Men in blue believe they can win it all this season
The most expensive reboot in baseball history — professional sports history — was a success. After buying the Dodgers for a record $2.15 billion in 2012, the Guggenheim Partners group green-lighted “spare-no-expense” blockbuster trades and mega-million-dollar free-agent acquisitions that produced a $230 million payroll. The results were good — an NL West division title, berth in the NL Championship Series and the highest attendance in the majors last season. The Dodgers now enter a new phase of their rebirth as a deep-pocketed West Coast superpower. The focus this winter was not on headline-grabbing moves but on maintaining the momentum built in 2013. In particular, new management, led by team president and CEO Stan Kasten and GM Ned Colletti, has focused resources on building the kind of self-sustaining player development system that can fuel perennial championship contention.
The best asset the Dodgers have going for them — and the reason they will enter 2014 as serious threats to unseat the St. Louis Cardinals as NL champion — is a deep starting rotation led by the best starting pitcher of his generation. Clayton Kershaw, who will be 26 on Opening Day, had yet another superb season in 2013, winning his second Cy Young Award in the past three years and leading the majors in ERA (1.83) for the third consecutive season — the first pitcher to do that since Greg Maddux in 1993-95. But it wasn’t just Kershaw. As a whole, Dodgers starting pitchers had the lowest ERA in the majors (3.13) and the most shutouts (22). Before the season, the Dodgers committed more than $200 million in signing Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Both provided a return on the investment. Sidelined by a fractured collarbone early in the year, Greinke rivaled Kershaw for dominance in the second half, going 7–1 with a 1.58 ERA over his final 12 starts. Ryu won 14 games with a 3.00 ERA in his rookie season. Dan Haren has been added as a free agent this time around to bring stability to the back of the rotation, where both Chad Billingsley (Tommy John) and Josh Beckett (thoracic outlet syndrome) will be trying to return from major surgeries. Beckett, in particular, has looked completely healthy and sharp in the spring.
The Dodgers’ rotation is likely the best in baseball — and their bullpen could be the deepest in the majors as well. Going into spring training, the Dodgers will have nine relievers with at least one career save, and six with at least 17 saves in a single season — Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson, Chris Perez, Brandon League, J.P. Howell and Javy Guerra, who is a long-shot even to make the team. Three of them — Wilson, Perez and League — were selected to All-Star teams as closers but won’t be closing for the Dodgers in 2014. That job belongs to Jansen after a season that saw him post a remarkable 111-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76.2 innings. Veteran lefty Paul Maholm has a chance to make the team as a long man.
For all the attention garnered by Puig-mania last summer, the key to the Dodgers’ midseason rebirth — and possibly to their 2014 hopes as well — was Hanley Ramirez. The Dodgers were still muddling along in a win-one, lose-two rut for a few weeks after rookie Yasiel Puig’s arrival. It was Ramirez’s return from a hamstring injury that sparked their historic 42–8 run. He played at an MVP level when healthy. The Dodgers were a much better team with him in the starting lineup (51–26) than without (41–44). Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Ramirez was in the starting lineup for less than half of the team’s games. He must be healthier in 2014 for this team to reach its potential. His keystone partner, veteran Mark Ellis, has moved on as a free agent — a loss the team will feel both on the field and in the clubhouse — and the Dodgers are set to take another gamble on a Cuban defector. Alexander Guerrero was one of the best offensive players in Cuba’s top league, Serie Nacional, over the past seven seasons, primarily as a shortstop. The Dodgers gave him a four-year, $28 million contract in the hopes that he would bring that offense to the majors (and make the switch to the other side of the bag). His play hasn’t overwhelmed manager Don Mattingly, but the team still believes in him long-term. But for now, Dee Gordon will get an opportunity at second base. Defensively, the Dodgers believe he can be exceptional, and his speed is a weapon on the bases. It’s just the getting on base that’s been a problem.
Though he wasn’t quite the offensive force he was in San Diego or Boston, Adrian Gonzalez’s steady production was critical for the Dodgers during a 2013 season when injuries were constantly leaving potholes in the Dodgers’ lineup. Gonzalez drove in 100 runs, fifth in the National League, by batting .323 with runners in scoring position. That metronomic performance in the middle of the lineup figures to be a foundation piece for the Dodgers’ lineup again in 2014. Third base, on the other hand, was a black hole for most of last season with Juan Uribe, Nick Punto, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Luis Cruz offering little offensively — that is, until Uribe’s second-half rebirth. With a wafer-thin market of available options, the Dodgers crossed their fingers that Uribe’s revival was not a mirage (as Cruz’s 2012 breakout proved to be) and re-signed the veteran for two years rather than broach the delicate topic of a position switch for Ramirez.
