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Monday, March 18, 2013
Less-than-obvious reasons for optimism

By Mark Saxon

By now, most of us know the Dodgers have spent a lot of money to get as good as they can as fast as they can. They remodeled the offense in August and the pitching over the next few months.

All the off-season action will make the Dodgers one of the more highly scrutinized teams this season and, already, we've heard from some people who wonder how a team this expensive has so many questions. It might surprise those people that the fine-print improvements could be this team's salvation.

So, let's take a look at some developments that may not have gotten a lot of national attention but could prove meaningful in 2013:

Improved organizational depth

One of the reasons teams like the St. Louis Cardinals, the Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays have been so consistently competitive lately is that, when their roster gets tested, they have answers at hand. If one of your star players goes down for a few months, you have a talented guy in the minor leagues who can keep the team on track.

The Dodgers are in the early stages of restocking a system neglected under the previous owner and it can take five years or more to really see things change. Their farm system still might not be in the upper half in baseball. ESPN's Keith Law rated them 16th. But already we're seeing seeds of hope, primarily due to the Dodgers' international efforts.

Cuban defector Yasiel Puig is batting .452 this spring (fifth-best in the majors) and, though the Dodgers have him ticketed for Double-A Chattanooga this April, he could easily arrive in Los Angeles at some point this summer. Quietly, the Dodgers signed pitcher Mario Santiago out of the Korean league in January and he showed he can handle elite competition in helping the Puerto Rican team eliminate defending champion Japan in the World Baseball Classic.

They also signed four high-upside prospects out of the Dominican Republic in January. You can expect the Dodgers to push the limits in both international signings and the June draft and, at some point, that's going to pay off. Maybe sooner rather than later.

Better-than-expected health

Two months ago, I would have given Matt Kemp a 60 percent chance, at best, of being ready on Opening Day. Now, he looks like a lock. He even blasted a long home run Sunday, a good sign he's able to swing hard and not worry about his left shoulder. I would have pegged Carl Crawford at 25 percent and he's got a shot -- if not on April 1, perhaps a couple of weeks later.

The Dodgers have, at least for now, dodged injury scares with a good chunk of their pitching staff -- Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen. They replaced those worries with Zack Greinke's sore elbow, but he threw a pain-free bullpen session Sunday, could be pitching in a Cactus League game this week and has a chance to be healthy and ready in April.

For veteran teams, more bad things can happen than good things in spring training (ask the New York Yankees) and the Dodgers have avoided the big stuff.

Coming together?

San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt said the Dodgers "can't buy chemistry," but maybe that's one expense they can spare. The signs this spring have been positive in regard to the team's effort to forge bonds that can carry them through rough patches during the season.

Manager Don Mattingly said he's not worried at all about his clubhouse. Kemp said the Dodgers had no beefs running with any of the players who were acquired in trade or free agency.

Kemp figures to set a strong example for position players by keeping things light, but working hard. For the pitchers, Clayton Kershaw is a good example of intensity and drive, Josh Beckett of veteran savvy. Jerry Hairston Jr. glides easily between different groups and can add some vocal guidance.

Lately, when big payroll teams have flamed out, the fire seems to have started in the clubhouse. There's no signs of that with this group so far.

Hope for Hanley

Hanley Ramirez has shown a strange pattern of declining production in his peak years. Some people question whether he can play shortstop at a sufficient level. Other people question whether he can play either shortstop or third base at a sufficient level.

But the Dodgers could have formidable offensive depth if Ramirez proves everybody wrong and gets his career back on a superstar track. It's far from hopeless. The Dodgers saw some nice signs of progress in his work at shortstop before Ramirez left to join his Dominican teammates in the WBC. He's still just 29, still in great shape. He'll be a free agent after 2014, so should have plenty of incentive. Plus, Mattingly and hitting coach Mark McGwire figure to stay on him all season about shortening his swing and the Dodgers players should be able to keep him focused on team goals.

Ramirez is a pivotal player, but he won't feel much pressure surrounded by Kemp and other stars.

In the end, it's really just about getting a bunch of good players and hoping they play well. The Dodgers seem to have the first part figured out.