Star-for-star, no team can match the talent of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yet, over the course of a grueling and taxing 162-game season, injuries and attrition wear down some of baseball's best athletes. If the Dodgers are going to win big in 2014, depth will be crucial.
Luckily for legions of fans who have come to adore the high-ceiling, high-energy group assembled at Chavez Ravine, the 2014 version of this roster is better equipped to deal with injuries than the 2013 version that nearly saw the season derail before gaining momentum.
If not for a dose of perfect timing, it's possible that manager Don Mattingly—the right man to lead this team to a World Series—would have been fired before health and talent allowed last year's team to emerge from disappointment to contender.
Early in the season, Zack Greinke missed starts, Hanley Ramirez was on the mend from injuries suffered the World Baseball Classic and Yasiel Puig was nothing more than a well-compensated Double-A outfielder in Chattanooga, Tenn.
By the end of June, health and reinforcements arrived. Unsurprisingly, talent took over the Dodgers ran away with the NL West pennant.
With an Opening Day payroll expected to be in excess of $224 million, expectations are sky high in Los Angeles and a slow start won't be acceptable for a franchise with a championship-or-bust mentality.
Yet, with stars such as Ramirez, Matt Kemp and Brian Wilson in tow, expecting uninterrupted seasons from each of the roster's big names is a fool's errand.
According to Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs, Dodgers players lost the seventh-most days to the DL of any team in 2013. When examining DL breakdowns by number of stints, Los Angeles owned the third-most.
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As spring training winds down and the Dodgers prepare for a season-opening trip to Australia, keep an eye and ear on names such as Justin Turner, Andre Ethier, Joc Pederson, Paul Maholm and Chris Perez.
That quintet—outside of a former everyday player and cornerstone like Ethier—won't generate headlines in Los Angeles. Compared to well-known names like Puig, Clayton Kershaw, Kemp and Ramirez, it would be hard to find a Dodgers fan spending time worrying about the team's complementary names.
However, if the Dodgers are going to avoid slumps, dominate the NL West from start to finish and win 100-plus games in 2014, depth will be crucial. Unlike the lack of depth that threatened to derail the 2013 season, the current Dodgers have the players to thrive throughout the grinding regular season.
If Matt Kemp can regain the form that made him one of baseball's truly special players, Andre Ethier will likely reprise a role as a $15.5 million fourth outfielder.
On the surface, having four starting outfielders—including Carl Crawford to go along with Puig, Ethier and Kemp—profiles as a difficult managerial task for Mattingly. But it could prove to be a blessing in disguise, allowing the Dodgers skipper to deploy a star-caliber hitter off of the bench, while keeping the quartet fresh for the long haul.
While some teams struggle to find three capable starting outfielders, the Dodgers may actually have the opportunity to add a fifth member to the four-headed outfielder monster.
If you haven't heard of left-handed hitting prospect Joc Pederson, get ready to hear the name often during the 2014 season. The organization's 2012 minor league player of the year is raking in the Cactus League (1.000 OPS in 28 PA) and patiently waiting his chance to contribute in Los Angeles, per Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times.
Amazingly, the Dodgers may be able to sustain injuries to two members of their projected starting outfield.
When former Orioles and Mets infielder Justin Turner signed with the team in February, Southern California baseball fans probably didn't rush out to purchase brand new jersey T-shirts. By June, the versatile and fiery player could be a fan favorite as either a starting second baseman or insurance policy around the diamond. During a five-year career, the 29-year-old has seen time at first base, second base, shortstop, third base and left field.
On the mound, the Dodgers secured bulk innings by inking Dan Haren. The 33-year-old has made 30-plus starts in every season since 2005. He's slated to pitch behind the outstanding top-of-the-rotation trio of Kershaw, Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu. If Josh Beckett—recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery—can overcome a sprained thumb, the Dodgers will have one of baseball's most accomplished rotations, per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.
Of course, teams can never have too much pitching.
That's why Paul Maholm—a 31-year-old league-average journeyman—could turn out to be a $1.5 million steal. When projected starting pitchers go down, it's impossible to replace outstanding production. Teams simply look for arms that can take rotation turns, keep taxing innings away from the bullpen and limit runs well enough to keep the offense in the game.
With a ERA+ of 100 since the start of the 2011 season, Maholm is that guy.
Finally, there's relief pitcher Chris Perez. If everything goes to plan in Mattingly's bullpen, Perez won't go anywhere near the ninth inning, a place he frequented as Cleveland's All-Star closer in 2011 and 2012.
Perez is looking forward to the challenge, fresh start and new role in 2014, per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.
"It's fun to imagine what the games will be like," Perez said. "The way our starting rotation stacks up, they get us as deep as the sixth inning and with all the arms we have in the bullpen, it's exciting to think about. And the [reputation] will get around the league. By the sixth or seventh inning, game's over. That's fun to think about."
Instead, he'll attempt to rebound from an awful 2013 (87 ERA+) by pitching earlier in games, ahead of dominant late-inning arms like Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen. If needed, however, the Dodgers can turn to a former closer with 132 career saves under his belt.
If the Dodgers are going to win a World Series in 2014, depth will be necessary to survive the regular season and arrive in October healthy and fresh. Unlike last year, this team has pieced together the necessary depth to withstand injury and dominate the NL West all season.