ESPN's Buster Olney: Dodgers are 'easy favorite' in NL West

ESPN

LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers reopen their regular season tonight in San Diego against the Padres, and Buster Olney will be a part of the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcast. Earlier this week, Olney was kind enough to take time to talk about the Dodgers. He likes their chances to win in 2014.

"Unless they suffer a catastrophic series of injuries - look at the Texas Rangers, for example - I think they'll win the division, handily. They are an easy favorite in that division, the way that the other teams are constructed," Olney said. "The only way the other teams can catch them would be if the Dodgers play down to the other teams, either through injuries or the performance of some of their guys."

Olney also talked divisional foes.

"With the Giants, it's possible that Matt Cain bounces back and Tim Lincecum might be able to bounce back, but I don't think the other teams in the division have the depth that the Dodgers do," he said. "Going into spring training I was thinking San Diego could make a dent potentially. Yet again they are suffering these pitching injuries, which are just crushing from them, with [Cory] Luebke going down, Max Fried going down, and it looks like Joe Wieland is going down, too."

The Dodgers have the most expensive bullpen in franchise history at just over $33 million, including bringing back Brian Wilson and J.P. Howell and adding Chris Perez and Jamey Wright. But with 2014 payouts topping $260 million it's easy for $33 million to be under the radar.

"They just have so much talent. Their pitching staff is so loaded," Olney said. "With all the stars they have, it sort of obscures the fact that they've accumulated so much talent, especially in the bullpen."

Yasiel Puig was in the news this week after a pair of baserunning gaffes marred an otherwise productive second game in Australia, a game after manager Don Mattingly jokingly referred to Puig as the boy who cried wolf. A team meeting was called to discuss the matter, the severity of which and caller of the meeting is in debate (skip ahead to about the 29-minute mark of Thursday's Dodger Talk).

"The way that Puig responded to [the team meeting] is a great sign," Olney said. "There's this perception that it's some old sportswriters picking on Puig because he didn't hit the cutoff man, but there's no question that internally there are people upset with him. I've heard it directly from people who aren't going to go on the record necessarily, but it's there. That's why Donnie held the team meeting, to give people a chance to say some things.

"The team is thinking 'We have a chance to be pretty good, and we can't be making the same mistakes over and over again.' Donnie is smart. He was in the New York media for years, and knows how to get a message across. It seems like in the last six days he almost played bad cop / good cop by himself.

"Their hope is that he plays well, they leave him out there and he plays everyday, and the choice probably comes down to one of the other three guys. But the decision is going to depend on how he plays and how he responds."

The Dodgers will start the season with a platoon at second base with Dee Gordon and Justin Turner, a job that most parties would like Gordon to seize.

"It is an area of concern," Olney said of second base. "Their absolute hope is that Dee Gordon grabs onto it and takes off. He's internal, he doesn't cost anything relative to other solutions."

The wild card at second base is Cuban defector Alex Guerrero, to whom the Dodgers committed $28 million over four years. The 27-year-old has been praised for his work ethic and improvement during spring training both in the field and at the plate, but after essentially not playing competitive baseball for roughly a year he will start the season in Triple-A Albuquerque.

"There is a huge split on what [Guerrero] is. Clearly the Dodgers, given the amount of money they invested in him, somebody in their organization has seen potential in him. But I have had people from other teams tell me their scouts are flat out convinced that he can't play," Olney said. "It is interesting that there is such a split with him."

With huge contracts signed in recent days by Miguel Cabrera (eight years, $248 million with the Tigers) and Mike Trout (six years, $144.5 million with the Angels), the next big deal could be with Hanley Ramirez. The Dodgers shortstop will be the prize position player on next year's free agent market, if the Dodgers don't sign him to an extension first, as Olney thinks they will.

"I think they sign him. They have demonstrated time and again, this ownership group by the fact that they've ascended to No. 1 in payroll, that they're going to do what it takes," Olney said. "I know from talking to Mark McGwire and other people in the organization how much respect they have for the type of player he's become."

While Ramirez won't get $248 million, Olney said he is comparable to Cabrera in one respect.

"[McGwire] said if he wants to know what a pitcher's trying to do, the game plan, Hanley is the guy he likes to talk to because he has such an acute understanding of pitchers," Olney noted.

The Dodgers and Padres on Sunday night will open the 25th season of ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, with Dan Shulman and John Kruk on the call and Olney reporting in-game. In addition, Baseball Tonight will run a 90-minute show beginning at 3:30 p.m. PT, with Karl Ravech, Barry Larkin and Kruk live from Petco Park.

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