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2015 team preview: Are the Los Angeles Dodgers the best team in baseball?

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A new front office and deeper roster has the defending NL West champs ready for more in 2015.

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Money has done a lot for the Los Angeles Dodgers. After being acquired by Guggenheim Baseball Management in 2012, the Dodgers doubled their payroll to over $215 million on Opening Day in 2013. They have invested heavily in both professional and amateur talent, signing stars like Yasiel Puig, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Zack Greinke. They pulled off one of the most one-sided trades in baseball history (in terms of salary) with the Boston Red Sox in 2012. They gave Clayton Kershaw a $215 million extension two months prior to his 26th birthday.

Yet, all of this spending has not brought a world championship to Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers have bowed out of the postseason at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals in both of the past two seasons.

So what does a team that literally can't buy any more good players do? Buy everything else. The Dodgers overhauled their front office this offseason, hiring former Tampa Bay Rays' GM Andrew Friedman as team president. Friedman cleaned house quickly, and named former A's assistant GM Farhan Zaidi as his general manager. The rest of the front office has similarly been filled with a who's who of saber-savvy baseball minds.

While Friedman and company have made a flurry of roster moves since taking up shop, the core of this team remains unchanged. Puig, Kershaw, Greinke, and Ryu are still around. So are Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Juan Uribe, Kenley Jansen, and top prospect Joc Pederson. The periphery of the roster is far different, though. Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson are two oft-injured parts of a deeper rotation than last year's version. Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick provide more substance than style, and far fewer headaches than Hanley Ramirez's mouth and glove offered. New additions Chris Hatcher, Joel Peralta, and Dustin McGowan are not Brian Wilson, which instantly improves the bullpen.

This is a damn good team, but one with a world of expectations hovering over it. Can the Dodgers finally get over the hump in 2015?

Manager: Don Mattingly (5th season)
2015 record: 94-68
SB Nation blog: True Blue LA

Lineup

The Dodgers may have lost Matt Kemp and his 170 wRC+ from the second half of 2014, but their outfield is still loaded with talent. Leading the charge is Yasiel Puig, who followed up his excellent rookie campaign with a damn-right-I-can-do-it-again 5.1 WAR in 148 games. Puig hit .296/.382/.480 with 16 home runs and 69 RBI. He threw out 15 baserunners. However, the most impressive stat of his season might be his 10.5 percent walk rate, which ended any questions about his plate discipline. Alongside Puig will be Joc Pederson, a 22-year-old outfielder who hit .143 in a brief call-up last season. The hype is warranted, though, as Pederson hit .303/.435/.582 in Triple A last season. The other outfield spot belongs to Carl Crawford, who has had his first healthy offseason since 2010, but the roster is still crowded. Andre Ethier is still around because he can't be traded, and Scott Van Slyke had a 193 wRC+ (!) against left-handed pitching last season.

The Dodgers are also missing the offensive contributions of Hanley Ramirez, who hit .283/.369/.448 with 13 home runs and 71 RBI last year. In his place is Jimmy Rollins, who has already been tabbed as the team's leadoff hitter. Rollins only hit .243 last season, but walked 10.5 percent of the time, stole 28 bases, and was worth 3.6 WAR. He will be 36 this season -- a big red flag for most shortstops -- but has averaged 3.2 WAR per year since 2010. Rollins' double play partner will be Howie Kendrick, who spent the last nine years playing for the Angels on the other side of town. Kendrick had a monster age-30 season, hitting .293/.347/.397 in 674 plate appearances. He has never been one to take a lot of walks, but he's an above average defender who consistently hits for a high average.

They aren't the Yankees yet (it takes a lot more winning to earn that title) but that is their end goal.

The corner infield spots are also set in stone. Juan Uribe continues to be one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball, but will be 36 this season and is a free agent next winter. He hit .311 last year, but only walked 3.7 percent of the time, resulting in a .337 on-base percentage. He hit for a decent amount of power, but the 20-homer seasons he had with the White Sox and Giants earlier in his career are long gone. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez had been suffering from a power outage of his own prior to 2014, but a resurgent .208 ISO and 128 wRC+ resulted in his best season since he was worth 6.3 WAR for the Boston Red Sox in 2011. Gonzalez mashed against right-handers to the tune of a .539 slugging average and .236 ISO, but had an abysmal 68 wRC+ against left-handed pitching.

Arguably the most important addition to the Dodgers' lineup is catcher Yasmani Grandal, who was the centerpiece of the return for Kemp. Grandal hit just .225/.327/.401 last season, but he was coming off of ACL reconstruction surgery the previous August. Grandal's .795 OPS in the second half and .758 OPS away from Petco Park are more indicative of his offensive capabilities. He's also just 26 and has four years of club control remaining before free agency. That's not the case for backup A.J. Ellis, who will be 34 year old this season. Ellis has Dodgers fans excited because of his new offseason training regimen, but his real job is to keep Clayton Kershaw happy and effective.

