One big question for every Dodger player

March, 14, 2013
3/14/13
5:21
PM PT
It's amazing how many -- and what a wide variety -- of baseball analysts refuse to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers as World Series contenders despite their record spending.

ESPN's Buster Olney came out with his predictions and has the Dodgers missing the playoffs entirely, with the Arizona Diamondbacks winning the NL West and the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants taking the wild cards.

Grantland's Jonah Keri clearly isn't buying the Dodgers' M.O. one bit.

The word you hear repeatedly about the Dodgers is "questions." For a team that will enter 2013 with a $230 million payroll, people seem to expect more certainties. Of course, one could argue that life, fragile as it is, is almost devoid of certainties.

Baseball has even fewer. If the majority of the following questions are answered with a simple, "no," the Dodgers will be able to take a break from pouring champagne in October to note that many people doubted them:

Matt Kemp: Will his October shoulder surgery sap his power?

It certainly appeared to for the man who likely will bat behind Kemp in the Dodgers' lineup. In 2010, playing in San Diego -- hardly a hitter's park -- Adrian Gonzalez slugged 31 home runs. He got his front (right) shoulder worked on the following October. It took him until June -- of 2012 -- to hit his next 31 home runs.

Clayton Kershaw: Will injuries slow him down?

If he's healthy, the Dodgers have nothing to worry about at the top of their rotation. He's not only one of the two most talented pitchers in the National League, he might not hit his prime for a few more years. Sandy Koufax comparisons become more fair every year he pitches. But he admitted he was bothered at times last year by plantar fasciitis in his left foot and nobody has really explained what was wrong with his hip at the end of last season.

Zack Greinke: Is his elbow going to become a lingering problem?

The Dodgers can easily absorb Greinke missing the first month of the season while he lets inflammation in his right elbow subside. They are uniquely situated in starting pitching depth. But they'd hardly be viewed as World Series threats if they go through 2013 with Josh Beckett as their No. 2 starter.

Gonzalez: Has he simply lost his power?

It's a mistake to view Gonzalez as a power hitter. He is a good hitter, with power. There's a difference. But even the second sentence is increasingly open to doubt. In 2009, he hit 40 home runs. Looks like an anomaly. A bunch of line drives happened to clear the fence. Fine. But then it certainly looks like a pattern forming. He hit nine fewer home runs in 2010, four fewer in 2011 and just 18 last year, his lowest total since he was a 23-year-old struggling to get at-bats in Texas.

Hanley Ramirez: Will his focus stray?

There may not be 10 players alive with more ability. He's big, fast and once had a great approach at the plate. But Don Mattingly has said this spring that he'd like Ramirez to cut down his swing. And the fact he has been playing third base in the World Baseball Classic raises the issue of how serious he is about improving as a shortstop. If he fully commits to squeezing the most out of his ability, the Dodgers could be loaded.

Andre Ethier: Will lefties continue to baffle him?

It's not hopeless. In 2007, his first full season, he batted .279 against lefties, essentially the same as he did against righties. But since then, it has been straight downhill, with yawning splits every season. Mattingly says he won't platoon him, but he's going to find it hard to play him in big games against lefties if Ethier doesn't make some serious strides.

Brandon League: Is he a setup man masquerading as a closer?

When the Dodgers signed him to a contract that will guarantee him $22.5 million over the next three seasons, you kind of knew they were going to call him the closer. But he's going into his ninth season and he has been a closer for a year and a half. Part of his problem is the mirror image of Ethier's. Left-handed batters have hit .277 against him, compared to .222 versus righties.

Josh Beckett: Has he lost too much fastball?

He used to be a classic Texas right-hander, big and intimidating with upper-90s velocity and a big curveball. Now, he's trying to reinvent himself as a crafty veteran with a refined changeup. But there is the little matter of last season's 4.65 ERA and 33-year-olds don't typically show dramatic improvement.

Hyun-jin Ryu: Were his Korean Baseball Organization numbers misleading?

You could write a book of questions about this guy. He's the first Korean player looking to go directly to the major leagues. ESPN's Keith Law took a look at him this spring and decided he was a fringe back-of-the-rotation starter.

Carl Crawford: Is his arm just too beat up?

He had a ligament in his left elbow completely reconstructed in August. Six months before that, doctors "debrided" tissue in his left wrist, a procedure typically performed on patients with early arthritis. The Dodgers still owe him more than $100 million, so they are rooting hard for the wonders of modern medicine.

Mark Ellis: Is he an injury waiting to happen?

He's a great defender and, sometimes, a solidly productive hitter. He's easily the best candidate to hit second in the Dodgers' order because he is so adept at doing the little things. But he seems to miss 30 games every season with a physical ailment. Since 2004, which he missed entirely, he has played in more than 132 games just once and that was six years ago.

