Offseason preview: 10 Dodgers storylines to watch

Posted on 15 November 2015

LOS ANGELES -- Andrew Friedman and his deputies arrived, surveyed the scene and apparently saw a Los Angeles Dodgers team that needed a lot of work last winter. They began by tinkering at the margins of the roster and by the time the winter meetings were over, they had largely overhauled the club.

They strengthened the middle of the diamond with veterans Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick and padded out the rotation with high-upside, high-risk signings Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson. They traded a franchise icon, Matt Kemp, for a catcher with a big upside,Yasmani Grandal.

But compared to what is about to happen, the previous winter might have been merely a preview of the feature film. The Dodgers could be the most active team in trade and free-agent talks all winter, with Friedman and his group constantly looking for upgrades in all 40 roster spots. Like a college football coach who inherits a lot of the previous coach’s recruits, this front office could lay the blame for the Dodgers’ early postseason bow-out, in part, at the feet of Ned Colletti’s group.

By the time the team reports to spring training, they will have no excuses. The Dodgers will be their team.

Let’s examine 10 likely storylines for the Dodgers this winter:

Leadership void: The Dodgers are the only team in the major leagues without a manager. That will change by the time Friedman gets to the Gaylord Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, on Dec. 6 for the winter meetings. In fact, it will probably change well before then.

Despite early reports that the team had settled on farm director Gabe Kapler as Don Mattingly’s successor, Friedman has cast a wide net and by the time it’s over, will have interviewed at least nine candidates. They're saying they are entirely open-minded, but many people still consider Kapler the favorite.

It makes sense to have a manager in place fairly soon, so that prospective free agents have an idea of what kind of team they’ll be joining, but it’s not imperative that it get done in the next couple of weeks. The Dodgers want to get it right. The last thing a team with World Series aspirations wants to do is create an unstable landscape where regimes come and go nearly every season.

The Greinke conundrum: The Dodgers got three brilliant seasons from Zack Greinke in the prime of his career. Now, after going 51-15 with a 2.30 ERA in three seasons for them, he -- to the surprise of no one -- has opted out of his contract, leaving $71 million over three seasons on the table because there is so much more out there for the asking.

At 32, Greinke is a free agent. Do the Dodgers wade into that pool and line up a five- or six-year, nine-figure contract, the kind of outlay it will take to sign a pitcher this good? Many people still seem to consider them the favorites to sign Greinke, but that hasn’t been the signal the team has been giving off.

The Dodgers are looking to get younger, and another mega-contract makes that more difficult. Also, team president Stan Kasten has a blanket policy against extending pitchers beyond a certain number of major-league pitches and Greinke, who has been durable throughout his career, has thrown more than 33,000.

Also, most people assume Greinke wants to come back, but his distaste for a culture that let Yasiel Puig ignore team rules for several seasons is believed to be a factor in his thinking. It will be painful to break up one of the greatest one-two pitching combinations in recent baseball history, but Clayton Kershaw probably won’t have Greinke as a teammate next season.

What to do about Puig? The question really boils down to one thing: How big a problem does Friedman and his group think Puig is for the kind of culture they’re trying to create? It could relate to Question No. 1, because by the end of Mattingly’s tenure, his relationship with Puig had deteriorated badly. The two didn’t speak and Puig was openly dismissive.

Perhaps the Dodgers can find a manager or coach who can finally reach Puig and bridge the gap between him and many of his teammates. He looks like the last of the Dodgers outfielders they would want to trade, considering his trade value is diminished by hamstring injuries and underperformance and he’s still only 24, making about one-third what Carl Crawford is making. The upside is still massive, particularly if Puig stays in shape this winter and is committed to reviving his career.

But this front office is more concerned about chemistry than people realize and, if they think Puig is a negative influence and they have suitors, they’ll consider moving him.

The rest of the rotation: Even if Greinke returns, the Dodgers still badly need starting pitching. Kershaw, Alex Wood and Anderson, who accepted his qualifying offer to remain with the team in 2016, are the only bankable assets. McCarthy, who had Tommy John surgery in April, might pitch in 2016, but it won’t be until July at the earliest. The team is hopeful Hyun-Jin Ryu can recover from shoulder surgery, but history hasn’t been kind to pitchers coming back from torn labrums, so they can’t count on it.

They hope prospects Jose De Leon and Julio Urias continue to progress, but neither figure to be on the Opening Day roster.

