Los Angeles Dodgers: 10 Under-the-Radar Storylines to Follow at Spring Training
With spring training now at its peak and Cactus League play in full gear, the Los Angeles Dodgers find themselves in the national spotlight of the sports media in regards to a number of popular storylines.
Team ownership is obviously at the forefront, as Frank McCourt was anticipating a $200-million cash advance from Fox until the transaction was blocked by MLB commissioner Bud Selig late last week. It's unclear exactly where the overall finances of the club lie, but the fact that McCourt was involved in plotting such a deal doesn't sound encouraging.
In the meantime, the divorce ordeal between Frank and Jamie continues to trudge along. Frank's gun is loaded with the intention of new trials and appeals, while Jamie continues to express interest in gaining some type of control over the organization. However, the team, the fans and Major League Baseball itself would love nothing more than to see this tedious affliction become resolved.
As for player news, the absence of reliever Ronald Belisario from his third-consecutive spring training start also captured its fair share of headlines. While Belisario continues to offer excuses about being separated from the team, he still remains in his native Venezuela. Most analysts around the league seem to agree that he's already seen his last days wearing Dodger Blue.
Vicente Padilla, re-signed by general manager Ned Colletti to bolster the bullpen and provide insurance to the starting rotation, has already been under the knife to fix a recurring wrist injury that has been bothering him for more than a year. According to various opinions, Padilla may begin throwing again in as little as three-to-four weeks.
The passing of Dodger legend Duke Snider, who could arguably be known as the greatest player the franchise has ever seen, brought a somber moment of sadness to Dodgers fans far and wide. Without a doubt, for his contributions to the Dodger legacy, the Duke will be remembered for eternity.
As all the aforementioned news made headlines nationwide, a number of storylines which are critical to the club's success continue to fly under the radar. The following slides highlight 10 such stories, as well as offer a brief commentary about each topic shown.
James Loney's Swing
Although new skipper Don Mattingly seems content with first baseman James Loney's offensive consistency shown in his first five seasons, Loney still has hopes of finding the power stroke many Dodgers fans believe exists.
During the offseason Loney made several trips to Camelback Ranch to work with new hitting coach Jeff Pentland, who is very well respected as an instructor for his thorough understanding of the "biomechanics" of hitting.
"The more I stay on balance, the more I do the right things consistently, the more of a chance there is for that [the long ball] to happen," Loney told reporters.
Spring training is the perfect opportunity for Loney to experiment with his timing, body movements and other smaller-yet-vital components of his swing mechanics.
If his power numbers do indeed improve as a result of refining his swing, the Dodgers will elevate their overall offensive production in a hurry.
Who's Batting Second?
One of the biggest question marks heading into the 2011 campaign is which player will primarily fill the role of batting second in the Dodgers batting order.
Manager Don Mattingly has already stated that third baseman Casey Blake will see the most looks in the two-hole, as Blake's savvy and years of experience may prove to pay dividends.
On the downside, Blake finished second on the team in 2010 with 138 strikeouts, which isn't exactly ideal for the importance of having a player in the second slot with excellent plate discipline and the ability to hit to all fields. Although Blake's speed isn't his worst asset, he doesn't exactly possess blazing speed, which is sometimes beneficial for a hitter at the top of the order.
Utility infielder Jamey Carroll could very easily be the best option to fill the void. However, Mattingly has already conveyed that Carroll's ability to come off the bench is much more important. Carroll's .379 OBP led the team last year and his 51 walks were also among the team leaders.
Dioner Navarro and Carroll each hit second in Saturday's split-squad games, while infielder Aaron Miles filled the two-hole on Monday against the White Sox. Blake batted second on Sunday and in Tuesday's game.
There's not an overwhelming number of options to fill the second slot. However, Cactus League play is the most opportune time to experiment with all available possibilities.
One word that perfectly describes the Dodgers roster heading into opening day—depth.
Outside of Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp on offense, as well as Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hong-Chih Kuo and Jonathan Broxton on the hill, there aren't really any big-name, marquis players that draw national attention.
