Dodgers start spring full of expectations

Players wander into the Los Angeles Dodgers’ spacious clubhouse
all morning, exchanging handshakes and hugs, asking about health
and family, smiles all around.

The weight of expectations from what likely will be baseball’s
highest payroll are nowhere to be found. With six weeks until
opening day, eight months until the World Series starts, there’s
plenty of time for that.

Right now, the middle of February, the first day of spring
training, the focus is not on what this team might be able to do,
but on setting the foundation to even give themselves a chance to
get there.

”All these expectations are just noise to me and noise to our
club,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said on Tuesday, reporting
day for pitchers and catchers at Camelback Ranch Stadium. ”We
should win the World Series and this and that, that’s all fine,
that’s all good, but my job is to prepare this team to play and to
cut out the noise.”

Mattingly has plenty to work with after the team’s owners went
on a spending spree.

Stuck in bankruptcy, the Dodgers opened last season 12th in the
majors with a payroll of $94.7 million.

After Frank McCourt sold the team in May, the new ownership
group that includes Mark Walter, Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten
whipped out the wallets, working out deals to acquire Hanley
Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Brandon
League.

The Dodgers kept handing out stacks of cash during the
offseason, paying a combined $183 million to right-hander Zack
Greinke and South Korean pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin.

The wheeling and dealing sent the Dodgers payroll over $200
million, into luxury-tax range and likely ahead of the New York
Yankees, baseball’s biggest spender the past 14 years.

A price tag like that brings expectations, particularly for a
storied franchise that hasn’t been to the World Series since
winning the title in 1988.

”I expect to win. I expected to win last year, I expected us to
win the year before, honestly,” Mattingly said. ”I just believe
that you can do anything if things work out. Granted, this year I
have some more leeway.”

The trouble in spring training will be figuring out how to get
all these high-priced pieces to fit.

Los Angeles has talent and depth across the field and its bench,
leaving Mattingly with a lot of evaluating and figuring to do
during the spring.

Injuries to key players also could stretch the decision-making
into the season.

Center fielder Matt Kemp is recovering from left shoulder
surgery and left fielder Carl Crawford, picked up in last season’s
blockbuster trade with Boston, is recovering from surgery on his
left elbow and wrist.

Pitcher Clayton Kershaw had problems with his right hip late
last season – he says he’s healthy now – and fellow starter Ted
Lilly is coming off left shoulder surgery and Chad Billingsley, No.
2 in the rotation last season, is returning from a partially torn
right elbow ligament.

Putting this puzzle together won’t be easy and Mattingly will
likely have to make some choices as spring ends and the season
starts.

”Everybody can’t hit third or fourth and there’s only going to
be one closer, for the most part, so there’s going to be roles for
everybody,” Mattingly said. ”When you build a club, you’re trying
to build a club where the pieces fit together and you don’t have
four second basemen or four center fielders. You want that guy who
is a utility player, who comes off the bench and is happy doing
that and likes that role. When you put a club together you can’t
just throw a bunch of names together and expect it to work. ”

The biggest decisions will likely come in the starting
rotation.

The Dodgers enter spring training with eight pitchers vying for
five spots in the rotation.

Kershaw and Greinke appear to be locks at the top and Mattingly
said Tuesday that he doesn’t see right-hander Josh Beckett as
someone who could move to the bullpen. That will likely leave Ryu,
who will get a crash course in American culture and baseball, Chris
Capuano, Aaron Harang, Billingsley and Lilly fighting for what may
be just two spots.

”Everything’s kind of up in the air right now,” Mattingly
said.

The glut of starters could end up helping the Dodgers.

Having so many potential starters certainly gives them depth,
which could prove useful later in spring or even into the season,
particularly with three of the pitchers coming off injuries.

It also fosters a competitive atmosphere, with even the guys at
the top knowing they can’t let up with so many players fighting for
the same spots.

”Unless we do something different and go with six starters,
there’s going to be competition,” Kershaw said. ”But it’ll make
spring training mean something and helps us drive each other and
push each other. Good competition is fun.”