Kershaw, Van Slyke Lead Dodgers To Opening Day Win in Sydney: Dodgers 3, Diamondbacks 1

History was made Saturday night at the Sydney Cricket Grounds as the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks took each other on in the first regular season Major League Baseball game to be played in the Southern Hemisphere.  The irony that the Dodgers and Diamondbacks would technically play Fall baseball to start the season seems appropriate, as the two best teams in the National League West hope to be playing well into the Fall this October.

Clayton Kershaw held the Arizona Diamondbacks at bay, giving up an earned run in 6 2/3 innings as he began his pursuit of a third Cy Young Award in four seasons. (Image source: ESPN at http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2014/0322/mlb_g_ker22_cr_300x200.jpg)

Clayton Kershaw may be the best “bad night” pitcher in baseball right now, and proved it again at the Cricket Ground.  The Dodger ace, now having laid claim to two Cy Young Awards in the past three seasons, lacked his best fastball, but still managed to locate his pitches well and masterfully keep the Diamondbacks in check for 6 2/3 innings and pick up the first win of the 2014 season.  Kershaw continued where he left out, striking out 7 Arizona Diamondbacks, and allowing only one well-hit ball over the course of his outing, a solid double from Arizona Diamondbacks star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.

The pregame festivities were very festive, with both the National Anthems of the United States and Australia sung.  The game got off to a late start, around an 8 p.m. local time beginning that pushed first pitch in the city of Los Angeles back to 2 a.m., but a festive crowd cheered both teams as they took the field for what counted as an Arizona Diamondbacks home game, though the crowd appeared to slightly favor the Dodgers.  The crowd oo’d and ahh’d at each foul ball that entered the stands throughout the night regardless of who hit it, a bit of a novelty for the Aussie fans at the Cricket ground as it is rare that a bowled ball reaches the stands in Cricket relative to in Major League Baseball.

Wade Miley started the game out by striking out the side, then Kershaw struck out A.J. Pollock to start the bottom half of the first and got out of the inning allowing two hits that snuck through the infield on the quick infield grass (it had been reported to be the “fastest infield” that many players have ever played on,) but no runs.

The Dodgers struck first in the top of the second.  After Adrian Gonzalez drew a leadoff walk, Scott Van Slyke hit a ball high and deep to left-center field.  The winds were blowing in and newly-minted Diamondbacks left fielder Mark Trumbo (who was acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the off-season) badly misjudged the ball, leaping up to attempt to catch the ball at the wall.  The ball wound up landing at the base of the wall several feet to Trumbo’s left and caroming back toward the infield, though many in the crowd, the announcers, and people watching back home in Los Angeles at first believed the ball had left the yard based on Trumbo’s reaction.  Van Slyke wound up with a booming double and the Dodgers had runners on second and third.  Two batters later, Andre Ethier christened the 2014 season by driving in Adrian Gonzalez from third with a ground ball to the right side, giving the Dodgers a 1-0 lead.

Van Slyke was a victim of the wind in his first at bat, but benefited from the wind in his second at bat during the 4th inning.  After Adrian Gonzalez struck out but advanced on a passed ball third strike, Van Slyke drilled a ball toward right field.  The same wind that knocked down Van Slyke’s double pushed the ball toward the right field foul pole, and a ball that may have dropped in play without the wind factor reached a part of the park where it easily cleared the right field wall 328 feet away.  The blast put the Dodgers up 3-0.

Scott Van Slyke is congratulated by Adrian Gonzalez after his two run home run gave the Dodgers a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning of Saturday night’s game at the Sydney Cricket Grounds. (Image source: The Sporting News at http://dy.snimg.com/story-image/0/0/219528/219528-330-0.jpg)

Kershaw would surrender the Diamondbacks’ sole run in the bottom of the sixth inning.  Paul Goldschmidt doubled to lead off the inning, took third on a wild pitch, and scored on a ground out by Mark Trumbo.  The 3-1 score would stand up.

Kershaw took the win (1-0) going 6 2/3 innings, throwing 102 pitches, giving up a run on five hits and a walk while striking out seven, numbers consistent with Kershaw’s season-long averages of a year ago.  An outstanding outing for most pitchers, this was merely average for the dominant Kershaw.  Wade Miley, making the Opening Day start for Patrick Corbin who will most likely miss the 2014 season and undergo Tommy John surgery, took the loss (0-1) after pitching five innings, throwing 83 pitches and giving up three runs (all earned) on three hits and surrendering two walks.  A Dodger bullpen of Chris Perez, Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen held the win, with Jansen picking up the first save of the 2014 season.

The Dodgers and Diamondbacks will play the second game of the historic Australian Opening Series tonight at 7 p.m. Pacific Time, though it will actually be a 1:17 p.m. first pitch on Sunday afternoon at the Sydney Cricket Grounds.  Hyun-Jin Ryu looks to build on his successes of the 2013 season for the Dodgers.  He’ll be countered by the Diamondbacks’ Trevor Cahill.

A New Beginning: Opening Day Down Under

Fall Baseball comes early this year, as the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks start the regular season at the Sydney Cricket Grounds in Australia. The Southern Hemisphere game brings about the earliest fall game in the history of Major League Baseball, as the seasons are reversed on the other side of the equator. The Dodgers will seek to begin and end their season playing meaningful fall season baseball.  (Image source: http://resources2.news.com.au/images/2013/06/12/1226662/783654-baseball-scg.jpg)

Many blogs will seek to speculate about a team’s prospective performance.  They’ll evaluate every player on a team, try to determine intangibles, analyze strength of schedule, look at the division that a team is in, and try to make a projection on Opening Day where a team will wind up.

This blog, while open to expressing opinion and evaluating situations, prefers to look at the season as a whole as a progression.

Because of this, we start today with a clean slate.  Last year’s thrilling 92-70 season which ended in St. Louis after a devastating loss in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals is in the history books, and a new season has begun.  Clayton Kershaw will take the mound with a 0-0 record, seeking his third Cy Young Award in four years tomorrow afternoon in Sydney in a game that will air at 1 a.m. here in Los Angeles.  The two games in this series each count as Arizona Diamondbacks home games, making the Dodgers technically the visiting team and meaning the Dodgers will have their normal allotment of 81 home games at Dodger Stadium during the regular season.

The Dodgers and the Diamondbacks developed quite the short-term rivalry last year, with Diamondbacks General Manager Kevin Towers frequently taking shots at the Dodgers’ spending, the Diamondbacks’ owner forcing Dodger fans to take off their Dodger gear or change seats, a brutal brawl that saw the Dodgers and Diamondbacks square off at Dodger Stadium in early June with the Dodgers sitting 9 1/2 games back of first place, and the Dodgers eventually going on a streak that saw them finish the season on a 62-28 tear and included an iconic moment in franchise history when the Dodgers clinched the National League West at Chase Field and celebrated in the Diamondbacks’ pool beyond the right-center field fence.

The Dodgers finished off the Diamondbacks’ NL West title hopes at Chase Field in mid-September, and after being urged by the Diamondbacks not to celebrate on the field, decided instead to celebrate in the Chase Field pool. Image source: http://latinotimes.com/files/pics/dodgers_pool_arizona.jpg

With a clean slate comes a 0-0 record for each team, and a historical early start to the season not only on a different continent, but in a different hemisphere.  Never before has a regular season Major League Baseball game been played in the Southern Hemisphere.  Yet having featured such Aussie players in the past as Craig Shipley and Trent Oeltjen, the Dodgers do have some followers “down under” and a festive atmosphere is expected.

Each team tuned up for the regular season opener with an exhibition game against the Australian National Team, the Dodgers riding Yasiel Puig’s arm and bat to a 4-2 win on Thursday evening and the Diamondbacks getting shut out 5-0 on Friday evening, games that started at 1 a.m. local time in Los Angeles and Phoenix.

