The two-time defending NL West-champion Los Angeles Dodgers didn't do much to strengthen their roster this offseason because of alleged financial limitations, but that won't stop them from contending again for a National League pennant.
A consensus favorite to win the NL West for a third straight year, the Dodgers have come up short in each of the last two NLCS' under manager Joe Torre, whose three-year, $14 million contract is set to expire at season's end. Torre is optimistic he'll get an extension for 2011, which could be his last as skipper, or a post-managing role. That's not exactly the tune the players want to hear that since they've bought into what the 69-year-old Torre has been selling the previous two seasons, going 179-145 with back-to-back division crowns in that time.
Getting to a third straight championship series under Torre is a strong possibility for the Dodgers, who have the offensive firepower but the pitching staff may be the unwanted albatross. General manager Ned Colletti, stuck in the middle of an unfortunate matrimony saga between owner Frank McCourt and his wife, Jamie McCourt, failed to land a big hitter or a strong arm for a ballclub strikingly similar to the one that lost to Philadelphia in October's NL Championship Series for the second consecutive year. Colletti and the club will just have to bite the bullet with what they have now unless something strikes their fancy along the way.
The bulk of the load will be vested upon the broad shoulders of sluggers Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and James Loney, while young hurlers Clayton Kershaw, Hiroki Kuroda and Chad Billingsley will solidify a somewhat questionable rotation that will send Vicente Padilla to the mound on Opening Day. There are many alleys Torre can wander down in his journey for a qualified fifth starter, with prospects such as Eric Stults, Charlie Haeger, Josh Lindblom, Russ Ortiz or James McDonald.
Not that pondering over a starting staff isn't stressful enough, Torre will be keeping his fingers crossed that second baseman Blake DeWitt will be capable of taking over full-time after starter All-Star Orlando Hudson opted to sign with Minnesota in the offseason. DeWitt was slated to be the starting second baseman until LA's brass opted to sign Hudson at the last moment. The move paid off at the expense of DeWitt, who's in control of his own fate, but may face an uphill battle against Ronnie Belliard. Belliard took the job from Hudson and was the everyday second baseman in the playoffs.
It seems Ramirez is in control of his next destination after saying that this will be his last season in Hollywood. Fans and members of the section 'Mannywood' will certainly be upset if that's true, but it seems Ramirez is confident that his days in Dodger Blue will soon be over. The slugging left fielder is in the final season of a two-year deal, and signed a one-year, $25 million pact with LA on March 4, 2009 with a player option for a second year at $20 million, which has since been exercised.
Torre and Colletti have said they plan on giving the superstar outfielder more rest this season to save his stamina, while Torre has an idea in mind to rest Ramirez on day games following night outings. Ramirez, who struggled last season with a 50-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy and after getting hit on the wrist, claims that he feels great and even worked on his swing in the batting cage this offseason. Another sign of his complacency is admitting that he's accomplished everything he wants to achieve in this game. The Dodgers hope another World Series ring is still on his list.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2009 edition of the Dodgers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
(95-67) - First Place (NL West)
Key Offseason additions
RHP Josh Towers, INF Jamey Carroll, RHP Justin Miller, INF Nick Green, OF Reed Johnson, UT Alfredo Meagan, OF Brian Giles, RHP Eric Gagne.
Key Offseason subtractions
LHP Randy Wolf, INF Juan Castro, OF Juan Pierre, INF Mark Loretta, 1B Jim Home, RHP Jon Garland, RHP Guillermo Mota, 2B Orlando Hudson, LHP Eric Milton, RHP Jason Schmidt.
With Hudson out of the picture Torre has a big decision to make as to who should start at second base. Ronnie Belliard turned some heads when the Dodgers acquired him from Washington for a pair of pitching prospects, and started all eight postseason games last year, batting .300 with an on-base percentage of .382. Belliard hit .351 with five home runs and 17 RBI in 24 games with Los Angeles, starting nine games at third base for the injured Casey Blake.
The 11-year veteran and 2004 All-Star, who agreed to a one-year contract for $825,000 plus incentives this offseason, will battle DeWitt and free-agent signee Jamey Carroll for the starting spot. DeWitt appeared in just 31 games last season and spent a significant amount of time at the minor league level. He had two homers, four RBI and a .204 average last season. Carroll joins the mix after two seasons with Cleveland and is an average player. He hopes to make a huge impression on the staff for a starting job.
