The Dodgers’ payroll is projected to exceed $225 million, and this is how they plan to round out their roster?
The consensus among evaluators in Arizona is that the Dodgers’ bench is the weakest in the National League West. That dynamic will change once Matt Kemp returns, turning the Dodgers’ outfield into a four-headed monster.
Still . . .
Scott Van Slyke could be a solid right-handed alternative to left-handed-hitting outfielders Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. But Baxter, who has four career homers in 353 at-bats, currently looms as the club’s only left-handed-hitting reserve.
Not surprisingly, considering all of their questions, the Dodgers continue to look for bench help, according to major league sources.
Who plays short if Hanley Ramirez misses 70 or more games, as he has in two of the three past seasons?
Who fills in at third if Juan Uribe regresses at age 35 or reverts to the Uribe of 2011 and ’12?
Maybe the answers were on the Dodgers’ flight to Australia on Sunday night. Gordon, who turns 26 on April 22, could slide back over to short. Figgins, 36, has impressed club officials with his versatility and plate discipline. Turner, 29, is a useful sort who plays all four infield positions.
Or, maybe the answers are the Dodgers’ two latest Cuban imports, infielder Alex Guerrero, who also made the trip to Australia, and shortstop Erisbel Arruebarrena, who did not.
Guerrero, 27, and Arruebarrena, 23, signed for a combined $53 million, or $11 million more than the Dodgers guaranteed outfielder Yasiel Puig in June 2012.
For that kind of money — $7 million per year for Guerrero, $5 million per year for Arruebarrena — they should be ready to make immediate contributions.
Arruebarrena joined the team only last Thursday, but he is so gifted defensively — Dodgers special assistant Jose Vizcaino compares him to a young Tony Fernandez — that club officials already view him as a potential injury replacement for Ramirez this season, if necessary.
Guerrero’s slow transition from shortstop to second, however, is one reason the Dodgers are in such tenuous positions both at second base and on their bench.
Another reason, of course, is turnover.
Second baseman Mark Ellis, infielder Nick Punto, and infielder/outfielder Skip Schumaker left as free agents. Michael Young and Jerry Hairston Jr. retired.
Those veterans combined for only 1.2 wins above replacement (WAR), and only Punto and Ellis were positive contributors to a team that reached the National League Championship Series, according to Fangraphs.com.
Then again, the veterans also were stabilizing influences in the clubhouse. Manager Don Mattingly, speaking generally about Punto and the other reserves, said, "If we didn’t have them, we would have been dead."
Ellis and Punto, both 36, and Schumaker, 34, are at ages where they could decline rapidly, and the Dodgers wanted younger reserves. All three vets, though, joined likely contenders: Ellis went to the Cardinals for one year, $5.25 million; Schumaker to the Reds for two years, $5 million; Punto to the Athletics for one year, $3 million.
The Dodgers’ handling of Ellis was particularly curious, considering that they could have brought him back simply by exercising his 2014 club option for $5.75 million.
The team declined Ellis’ option on Oct. 31, just 18 days after signing Guerrero. At the time, it appeared that the Dodgers simply were committing to Guerrero, who is 10 years younger than Ellis. But both before and after the addition of Guerrero, team officials indicated to Ellis that they wanted him back, sources said.
Here is what happened, according to those sources:
Dodgers chairman Mark Walter personally assured Ellis that he was an important member of the club after nixing a potential trade for Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick at the non-waiver deadline last July.
The deal, as previously reported by FOX Sports, was for right-hander Zach Lee, the Dodgers’ No. 4 prospect according to Baseball America, and another top minor league pitcher. The Dodgers then could have flipped Ellis to the Royals, possibly for right-hander Luke Hochevar.
Ellis, after speaking with Walter, was under the impression that the Dodgers wanted him long term. After the season ended, the team indicated that it might make him a two-year offer. Right up until the moment that Ellis signed with the Cardinals, a one-year deal was still within reach.
In the end, Ellis grew weary of the Dodgers’ indecisiveness. His role with the Cardinals is not clearer than it would have been with the Dodgers; the Cardinals also are grooming a younger second baseman, Kolten Wong. But between his $1 million buyout and $5.25 million salary, Ellis came out $500,000 ahead, with a chance to make another $1.25 million through incentives based upon plate appearances.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, still don’t know what they have in Guerrero, who sat out last season before defecting, then missed time in winter ball because of hamstring issues.
Guerrero’s rust is evident, club officials say. He needs to get into better shape and, of course, adjust to a new country and culture.
And if neither Guerrero and Gordon proves the answer at second?
The Reds were willing to trade Brandon Phillips for most of the off-season, but a rumored Phillips-for-Matt Kemp deal never gained traction.
The Dodgers already had signed Guerrero and were not willing to trade Kemp at a discount, even though the center fielder was coming off ankle and shoulder surgeries.
Now Kemp is close to returning and looking quite promising. The Dodgers are excited that they again might see the player who was the MVP runner-up (to the tainted Ryan Braun) in 2011. Right-handed power is rare in the sport; if Kemp regains his mojo, the Dodgers will not be trading him for Phillips, or anyone else.
Heck, if Kemp regains his mojo, the Dodgers’ issues at second base and on their bench will seem a lot less prominent and perhaps even irrelevant.
For now, though, the team remains oddly incomplete. For $225 million, you would expect more, no?