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Dodgers mailbag: Will Chase Utley be back in 2018?

Dodgers mailbag: Will Chase Utley be back in 2018?
Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley, right, is congratulated by teammates Joc Pederson and Cody Bellinger after scoring a run against Houston in Game 6 of the World Series on Oct. 31. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Dodgers report to spring training next week. In the annual projections released by PECOTA on Wednesday, the team is projected to win 99 games. No other team in the National League is forecast to win more than 90. Those numbers could change if any of the available free agents — Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and dozens of others — ever sign with teams.

A slow offseason for Major League Baseball has spiraled into one marred by acrimony and recriminations. I imagine the Dodgers players will have a lot to say when they arrive at Camelback Ranch next week. Both Justin Turner and Alex Wood spoke out against the concept of tanking on Tuesday. It should be an interesting spring.

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Until then, let's answer a few questions. You can reach me on Twitter @McCulloughTimes. Let's do this.

A return for Chase Utley feels more like an inevitability than an option, at this point. Utley is revered in the Dodgers' clubhouse. He has been working out at Dodger Stadium. The team would like to have him around in 2018. The trouble comes when determining a role and a salary.

Every dollar the team spends pushes it closer to the $197-million luxury-tax threshold and reduces some flexibility for either the present or the midsummer trade deadline. The Dodgers need that flexibility to stay in the hunt for Darvish, even if it seems unlikely they'll be able to pull off the steps (winning the negotiation with Darvish over other suitors with more money to offer, clearing salary elsewhere) to bring him back. But it wouldn't surprise me if the Dodgers finalize something with Utley once they have clarity with Darvish.

A reunion with Andre Ethier looks unlikely. The outfield is already crowded with Yasiel Puig, Chris Taylor, Joc Pederson, Enrique Hernandez, Andrew Toles, Alex Verdugo and Matt Kemp (!). The Dodgers don't need a left-handed stick off the bench, and Ethier has been waylaid by injuries the past two seasons. But, who knows? Stranger things have happened.

To quote Royals general manager Dayton Moore: My crystal ball is broken.

Outside of Clayton Kershaw, Bryce Harper will be the most attractive name available on the free-agent market next winter. But I do not believe the Dodgers sought financial flexibility for 2018 solely to pursue Harper. Under Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi, the team preaches the importance of having options, and it now has the ability to pursue Kershaw and Harper, or Kershaw and Manny Machado, or Machado and Andrew Miller, or several other permutations.

I actually think Machado could make a lot of sense for the Dodgers. Given the flexibility of Cody Bellinger, the team could shift either Turner or Corey Seager to first base to make room. Machado will likely also cost less than Harper.

But who knows. Next winter is still an entire baseball season away.

Barring injury, it looks like the rotation will consist of Kershaw, Rich Hill, Wood, Kenta Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Ross Stripling and Brock Stewart look like candidates for the bullpen, though they will be stretched out as starters.

It is too early to predict how the Dodgers would use Maeda in the playoffs. After all, they have to make the playoffs first. But barring a sizable uptick in his performance as a starter, he figures to pitch in relief in October. The blueprint the team built last year looks repeatable.

I do not expect the players to boycott spring training. I do expect many of them to sound off about their frustration with teams for tanking and not spending money in free agency.

There are too many factors at play to accurately predict when the Dodgers will call up Walker Buehler. It depends on whether there is an opportunity at the major-league level, whether Buehler is performing well enough in the minors to warrant a promotion and whether the organization trusts him to remain in the rotation once he arrives.

Buehler threw 88 2/3 innings in 2017. It would be unlikely to see him add more than 50 or 60 innings to that total this season.

Nope. The competitive-balance tax is based on the average annual value (AAV) of a contract, not its year-to-year value, so the Dodgers could not backload a contract to sign Darvish in an attempt to avoid the penalty in 2018.

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My hope is Kyle Zimmer wins the American League Cy Young award in 2018, because he is a nice young man, and because I would like these dorks from Kansas City to leave me alone.

I do not foresee "Sportswriters Blues" returning, at least not in its previous form. It takes two to podcast.

If you want to see me do a podcast with Dylan Hernandez, please send an email to dylan.hernandez@latimes.com.

You will not see me on "Live at the Bike" for a while. I'm headed to Phoenix this weekend until April, but you can catch me at either $2-$3 or $3-$5 NLH at Talking Stick over there.

1. Yikes. Ronda Rousey looked so awkward during the post-match shenanigans after the Royal Rumble, it took a lot of steam out of her appearance. Hopefully she can be more comfortable in subsequent appearances, but, man, that was rough.

2. AJ Styles v. Shinsuke Nakamura will probably be pretty great, but it's hard to imagine they will top their match at Wrestle Kingdom 10. I'm curious to see if they try to build off that for a sequel, or if they aim to create something entirely fresh. Nakamura has looked sluggish at times during his run on the main roster, but Styles should bring out the best in him. So much depends on how much time WWE gives them. Given the likely letdown of the main event, in which pretty much everyone expects Roman Reigns to go over on Brock Lesnar and get booed out of the building, I suspect the company knows they'll need to soften the blow and keep the fans happy throughout the night. Letting Styles and Nakamura tear the house down for 30 minutes would help.

3. The match between Andrade Almas and Johnny Gargano was not the best match I've ever seen (off the top of my head, I prefer the first two Okada-Omega matches, Hart-Austin at Wrestlemania 13, Bret-Owen at Summerslam 1994 and HBK-Razor at Wrestlemania 10). But it was pretty great. It was the best match on American soil — meaning the best match that didn't occur in New Japan Pro Wrestling — I can remember in a long time. Gargano is tremendous, and I hope WWE finds a way to use him properly on the main roster. I wasn't a big fan of Almas during his early days with the company, but he looked like a breakout star in this one.

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Twitter: @McCulloughTimes

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