Strong-armed and oft-injured shortstop Rafael Furcal should be fully healed from 2008 back surgery and played in 150 games in 2009, recording a .269 batting average, nine homers, 47 runs batted in and 12 stolen bases. The speedy leadoff man also registered a .968 fielding percentage and is entering his fifth season with the Dodgers. Fans can only hope that Furcal stays injury free in 2010. Blake will handle fielding duties at the hot corner and will begin his second full season with the club. Blake, who joined the Dodgers from Cleveland during the 2008 campaign, hit .280 with 18 home runs and 79 RBI last season. It was his best output since the 2007 season as an Indian when he hit .270 with 18 homers and 78 runs batted in. According to Torre, he'll try to give Blake more rest this season.
Loney has been a strong piece of the puzzle the last three seasons, and finished with 13 home runs and 90 RBI for a second straight year in 2009. The slick-fielding first baseman is slated to bat fifth in the order behind the sweet-swinging Ramirez. Catcher Russell Martin enters his fifth season with the Dodgers, but is hampered by a pulled groin muscle that will sideline home for some time. A career .276 hitter, Martin had a down year in 2009, hitting just seven homers with 53 RBI and a .250 batting average. He hopes a rigorous offseason training program will help boost his numbers. Rookie A.J. Ellis and Brad Ausmus will see more time behind the plate for Torre.
Whether he's hinting at retirement or a return to the American League, Ramirez is still one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. The Dodgers don't need to deal with all the hubbub and extra-curricular activities that come with the left fielder, but can just grin and bear it as long as he drives in runs. The 12-time All-Star hit just .290 with 19 homers and 63 runs batted in over 104 games last season. He particularly struggled in the final weeks of the season and batted .281 with just one home run and four RBI in eight playoff games. LA's cleanup hitter, who batted .348 in 27 games before his highly- publicized suspension, is averaging 25 home runs in the last three years. He hasn't hit 30 or more homers or driven in 100-plus runs since 2006, when he posted 35 home runs and 102 RBI. If this is really Ramirez's last season in Hollywood, then perhaps he'll shoot for an encore performance.
Ramirez can be a liability at times on the diamond, something the Dodgers won't have to worry about with Ethier. The right fielder avoided arbitration with the club by inking a two-year deal in January. Ethier's base salary was $3.2 million in 2009 and is expected to earn $5.5 million this year and $9.25 million in 2011. He earned it after a tremendous 2009 campaign in which he established career highs with 31 homers, 42 doubles, 106 RBI, 72 walks, 92 runs and 160 games played. He also became a folk hero in LA with six walk-off hits -- including four home runs -- the most by any Major Leaguer since 1974.
Ethier, who became just the fourth Dodger with at least 30 homers and 40 doubles, joining Babe Herman (1930), Raul Mondesi (1997) and Eric Karros (1999), will bat third in the lineup and swatted 22 home runs at Dodger Stadium last year -- a single-season record for a left-handed hitter.
Gold Glove center fielder Kemp and Ethier give Los Angeles two of the top young outfielders in the game. The Dodgers also opened the wallet for Kemp, who agreed to a two-year, $10.95 million contract in January to avoid arbitration. Kemp had a strong 2009 season, finishing with career highs in homers (26), RBIs (101), runs scored (97), walks (52) and games played (159). He was third in the majors with 34 steals and became the first Dodger in team history with at least 25 homers, 100 RBI and 30 stolen bases in the same season. Those numbers certainly deserve more than the $467,000 he earned last summer, and the front office obviously had similar sentiments. On a rare note for the No. 2 hitter in the lineup, Kemp's 10 RBI in extra innings were the most in the majors since Juan Gonzalez had 11 in 1991 and the most in the NL since Tim Wallach recorded 11 for Montreal in 1982.
Kershaw enters his third season with the Dodgers and the team has high expectations from the young left-hander. Kershaw had a strong start to the 2009 campaign, his first full Major League season, before imploding around mid-July, recording no wins after seven scoreless innings in a win over Houston on July 18. Kershaw, who went 0-1 in three postseason starts, was 8-8 with a 2.79 ERA and 185 strikeouts in 171 innings in 31 games/30 starts a season ago. A native of Dallas, TX, Kershaw has to keep his walks down this year and should feel some pressure knowing that Torre and the Dodger brass their southpaw to become the ace one day. Kershaw will not overwhelm batters with tremendous speed, but his pinpoint accuracy will go a long way.
