Dodgers Spring Training 2017 Preview: Predictions, Players to Watch and More

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2017

Dodgers Spring Training 2017 Preview: Predictions, Players to Watch and More

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    Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig.
    Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Dodgers need a second baseman. You know this. They know this. Your great-aunt Meredith who doesn't follow baseball knows this.

    Yet as I type these words, Enrique Hernandez and his .190/.283/.324 2016 slash line sit atop L.A.'s second base depth chart. For a team with the game's gaudiest payroll and legitimate World Series aspirations, that's a bad look.

    Let's assume the Dodgers brass is working hard to address the club's keystone deficiency and examine some other interesting storylines heading into spring training. (Because it's almost here—hooray!)

    Dodgers camp will feature crowded position battles in the outfield and at the back end of the rotation, a hyper-talented Cuban still looking to find his footing and the reigning National League Rookie of the Year ramping up for a potential MVP encore.

    Break out your fungo bat and step into the box when ready.

Key Position Battle: Fifth Starter

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    Dodgers left-hander Scott Kazmir.
    Dodgers left-hander Scott Kazmir.Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    Barring injury or an unexpected twist, the top four spots in the Dodgers rotation belong to Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and Julio Urias.

    That leaves one slot up for grabs and a gaggle of intriguing contenders:

    • Scott Kazmir (LHP) After signing a three-year, $48 million deal with the Dodgers last winter, Kazmir was a disappointment, battling injuries and posting a 4.56 ERA. Los Angeles will pay him more than $17 million next season, so he'll be given every opportunity to prove he's healthy and effective this spring.
    • Brandon McCarthy (RHP) McCarthy also dealt with injuries in 2016 (a disturbingly common theme for the Dodgers) and posted a 4.95 ERA in 40 innings. The 33-year-old Southern California native enjoyed bursts of effectiveness, posting a 2.39 ERA in five July starts, but he hasn't tallied 100 innings in a season since 2014. The Dodgers owe McCarthy $23 million over the next two seasons, so as with Kazmir, there's a financial incentive to give him a long look.
    • Jose De Leon (RHP) De Leon's name has been floated in trade talks. The Dodgers were reportedly willing to include him in a deal for Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, though those negotiations are "at a standstill," per FanRag Sports' Jon Heyman. If he isn't dealt, the 24-year-old could work his way into the mix. De Leon owns a 3.35 ERA across four minor league seasons with an impressive 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
    • Hyun-Jin Ryu (LHP) Ryu has pitched only 4.2 MLB innings over the past two seasons while grappling with shoulder and elbow injuries. The Korean southpaw has been rehabbing in Japan after undergoing elbow surgery in September and is expected to join the Dodgers at their spring facility in Arizona, according to Yoo Jee-ho of the Yonhap News Agency. Ryu, who turns 30 in March, displayed front-line potential in his first two seasons with the Dodgers. Counting on a return to form at this point is a gamble at best.
    • Ross Stripling (RHP) Stripling logged 100 innings for the Dodgers in 2016, making 14 starts and posting a 3.96 ERA. Most notably, he threw 7.1 innings of no-hit ball in his MLB debut before manager Dave Roberts yanked him over pitch-count concerns. Stripling's most likely path to the Opening Day roster is as a long man and spot starter, but he could make a case for the fifth-starter gig with a superlative spring.
    • Alex Wood (LHP) Wood showed flashes of dominance in April and May before succumbing to elbow trouble. He returned to make four appearances in September and October and finished with a 3.73 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 60.1 innings. He may end up as a lefty option in the bullpen, but a return to the rotation is on the table.
    • Brock Stewart (RHP) Stewart made his big league debut in June and got five starts overall in 2016, posting a 5.79 ERA in 28 innings. The 25-year-old Illinois State alum is buried pretty deep, but he's another option in a loaded field.

    Prediction: The Dodgers used 15 starting pitchers in 2016 after employing 16 the year before. Surely L.A. is hoping for more stability and fewer injuries in 2017, but the safe money is on a lot of the names listed above getting turns at some point. Health, possible trades and spring performances will clarify the picture.

    For the first regular-season turn through the rotation, I'll toss a dart and pick Kazmir, though Wood is an intriguing dark horse, and De Leon will be hard to ignore if he's not traded.

Player to Watch: Cody Bellinger

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    Cody Bellinger isn't going to crack the Opening Day roster, but Dodgers fans who want a peek at Adrian Gonzalez's heir apparent should keep their eyes glued on the slugging 21-year-old.

