A Position-by-Position Breakdown of the Los Angeles Dodgers at Spring Training
After coming two wins short of the World Series last season, the team has decided not to mess with something promising. Most of the Dodgers' offseason moves were minor deals that bolstered the bullpen or back end of the starting rotation.
Aside from the loss of last year's starting second baseman Mark Ellis to free agency and the return of center fielder Matt Kemp from injury, the 2014 Dodgers' lineup won't look too different from the one that last season put together one of the most impressive summer runs in baseball history on its way to winning the National League West for the first time in four years.
Assuming general manager Ned Colletti doesn't make any drastic moves and enters the regular season with the ultimate insurance of keeping four elite outfielders on the roster in Kemp, Carl Crawford, Yasiel Puig and Andre Ethier, the starting lineup shapes up to be one of the most formidable in baseball on paper.
The following slides offer a position-by-position breakdown of what the Boys in Blue have in store for 2014, both offensively and defensively.
A.J. Ellis will be the Opening Day catcher after he and the Dodgers agreed to a one-year contract worth $3.55 million a week before pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, according to the Los Angeles Times' Bill Shaikin.
With the deal, Los Angeles avoided an arbitration hearing with its 32-year-old backstop and Ellis will remain under team control through 2016.
Ellis took a step back offensively in 2013 after having improved his statistics exponentially since his debut six years ago. Despite fewer extra-base hits and a lower average than he had the previous season, Ellis was still able to tie his career-high with 52 RBI in 2013.
As the projected No. 7 or 8 hitter in 2014, the Dodgers aren't going to rely on him to drive in runs, but will hope that his patented patience at the plate can make it tougher on pitchers looking to breeze through the bottom of the order. Last season, Ellis saw an average of 4.37 pitches per plate appearance, more than any other player in the National League with at least 425 plate appearances.
Looking past the mediocre .238/.318/.364 slash, Ellis chipped in offensively by wearing down opposing pitchers with long at-bats.
He will also be responsible for handling one of the strongest pitching staffs in the league. Besides facilitating the development of Hyun-Jin Ryu or monitoring the high-priced arms of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, Ellis has become a respected clubhouse leader and affective pitch-caller behind the plate.
And those looking to swipe a bag on the Dodgers in 2014 might want to think twice. Ellis was the best at limiting the running game last season, throwing out an MLB-leading 44.4 percent of would-be base stealers among qualified catchers.
The Dodgers will look to the durable Adrian Gonzalez to hold down first base and the middle of the batting order in 2014.
Besides the fact that Gonzalez has played in at least 156 games for the past eight seasons, the Dodgers know what they're going to get from him at the plate.
Last season, the first baseman reached the 100-RBI plateau for the fourth-straight season. In fact, the only time he's knocked in fewer than 99 runs were his first three seasons in the majors. His .293 batting average in 2013 was right on par with his career average of .294.
If that's not consistency, I don't know what is.
As the projected cleanup hitter behind Hanley Ramirez, A-Gon should have no problem adding to his impressive resume in 2014.
The key is keeping him behind Ramirez and Yasiel Puig in the batting order because Gonzalez might be the slowest runner in the league. There were several instances last year when Puig was denied an extra-base or a run batted in because the plodding Gonzalez was ahead of him on the basepath. With faster players like Puig and Ramirez setting the table for Gonzalez, another 100-RBI season is well within reach.
It's difficult to nitpick the shortcomings of such an consistent offensive cog like Gonzalez, but the first baseman did have some trouble on defense last season. His career-high 11 errors were second on the team behind Ramirez and only Cincinnati's Joey Votto made more blunders in the field among first basemen.
Overall, Gonzalez's offensive production has outweighed his defensive shortcomings throughout his career, and the focus in 2014 will once again be his bat.
The Dodgers signed Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero over the winter to a four-year, $28-million contract, according to the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez.
Los Angeles made the deal just before declining to pick up Mark Ellis' player option for 2014 and the veteran second baseman went on to sign with the Dodgers' final nemesis last season, the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Dodgers signed Guerrero, a natural shortstop, with hopes that he could step in as the everyday starter at second base. However, the process hasn't been quite that simple.
Guerrero, 27, has never played an inning of major league baseball—or even minor league baseball. In fact, he hasn't played at a high level since 2012. Guerrero sat out last season in part due to his frustration over being left off Cuba's World Baseball Classic roster, which was also a factor in his decision to defect to the Dominican Republic.