Coming into the season, the Dodgers have a couple of question marks in their outfield.  Carl Crawford is sidelined with an injured shoulder and Matt Kemp, while he has played some this spring, is not yet ready to take the field in a regular game.  To avoid a DL stint, the Dodgers have taken advantage of the fact Crawford is an expectant father who’s baby is due in the next week or so, putting him on paternity leave from which he does not have to be activated until April 1st.  It is believed that Kemp will be ready in time for Opening Day at Dodger Stadium on April 4th and will likely be able to play before that as he will be eligible to come off the disabled list prior to that time.  However, neither player made the trip.  Injuries were an area of concern for the Dodgers last year, although the team recovered from those nicely to make an historic run to the playoffs.  The opening day lineup projects that the Dodgers will feature Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig in right field, veteran Andre Ethier in Center, and organizational prospect and power bat Scott Van Slyke in left.

The infield is more set, though there is some uncertainty at second base.  Cuban Alexander Guerrero was projected to be the starting second baseman, but an intense spring competition leaves the Dodgers in a platoon situation, with Dee Gordon’s strong showing this spring giving him a spot on the Dodgers as a utilityman and possible a starting second baseman in a platoon situation, and Justin Turner demonstrated tremendous offensive prowess during the spring, earning himself the Opening Day start in Sydney.  Juan Uribe once again will anchor third base, Hanley Ramirez checks in at shortstop, and Adrian Gonzalez will man first base for the team.

Behind the plate, A.J. Ellis starts his third season as the team’s starting catcher.  The team will decide whether to start the season with last year’s primary backup Tim Federowicz or Drew Butura as the backup catcher.  Federowicz, who demonstrated defensive prowess last season but was inconsistent with the bat, may be the player who gets sent to the minors as Butura is out of options and would have to clear waivers before he could be given a minor league assignment.

Clayton Kershaw takes the mound for a 7 p.m. Saturday night start in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia to begin his Cy Young Award defense. Kershaw pitched an Opening Day shutout against the San Francisco Giants last year at Dodger Stadium that featured the pitcher jump-starting the offense himself with an 8th inning home run. Will Kershaw be able to repeat his Cy Young performance in 2014? (Image source: ESPN at http://a.espncdn.com/media/motion/2014/0115/dm_140115_mlb_kershaw_4pm_deal/dm_140115_mlb_kershaw_4pm_deal.jpg)

Much will be decided over the course of the next 162 games, but for now we’ll leave it to the players to write the story on the field.  Once again, a Saturday evening game at the Sydney Cricket Grounds will start the Major League Baseball season, a 1 a.m. Pacific Time start.  Clayton Kershaw starts his defense of the Cy Young Award on the mound for the Dodgers.  As the pitcher for the designated home team, Wade Miley has become the Diamondbacks’ scheduled starter due to what appears to be a season-ending injury to Patrick Corbin and will throw the season’s first pitch to Yasiel Puig as the sun sets on Sydney this evening.

The Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu will go against Trevor Cahill in the second game, a Sunday afternoon game in Sydney which will air at 7 p.m. Saturday night here in Los Angeles.

With Tanaka In New York, What’s Next For The Dodgers?

With Masahiro Tanaka locked in for the next 4-7 years with the New York Yankees, Hanley Ramirez might see an extension get done that will keep him in Los Angeles. (Image source: sfgate.com/San Francisco Chronicle)

The media continuously buzzed about Masahiro Tanaka, with the Japanese phenom slated to go anywhere from L.A. to New York to Chicago to Arizona to even Kansas City (though we at the Blog speculate that that was a red herring planted in the midst of the bidding madness.)  And now the man has made up his mind, agreeing to a 7 year contract worth $155 million that contains an out clause after 4 years.

With Tanaka locked in, it’s time to re-evaluate the Dodgers’ needs.

One key piece that has been discussed is an extension for Hanley Ramirez.  The talented shortstop with a batting title to his name was one of the teams’ best home run hitters last year despite missing about half the season, going deep 20 times while hitting .345 with 57 RBIs.  Ramirez has expressed a desire to stay in Los Angeles, and the team locking in Juan Uribe for two additional years would indicate that they will likely also retain Ramirez to keep the left side of their infield intact and continue to provide the humorous clubhouse antics that the two men engaged in with Yasiel Puig last season.  Ramirez may give the Dodgers a bit of a discount to ensure a long stay in Los Angeles.

