GLENDALE, Ariz. — 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.
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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.”