Pitchers

Speaking of Kershaw, the superstar left-hander collected his third Cy Young award in four seasons in 2014. His 1.77 ERA was the best in baseball for the fourth year running, and his 21 wins tied a career-best. Some old-timers still bristle whenever Kershaw is compared to Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax, but a few more years like 2014 and people might start to shudder whenever the reverse comparison is made. Standing in Kershaw's immense shadow -- quite literally, thanks to a pair of top-ten Cy Young finishes since he arrived in Los Angeles -- is Zack Greinke. The right-hander made just his second career All-Star appearance last year, but is still only 31 years old. He has the chance to opt out of his contract after this season, so another strong campaign will mean more than just wins for the Dodgers.

This is a damn good team, but one with a world of expectations hovering over it.

Left-hander Hyun-jin Ryu hit the disabled list for two separate injuries in 2014, limiting him to just 152 innings. They were still very effective innings, as he allowed a 3.38 ERA and struck out nearly five batters for every walk he gave up. Ryu's health is crucial for the Dodgers, as the options behind him are significantly riskier. Brandon McCarthy signed a four-year deal after a strong showing in New York during the second half last year. It was the first 200-inning season of his career, though. Health is a concern for him, as well as left-hander Brett Anderson, who signed for $10 million. It has taken Anderson four years to compile 200 big league innings thanks to a litany of injuries; hopefully all that Dodger money buys the best doctors in baseball too. Joe Wieland and Zach Lee are options whenever one of the other starters falters, as is Brandon Beachy once he returns from Tommy John surgery.

The Dodgers' 2014 bullpen might be the answer to the question "What if Joe Nathan had actually been good last year?" Closer Kenley Jansen was his usual incredible self, allowing a 2.76 ERA and 1.91 FIP in 65 1/3 innings. However, the bullpen as a unit had the fourth-highest ERA in the National League last year, while their FIP and xFIP didn't rank much better. Jansen is currently on the shelf after having foot surgery, leaving the late-inning duties up to a new cast of characters. Joel Peralta, Dustin McGowan, and Chris Hatcher arrived from Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Miami, respectively, and all look to be better options than incumbent setup man Brandon League. League wasn't bad last season, allowing a 2.57 ERA, but a brutal August dimmed Don Mattingly's faith in the 31-year-old right-hander down the stretch.

Down on the farm

If there's something to be scared about with this Dodgers club, it might not have anything to do with their loaded lineup, vaunted rotation, or richer-than-God ownership. In addition to the riches they have at the major league level, the Dodgers also possess a farm system that is viewed among the very best in baseball. Joc Pederson is the name that will get headlines because of his proximity to the majors, but many evaluators hold shortstop Corey Seager and Mexican left-hander Julio Urias in even higher regard. In addition to the hydra atop the system, the Dodgers have also picked up players like Austin Barnes and Enrique Hernandez to bolster their depth. High ceiling players like Grant Holmes, Julian Leon, and Alex Verdugo are sprinkled throughout the lower levels.

Player to watch: Clayton Kershaw

Could there be anyone else? Kershaw celebrated his new contract by making one start before hitting the disabled list last March. He missed six weeks of action -- but only five weeks of games, thanks to the team's early season trip to Australia -- and returned in early May. In his first start off the DL, he tossed seven shutout innings against the Washington Nationals, a team that won 96 games. This was just another ho hum outing for the eventual Cy Young winner and MVP; Kershaw had eight starts with zero earned runs in 2014. He allowed more than three runs just one time, a seven-run shellacking at the hands of the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was one of just four games the Dodgers lost with Kershaw on the mound all season long.

Like the Justin Verlander of 2009 to 2012, Kershaw is a threat to no-hit the opposition in each start he makes. Kershaw blanked the Colorado Rockies on June 18th, striking out 15 with no walks. He nearly did it again on July 4th, holding the Rockies to two hits and a walk at Coors Field. He had seven other outings with three or fewer hits allowed. He's almost boring -- you know the offense has no chance when he's on the mound -- but he's as must-see as they come.

Outlook

The new Dodgers regime will be awarded a couple of years to get their own mix of players just right, but expectations are sky high for this Dodgers club. They have as much star talent as anyone, resulting in the highest payroll in baseball, and now have the braintrust and farm system to match. They aren't the Yankees yet -- it takes a lot more winning to earn that title -- but that is their end goal. The 2015 season is just the beginning. If the Dodgers don't break through and win their first title since 1988, patience will grow that much thinner in Chavez Ravine for 2016.