After getting a taste of postseason success in 2013, the Dodgers find themselves hungry for more in 2014. This is a team built to win now, but also full of the question marks that led to a poor start a season ago.
The unquestioned strength of the Dodgers is pitching, with a top-heavy staff led by starters Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu, and closer Kenley Jansen. Kershaw enters his age-26 season arguably with more on the positive side of his ledger through age 25 than anyone in the live-ball era. He won his second Cy Young Award in three seasons in 2013 and was rewarded with a seven-year, $215 million contract that featured the highest average annual salary of any deal in baseball history. Jansen is the Dodgers’ game-ending version of Kershaw, the best relief pitcher in the National League this side of Craig Kimbrel. Just four years after converting from catcher, Jansen put together his finest season in 2013, with a 1.88 ERA and 111 strikeouts against only 18 walks.
In the bullpen, Jansen is surrounded by a wealth of experience and the most expensive bullpen in Dodgers history -- just over a combined $33 million. Brian Wilson was lights out down the stretch in 2013, 18 months after Tommy John surgery, and the Dodgers made an $18.5 million bet that his return is real. He will be the primary setup man, backed by left-handers J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez and a pair of All-Star closers on the rebound in Chris Perez and Brandon League. In addition to the major league depth, the Dodgers have young power arms waiting in the wings in Chris Withrow, Jose Dominguez, Yimi Garcia and Jarret Martin.
Run prevention figures to be a great strength for the Dodgers. Run scoring could be a strength, too, but health could be the major determinant. Hanley Ramirez was the Dodgers’ best hitter in 2013, buoyed by his experience of winning the World Baseball Classic in the Dominican Republic. He returned to the superstar tier of players, delivering an MVP-level performance. The problem was that he only played 86 games, sidelined by injuries to his thumb, shoulder and back.
Fully healthy against the Braves in the NLDS, Ramirez hit .500 and tied a franchise record with six extra-base hits in a playoff series, helping the Dodgers to win in four games. But in his first at-bat of the NLCS against the Cardinals, a fastball by Joe Kelly broke two ribs and effectively neutralized Ramirez for the remainder of the series. Ramirez was 2-for-15 against St. Louis, and the Dodgers fell in six games, averaging just over two runs per contest in the series.
"If he's healthy all the way, it definitely changes everything," said first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. "I think it was one of the big keys to us losing the series."
But Ramirez is not alone with health concerns among the position players. Matt Kemp is recovering from microfracture surgery on his left ankle and won’t be ready for domestic Opening Day. The good news for Kemp is that unlike last offseason, he was able to lift weights this winter and has shown glimpses of his trademark power during batting practice in the spring. It’s just a matter of him returning to the field after missing 145 of the Dodgers’ last 290 games.
Carl Crawford had a bounce-back season in 2013 but even then was limited by injuries (hamstring, back) to just 116 games. Andre Ethier was slowed by an ankle injury during the last month of the season and playoffs. In theory the Dodgers have four starting-level outfielders for three spots, but someone always seems to be hurt to prevent that from ever becoming a problem. In 2013 there were only two games in which all four outfielders were healthy and on the active roster, and in both games Kemp got hurt and was unable to finish the game.
In the infield, the Dodgers were banking on a relative unknown in Alex Guerrero at second base, to whom they gave $28 million over four years, but it will start the season with Dee Gordon in the lineup. At third base the Dodgers re-upped with Juan Uribe, who could continue his 2013 resurgence (.278/.331/.438) or revert to the disastrous bust he was in 2011-2012 (.199/.262/.289).
A healthy Kemp and healthy Ramirez would give the Dodgers a very dangerous lineup, and a full season of anything close to what Yasiel Puig provided as a rookie -- .319/.391/.534 with 19 home runs in 104 games -- gives the Dodgers a potential heart of the batting order unmatched in the National League. Even with all the questions, the Dodgers do have depth in both offense and pitching, and it makes them the clear favorite in the National League West. Then again, with a payroll well north of $250 million, they better be.