11 questions for the '11 Dodgers
As the Los Angeles Dodgers come off their worst season in five years and enter what promises to be their most critical offseason in at least that long, they face plenty of issues. Here are a handful of them:
1. Who will replace Don Mattingly as hitting coach?
We'll know this within the next few weeks, and the smart money probably is on Tim Wallach, who had the same job with the Dodgers under Jim Tracy in 2004 and '05. The Dodgers' problems in 2010 stemmed largely from their offense, which simply didn't produce, especially in the second half. Wallach's hitting philosophy -- being patient, working opposing pitchers, having a plan at the plate -- mirrors Mattingly's almost to a tee.
2. Who will be the Dodgers' closer?
Outgoing manager Joe Torre said that, based on his conversations with Mattingly, the role will again be Jonathan Broxton's to lose going into spring training. Unless the Dodgers find another closer from somewhere else -- Francisco Rodriguez is expected to be the most notable one on the free-agent market, but the Dodgers probably can't afford him -- their only alternatives are Hong-Chih Kuo, who is dependable but can't be used often enough to be a full-time closer, and Kenley Jansen, who still will have less than half a season of big league service and less than two years of pitching at all.
3. Who will be the Dodgers' catcher?
A.J. Ellis, who has been known for his defense, had an outstanding September with the bat after working extensively with Mattingly and hitting instructor Jeff Pentland. At a time when the Dodgers aren't sure whether they want to stick with Russell Martin -- who was paid $5.05 million this year and stands to earn more through arbitration -- Ellis' breakout might have made up their minds for them. The Dodgers could re-sign Rod Barajas to a one-year deal, and have Barajas and Ellis share time behind the plate -- with their combined salaries roughly a quarter of what the Dodgers would have to pay Martin.
4. Sixty percent of the Dodgers' starting rotation is eligible for free agency this winter. How could they be replaced?
In a perfect world -- one in which owner Frank McCourt pushes the payroll back to nine figures -- the Dodgers would re-sign all three of the starters they might lose: Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla. The big question there, though, is whether Kuroda wants to be re-signed or would rather return to Japan. Either way, the Dodgers figure to make re-signing Lilly their top priority this winter. Given that Padilla is at an advanced stage of his career and missed significant time this season because of injuries, he probably is looking at another one-year deal somewhere, and that should put him squarely within the Dodgers' price range. So, basically, they have to find a fifth starter somewhere, or maybe just let John Ely sink or swim in that spot.
5. What will the Dodgers do about Matt Kemp?
The center fielder seemed to take a giant step backward in his game after a breakout season last year. But the Dodgers probably aren't going to deal him at a time when they already have to replace Manny Ramirez in their outfield, and given that Kemp already is signed for next year at $6 million, it isn't necessarily a given that there would be much of a market for him.
6. Who will play third base?
Probably not Casey Blake, at least not on an everyday basis. Blake, who is signed for next year at $5.25 million, could be relegated to a utility role in a season in which he will turn 38 and after his offensive numbers plummeted this year. One intriguing possibility is Boston's Adrian Beltre, a potential free agent who came up with the Dodgers, had an unforgettable season in 2004 and didn't really want to leave when he signed that winter with Seattle. He would be an expensive acquisition, though.
7. Can Rafael Furcal stay healthy enough to be an effective offensive catalyst?
The veteran shortstop probably is still the Dodgers' most important player, which is why it hurts the club so much when he misses time (he missed a total of two months with injuries to his back and hamstring in 2010). He is signed for next season at $12 million.
Given his age (he will turn 33 on Oct. 24), his history of injuries and the minor league fast track that top prospect Dee Gordon is on, 2011 probably will be Furcal's last in a Dodgers uniform. Be that as it may, for the Dodgers to win next year, Furcal has to stay healthy.
8. Who will play left field?
This likely can't be resolved from within the organization, unless you could visualize Reed Johnson or Jay Gibbons playing there every day. The top free agents on the market are Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford, who probably will be out of the Dodgers' price range if the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox get involved; Philadelphia's Jayson Werth, a right fielder who hasn't played left field with any regularity since he was with the Dodgers several years ago; and Adam Dunn, a first baseman who played as many as 62 games in left as recently as 2009.
9. Who will own the team, and how much money will that person spend on it?
Assuming Frank McCourt wins full custody of the team from his estranged wife, Jamie McCourt -- any other result probably would force them to sell -- his first official act as unquestioned owner of the Dodgers should be to push the payroll back above the $100 million mark, preferably to about $115 million or $120 million. If, however, he has to step aside, there is no shortage of interested parties waiting in the wings, and some of them have the financial resources to make it work. The odds-on favorite probably would be Dennis Gilbert, the former sports agent and Beverly Hills insurance magnate who works for the Chicago White Sox as a special assistant to owner Jerry Reinsdorf but can be spotted in his front-row seat behind home plate at almost every game at Dodger Stadium.
10. Where does Joe Torre fit in?
The bigger question is, does he fit in at all? The short answer is yes, that if Torre wants to be a part of the Dodgers, he will be. He says he can't envision managing anywhere else, but he qualifies that by saying he never closes the door on anything, except, in this case, managing the New York Mets. So he probably will want to stick around in a role that hasn't yet been defined. In that case, Torre will have a vital role, probably reporting directly to Frank McCourt but assisting general manager Ned Colletti with a lot of things, primarily player evaluation.
11. Who can step up and be a leader on a team that didn't seem to have one this year?
Once again, this probably will have to come from the outside, and Colletti & Co. would do well to consider that when they are signing free agents and making trades this winter. The closest thing the Dodgers had this year was probably Blake, but he never seemed quite comfortable in the role, especially while he was slumping, which was most of the year. In the winter of 1988, when the Dodgers were coming off back-to-back losing seasons, they signed Kirk Gibson, a notorious take-no-prisoners guy, found out early in spring training that he meant business, then went on to win the World Series. The Dodgers desperately need a guy like that now.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.