5 Early-Season Questions the Los Angeles Dodgers Will Have to Answer

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5 Early-Season Questions the Los Angeles Dodgers Will Have to Answer
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The Los Angeles Dodgers avoided an embarrassing early-season sweep at the hands of the rival San Francisco Giants this past weekend thanks to big games from Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez on Sunday.

They each clubbed two home runs, which was a sight to behold for Dodgers fans after San Francisco had thoroughly outplayed Los Angeles in the first two games of the series at Dodger Stadium.

For the team with the highest payroll in baseball history, giving up a combined 15 runs like the Dodgers did Friday and Saturday will always lead to questions about what's going wrong.

Some of these questions have to do with the starting pitching, but other concerns go beyond what happened last weekend and must be dealt with as the season progresses.

 

How concerned should the Dodgers be about Clayton Kershaw?

The answer is very concerned.

Less than three months removed from becoming the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history, Clayton Kershaw will likely be sidelined until May with a strained teres major muscle behind his left shoulder, per MLB.com's Ken Gurnick.

This is the same muscle Texas Rangers second baseman Jurickson Profar tore during the offseason, and it will keep him out of action for three months, according to T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com.

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Kershaw's injury is a strain, not a complete tear. Still, it's cruel irony that the southpaw would sustain the first major injury of his career right after signing a megadeal.

It's unclear exactly when the 2013 Cy Young Award winner got hurt, but team physicians officially diagnosed the strain a few days after he tossed a gem against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Dodgers' first game of the season in Australia.

According to the Dodgers, Kershaw will spend the next two to three weeks rehabilitating the muscle with what the team is calling a "submaximal throwing program." If all goes well, the lefty will likely need to make a minor league rehab start before being cleared to return to the big club.

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If there's any good news to come out of this situation, it's that the Dodgers are dealing with it in the early part of the season rather than during the hunt for the playoffs.

For Dodgers fans hoping Kershaw can return sooner rather than later, remember that $215 million is now on the line. That's a large investment, and even the deep-pocketed Dodgers would be foolish not to proceed slowly and with caution.

 

How reliable is the rotation?

With Kershaw out of the fold for the near future, the label of staff ace falls to Zack Greinke, with Hyun-Jin Ryu next in line.

But after those two, the rotation becomes a bit murkier due to the question marks surrounding Dan Haren and Josh Beckett.

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The Dodgers signed Haren after an impressive second half last year salvaged what was shaping up to be another disappointing season for the veteran right-hander. He won his first start in Dodger Blue last week and was impressive against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday, but his velocity was noticeably down, as he failed to touch 90 mph during both outings.

Beckett is also getting up there in age, and ever since Los Angeles acquired him from the Boston Red Sox in the 2012 blockbuster trade, the veteran right-hander has been underwhelming at best.

Beckett, who is due $15.75 million in his 13th season, went 0-5 with a 5.19 ERA in just eight 2013 starts before thoracic outlet syndrome forced doctors to remove one of his ribs. His overall record with Los Angeles dating back to 2012 is a putrid 2-8.

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The 33-year-old was on track to make his 2014 debut Wednesday night against Detroit, but he suffered another setback last week when he turned his ankle fielding a bunt during a minor league start. This came a few weeks after he jammed his thumb in an accident with a clubhouse door, which forced him to exit early from his spring training start a few days later.

Beckett remains a possibility to start Wednesday, according to the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez, but his continual series of disappointments over the past few years does not give Dodgers fans supreme confidence heading into the season.

What's more, the Giants knocked around free-agent addition Paul Maholm in his first start with the Dodgers as a fill-in for the injured Kershaw, and Chad Billingsley remains on the mend from Tommy John surgery.

 

Is Yasiel Puig going to be a distraction?

Yasiel Puig has undoubtedly been a lightning rod for negative attention ever since he arrived in the big leagues last June.

In 2013, opponents questioned his exuberant style of play. He was removed from a game for not hustling, benched for being late after a night of partying and then arrested for speeding in the offseason.

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So far in 2014, he showed up to spring training out of shape, his manager called him out for making up injuries as excuses for striking out and he arrived late to Dodger Stadium for his team's home opener on Friday.

