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Dodgers start spring training with a void at closer

Dodgers to have auditions for a closer during spring training

With pitchers and catchers reporting Thursday to spring training, the Dodgers already are facing something of a crisis.

Closer Kenley Jansen underwent foot surgery Tuesday and is expected to be sidelined for the first month of the regular season.

How the Dodgers are reacting to the setback offers insight to the thinking of the team's new front office, headed by former Tampa Bay Rays executive Andrew Friedman. Rather than target high-profile free agents who could be in decline, the Dodgers are looking to add middle-relief depth.

The hope is that by temporarily replacing Jansen with an in-house candidate, the Dodgers can prevent problems from surfacing in other parts of the bullpen.

The roster was constructed like this, so that the team would have a foundation sturdy enough to withstand the loss of a player here or there. Newcomers Kike Hernandez and Chris Heisey play multiple positions, as do returning reserves such as Justin Turner and Scott Van Slyke. Incoming pitchers Joe Wieland and Mike Bolsinger add rotation depth.

Depth and flexibility comes at a cost, which is why the Dodgers payroll is already in the range of $260 million, more than it was last year. The makeover, which included an emphasis on defense, also required them to part ways with a couple of popular players, Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez.

First baseman Adrian Gonzalez likes the tradeoff, noting that the San Francisco Giants have benefited from a roster that is more functional than star-studded.

"Everybody needs to know their role," Gonzalez said. "That's when teams function. If you look at the Giants, their relievers knew when they were going to come in. The bench players knew their roles.

"You need a team that has that functionality. When you just have a bunch of guys that have great talent, everyone wants to play at the same time. Then you have somebody that might be mad and when you put them in, they might not be suited for that situation. Even though we had a great team on paper [last year], I don't think it functioned the way a team should function."

How the Dodgers take shape in the wake of this makeover will be one of several story lines to follow during spring training. Here are some others:

Temporary closer

The Dodgers' plan of collecting relievers with All-Star resumes ended in failure last season. Brian Wilson and Chris Perez failed to pitch to the high level of their previous seasons. Paying more attention to strikeout-to-walk ratios than name recognition, Friedman replaced Wilson and Perez with Joel Peralta and Chris Hatcher.

Considering the bullpen can't get much worse than it was last season — the group's 3.80 earned-run average ranked 22nd in the majors — the strategy should result in an improvement.

One problem: There's no obvious replacement for Jansen.

Hatcher, a 30-year-old right-hander acquired in a deal with the Miami Marlins, is one option. He has never saved a game in the majors, but his fastball touches 98 mph and, like Jansen, he is a converted catcher. Stuff-wise, second-year right-hander Pedro Baez also fits the profile of a closer.

Two nonroster players in camp have extensive closing experience: David Aardsma, who saved 38 games for the Seattle Mariners in 2009, and Sergio Santos, who saved 30 games for the Chicago White Sox in 2011.

Line 'em up

Manager Don Mattingly will have to designate a new leadoff hitter, as well as find a couple of bats to protect Gonzalez, the team's middle-of-the-order staple.

Former Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins could replace Dee Gordon at the top of the lineup. Rollins is 36 and had a modest on-base percentage of .323 last season, but he stole 28 bases. Carl Crawford, who has often batted second for the Dodgers, also could lead off.

A less likely possibility is Yasiel Puig, whose power potential makes him a candidate to bat third, fourth or fifth. Puig and second baseman Howie Kendrick could move into the spots around Gonzalez that were vacated by Kemp and Ramirez. But Puig hit only four home runs after the All-Star break last year and Kendrick hit seven the entire season.

Switch-hitting catcher Yasmani Grandal is a power threat and is a heart-of-the-order option should Puig or Kendrick falter.

Crowded field

The way the Dodgers align themselves in the outfield will depend on whether rookie Joc Pederson can break into the lineup. Of the players viewed as everyday options, Pederson is the only natural center fielder, making him management's preferred choice to start there.

If Pederson wins the position, Puig would play in right and Crawford in left; Van Slyke and Heisey would be the right-handed-hitting parts of platoons in center and left.

Under this scenario, Andre Ethier would probably be moved to another team.

But if Pederson falters, Ethier would be needed, most likely in right. Puig would return to center, where he played 52 games last season.

Front and back

With Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, the top of the pitching rotation is one of the best in baseball. The back is a question mark.

Newcomers Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson have alarming medical histories. McCarthy, who signed a four-year contract worth $48 million, has pitched 200 innings in a season only once. Anderson, who has a one-year deal guaranteed for $10 million, has pitched fewer than 84 innings in each of the last four seasons and is still recovering from surgery on his back.

The Dodgers are optimistic the two pitchers can remain healthy. McCarthy posted his 200-inning season last year after making changes to his workout program. Anderson hasn't had any arm problems since he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011.

Beyond McCarthy and Anderson, the options include former San Diego Padres top prospect Joe Wieland, Arizona Diamondbacks cast-off Mike Bolsinger, and former first-round picks Zach Lee and Chris Reed. Erik Bedard, once considered one of the top pitchers in baseball, will be in camp on a minor league contract.

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez

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