Checking in on the Dodgers' check list

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
11:20
AM PT
What if Josh Beckett is good next season?

In all the rush to imagine a Dodgers rotation with Masahiro Tanaka or David Price, we haven’t paused much to reflect on whether the Dodgers really need to exert that kind of energy and money. Granted, Beckett was hard to watch last season as he labored through those eight starts before shutting down his season.

But let’s not forget he was pitching with a painful condition in his upper rib cage called thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). Let’s not forget that, before any of that started affecting him, he had a 2.89 ERA and a 3.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio and was an All-Star . . . pitching in the American League East.

He’ll be 34 next season. Barring another addition to the Dodgers’ rotation, Beckett will be the Dodgers’ No. 5 starter, and making a pretty comfortable salary of $15.75 million to fill that role. The Dodgers have a lot invested in him doing well.

Blogger Daniel Brim put together a nice study of major-league pitchers coming back from TOS (citing eight examples) and found that there is plenty of hope for Beckett. Kenny Rogers pitched seven more years, until he was 43, after undergoing the surgery, accumulating a 19 WAR. Aaron Cook pitched eight more seasons, accumulating a 13.5 WAR. Matt Harrison has been outstanding at times since the surgery, missing most of last season for unrelated injuries. More than one-third of the pitchers who had the surgery bounced back fully.

Of course, the most recent example is Chris Carpenter, who announced his retirement not long ago, partially as a result of the injury. In other words, the Dodgers have to have backup plans and guys like Zach Lee, Stephen Fife, Ross Stripling and Chris Reed give them that, with Chad Billingsley a possible solution by May.

Assuming they don’t deal with the string of injuries they had last year, they’ll have one of the strongest lineups in the game. Their bullpen, with Brian Wilson and J.P. Howell back could be dominant.

In other words, the Dodgers -- unlike some other big-payroll teams like the New York Yankees -- are in a pretty favorable position. They could make another big move, but even if they don’t, they could be the best team in baseball.

So, leaving aside the big-ticket items, let’s look at some priorities for the Dodgers’ front office in the next couple of months:

Patching the infield

It’s become obvious that the Dodgers are concerned that Alexander Guerrero will not be able to field well enough at second base to play there every day. It would be one thing if the Dodgers had a defensive whiz at shortstop, but they have Hanley Ramirez, whose best defensive trait is his ability to hit 30 home runs and make up for the balls he can’t reach.

General manager Ned Colletti and team president Stan Kasten have both made it apparent in recent interviews. The team is on the prowl for young, athletic up-the-middle defenders. If nothing else, they owe it to Clayton Kershaw and the other Dodgers pitchers to at least make it look like they’re trying to fix what could be some shaky up-the-middle defense.

Building a bench

If they can land an everyday second baseman, their bench goes from practically empty to looking pretty solid. They could give Guerrero some time to work on his defense at Triple-A. Once Guerrero proves he’s ready, he could plug in as the everyday second baseman, making the new second baseman a utility guy. Someone like Maicer Izturis would be perfect, but maybe the Dodgers could settle for his brother, Cesar, who is still unsigned.

They could also choose to use Guerrero at shortstop, his natural position and push Ramirez to third, then use Juan Uribe in a super utility role. Ramirez has proven injury-prone and could benefit from some days off, as well as the fewer chances he would get at third.

Fix Brandon League

The Dodgers are still kicking around the possibility of adding another reliever. It might simply be to add a long man. They have met with the agent for Jamey Wright.
But what they really want is a small stable of closer-capable pitchers to wipe out teams’ chances of rallying late. They have the makings of that with Kenley Jansen and Brian Wilson, who could put pressure on Jansen to stay on top of his game all year.

Why can’t League give them a triangle of dominant late-inning relief? Granted he was pretty awful last season, the first after he signed a bloated three-year, $22.5 million contract to be the team’s closer. The biggest culprit was deep fly balls, with a big spike in home runs-per-nine innings, from 0.13 in 2012 to 1.33.

But there’s no obvious reason League couldn’t return to pre-2013 levels of effectiveness. His average fastball last season was 94.5 mph, pretty much as hard as he has always thrown and plenty of separation between that and his strikeout pitch, the split-finger fastball.

The Dodgers look good on paper now. If they get bounce-back seasons from veterans like Beckett and League, they could be scary good. They have a lot invested in at least letting them try.

Extend Mattingly

It has now been six weeks since ESPNLA.com reported that the Dodgers began contract-extension talks with Don Mattingly. What's the hold-up? They could give Mattingly a three-year extension for less than what they'll be paying Beckett for April and May of next season.

Why would a team with a payroll that figures to blow past the luxury-tax threshold again worry about having to swallow a few million if it elects to fire the manager? Kasten has maintained a strict code of silence on the matter, Mattingly held his tongue at the winter meetings, but if things are so hunky-dory, why are the Dodgers standing for hours and hours over this three-inch putt?

They might as well just end one potentially annoying storyline now. They could at least give the impression that everything is right between the front office and dugout.

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

BA LEADER
Yasiel Puig
BA HR RBI R
.296 16 69 92
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
WC. Kershaw 21
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239