Eric Vrsalovich at Dodgers Low-Down has his eyes in the right direction and posted an article to his website suggesting the Dodgers get veteran utilityman Logan Forsythe from the San Diego Padres.  Unfortunately right as the article was posted, it was announced that Forsythe had been moved to the Tampa Bay Rays in a 5 player deal, but Vrsalovich is looking in the right place with his analysis as the infield depth leaves something to be desired.  The Dodgers do still have potential free agent options, with last year’s stretch run acquisition Michael Young and former Miami Marlin and long-time veteran Placido Polanco among those still available on that market.  If the Dodgers stay in-house, the most obvious candidates to come off the bench are the speedy-but-erratic Dee Gordon and the blue-collar Justin Sellers.

Even with these two options, the addition of at least one of the free agent options listed above could go a long way toward bolstering the bench.  The team could also look to make a trade, or watch to see what players are cut during spring training.  One out-of-the-box thought is that if Mark Reynolds fails to make the Milwaukee Brewers that the Yankees might be interested in bringing the veteran corner infielder back.  Reynolds could also be on the Dodgers’ radar if that is the case, providing a power bat off the bench and some versatility as a defensive option at first or third base if either Adrian Gonzalez or Juan Uribe need to be spelled.  While Reynolds boasts a high strikeout rate and a relatively low batting average, he is also capable of getting big hits in clutch situations and that will be a consideration if Milwaukee choses not to retain him.  Given that Juan Uribe tended to be out of the lineup one or two days a week last season, having a part-time player like Reynolds may be more desirable.

As for the pitching rotation, the Dodgers appear to be set.  The starting rotation going into the season appears to be Kershaw-Greinke-Ryu-Haren-Beckett, with Stephen Fife and Matt Magill being minor league options who can plug a hole if necessary and Chad Billingsley currently slated to return from Tommy John surgery by June 1st which could give the Dodgers the sort of excess-of-arms problem that they appeared to be experiencing last season before numerous injuries forced the team to utilize Fife and Magill fairly extensively in the first half of the season.  Top prospect Zach Lee may also be ready for a call-up by mid-season and may be an X-factor in the Dodger rotation down the stretch if that is the case.  The team has given Lee a non-roster invitation to the team’s Major League spring training camp which will help the team gage Lee’s level of readiness for the Major Leagues.

Veteran right-hander Chad Billingsley is expected to be ready by June 1st. Billingsley, coming off Tommy John surgery, could find himself back in the thick of things in the Dodger rotation by the second half of the season. (Image source: ESPN)

There has been some speculation that the Dodgers may still be shopping for additional veteran help at the back end of their rotation, particularly if there are concerns that Beckett won’t be ready.  Bronson Arroyo and Matt Garza have been frequently mentioned as possible rotation pieces, and while it was speculation, there was some talk of a deal that would have brought Brandon Phillips and Homer Bailey to Los Angeles from Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, the bullpen, at first glance, appears to also have a good amount of depth.  Kenley Jansen appears to be locked in as the closer, but Brian Wilson and Chris Perez give the Dodgers two high-quality set-up men that could create a 6 inning game for Dodger opponents many nights.  The team also returns Paco Rodriguez, Chris Withrow, J.P. Howell and Brandon League, with fireballing Jose Dominguez also an option depending on how many relievers the team decides to carry.  The team also continues to hold one-time closer Javy Guerra on the 40 man roster, giving the team five relievers with closer experience to throw at opponents (Jansen, Wilson, Perez, League and Guerra.)  If Brandon League can work out the problems that plagued him during the 2013 season, the bullpen might be even stronger than the starting rotation and possibly the best in baseball.

The Dodgers do have some work to do, and spring training may provide some opportunities for veterans, journeymen, and even minor leaguers looking to crack the big club to land a reserve role on a team coming off an NLCS run that was at times last season favored to win the World Series.  Spring Training can’t come soon enough.

Dodger Presser Announces Contract Extension for Clayton Kershaw

Today’s 10 a.m. Pacific Time press conference announced the signing of Clayton Kershaw.  General Manager Ned Colletti and team President Stan Kasten came on about 10:13 a.m. and announced that a deal had been reached.  Kershaw’s accolades, including winning 2 Cy Young Awards in the past three seasons and the work that Clayton Kershaw does both on the field, in the clubhouse, and off the field were discussed by the Dodgers’ brass men.

