It has been a billion-dollar makeover. The Dodgers have emerged from bankruptcy and the dark days of the McCourt ownership transformed into one of baseball’s heavyweights. Armed with deep-pocketed owners (and anticipating a multi-billion dollar windfall from the negotiation of a new TV rights deal), the Dodgers have taken on $600 million in salary commitments over the past year, trading for former All-Stars Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford in midseason then adding free-agent pitching prize Zack Greinke and top Korean lefthander Hyun-Jin Ryu in the offseason. The midseason makeover did not take. The anticipated playoff push never materialized. Now the Dodgers will enter 2013 with the highest payroll in MLB history — and expectations to match.
The Dodgers pieced together a rotation for 2012 with low-cost signings of free agents Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano. The result was a 3.41 starters’ ERA that ranked second in the National League and third in the majors. That wasn’t good enough to secure a playoff spot, though, and the Dodgers made landing a top-tier starter their No. 1 offseason goal. Health issues with ace Clayton Kershaw (hip), Chad Billingsley (elbow) and Ted Lilly (recovering from shoulder surgery) made depth in the starting rotation a need as well. A commitment of over $200 million satisfied both goals as the Dodgers gave Greinke the second-largest contract ever given to a pitcher ($147 million over six years) and signed Ryu. The result could be one of the best 1-2 punches in any rotation (Kershaw and Greinke), uncommon depth (Billingsley, Ryu and Beckett), and potential trade chips to address other possible needs (Capuano, Harang and Lilly).
A deep bullpen was a Dodgers strength in 2012, and GM Ned Colletti did his best to put the band back together for 2013. Re-signing Brandon League was the first step. Acquired from the Mariners in July, League will open the season as the team’s closer. But the Dodgers have a hard-throwing option to step in if needed in Kenley Jansen (recovering from a surgical procedure to address recurring problems with an irregular heartbeat). J.P. Howell was signed as a free agent to fill the lefty specialist role.
The “best-case scenario,” manager Don Mattingly said during the offseason, is for Ramirez to be the Dodgers’ everyday shortstop in 2013. That will take a re-commitment to defense by Ramirez, who has not been known as the most focused and consistent performer in the field, or the hardest worker. That sounds great, but Ramirez tore a ligament in his thumb in spring training and will miss the first two months. So much for Ramirez taking over at short. When he returns, if Ramirez has to move to third base, Luis Cruz is the next option at shortstop. Second base figures to be shared by steady veteran Mark Ellis and Skip Schumaker, a versatile left-handed bat acquired from the Cardinals.
Not that long ago, Gonzalez was one of the most complete and consistent hitters in baseball. The Dodgers are hopeful that Gonzalez — sidetracked by the pressure and clubhouse drama that come with playing for the Red Sox — can once again provide a productive presence in the middle of their lineup. If Gonzalez does, he and Matt Kemp could form a 1-2 combo to rival other top duos like Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera in Detroit or the anticipated pairing of Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols in Anaheim. Third base is more of a question mark. The Dodgers hope Ramirez grabs hold of the shortstop position when he returns in June. If he does, Cruz gets first crack at being their everyday third baseman. The journeyman hit .297 with 40 RBIs in 78 games for the Dodgers last year and is the best of some unappealing options at third base. For now, Cruz will be the main man at short with Nick Punto filling in at third.
Kemp, Crawford and Andre Ethier might be the best outfield in baseball — if this were 2010. It isn’t, however, and the Dodgers are counting on a rebound to health by Kemp (offseason shoulder surgery) and Crawford (wrist and elbow surgeries in 2012) as well as bounce-back years overall from Crawford and Ethier to make this group worthy of the massive financial investment the Dodgers have made in them. Kemp is the best bet to live up to his potential. After a near-MVP season in 2011, Kemp was limited to 106 games in 2012 due to hamstring and shoulder injuries, and there is some concern that Kemp’s power could take time to return. If the rest of the Dodgers’ potentially potent lineup is productive, there won’t be as much pressure on Kemp. Crawford and Ethier are much more questionable commodities. Crawford was a complete bust with the Red Sox. Health issues were only part of his problem, and Crawford has a long way to go to rediscover the game that produced four All-Star selections and a Silver Slugger award with Tampa Bay. Ethier has become a flawed player since his All-Star selection in 2010, posting disturbing splits against left-handed pitching. That could be less of a problem with a much deeper lineup around him in 2013.
For all the headline-grabbing moves the Dodgers made last season, one of the most pleasant and valuable developments was the emergence of A.J. Ellis at age 31 as a rare commodity — an everyday catcher capable of contributing offensively. Ellis hit .270 with 13 home runs and a robust .374 on-base percentage that was critical in helping turn over a National League lineup. Defensively, he handled the Dodgers’ evolving staff well enough to have a catcher’s ERA of 3.31. The Dodgers are confident enough in Ellis’ ability to reproduce that performance in 2013 that they could stick with inexperienced Tim Federowicz as his backup.
