After an impressive 2014, and a historic season from MVP-Cy Young Clayton Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodgers ended the year on a disappointing note by falling to the Cardinals in the NLDS. In 2015, the club has redemption on its mind and a record $273 million payroll going into Opening Day.
Did L.A. fill the holes in the bullpen and settle its internal discord in the outfield? By trading Matt Kemp, finding Joc Pederson ready to play in Spring Training, and Carl Crawford returning healthy, the outfield appears to be a strength for the Dodgers. Major question marks remain in the bullpen and with the cast of supporting characters to the team’s stars.
Here are five things L.A. needs to go right to return to dominant form in 2015.
1. The middle infield gels
Leadoff man and second baseman Dee Gordon is gone, as is the unreliable but slugging Hanley Ramirez at short. In their place is a new double-play combination consisting of Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick. Rollins (17 HR, .243. BA, .323 OBP in 2014) will take over leadoff duties and man the shortstop hole at age 36, so the pressure is on to provide defense and a spark at the top of the order.
Kendrick will replace Gordon at second and looks set for the middle of the order (likely the fifth spot) for the Dodgers. A career .293 hitter who posted a .292 BA with 14 steals in 2014, Kendrick should provide enough offense and consistency for the club. He posted a career-high 5.4 WAR in 2014.
2. Yasiel Puig becomes a superstar
There were times during the 2014 season when Yasiel Puig was the best player in Major League Baseball. Between his spectacular plays in the outfield, the lethal bat, and his aggressive baserunning, Puig is rarely less than sensational. Unfortunately, he is also a player who can appear lost and uncommitted at the plate, as he did in the 2014 NLDS when he struck out in 8 of his last 9 AB.
With Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez gone, middle-of-the-order duties will fall to Puig, who managed just 69 RBIs in 148 games last season. Puig needs to mature into the confident run producer he should be in 2015. Even at age 24, the Dodgers’ patience is clearly being tested by one of the undisputed great talents in the game.
3. The rotation gets settled
With the one-two punch of Zach Greinke and Kershaw, the Dodgers know they will have the best on the hill two days out of five. What happens on the other three days remains an uncertainty, at best.
Brandon McCarthy, who pitched excellent ball for the Yankees in the last months of 2014, will try to maintain the quality form that eluded him before his arrival in New York. Hyun-Jin Ryu, who suffered his third shoulder injury in 12 months this spring, is looking like a liability rather than a solid No. 3 starter.
That leaves Brett Andersen, the No. 5 who suffered extensive injuries in 2014 and is being torched by Cactus League batters in spring play. Already down one starter and facing questions about McCarthy and Andersen, the rotation is alarmingly thin for a club with a $273 million payroll. Expect swift action if any problems surface with Greinke or Kershaw.
4. Youngsters deliver up the middle
One reason management believed Kemp could go was Joc Pederson, the stud prospect who appears set to start in centerfield for L.A. on Opening Day. Through 18 spring games, Pederson was hitting .409 with 4 HR and a 1.220 OPS for L.A. Pederson, who was Pacific Coast League MVP with 33 HR in 2014, has seen his moment arrive.
At catcher will be Yasmani Grandal, the chief return from San Diego in the Matt Kemp trade who is ready to lock down the position for L.A. in his second full MLB season. Grandal had problems receiving certain Padres pitchers last season, but showed pop with 15 HR in 128 games. Grandal, a switch hitter with a career .762 OPS, will need to hit his stride and provide stability up the middle for L.A.
5. The bullpen becomes a strength
Before, during, and after the Dodgers collapsed in 2014, the bullpen was the problem. Somehow, the front office did not prioritize relief pitching in the offseason. With Casey Jansen down with an injury until May, L.A. is without a closer and facing many question marks out of the ‘pen already this spring.
That’s the bad news. The good news is Rafael Soriano is still available if the deep-pocketed Dodgers want depth. Otherwise, bullpen help from the farm system is usually a phone call away. The Dodgers cannot go deep into the playoffs without making the bullpen a strength, so this situation needs to be settled pronto.