Expectations are sky high in LA, and Opening Day will only begin to show just how prepared the Dodgers are for a deep run in October. With that in mind, let's take a look at 10 key questions facing the Dodgers on their quest towards a World Series.
1. Is Matt Kemp ready to regain his MVP form?
It's not hard to see some major differences between Kemp's 2011 season and his 2012 one. Just take a look:
2011 - 161 G, .324 AVG, .399 OBP, 39 HR, 126 RBI, 40 SB
2012 - 106 G, .303 AVG, .367 OBP, 23 HR, 69 RBI, 9 SB
Obviously, those are some pretty big drops in numbers across the board. Not only did his power suffer due to playing in 55 less games, but his running game went from Adrian Peterson to the Oakland Raiders (non-existent). The good news is that he got five months to heal in the offseason as March hit, and has been a regular performer in Spring Training games towards the end of the month. That's a fantastic sight, and with guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez (when he returns from injury) surrounding him in the lineup, I can see Kemp doing some big things this season. I don't think we can expect another 40-40, Triple Crown push, but a dominant player no less.
2. Are Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke the top 1-2 punch in baseball?
On paper, it would be hard to dispute that. We're talking about a couple of stud, #1 pitchers on any team, and here they are pitching together on the same one. That's pretty awesome. I highly doubt anybody is worried about Kershaw regressing. He just turned 25 and has already won a Cy Young Award. It's scary to think that he's only getting better as he reaches his prime.
Understandably so, it's Greinke who concerns people the most. Not necessarily that he won't pitch well, but for a couple other reasons. One, there's question whether he can handle the big spotlight of Los Angeles. Two, he's already had some elbow issues this spring, and is pushing it to even make his first start on time. I can see him taking a little bit of time to adjust, but in the end, there's just so much talent there that if his elbow truly is fine, the Dodgers really will have the best 1-2 tandem in the bigs.
3. Will Hanley Ramirez try to comeback too soon? Will he even be the same player once he does return?
Talk about getting a kick in the stomach while winning a championship. Ramirez and his Dominican Republic team made is all the way through the World Baseball Classic unblemished, and he tore a thumb ligament in the final game. Ouch. Now the Dodgers are without his services until at least late-May.
As we saw from Kemp last season, it's never in anyone's best interests to return from a major injury too early, no matter how badly he wants to. The tricky thing is if the Dodgers are not playing very well when May is upon is, then Ramirez may start getting the itch to return earlier than expected. That didn't work well for Kemp last season, and it also derailed Andre Ethier's 2010 season after he had a scorching hot start. Let's just hope common sense prevails and he does the right thing by sitting out however long he needs to get right.
Once he is back, now we're back to the pre-injury question of whether or not he can regain his superstar form from earlier in his career. The move to LA definitely seemed to at least wake him up from a two-year hibernation, now we have to see if takes the next step. When he's at his best, he's right up there with Kemp and Kershaw as far as talent and impact on the game. He can hit for power and steal bases, something that's an increasingly hard combination to see anymore. It may take him awhile to truly get going, but if he is rolling once August-September rolls around, the Dodgers can be a very hard team to stop.
4. Is Brandon League the true answer at closer, or will it be Kenley Jansen's time again?
Even with the boatloads of cash the Dodgers now have, they still raised plenty of eyebrows as last offseason started by signing League to a three-year, $22.5 million deal. Considering he lost the closer's role with the Mariners last season and struggled when he first got to LA before turning things around in September, that's a pretty loaded deal he got.
The biggest question people have with this deal is probably because of Jansen. Simply put, why don't the Dodgers just make the flame-throwing Jansen their closer? Maybe the Dodgers prefer League and his 60 career saves closing, while Jansen is the bridge in the eighth to get the ball to him. I can understand the reasoning, as Jansen is basically a one-trick pony (cut fastball), though he does it better than nearly everyone not named Mariano Rivera. Plus, while he does have 34 saves in his brief career, he also has eight blown ones, which is a little high. Then again, League has 24 blown saves, so...
You get the point. Here's the bottom line: League will be given the chance to show he can handle the job once April 1 hits, ala Javy Guerra from last season. Big contract or not, I don't think Don Mattingly will hesitate at all to move Jansen to the ninth if League channels his inner-Guerra. Ideally, those two will form a terrific setup-closer combo if they're both on.
5. What to do with all of the leftover starting pitchers?
The Dodgers are in one of the most interesting situations in baseball with so many capable starting pitchers on their roster. After the big two, there's Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, and Ted Lilly. With the exception of Ryu, every single one of those pitchers has had some sort of success in the majors. Anyone of them is capable of being a starting pitcher on most staffs. But, anyone of them could find himself on the way out the door at any moment.
I think it's safe to assume Beckett and Billingsley are locked in the rotation. I have a hard time believing Ryu wouldn't be as well, especially with the size of his contract, and that he's gotten better and better this spring. So do the Dodgers really want to store Capuano, Harang, and Lilly in the bullpen? That just doesn't seem probable. I know I read that Lilly was asked to start the season on the DL, so that would be one way around the problem. If he turns that down, then you have to expect one of them will be moved. There's been reports at various times this spring about scouts attending starts for Harang and Capuano. Lilly is getting over bad shoulder problems, but he's the best of the three when everyone is healthy.