Chad Billingsley: Is that ligament still at risk?

Say what you will about platelet-rich plasma therapy -- and who doesn't love talking about that? -- nobody really knows if his elbow is going to hold up for the rest of his career, for one more season, for two more months or for three more days. The Dodgers almost have to keep a spare starter in case something happens.

Kenley Jansen: Will his heart issues return?

He's probably the toughest Dodgers pitcher to hit and, just a few years into his pitching career, he might be just scratching the surface of his potential. Everyone hopes the catheter ablation he had to correct his irregular heartbeat in October will do the trick, but roughly 30 percent of patients have to get a second, touch-up procedure. If so, Jansen would have to miss time -- probably at least two months -- while he is on blood thinners.

A.J. Ellis: Was he a one-year wonder?

You really can't say anything bad about his 2012 season. He was the Dodgers' most patient hitter, with a .372 on-base percentage, he caught nearly every day during the dog days and he appears to have leadership qualities in the clubhouse. But if he's this good, why did it take him until he was 31 to break through?

Luis Cruz: Did all those teams who gave up on him know something?

Like Ellis, he might simply have been a late bloomer. He is a strong defender and he showed surprising power. This spring, he has been hitting hard line drives all over the field once again. But shouldn't it raise some concerns that his transactions page is longer than his player page?

Ronald Belisario: Is he reliable?

He seems to have gotten his visa issues cleared up. But we're talking about a very talented pitcher who, at 29, has only gotten in three full seasons. Until his behavior becomes a bit more predictable, can the Dodgers really count on him as a shutdown reliever?

J. P. Howell: Is his stuff in decline?

He seems like a more-than-capable replacement for Randy Choate in the bullpen. In fact, unlike Choate he has the ability to pitch to right-handed batters. But he had shoulder surgery a couple of years ago and tops out at about 89 mph, so you wonder how much of an impact he'll have, particularly since he is costing the Dodgers $2.85 million.

Skip Schumaker: Is his entire body of skills in decline?

Tony LaRussa sent him up to the plate 594 times in 2008. His plate appearances have declined every year since, with dramatic drops in each of the past two seasons. You wonder if the St. Louis Cardinals simply stopped trusting in his abilities. His numbers have been solid when he played, but at 33, it's unclear how much he has left.

Jerry Hairston Jr.: See above.

Same question, different scale. Hairston is 36 and coming off hip surgery.

Tim Federowicz: Is he not ready for prime time?

The Dodgers still feel he can be a front-line catcher and he is only 25. But how will he adjust to being a bench player, perhaps only catching once a week? He has only 20 major-league plate appearances, so nobody knows whether he'll contribute at all with his bat when he gets out there.

Alex Castellanos: Is he too young to fill the void?

If Crawford begins the season on the disabled list, the Dodgers figure to replace him with a Schumaker/Hairston platoon. But it would be nice if they at least had a young candidate to play every day. Yasiel Puig is still too young and raw and probably will begin the season at Double-A. Castellanos is being groomed more as a utility guy. If he were a blinding talent, he probably would have gotten to the big leagues before 26.

Nick Punto: Is grit alone not enough?

Nobody really knows why he dives into first base so frequently. It seems to defy baseball orthodoxy as well as simple logic. Most people think he could get there faster if he simply continued to run. But what we do know is that he batted .200 for the Boston Red Sox last season and might have been released if they hadn't been paying him $1.5 million.

Matt Guerrier: Will his elbow problems surface again?

He used to pitch with Eddie Guardado in Minnesota, which is appropriate since they were two of the most durable relievers in baseball. Guerrier twice led his league in appearances, but he spent a lot of last year on the 60-day disabled list and will Mattingly find he's available far less frequently in 2013?

Javy Guerra: Is he ineffectively wild?

There is nothing wrong with having a 27-year-old with a mid-90s fastball in the bullpen, but his walk rate climbed a bit last year and he has not proven to have great strikeout stuff. The Dodgers used him briefly as their closer, but a 1.489 WHIP last year suggests that won't happen again.

Juan Uribe: Is he worth a roster spot?

It's probably safe to say that, after batting .204 and .191 the past two seasons, he probably would no longer be employed by the Dodgers if he wasn't making $7 million. Maybe he'll have a late-career resurgence, but at 33 there's not much to suggest it.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Zack Greinke
WINS ERA SO IP
3 2.42 29 22
OTHER LEADERS
BAD. Gordon .365
HRA. Gonzalez 5
RBIA. Gonzalez 15
RA. Gonzalez 11
OPSJ. Uribe .980
ERAH. Ryu 1.93
SOZ. Greinke 29