    Los Angeles' top prospect according to MLB.com, Bellinger has posted an .843 OPS with 60 home runs in 343 MiLB contests. 

    His defense has drawn raves, too

    "He has a Gold Glove-caliber fluidity at first base that draws comparisons to Wes Parker, J.T. Snow, Keith Hernandez and Don Mattingly," wrote MLB.com's Ken Gurnick

    Gonzalez, who turns 35 in May, is coming off a down year by his lofty standards in which he put up a .784 OPS, his lowest mark since his rookie season in 2005.

    The decorated veteran is obviously not going to lose his job, but if last year's production dip was the beginning of a trend, Bellinger could challenge for playing time in 2018. After that, Gonzalez will be a free agent, and Bellinger could slide into a full-time role.

    For now, Bellinger can make an exhibition impression and offer a glimpse into the (possible) future.

Storyline: The Puig Saga Continues

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Yasiel Puig is still a member of the Dodgers. He's a key part of their offense. And he remains an enigma.

    In August, Los Angeles sent Puig to Triple-A after trying and failing to trade him for Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, and I wondered if he'd ever again don Dodger blue. Puig's brash personality and the clubhouse rifts it fostered had officially overshadowed his on-field contributions. 

    The mercurial Cuban returned in September, posted a .900 OPS in the season's final month and made the Dodgers' division series and National League Championship Series rosters. 

    He's only 26 years old. In 2014, he was an All-Star and top-20 NL MVP finisher. He has all the tools to be a special player.

    He's part of a crowded outfield mix, as we'll delve into momentarily. This feels like a make-or-break spring for Puig, when he either cements his status as a piece of the club's core or lays the groundwork for his exit.

    Then again, I've said that before and been wrong. Like all enigmas, Puig's defining trait is his ability to confound.

    Stay tuned.

Key Position Battle: The Outfield

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    Dodgers outfielders Andrew Toles (left) and Joc Pederson.
    Dodgers outfielders Andrew Toles (left) and Joc Pederson.Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    OK, now, about that outfield. 

    Joc Pederson, who turns 25 in April, hit 25 home runs last season and has the speed and on-base capabilities to become a star despite his .224 career MLB average. He's the Dodgers' center fielder.

    On the corners, the picture gets murky. 

    Puig is the nominal favorite in right field, but he has competition. Veteran Andre Ethier broke his leg last spring and wound up posting a .208/.269/.375 slash line in 16 games. He hit .294 with 14 home runs in 2015, however, and will be given an honest shot to avoid becoming a $17.5 million backup.

    In left field, Los Angeles is hoping for a repeat performance from Andrew Toles, who posted a .314/.365/.505 slash line in 48 games. The 24-year-old is great story, but he has a total of 115 big league plate appearances to his name and was briefly out of baseball and working in a grocery store in 2015.

    Rookie Trayce Thompson got off to a scalding start and boasted a 1.063 OPS on April 14, but he battled a back injury and hit a scant .225 in 80 games.

    Scott Van Slyke received starts at all three outfield positions and first base. The 30-year-old will need to wow in spring training to earn a starting role, however, after posting a .225/.292/.314 slash line.

    You can either view it as a mess or spin it as an asset. Roberts took the latter approach.

    "You know, the depth last year, with the injuries to Trayce, Andre, Van Slyke, we needed that depth, and we kind of leaned on that," the Dodgers skipper said, per ESPN.com's Doug Padilla. "Right now, it's good to have that depth, and we'll see how it kind of plays out."

    Prediction: The Dodgers will go with a Toles/Pederson/Puig configuration from left to right on Opening Day but will mix and match up to the trade deadline, when they could once again try to move Puig and/or acquire a corner outfield bat.

Player to Watch: Corey Seager

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    Corey Seager did it all in 2016. He won NL Rookie of the Year honors. He picked up MVP votes. He hit 26 home runs and graded as the seventh-best defensive shortstop in the game.

    There's setting the bar high, and then there's that.

    Now, the lanky 22-year-old can bat aside any talk of a sophomore slump and solidify his place in the MLB firmament. 

    Seager doesn't have anything to prove this spring. His role is secure. It's always interesting to see how a player follows a breakout rookie season, though.

    Plus, Seager is simply a fun dude to watch between the lines—the poster boy for MLB's budding shortstop revolution. The sooner he starts taking hacks, the better.

    Here's how Roberts put it, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, and it's tough to disagree: "He is everything that is good about our game."

       

    All statistics and contract information courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.