Los Angeles Dodgers 2014 Season Preview

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor IMarch 20, 2014

Los Angeles Dodgers 2014 Season Preview

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    Here they come.

    After a 92-win campaign and trip to the NLCS in 2013, the Los Angeles Dodgers are ready to embark on a season filled with expectations, high salaries and NL West dominance.

    One year ago, the Dodgers broke camp with talent, but nearly lost their way before health and chemistry came together to rescue a floundering roster.

    On the morning of June 22, Los Angeles awoke to a 9.5-game deficit in the NL West standings. At 30-42, the most disappointing team in the National League was on the verge of wasting a $200 million payroll and an all-time great season from an all-time great young pitcher.

    Then—almost instantly—everything changed. From the moment the Dodgers took the field after their 42nd loss of the season, no team was better during the remainder of the regular season. Over Los Angeles' final 90 games, manager Don Mattingly oversaw 62 victories and a trip to the postseason.

    Despite dropping the NLCS in six games to the St. Louis Cardinals, optimism was abound this offseason in Los Angeles. 

    As it should have been.

    With the chance to experience a full season of Yasiel Puig's electric talent, Hanley Ramirez's special bat, Clayton Kershaw's once-in-a-lifetime arm and a deep, talented roster of complementary stars, the sky is the limit for this team. 

    Here's how the 2014 season will play out at Chavez Ravine.

    Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts. 

Spring Training Recap

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    When the Dodgers chose to retain Mattingly, it was about more than just in-game decisions. After a turbulent first half in 2013, the former Yankees captain morphed into an excellent leader and found a way to connect with an eclectic clubhouse.

    At the start of spring training, the Dodgers skipper had a clear message for his team: Be loose, be yourself and win baseball games.

    According to Andy Martino of the New York Daily News, that message was conveyed in a speech at the outset of camp.

    "We’re going to have fun, and if people don’t like it, that’s their problem," Mattingly said.

    Last year, on the way to October baseball, the Dodgers became a sudden referendum on how to play the game. Led by the flamboyant Yasiel Puig, some became disenchanted with showboating and referenced the old-school Cardinals as the standard by which baseball should be played, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today.

    As this spring comes to a close, it's clear that the Dodgers are comfortable with who they are. If they win big, expect more of these type of quotes during the season.

    On the field, the one narrative worth watching was Puig's production. Unlike last year, the Cuban sensation didn't rake during Cactus League play. In fact, he did the opposite by batting .122 in 41 at-bats. 

    While it's foolish to be alarmed or question the offseason work ethic of last year's breakout star, the lack of production in Arizona could be referenced if Puig doesn't get off to a hot start during the regular season. 

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    If anything can hold the Dodgers back in 2014, it's health. Specifically, health to stars littered throughout a top-heavy roster.

    Although the team looks to have enough depth this year, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal argued the other side of that debate. Per Rosenthal's reporting: "The consensus among evaluators in Arizona is that the Dodgers' bench is the weakest in the National League West."

    Unfortunately, Los Angeles will have to use that depth early due to lingering injury issues to outfielder Matt Kemp.

    After undergoing shoulder and ankle surgery during the offseason, the 29-year-old is progressing slowly through spring drills and won't be ready when the Dodgers open the season in Australia against the Arizona Diamondbacks, per Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times.

    Since a breakout 2011 season—39 HR, 40 SB, 8.1 WAR, 172 OPS+ and 115 runs scored—Kemp has only played in a total of 179 games over the last two years. If healthy, the Dodgers have one of baseball's best players. 

    In the rotation, minor injuries to Zack Greinke (calf) and Josh Beckett (thumb) caused the Dodgers to reshuffle their early-season rotation.

    Of the two, Greinke bears more watching due to his status as a co-ace along with Kershaw. Recently, he threw 32 of 42 pitches for strikes against a Class-A Padres team, per Dilbeck's reporting.

    For a team with injury-prone players littered throughout the roster, slow progress from Kemp and a calf strain for Greinke isn't enough to cause a stir before Opening Day.


