2014 Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Big Question: Can the deep-pocketed Dodgers be stopped?

After a midseason turnaround led to 92 wins and a trip to the NLCS last year, the Dodgers had a relatively quiet offseason, at least in terms of bringing in outside talent. Sure, they locked up 2013 NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw with a monster seven-year, $215 million extension to and re-signed Juan Uribe for two years and $15 million, but their two biggest additions were right-hander Dan Haren (one year, $10 million) and Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero (four years, $28 million). While they recently signed another Cuban infielder, Erisbel Arruebarrena, to a five-year, $25 million contract, he’s not expected to contribute in the majors right away. The truth is that they didn’t need to do much in the way of tweaking, because they were already in pretty good shape.

We heard rumors over the winter about the Dodgers potentially trading one of their outfielders, but they ended up hanging on to all of them. Given the injury histories of Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford, that’s probably for the best. The lineup has some potential weak spots between second base, third base, and catcher, but there are plenty of impact bats here. Hanley Ramirez was one of the best hitters in the game when healthy last year and Yasiel Puig was an absolute dynamo after his call-up. Adrian Gonzalez hasn’t surpassed 30 home runs since 2011, but he’s still a solid run producer.

Even though the Dodgers were unable to land Masahiro Tanaka, the rotation is looking potent once again with Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu leading the way. Kenley Jansen has emerged as one of the best closers in the majors and bridge to the ninth inning should be stronger this year with full seasons from both Brian Wilson and Paco Rodriguez. Chris Withrow and J.P. Howell will be back in the bullpen and Chris Perez and Jamey Wright were both added to the fold over the winter. Oh, and Brandon League is still collecting a paycheck.

With a payroll well above $200 million, anything short of the World Series will likely be considered a disappointment. Who knows if the Dodgers can get there, as the playoffs are often a crapshoot, but all signs point to them being a forced to be reckoned with once again.

What else is going on?  

  • Matt Kemp is a big question mark as he makes his way back from ankle surgery. He was recently cleared to increase some baseball activities after an MRI showed proper healing, but he’s not expected to be ready for the start of the season and might not even make an appearance during Cactus League play. With Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford, and Andre Ethier in place, the Dodgers don’t have to rush things. Still, a healthy and productive Kemp would make them even scarier.
  • The Dodgers would love for Alexander Guerrero to run away with the starting second base job, but he’s had some issues adjusting to the position and there’s some chatter that he could begin the season in the minors in order to get comfortable. However, if he keeps doing things like this, it’ll be tough to send him down. The possible alternatives at second base include Dee Gordon, Chone Figgins, Justin Turner, Miguel Rojas, and Brendan Harris, which makes the decision to let Mark Ellis walk a little questionable. The Dodgers certainly could have afforded him, even in an insurance role. He’s essentially doing the same thing for the Cardinals right now.
  • Josh Beckett was limited to just eight starts last year prior to undergoing surgery to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome, a procedure which involved having a rib removed to relieve pressure on a nerve which caused numbness in his arms and fingers. The good news is that he hasn’t had any issues this spring and projects to begin the season as the team’s No. 5 starter. The Dodgers have alternatives if things go wrong, as Paul Maholm was added over the winter for depth purposes and Chad Billingsley could be ready to return from Tommy John before the All-Star break.
  • What does Yasiel Puig have in store for an encore? With his all-out style and flair, the 23-year-old outfielder was the talk of baseball as a rookie last year, hitting .319/.391/.534 with 19 home runs, 42 RBI, and 11 stolen bases in 104 games. The Dodgers (and some opponents) would like to see him dial things back somewhat, but you take the good with the bat with this type of talent. Unfortunately, his style of play does put him at a greater risk for injury, which is something to watch this season.
  • Much was made of Don Mattingly’s job status last season and in the aftermath of their loss in the NLCS, but the situation should be less of a distraction now that he has received a contract extension through 2016. Of course, that could always change if the Dodgers flop.

Prediction: I could see the Giants, Diamondbacks, and Padres all competing for a Wild Card spot this season, but the Dodgers are the most well-rounded team here and they have the resources to upgrade as the season moves along. They deserve to be considered heavy favorites to win the division for a second straight year. No surprises here. First place, NL West.

Three A’s rookies hit their first big league home runs on Saturday

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The Athletics followed Friday’s 3-0 shutout with a rookie-led home run derby on Saturday afternoon, watching not one, not two, but three rookies belt their first major league home runs off of the White Sox’ James Shields.

Right fielder Matt Olson was the first to strike, taking Shields deep on a first-pitch, two-run blast in the first inning for his first home run in 49 major league plate appearances:

Fellow outfielder Jaycob Brugman duplicated his teammate’s results in the second inning with a solo home run, his first extra-base hit of any kind since he made his debut on June 9:

In the third, with a comfortable 4-0 lead backing two scoreless frames from Oakland right-hander Daniel Gossett, Franklin Barreto took his shot at Shields. After getting the call several hours prior to Saturday’s game, he became the fastest of the three rookies to record his first big league homer, going yard on a 2-2 changeup and driving in Bruce Maxwell to give the A’s a six-run advantage.

The Athletics currently lead the White Sox 8-2 in the top of the sixth inning.

Athletics call up top prospect Franklin Barreto

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The Athletics called up their top prospect on Saturday, inserting shortstop Franklin Barreto into the lineup for their second game against the White Sox. Barreto was originally scheduled to make his major league debut on Sunday, but got a head start after Jed Lowrie sustained a minor knee sprain in Friday’s 3-0 win and was scratched from Saturday’s lineup.

Barreto, 21, has been rapidly climbing the rungs of the A’s minor league system after getting dealt by the Blue Jays in 2014. He got his first taste of Triple-A action late last year, going 6-for-17 with three RBI and getting caught stealing in two attempts. He fared little better this spring, slashing .281/.326/.428 with eight home runs and a .754 OPS through his first 309 PA in Nashville.

While his minor league production has been solid, if underwhelming for a prospect of his caliber, the A’s are expected to give the rookie infielder a long leash with both Marcus Semien and Chad Pinder sitting on the disabled list. Pinder landed on the 10-day DL after suffering a left hamstring strain on Friday. Semien, meanwhile, is still working his way back from the 60-day DL with a right wrist fracture and likely won’t rejoin the team until he completes a rehab assignment with High-A Stockton.