Yet on the plus-side, the 2011 Dodgers are deeper than they have been in years at almost every position, which was the main goal of GM Ned Colletti this past offseason.
That being said, three players on the fringe—outfielder Xavier Paul, catcher Hector Gimenez and pitcher Blake Hawksworth—are all out of options and may be forced to face the waiver wire if they don't earn a spot onto the 25-man roster.
Rather than risking losing a player without netting any type of gain, Colletti may already be on the phone with other general managers attempting to strike a few deals.
Now with a completely-stocked corps of relievers, a plentiful infield, more-than-enough outfielders and a deep starting rotation, Colletti may be in a position to barter, especially as the trade deadline approaches in the distance.
Will the Baserunning Improve?
In 2010, the baserunning skills demonstrated by many members of the Dodgers' squad were nothing short of appalling.
As a result of an unexpected turn of events in Philadelphia, Davey Lopes, who is commonly known as one of the premiere first-base coaches in the modern game, surprisingly found himself looking for a job. Ned Colletti quickly made the hire, reuniting Lopes with the Dodgers after a 29-year separation.
Although the stolen-base department is only a partial indicator of the overall production of baserunning, the Dodgers found themselves successful on only 92 occasions after having been caught 50 times last season. Matt Kemp, after swiping 35 bags in 2008 and 34 in 2009, was successful in only 19 of 34 attempts.
In each of Lopes' three seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, the team led the majors in stolen base percentage. In 2007, with a success rate of 87.9 percent, the Phillies netted the best stolen-base percentage in MLB history (138-for-157).
Granted, the Los Angeles roster isn't exactly overloaded with speed, however Lopes' success with the Dodgers' baserunners should be very interesting to follow nonetheless.
Can the Coaching Staff Establish Chemistry?
In what could probably be considered the biggest facelift of the organization, Ned Colletti assembled a virtually brand-new coaching staff over the winter months.
Rookie manager Don Mattingly will be joined by former Dodgers Tim Wallach and Davey Lopes supervising the basepaths, while former Kansas City Royals manager Trey Hillman will assume the duties of bench coach.
New hitting coach Jeff Pentland looks to make an immediate impact, while another former Dodger, Dave Hansen, will assume Pentland's former role of secondary hitting instructor.
Rick Honeycutt and Ken Howell are set to return as pitching coach and bullpen coach, while Rob Flippo and Mike Borzello will maintain their spots as bullpen catchers.
Dodgers legend Manny Mota also returns for his 32nd season as a batting instructor.
The staff has logged 176 combined seasons playing, coaching or managing in the major leagues.
While the new coaching crew looks more than capable on paper, the largest challenge will be learning to think on the same page and molding the squad with common goals in mind. The month of March certainly presents the best time to prepare themselves as a unit for the long journey ahead.
Will the Dodgers Stay Healthy?
While Vicente Padilla's wrist surgery headlines the current injury report, several small issues with Dana Eveland (strained hamstring), Tim Redding (illness) and Jay Gibbons (flu) have already surfaced but appear to be minor.
Seemingly, success for the Dodgers could very easily hinge around the health of shortstop and leadoff-man Rafael Furcal. Although the Dodgers are deep, Furcal is essentially irreplaceable atop the Los Angeles lineup. Being hampered with lower-back problems for a good deal of 2010, Furcal was limited to only 97 games—the third-lowest total of his MLB career. The 2008 season saw Furcal appear in only 36 games.
As a preventative measure, skipper Don Mattingly has devised a rest schedule for many of the regular starters. Mattingly plans to play Casey Blake, Furcal, Juan Uribe, Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro every other day in the first part of spring training. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney, Marcus Thames and Jay Gibbons would play two games, then rest a day.
Although player depth is relatively strong, health is critical for the thoroughbreds of the franchise—most notably Furcal, Kemp, Ethier and Loney, along with the entire starting pitching rotation.
With at least a dozen split-squad games scheduled for 2011 Cactus League play, the Dodgers will have the valuable opportunity of carrying a higher-than-usual number of prospects for the duration of spring training.
Players such as Jerry Sands, Trayvon Robinson, Dee Gordon and Rubby De La Rosa highlight the list, and will have a chance to showcase their skills and prove to management just how close they may be to playing in the bigs.
