Dodgers' Position-by-Position Breakdown at 2015 Spring Training
The Los Angeles Dodgers underwent their first full workout of spring training this week, officially turning the page on a busy offseason and opening the 2015 chapter with high hopes.
Succumbing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs for a second straight year prompted the franchise to rethink its overall philosophy last October. Ownership opted to hire an entirely new front office, headed by president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi, shortly after the postseason defeat.
This analytic-minded duo wasted little time revamping the roster, trading away fan favorites Matt Kemp and Dee Gordon while allowing Hanley Ramirez to walk via free agency in an effort to improve defense, chemistry and financial flexibility.
Spring training games against other MLB opponents at Camelback Ranch don't begin until March 4, but the Boys in Blue are eager to see what their new—and hopefully improved—roster can do on the field.
Catcher Yasmani Grandal was the main haul in the deal that sent Matt Kemp to the San Diego Padres last December, but the Dodgers opted to keep incumbent backstop A.J. Ellis on the roster as well.
It seemed that part of the reason why Los Angeles made the trade was because of Ellis' declining production, as evidenced by his .191 average in 93 games last season. Although that number could be attributed to the knee and ankle injuries Ellis battled through in 2014, the Dodgers' front office decided to pull the trigger and bring in Grandal—a player with more power than Ellis and elite pitch-framing ability.
Grandal, 26, figures to be the starter, although the 34-year-old Ellis may catch more games than the league's traditional backup. Both players seem to have already checked their egos at the door when it comes to playing time.
"I have talked to both guys over the winter. Both of them talked about winning, and they're not concerned about how it's going to shake out," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, per Eric Stephen of True Blue LA. "When you have that scenario, you know it's not going to be a problem."
Although Grandal should provide more pop in the batting order, Ellis' main value lies in his existing relationships with the pitching staff—specifically reigning National League MVP and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. Stephen notes "Ellis has caught 81 of Kershaw's 93 starts over the last three years. Kershaw's ERA is 1.96 in those games caught by Ellis, and 2.69 in the other 12 starts."
"That’s been a part of our process, understanding the dynamics and the relationships and it’s clear he’s a big part of this team and a big part of the preparation and comfort level for the pitchers," said general manager Farhan Zaidi, per Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times.
Grandal underwent season-ending surgery on his right knee in July 2013, then came back to slash .225/.327/.401 with 15 home runs in 2014. But he performed better in the second half, slashing .250/.360/.440 with nine home runs in his most recent 68 MLB games. Grandal also batted .328 in 19 games in the Dominican Winter League this offseason, according to J.P. Hoornstra of InsideSocal.com.
"Whatever it takes to win," said Grandal, per Hoornstra. "If that day A.J. is the man for the job behind the plate and we are going to get a win with A.J. behind the plate, that’s going to be him. At the end of the day, if we get a win, that’s a team win and we all get a ring."
Adrian Gonzalez will be back to man first base and hold down the middle of the Dodgers' lineup in 2015.
Last season was somewhat of a resurgence for the 10-year veteran, as he compiled an isolated power metric (slugging percentage minus batting average) of .206. It was the first time that Gonzalez eclipsed .200 in that department since 2011.
Overall, he slashed .276/.335/.482 with an MLB-leading 116 RBI. This season, he'll likely be tabbed as the Dodgers' cleanup hitter.
Defensively, Gonzalez was rewarded with his fourth Gold Glove Award and second Silver Slugger at first base, as he exemplified the definition of a two-way player. He became just the fourth Dodgers player to capture both honors in the same season, joining Dusty Baker (1981), Russell Martin (2007) and Kemp (2009, 2011), according to Stephen.
"We can take that into spring training and into the season and stay under one program," Gonzalez said, per Hernandez.
Gonzalez has also continued to incorporate boxing into his offseason program. This regimen helps keep him in shape as he comes off yet another durable season. Gonzalez played in 159 of the team's 162 regular season games in 2014. It was the ninth straight season of at least 156 games for the main cog in the Dodgers' offense.
If there's one area Gonzalez can improve upon in 2015, it's his approach at the plate against left-handed pitchers. A career .272/.337/.434 hitter against southpaws, he fell off considerably in 2014, producing just a .201/.261/.327 line.
The other blockbuster trade that the Dodgers completed this winter was one that netted them Howie Kendrick to play second base.
Los Angeles shipped last season's second baseman Dee Gordon and pitcher Dan Haren to the Miami Marlins for—among others—pitching prospect Andrew Heaney, who they then immediately flipped to the Angels for Kendrick.
Sure, Los Angeles parted ways with a dynamic game-changer in the speedy Gordon. But upon closer inspection, Kendrick's .347 on-base percentage trumped Gordon's .326 a season ago. As the old saying goes, "You can't steal first base."
Gordon's first half of 2014 turned heads around baseball and earned him an All-Star selection, but his numbers would suffer thereafter. He stole far fewer bags in the second half (43-21) simply because he wasn't getting on base as much (.344-.300). Gordon's underwhelming second-half performance was more aligned with his career numbers.