Lineup Preview

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    Projected lineup

    1. Yasiel Puig, RF
    2. Carl Crawford, LF
    3. Hanley Ramirez, SS
    4. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
    5. Andre Ethier, CF
    6. Juan Uribe, 3B
    7. A.J. Ellis, C
    8. Dee Gordon, 2B


    Tim Federowicz, C
    Scott Van Slyke, 1B/OF
    Justin Turner, IF
    Chone Figgins, IF/OF
    Mike Baxter, OF

    If you're wondering where Kemp is, don't be alarmed. When healthy, Los Angeles' $160 million center fielder will reprise his role as a middle-of-the-order fixture.

    Although having four capable outfielders—along with Puig, Ethier and Crawford—is a conundrum, the luxury will allow Mattingly to keep everyone fresh and ready during a grinding season.

    At the top, Puig's talent and potential is dazzling. Last year, the Cuban import posted one of the greatest and most unique seasons in the history of baseball. 

    Prior to 2013, Charlie Keller's 1939 campaign (4.6 WAR) was the most prolific season from an age-22 player with less than 400 at-bats.

    During a summer filled with highlight-reel defensive plays, fireworks and game-changing hits, Puig topped Keller and every other 22-year-old hitter (with less than 400 at-bats) in history.

    At first glace, a 5.0 WAR for Puig is excellent and deserving of praise. Yet, when breaking it down further and considering that he missed two full months while meandering away on Double-A bus trips, the production and impact become more impressive.

    If Puig can reprise that role and production, the Dodgers offense could be the best in the National League.

Rotation Preview

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    Projected starting rotation

    1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP
    2. Zack Greinke, RHP
    3. Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP
    4. Dan Haren, RHP
    5. Josh Beckett, RHP

    For this group, everything starts and ends with the brilliance of Kershaw.

    When the Dodgers agreed to a seven-year, $215 million extension (2014-2020) with the young lefty, praise was unanimous around baseball circles. FanGraphs' Dave Cameron—an honest and cerebral writeroffered this take on the deal.

    "Yes, pitchers are risky, but Kershaw can fall a long way and still be tremendously valuable. And if he stays healthy for the better part of the next decade, he’ll probably go down as the best pitcher of his generation," said Cameron. 

    At first glance, that's more than believable. Kershaw is—barring significant injury—on the path to becoming the best pitcher of a generation. Yet, that might actually be selling him short. 

    Kershaw could zoom past the conversation of the current generation and land among the circles of greatest pitchers ever.

    Through his age-25 season, the southpaw has already made 182 career starts and posted an ERA+ of 146 for the Dodgers. In the history of baseball, only one other pitcher—Walter Johnson—has made at least 175 starts and owned an ERA+ of 145 through age 25.

    Not Cy Young. Not Roger Clemens. Not Greg Maddux.

    Beyond a potentially all-time great arm, an excellent staff could emerge in Los Angeles. 

    For some reason, Zack Greinke flies under the radar when great pitchers are discussed. Yet, over the last two decades (1994-2013), his value has been evident.

    During that span, only eight starters—Pedro Martinez, CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Felix Hernandez, Carlos Zambrano, Roy Oswalt, Justin Verlander and Mark Buehrle—have posted a higher total WAR than Greinke's 35.1 through their respective age-29 seasons.

    After the aces, Dodgers fans will be treated to a veteran trio that includes last year's fourth-place finisher in the NL Rookie of the Year vote (Ryu), a workhorse with nine consecutive 30-start seasons under his belt (Haren) and one of the greatest big-game pitchers baseball has ever seen (Beckett).

    If Ryu can jump from the 192-inning mark into the land of 200-inning arms, this rotation could sport four separate pitchers with the ability to provide innings and excellence, limiting runs and saving the bullpen from long nights.

Bullpen Preview

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    Projected bullpen

    CL: Kenley Jansen, RHP
    SU: Brian Wilson, RHP
    SU: Chris Perez, RHP
    MID: Paco Rodriguez, LHP
    MID: Jamey Wright, RHP
    MID: J.P. Howell, LHP
    LR: Paul Maholm, LHP

    The Dodgers value two things in late-inning relievers: Strikeouts and the ability to close games.

