Dodgers convene for spring training amid questions about pitching rotation and the outfield

The Dodgers spent more than $200 million on free agents, including closer Kenley Jansen, but still have plenty of questions entering the 2017 season.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

No team in baseball spent more money in free agency than the Dodgers this winter. After two off-seasons of relative austerity under the leadership of Andrew Friedman, with the organization more focused on fortifying its depth than expanding its already sizable payroll, the team splurged.

The final bill came to more than $200 million, with $192 million going to re-signing closer Kenley Jansen (five years and $80 million), third baseman Justin Turner (four years and $64 million) and pitcher Rich Hill (three years and $48 million).

The team also solidified second base, trading for versatile infielder Logan Forsythe — and still found room in the budget to re-sign beloved veteran Chase Utley.


In making these moves, the front office effectively backed up its rhetoric. Despite losing to the Chicago Cubs in six games in the National League Championship Series, the Dodgers believed they had a roster capable of contending with the eventual World Series champions for years to come. They spent the money necessary to support that belief.

The Dodgers now enter spring training in a mood of tranquility, a rarity after years of clubhouse rancor and uncertainty. Dave Roberts earned the trust of his players last year in his first season as manager, navigated through a historic slate of injuries — including a two-month absence from ace Clayton Kershaw — and led the club to a fourth consecutive National League West title. He was voted the National League manager of the year and distinguished himself as a tactician in the playoffs.

The club enters spring training with a roster loaded with depth and promise. Both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs projected the Dodgers to finish with the best record in baseball. PECOTA, the projection system of Baseball Prospectus, predicted 99 wins for a team that hasn’t won that many games since 1974 — and hasn’t been to the World Series since 1988, the year of its last championship.

The Dodgers have occupied this position of prominence before. They’ve won their division six times in the last nine seasons but have won only four playoff series and fallen short in four trips to the NLCS.

The reasons to believe in this club are plentiful: They employ Kershaw, the game’s best pitcher, and shortstop Corey Seager, last season’s NL rookie of the year, is a genuine MVP candidate. Jansen may be the game’s best closer. No club in baseball has more depth on its 40-man roster, and the farm system features enough talent to allow the front office to swing an impact trade at the deadline.

The Dodgers, in short, are the envy of the industry. But will this be the season they stand atop the sport’s mountain? There are issues to be sorted out at Camelback Ranch, where pitchers and catchers report on Wednesday.


Who makes the starting rotation?

The first three spots are easy to fill. Kershaw, Hill and Kenta Maeda compromise 60% of the group. The remaining 40% makes for Cactus League intrigue.

To fill the last two positions, the Dodgers have at least seven potential options: Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Julio Urias, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Alex Wood, Brock Stewart and Ross Stripling.

The organization views Urias as one of its five best pitchers. But at 20, after logging 127 2/3 innings last season, Urias may be stashed in extended spring training to start the season, so he’ll be able to contribute in September and October.

An excellent pitcher in 2013 and 2014, Ryu has never fully recovered from shoulder surgery in 2015. He pitched once last season, and his fastball velocity hovered in the mid-80s. Despite optimistic reports about his conditioning, the Dodgers cannot count on him until they see whether his arm can handle the rigors of the season.

Both Stewart and Stripling have minor-league options. The Dodgers can send them to triple-A Oklahoma City, thus maintaining the organization’s depth while keeping them fresh for big-league duty later in the season. In the same vein, Wood could shift into the bullpen, where he pitched after his return from elbow surgery in September.

That leaves McCarthy and Kazmir. Both have endured rocky starts to their Dodgers careers. But given their résumés, they figure to be the first choices for the start of the season. Kazmir must demonstrate he has overcome the back and neck ailments that disabled him last summer. McCarthy must show he can still throw strikes, which he struggled to do after he came back from elbow ligament replacement surgery.


Who mans the outfield?

Another year, another logjam for playing time. Franklin Gutierrez signed a one-year, $2.6-million deal last week, adding another useful right-handed bat to an outfield mix that includes Joc Pederson, Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig, Andrew Toles, Scott Van Slyke and Trayce Thompson.

Pederson is expected to be the everyday center fielder. He impressed Roberts with his improvement against left-handed pitchers last season.

The Dodgers are likely to run platoons at both corner positions. Ethier and Toles could start against right-handed pitchers. Puig would start against left-handers, with the hope of playing well enough to expand his playing time. And there should be competition for the other corner outfield spot against left-handers.

Gutierrez figures to be insurance for Van Slyke, who struggled with a wrist injury for much of 2016. The Dodgers could option Van Slyke to the minors, though he is a well-liked teammate who has produced against left-handers in the past.

Can Roberts rediscover the right bullpen mix?

Roberts experienced growing pains during his first month running the bullpen last season. After Chris Hatcher struggled as the setup man, Roberts searched for a replacement before settling on Joe Blanton.

Blanton proved capable in almost any situation, from building the bridge to Jansen in the eighth inning to arriving in the third inning in the fifth game of the National League division series.


But Blanton remains unsigned as the Dodgers approach camp, with former San Francisco reliever Sergio Romo signed as his likely replacement. Romo offers veteran experience for a group that may rely on youth.

Grant Dayton made his big-league debut last season but figures to be Roberts’ No. 1 left-handed option to start the season. Another pitcher to watch is Josh Ravin, who served a suspension for violating the sport’s performance-enhancing drug policy last season but dominated after being called up in September.

Pedro Baez is back, although he has fallen somewhat in the bullpen hierarchy. Josh Fields impressed the front office after arriving from Houston via a trade last August. Luis Avilan is a left-handed option, and if Wood is not in the rotation, he also could be a force in relief.

Then there is Adam Liberatore, who spun 28 consecutive scoreless appearances last year before succumbing to elbow issues. And Brandon Morrow, signed to a minor-league deal, has been effective when not marred by injuries.

The final mix can’t be settled on at Camelback Ranch. But Roberts can start the sifting.


Twitter: @McCulloughTimes