Clayton Kershaw’s jaw-dropping contract extension was formally announced today. (Image source: ESPN)

The extension officially keeps Clayton Kershaw in Dodger Blue through at least the 2018 season and, at Kershaw’s discretion, runs through 2020.  The 7 year, $215 million deal was announced through the media earlier this week.

According to Kasten, the process to lock Kershaw in to a longer-term deal has been ongoing since last March.  The parameters of the deal were always in the neighborhood of the final deal, though there were some alterations mostly in terms of years and flexibility for Kershaw.

Kasten also stated that right now the team is working on a long-term strategy and that the effort is still focusing on putting the best team on the field possible while also building for the long-term future of the team.  Kasten also stated the team is aware of the luxury tax consequences of the current payroll and states that the team has awareness of the tax “to the decimal.”

Kershaw was not present at the press conference, but Kasten did state that the pitcher would be available via telephone later on in the day.  Kershaw has reportedly been traveling extensively this week, and that was given as the reason why he was not present at Dodger Stadium for the press conference.

In regards to Masahiro Tanaka, Colletti stated that the team is talking to agent Casey Close, they will speak with him today, and talks are ongoing.  However, contrary to some reports, no deal with Tanaka has been finalized.

Blue Tanaka January? Red Sox Bloggers Seem To Think So. Is Masahiro Tanaka coming to L.A.?

Masahiro Tanaka has a little over a week left in the 30 day window he was given to make a deal with a Major League team. The Dodgers and Yankees are rumored to be at the top of the list vying for his services, though the Mariners, Cubs and Angels have also been mentioned at numerous points as top candidates for his services. (Image source: Sports Illustrated)

Masahiro Tanaka is becoming the stuff of legends and he has yet to so much as throw a pitch in a Major League game.

How legendary is Tanaka?

Let’s put it in perspective.  Clayton Kershaw just signed a record-shattering deal to stay in Los Angeles for at least the next five seasons.  24 hours later, as far as the hot stove is concerned, he’s merely an afterthought in Tanaka’s shadow.  His contract may loom large.  But the Japanese pitching phenom is larger than life right now as the bidding process allegedly heats up.

If a guy who’s claim to fame is pitching in the Japanese league is stealing headlines from a pitcher who may be the best in the game today signing a contract that is the biggest in the game today in terms of per-year dollars on average, then it follows that he is probably a pretty big deal.

So far, Tanaka’s name has been connected with several teams.  The Mariners were reportedly in the hunt early.  The Angels were mentioned as a team in on Tanaka, though the talk there has been quiet lately.  The Cubs have apparently had discussions with Tanaka.

And then of course there’s the big guns: the Yankees and the Dodgers.  The two teams are allegedly the big guns in on the Japanese right-hander.

It is interesting to note that one Red Sox Blogger seems to think that the Dodgers are going to win the bidding, and even have named a price: 6 years, $120 million.  The FanSided.com-driven Bosoxinjection.com has now reported twice that the Dodgers have cut a deal with Tanaka, including this article stating that an announced 10 a.m. press conference being held by General Manager Ned Colletti and ownership managing partner and team President Stan Kasten is due to the team being set to announce not only the extension given to Clayton Kershaw, but also the deal with Tanaka.

Master of the House? No, it’s not Orel Hershiser! Japanese pop star Mai Satoda, wife of pitching sensation Masahiro Satoda, reportedly wants the couple to settle down on the West Coast, giving the Dodgers a potential negotiation advantage in the bidding war. It is thought that Satoda’s wishes may sway Tanaka’s signing preferences as well. (Image source: acparadise.com)

Certainly, there are many reasons why Los Angeles would appeal to Tanaka.  His wife, Japanese pop star Mai Satoda, reportedly wants to live in the U.S.’s West Coast as it would allow her to more easily continue her career in Japan and cross over into the U.S. music market.  There as been some suggestion that Tanaka may prefer a West Coast deal to appease his wife, which would seem to favor the Dodgers if true.

