- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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The Dodgers' starting infield is expected to return three-quarters intact this season, with the left side manned by savvy veterans Casey Blake and Rafael Furcal and first base covered by James Loney, who is gradually transitioning from youngster to savvy veteran. But second base is a big question mark, with a three-man free-for-all expected in spring training to decide who gets to play there most of the time in 2010.
Without saying so publicly, club officials are hoping Blake DeWitt winds up with the job, something that would balance out a heavily right-handed lineup, provide better defense up the middle and have the trickle-down effect of creating a stronger bench.
More on that later.
The overall infield defense certainly hasn't improved with the departure of four-time Gold Glove second baseman Orlando Hudson. One would be hard-pressed to find a more airtight combination up the middle last season than Hudson and Furcal. But offensively, Hudson slumped so badly down the stretch that he didn't start any of the Dodgers' eight postseason games, and the club expressed no interest in re-signing him this winter. And besides, although DeWitt might not have Hudson's range, he did have better-than-average range as a third baseman and has proved he can hold his own with the glove.
Blake has decent range at third and handles most of what is hit his way, and Furcal makes up for whatever mobility Blake lacks with excellent range to his right. Loney is a potential Gold Glove winner at first. As a left-handed thrower, he will be able to cover much of the area to his right that either DeWitt, Ronnie Belliard or Jamey Carroll can't.
At age 25, Loney is one of several budding superstars in the Dodgers' lineup, but in terms of his personality and his offensive numbers, he keeps a lower profile than emerging mega-talents Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. In keeping with that, he'll likely hit sixth or seventh in the order, a comfortable spot for him that should provide plenty of chances to match his RBI total (90) of each of the past two seasons.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Club officials have long said they would like to see Loney hit for more power, but perhaps they should continue to nurture the part of his game that already is blossoming. For the first time in his career, Loney walked more often (70 times) than he struck out (68) last season, contributing to a respectable .357 on-base percentage. On the other hand, he is primarily a line-drive, gap-type hitter, and that newfound patience at the plate -- his career-high walks total represented an increase of 35 over the previous year -- might have contributed to his doubles falling from 35 in 2008 to 25 in 2009.
DeWitt hasn't logged significant time at second in the majors since 2008, but he played there almost exclusively at Triple-A Albuquerque last season and later in the Dominican Winter League. It is his bat, though, that will determine whether he can beat out Belliard and Carroll for the starting job and whether he begins the season in the majors.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Because he is such a valued prospect and is at such a critical stage of his development, DeWitt will begin the season in the minors if he doesn't win the job so that he can continue to get regular playing time.
DeWitt, 24, probably is the only one of the trio who can start six or seven days a week, meaning that if he isn't the starter, Belliard and Carroll will split time. Because both Belliard and Carroll can play multiple positions, that would weaken the Dodgers' bench by removing one of them from it every night. Moreover, if DeWitt isn't in the everyday lineup, Loney and Ethier will be the only pure left-handed hitters who are.
DeWitt came to spring training last year believing the second-base job was his to lose, only to have those hopes dashed when the Dodgers suddenly signed Hudson days after the start of camp. DeWitt knows he has competition now, but he also knows his fate is in his own hands this time.
Blake isn't getting any younger -- he'll turn 37 in August. But his defensive range is still better than the league average, and the Dodgers got solid offensive numbers from him last year, when he hit .280 with 18 homers and 79 RBIs. He still strikes out a lot, and did so 116 times and more than once every five times he came the plate last year, but he also drew more walks (63) than in any season since 2004 and posted a career-best .363 on-base percentage.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Blake is a master at putting together quality at-bats. He had one of the biggest of his career in the ninth inning of Game 2 of last year's National League Division Series, working St. Louis closer Ryan Franklin for a nine-pitch walk that probably was the key moment in a game-winning, two-run rally for the Dodgers. Since being acquired from Cleveland at the 2008 trade deadline, Blake also has become a quiet, respected leader in a Dodgers clubhouse that was famously fractured before his arrival.
The Dodgers seem to rise and fall with Furcal's offensive numbers, making him arguably the most important, if not the best, leadoff man in the NL. His lackluster .335 OBP last year didn't help, but he was solid down the stretch, especially during the season's final month. But his impact on the club was never more evident than it was during the playoffs.
Los Angeles Dodgers
In the past two postseasons, Furcal has batted a combined .417 in the NL Division Series, a key factor in the Dodgers' back-to-back, three-game sweeps of the Chicago Cubs and the Cardinals. But in consecutive five-game flameouts against Philadelphia in the NL Championship Series, Furcal has hit .175 (7-for-40).
Where Furcal is concerned, though, the most important thing for the Dodgers is that he remains healthy. To that end, his biggest personal triumph of 2009 was that he managed to play in 150 games (his most since 2006) and avoid the disabled list completely. But his historically balky lower back is always a concern, especially given the way he punishes his body trying to run down every ground ball hit within a mile of him, and the Dodgers will be in big trouble if they lose him for any length of time.
The sudden decline of onetime golden boy Russell Martin was one of the great mysteries surrounding the 2009 Dodgers. The two-time All-Star put up the worst offensive numbers of his career, and that includes his rookie year of 2006, when he wasn't called to the majors until a month into the season.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Martin has dropped off in virtually every major offensive category in each of the past two seasons: His average has dropped from .293 (2007) to .280 ('08) to .250 ('09), his doubles from 32 to 25 to 19; his home runs from 19 to 13 to 7, and his RBIs from 87 to 69 to 53. Last year, his average fell from .258 in the first half to .239 after the break.
The most obvious culprit would be the staggering number of games Martin catches and the toll it takes on his body. But that theory doesn't hold up statistically. Martin started just 133 games behind the plate in 2009 and entered four others defensively. That's a drop from 138 starts and 149 games caught in 2008.
For better or worse, and with the aging Brad Ausmus back for a second season as his backup, Martin is what the Dodgers have behind the plate. And in fairness, the former Gold Glove winner is still one of the league's best defensive catchers when he isn't too tired to block balls in the dirt. Martin had only three passed balls, but the Dodgers ranked second in the NL with 76 wild pitches.
He also is still a master at handing a pitching staff, and he posted a rock-solid catcher's ERA of 3.37 last season. But the Dodgers desperately need him to regain his lost power stroke.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
2hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
3hAnthony Witrado, Special to ESPN.com
1dAnthony Witrado, Special to ESPN.com