When it came down to it, the Dodgers needed to answer an important question regarding Gordon this winter: Was the second half of last season merely a slump or was it more indicative of his true self?,
The front office noticed that Kendrick, on the other hand, has been one of the best offensive second basemen over the past few seasons in terms of a metric called "weighted runs created plus" or wRC+. Since 2011, Kendrick has posted 115, 117, 103 and 123 when it comes to wRC+. Gordon's numbers during that span: 94, 58, 73 and 101. The 31-year-old Kendrick also owns a respectable .292 career batting average over eight seasons.
Not only does Kendrick provide an offensive upgrade over Gordon, his defense is also superior to the Dodgers' former second baseman. According to FanGraphs, Kendrick's defensive runs saved ranked seventh among all second basemen with at least 500 innings played last season. Gordon's minus-five DRS ranked 25th.
By trading Gordon, the Dodgers essentially sold high and bet that he will never again reach that early-2014 level on a consistent basis. Los Angeles opted to bring in a proven commodity like Kendrick, perfectly mindful that he has just one year left on his current contract.
“There are a lot of different ways it can play out, but we’re excited to have him,” Friedman told Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times. “All of our focus right now is on the 2015 season."
Holding down the hot corner for the Dodgers in 2015 will once again be Juan Uribe, fresh off leading National League third basemen with at least 850 innings in DRS last season.
The 35-year-old veteran enters the final year of his second contract with the team. The Dodgers first signed him as a free agent following the 2010 season, one in which he helped the rival San Francisco Giants win the first of their three recent World Series titles.
After scuffling hard during 2011 and 2012, Uribe turned things around in 2013 and then re-signed with Los Angeles prior to last season. He batted a career-high .311 with nine homers, 23 doubles and 54 RBIs in 2014.
But the Dodgers value Uribe for more than just his on-field production. He is one of only two players on the roster with a World Series ring. The other is newly acquired shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who will be standing a few feet away from Uribe on defense this season.
Uribe has also been regarded as a positive clubhouse presence during his four-year tenure with the team and was instrumental in taking Yasiel Puig under his wing when the young Cuban was a rookie in 2013.
He will turn 36 prior to Opening Day, and injuries may be a concern this season. Uribe was limited to just 103 games last year because of multiple hamstring issues, and the Dodgers do not have much depth behind him aside from utility infielder Justin Turner.
There is a chance—albeit a very slim one—that top prospect Corey Seager gets called up to the big club to play third base in the event of a long-term injury to Uribe or a decline in production. The current plan, though, is for Seager to make his debut in 2016 as a shortstop. Uribe will be a free agent after this season.
The other World Series ring on the Dodgers' roster belongs to shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who was acquired in a trade with Philadelphia this winter.
Rollins had spent his entire career with the Phillies, but he waived his no-trade clause because he needed a change of scenery. The 2007 National League MVP won a championship in 2008 and advanced to the ultimate stage again the following season. But the team had been trending down in recent years, bottoming out in 2014 with a 73-89 record. That was good for a last-place tie with the Chicago Cubs.
“It wasn’t the best,” Rollins said about his final years in the City of Brotherly Love, per Beth Harris of The Associated Press. “After ‘11, the magic was gone.”
So was the Dodgers' shortstop after Hanley Ramirez signed with Boston.
Rollins had one year left on his current contract, and it was clear the Phillies were in rebuilding mode. He made sense as a trade target, so the Dodgers made the move, sending right-hander Zach Eflin (acquired from San Diego in the Kemp trade) and minor league lefty Tim Windle to Philadelphia in exchange for Rollins, per Stephen. The Dodgers also included $1 million to help cover Rollins' $11 million salary this year, according to Hernandez.
During his introductory press conference, the 36-year-old Rollins shared what he thought of the Dodgers while playing for a struggling Philadelphia team in recent years, per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register.
From the outside looking in, it was, ‘These guys are good.’ They do everything. They have fun. They beat you. They clown while they’re beating you. But they’re beating you. It’s like boxing when a dude hits you and talks to you at the same time. That’s what it was like playing these guys.”
Rollins ranked 10th in defensive runs saved among shortstops with at least 500 innings played last season, per FanGraphs. Ramirez ranked 29th.
Many assumed Rollins would supplant Gordon as the team's leadoff batter in 2015, but Mattingly was noncommittal when asked this week about where he plans to pencil in the veteran, per Jon Morosi of Fox Sports.
When Friedman and Zaidi took over the Dodgers' front office last October, they were determined to trade at least one of the team's highly paid veteran outfielders.
Many believed it would be Carl Crawford or Andre Ethier. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, it was Kemp.
Thus, Crawford is back as the team's primary left fielder in 2015. He showed signs of late life last season, raising his average from .229 on August 4 to .300 by the end of the regular season. Crawford, 33, also got his legs back. His 23 stolen bases were more than his previous two seasons combined.