Sands has already demonstrated his power with a long home run against the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday, while Robinson has opened a few eyes with a double and a triple in only five official at-bats.
Now is the best time for the prospects to impress, as it will be almost impossible for Mattingly and his crew to personally conduct any type of close-up evaluations once the regular season begins.
Likewise, the prospects themselves look forward to receiving valuable instruction and tips from the big-league coaching staff before returning back to the farm.
It's still difficult to digest the fact that the 2009 Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen was among the most effective in baseball, but in 2010, outside of a solid year from Hong-Chih Kuo and the emergence of Kenley Jansen, the remainder of the relief crew was borderline atrocious.
Gone are the likes of Russ and Ramon Ortiz, Jack Taschner, the illustrated Justin Miller, George Sherrill and Octavio Dotel. Ronald Belisario, as mentioned previously, is unlikely to return by the accounts of many.
Swingman Blake Hawksworth and veteran ironman Matt Guerrier join the relief corps with hopes of a resurgence to elite status once again.
Don Mattingly has already stated that Jonathan Broxton is still the main closer, at least for the first month of the season. Broxton looks to find the success that he showed for the first half of 2010 and most of 2009.
Several spots are still wide open, as players such as Ramon Troncoso, Jon Huber, Jon Link, Travis Schlichting, Ron Mahay, Carlos Monasterios and Scott Elbert are competing for the final spots on the 25-man roster.
Effectiveness during Cactus League play may very well determine which relievers are wearing a Dodger uniform come opening day.
New Player Performance
In an earlier installment that can be found here, we previewed which of the low-profile signings made in the offseason may be in a position to impact the Dodgers during the 2011 campaign.
That being said, all eyes will be focused upon the bigger-name signings—primarily Jon Garland, Juan Uribe and Matt Guerrier—who are expected to be key contributors during the upcoming season.
Garland, who was part of the Dodgers' playoff run in 2009, is coming off his tenth-consecutive big league season with 190-or-more innings pitched. His durability and effectiveness over the years compliment a very strong starting rotation consisting of a mix of both youth and veterans.
In terms of power numbers, Uribe had the best year of his career last year with 24 home runs and 85 RBI. Uribe's also known for his strong glove and will certainly be an upgrade over any player who saw time at second base for the Dodgers in 2010. He's been criticized most for his below-average OBP (.310 last year and .300 career) and he will certainly be under the microscope early by both the fans and analysts.
Although his 2010 campaign wasn't considered substandard by any means, Matt Guerrier was simply off the charts in 2009 after registering a 2.36 ERA and .969 WHIP in 79 appearances and 76 innings of work. He's been among the American League leaders for the past four seasons in terms of appearances, and hopes the success he experienced with the Minnesota Twins carries over early.
Development during spring training is always critical for the new players, especially in regards to identifying their roles early and becoming familiar with the personalities of their teammates.
Will a Team Leader Emerge?
Probably the closest thing the Dodgers had to a true team leader on the field in 2010 was veteran third baseman Casey Blake. Not having a bonafide leader could very well have been a big difference in the success of the club last season.
Orlando Hudson, Jim Thome, Randy Wolf, Doug Mientkiewicz and even Mark Loretta were all part of the Dodgers squad that competed in the NLCS in 2009 and were very well respected by their teammates.
These veteran players, although not flashy in terms of stats, demonstrated their leadership qualities both on and off the diamond. All five were very active in community service and numerous charities, and set the standard as to how other players should carry themselves when off the field, while their work ethics at the ballpark were exemplary.
One such player ready to step-up to the plate is outfielder Andre Ethier.
"I think that's what we've been lacking here to be successful," Ethier told reporters last week. "We've always had the personnel and players to be successful. We lacked the sturdy head figures. You look at all the best teams, that's what they have."
Ethier was approached by skipper Don Mattingly in the offseason in regards to the subject. Mattingly emphasized to the 2010 All-Star that leadership isn't always measured by stats or production, and the true leaders of the game lead by example with superior work ethics and the ability to convey confidence.