Los Angeles Dodgers: An Early Free Agency and Offseason Primer

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Los Angeles Dodgers: An Early Free Agency and Offseason Primer
Alex Gallardo/Associated Press
Whether or not the Dodgers choose to re-sign SS Hanley Ramirez will greatly impact their future.

Hanley Ramirez headlines the Los Angeles Dodgers’ approach to the offseason, but he is far from the only point of curiosity. An outfield logjam loaded with big league regulars and a top-heavy pitching staff that all of a sudden needs help only add to the list of issues Ned Colletti must sort out before the 2015 season begins.

A farm system that has stalled since the class of 2006-08, which featured Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and others no longer with the team, is finally on the verge of bearing fruit again, and Colletti must find a way to successfully integrate young, talented and cost-controlled players into a team whose obscene payroll ($172 million already committed to next year) needs to be curtailed if the organization wishes to develop a sustainable model for success.

It is for this reason that the decision facing the Dodgers’ front office about Hanley Ramirez is by far the most interesting and important one. Either choice plays a huge role in the Dodgers’ next several years: If Ramirez is re-signed to a long-term deal, the 2015 team will likely look quite similar to this one. But in 2016, when Juan Uribe’s contract expires, elite prospect Corey Seager should (hopefully) be ready to step in on the left side of the infield and shift Ramirez to third base. While this is obviously an ideal situation in a perfect world, Ramirez has a history of resisting the move from shortstop as well as a rather lengthy list of recent injuries.

The alternative is to let Ramirez walk this offseason, sign a stopgap shortstop and then hope. They must hope for two things: Seager continues to develop as projected starter and can be a big league shortstop in the next couple years, and Uribe can continue to stave off Father Time and be a productive third baseman.

The first option is the path of least resistance. The Dodgers are clearly swimming in cash, so signing Ramirez likely would not considerably hamper their financial situation in the long run. Additionally, the memories of Ramirez as a world-beater when healthy in 2013 have still not entirely faded—re-signing him is a high-upside play, at least in the short term.

Where that plan would get tricky is in the later years. If the Dodgers invest a lot of money in Ramirez and count on him to play third base but he continues to get hurt, they will be hamstrung. They won’t be able to simply go get someone new because Ramirez will still be on the roster, but they also won’t be able to ink him into the lineup on a daily basis.

Colletti has to make a very difficult decision, and it is one that I do not envy. Either road, though, is dependent on the development of Corey Seager, and that takes us conveniently to the player he’s been linked with all season: Joc Pederson.

Pederson himself is an interesting case because his performance long ago earned him a promotion to the big leagues. He is making a run at 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in the Pacific Coast League, something that has not occurred since 1934. As touched on in the True Blue LA post, it’s not as if the PCL is a particularly difficult place to go 30 and 30. Instead, players with the talent to do so are normally called up to the majors before they get the chance to reach those numbers.

The Dodgers’ 2014 outfield, though, was a special case. With three outfielders making $18 million or more and not one of those three being named Yasiel Puig, there were simply too many players for not enough spots. That was complicated further when Pederson hit the cover off the ball in Triple-A, as instead of three (or four, depending on your opinion of Scott Van Slyke) players fighting for two spots, there were four.

Coming into the season, the Dodgers expected to have a crowded roster. Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, and Yasiel Puig are each talented enough to start, but—obviously—there can only be three starting outfielders. Prior to 2014, the Dodgers could delude themselves into thinking the problem would sort itself out: Since the trade in 2012, at least one of the four had been injured. Crawford missed the rest of the year after the trade, and Kemp played just 73 games last season.

Now, though, the Dodgers have had all four healthy for much of the last month and a half—ever since Crawford returned from the DL on July 10. And while manager Don Mattingly has settled on a lineup he prefers, it is a less-than-desirable outcome that has outfielder Andre Ethier (and his $18 million salary) consistently on the bench.

This offseason provides another opportunity for Colletti to sort out the problem. As with the Ramirez situation, there is likely no easy answer. Neither Crawford nor Ethier has much value, be it in a trade or on the field, and their contracts are massive. If they were easily traded, such a deal would probably already have occurred. However, a move is more necessary than ever. Scott Van Slyke has demonstrated that he can be a competent fourth outfielder, and Pederson deserves an opportunity.

The final large hurdle Colletti will have to handle this offseason is pitching. The bullpen’s struggles are well-known, but relievers are easily found and developed cheaply. It is the rotation that looks problematic. We are not far removed from a starting five that appeared to be an embarrassment of riches: Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu led a rotation that was getting a surprise performance from Josh Beckett (ERA under 3 through June) and Dan Haren (ERA under 3 in April).

Now, though, questions abound. Haren has struggled mightily, as he has posted ERAs over 4.00 in each successive month. Beckett is currently on the disabled list, as is Ryu. Greinke is dealing with a sore elbow. While it is unlikely that all of those problems will persist through next year—particularly Ryu’s strained glute—the Dodgers certainly are lacking in depth. And Colletti will have to address that need, whether it be through continued development from internal options such as Zach Lee and Chris Reed or through external additions in trade or free agency.

With the talent currently on the roster and in the high minors, the Dodgers are certainly in a good position. However, their ultimate goal is to be a World Series contender every year, and the decisions Ned Colletti makes will go a long way towards determining both the short-term and long-term health of the organization.

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