After success in 2013, Dodgers look to cash in
Contract statuses of Kershaw, Hanley, Mattingly could weigh heavily on '14 season
LOS ANGELES -- Reaching Game 6 of the National League Championship Series in 2013 was a big improvement after being also-rans in 2012, but it's not enough to make the billionaire Guggenheim folks happy with their Dodgers just yet.
A World Series ring remains the ultimate prize and the Dodgers, even with the richest payroll in the game, still have questions to answer as they prepare for a 2014 season that opens in Australia against Arizona.
As is often the case with veteran teams, so much rides on health. The Dodgers got as far as they did in 2013 despite a seemingly endless wave of injuries, and many of those carry over to 2014, most notably center fielder Matt Kemp. He first needs to show that he's healed from ankle and shoulder operations, then must show that his beaten-up body can perform at its one-time MVP level.
The front office has work to do, first in securing the future of Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and run producer Hanley Ramirez, then perhaps manager Don Mattingly, entering his second season as a lame duck.
Can the Dodgers win their first NL pennant since 1988? They have a stunning payroll and a glittering roster. But they must find the right answers to these 10 questions:
1. Will Kershaw and Ramirez get contract extensions?
This is tougher than the no-brainer it seems. One deal will influence the other. Kershaw apparently balked at a $300 million lifetime contract that had strings attached. Ramirez has been a model citizen with the Dodgers, but supposedly became unmanageable in Miami as soon as he signed a contract extension. It's hard to consider the Dodgers true contenders without both of them.
2. Will the Dodgers trade an outfielder?
The math still doesn't work, with four quality players -- Kemp, Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford -- vying for three outfield positions. Also, we haven't seen all of them healthy at the same time. It's a double-edge sword with Kemp -- if he's ever healthy enough to trade, he'd be healthy enough to keep. A healthy Ethier is appealing to many teams, but how can the Dodgers trade him without knowing Kemp's health? Despite question marks about Puig's immaturity, trading him at this point might lead to pitchforks and torches outside Dodger Stadium.
3. Can Kemp's body hold up?
So far, medical reports are favorable, but the broken bone in his ankle is a career-threatening injury, and his shoulder has needed surgeries in two different places over the past year. So, he's got more to overcome this time than last year, and he never really rebounded from last year's shoulder surgery. Bottom line, he's a huge unknown. But he's already been a huge producer, so giving up on him with a trade is as risky as counting on him.
4. Will the Dodgers make a run at Masahiro Tanaka or David Price?
If taken at their word, club executives don't want to get into a financial bidding war for Tanaka, nor can they afford a package of young talent Price is likely to command. That said, Price would give the starting rotation a third Cy Young winner. Tanaka would give the Dodgers another Asian superstar to go with Hyun-Jin Ryu. Despite the $230 million payroll, this club really would like to start producing players internally. And regardless of Price or Tanaka, we're talking about a No. 3 starter. So it's tempting, but unlikely.
5. Will Juan Uribe hit after getting paid?
The Dodgers got burned when they gave him a three-year deal, as he stirred to life only in the final year with free agency on the horizon. They were trapped again this winter with a thin market and gave him two years. Dodgers pitchers, however, love his defense, and he's one of the most popular guys in the clubhouse, so he's back.
6. Is Cuban Alexander Guerrero ready?
As of the Winter Meetings, the answer was no. But he still had some winter ball ahead of him, plus a January of tutoring and Spring Training. If he still isn't ready to handle second base by Opening Day, he'll go the Puig route and head to Double-A until he's ready.
7. Will Puig mature and grow, or crash and burn?
He's pretty confident, some would say arrogant and cocky, and his ability to take coaching remains to be seen. The talent is unquestioned, but he showed some stubbornness as the season progressed and his numbers softened. He enjoys all the trappings of success in America, and maybe he's freakish enough to handle it, as well as work on his game. Or not.
8. Can Josh Beckett or Chad Billingsley rebound after surgeries?
Beckett should be ready at the start of Spring Training after thoracic outlet surgery, Billingsley around May after Tommy John surgery. All the Dodgers want out of them is a fifth starter. If healthy, they are much better than that. If both struggle, the last spot in the rotation could prove a scramble.
9. Will ownership commit to Mattingly?
It sure doesn't look like it. He guided the Dodgers to the best in-season turnaround in club history, but critics say he also got them into that mess with in-game decisions, discounting the injury factor. Clearly, somebody in the front office doesn't like him, or has somebody in mind that's unavailable (Joe Madden, Mike Scioscia?). So, Mattingly heads into his second lame-duck season, apparently needing a title to silence the skeptics.
10. Where will the Dodgers and D-backs rivalry go?
For one thing, it goes to Australia for Opening Day. No swimming pool at Sydney Cricket Grounds, so the Dodgers will need to tone down the celebration. The teams sincerely don't like each other, as they showed in their brawl, and the bad feelings reach all the way to the executive suite.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.