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Dodgers' forecast for 2014: Starry nights, cloudy prospects

DODGERS

Most big names will be back, including Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez. But injuries are an issue, bullpen and bench must be rebuilt and lineup holes filled.

October 19, 2013|By Dylan Hernandez
  • The Dodgers will retain most of their core group of players that helped L.A. advance to the National League Championship Series, but the team does have the ability to upgrade through free agency during the offseason.
The Dodgers will retain most of their core group of players that helped L.A.… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

ST. LOUIS — As reality was starting to sink in that the Dodgers had been eliminated, Adrian Gonzalez consoled himself with the idea that he should soon get another chance to reach the World Series.

"We're definitely going to have the team again next year," Gonzalez said.

Hanley Ramirez is under contract for another year. Clayton Kershaw won't be eligible for free agency until after next season. Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Zack Greinke, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford have multiple years remaining on their contracts.

All of which could be as much a curse as a blessing.

The Dodgers couldn't stay healthy in 2013. There's little reason to think they will be any healthier in 2014, when injury-prone players such as Ramirez, Kemp, Ethier and Crawford will be a year older. Kershaw pitched a career-high 259 innings this season, the most by a Dodgers pitcher since Orel Hershiser went 3092/3 innings in 1988. Puig's next collision with a wall could land him on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

The consequences of being at less than full strength were well demonstrated throughout the year. Early-season injuries were the reason the Dodgers were in last place as late as July 1. With Ramirez trying to play through a fractured rib, Ethier hobbled and Kemp sidelined by a foot injury, the offense predictably disappeared in the National League Championship Series.

That being the case, should the Dodgers increase their depth by adding another star player?

The Dodgers have said they aren't interested in All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, the prize of the impending free-agent class. Co-owner Magic Johnson said the team's focus will be on signing Kershaw to a long-term deal.

However, the Dodgers' owners don't appear to be running out of money, and as they evaluate why their team fell short of the World Series their plans could change.

Whether to pursue Cano is among several major decisions the Dodgers will have to make this winter because a majority of their supporting cast is headed for free agency. Here's a unit-by-unit breakdown of the Dodgers' situation:

Starting rotation

Kershaw, Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu should be the Dodgers' top three starters for another season. Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett are under contract for next season, but Billingsley will be recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery and Beckett from an operation to relieve pressure on a nerve.

With the status of Billingsley and Beckett uncertain, the Dodgers could re-sign Ricky Nolasco or pursue free agents Matt Garza, Ervin Santana or Masahiro Tanaka, a 24-year-old right-hander from Japan who is expected to move to the majors.

Any of those pitchers could cost the Dodgers tens of millions of dollars, but the team should have some flexibility. It is shedding the $12-million salary of Ted Lilly and is likely to decline the $8-million option on Chris Capuano.

Catcher

A.J. Ellis will be eligible for salary arbitration. Though he has gained the trust of the staff as a pitch-caller, his defensive play in the playoffs was shaky. If the Dodgers elect to go in another direction, top free-agent candidates would include seven-time All-Star Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, A.J. Pierzynski and Carlos Ruiz.

Infield

Second baseman Mark Ellis' contract includes a $5.75-million option for next season, which might or might not be exercised. Third baseman Juan Uribe is a free agent.

If the Dodgers are willing to add another nine-figure contract, Cano could be an option at second base. They are also looking at Alexander Guerrero, a 26-year-old Cuban who projects as a legitimate offensive threat.

The free-agent market at third base is weak. The Dodgers could ask Ramirez to move to third, which would allow them to upgrade defensively at shortstop with a free agent such as Stephen Drew or Jhonny Peralta.

Outfield

The Dodgers have Kemp, Ethier, Puig and Crawford under contract. The question is whether they trade any of their four All-Star-caliber outfielders.

Puig is the least likely to be traded because he is 22 and under club control through the 2019 season. If the Dodgers traded Kemp or Ethier, they would be selling low. It would be difficult to trade Crawford because he is injury prone and owed $82.5 million over the next four seasons.

Bench

The Dodgers will have to completely rebuild their bench. Veterans Michael Young, Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston Jr. will be free agents.

Bullpen

Like the bench, this is another area that is about to be hit hard by free agency.

Closer Kenley Jansen is under club control, as are Ronald Belisario, Chris Withrow, Paco Rodriguez and Jose Dominguez. Belisario and Rodriguez were heavily used and faltered late in the season; there's no certainty they will regain their effectiveness next year. Dominguez didn't pitch after July 22 because of a quadriceps injury.

Brandon League, who failed to make roster for either of the Dodgers' playoff series, has two years and $17 million remaining on his contract.

The Dodgers will probably have to find new setup men for Jansen. Brian Wilson and J.P. Howell will be free agents. Wilson figures to sign elsewhere because he pitched well enough to a earn a multiyear contract as a closer.

Coaching staff

Manager Don Mattingly will return and most of his coaching staff is expected to be back too. But third base coach Tim Wallach has long been considered a top managerial prospect and could be managing somewhere in the big leagues next season. And if team President Stan Kasten had any problems with Mattingly's decision-making in the playoffs, bench coach Trey Hillman could take the fall and be replaced.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Twitter: @dylanohernandez

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