None of this looks good to those watching from the stands or the press box, but nobody can deny Puig's supreme talent. He was a huge part of the team's historic turnaround in 2013 and is slated as the starting right fielder in 2014, his first full season in the majors.

The majority of the media portray Puig as an immature diva, while some writers, such as Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald, offer a different perspective.

Puig's teammates have publicly supported him, and, by all accounts, the 23-year-old has never been a problem in the clubhouse. He apologized for his tardiness last week, and fans even started a brief "We want Puig" chant when Matt Kemp, his replacement in Friday's lineup, misplayed a few balls in center field.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly handled the multitude of Puig questions thrown his way last season as well as anyone could have hoped, and the skipper can probably expect more of the same this year.

Still, the only way Puig will be a distraction this season is if he continues doing things that warrant a benching, because the Dodgers are a better team with him on the field.

 

Which outfielder will have to sit?

The age-old question seems like it will finally be answered this season, as Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford are all healthy.

That's four highly paid outfielders and three outfield spots. Something has to give. Or does it?

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Kemp made it clear to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Mark Saxon that he won't accept a bench role, and he backed up his words by hitting two home runs on Sunday against Matt Cain. Yet the Dodgers would be well-served to proceed cautiously with Kemp, who has undergone multiple surgeries over the past two years.

Puig is already on thin ice due to all of his aforementioned mishaps, so Don Mattingly probably wouldn't have to search too long to find an excuse to keep him out of the lineup on any given night. Either way, the Dodgers can't afford to keep such a dynamic player off the field very often.

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Ethier and Crawford are both left-handed, which may allow Mattingly to plug-and-play depending on pitching matchups.

For his career, Ethier owns a .309 batting average against right-handed pitching but only a .235 clip against lefties. He and Crawford were both out of the lineup when the Dodgers faced Giants southpaw Madison Bumgarner on Saturday.

“You just have to roll with the way it is,” Crawford told Jill Painter of the Los Angeles Daily News. “I just have to keep coming to the field as if I was going to play. That way it doesn’t seem too different, and I can be ready to play.”

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For now, it seems like Mattingly will roll with the matchups. It's not going to make everyone happy, but it's the best solution for Los Angeles.

All four players should realize they will be an integral part of what promises to be a successful team with multiple opportunities to start every week. Some may view the situation as a problem, but having four elite outfielders gives Mattingly and the Dodgers an insurance policy most teams would love to have.

 

When are the Dodgers going to lock up Hanley Ramirez?

The Dodgers were able to extend Clayton Kershaw in historical fashion over the winter. Hanley Ramirez is due to become a free agent after the 2014 season, but Los Angeles has not agreed to a similar deal with the superstar shortstop.

The Dodgers may have some concerns about making a long-term commitment to a player with an injury history, but talks are ongoing, according to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Mark Saxon. Still, it's perplexing to think about why the Dodgers didn't lock up Ramirez before the season, especially considering how much he has helped the Boys in Blue since arriving via trade in July 2012.

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Most point to the emergence of Yasiel Puig as the main reason for the Dodgers' amazing 42-8 run last summer, which took the team from the cellar of the National League West to the National League Championship Series.

Many people forget that Ramirez, after spending nearly all of the first two months of the season on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, became a fixture of the lineup during the same week Puig was called up.

Ramirez said he received treatment over the winter on a nerve problem in his back, which was believed to be responsible for last season's hamstring issue, according to the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez. Los Angeles can only hope Ramirez's injury woes are a problem of the past.

The 2009 batting champion finished with a .345 average and 20 home runs in only 86 games—or just over half a season. Before getting hit by a pitch and cracking his rib in the NLCS, Ramirez tore up the postseason as well.

As the 2014 campaign progresses, it will become increasingly difficult for the Dodgers to extend Ramirez, as his value will undoubtedly rise while he continues to shake off the early-season rust. His two home runs on Sunday night are an indication that it's already happening.

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The longer Los Angeles waits to sign Ramirez to an extension, the more likely it is that he will decide to test the free-agent market. And a certain team in the American League East that has a history of spending a lot of money on players will also have a hole at shortstop.

The Dodgers should focus on making Ramirez the shortstop of their future before the New York Yankees bring him on as Derek Jeter's replacement.

 

All stats courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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