Cactus League countdown: L.A. Dodgers

The Los Angeles Dodgers came to spring training a year ago with myriad issues: Ownership was in flux, right fielder Andre Ethier wanted a contract extension and skeptics wondered if manager Don Mattingly could do much with his team. This year is a very different story.

Since being sold last April, the Dodgers have become the Yankees of the West, seemingly spending whatever it takes to put together a winner, though that strategy failed to deliver a postseason berth in 2012.

The Dodgers took an even deeper plunge in the offseason, landing Cy Young winner Zack Greinke and South Korean import Hyun-Jin Ryu for a combined $209 million. Factor in last season’s acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Brandon League and Carl Crawford, plus Ethier and Matt Kemp, and the Dodgers have perhaps more talent than any National League team.

The question now: Can they pull it all together into a successful team?
Many of the pieces were brought last year in a midseason trading frenzy, but despite the talent influx, the Dodgers often seemed like a jumbled collection of superstars that did not mesh. They ended up second in the NL West, two games back of a wild-card spot.

With the new additions and a full spring together, expectations are that the Dodgers will develop the right chemistry to challenge the Giants for the division and NL crown. The new owners aren’t spending all that money for anything less.

The first step to putting it all together is getting the pitching in place. Greinke can be dominant, but he has dealt with a social anxiety disorder, and he’ll have to cope with life and pressures of a major market. (He seemed to hold up well in that regard after being traded to the Angels late last season.) With Ryu, there’s the unknown of how his ability translates to the American game. On paper, though, the rotation is solid, and the team has more starting pitching than it can use.

Mattingly and his staff must determine how to fill the starting
rotation from an overflowing pool of candidates. In addition to Kershaw,
Greinke and Ryu, they’ll choose from among Billingsley, Beckett,
Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang. Given the surplus, a
trade would not be unexpected.

Next, Mattingly must figure out how to best set his lineup. With Kemp, Ethier, Gonzalez and Ramirez there are plenty of proven hitters. Ramirez’s presence at shortstop blocks speedster Dee Gordon, but Ramirez could shift to third base. There are bigger questions about Crawford’s effectiveness after his injury-plagued 2012 and Ramirez’s willingness to accept coaching.

A number of injury-related issues also linger, staring with Kemp’s shoulder. The center fielder had surgery in October and is expected to be ready by Opening Day at the latest. There are also questions about ace starter Clayton Kershaw’s inflamed right hip and Chad Billingsley’s elbow that need to be monitored in camp.

Spring training 2013 is dramatically different from 2012 in that the questions facing the Dodgers are the result of a positive transition in the organization and high expectations. If the Dodgers are unable to make something of all the talent they have assembled, they’ll likely go down as the baseball equivalent of their neighbors, the Lakers — an underachieving, mismatched mess of All-Stars.

Who’s new: P Zack Greinke, P J.P. Howell, P Hyun-Jin Ryu, IF Skip Schumacher, free agents; P Peter Moylan, P Matt Palmer, minor-league free agents.

Who’s gone: P Joe Blanton (Angels); P Randy Choate (Cardinals); P John Ely (Astros); OF Juan Rivera (Yankees); OF Shane Victorino (Red Sox); P Jamey Wright (Rays); OF Bobby Abreu, P Todd Coffey, IF Adam Kennedy, free agents.
The lineup is pretty much set, injury issues aside, but it looks as if there will be some serious competition for a limited number of spots in the starting rotation. Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu appear the only locks, leaving Beckett, Lilly, Billingsley, Capuano and Harang to battle for two spots. Three of those five won at least 10 games last season; Billingsley is the only one under 30 years old. Whatever happens, the Dodgers will have some pitching to trade. … The Dodgers also have too many infielders, so someone among Schumaker, Nick Punto, Juan Uribe and Gordon figures to be gone by Opening Day.
Health watch: The Dodgers have plenty of health questions, starting with center fielder Kemp’s shoulder. He had surgery in October and is reportedly ahead of schedule. He should be good to go for at least some spring training. … Kershaw dealt with right hip inflammation in the offseason but is reportedly doing well in physical therapy and should be ready for spring training. … Billingsley has a partially torn right elbow ligament and reportedly did well in a simulated game in November. But if the elbow gives him trouble in spring training, there’s a chance he’ll need Tommy John surgery. … Outfielder Crawford has yet to play a game for the Dodgers after Tommy John surgery in August and wrist surgery prior to that. He started baseball activities in early January and is expected ready for at least part of spring training. … Reliever Kenley Jansen had offseason heart surgery to deal with an irregular heartbeat. According to recent reports, Jansen is ahead of schedule in his preseason conditioning program, but Brandon League goes into camp as the designated closer. … Relievers Javy Guerra (shoulder) and Matt Guerrier (elbow) both had injuries treated in the offseason, but reports say both will be healthy for the start of spring training.
Sneak preview: Dodgers fans should get their first good look this spring at outfielder Yasiel Puig, the Cuban defector whom the Dodgers signed to a seven-year deal worth $42 million in June. Puig combines power and speed to give the Dodgers what they think will be an impact big leaguer in a season or two. He’ll reportedly start the year at Double-A, but don’t be surprised if he’s knocking on the door to the big leagues by the end of the season.
Spring training info: Camelback Ranch – Glendale, 10710 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix. First workouts Feb. 13 (pitchers and catchers), Feb. 16 (full squad). First game: Feb. 23. Tickets: