3 Offseason Questions That the Dodgers Still Need to Answer
The Los Angeles Dodgers may have revamped their roster this offseason with a flurry moves during the winter meetings, but there are still questions remaining now that the dust has settled for the time being.
New president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman believes that the roster shakeup has allowed the Dodgers to become "highly functional," according to MLB.com's Ken Gurnick, even though last season's squad functioned well enough to win 94 games and take the NL West division crown.
So what exactly does Friedman perceive as more functional about the 2015 Dodgers?
Advanced metrics indicate that the team's defense up the middle of the infield—with Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick—is superior to last season's double-play combination of Hanley Ramirez and Dee Gordon.
The back end of the starting rotation is younger with Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson. Yasmani Grandal should provide some much-needed offensive punch from the catcher position, and manager Don Mattingly will be able to breathe a little easier when it comes to shuffling highly paid outfielders in and out of the lineup now that a sometimes-moody Matt Kemp is down in San Diego.
But not everything has been tied up in a nice little bow just yet. There are still question marks facing the Dodgers with the regular season only three months away.
Will Andre Ethier Be Traded?
Andre Ethier was the odd man out last season.
An unlucky victim of the Dodgers' outfield logjam, the eight-year veteran took one for the team, as he was banished to the bench in favor of Carl Crawford, who solidified himself as the everyday left fielder halfway through the season. Matt Kemp played right field and Yasiel Puig patrolled center.
This year, however, Ethier expects things to be different, according to the the Los Angeles Times' Steve Dilbeck.
It was fun trying to win the way we did last year, but it didn’t prove any more successful than me playing every day or not playing every day. I’d rather play every day and help this team win -- or whatever team it is -- to the best of my ability. I feel I can, if given a role. As I stand here today, I’m preparing every day to be a starting outfielder for the Dodgers, until I’m told otherwise. I’m not changing my mind about that. It’s probably going to be a little less wanting to take the same role as I did last year.
Ethier made these statements a few days after the Dodgers acquired outfielder Chris Heisey from the Cincinnati Reds but before Los Angeles traded away Kemp.
“I get it,” Friedman told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. “I think all guys that play this game want to play as much as they possibility can. I get it. I totally get it from his perspective.”
In fact, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that the Dodgers tried unsuccessfully to trade Ethier to the Arizona Diamondbacks around the time that the aforementioned comments were made in early December.
Ethier is coming off the worst season of his career, one that saw him bat .249 with just four home runs and 42 RBI in 341 at-bats. He'll turn 33 in April and is still owed $56 million through the 2018 season.
That $56 million is the problem for Los Angeles. Not many teams are interested in taking on that kind of salary in a trade, especially for a player who severely underperformed last season. With Puig seemingly locked in as next season's right fielder and Crawford presumably staying in left field, the only option for Ethier to start would be in center field.
But even that might not be guaranteed because the Dodgers believe it's time to give their top outfield prospect an everyday opportunity.
Is Joc Pederson Ready?
There's nothing left for Joc Pederson to prove in the minor leagues.
The Dodgers' top outfield prospect became the Pacific Coast League's first player since 1934 to hit at least 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season, according to Mike Axisa of CBSSports.com. Overall, Pederson slashed .303/.435/.582 with 135 hits and 78 RBI in 121 games at Triple-A before his September call-up.
Following the season, Pederson traveled to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball for the Leones del Escogido. He slashed .265/.351/.361 with three doubles, a home run, a triple, 13 runs scored, 10 walks and 33 strikeouts in 22 games with Escogido, per Eric Stephen of True Blue LA.
Considered an above-average defensive center fielder, Pederson will have an opportunity to earn an everyday job at the position during spring training.
“I think we’ll take some time in spring training and assess that, get a feel for him in camp and how he’s handling things," Friedman told Dilbeck. "It’ll be a discussion we'll have with the staff and I’m sure it will be an ongoing discussion between now through the last game in March."
Pederson batted .143 last September in a very small sample size that consisted of 39 plate appearances. He'll get even more experience against big league pitching during spring training before the games begin to count.
However, if the Dodgers do not deem Pederson ready by the time April rolls around, they will probably send him to the minors yet again. This would leave a vacancy in center field that Ethier could fill, assuming he is not dealt. Alternatively, Puig could stay in center and Ethier could take over in right.
The possibility that Pederson needs some additional tune-up time is one of the reasons why Los Angeles may ultimately decide to hang onto Ethier.
Is the Bullpen Sufficiently Improved?
A glaring weakness for the 2014 Dodgers—one that spelled the difference between division winner and championship contender—was their bullpen.
As a group, Los Angeles relievers allowed more earned runs than 18 other bullpens around the league. They also ranked 22nd in ERA, 20th in fielding independent pitching (FIP) and 26th in walk rate. Either a lack of trust in the relievers or a reluctant reliance on them could be blamed as the culprit for each of the Dodgers’ three postseason losses to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series.
Shoring up the bridge between the starters and closer Kenley Jansen—one of the few reliable bullpen options for the Dodgers—is still a work in progress.
Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi started the ball rolling by acquiring relievers Joel Peralta from Tampa Bay, Juan Nicasio from Colorado and Mike Bolsinger from Arizona.
The hope with the Nicasio and Bolsinger deals is that by removing these pitchers from hitter-friendly parks in Phoenix and Denver, respectively, they will perhaps be able to find more success pitching in spacious Dodger Stadium.
Los Angeles then acquired right-hander Chris Hatcher from Miami in the deal that sent Gordon and Dan Haren to the Marlins.
Hatcher compiled a 3.38 ERA and a 2.56 FIP with 60 strikeouts and just 12 walks in 56 innings last season. He also ranked 23rd in FIP and 20th in xFIP among relievers with at least 30 innings pitched, per FanGraphs. What's more, his fastball averaged 96.3 mph in 2014, per Brooks Baseball.
These are impressive numbers, and they suggest that Hatcher could prove to be more than just a throw-in from the recent blockbuster.
Still, none of these relievers can yet be considered game-changers for the Dodgers. Friedman understands this, and he realizes that additional moves may need to be made, according to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Mark Saxon.
I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a point where we go, ‘OK, let’s sit back and put our feet on the desk," Friedman said. “We’re always going to be looking at different areas, whether it be on the margins or more significant. I think any time you ask me this question, the bullpen will always be an answer I’ll give. It has to be my nature never to feel comfortable with a bullpen in the offseason.
If there was one player with which the Dodgers front office clearly did not feel comfortable, it was Brian Wilson. The veteran right-hander wisely exercised his $9.5 million player option for 2015 after posting an abysmal 4.66 ERA and career-high 1.614 WHIP last year, knowing full well that he was not going to receive any similar offers in free agency following such a disastrous season.
Rather than give the declining Wilson a roster spot for the upcoming season, the Dodgers instead designated him for assignment—essentially paying the former closer not to pitch for them in an effort to improve the bullpen by subtraction.
"At this point, we did not feel he was one of the best seven relief options," Zaidi told reporters on a conference call shortly after the move, per Saxon.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise linked/noted.