The Dodgers will be active in trade talks, but they also will almost certainly wade into a good group of free agents to find some answers. People will inevitably link them to David Price, but it might be more likely the team targets the second tier of guys, like Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Leake, John Lackey and Scott Kazmir.

Can they bank on Joc? After the All-Star break, center fielder Joc Pederson's batting average dropped 42 points, his OPS declined from .851 to .617, and he hit just six of his 26 total home runs. Overall, he struck out in nearly 30 percent of his plate appearances.

Is this a player the Dodgers can rely on as an everyday contributor?

He fits so well into their vision because he plays strong defense and still is just 23, but if his swing continues to be so susceptible to good pitching, the Dodgers will have to find ways to insure themselves in the outfield. They don’t think Puig can be counted on defensively in that position and the other outfielders are either too slow, too old or both.

Enrique Hernandez could be part of the solution, but he’s also going to need to play some second base unless the Dodgers get one of those from outside the organization. They’re unlikely to bring back Kendrick, whose defense is declining.

Is there hope for the bullpen? There is a line of thinking in baseball, one the Kansas City Royals just made look really good, that you can win with four or five decent but not dominant starters if you have a lockdown bullpen. The Dodgers, if they let Greinke walk, could move closer to this kind of model (when Kershaw isn’t pitching), but to do so, they will have to have a much better bullpen.

Chris Hatcher looked outstanding in September and October, so that gives reason to think the late innings could be less stressful than they were last season. It will pain Friedman to pay closer Kenley Jansen the raise he’ll earn in arbitration -- he could make more than $11 million -- because they’re not big believers in paying relievers big bucks, but trading him seems awfully risky.

J.P. Howell already picked up his $6.25 million option to return, so a lot of the bullpen is already set, but expect some turnover before spring training.

Is Corey Seager ready to take off? By the end of last season, you could have made a credible argument that he was the Dodgers' best hitter though he was only 21. Seager had an impressive month in the big leagues, batting .337 with a .986 OPS and playing better shortstop than many expected.

He muscled his way into the starting lineup and, if you look at his minor league record, he could get even better next season. Seager typically struggles when he arrives at a new level and then figures it out and gets hot. Mattingly, who knows hitting as well as anyone alive, thought Seager would be a better hitter in the major leagues than he was in the minors.

All signs point to great things, but players’ careers are rarely linear progressions and Seager could have some struggles along the way. He also has a frame that looks like it can support more muscle, so the question of whether he’ll be able to stay at shortstop could crop up quickly.

How to stop aging? Sadly, you can’t. The Dodgers’ two best hitters during the course of the season were Justin Turner (.861 OPS) and Adrian Gonzalez (.830 OPS). No one else was really close. Gonzalez will be 34 and Turner will be 31 coming off knee surgery.

Andre Ethier and Crawford are into their mid-30s and slowing down. The Dodgers can’t rely on the core of their offense to give them the same production next season that it gave them last season. At some point, they will need to find younger alternatives, but for now Gonzalez and Turner will be counted on heavily, and Crawford and Ethier will still have roles.

With this front office, though, there’s no stopping them when they get a notion. If they’re intent on getting younger, anyone could be moved at any time.

What about second base? The clearest misstep Friedman’s group has made so far was giving up too soon on speedster Dee Gordon. That’s not because Gordon led the National League with a .333 batting average or because he left the Dodgers largely bereft of base-stealing ability -- though both are true -- but because second base is now a quagmire.

Alex Guerrero clearly isn’t the answer. He doesn’t even play the position anymore. The Dodgers traded Hector Olivera to get Wood and others. Jose Peraza might be given a look, and Hernandez would badly like to be the everyday guy, but Peraza is just 21 and Hernandez couldn’t hit breaking balls from right-handed pitchers.

As of now, the Dodgers don’t have an everyday second baseman.

Will they even be visible? The one area Friedman’s group has no control of might be the most dear to Dodgers fans’ hearts. Will the team finally be on TV? Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, 87, has said he is feeling better after a health scare in the National League Division Series and said he’s raring to go in 2016, which will be his last season in the booth.

But the Dodgers still haven’t gotten distribution of their SportsNetLA station on DirecTV and other large carriers. Another season of blackouts will be a major blow to organization and further alienate them from its large, vibrant fan base.

Article by: Mark Saxon, ESPN

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