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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview: 
It started as an expensive disaster but after mid-season the Dodgers turned their season around in dramatic fashion, going 54-27 after July first and making a deep playoff run (they lost in game 6 of the NLCS to St. Louis). Hanley Ramirez looked like an MVP candidate in the second half and rookie Yasiel Puig emerged as one of the most exciting young players in the game. On the mound, Clayton Kershaw put together his second Cy Young season at age 25 with a miniscule 1.86 ERA and a not-so-miniscule contract extension that will make him the highest paid player in the game next year.

Winter Grade: B+
Coming: Dan Haren, Alex Guerrero (Cuba), Erisabel Arruebarrena (Cuba), Paul Maholm
Going: Ricky Nolasco
There wasn’t much to do after the Dodgers looked to have assembled the NL’s most talented roster; their fourth-best outfielder is all-star Andre Ethier. Although the Dodgers ended up upgrading their rotation with Haren and Maholm, they also have Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett due back at some point this year. With their infield in flux after this year (when Hanley Ramirez is set to be a free agent), the Dodgers signed two Cuban defectors, Guerrero and Arruebarrena. Although they have to be pleased with their successful scouting of Yasiel Puig, neither of this winter’s signings offer that same kind of offensive potential. Guerrero has already seemingly lost the second base job to incumbent Dee Gordon. Re-signing Juan Uribe to play third base was a boring but necessary move for the time being.

Wild Card(s): 
Dan Haren is once again a rebound candidate as his ERA has been much higher than his peripherals would indicate (BB/K rate, HR/IP), but could that be because his declining fastball is yielding more home runs and hard-hit gappers? If so, Dodger Stadium might still be able to mask that better and push him back towards a 3.75-4 ERA, making him a solid third or fourth starter if he’s durable.

Another pitcher to get excited about is Chad Billingsley, who looked very strong in 25 starts in 2012 before missing nearly all of last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Considering how common it is for pitchers to bounce back after the procedure, Billingsley could be a better-than-solid upgrade in the rotation when he returns in late May. The former all-star has had several seasons where he’s looked like no worse than a no. 2 starter.

Key Contract Years: 

Hanley Ramirez could be the most coveted free agent of the 2014-15 offseason if he even comes close to repeating last year’s insane production in half a season (.345/.402/.638 slash line). Haren and Maholm were both signed to one-year deals, so they will be free agents as well, perhaps joined by Josh Beckett if he’s healthy enough to pitch this year. Billingsley has a $14 million option for 2015 which will be picked up if he’s even league average post-surgery.

Rookies: 
Arruebarrena might play the whole season in the minors, but Guerrero is on the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster (he struck out in one at-bat during the two-game opening series in Australia this weekend). Above-average power is his best tool; some scouts think he will be an offense-first second basemen, and others think he will just be a utility-man/AAAA infielder. The most likely rookies to contribute are pitchers Chris Withrow and Jose Dominguez, relievers who already have shown success in brief major league samples. They both throw hard and good succeed in high-leverage situations in 2014. Starter Zach Lee may be ready for the majors later this year but he is likely buried behind the Dodgers starting pitching depth.

Key Questions: 
What is the health status of Matt Kemp?
When he plays, who sits between Ethier, Puig and Carl Crawford?
How will the second base situation shake out by season’s end; we know Dee Gordon can run and play defense but can he hit enough to play everyday (his track record says no)?
When do Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett come back?
What will the Dodgers do with their blocked prospects who are ready for the majors?
Could they upgrade at third base or catcher?
Is Hanley Ramirez back to being a superstar?

Farm System Overview: GREEN (above average) 
Boosted by the Cuban signings, the Dodgers have plenty of depth in case their more expensive veterans disappoint or get injured. Just 17, Julio Urias is set to be the youngest pitcher in high-A ball this year, and he could be the next young pitching phenom to debut for LA. He pitched under strict rules last year limiting his innings but still put up a 2.48 ERA and 11.1 K/9 strikeout rate in low-A. Further up, outfielder Joc Pederson and third baseman/shortstop Corey Seager will attempt to prove themselves big-league ready, and both are five-tool talents despite having no clear path to Los Angeles’ starting lineup. Beyond that, the Dodgers don’t boast much position player talent, but they have a nice collection of power arms.

2014 Prognosis: Strong Contenders
They’re already 2-0! On paper they look like a 95-100 win team, and they’ve shown they have the financial wherewithal to make changes midseason if necessary, either to replace injuries or to bring in another star-level player. More importantly, no other team in the NL West looks like a challenger for this roster, and full seasons from “Han-Ram” and Puig could mean that Kershaw can find some extra victories to match his league-leading ERA.

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