In most cities, January means NFL excitement, not baseball excitement. Then again, Los Angeles is not most cities.
On Jan. 26, the Los Angeles Dodgers held a Fan Fest at Dodger Stadium and approximately 21,000 people showed up. 21,000 – that is more than the 2012 average attendance for four major league team’s actual games. Ticket sales were as hot as a Led Zeppelin reunion show. Given this organization hasn’t played game #163 since 2009, you might say fans are more crazed about the 2013 Dodgers than Brent Musberger is about Miss Alabama.
Of course, if any team got a pass from making the playoffs last year, it was the Dodgers. They entered 2012 in shambles as a result of previous owner Frank McCourt’s nonsense. Even after the new ownership group took over in May and the team got off to a fast start, the future was played up way more than the present. Fans were ready to just sit back and take their lumps in 2012 while part-owner Magic Johnson worked his, er, uh, magic. And then the rabbit jumped out of the hat.
Dodgers management literally adopted a “win now” approach. Infielder Hanley Ramirez was acquired from Florida at the July trade deadline and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez was the focal point of a major deal with the Red Sox in August. The future went from a year to two months overnight.
Alas, all the positive vibes could only add up to so much. The Dodgers went just 17-18 after all the new pieces were in Dodger uniforms.
Naturally, it was easy for the talking heads to blame the disappointing outcome on time. “This team just needs some time together,” they lamented. Well, to quote an old song, “Time has come today.”
Best Case Scenario for 2013
One could argue whether the Dodgers, who also added this year’s most desired free agent, pitcher Zack Greinke, have gained enough to take down their nemesis, and World Series champion, the San Francisco Giants. Just don’t argue that with Magic Johnson who has five players that are guaranteed more than $600 million in salary no matter how well they perform.
“We want to go to the World Series. If we don’t accomplish that, yes, it is not a good season for us,” Johnson said. “Guys should be saying that. As the ownership group, that is what we are saying.”
If things go right, the lefty-righty starting pitching duo of Clayton Kershaw and Greinke will evoke memories of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. The Dodgers outfield of Matt Kemp , Andre Ethier, and Carl Crawford could put up numbers similar to the starting outfield for the pennant winning teams of the late 70’s. In 1977, Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith, and Rick Monday combined for 77 home runs.
And speaking of pennants, 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of the Dodgers last World Series championship. It would only be fitting if that famous video of Kirk Gibson limping around the bases can finally be replaced with something new.
Most Important Dodgers
When I was a youngster and complained about something, my mother used to tell me “as long as you’ve got your health.” And I’d reply, “Ah, what do you know?” Well, she was right, especially as far as the Dodgers go.
In Los Angeles, the word “recovery” isn’t about economics as much as it is about injuries. The “dream” outfield may have had more visits to doctors than to gyms this winter. Matt Kemp is recovering from surgery for a torn labrum in his left(non-throwing) shoulder. There are questions as to whether the speed and power of his swing will be affected. Crawford is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery in his right elbow. Various injuries have plagued Ethier the last three years. He has not played in more than 149 games since 2009. The Dodgers were a mess when both he and Kemp were out at the same times last season. A healthy outfield trio could make this offense very scary.
[Find the links to all 30 MLB team previews here: 2013 MLB Team Previews]
Starting pitcher Chad Billingsley had won his last six starts before elbow inflammation sidelined him for the season on Aug. 25. He was in a rhythm Dodgers fans hadn’t seen since Billingsley made the 2009 All-Star team. There was the possibility he would have to undergo Tommy John surgery and be lost for the entire 2013 campaign. The word is the arm is healing. Last year, a healthy Billingsley might have been the “X-factor” for a playoff push. One can only imagine what he could add in that number three spot.
Potential Breakout Players
Early on, all eyes will be on pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu. Ryu, 26, pitched in the Korean Baseball Organization for seven years and led the league in strikeouts five times. His accomplishments were enough to convince the Dodgers to give him $36 million to cross the Pacific. He could start the season as high as the number three starter. Although some may quibble with the amount of money the Dodgers paid, no one can argue with their solid track record of scouting and signing Asian players.
