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Wednesday, January 16, 2013
The Price of Contention: Is Luis Cruz the answer at third?

By Mark Saxon

The Dodgers’ new owners have spent more than $600 million in acquiring players since they bought the team less than one year ago. They will enter the 2013 season with the highest payroll, at more than $213 million, in baseball history.

Now, the only question is whether they can turn money into wins.

We’ll take a look at some of the issues facing the Dodgers as they enter a season filled with promise, but as always, fraught with peril. What are the costs -- and what are the opportunities -- inherent in such a high-stakes gamble?

First up: Can they afford to rely on journeyman Luis Cruz as their starting third baseman?

ESPN's Buster Olney reported Tuesday that the Dodgers have considered making a run at free agent third baseman Scott Rolen. Before you get too excited, remember that Rolen turns 38 three days after Opening Day and, when healthy, he has batted .244 the past two seasons in Cincinnati.

The Dodgers, presumably, would be looking at Rolen to provide depth.

But it raises a larger question: After investing so much in every other area of the team, can they afford to rely on Luis "Cochito" Cruz as an everyday presence at third base in 2013?

Cruz had a dynamic season in 2012, coming out of nowhere (no offense, Albuquerque) to provide the corner pop the Dodgers had so badly lacked. He batted .297, smacked 20 doubles in less than 300 plate appearances and slugged .431. His real forte was defense, playing capable shortstop and, then, spectacular third base.

Great story, a Mexican kid taking a city with one of the biggest Hispanic populations in the U.S. by storm. Fans at Dodger Stadium yelled "Cr-uuuu-z" every time the ball came anywhere near him.

But there's also this: Why did it take him until he was 28 years old to establish himself in the major leagues? Why did he spend all of 2011 in Triple-A? Why did five other organizations give up on him?

The Dodgers have proven they'll spare no expense when it comes to fixing a need. They say they don't view third base as a weakness, but you wonder what they're discussing internally as spring training grows near. Should they trade for an established third baseman and stash Cruz as a super-utility guy? Should they sign Rolen or another established veteran, maybe Brandon Inge, as insurance?

The scenarios don't stop there. Hanley Ramirez looked terrible at shortstop last season and he didn't play a lick of shortstop on his winter-ball team in the Dominican Republic, against the Dodgers' wishes. Should they move Ramirez back to third? If so, they could go in several directions. They could use Cruz or Dee Gordon at shortstop or they could swing a trade for a shortstop. The Texas Rangers, with uber-prospect Jurickson Profar pushing for time, reportedly have dangled Elvis Andrus in trade talks all winter.

Add it all up and you're left with the impression that the left side of the infield is the most worrisome aspect of this team. It's great to invest in pitching, but it's not going to work if the shortstop isn't fielding ground balls. The Dodgers think they have a fearsome lineup, but it's difficult to absorb underproduction at a premium position like third base.

If they go into spring training exactly as they are, they'll have fewer questions than the vast majority of major-league teams, many of whom only have three reliable starters or have serious voids in their bullpens.

There are no guarantees in baseball, no matter how much money you're willing to throw around. The prudent course seems to be entering spring training with Cruz as your established guy. It sends the right message to the rest of the players in your organization: Work hard enough, succeed, and we'll make room for you.

If Cruz struggles through March and April, you still have options. If Ramirez is making every routine grounder a bang-bang play at first, you have plenty of time to adjust. It's not as if everything freezes once Opening Day rolls around. Profar might be tearing up Triple-A, a la Mike Trout last April, and the Rangers might feel even more compelled to move Andrus. Teams might release struggling veterans as spring progresses, giving the Dodgers more opportunity to add left-side depth.

But for now, just keep on cruising.