Dodgers face little drama, for now
So few questions, so much time.
That would seem to be the sentiment of a sedate spring training for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have little in the way of starting-position battles or Manny Ramirez-like mischief to put their fans on the edge of their seats. Rather, you get the feeling fans are already antsy to get the season launched. But rest assured, by Opening Day there will be plenty of questions facing the medium-sized Blue Wrecking Crew concerning 2012. Here are a dozen of them, with the best available answers.
1. Leading off: How many bases will Dee Gordon steal?
In 56 major league games of his rookie season, this human version of the Road Runner stole 24 bases, projecting to 64 over 150 games. Twelve of his steals came in 24 September starts, suggesting that, fatigue or not, his pace could be even higher in 2012. If you believe he can at least match his pedestrian .325 on-base percentage from last year, 75 steals doesn't seem out of reach. That would be the most by a Dodger since current first-base coach Davey Lopes swiped 77 in 1975.
2. Which offseason move will the Dodgers regret the most?
Giving Adam Kennedy a guaranteed $850,000 at age 36 -- after unproductive seasons with the Washington Nationals and Seattle Mariners -- smacks of the Dioner Navarro million-dollar miscue of 2011. But at the end of the day, a lost salary of that size won't mean a whole lot. In fact, nothing from the winter looks as damaging as the three-year, $21 million deal granted to Juan Uribe a year ago for 2011-13. Still, in handing a guaranteed $10 million to Chris Capuano for two seasons, the Dodgers are betting they see something in a pitcher who, despite decent strikeout numbers, hasn't pitched a full season with an above-average ERA since 2006. This was their biggest gamble, scoring the highest in risk and reward.
3. Which of the Dodgers' Opening Day position players will be the first to play their way out of the lineup?
It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which at least half the Dodgers lineup turns over by summer. Uribe is trying to come back from Andruw Jones-like depths. Juan Rivera was designated for assignment by Toronto in July. Mark Ellis had a .288 on-base percentage last year. Now in his 30s, A.J. Ellis has still never played a full major league season, and James Loney has never produced for a full one. So many delectable choices -- but though he's at the team's thinnest position, Uribe might have the shortest leash.
4. Can A.J. Ellis hold down the job behind the plate?
To go with his .360 on-base percentage in the majors, Ellis has a career .441 OBP in Triple-A. Even by Pacific Coast League standards, that's pretty insane -- and that's with pitchers knowing full well Ellis couldn't beat them with the long ball (six homers in 1,021 plate appearances). Russell Martin was the Dodgers' starting catcher with a .347 on-base percentage and .332 slugging percentage in 2010, numbers Ellis certainly has a shot at matching. Strong-armed rookie Tim Federowicz could push Ellis if he has any defensive struggles, but otherwise, with no minor league options remaining, Ellis will get every chance to succeed.
5. Which Chad Billingsley will we see this year?
The right-hander is only 27, yet he is entering his sixth full season with the team. With Jonathan Broxton gone, he stands as perhaps the organization's most polarizing player, perceived by many as an underachiever. As far as 2012 goes, we might know pretty quickly what we're in for. Presuming he is healthy after an offseason's rest, keep an eye on Billingsley's strikeout rate. If it extends the decline of 2011, when it fell from 8.5 per nine innings in April/May to 5.7 in August/September (accompanied by a corresponding rise in ERA), be very concerned. But if it bumps back up, be very optimistic. In games last year in which his K/9 was at least 7.5, Billingsley had a 2.59 ERA.
6. James Loney, James Loney, wherefore art thou, James Loney?
Translated from the Shakespeare, the above means, "Are the Dodgers just kidding themselves about a first baseman who hasn't hit more than 15 home runs in four seasons?" His final two months of 2011, in which he slugged .608 with eight homers in 52 games (a 25-homer pace), offered a last, desperate hope for Loney, who nevertheless could have found himself replaced by Prince Fielder if Detroit hadn't pounced at the last minute. Anyone can have a good two months, so keep your wish-casting in check and perhaps be satisfied if simply avoids last year's miserable start. (Then don't be surprised to see him go nuts in a Colorado uniform in 2013.)
7. Will Matt Kemp's critics find a new opening in 2012?
If Clayton Kershaw hits a rough patch this year -- meaning more than a bad start or two in a row -- everyone will immediately become concerned that he was overworked, but no one will doubt his talent or effort. If Kemp struggles, we'll find out just how sincere everyone's belief in his 2011 transformation is. There were as many articles praising Kemp this offseason as there were those doubting him the offseason before, but the faith in Kemp from Dodgers fans at large might still be fragile, especially given the weight of his new $160 million contract. Surely, Kemp has earned the benefit of the doubt, but suffice it to say that Kemp is facing more pressure than Kershaw for the coming year.
8. Will Kenley Jansen become the Dodgers' closer?
Jansen's ungodly second-half-and-then-some (23 baserunners, 61 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings after returning from the disabled list in mid-June) as a setup man came to overshadow rookie Javy Guerra's quiet steadiness in becoming the Dodgers' final-inning reliever, leaving most people thinking the pair will trade roles sometime in 2012. The bigger question is why the Dodgers would want to confine whoever their best reliever is to situations in which he might be pitching with a two- or three-run lead and no one on base. But to be sure, the Dodgers won't hold back Jansen if he continues to show the stuff to become the team's first-choice fireman.
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9. Will the Dodgers make a big trade-deadline move?
There's rarely been a year when it's been more likely to happen. Competing in a division not particularly likely to have a runaway leader and buoyed for the first time by a second wild-card possibility, odds are good the Dodgers will be in contention come July. At the same time, it's not hard to speculate on areas the team might need improvement. Would the new Dodgers owners pass up their first opportunity to win major points with the fan base? Not bloody likely.
10. Will the Dodgers make a good trade-deadline move?
That's much harder to answer. Under the directive of a new owner, general manager Ned Colletti might undervalue the franchise's minor league pitching and overvalue potential 2012 free agents such as David Wright, B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn or A.J. Pierzynski, to name only four. Or maybe Colletti will sell high on a prospect-laden package at just the right time. Under the best of circumstances, trades are hard to predict, but when the Dodgers' leadership might not have courage to walk away from the table, who knows?
11. Can Rubby De La Rosa be the September surprise?
Labor Day arrives. A playoff spot is within reach. And just when the Dodgers need a shot in the arm, De La Rosa emerges, more than a full year removed from Tommy John surgery on his right limb and ready to inject the Dodgers with life. The top high-level pitching prospect in the system a year ago, De La Rosa could be the Dodgers' not-so-secret weapon, shoring up any weak spots in the bullpen before working his way into the starting rotation in 2013.
12. How far will the Dodgers go in 2012?
With an uncertain lineup and even more uncertain midseason fate, the 2012 Dodgers look like a team that could just as easily go 72-90 as 90-72. OK, maybe a bit more easily 72-90. The fact is, despite all the roster turnover, the Dodgers don't seem considerably different from last season's squad, with Hiroki Kuroda's departure significant but perhaps diminished by the franchise's increasing depth in starting pitching. An 81-81 finish might be as safe a prediction as there is, with an eye toward improved circumstances in 2013.
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