Big expectations match big payroll for Dodgers

PHOENIX— The most expensive team in baseball history will start to assemble Tuesday, when pitchers and catchers report to the Dodgers’ Arizona spring-training complex.

The Dodgers have a projected opening-day payroll of $230 million and a roster that includes a dozen former All-Stars.

Several of these players were acquired in the middle of last season, which ended with a shocking collapse that left them eight games back of their division rival, the San Francisco Giants. General Manager Ned Colletti thinks that spending the spring together could allow these Dodgers to meet the incredibly high expectations of their ambitious and free-spending owners.

“I think we have a chance to be a very special team,” Colletti said.

There is also the potential for a lot to go wrong. Several key players are returning from significant injuries and the team has question marks on the left side of the infield, as well as the top of the batting order.

Among the story lines to watch this spring:

Can Kemp be Kemp?
Matt Kemp, the team’s All-Star center fielder and No. 3 hitter, is recovering from a major shoulder operation. When he’s at his best, as he was when he finished second in National League MVP voting in 2011, he’s one of the top players in the game.

Also on the comeback trail is left fielder Carl Crawford, who was acquired from the Boston Red Sox last year but never played for the Dodgers while recovering from an elbow operation. Catcher A.J. Ellis had off-season knee surgery. Hard-throwing setup man Kenley Jansen had a heart operation. Left-hander Scott Elbert had two elbow surgeries, the second of which ruled him out for opening day. Utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr. is coming back from hip surgery.

Too much of a good thing?
Two springs ago, the Dodgers started camp with a collection of minor leaguers and journeymen competing for the fifth spot in the pitching rotation. They will start this camp with eight starting pitchers, including six former All-Stars.

The only locks for the rotation are Clayton Kershaw, the team’s ace, and Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year, $147-million contract this winter.

Chad Billingsley figures to make the cut, provided he is recovered from the elbow problems that ended his 2012 season early. Hyun-Jin Ryu would be the first player to go directly from the Korean league to the majors, but the Dodgers believe he can be a No. 3 or 4 starter.

That means that if there are no injuries and Josh Beckett is named the fifth starter, established veterans Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang could be moved to the bullpen — that is, if they are not traded first.

Who’s at short?
Still unconvinced that talented-but-unpolished Dee Gordon is a major league player at this stage in his development, the Dodgers are counting on Hanley Ramirez to be their starting shortstop.

Ramirez played third base for the Miami Marlins last season before his trade to the Dodgers. When the Dodgers moved him back to shortstop, Ramirez looked uncomfortable.

His plans to play shortstop in the Dominican winter league were scrapped after he jammed his throwing shoulder. He won’t play shortstop much in spring training, either, because he will be representing the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, which is played in March. Jose Reyes, who displaced him as the Marlins’ shortstop, is expected to be the Dominican Republic’s shortstop.

Reasons for optimism
In addition to depth, the Dodgers’ rotation is top heavy. In Kershaw and Greinke, the Dodgers should have one of the best 1-2 combinations in baseball.

Of the Dodgers’ eight starting position players, five are former All-Stars: Kemp, Crawford, Ramirez, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and outfielder Andre Ethier. Even if none of them have career years, they could (see next section) comprise the most potent lineup in the National League.

Reasons for pessimism
With all the All-Stars, there’s no guarantee this team can score runs. The Dodgers don’t have a prototypical leadoff hitter. Gonzalez had an operation similar to Kemp’s before the 2011 season and said it took him a couple of months to regain his power. Crawford and Ramirez haven’t been All-Star-caliber players since 2010.

There’s also some uncertainty in the bullpen, which has only one healthy and established left-hander, J.P. Howell. Before Brandon League was traded to the Dodgers and pitched his way into the closing role, he was struggling with the Seattle Mariners. Jansen’s health and Ronald Belisario’s past off-field problems are also concerns.

-Dylan Hernandez