First baseman Adrian Gonzalez is about as close as it gets to a sure thing here – on the field, in the community, in the clubhouse. Second baseman Mark Ellis is aging but consistent. Then the questions begin. Who will back him up? Can Hanley Ramirez’s glove be trusted at shortstop or at third base? What happens to Dee Gordon? What is Juan Uribe doing here?
Don Mattingly said he wants Gonzalez to play at least 150 games this season. That’s not unrealistic – it’s something he’s done each of the last seven years. He maintained his conditioning over the winter by boxing with Luis Cruz, but would be allowed to report out of shape if his swing still resembles the one he perfected over the final month of 2012 (.330/.372/.491 with the Dodgers after Sept. 2).
Ellis brings some much-needed qualities to the roster. On a club of superstars, he might have the smallest ego in the room. When Gordon faltered at the plate, Ellis batted leadoff in 32 of 110 games and didn’t complain. His defense at second base passes the eye test, and the sabermetric test, yet is still underrated. His .333 OBP was not bad and, in a lineup of sluggers, Ellis’ low strikeout rate made up for low power (.364) and average (.258) numbers.
Ramirez’s defense was a huge focus this winter. He made several fielding miscues after switching from third base to shortstop late last season, and hasn’t been getting the off-season reps at shortstop the Dodgers were hoping for — either in the Winter League, the Caribbean Series or (possibly) the upcoming World Baseball Classic. Ramirez batted a respectable .271 with 44 RBIs in 64 games as a Dodger, but was maddeningly impatient (17 walks, 60 strikeouts). He’ll either need to hit better or field better – or both – to justify his $15.5 million salary in 2013. Patience-preaching hitting coach Mark McGwire could be an asset here.
So many roster decisions hinge on Cruz’s ability to repeat his breakout 2012 season. If not Cruz, who is the third baseman? If it’s Ramirez, can Gordon be trusted to play a full season at shortstop? Was Cruz’s defense at the hot corner (.984 fielding percentage) as fluky as his .297 batting average and 40 RBIs? When Don Mattingly admits to a slight concern over some of these questions, you know it’s going to be a running topic of discussion among the Dodgers’ decision makers.
Punto is a high-energy player who shuffled between second and third base in 22 games after arriving in the multiplayer trade with the Red Sox. The Dodgers will need Punto to keep that energy up at age 35 in what could be a long season; he plans on playing for Italy in the WBC. His .390 on-base percentage in his brief time in L.A. was a pleasant surprise and a useful asset off the bench. Expect to see him plenty as a pinch-runner, pinch-hitter, and a backup at (possibly) all four infield positions.
It’s not a stretch to say the only reason Uribe remains on the roster is a contract that pays him $8 million this season. How overpaid is Uribe? Consider that he made $121,212 per game last year, while A.J. Ellis made $3,684. Unless the Dodgers buy Uribe’s contract out, it’s hard to make playing time for the 33-year-old infielder whose batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage have all been in decline four straight years.
At best he’s a useful defensive replacement at third base, maybe shortstop, and maybe first base if Mattingly gets his wish. First, Uribe needs to show in spring that he can be trusted with a bat.
Gordon finds himself in a tough spot entering camp. He can’t help the team – or his still developing career – as a backup. Yet he’s being blocked at shortstop, his only position, by Ramirez. With a strong spring at the plate and in the field, Gordon can maybe make the case that he deserves to be the opening-day shortstop if Ramirez struggles in the field.
That’s not an implausible scenario but it’s a step down from last year, when Gordon was handed the keys to the job. He has an option year to burn and it could be that starting another season in Triple-A will be better for his development.
Sellers called his January arrest for reckless driving a “misunderstanding.” Even if it was, it didn’t help his already slim chances of making his second straight opening-day roster. He snuck in as the 25th man a year ago and batted .205 in 50 plate appearances. His season ended early when he injured his back making a terrific catch in May. Sellers can only hope it’s not his last major-league memory.
Dallas McPherson (NRI)
In the span of six years, McPherson has gone from top Angels prospect to minor-league journeyman. The 32-year-old is now in the same position Josh Fields was a year ago, blocked at third base by Uribe (and now Cruz), destined for a season at Triple-A Albuquerque unless there’s an injury in spring training.
Alfredo Amezaga (NRI)
Mattingly singled out Amezaga as a player that intrigues him. And why not? The 35-year-old is a proven veteran with the ability to play second, short, third, right field and center field with plus range. His career batting totals aren’t much to look at but he recently led the Mexican Pacific League with a .344 batting average. Amezaga is in camp on a minor-league deal because he’s only gotten 77 major-league at bats the last three years. At least he has something to prove – and the chance to prove it.
Nick Evans (NRI)
The 26-year-old saw his 2012 season end April 30 when he broke his wrist in a game with Triple-A Indianapolis, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ top affiliate. He played 159 major-league games for the Mets from 2008-11, batting .256 with eight homers while playing six different positions. Like Amezaga, versatility will be his best asset.
Osvaldo Martinez (NRI)
The Dodgers purchased Martinez’s contract from the Chicago White Sox in July of last year, and he batted .255/.296/.275 in 39 games for Albuquerque. In 66 major-league at-bats, all with the Marlins, Martinez hit .258.
Brian Barden (NRI)
A 31-year-old journeyman, Barden is a veteran of 1,010 minor-league games over 10 seasons. His last experience came in the second-tier Japan Central League in 2011, so Barden is a longshot’s longshot.
Omar Luna (NRI)
Good luck to this 26-year-old 2B/SS/3B/LF/RF/P. Luna has played two seasons of Triple-A ball in the Rays’ organization, batting .243 without reaching the majors. He recently hit .235/.295/.294 in the Dominican Winter League. Likely slotted for Albuquerque.