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Dodgers leave spring training with a few questions regarding the bullpen

Dodgers leave spring training with a few questions regarding the bullpen
The Dodgers' Justin Turner is congratulated by pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu after Turner's home run in a spring training game against the Brewers on Thursday in Phoenix. (Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

The Dodgers, at least those who remained to stomach their final Cactus League game, left for Los Angeles on Saturday afternoon. They departed having had many questions answered over the previous six weeks, but a few remain. The most pertinent over the next week is who will fill the only remaining unclaimed spot on the opening-day roster.

The vacancy is in the bullpen. It was created by Rich Hill’s strained left knee, which transferred Julio Urias from his projected role as a reliever to the club’s fifth starter. Urias’ replacement hasn’t been determined, according to manager Dave Roberts.

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Roberts said the team will choose someone who can pitch multiple innings, given the limitations on Urias and Walker Buehler early in the season. Roberts said the Dodgers could find their answer externally. Internally, Roberts acknowledged, Dennis Santana and Brock Stewart are the leading candidates.

Both right-handers are on the 40-man roster. Santana will travel with the team for the Freeway Series against the Angels to close out the preseason after allowing three runs on three hits in three innings in a start Friday against the Arizona Diamondbacks. On Saturday against the Chicago White Sox, Stewart, who was stung by a two-out error by third baseman Cristian Santana in the first inning, allowed four runs (one earned) in 3⅓ innings.

“I would say, internally, right now as I sit here, Brock and Dennis are probably the guys because you’re expecting Rich back shortly,” Roberts said. “So to kind of have some length potential for a short time, those two guys make the most sense.”

Santana, 22, made his major-league debut June 1 last season. It went terribly. The right-hander surrendered five runs on six hits in 3⅔ innings and was later diagnosed with a right rotator cuff strain. He missed the remainder of the season.

The 27-year-old Stewart has appeared in 33 major league games, starting 11. He owns a 4.84 career earned-run average. Last season, he had a 6.11 ERA in nine outings (two starts) with the Dodgers.

Kershaw, Buehler to throw

Clayton Kershaw and Buehler will pitch in a simulated game at Angel Stadium on Monday, Roberts said. Kershaw will throw two innings, and Buehler will pitch five.

It will be the second time Kershaw throws off a mound against hitters since shoulder inflammation disrupted his spring training. He will begin the season on the injured list.

Buehler, meanwhile, is scheduled to start the Dodgers’ fourth game of the season against the Diamondbacks. He pitched in just one Cactus League game — Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians. He allowed a run in 2⅔ innings.

A chance for Verdugo

After two standout seasons in Class AAA, Alex Verdugo will finally get a prolonged shot in the majors. The outfielder will be on the Dodgers’ opening-day roster. That much is certain. What isn’t as certain is how often the 22-year-old Verdugo will play.

Two-thirds of the Dodgers’ outfield is established. A.J. Pollock will start in center field. Cody Bellinger will start in right field. They will be in those spots against both righties and lefties. The Dodgers, however, will platoon in left field. Joc Pederson will start against right-handers, and Chris Taylor will start against left-handers. That leaves Verdugo, who can play all three outfield spots, as a hitting option off the bench, starting a couple times a week when the other outfielders need a breather.

“It’s not what you’re used to, but, again, it’s a mind-set,” Verdugo said. “You go in there, and, no matter how many at-bats you have or how often you get to play, you go up there, if you have the mind-set that you’re going to battle and compete, I think good results will happen.”

Hernandez gets nod at second

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Roberts said Enrique Hernandez will effectively be the Dodgers’ starting second baseman after spending his four seasons in Los Angeles as a do-it-all utility player. Taylor, his competition for time at second base, will be team’s primary utilityman this year, bouncing from second and shortstop to center and left field.

Taylor will platoon in left field with Pederson. It will be the Dodgers’ only strict platoon, according to Roberts. Behind the plate, Austin Barnes and Russell Martin, both right-handed hitters, will split time 60% to 40%. At first base, Roberts explained that Max Muncy will get the bulk of the starts over David Freese, even against lefties. Roberts said the team values Freese late in games as a pinch-hitter.

“It’s contingent on how Muncy is handling his at-bats against lefties,” Roberts said. “So I don’t see it as a strict platoon unless it needs to be.”

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