still has just one more hit than Gordon in the same number of at-bats. They each have struck out five times and each have played a solid second base.
Who should start at second base for the Dodgers?
Mattingly gets one more week to evaluate both players, and there is still a possibility of a platoon at the position since Guerrero is a right-handed batter and Gordon is left-handed.
Of course, this situation would certainly be a downgrade from the veteran leadership and fielding prowess that Ellis displayed over the past two seasons.
3. Infield Depth
No matter who starts at second base, the reality is that the Dodgers don't have much depth behind him or anywhere else on the infield.
Last season's integral utility infielders, Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto, both signed elsewhere over the winter. Jerry Hairston Jr., another important bench player in 2013, retired. Their departures leave Los Angeles with a cast of non-roster invitees looking to make the club.
|Chone Figgins||Out of the league last year, has not hit above .200 since 2010|
|Brendan Harris||Batted .206 in 44 games with the Angels last season|
|Clint Robinson||Dodgers are his third team since 2012, 88 MLB at-bats|
|Miguel Rojas||Career .234 hitter over eight minor-league seasons|
|Justin Turner||Batted .280 with 16 RBI in 86 games for the Mets in 2013|
The resumes listed above are far from impressive, but two or three of these players will make the final cut.
Rojas' name had been thrown around as a possible candidate for the second-base job because of his defensive capabilities, but the two errors he committed in a game against the Oakland Athletics last week hurt his cause.
Outfielder Scott Van Slyke, one of the Dodgers' most potent bats off the bench last season, has appeared in nine games at first base over the course of his career. He'll probably end up spending more time at the position in 2014 as Adrian Gonzalez's backup, considering the logjam in the outfield upon Matt Kemp's return. The Dodgers like Van Slyke's bat too much not to include him on the 25-man roster.
Los Angeles also invested in some shortstop insurance last month by signing yet another Cuban defector, Erisbel Arruebarruena, to a five-year, $25-million contract, per the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez.
If starting shortstop Hanley Ramirez misses any time due to injury like he did last season or starting third baseman Juan Uribe fails to produce (as was the case during his first two seasons with the Dodgers in 2011 and 2012), Arruebarruena could make it to the big club at some point this year as a shortstop. Ramirez would presumably slide to third base to reduce wear-and-tear.
Of course, Arruebarruena is as unproven as they come and will have to spend time in the minors before arriving at Chavez Ravine.