    Let's start with the ability to miss bats.

    Kenley Jansen might not become a household name until he closes out World Series games, but his dominance has become overwhelming for opposing hitters. Among relief pitchers with at least 200 innings pitched in the big leagues, Jansen's K/9 mark of 14.05 ranks second in baseball history, just behind Craig Kimbrel's 15.08. 

    If you scroll down that list (subscription required), Los Angeles' set-up man—and former San Francisco Giants closer—Brian Wilson will appear with a career K/9 mark of 9.52. 

    Although Paco Rodriguez doesn't have the 200 innings necessary to qualify for that list of relief stars, his 10.4 K/9 in 2013 shows a rare ability to miss bats for the 22-year-old southpaw and adds to the dimension the Dodgers can use late in games.

    While Chris Perez isn't the dominant, swing-and-miss type of pitcher that he'll precede in games this summer, the former Indians reliever has closing experience (132 career saves) and can be called on if injuries or ineffectiveness hit this group.

Prospects to Watch

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    For a franchise with a $225 million Opening Day payroll, low-cost help could be on the way as the season progresses. 

    Prospects Zach Lee and Joc Pederson aren't just good, they're potential difference makers for this franchise in 2014 and beyond. 

    Amazingly, their presence as blue-chip prospects in Los Angeles' system is due to the reviled ex-owner that nearly oversaw the complete ruination of this franchise: Frank McCourt. 

    As Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times  explains, McCourt—in a rare moment of properly guided clarity—went above draft slot pricing to secure the talents of Lee and Pederson in their respective draft classes.

    Had the former Dodgers owner not outbid the slot value for these two players, Lee would have been a dual-sport threat at Louisiana State University and Pederson off to college before a trip back into the first round years later.

    “To be honest with you, I wasn’t really sure at all,” Lee said to Hernandez. “The whole entire time, I thought I was going to be at LSU playing football and baseball. It was a great opportunity.”

    Now, they are prospects on the cusp of making a difference in Los Angeles.

    Lee, a 22-year-old right-hander, owns a 3.67 ERA and 3.28 SO/BB across 372.2 career minor league innings. If the Dodgers need a starter this summer, he could arrive or be used as the key piece in a deal for another highly paid star.

    Pederson, 21, is blocked in Los Angeles' outfield by four capable starters. Yet, if Kemp's injury issues continue, don't be surprised to see Pederson launching home runs in the big leagues as early as this summer. In just 320 minor league games, the left-handed slugger owns 51 career homers. 

Breakout Candidates

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    Barring a quick call-up of prospects like Lee or Pederson, the Dodgers roster doesn't feature a large group of a young, ascending players.

    While Yasiel Puig is only 23, his breakout season already commenced during a special 2013 campaign. At 26, many starting pitchers are vying for a breakout year, but Clayton Kershaw is on the verge of immortality. 

    On this roster, look past everyday players and prospects when searching for a breakout star. Paco Rodriguez, slated to be a lefty arm in middle relief, qualifies as a player to watch. 

    Last year, the 22-year-old emerged as a key piece to the bullpen puzzle in Los Angeles. Across 54.1 innings, Rodriguez struck out 63 batters and allowed just 30 hits. On the surface, those statistics are startling. 

    When digging deeper, they become even more impressive.

    Over the course of baseball history, Rodriguez ranks second in K/9 (10.18) among lefty relievers with at least 50 innings pitched through their respective age-22 seasons. 

    Some names below Rodriguez on the list—Mitch Williams and Johan Santana—went on to have stellar careers, but it's the sole name above him on the list that makes the statistics pop: Chris Sale.

    Yes, the great White Sox ace began his career in the bullpen for Chicago. When he was there, he barely topped Rodriguez in strikeout rate for young, lefty relief arms. 

    None of this is to say that Rodriguez can or will become a starter. Sale, unlike Rodriguez, was there as part of his development.

    Yet, the potential for dominance is there. Rodriguez may rank below names like Jansen, Wilson and Perez in the current Dodgers bullpen order, but that could change very, very quickly.

Top Keys to Success

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    The only thing that can stop the Dodgers is the Dodgers.