With injuries occurring so often to pitchers, the Dodgers will most likely look to keep two of the three around for as long as they can. But all three? I just don't see that happening.
6. Is Luis Cruz the real deal?
During a lost 2012 for the Dodgers, one of the lone bright spots was a young kid who quickly became a fan favorite playing third and short. One of the biggest chants from Dodger Stadium (for those who actually bothered to show up) was the "Cruuuuuuuuuuuz!" call at the end of the season. And with good reason, as he hit .297 with 20 doubles, 6 homers, and 40 RBIs in 78 games.
If you're a fantasy baseball player, then this is the type of guy whom the "experts" label as a "regression candidate." It's understandable in a way because he's never had big numbers in his career, dating back through the minors. By looking strictly at the numbers, people can guess that he found lightning in a bottle and a lot went right for him.
I'm going to take the flipside and buy into him, though. I like his aggressive approach at the plate, and think it's a welcome addition to a lineup that can use more power. Plus, he's very versatile in the field, as he can flip-flop between short and third, as he'll do to start the season because of Ramirez's injury. I don't think he'll approach .300 again, but he's an exciting player and I look for him to get plenty of big hits this year.
7. Which Adrian Gonzalez can we expect?
There was plenty of buzz last trade deadline when Gonzalez was brought in from Boston. Finally the Dodgers had a true cleanup hitter to put behind Kemp in the #3 spot. Here's a guy who hit 30+ homers for four straight seasons with the Padres and Red Sox, and is still one of the most feared sluggers in the game.
The result? Three homers and 22 RBIs in 36 games. How many people remember that his first at-bat in LA was a three-run homer? Hard to imagine a power outage like that. All of a sudden that shoulder surgery he had back in October of 2010 looked a lot more serious. Maybe it's a lingering injury that is starting to really take its toll.
I suppose only Gonzalez knows the answer to that, but no matter how you slice it, the Dodgers need him to be the big bopper again. He's really the only other true power threat with Kemp, and if Carl Crawford is leading off and getting on base, then Gonzo can have some big numbers this year. Three taters in 36 games aren't the numbers of a cleanup hitter, so let's hope his shoulder is fine and he's more comfortable this go around.
8. With that in mind, which Carl Crawford can we expect?
One of, if not THE, biggest question marks surrounding the Dodgers this spring was the health of Crawford, who underwent Tommy John surgery last year with the Red Sox before being traded to LA. He's been everything from completely out, to making a comeback, to suffering a setback, to playing as if everything is fine. He's hard to figure out.
The good news is that he's currently at the stage of playing as if everything is fine, and that is some absolutely great news. The Dodgers have zero options other than him to hit leadoff. They can have some guys doing spot duty like Nick Punto, Mark Ellis, and Skip Schumaker, but obviously nobody like Crawford. He has gap power and blazing speed on the bases, and truly can be a difference maker.
He'll never have a golden arm, but that's not why he's there. When he was in his prime with the Rays, he was one of the best players in baseball, much like Ramirez was with the Marlins. Now the Dodgers have both of those guys with something to prove. Elbow injuries are no joke, but if he really is over all of the bad stuff, I'm pumped to watch him atop the Dodgers' order.
9. Will Don Mattingly earn a new contract... or will this be the last we see of him in Dodger blue?
A story that has been kept on the back burner so far has been the contract status of Mattingly, who is entering the final year of his three-year deal. The only time it's come up was when he looked into getting an extension but was turned down. For a team with sky-high expectations, management wants to see how things go this year, which is their right to do.
I love Mattingly's fire, and really do believe in him leading this team. There's times that fire burns too hot, as he has to control getting ejected so much. In other words, he can't be going all Bobby Cox on us! Though if that leads to Cox's success, now we're talking. But anyway, anything less than a playoff appearance will not be good news for him. He has to win and has to win now.
10. Last but not least, what will the Dodgers do with phenom Yasiel Puig?
In 26 games this spring, Puig hit .526 with 5 doubles, 2 triples, 3 homers, 11 RBIs, and 4 stolen bases. What did that earn him? A ticket to Double-A Chattanooga. I guess when you're 22 with zero big league experience, even the best Spring Training ever isn't a guarantee of a roster spot.
But let's not kid ourselves, you have to believe that it's only a matter of time before Mr. Puig makes his return to Dodger Stadium. And boy, if he keeps progressing as the five-tool talent that he's shaping up to be, even an inexperienced kid this age is going to get his shot. It only makes sense.
The biggest problem right now is the loaded outfield the Dodgers employ. With names like Kemp, Crawford, and Ethier etched into the lineup, it's not like one of them will be benched. That's a whole lot of money and big numbers riding the pine, so that's not going to happen. The most likely scenario, assuming there's no injuries, is a trade. I recently wrote about Ethier being the favorite in my view to be moved. His declining power could be swapped in order for Puig's bat to make an impact. I'm not saying that's even on the table right now, as a lot can happen during a season. But, it's certainly something to keep in mind.