Unfortunately, I do not have the means of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and therefore cannot throw oodles of money at this preview and watch it turn itself into a spectacle of entertainment. Because that's what happened with this team in 2013. Sure, it took a little while. The Dodgers started the year 30-42 and fell 9 1/2 games out of first place and were still in last place as late as July 1st. Then the talent took over, and the Dodgers reeled off 42 victories in their next 50 games. The comeback culminated with a division-clinching celebration in the Arizona Diamondbacks' outfield pool and a run to the NLCS. This year, both the payroll and the expectations are higher. It is World Series or bust in Chavez Ravine in 2014.
Manager: Don Mattingly (4th year)
2013 record: 92-70, 1st in NL West
SB Nation blog: True Blue LA
First series vs. Tigers: April 8-9 @ Dodger Stadium
The only position of uncertainty in the Dodgers' lineup this spring is second base. The club signed Cuban import Alexander Guerrero to a four year, $28 million during the offseason, but speedster Dee Gordon -- primarily a shortstop during his rise through the minors -- is challenging for playing time with another solid spring. The Dodgers may look to give Guerrero some time in the minors while he gets acclimated to life in the United States. Gordon's value depends entirely upon his ability to get on base, where he can put his excellent speed to good use. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez put up all-world numbers last year, hitting .345/.402/.638 in 336 plate appearances around a pair of injuries. If he replicates those numbers in a full season's worth of at-bats, the Dodgers won't care if he sits in a La-Z-Boy in the field. He seems to be off to a good start.
At first, Adrian Gonzalez will continue to search for his ever-disappearing power. He has a .457 slugging average with the Dodgers after six consecutive full seasons at or above .500 with the San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox. He is still an above average hitter, but fans would like to see him return to the All-Star level that made him such a prized commodity in San Diego. Across the diamond, Juan Uribe earned a two year contract extension by hitting .278/.331/.438 with 36 extra base hits in 426 plate appearances. He also punched the team's ticket to the NLCS with a game-winning two-run homer in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Atlanta Braves.
Behind the plate, A.J. Ellis will continue playing with house money as the Dodgers' primary catcher. An 18th round pick out of Austin Peay State University in 2003, Ellis did not make his big league debut until he was 27 years old and did not start more than 40 games in a season until he turned 31 in 2012. He threw out 44% of attempted base stealers in 2013, tops in baseball. Backup catcher Tim Federowicz hit .231/.275/.356 last year, his first season with more than 20 MLB plate appearances.
The Dodgers' embarrassment of riches is most prevalent in the outfield, where a guy like Andre Ethier can get paid $13.5 million to hit .294/.394/.460 against right-handed pitchers... and be the team's fourth outfielder. Ethier will get plenty of playing time with fragile players like Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford on the roster. Kemp, who underwent both shoulder and ankle surgery during the offseason, is capable of putting up MVP numbers. He appears to be close to getting back in action. Crawford had a subpar regular season, but a monster postseason is giving fans hope for a bounce-back season in 2014. Oh, and then there is Cuban superstar Yasiel Puig, who electrified the team, fanbase, and nation in Fernandomania-esque fashion in 2013. Puig hit .319/.391/.534 with 19 home runs in 432 plate appearances last year.
Some baseball fans do not like the fact that Clayton Kershaw is constantly compared to the legendary Sandy Koufax. For some, the best lefty to pitch for the Dodgers since Koufax (sorry, Fernando) does not deserve the comparison, despite Kershaw doing his best Koufax impression in 2013. Kershaw won his second Cy Young award in three years, leading the National League with a 1.83 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 232 strikeouts. He signed a seven year, $215 million contract during the offseason, all but guaranteeing that he will still be playing baseball past the age of 30.
At the other end of the rotation, Josh Beckett and Paul Maholm appear to be competing for the fifth starter spot. Beckett only made eight starts in 2013 before undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in late May. He got roughed up by the Seattle Mariners the other day, opening the day for Maholm, who spent 2013 with the Atlanta Braves. He went 9-8 with a 3.90 ERA and 4.07 FIP in the first half, but missed a month with a wrist injury in the second half. Both Beckett and Maholm will see time in the rotation at some point, especially if fourth starter Dan Haren falters at any point. Haren has struggled in the past two seasons, allowing a 4.50 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 346 1/3 innings with the Angels and Nationals.
Hyun-jin Ryu and Zack Greinke were huge parts of a Dodgers rotation that led baseball with a 3.13 ERA last season. Greinke fractured his collarbone in the first of two scrums that he was involved in, but surrounded his DL stint with a 2.63 ERA and 3.23 FIP in 177 2/3 innings. Meanwhile, Ryu blew away all expectations by allowing a 3.00 ERA and 3.24 FIP in 192 innings. He struggled in his first postseason start, but shook off the butterflies and shut down the St. Louis Cardinals for seven innings in Game 3 of last season's NLCS. He was a ground ball monster, ranking eighth in the National League among qualified starters with a 50.6% ground ball rate.
The Dodgers were able to flex their financial might when building this year's bullpen. They offered up contract extensions to J.P. Howell and Brian Wilson, signed former Indians closer Chris Perez, and still have plenty of payroll left over to eat Brandon League's $7.5 million salary. If you include current closer Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers have four players with the "proven closer" tag (though League's status is iffy). Howell and fellow lefty Paco Rodriguez both have the ability to get righties out, giving Mattingly more flexibility in late innings. Wilson is currently working on a knuckleball, which could be fun.
Brad Thomas says hello
The Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks will kick off the 2014 regular season with a pair of games in Sydney, Australia on March 22nd. Kershaw and Ryu are scheduled to start the two games, the first of which will start at 4 a.m. If you're hell bent on watching the games live (or want to DVR the action), both will be televised on MLB Network.
Player to watch: Yasiel Puig
Puig plays like he's a mongoose wrestling with a plugged-in hair dryer that fell in the bathtub. It's fascinating. It's compelling. It's entertainment. When I plunk down the clams for a ticket, it's what I want to see.
Puig fits the adage "if it's too loud, you're too old" to a tee. He hit. He ran. He threw. He cannonballed (and danced). Sure, some of it probably is not sustainable, but who cares? A player like Puig is why we turn on the game in the first place: to be entertained. He is the must-watch player of must-watch players, if only to answer the question "what will he do next?"
The Dodgers are like the Tigers in that they both have very complete rosters that are much more talented than their divisional counterparts. Unlike the Tigers, the Dodgers have the depth to weather an injury or two, especially on the pitching staff. General manager Ned Colletti has made some questionable deals in the past couple years -- Brandon League's contract, in particular -- but he has also done a nice job building a cohesive roster with the oodles of cash the team's new ownership has handed him. The team should be able to weather the 162 game storm, but they also have the star power for that sprint to 11 wins in October.