After six weeks stuck in the desert, time spent completing that annual ritual of attempting to avoid injury while determining the fringes of their rosters, the Dodgers and Angels return to the Southland for the three-game Freeway Series beginning Thursday at Dodger Stadium.
Each club is about to enter the 2016 season with new faces in critical positions. Last season, the Angels saw general manager Jerry Dipoto resign and missed the playoffs. The Dodgers captured their third consecutive National League West title, but failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs and parted with manager Don Mattingly.
The Dodgers chose Dave Roberts, a first-time manager, to lead their team in the dugout. The Angels chose Billy Eppler, a first-time general manager, to run their baseball operations department.
The preseason exhibition series has become de rigueur for teams in recent years, with the hope of re-acclimating players to the dimensions of major league stadiums after so much time spent on the spring diamonds of Arizona and Florida.
"You're in a stadium, and there's more fans and you ramp up the intensity," Roberts said. "And you realize that the season is that much closer."
Both teams open Monday. The Angels host the Chicago Cubs. The Dodgers face the Padres in San Diego. Neither club has finalized its roster.
The Dodgers have sustained several injuries this spring, losing Brett Anderson (back surgery) for three to five months, Andre Ethier (broken leg) for two to three months, Mike Bolsinger (oblique strain) for a month and Howie Kendrick (calf tightness) for at least the first week of the season.
The injuries to Anderson and Bolsinger slashed the team's rotation. The Dodgers have yet to determine a fifth starter. They are deciding between Carlos Frias, Zach Lee and Ross Stripling. Stripling has been the most impressive this spring, but he also has the shortest resume. He has never pitched above double A.
Roberts also needs to finalize his bullpen. A miserable spring may earn left-handed reliever Luis Avilan a demotion to the minors, leaving J.P. Howell as the lone left-hander in the group. Louis Coleman, signed for $725,000 on the day pitchers and catchers reported, has been one of the bigger surprises of camp. He could join Pedro Baez and Yimi Garcia as the key middle relievers, with Kenley Jansen as the closer, Chris Hatcher as the setup man and Joe Blanton as the long man.
The Angels have their own set of issues. With left-hander Andrew Heaney starting Thursday, left-hander Hector Santiago on Friday and right-hander Nick Tropeano on Saturday, the Angels have just about set their starting rotation and their bullpen. During the Freeway Series, they must decide what to do with right-hander Jered Weaver and connect that with their relief situation.
If Weaver begins the season on the 15-day disabled list, they can carry right-hander Cam Bedrosian and left-hander Greg Mahle. If Weaver starts with the team, they must pick one of the two young arms.
The lone non-pitching decision remaining is in regard to the fourth and final bench spot. First baseman Ji-Man Choi has been the presumed choice all spring, but outfielders Todd Cunningham and Rafael Ortega and infielder Rey Navarro remain in consideration.
It is in part a matter of versatility. Cliff Pennington is known as a utility infielder, but he has logged almost all of his big league time at shortstop or second base. The Angels would like to carry a capable reserve for first baseman C.J. Cron and third baseman Yunel Escobar.
They have tried Pennington at those spots this spring. They have also used Navarro at third base and Choi extensively at first base. Choi has the best offensive resume of the four candidates.