First in a series previewing spring training in Arizona.
The Los Angeles Dodgers finally made good last season on the mega-millions of dollars its new ownership group spent on talent acquistion, advancing to the National League Championship Series.
Not good enough.
For the Dodgers, with their league-high payroll and a surplus of star players, it’s World Series or bust as another spring training commences. The Dodgers report earlier than every team but the Diamondbacks, their opponent in MLB’s Opening Series in Australia on March 22 and 23.
The Dodgers took care of a few questions ahead of camp, giving manager Don Mattingly a three-year contract extension and signing ace Clayton Kershaw to a seven-year extension, the richest in MLB history for a pitcher.
But questions remain for the reigning NL West champions. Here’s a look at those questions and what’s in store for the Dodgers in the Cactus League this spring.
A rash of early injuries (Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, et al) and underwhelming performances made for a miserable start to the season, leaving the Dodgers in last place in May. Just as it appeared Mattingly was on the verge of getting canned, the roster got relatively healthy and Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig arrived from the minor leagues to energize the team. The Dodgers turned things around in nearly unprecedented fashion, finishing 92-70 to win the NL West. They reached the NLCS but lost to St. Louis in six games. Highlights of the season included Kershaw’s second Cy Young, a resurgent year from Hanley Ramirez and the dazzling debut of Puig.
— Arrivals: IF Alexander Guerrero (international free agent), SP Dan Haren (free agent), RP J.P. Howell (free agent), SP Paul Maholm (free agent), RP Chris Perez (free agent), RP Jamey Wright (free agent)
— Departures: SP Chris Capuano (free agent), 2B Mark Ellis (free agent), IF Jerry Hairston (retired), SP Ted Lilly (retired), SP Ricky Nolasco (free agent), IF Nick Punto (free agent), IF Skip Schumaker (free agent), IF Michael Young (retired).
Matt Kemp is longing to show he’s healthy again after being limited to 179 games over the past two seasons.
Can Alexander Guerrero make an impact right away?
The Dodgers made another international splash this offseason by signing 26-year-old Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero, a star in Cuba’s top league. But will the signing be a success like those of outfielder Yasiel Puig and pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu have been for the Dodgers? Some project Guerrero to open the season as the Dodgers’ starting second baseman after the departures of Mark Ellis and Skip Schumaker. Others believe Guerrero will need more than a spring training of instruction before he’s major league ready. If Guerrero starts the season in the minors, the Dodgers have Dee Gordon to start at second base.
Puig took baseball by storm last season after a supposedly temporary callup turned into a permanent stay and a logjam in the outfield. The latter issue is yet to be resolved, but the greater issue is Puig’s maturity and ability to accept coaching. The 23-year-old showed stubbornness to change his approach last season, particularly on the base paths, and also played with a cockiness that rubbed many opponents the wrong way. This offseason, Puig was arrested in Florida on a reckless driving charge, which was later dropped. The near-All-Star and NL Rookie of the Year runner-up appears to have endless baseball potential, but how he handles all that comes with it remains to be seen.
How much will stability mean for Don Mattingly?
Mattingly wasn’t happy about entering last season as a "lame duck" manager — that is, in the final year of his contract — and nearly got the ax during the season before the Dodgers decided to ride out the season with their third-year manager. The decision paid off, but even then, with an NLCS appearance having vested his 2014 contract option, Mattingly didn’t have a commitment from Dodgers brass, which didn’t announce the option had vested. Finally in January, the Dodgers gave Mattingly a three-year extension. Mattingly admitted that questions about his status were a distraction that took away from the team’s goals.
The Dodgers’ starting rotation is pretty well set — and stacked — with veteran Dan Haren joining reigning NL Cy Young winner Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Ryu. The fifth spot remains unsolved. Josh Beckett is recovering from thoracic outlet surgery and should be ready for spring training. Chad Billingsley is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and likely won’t be ready until May. The leader for the final spot could be late addition Paul Maholm, who’s healthy and won 10 games last season.
Matt Kemp. Since finishing second in NL MVP voting in 2011, Kemp has played in 179 games, including just 73 last season. He’s been hampered by countless injuries, the latest a broken bone in his ankle that could be career threatening. Kemp faces another spring training of working back from injury to be the productive player he was so recently.
Pitchers and catchers reported Saturday, Feb. 8. Full squad reports Thursday, Feb. 13. Games begin Feb. 27 at Camelback Ranch – Glendale, 10710 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix. Visit Dodgers.com for full schedule and tickets.