After signing with the Dodgers, Guerrero played winter ball in the Dominican Republic but only appeared in 12 games due to hamstring injuries. His development at second base was cut short, which has opened the door for other suitors to claim the starting job.
One of the names that has surfaced regarding the position is Miguel Rojas.
A career .234 hitter over eight seasons in the minors, Rojas is known more for his glove than his bat and was invited to the team's winter development program in early January. The team also brought Rojas to Camelback Ranch to work out at second base a few weeks before spring training even started.
Another option is Dee Gordon, once considered the Dodgers' shortstop of the future.
Gordon's role on the team took a major hit upon the arrival of Hanley Ramirez and he spent most of 2013 in Triple-A after struggling to hit consistently at the big-league level.
It seems that the remaining hope for Gordon's Dodgers career lies at second base.
If the Guerrero experiment does not pan out in a timely manner, expect Los Angeles to try Gordon and Rojas on the right side of the infield along with former Los Angeles Angels' leadoff man Chone Figgins. Of course, this type of platoon situation would certainly be a downgrade from the veteran leadership and fielding prowess that Ellis displayed over the past two seasons.
If one thing's for sure, it's that the Dodgers have plenty of question marks to address at second base heading into the 2014 season.
The Dodgers did well to re-sign third baseman Juan Uribe after his successful 2013, but the chances that he improves or even maintains last year's level of play are slim.
When the Dodgers rewarded Uribe with a hefty contract in 2010 after watching him help the rival San Francisco Giants win the World Series, he rewarded them with a .199 combined average over his first two seasons in Los Angeles.
Playing for a new contract once again in 2013, he compiled a .278 average, 12 home runs and 50 RBI in a relatively productive season. But if history repeats itself, Uribe, now 34 and paid, will not face the same pressure to perform at a high level.
Looking at the glass half-full, though, Uribe can still be an integral part of the 2014 Dodgers if he focuses his mind on winning a ring rather than winning a new contract.
The Dodgers value Uribe not only for his stellar defense at third base, but for his clubhouse presence as well. Several respected veterans from last season's squad, Mark Ellis, Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston Jr., all left the team over the winter.
As the Dodgers' elder statesman among everyday players in 2014, Uribe will have an even bigger role as clubhouse chemist. He was the one player who really took Yasiel Puig under his wing in order to help the rookie acclimate to the big leagues last season and he will most likely be the same type of mentor to Alexander Guerrero this time around.
Who knows what the Dodgers could have done with a healthy Hanley Ramirez in the National League Championship Series. After being hit with a pitch and cracking his rib in Game 1, he was a shell of his former self for the rest of the series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Ramirez is back and ready to roll in 2014, hungry to help the Dodgers climb over the hump that they so swiftly ascended last season.
“There’s one goal: Win a championship,” Ramirez told the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez the day before position players were scheduled to report to spring training.
The shortstop also missed significant time at the beginning of last season due to a hamstring injury, but Ramirez said he received treatment over the winter on a nerve problem in his back believed to be responsible for last season's hamstring issue, according to Hernandez.
When Ramirez became a fixture of the lineup in June last year, the Dodgers surged. The former 2009 batting champion finished with a .345 average and 20 home runs in only 86 games—or just over half a season. Before his injury in the NLCS, Ramirez tore up the postseason as well.
He will form the crux of the Dodgers' batting order in 2014 alongside Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp.
At shortstop, Ramirez led the team in errors but does not face any competition for the position. He made enough tough plays to avoid being labeled as a defensive liability and most of his miscues seemed to come in non-pressure situations.
The Dodgers did, however, invest in some shortstop insurance last week by signing yet another Cuban defector, Erisbel Arruebarruena, to a five-year, $25-million contract, per Hernandez. If Ramirez misses any time or Uribe fails to produce, Arruebarruena could make it to the big club at some point this season as a shortstop. Ramirez would then slide to third base to reduce wear-and-tear.
But if Ramirez can remain healthy for an entire season, his 2013 sample should be evidence enough that he has MVP potential in 2014.
Carl Crawford will be called upon to ignite the Dodgers' offense in 2014 as the team's primary leadoff batter.
The former Tampa Bay Rays All-Star was able to stay relatively healthy in his first full season in Los Angeles, but still played in only 116 games. Although it wasn't perfect, Crawford was pleased with the progress he made after two injury-plagued seasons with the Boston Red Sox threatened his career.
