Los Angeles Dodgers have answers on paper but questions on the field

They blamed it all on “jelling.”

The Dodgers embarked upon a flurry of high profile trades in July and August only to fall out of the division race by mid-September and, ultimately, the wild card chase in game 161.  The prevailing theory was that the hastily-put-together improved team, that included stars like Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez,  just didn’t have time to “jell” together.

The expectations for 2013 are that once this team goes through a spring training together, they will be as talented and cohesive as anyone else in the National League, let alone all of baseball. The Dodgers do indeed look great on paper. The question is how they’ll look on the field come spring training.

Will the opening day outfield match the projections?

No details on Carl Crawford's  recovery from Tommy John surgery last summer have been made public.

Details on Carl Crawford’s recovery from the Tommy John surgery he underwent last summer have been hard to come by.

The health of outfielders Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford is closer to a secret than it is a known commodity. Kemp is coming off end-of-season surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder.  The operating surgeon scared everyone when he said the damage, which included a torn labrum, was pretty extensive. There is a possibility Kemp’s swing, at least in the early going, may lack the speed and power Dodgers fans are used to seeing.

Crawford is healing up from elbow surgery and a nagging wrist injury. He is working out with nary a word on how his rehab is progressing.  Some say he will be ready opening day while physicians familiar with elbow reconstruction have said May is a better time frame to expect a full recovery.

The winter meetings resulted in rumors that the Dodgers put right-fielder Andre Ethier out there as trade bait. The Dodgers were looking for an “impact” second or third baseman and bullpen help. The signing of relief pitcher J.P.Howell and infielder Skip Schumaker have quelled those rumors for now.

If Ethier was traded, who would fill his shoes?  The Dodgers may experiment with moving one-time-shortstop-of-the-future, Dee Gordon, to the outfield. He is fast but his unproven bat paints him as nothing more than a defensive replacement for now. And lest we not forget the Dodgers invested $42 million in Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig. Again, the public statement is that Puig will need another year of minor league seasoning but an Ethier-less outfield might see him being called up sooner rather than later.

How will the logjam on the mound break down?

The starting rotation is set…or so we think.

Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke will be #1 and #2. After that, things get a little trickier. The assumption is Chad Billingsley will be healthy and could fill the number three slot followed by Josh Beckett and Korean league star Hyun-Jin Ryu. The Dodgers still have Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, and Ted Lilly to deal with. For now, that trio from last season appears headed for long-relief duties unless Billingsley’s elbow flares up again and Ryu can’t make a quick transition from Korean hitters to Major League hitters.  The Dodgers have been looking to trade Capuano but can’t seem to find any takers.

What will life at the top look like?

Crawford recently shot down rumors that he didn’t like batting lead-off. He says he will do what is asked of him which probably translates to “the rumors are true.” The number 2 hitter, by default, looks to be second baseman Mark Ellis. It is no surprise to hear GM Ned Colletti is expecting more from that slot in 2013. Ellis batted .251 after the All-Star break, 20 points lower than before the break, and just .182 with runners in scoring position. Ellis did suffer a serious ankle injury last June which may have contributed to the 2nd half drop-off.

Are the Dodgers between a hot corner and a hard plate?

The past has met the present, at least when it comes to third base and catcher for the Dodgers. Catcher A.J. Ellis and infielder Luis Cruz had spent a combined 21 seasons in the minor leagues prior to being given their chance in “The Show” last year. They did good enough to be announced as starters for 2013 but the question is can they stay up top permanently?

Don Mattingly will begin his third season as the Dodgers manager.

Don Mattingly begins his third season as Dodgers manager with a ton of expectations.

Ellis had bounced up and down between the majors and minors for nine years before being handed the starting catching slot last year.  He took advantage of the opportunity by batting .270 with 13 home runs in 133 games.  The Dodgers were hoping to add another AJ, Pierzynski that is, behind the plate, but lost out to the Texas Rangers. That means prospect Tim Federowicz will open spring training as the back-up.  If he is not ready, look for the Dodgers to sign any veteran available.

Cruz, who before last season had played in just 56 major league games over an 11 year baseball career, batted .297 with 40 RBI in 78 games. He earned the right to open spring training as the starting third baseman by finishing 2012 with 25 hits in his final 20 games. Cruz was a big reason the Dodgers remained in the wild card hunt until game #161. Still, some are wondering if he is the one who can finally stop the revolving door known as third base. More than two dozen different players have filled in at third base since MVP candidate Adrian Beltre left in 2004.

UPDATE 1/17-8:52PM PST: The Dodgers signed veteran catcher Jesus Flores to a minor league contract. Flores, 28, has been with the Washington Nationals since 2007. He batted .213 with 6 home runs in 83 games last season.  

Is this Mattingly’s make-or-break year?

Although manager Don Mattingly has somehow guided the Dodgers to two straight winning seasons with the ownership turmoil swirling all around him, the naysayers are wondering if this third year has to be the charm… or else.

The Dodgers look like contenders for the NL West title but they will certainly be battle-tested in their division. Not only do they have the defending World Series champion Giants to deal with but suddenly the San Diego Padres are generating buzz given their 42-33 record after the All-Star break.

The new Dodgers owners are expecting big things this year and Mattingly may be under the gun for the first time since joining the team as batting coach in 2008.