Since the Dodgers didn't make any moves to bolster their rotation, Chad Billingsley is slated be the No. 3 starter behind Padilla and Kershaw. Billingsley had a disappointing second half to the 2009 season in which he went 12-11 with a career-high 4.03 earned run average in 33 games, 32 of which were starts. The right-hander, who made the All-Star team for going 9-4 with a 3.38 ERA over the first half, had a promising 2008 campaign, going 16-10 with a career-best 3.14 ERA. Los Angeles still believes in the former first-round draft pick and agreed to a one-year contract for $3.85 million in January. Billingsley was winless over his final seven starts (0-5, 5.08) a year ago, but is poised to prove his final stages of last season were just an aberration. Torre will keep his fingers crossed that Billingsley will stay healthy after experiencing hamstring tightness.
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda was last year's Opening Day starter and is expected to pitch in the fourth spot for LA and battled though a series of injuries in 2009. The righty made 21 appearances a year ago -- 20 starts -- and compiled an 8-7 record with a 3.76 ERA in his second full season at the big league level. Kuroda, who posted a 9-10 mark with a 3.73 ERA in 31 starts during the 2008 season, became the seventh Japanese player in Dodgers history that year. A lot of questions are circling Padilla, who got the Opening Day nod this week. Padilla was 4-0 with a 3.20 earned run average in eight games -- seven starts -- with Los Angeles after making 18 starts in Texas. Like most players on the roster, the fiery right-hander signed a one-year deal with the Dodgers in January. LA was targeting free agent Joel Pineiro, but settled with Padilla instead. Since the Dodgers lost Randy Wolf to Milwaukee, they hope Padilla will be a good teammate once again, something that didn't come up too often with the Rangers. In other news for Padilla, the veteran is fully healed from an accidental gunshot wound to the thigh in Nicaragua.
There's no official word yet on who'll be the fifth starter, but James McDonald, Scott Elbert, Charlie Haeger, Eric Stults, Josh Lindblom and Rule 5 Draft pick Carlos Monasterios are possible candidates.
There's no secret Jonathan Broxton will be the closer once again after recording a career-best 36 saves a year ago. Broxton appeared in 73 games and the hard-throwing righty earned a new contract for it in the offseason. His new deal makes him eligible for free agency after the 2011 season. The Dodgers need a strong and healthy year out of Broxton, who's the main reason why Torre had one of the top bullpens last year. Broxton also fanned a career-high 114 batters through 76 innings. Opponents hit just .165 off him. Lefty reliever George Sherrill was a nice pick-up for Los Angeles, then he imploded during the playoffs. Torre hopes a full season with the ballclub will translate into better results. Ramon Troncoso, Ronald Belisario, Cory Wade and Hong-Chih Kuo are other candidates for late-inning work, but don't be surprised to see them before the fourth inning. Kuo spent nearly 90 days on the disabled list last summer. A few of the candidates who lose out on the fifth starter role will most likely stay warm as a relief pitcher (i.e. McDonald). Wade is expected to miss a few months after undergoing exploratory shoulder surgery.
Many of the reserves from a season ago are gone, and the team will miss the contributions of Juan Castro, Mark Loretta, Jim Thome and Juan Pierre. Chin- lung Hu is fighting for a roster spot, while DeWitt, Jamey Carroll, Jason Repko and Brad Ausmus are candidates to sit alongside the coaching staff in the dugout. The Dodgers acquired a left-handed pinch-hitter when they inked veteran Garret Anderson. Anderson, a three-time All-Star, will also play in the outfield when the starters need a breather. He is a career .295 hitter with 2,501 hits, 285 home runs and 1,353 RBI.
If Ramirez is planning the 2010 season to be his last with LA, at least he's got somewhat of a positive attitude after agreeing to play a few games in Taiwan later this month against an All-Star team from the Chinese Professional Baseball League. The decision on whether Ramirez will be back will not be the focus for this year's Dodgers because they can't afford any distractions in their quest for another deep playoff run. Health, pitching and the continued success of young stars Ethier and Kemp are more important than playing games with somebody who's already accomplished what they've set out for at this level. Yes Ramirez has a few rings and that's great, but it's too bad he doesn't put forth the drive and leadership the newer prospects could use to earn one of their own. With or without the slugging Ramirez LA has the firepower and experience to reach the NLCS for a third straight year. And maybe this time they'll get past Philadelphia.