Mattingly insists it’s “a good problem to have.” But the prospect of keeping four every-day outfielders — Puig, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford — healthy, happy and productive in 2014 is daunting. The biggest challenge could be the health part. A year ago, the four were all available for the same game just twice after Puig’s promotion from Double-A — and Kemp ended each of those games with an injury. His recovery from a second shoulder surgery and ankle surgery in the fall will go a long way toward determining how the outfield dilemma plays out. In many ways, Puig has usurped Kemp’s standing as the most dynamic player in the Dodgers’ lineup. He provided just the spark the Dodgers needed to turn around their season last year and quickly stamped himself as one of the most compelling, must-see players in the game. It will be interesting to see how many of Puig’s rough edges the Dodgers can smooth off in his second season. Ethier and Crawford are more limited players. The two left-handed batters give Mattingly a built-in matchup excuse to juggle playing time when all four are healthy.
With all the big names and former All-Stars on the Dodgers roster, the contributions of catcher A.J. Ellis go largely unnoticed. But Ellis’ workmanlike approach to handling the Dodgers’ pitching staff, and the credit he deserves for bringing out the best in Kershaw, et al., should not be underestimated. Though his offensive contributions slipped in 2013, Dodgers pitchers had a 3.06 ERA when throwing to Ellis (lowest among major-league catchers). Ellis also threw out 24 of 59 base-stealers, a percentage of 44.4 that ranked third among MLB catchers. The Dodgers are hopeful that young reserve Tim Federowicz will one day grow into Ellis’ shoes.
If the Dodgers truly will have those four every-day outfielders available on a regular basis in 2014, the bench will benefit — one of that quartet will always be there. The rest of the reserve corps is very much a question mark, however. A trio of solid role players whose contributions to team chemistry will be sorely missed — Punto, Hairston and Skip Schumaker — departed over the winter. Journeymen Mike Baxter and Justin Turner will join Scott Van Slyke as the reserves this season.
Mattingly might have been within days (if not hours) of being fired during the Dodgers’ dark days in May 2013. The team’s turnaround saved his job, and their NLDS win over the Atlanta Braves activated a vesting option in his contract for 2014. But questions about Mattingly’s in-game decision-making remain. Bench coach Trey Hillman was dismissed. And acrimony seemed to flare between Mattingly and management during a postseason press conference. Colletti remains in Mattingly’s corner, but a shadow of dysfunction hovers over the manager-management relationship.
With all the turmoil of the past two years and massive roster turnover, the Dodgers came within two games (and perhaps one cracked rib in Ramirez’s side) of reaching the World Series for the first time since 1988. Kershaw and the best starting rotation in the National League provide the foundation for another deep October run.
RF Yasiel Puig (R)
Can the Dodgers smooth out his rough edges in 2014 — and should they want to?
LF Carl Crawford (L)
Manager Don Mattingly sees Crawford as a 120-game player, better when given frequent rest.
SS Hanley Ramirez (R)
Last year was first postseason appearance after 1,095 regular-season games.
1B Adrian Gonzalez (L)
One of three players with 100 RBIs in at least six of past seven seasons (Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder).
CF Matt Kemp (R)
Has played in just 143 of Dodgers’ 274 games since first of series of injuries struck in May 2012.
3B Juan Uribe (R)
Popular teammate is a placeholder until prospect Corey Seager arrives (assuming Seager plays third).
2B Dee Gordon (L)
The speedster has a .289 OBP over the past two season in the majors, but a .385 mark at Albuquerque last summer gives hope.
C A.J. Ellis (R)
Offensive contributions took a nosedive in 2013 but handled one of the best pitching staffs in NL.
OF Andre Ethier (L)
Did yeoman’s work as fill-in center fielder last year, but offensive numbers are in decline.
C Tim Federowicz (R)
Spent 2013 on shuttle between Triple-A and L.A.; Dodgers were 24–18 in his starts.
OF Mike Baxter (L)
Plucked off waivers from Mets, Baxter could compete with Scott Van Slyke for bench spot.
OF Scott Van Slyke (R)
Provides pop off the bench — 19 of his 40 big-league hits have gone for extra bases.
INF Justin Turner (R)
Hit .267 as a reserve with the Mets over the past three seasons. Can play all four infield positions, and maybe some outfield.
2B Alexander Guerrero (R)
An offensive force in his career in Cuba, but questions remain about how much will translate in MLB. Will likely begin the season in the minors.
LH Clayton Kershaw
Kershaw has won two Cy Youngs in past three seasons and has lowest career ERA in modern era.
RH Zack Greinke
After recovering from a broken collarbone, Greinke justified the Dodgers’ $147 million investment in him.
LH Hyun-Jin Ryu
Korean star made the jump to the bigs with relative ease, giving Dodgers consistent quality.
