Dodgers could use a quiet spring
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Camelback Ranch was mostly quiet during the 1 o'clock hour Tuesday afternoon. Blue workout jerseys were hung at every locker. Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton was walking out by the batting cages with his wife and 20-month-old son. New bench coach Trey Hillman walked in the clubhouse door toting a fast-food lunch but quickly disappeared into an adjacent meeting room.
Dodgers pitchers and catchers weren't required to report until Wednesday, so the quiet was to be expected. But you could also make the case it was a metaphor for a spring training that figures to be routine and businesslike for the Dodgers.
After a disappointing season in which they finished 80-82 and in fourth place in the National League West, the Dodgers won't have the celebrity power of Manny Ramirez or Joe Torre, they won't have the burden of high expectations, and they won't have many position battles.
What they will have is a first-time major league manager in Don Mattingly; a largely new coaching staff; several new faces in pitchers Matt Guerrier and Blake Hawksworth, second baseman Juan Uribe and outfielders Tony Gwynn Jr. and Marcus Thames; and a couple of new/old faces in pitcher Jon Garland and catcher Dioner Navarro.
Those pitchers and catchers will hold their first workout Thursday. The rest of the team is due Monday -- although most of the position players usually beat that deadline by several days -- and the first full-squad workout is Tuesday. The first Cactus League games, a pair of split-squad dates with the Los Angeles Angels and the World Series champion San Francisco Giants, are only four days after that, on Feb. 26.
But even before the first bullpen session, the roster is fairly set. Unlike every spring in recent memory, there is no competition for the fifth spot in the starting rotation, which is set with Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda and Garland. Assuming the Dodgers begin the season with seven relievers, six of those spots are locked up, as well, as long as nobody gets hurt.
For now, the Dodgers plan to open with Broxton as their closer and fellow All-Star Hong-Chih Kuo as his setup man. They will be joined in the bullpen by last year's opening day starter, Vicente Padilla; newly signed free-agent workhorse Matt Guerrier; newly acquired swing man Blake Hawksworth, who could move to the rotation on short notice if someone is injured; and Ronald Belisario.
That leaves about seven guys to fight it out over what probably will be one spot. The favorites among that group are lefty Scott Elbert, non-roster lefty Ron Mahay and rookie phenom Kenley Jansen. The competition is so tight, in fact, that John Ely, Carlos Monasterios, Travis Schlichting and Ramon Troncoso, all of whom saw at least some big league time in 2010, probably don't have much of a shot.
If Navarro and Rod Barajas stay healthy, all other catchers in camp are just that: catchers in camp. And that means an all-too-familiar destiny for A.J. Ellis, the longtime Dodgers catching prospect who has proven to be an adequate major leaguer offensively and defensively -- he posted a .363 on-base percentage in 44 games last year -- but who is all but certain to again start the season in Triple-A.
Dodgers' Big Questions
With spring training right around the corner, ESPNLosAngeles.com looks ahead at five issues facing the Dodgers.
1: Who's in center? Outfield in question »
2: Can Jonathan Broxton close it out? »
3: Will the young core rebound? »
4: How to keep Furcal, Blake healthy? »
5: Is Mattingly ready for the bigs? »
Five infield spots are set, including starters Uribe, James Loney, Casey Blake and Rafael Furcal and backup Jamey Carroll; as are five outfield spots, with returning starters Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, returning backup Jay Gibbons and newly signed veterans Gwynn and Thames. Add that to the pitchers and catchers, and you have 23 roster spots that have basically been claimed, and one of those will go to the winner of that aforementioned free-for-all in the pen.
So who gets the final place on the opening day roster?
It could be an infielder. Longtime prospect Ivan De Jesus Jr., who is healthy after breaking his left leg in a spring-training B-game two years ago, will compete with non-roster veterans Juan Castro and Aaron Miles. Career minor leaguer Justin Sellers, who had a .371 OBP in 90 games with Triple-A Albuquerque last year, is also in that mix.
Or, it could be an outfielder. Longtime prospect Xavier Paul is out of minor league options, and while he has never been particularly impressive during his limited time in the majors, he is talented enough that the Dodgers might not be able to get him through waivers. The Dodgers also added other outfielders with big league experience this winter in Eugenio Velez and Gabe Kapler, but they are on minor league contracts and probably are long shots to make the opening day roster.
Gibbons' ability to play first base and the outfield could be a factor in the ultimate decision as to whether to go with five infielders and six outfielders or vice versa. But although Gibbons' contract is technically a major league deal, the fact that he has to actually make the club to get the last $250,000 of his $650,000 salary means he isn't viewed as a lock. If he has a bad spring and the Dodgers cut him loose, that would open a spot for an outfielder -- presumably Paul -- and another utility infielder. Thames could serve as the backup first baseman if Gibbons isn't around.
The landscape could change dramatically over the next six weeks, of course, but the volatility that usually accompanies spring training with the Dodgers just doesn't appear to be there this time.
It might make for a quiet spring, but for a team that has been besieged in recent years by distractions, that could be just what the Dodgers need.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.