    Expect that sentiment, or some variation of it, to be expressed many times during the 2014 season.

    With a roster overflowing with talent and 2013 serving as a springboard into the upcoming year, the Dodgers could be one of baseball's best teams from start to finish. Of course, for that to happen, they'll need to address two areas of concern: health and focus.

    Let's start with health. 

    Despite winning 92 games and steamrolling into the NLCS last season, the Dodgers didn't experience a truly healthy season.

    Kemp missed 89 games. Ramirez missed 76. Despite the excellence of Kershaw, the rotation couldn't muster another arm sound enough to pitch 200 innings.

    Assuming the Dodgers stay healthier in 2014, dominance should commence. By August, an embarrassment of riches could become a strange and awkward talking point in Los Angeles.

    At its best, this Dodgers team is leaps and bounds better than any NL West foe. The idea of a 10 or 15 game lead in July isn't far-fetched, leaving the Dodgers with the possibility for meaningless baseball during the dog days of August and pennant chases of September.

    Can they keep their focus during an anti-climatic run toward the NL West pennant?  

Previewing Los Angeles' Opening Series

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    This isn't your typical Opening Day.

    While baseball fans in America will start their weekend with a 4 a.m. wake-up call for regular season baseball on March 22, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will renew a fierce NL West rivalry in Australia. 

    These teams—potentially the two best in the NL West—will represent Major League Baseball in the season-opening series across the globe.

    At home, though, there's no love lost between the old-school Diamondbacks and free-spirited Dodgers.

    Last year, upon clinching the NL West crown in Arizona, the Dodgers took what seemed to be an innocuous dip in the Diamondbacks' outfield pool.

    According to Tyler Emerick of MLB.com, the act didn't sit well with Diamondbacks veterans, including Willie Bloomquist.

    "There's a fine line, going overboard at someone else's place," Bloomquist said. "But what are we going to do about it? There's not much we can do about it now. They've clinched the division this year, but if that's how they're going to act and be classless, that's their gig; that's their clubhouse. I just think it's disrespectful and classless."

    Due to injuries for both teams (Matt Kemp didn't make the trip and Arizona lefty Patrick Corbin is out with an elbow tear, per Nick Piecoro of AZ Central Sports), the rosters aren't as loaded as baseball would like in order to showcase the sport.

    Still, with Paul Goldschmidt and Yasiel Puig headlining the position players, excellent baseball could commence.

    When the first pitch is fired, the 2014 season will begin and the rivalry renewed.  

2014 Team Outlook

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    For the 2014 Dodgers, it's not a matter of simply winning. For a team with baseball's highest payroll, that's to be expected.

    Expectations and predictions can be fickle, but take this to the bank: The Dodgers will win the NL West. 

    Barring an unforeseen 90-win team emanating from below Los Angeles in the standings, it's hard to believe that this team will be truly challenged all summer long. From the opening pitch in Australia to the final September game against the Rockies, the Dodgers could sit atop the division every day of the season.

    Three projection systemsFanGraphs, Las Vegas' Bovoda.lv and PECOTA—all think this team is ready to soar past 90 wins in 2014.

    Surprisingly, PECOTA—a notoriously tough grader that projects most teams to finish within 10 games of .500has the Dodgers slated for a 98-win season, per CBS Sports.

    If that number is achieved, health and excellence from stars like Kershaw, Ramirez, Puig, Kemp and Greinke will be a major part of the story of the 2014 Dodgers.

    Based on the talent on the 25-man roster and prospects ready to make an impact later this season, the Dodgers have enough to win 100-plus games and soar to the best record in baseball during the regular season.

    Yet, without a true division foe to push them all summer, 97 wins and the NL West crown seems like a fair projection.

    When the postseason arrives, anything goes. Along with the excellent Washington Nationals and perennially great St. Louis Cardinals, a three-team battle for the NL pennant will commence. 

    Expect the Dodgers to at least reprise their role in the NLCS when October rolls around. 

    Prediction: 97-65, NL West champions

    Agree? Disagree? 

    What are your predictions for the 2014 Dodgers?

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