Still, there are a lot of considerations for Tanaka.  He could join a New York Yankee team which boasts two other Japanese players, including pitcher Hiroki Kuroda and one of the most successful Japanese players to enter the U.S. market in outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.  The Yankees have a strong veteran leadership base and Tanaka would immediately slate in as the number 2 starter behind current Yankee ace C.C. Sabathia.  Tanaka would bolster a starting rotation in New York that lacks depth beyond Sabathia and Kuroda and give a Yankee team that still features long-time veteran captain Derek Jeter and first base masher Mark Teixeira among its ranks and added a strong leadership presence this off-season in catcher Brian McCann the sort of 1-2-3 pitching punch that can serve it well in the regular season and help it make some noise come playoff time.

However, joining the Dodgers would put Tanaka in a starting rotation that would absolutely be the envy of the league.  Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke both had Cy Young-calibur seasons last year, and Kershaw actually took home the award, though Greinke was statistically the better pitcher in the last two months of the season.  Hyun-Jin Ryu showed that he could be one of the best young arms in the game after making the transition last year from the Korean league, and pitched a gutsy Game 3 in the NLCS to cut the Dodgers’ deficit in that series to 2 games to 1.  And the potential #5 starters on the team, Dan Haren and Josh Beckett, both sport resumes as ace pitchers with big game experience.  Tanaka would not only be able to fulfill his wife’s reported west coast wish, he’d be potentially the #4 starter on the team and have some breathing room to work out any adjustments he needs to make as the season goes along.

Whether Tanaka comes to Los Angeles or not remains to be seen.  What is known is that wherever Masahiro Tanaka lands, he has the potential to reshape a pitching rotation and help change the fortunes of a franchise.

What’s Left For The Dodgers To Do This Off-Season? A Glance At Where The Team Stands.

A locked-in Clayton Kershaw and a healthy Matt Kemp are just two of many keys to the Los Angeles Dodgers potential for success in the 2014 season. (Image source: Zimbio.com)

The Los Angeles Dodgers made a tremendous move on Wednesday, securing Clayton Kershaw for the forseeable future with a 7 year, $215 million deal.  The contract contains an opt-out for Kershaw after 5 seasons, a reasonable accomodation for the Cy Young Award Winner who has discussed possibly wanting to explore free agency and finding out what his worth is on the open market, while also ensuring that Kershaw will be in Blue until at least the end of the 2018 season.

While this virtually sets the Dodgers’ starting rotation 1-4 with plenty of options for the 5th slot, the Dodgers still have some needs to address as they head toward their 2014 spring training, including the possibility of signing Japanese pitching sensation Masahiro Tanaka.

Here’s a breakdown of where the team stands, the moves that have been made, and the holes that the team and Manager Don Mattingly may still need to fill.

The Infield: Starters Appear Set, But There’s Work To Do

After hitting what may have been the biggest home run in franchise history since Kirk Gibson’s 1988 blast and propelling the Dodgers into the NLCS, Juan Uribe is back to anchor third base on a new two year deal. (Image source: Yahoo Sports)

The Dodger infield’s first string looks great on paper.  Juan Uribe returns on a two year contract after a solid 2013 season which featured Gold Glove-calibur defense, steady production in the clutch, frequent hustle, lots of dugout antics with teammates Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig, and of course a three home run game and a game winning playoff blast hit so hard and far down the left field line that it reportedly flew over San Francisco the next day as a reminder of which California-based baseball team has positive momentum in their favor right now.  Hanley Ramirez has a healthy shoulder and by Opening Day should have a healthy rib cage as well, and the 20 home runs he hit in about a half season of playing time to go with a batting average well over .300 has some people giddily talking about the enigmatic shortstop as a potential dark horse MVP candidate if he can stay healthy and stay on the field the entire season.  Alexander Guerrero will attempt to be this year’s addition of Yasiel Puig.  The 26 year old infielder can play second, short and third, but current expectations are that the Cuban defector with some pop in his bat will anchor second base this season.  At first base, Adrian Gonzalez returns another off-season removed from a shoulder surgery that he complained had sapped him of his power.  Despite this reported “power outage,” A-Gon still managed to hit 20 balls out of the yard last year, drive in 100 runs, hit just a tick under .300, and play superb defense at first base.

