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Thursday, March 28, 2013
Freeway Series viewer's guide

By Mark Saxon

These next few games wrap up spring training. Nothing less, nothing more. For players still fighting for roster spots, they're important final exams. For Matt Kemp, Albert Pujols and other established players, the Freeway Series games represent just a few more tune-up at-bats for the regular season. Pitchers will try to get a feel for all their pitches, but likely won't be out there long as managers peel them back to rest for their season debuts.

If nothing else, the Dodgers will acclimate to playing under the lights in front of big crowds and in stadiums with three decks.

There are some things worth monitoring over the next few days as the Dodgers get ready to play the San Francisco Giants on Monday:

The Puig express

The Dodgers optioned their most dynamic player this spring, Yasiel Puig, to Double-A Chattanooga on Tuesday. Makes sense, considering he is 22, missed all of 2011, and has just 95 professional at-bats in the United States.

But the Dodgers did their fans the courtesy of bringing Puig with them to Southern California after he batted .526 in the Cactus League. He'll play Thursday night in Rancho Cucamonga, Friday at Dodger Stadium and Saturday in Anaheim.

He's massive (6-foot-3, 245 pounds), athletic and shockingly raw. According to ex-major league general manager Jim Bowden, who now works for ESPN and scouted Puig, the Cuban defector didn't seem to know what to do when he was on first base and the batter drew a walk. Bizarre as that sounds, maybe it makes sense. Puig still hasn't drawn a walk this spring. Maybe when you're getting hits 52 percent of the time, you don't need to bother walking.

Outfield shuffle


With Puig out of the mix, there now is a fairly robust competition to win the final roster spot as a fourth (or fifth) outfielder. Alex Castellanos would seem to have an edge since he's on the roster and the most powerful of the final contestants, but he has struggled and Alfredo Amezaga (.278) and Elian Herrera (.306) have made strong pushes.

In all likelihood, the Dodgers will use a combination of Jerry Hairston Jr. and Skip Schumaker when Carl Crawford needs a break, but any of these guys could also get in the mix if they can just make the team.

Health tips

Pay attention any time a ball is hit to Crawford in left field over the next few days. If his throwing motion looks natural and fluid, you'll have a pretty good idea he's fully recovered from his August elbow surgery. If he drop-kicks it to the shortstop, be worried.

To the surprise of many, Crawford looks like he will be on the active roster Monday despite a week-long setback with nerve irritation earlier this month. When game adrenaline kicks in and Crawford feels challenged to throw out a base runner, he'll truly test it.

Also, watch Matt Kemp's at-bats closely. Is he swinging with the same devastating force he normally does? Sometimes, it takes a player a while to let loose with his swing when he is recovering from front-shoulder surgery. Kemp batted .186 in the Cactus League, but if he looks comfortable in the batter's box, Dodgers fans shouldn't have much to worry about.

Ryu's progress


The Dodgers didn't seem thrilled with Hyun-jin Ryu's conditioning when he got to Arizona in February and, midway through camp, manager Don Mattingly made a point of saying Ryu hadn't locked up a spot in the Dodgers' rotation. Perhaps the message got through the language barrier. Ryu, who faces the Angels on Thursday night, has been solid in his last three starts.

It's really happenstance -- a fingernail injury to Chad Billingsley and Zack Greinke's sore elbow earlier in camp -- that made Ryu the Dodgers' No. 2 starter behind Clayton Kershaw. But the team would love to see some evidence in the coming weeks that its $62 million investment is going to be a worthy one.

Odd men out

A year ago, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano represented 60 percent of the Dodgers' starting rotation. Now, they are the sixth, seventh and eighth starters, which is another way of saying they have no appreciable roles. What will happen?

Indications are that Lilly, who struggled through 2 1/3 innings Wednesday, will begin the season on the disabled list. Capuano and Harang have both been scouted by Seattle, Cleveland and Pittsburgh and a trade seems fairly likely. Barring that, Capuano figures to go to the bullpen. Who knows about Harang, as the Dodgers really don't have an extra bullpen spot and they certainly don't need two long relievers.

The Dodgers have trimmed their roster in expectation of Monday, but they still have a little spring pruning to get done and that's where the intrigue comes in.