Late one night at baseball’s winter meetings this month, Scott Boras was encircled by reporters in a Dallas hotel lobby, talking about this and that — the Miami Marlins’ shocking spending spree, what the market looked like for star client Prince Fielder, whether J.D. Drew intended to retire, and so on.
What had been a serious question-and-answer session took a turn for the silly when the agent was asked about the Dodgers’ activity on the free-agent market.
Mentioning the well-documented financial restraints imposed on the Dodgers and New York Mets’ front offices, Boras smirked.
“Normally, they’re in the steaks section,” he said of the two cash-strapped teams, “and I found them in the fruits and nuts category a lot.”
In an effort to minimize the effects of owner Frank McCourt’s latest budget-cut mandate, the Dodgers bought in bulk.
To date, the Dodgers have signed seven free agents to major league contracts, of which the most expensive was Aaron Harang’s two-year, $12-million deal. With six days until Christmas, the Dodgers are nearly finished with their shopping. Their 2012 roster is practically set.
General Manager Ned Colletti said he thinks the Dodgers could be better than they were last season and started to support his case by pointing to their top two players.
In center fielder Matt Kemp, the Dodgers might have the National League’s top position player. And in Clayton Kershaw, they might have the league’s top pitcher.
But do they have enough around them to make a run at the postseason?
Here’s an early look at their roster:
Unable to add a significant bat to their less-than-imposing lineup, the Dodgers will have to rely on right fielder Andre Ethier and left fielder Juan Rivera to protect Kemp.
Kemp finished second in the NL’s most-valuable-player voting after batting .324 with 39 home runs and 126 runs batted in to make a late-season triple-crown run.
But Ethier, once considered Kemp’s equal, was hobbled by knee problems and hit only 11 home runs, his fewest since his rookie year. Ethier is recovering from a minor knee operation.
Like Ethier, Rivera is a question mark. A midseason bargain pickup, Rivera drove in 46 runs in 62 games for the Dodgers, which far exceeded his normal rate of production. With no other recourse, the Dodgers re-signed him to a one-year, $4.5-million contract.
The team’s two other potential run producers, first baseman James Loney and third baseman Juan Uribe, should also be causes for concern. Loney salvaged a miserable season, and his job, by driving in 28 runs over the last 35 games. Uribe had no such stretch.
But the key to the lineup could be Dee Gordon. As a rookie, the fleet-footed shortstop was erratic on defense but batted .304 and stole 24 bases in 56 games.
The Dodgers aren’t expecting to receive significant offensive contributions from catcher and second base, where the respective starters will be defensive specialists A.J. Ellis and Mark Ellis.
Kershaw, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, won the NL’s triple crown of pitching and won all four of his head-to-head meetings with San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum.
The next two pitchers in the rotation, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly, were brilliant at times but awful at others. Billingsley was an All-Star in 2009, but has been a .500 pitcher since. Lilly had trouble holding runners and keeping the ball in the park, but closed the season by winning five of his last six decisions.
The Dodgers parted ways with No. 2 starter Hiroki Kuroda, opting instead to sign two back-end starters in Harang and Chris Capuano.
Harang posted a 3.64 earned-run average for the San Diego Padres, but his ERA outside of the Padres’ pitcher-friendly park was 4.70. Capuano, who had a 4.55 ERA for the New York Mets, should be able to eat up five innings every fifth day.
Utility players Jerry Hairston Jr. and Adam Kennedy offer experience but little promise of upside. The same is true of fellow newcomer Matt Treanor, the backup catcher.
Defensive specialist Tony Gwynn Jr. is a solid fourth outfielder who should be a frequent late-inning replacement for Rivera. Jerry Sands, the Dodgers’ minor league player of the year in 2010, is expected to play in the outfield and first base when the team faces a left-handed pitcher.
The emergence of Javy Guerra and Kenley Jansen spared Colletti the task of replacing departed closer Jonathan Broxton. Guerra saved 21 games while Broxton was sidelined and Jansen averaged 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
This will be a young bullpen, with Scott Elbert, Josh Lindblom and Blake Hawksworth figuring to play prominent roles. The lone veteran will be 33-year-old Matt Guerrier, who had a 4.07 ERA in the first year of his three-year, $12-million contract.
With nearly no money left to spend, Colletti said he is focused on signing a veteran reliever. The team remains in talks with Mike MacDougal, who went into camp last season with a minor league contract and finished with a 2.05 ERA.
Although Colletti said Sands should get enough at-bats as a major league reserve, the Dodgers might also consider adding an outfielder so Sands could play every day in triple A.