The Dodgers added an important, versatile piece when they traded for Schumaker. He provides a left-handed bat off the bench capable of filling in for Kemp and Crawford in the outfield if they are not at full strength after 2012 surgeries (as well as providing balance at second base with the right-handed Ellis). The rest of the bench is an assortment of spare parts left over from last season — Jerry Hairston Jr., Juan Uribe, Punto and Federowicz, the backup catcher.
Has any GM in baseball weathered a wider swing in fortunes than Colletti over the past few years? Colletti has gone from needing to pinch pennies and make do with limited resources in the dying days of the McCourt era to the free-spending billionaire-backed days of the new ownership. But the high payroll and big investment made in these Dodgers have created high expectations that both Colletti and Mattingly will have to meet — or likely feel the heat.
The Dodgers will carry the highest payroll in baseball history during the 2013 season — and big bucks have not always brought big success for their predecessors among baseball’s biggest spenders. The Dodgers changed a third of their roster on the fly last season, adding a passel of former All-Stars. It remains to be seen how that group will play together, and health issues (with Crawford and Billingsley, in particular) could scuttle any progress made. Playing in the same division with the Giants (World Series champions in two of the past three seasons) also presents a large challenge. Given all that the Dodgers’ new owners have invested in the past year, however, anything short of a playoff spot and deep run into the postseason would have to rank as a disappointment.
LF Carl Crawford (L)
Dodgers are counting on combination of good health and escape from Boston to revive his career.
2B Mark Ellis (R)
Veteran second baseman came back after nearly losing leg from fluke injury in May.
CF Matt Kemp (R)
Talk of 50-50 season disappeared with injuries in 2012 — but massive potential remains intact.
1B Adrian Gonzalez (L)
Career .244 hitter at Dodger Stadium, second-lowest of any park in which he’s played (.236 at Tropicana Field).
RF Andre Ethier (L)
Has gone from foundation piece to flawed complementary player (poor lefty-righty splits) in matter of months.
SS Luis Cruz (R)
Feel-good story with breakout season in 2012 after 12 seasons in pro baseball with six organizations. Will spend the first two months at shortstop.
C A.J. Ellis (R)
One of only four catchers in NL last year to start at least 125 games (Buster Posey, Miguel Montero and Yadier Molina).
3B Nick Punto (S)
The solid defender will fill in at third as Cruz shifts to short while Hanley Ramirez recovers from a torn ligament in his thumb.
UT Jerry Hairston Jr. (R)
Played well in super-utility role last season until hip issue that led to surgery became problematic.
2B-OF Skip Schumaker (L)
Could see plenty of playing time as multi-position backup — and protégé of hitting coach Mark McGwire.
IF Juan Uribe (R)
Has hit .199/.262/.289 in first two years of misguided three-year, $21 million deal.
C Tim Federowicz (R)
Could head back to Triple-A if Dodgers sign a more experienced backup for Ellis.
UT Alex Castellanos (R)
Appeared in 16 games last season as a rookie, entering five times as a pinch-runner.
LH Clayton Kershaw
Young ace is 35–14 over past two seasons, lowest ERA and WHIP in NL each year.
RH Zack Greinke
$147 million man only 10th in wins (57), 24th in ERA (3.37) among starters since 2009. Elbow inflammation is a red flag.
RH Chad Billingsley
Offseason rehab and throwing program have put surgery for partially torn elbow ligament on hold — for now.
LH Hyun-Jin Ryu
Led Korean Baseball Organization in strikeouts five times in seven seasons — but will that translate to MLB?
RH Josh Beckett
ERA dropped from 5.23 with Red Sox to 2.93 as Dodger last season, but WHIP didn’t (1.33).
RH Brandon League (Closer)
Lost closer job in Seattle but finished season with one run, eight hits, 27 strikeouts in final 27.1 IP with Dodgers
RH Kenley Jansen
Has closer stuff and could be back in that role quickly if League’s Seattle struggles resurface.
RH Matt Guerrier
Veteran presence was lacking for much of 2012 due to elbow problems.
LH J.P. Howell
Held left-handed batters to a .200 batting average with the Rays in 2012.
LH Ted Lilly
Dodgers’ surplus of starting pitching could land a veteran like Lilly (recovering from shoulder surgery) in the pen.
RH Ronald Belisario
Struck out 69 last season and allowed just 47 hits.
RH Aaron Harang
Evidently, he’s still in the league.