Japan-bred pitcher Hideo Nomo entered the fray in 1995 and proceeded to go 13-6 and lead the league in strikeouts. Chan Ho Park was the first Korean born player to start in the majors. In 1997, two years after he was signed, Park became an important part of the rotation and strung together five straight winning seasons. Hopefully, Ryu can begin a similar path.
Last season’s rash of bullpen injuries saw the Dodgers calling up some farmhands a bit earlier than they might have liked. Fortunately, the inexperienced arms delivered.
Shawn Tolleson earned a call up in June by striking out 178 batters in 120 minor league innings over three years. He went 3-1 with a 4.30 ERA and struck out 39 batters over 37 innings in his first major league bullpen stint. Stephen “Paco” Rodriguez is that rarity in baseball known as the lefthanded “situational” reliever. The Florida Gator was called up in September and surrendered just one earned run in his 11 appearances. It is quite possible that a couple of last year’s starters, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano among them, will be relegated to the bullpen in 2013 thereby keeping those arms in the minors for another year. However, GM Ned Colletti is actively seeking to move out the veteran arms so if that happens, these youngsters may once again be given a chance to shut some people down.
Worst Case Scenario
In addition to the health of the team’s outfield stars, keep in mind catcher A.J. Ellis is coming off of knee surgery, Kershaw may or may not be bothered by a troublesome hip, and high priced pitchers Ted Lilly and Matt Guerrier are returning from injuries. Parts of the human body could get more press than wins this season.
Areas of concern
Even if the “big guns” are 100%, there may still be too many “little” names this season.
The rest of the Dodgers outfield roster reads like a list of the American Idol top 10 finalists we all forget about. Outfielder Alex Castellanos was the key prospect obtained from St. Louis in the 2011 trade of shortstop Rafael Furcal. He played in just 16 games last season batting .174. He struck out once in every three at bats. Cuban defector Yasel Puig, like Ryu, was signed to a major deal($42 million) in spite of having never played a Major League game. The team may still want him to season in the minors for another year but as the new owners have proven, a year may not mean 12 months.
The left side of the infield is also another area GM Ned Colletti is wondering about. First the Dodgers stated their support for starting third baseman Luis Cruz and then went after, albeit unsuccessfully, veteran Scott Rolen. Cruz hit .297 with six homers and 40 RBIs in 283 at-bats during his last-gasp effort to remain in the majors after 12 seasons in the minors. Shortstop Dee Gordon may get another shot at making the club which would allow Hanley Ramirez to take over at third. But, like Cruz, Gordon may be on his last hurrah if he can’t stick.
Naturally, the old cliche’ “I don’t want to make my contract a distraction” means the team will be distracted by it. Manager Don Mattingly is entering his third year as Dodgers manager. His contract ends after this season and there has not been any discussion of extending it. Magic Johnson’s comments about it being “World Series or bust” this year echoed those of Eagles owner Jeffery Lurie who told coach Andy Reid it was a playoff run or bust before the 2012 season. And we all know what happened to Reid. If this team struggles, the media may find it way to easy to blame the man in the dugout more than the players on the field.
Who needs to bounce back from a down 2012
The photo of Gonzalez and Josh Beckett flying first class from Boston to Los Angeles right after the trade was announced made the internet within moments of being taken. Now, it is time for those two to pay off the plane ticket.
ESPN’s Buster Olney dampened a lot of Dodgers fans spirits when he was quick to point out Gonzalez’s power numbers have been on the decline (40 HR in 2009, 18 last year). Gonzalez hit a home run in his first at bat as a Dodger but it took him 25 more games to hit another.
As of now, Beckett’s spot in the rotation might be as low as #5 but that could change if Billingsley goes down and Ryu isn’t quite ready for the American version of the game. Beckett didn’t pitch too badly as a Dodger (2-3, 2.93 ERA) but there are questions whether his first losing season since 2002 (7-14 overall in 2012) was an aberration or forboding signs of a 32 year old pitcher beginning to decline.