Dodgers Spring Training Report: Full Update of Surprises, Busts and Injuries
With the Opening Series in Sydney, Australia, just around the corner, it is essentially time to put a bow on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2014 spring training. This spring was undoubtedly less eventful than the last one—it did not feature Yasiel Puig hitting .517, after all—but we definitely got some interesting glimpses at both the future and the present.
The Dodgers’ upcoming season is expected to be a success. So what can we learn from their month spent in Arizona? Certainly, at least a bit, as we saw some impressive—and not so impressive—performances that can shape our opinions. It’s also important to look at the injury situation, since we know the health questions that surround the Boys in Blue are amongst the most important in baseball.
Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
This category is made up of players who performed above what was expected. None of them came into the spring as locks to make the roster, but all are in Australia.
When general manager Ned Colletti mentioned Miguel Rojas as a possible candidate for the second base job in January, it came as a general shock to many Dodgers fans who had never even heard his name before. That was with good reason—the 25-year-old infielder has a career .589 OPS in 2,466 minor league plate appearances.
He is relevant, though, for his glove. In the article linked above, Dodgers veterans compared his defense to Omar Vizquel, which is obviously high praise.
Picturing him at second base required a stretch of the imagination, though, because the bat was just that awful.
But a 1.001 OPS this spring can go a ways towards making an imprint, and that is most definitely what happened for the Venezuelan. While he is still not assured of a place on the 25-man Opening Day roster, he was selected for the 30-man travel squad that will go to Australia. Regardless of whether he begins the season at Triple-A or the majors, though, he will be on the big league club’s radar and given a chance to prove his spring wasn’t a mirage.
As my previous mentions of Dee Gordon have clearly shown, I don’t know what to make of Gordon’s spring. The small sample size caveats all apply—his .286/.326/.476 line came in just 42 at bats—so we can’t really say that he has legitimately improved. Additionally, this piece from Dodgers Digest notes that (through March 10) only one of his hits had come off a no-doubt big league pitcher.
While we’re discussing his spring, Baseball Reference has a nifty tool called opponent quality that it applies to a player’s spring training statistics. For the 2014 spring, Gordon’s opponent quality is 8.2, which means the pitchers he’s facing are—on average—essentially Triple-A pitchers. For comparison’s sake, Hanley Ramirez’s opponent quality is 9.1.
The qualifications above are valid. We don’t truly know how good Gordon is—or, honestly, how good he really was this spring. However, given the fact that his career WAR is negative, the fact that he looks like he might be a competent major leaguer at second base qualifies his spring as a pleasant surprise.
Speaking of pleasant surprises—quickly becoming a fan favorite—Seth Rosin lit up the spring. In 11 innings, he posted a 1.64 ERA and racked up 12 strikeouts to just two walks. This performance inspired the Dodgers to add the Rule 5 pick to their travel roster, which would have seemed unlikely just one month ago.
We still don’t know whether or not he will make the Opening Day roster (and remember that—as a Rule 5 pick—if he doesn’t, he can be offered back to the Phillies for a small amount of money). This article from Mike Petriello at Dodgers Digest does a good job of laying out the numerical problems in the bullpen, but suffice it to say, it’s still difficult to see a way for Rosin to be on the 25-man roster come March 30.
Spring training is a time for hope for many players who may be on their way out of the game. It’s therefore incredibly tragic to see players given a final chance flub it so dramatically; yet, that is essentially what happened here.
I’m putting Brendan Harris first on the list here because he absolutely does not belong in the same category as the other two. His career 86 OPS+ is nothing special, but his ability to play anywhere in the infield made him a worthy invite.
However, he was cut on March 10, after he posted a dismal .143/.240/.143 line in 25 plate appearances. It’s not a huge surprise he didn’t make the team, as Justin Turner and Gordon each had a leg up for the utility infield spot. But it’s still disappointing he performed so poorly.
Despite not playing in the big leagues at all last season—and despite not posting a positive WAR since 2010—Chone Figgins was invited to big league camp. And boy was he terrible. In 46 plate appearances, his spring training line was .167/.326/.194.
He struck out 12 times and stole only two bases in 16 games. The fact that he played six different positions (second base, third base, shortstop, and all three outfield spots) doesn’t hide the fact that he looked absolutely awful at the plate.
The man he is ostensibly competing with, Turner, completely outperformed him. Figgins did make the travel roster, though, and he was added to the 40-man roster at the same time—which makes him a member of the organization for the year.
There are not enough words to describe how terrible Brandon League is for the Dodgers. It goes beyond his performance, in fact, his contract has put the Dodgers in a tough position with regards to their 2014 roster.
First of all, League’s pitching obviously leaves a lot to be desired. His spring performance has been miserable, and it comes on the heels of an absolutely awful 2013 season in which he threw 54.1 innings and struck out a measly 11.2 percent of batters he faced. His 5.30 ERA was good for second-worst among all MLB relievers.
And, unfortunately, the problems he brings are compounded by the financial commitment the team has made. The Dodgers still owe him $7.5 million for each of the next two years, so it’s difficult to see him being cut outright. Because of this, the Dodgers have a logjam in the bullpen; as this February piece from Dodgers Digest outlines, there are ten other potential members who have better cases.
The easiest category on this list to understand, the injury updates are nonetheless extremely important. Whether or not the Dodgers can defend their NL West crown will depend on their ability to keep a competitive, healthy roster on the field.
Per Dodgers Digest, three players on the active roster who are likely headed to the DL are Josh Beckett, Matt Kemp and Chad Billingsley. None of those names are a surprise.
A new addition, though, is Carl Crawford, and we should still keep an eye on Zack Greinke’s calf.
A report last week from the Los Angeles Times’s Steve Dilbeck suggests Josh Beckett is “expected to begin the season on the disabled list” with a problem in his right thumb. While it is disappointing that he is not going to be ready for Opening Day, the development is in fact a positive one—it is unrelated to his career-threatening injury from last year.
In addition—as the Dilbeck article mentions—the Dodgers will not need a fifth starter until midway through April anyway, and with Clayton Kershaw, Greinke, Hyun-jin Ryu, and Dan Haren ahead of him, the team will be in good hands for the first few weeks of the season.
Matt Kemp’s recovery from an ankle injury is going well, as he has finally begun playing in spring training games. When—about a week ago—he first appeared in the field this spring, the reports came back positive.
Adding to that good news is the Dodgers will not rush him back and will allow him to start the year on the DL.
Chad Billingsley is in a position familiar to many big league pitchers at this point—trying to work his way back from Tommy John surgery. However, he is doing extremely well in his recovery; this report from ESPNLosAngeles.com's Mark Saxon suggests Billingsley could be back in the major leagues as early as late April or early May, which would be barely twelve months after his surgery.
Rotation depth is never a bad thing, and with the questions surrounding Beckett, the fact that Billingsley could be ready relatively soon is a huge positive for the Dodgers.
On March 17, Greinke threw 42 pitches against a minor-league Padres team in order to test the calf that he injured in late February. This has to be considered a positive, obviously—he was able to pitch without pain.
Because the Dodger season starts earlier than most, Greinke is not making the trip to Australia to be the Dodgers’ second starter. Instead, he will get the extra time to continue to pitch in minor league games with the obvious goal of making sure he’s ready for the domestic openers.
Final Look Ahead
The big league club has ended its spring schedule, and the major league season starts March 22. The first two games will be a chance for the surprises—Gordon, Rosin and Rojas—to prove they belong in the major leagues.
In essence, just the fact that the Dodgers’ Cactus League season is over doesn’t mean the roster is settled for March 30. The organization will have until then to make roster decisions that will affect the team into the season—such as what to do with Rosin, a Rule 5 pick—and Australia will obviously help shape the future.
With a settled roster, it’s difficult for any player to come out of nowhere and make the roster. For such an instance to occur, there has to be a combination of performance and luck—that is, he must play well and have a player at his position struggle.
For Gordon, Rosin and Rojas, that happened. Each tried his best to prove he belonged in the major leagues, while various utility infielders and relievers did their best to open up a spot for a youngster.