The problem with the infield comes with the team’s depth.  After relying on the veteran trio of Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston, Jr. during the 2013 season, the Dodgers find Schumaker and Punto with other teams this season and Hairston retired and relegated to the team’s television team.  Scott Van Slyke gives the team a serviceable backup at first base as well as in the outfield and provides a crucial power bat off the bench, but beyond that the team’s bench situation is uncertain.  The Dodgers need versatile backup infielders.  In-house solutions may include Dee Gordon and Justin Sellers.  While the out-of-house options have dwindled, names like Placido Polanco, Michael Young and Chris Getz remain on the market of potential utility infielder options on the free agency list.  The team also has an excess of outfield options and may choose to pursue a utility player in a trade.

A.J. Ellis’s offensive stat line might not be impressive, but the gritty catcher threw out 44% of would-be base stealers last year while guiding the pitching staff to a 3.14 ERA, saw over 4 pitches per at-bat on average at the plate to help wear down opposing pitchers, and tended to come through in the clutch. (Image source: thinkbluela.com)

Behind the plate, the team appears content to go into the season with serviceable starter A.J. Ellis and reliable backup Tim Federowicz, both who have reputations as reliable game callers and boast excellent arms that frequently throw out runners attempting to steal.  Offensively, Ellis boasts a patient eye and an occasional clutch hit (Ellis won an important game in San Francisco with a 9th inning bases-clearing double off Sergio Romo in July and then hit the home run that ultimately clinched the Western Division title for the Dodgers in Arizona in September,) while Federowicz is capable of hitting for power but does strike out frequently.

The Outfield: A Good Problem To Have

Cuban Rookie Sensation Yasiel Puig ignited the fan base and the team with his hitting, speed, and defense. While Puig was susceptible to mental errors throughout the season, he often made up for his mistakes by making plays and hitting homers that amazed and thrilled fans. Puig’s sophomore success or failure could go a long way to determining the Dodgers’ 2014 fate. (Image source: Sports Illustrated/CNN)

The Dodger outfield is overloaded.  With Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier all still on the roster and all likely to want a starting spot, the team has the luxury of being able to make a trade to fill another area of need, or to platoon the four starters in order to get them all at-bats and days off.  If Kemp is healthy, the Dodgers will have arguably one of the more offensively productive outfields in the league, not to mention one of the league’s best lineups.  The biggest concern with the outfield is health.  In the event that the team gets devastated with injuries, the versatile Scott Van Slyke can play either corner spot in addition to his backup first base duties.  The team also has top prospect Joc Pederson still in the minors ready for an opportunity to perform at the Major League level in the event that one of the players goes down.  Bringing back Tony Gwynn, Jr. on a minor league contract as an emergency option at AAA Albuquerque who can be brought up in the event that the injury bug bites the Dodgers again this year is also an option as the veteran Gwynn is capable of manning all three outfield spots and has an established history with the organization.

Pitching

Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu anchor a deep starting pitching staff. (Image source: Pinterest)

The Dodger pitching staff is, in short, stacked.  With a 1-2-3 of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, the team has a potential playoff rotation that should put fear in any possible opponent for years to come.  Newcomer Dan Haren had a 1.02 WHIP in the second half last year and should man the 4 spot if no further moves are made.  Right now the 5th spot appears to be veteran Josh Beckett’s to lose.  Beckett, coming off a nerve injury, will look to regain the dominant form that made him an ace with the Boston Red Sox.  Although he has lost a tick or two on the fastball, Beckett’s veteran savvy and big-game experience could come in handy for the Dodgers and help give them the deepest rotation in baseball.  Chad Billingsley, still coming off Tommy John Surgery, could be an option mid-season if Beckett or Haren falters or if an injury occurs elsewhere in the staff.  Stephen Fife and Matt Magill remain emergency options, and top prospect Zach Lee is expected to be ready if necessary this season, though the team would prefer to keep him in the minors for one more year of seasoning if possible.

Of course, this entire issue of rotational depth as well as the fates of Beckett and Billingsley can be changed in a moment if the team signs coveted Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka.

