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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.