The Dodgers walked out of their clubhouse and onto the practice fields Tuesday at Camelback Ranch for their first full-squad workout of the spring with several questions lingering in the background.
How serious are owner Frank McCourt’s financial problems? Will this be the year Matt Kemp realizes his potential? Who will play in left field? Does Casey Blake have anything left in the tank?
But the question that could most affect the Dodgers this season might be the one concerning the team’s quietest player.
Can closer Jonathan Broxton recover from the worst three-month stretch of his career?
“I’ll be fine this year,” Broxton said. And Manager Don Mattingly, who has selected the two-time All-Star his closer, says the same. But neither player nor coach can identify a reason for Broxton’s late-2010 slump.
Broxton, 26, has chosen an anti-intellectual — or is it actually uber-intellectual? — approach to solving his problems, as has long been his custom. As a closer, he says he’s been conditioned to forget about a blown save. He won’t change just because there were seven of them last year.
The soft-spoken but hard-throwing Georgian says he never bothered to examine what went wrong over his last 31 appearances, when he had a 7.58 earned-run average and was temporarily displaced as the Dodgers’ closer.
He dismisses radar-gun readings that indicated he had lost a couple of ticks off his fastball by questioning the accuracy of the speed-measuring devices. He says he “might have gotten into some bad habits,” but claims to not know what they were. The closest he comes to acknowledging that conditioning might have been an issue is by revealing that this year he started running a month earlier than usual.
“Get my legs under me a little more,” he said.
Asked how he can have so much faith that everything will return to the way it used to be without the benefit of logic or the examination of empirical evidence, Broxton replies, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s instinct. You played your whole life. You know how to throw.”
Mattingly says the off-season offered Broxton some time to recover … from whatever it was.
“Brox is able to get away during the winter, take a good look at what happened, make an honest assessment,” Mattingly said.
Told that Broxton says he hasn’t reflected on what happened last season, Mattingly added, “Guys don’t want to share that. If I’m Jonathan Broxton, I don’t really want to keep talking about the past. I understand that. It doesn’t do me any good to keep doing over something you can’t do anything about.”
Top players, Mattingly says, analyze their failures. That’s what makes them top players. He says his conversations with Broxton have him convinced that his closer is “in a good frame of mind.”
“When you talk to him, you get a feeling,” Mattingly said.
Based on the ideas he has expressed?
“Not so much ideas,” Mattingly said. “Just tone.”
That tone also is enough for pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who says he senses Broxton has an edge about him this spring. Honeycutt has known Broxton since he joined the Dodgers’ system — he was the club’s minor league pitching coordinator when Broxton was drafted in 2002.
“Brox is not an easy guy to read,” Honeycutt said. “But talking to him this winter, there was a confident air about him.”
If Mattingly and Honeycutt are wrong the consequences could be severe.
Left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo had a franchise-record 1.20 ERA last season but has endured four elbow operations and probably couldn’t handle the workload of an everyday closer. Converted catcher Kenley Jansen showed promise as a rookie, but is short on experience. Free-agent acquisition Matt Guerrier will earn $12 million over the next three years but has five career saves — one in each of the last five seasons.
The only other serious candidate would be Vicente Padilla, the Dodgers’ opening-day starter a year ago. Padilla last pitched regularly as a reliever a decade ago. His only two saves were recorded in 2000. And he might have arm problems.
Failure would result in major consequences for Broxton, too. With his two-year, $11-million contract set to expire at the end of the season, Broxton is 10 months away from his first venture into free agency.
He says he looking at the future the same way he does the past.
“That’s down the road,” he said. “You can’t think about that.”