RH Dan Haren
Has shown wear the past two seasons but went 6–5 with 3.29 ERA in final 16 appearances with Nationals.
RH Josh Beckett
Dodgers are counting on Beckett to return from major surgery.
RH Kenley Jansen (Closer)
After disastrous start, bullpen stabilized when Don Mattingly made Jansen the closer last season.
RH Brian Wilson
It was assumed Wilson would leave for a closer’s job elsewhere, but he returns as $10 million setup man.
LH J.P. Howell
Another key free agent the Dodgers were able to bring back after career-best 2.03 ERA, 1.05 WHIP in 2013.
LH Paco Rodriguez
Rookie was one of NL’s best relievers until September fade; allowed 14 of 69 inherited runners to score.
RH Chris Perez
The Dodgers will benefit if his search for redemption in Los Angeles is successful.
RH Jamey Wright
Returns on a major-league contract, ending string of eight seasons making a team on a minor-league deal.
RH Brandon League
Re-signed for three years but lost closer job early in year, and had no role at all by end of 2013 season.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Chris Anderson, RHP
Having traded away a passel of pitching prospects in 2012, the Dodgers were shopping in bulk for pitching during the 2013 draft and started with Anderson. The Dodgers believe they got a bit of a sleeper akin to Cardinals phenom Michael Wacha, who slipped to 19th in the 2012 draft. Anderson was seen as a top-10 pick before his final college season when pitching for a mediocre Jacksonville University team depressed his statistics (though he struck out 101 batters in 104.2 innings with a 2.49 ERA). The 6'4", 215-pound Minnesota native is seen as a durable workhorse who could rise quickly through the Dodgers’ system. His innings were limited at Class A Great Lakes last year, but Anderson went 3–0 with a 1.96 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 46 innings over 12 starts.
OF Joc Pederson (21)
An outfield mate of Yasiel Puig’s in Class AA Chattanooga early in 2013, the left-handed corner outfielder could be ready to rejoin him in L.A. soon.
SS Corey Seager (19)
Seager’s potential was evident with an All-Star first half in the Midwest League last year.
LHP Chris Reed (23)
The Dodgers’ top 2011 pick out of Stanford was primarily a reliever in college, but Reed topped the 100-inning mark for the first time in 2013. He went 4–11 with a 3.86 ERA for Class AA Chattanooga.
RHP Zach Lee (22)
A Class AA All-Star, Lee was the Dodgers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2013; could challenge for a big-league spot soon.
LHP Julio Urias (17)
Was a Class A Midwest League standout despite being one of the youngest pitchers at that level in years.
RHP Chris Withrow (25)
First-round pick in 2007 shined in his MLB debut in ’13, giving up only 20 hits in 34.2 innings.
LHP Onelki Garcia (24)
Another Cuban defector, the lefthander got a taste of the big leagues and could be back after minor elbow surgery. He will be out until late May.
RHP Ross Stripling (24)
Michael Wacha’s college roommate at Texas A&M was making steady if slower progress through the Dodgers’ system. He underwent Tommy John surgery this spring, so he’s already looking to 2015.
Beyond the Box Score
One of the good guys A year after becoming the youngest player to win the Roberto Clemente Award (which recognizes a player’s commitment on and off the field), Clayton Kershaw had his charitable endeavors recognized again with the Branch Rickey Award following the 2013 season. The Rickey award honors a player who embodies the motto “Service Above Self.” Kershaw and his wife, Ellen, have founded Kershaw’s Challenge, a charitable organization that works to make a difference in the lives of at-risk children and communities in need in Kershaw’s hometown of Dallas as well as Los Angeles. The organization includes Arise Africa, which is building an orphanage called “Hope’s Home” in Zambia, among other projects.
Broadcast news Shortly after new ownership took over in 2012, the Dodgers secured a new TV rights deal that will bring in a record $8.5 billion over the next 25 years. That deal will kick in with the 2014 season, and the Dodgers will become the latest sports team to have its own regional sports network. A channel on the Time Warner Cable system, SportsNet LA, will be devoted to Dodgers coverage. Former MLB stars Nomar Garciaparra and Orel Hershiser have left ESPN to take on roles with the Dodgers’ broadcast team. Jerry Hairston Jr. retired following the 2013 season and will also be involved with Dodgers broadcasts in 2014.
About face Last season, the Dodgers became the fourth team in the divisional era (1969) to win a division title during the same season in which they were at least 12 games under .500 at one point. The Dodgers were 30–42 on June 21. They joined the 1974 Pittsburgh Pirates (14 games under .500 at one point), 1973 New York Mets (13 games under) and 1989 Toronto Blue Jays (12 games under) in rebounding to finish first in their division.