"I showed myself that I can still do the things I want to do if I stay healthy," Crawford told the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez. "So that's the main thing, stay healthy. If you stay healthy, then everything will take care of itself, in my mind."
While last season's 15 stolen bases suggest Crawford is no longer the speed demon of years past, he told Hernandez that he wants to run more in 2014 and even changed his jersey number from 25 to 3 in order to get that "slasher-feel number again to put me in that mindset."
Even if he can't duplicate the high stolen base totals from his prime with the Rays, Crawford's .736 OPS from last season suggests he still knows how to get aboard. And setting the table will be very important for Crawford with the parade of big bats that follow him in the lineup.
Crawford only tallied six home runs in 2013, but he displayed some surprising pop in the playoffs with four long balls. If he can regain the modest power stroke he had in Tampa Bay, where he averaged 15 home runs from 2009-2011, Los Angeles' lineup will be all the more threatening.
The Dodgers must also deal with Crawford's weak arm in left field. Now more than a year removed from Tommy John surgery on his elbow, his throws from the outfield should be a bit stronger in 2014, but expect opposing third base coaches to continue waving runners home with regularity.
The Dodgers are hoping 2014 will be a year of long-awaited redemption for Matt Kemp, who has missed 145 games over the past two seasons due to various injuries. Kemp last played a full season in 2011, when he finished second in MVP voting with career highs in home runs (39), RBI (126), runs scored (115) and stolen bases (40).
The problem is that Kemp has yet to run on his surgically repaired ankle during spring training. With the Dodgers' Opening Series in Australia less than a month away, Dodgers' manager Don Mattingly said he is "not hopeful" that Kemp will be ready in time, per MLB.com's Ken Gurnick.
Even when Kemp does make a return to the field, his past hamstring and ankle injuries could hamper him both on defense and on the base paths. Gone are the days of 40 stolen bases; a more realistic number would be 15-20 swipes in 2014. Kemp's mobility in the outfield might also be limited and it won't be surprising to observe him playing a conservative style of defense until he learns to trust his lower body again.
Yet Kemp and Dodgers' general manager Ned Colletti both maintain that the highly-paid center fielder is "not a fourth outfielder," according to ESPN's Mark Saxson.
Until Kemp is ready, Andre Ethier is the most likely candidate to patrol center field. Ethier played the position during last season's playoffs, but it's not the ideal situation for Los Angeles defensively.
Assuming Kemp does not get traded and makes an April return, he will have the potential to put up MVP-type numbers as he did just three seasons ago.
Of course, it won't be a lock for him to reach those heights after missing so much time over the past few years. But having the likes of Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez nestled around him in the batting order can only help Kemp as he attempts to return to prominence.
Yasiel Puig took baseball by storm in 2013, helping resurrect a listless Dodgers squad and becoming an overnight celebrity in the process. While his first three months in Los Angeles were spectacular, Puig faded down the stretch, batting only .214 in September and October.
He was then arrested over the winter for reckless driving and showed up to spring training weighing 251 pounds, 26 more than he weighed at the end of last season, per ESPN's Mark Saxson.
Despite all of this, the Dodgers are planning for Puig to be their Opening Day right fielder. This year will be his first full season in the big leagues, and the young star will need to continue to prove himself.
When Matt Kemp returns to center field, Andre Ethier will be relegated to the bench. Since Ethier is an everyday player, Puig won't have much room for error if he wants to keep the starting job.
Despite the late-season hiccup last year, the Dodgers expect Puig to take another step forward in 2014 as he continues to learn the game and make adjustments both on and off the field.
"We're working on hitting the types of pitches I missed last year and in zones in which I feel a little uncomfortable," Puig told the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez.
Still, with a player like Puig, growing pains will be part of the process. Luckily for the Dodgers, the core group of veterans on the roster should be able to keep Puig in line and help him excel.
The 2013 National League Rookie of the Year runner-up batted .319 with 19 home runs and 42 RBI after being called up in early June. Starting 2014 on Opening Day rather than in the middle of the season means that Puig is primed for career highs in almost every offensive category.
The pressure of Ethier breathing down his neck from the bench should also keep the volatile youngster focused on the field instead of the distractions off t.
Note: All stats courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise noted.
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