The lingering concern with Crawford will always be his health. He missed 41 games during the middle of the season with a sprained ankle. If he spends any time on the disabled list this year, it will be his fifth consecutive season with at least one extended trip to the sidelines. Since leaving Tampa Bay after 2010, Crawford has averaged just 96 games per season.
His below-average throwing arm in left field is also a defensive liability that Friedman and Zaidi must reluctantly accept, even after their efforts to improve that aspect of the team this offseason.
Backing up Crawford in left field will be Scott Van Slyke. The 28-year-old figures to get the bulk of starts against left-handed pitchers because of his .315/.415/.630 slash line versus southpaws in 2014. Van Slyke and Crawford each hit eight home runs a season ago, but the former accomplished that figure in far fewer at-bats. Van Slyke's .524 slugging percentage and .910 OPS led Los Angeles.
The battle to become the starting center fielder for the Dodgers this season will boil down to a seasoned veteran hoping that increased playing time will lead to a bounce-back season versus a highly touted prospect without much left to prove in the minor leagues.
It's a bout between Andre Ethier and Joc Pederson.
Ethier was the odd man out last season, an unlucky victim of the team's outfield logjam. The eight-year veteran was banished to the bench in favor of Crawford, who solidified himself as the everyday left fielder. Yasiel Puig patrolled center and Kemp played right.
But with Kemp out of the picture, Ethier hasn't necessarily been fast-tracked back to everyday playing time.
That's because Joc Pederson, who Mattingly considers the "best defensive center fielder" on the Dodgers, per Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times, just completed a 30-30 season at Triple-A.
Pederson slashed .303/.435/.582 with 135 hits and 78 RBI in 121 games before his September call-up last season. At 6'1", 185 pounds, he is an impressive athlete with quiet strength and clear five-tool potential.
“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's strikeout rate reached 27 percent last season between Triple-A and the major leagues, and his ability to make consistent contact remains more than a slight concern.
This issue may explain why the Dodgers have held onto Ethier. If Pederson needs some additional tune-up time in the minors, Ethier would become an excellent plug-and-play option in center field.
"I would hope so and think so," Ethier said, per Hernandez. "With me still being here, I have to assume that they're at least considering it."
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. A two-time All-Star, Ethier has made it clear that he wants to play every day—either with the Dodgers or another team, per Dilbeck.
The argument can be made that he never was able to establish a rhythm at the plate with such sporadic at-bats last season, but maybe he is simply beginning his inevitable decline as a serviceable major league player.
Ethier, who will turn 33 in April, met with Mattingly, Friedman and Zaidi this week at Camelback Ranch to discuss the situation.
"It was a chance to all sit in a room for the first time, all four of us, and kind of clear the air and see where each one of us stands, to get what we had off our chests," Ethier said, per Hernandez.
Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that the Dodgers tried unsuccessfully to trade Ethier to the Arizona Diamondbacks in early December. There is a chance that Ethier still gets moved in spring training or a few weeks into the season, but it all really depends on Pederson's progress.
The Dodgers would likely have to cover a significant portion of the $56 million Ethier is guaranteed over the next three seasons if they hope to trade him.
"You put up the numbers, you play. It's pretty simple," Mattingly said, per Stephen. "You perform, you compete, and if you win the job, you're playing."
The Dodgers are hoping Yasiel Puig can make an offensive leap in his third year with the team now that Kemp and Ramirez are no longer fixtures in the lineup.
The young Cuban, who plays with an unparalleled reckless abandon, regressed at the plate last season. After hitting 19 home runs in just 104 games as a rookie in 2013, Puig tallied 16 home runs in 148 games last year. He slashed just .270/.353/.420 over the final four months of the season but has been documenting his offseason workout regimen quite regularly on Instagram.
He also arrived at spring training with the pitchers and catchers, a week before position players were required to report to Camelback Ranch.
"I have a greater commitment to myself, to the team, to the public," Puig said, per Hernandez.
Puig will likely shift back over to right field, the position he played before Kemp returned from injury last season. Right field is also where the Dodgers can best utilize Puig's cannon of a throwing arm.
Although the 24-year-old has caused distractions like tardiness and speeding tickets during his first few years in the league, he seems focused on improving his work ethic and reining in his limitless talent.
But that doesn't mean he'll completely alter his personality.
"If I change that, I'm not me," Puig said, per Hernandez. "No one will come to watch me. … You can't compare Latin Americans to Americans. We always try to enjoy the game. We'll always get excited when we hit home runs or throw someone out."
For what it's worth, Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire believes that Puig is ready to take off and has the potential to win not one, not two, but multiple MVP awards down the road.
Puig certainly has the tools to steal the honor away from his team's ace. Yet all he wants nowadays is "to give the best of myself on the field and for everyone to be satisfied with my work and for me to feel that I worked hard," according to Hernandez.
"Everyone wants to win an MVP, but what's most important for me is that the team wins and is in the World Series."
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise linked/noted.