Masahiro Tanaka could bring his 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA to Los Angeles. (Image source: Los Angeles Times)

Tanaka was 24-0 in the Japanese leagues last year while compiling a 1.27  ERA.  Tanaka also won 6 playoff games.  While there is some concern about Tanaka’s arm use, signing Tanaka would give the Dodgers a potential pitching staff of aces so good that it would have the potential to be, historically speaking, one of the best starting rotations in the history of the game and, at minimum, draw comparisons to the early 90′s Atlanta Braves pitching staffs that contained Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery.

While there is little dispute that Kenley Jansen will be the Dodgers’ closer in 2014, Brian Wilson is clearly the most intriguing personality in the bullpen and will be the heart and sole of the late inning firemen. (Image source: Huffington Post)

The bullpen also appears to be solid going into the 2014 season and contains three pitchers who are considered capable of closing (4 if Brandon League can return to the form he showed in Seattle in 2011.)  Kenley Jansen is expected to close, but he is not the only one capable.  The Dodgers bring back Brian Wilson, who helped shore up the back end of the bullpen with his beard, his fastball, and his hard slider in the last two months of the 2013 season.  The Dodgers also sign former Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez.  The enigmatic Perez posted a 4.33 ERA last season and blew 5 of 30 save opportunities, which is not exactly awe-inspiring.  However, Perez did save 39 games in 2012 and has been recognized as an American League All Star in the past.  If healthy and able to find his groove, Perez makes the Dodgers near-automatic from the 7th inning on.  The back end of the bullpen will include another former closer (Brandon League) as well as a return of reliable relievers Paco Rodriguez, Chris Withrow, and the veteran swingman J.P. Howell who is capable of working as a lefty specialist, a multi-inning long reliever, and can even make an emergency spot start if necessary.  Jose Dominguez, he of the 102 mile an hour fastball, is also a possibility for a deep Dodger bullpen.

With less than a month until pitchers and catchers report, the 2014 season is shaping up to be an exciting one in Los Angeles.  The next few weeks should give a more clear direction of what spots may be available for spring training invitees to compete for on this year’steam.

Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw Agree on 7 Year, $215 Million Contract

Clayton Kershaw

The Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw have come to an agreement that will keep Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles until at least the 2018 season. (Image source: Los Angeles Times)

Big news out of Los Angeles today as the Dodgers and 2013 Cy Young Award Winner Clayton Kershaw have come to terms on a long-term contract that will keep baseball’s best pitcher in Dodger Blue at least through the 2018 season.

According to ESPN, the seven year, $215 million deal includes a player  opt-out after 5 seasons, meaning that Kershaw has opportunities to explore free agency at age 30 or age 32 if he decides to test the market.

Kershaw, who had been reportedly offered up to a 10 year, $300 million deal as long ago as early last season, had expressed some interest in testing the free agent market and rumors indicated that he was interested in exploring a deal with a team closer to his Texas home next off-season had he reached that point.  Kershaw had filed for arbitration on Tuesday and was believed to be asking for a $20 million, one year deal through that process.  The Dodgers and Kershaw quickly came together to make a deal shortly after Kershaw filed for arbitration.

The 25 year old Kershaw has won two of the last three National League Cy Young Awards, including last season when Kershaw had arguably his best season as a professional.  The undisputed ace of a Dodger staff loaded with pitchers who would be considered staff aces just about anywhere else, Kershaw pitched his way to a career-low 1.83 earned run average and 0.92 WHIP in 2013, outclassing just about every other pitcher in the league in those categories by leaps and bounds and threatening Sandy Koufax’s Los Angeles franchise record-low ERA of 1.72 for much of the season.  Kershaw’s also compiled a 16-9 record while striking out 232 batters in 236 innings pitched.  Kershaw also won Game 1 of the NLDS and showed a strong effort in Game 4 before suffering a hard-luck loss in Game 2 of the NLCS and then having an uncharacteristically bad game in the deciding Game 6.

Many people believe that Clayton Kershaw, despite only being 25 years old and six seasons into his big league career, is a future Hall of Famer.  With the richest contract ever given to a pitcher in Major League Baseball history, eclipsing Justin Verlander’s 7 year, $180 million deal with the Detroit Tigers and becoming the first $30 million a season salary earner among pitchers in the Majors, the Los Angeles Dodgers indicate that they agree and are ensuring that Kershaw’s legend will continue to grow in the spotlight at Dodger Stadium.