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Thursday, February 7, 2013
The Price of Contention: Will the pieces fit?

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 $220 million, in baseball history.

Now, the only question is can they 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?

Next up: Can the Dodgers get a group of former All-Stars to play together?

Let's start this discussion with a quote from an unnamed National League executive, plucked from Jayson Stark's column ranking of all six divisions (The NL West finished fourth):
"The Dodgers have the most talent and the best résumés, but there's also the potential for a lot of dysfunctional there. I give the Yankees credit all those years when they had a superstar roster, because they were able to function as a team. And that was because of leadership: [Derek] Jeter, [Mariano] Rivera, [Jorge] Posada, [Andy] Pettitte, Bernie [Williams].

"Whatever you think of [Josh] Beckett, [Carl] Crawford, Hanley [Ramirez], Adrian [Gonzalez] and [Zack] Greinke -- they're not Jeter, Posada, Rivera, Pettitte and Bernie. So we'll have to see if they're going to turn into the Lakers or the Dynasty Yankees. It'll be interesting."

When I spoke to Don Mattingly last month, I could tell the possibility of dysfunction was occupying a lot of his thoughts about his team going into the spring. He spoke at length about the need to build a sense of team, saying, "I really think there is something to having a group of guys who get along and want to play for each other."

Dysfunction could come in so many areas. The finest parts don't necessarily become a Ferrari. The Dodgers' offense has the potential to be among the best in the league, but if the middle-of-the-order batters insist on being the hero, swinging for the fences in every at-bat, it will function only in spurts. The Dodgers have a double-play tandem that has scarcely worked together and a shortstop who appears shaky, to put it kindly. Outfield defense is also a question with Carl Crawford coming off elbow surgery.

Pitching is more of an individual endeavor, but Zack Greinke and Ryu Hyun-Jin have never worked with either of the Dodgers' catchers and Josh Beckett has thrown to A.J. Ellis just a handful of times.

And, of course, there is always the possibility the clubhouse will fracture. That doesn't necessarily mean the team can't win if it does, but the players coming from Boston can attest it's not the ideal incubator for winning. Ramirez, Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez all have had conflicts of one kind or another with authority figures. Greinke has a reputation for aloofness.

It would appear that the most likely leadership candidates are the longest-serving Dodgers: Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. How effectively those two can assert themselves -- and some long-time veterans just won't listen to younger players -- could determine what kind of chemistry develops. Will it be toxic, just kind of inert or -- ideally -- creatively tense?

If their talent plays well together, their relationships won't matter as much. Getting off to a winning start will ease the pressure on individuals and make for a better workplace. Winning begets winning. It's at the pressure points of a season when we'll find out how cohesive this unit proves to be.

Right now, that's a serious question, one on a lot of peoples' minds.