Ranking the Dodgers’ twelve in-house free agents.

J.P.  Howell

Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell became a free agent on Thursday. (Getty Images)

As noted here this morning, the Dodgers have 12 in-house free agents after they declined the options on second baseman Mark Ellis and pitcher Chris Capuano.

Not all 12 will be back, but here’s an educated guess at the likelihood of each player returning to the Dodgers, ranked in order of least likely to most:

12. Edinson Volquez

The difference between Volquez’s value to the Dodgers and another team might be greater than that of any player on this list. The veteran right-hander made $5.73 million last season and contributed 0.4 Wins Above Replacement (per FanGraphs), thanks largely to his five starts as a Dodger in which opponents hit just .209. There’s definitely something left in his tank at age 30, particularly when paired with the right ballpark and pitching coach. He’s a fourth or fifth starter on a good team, a third or fourth starter on a bad team.

The Dodgers are a good team. A year ago, they didn’t hesitate to begin spring training with eight starting pitchers, and injuries had them scrounging for help by May. Yet even without bringing back Volquez, the Dodgers have candidates lined up for their fourth and fifth starters’ jobs in Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley, both coming off injuries. Billingsley won’t be ready by Opening Day, but Stephen Fife (4-4, 3.86 ERA) was an adequate fill-in when healthy. He’s under team control for next year. A more intriguing possibility is Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who just completed a 24-0 season in his country’s top league. The Dodgers have been openly and aggressively scouting Tanaka and will likely enter a bidding war for his services this winter.

Add it up, and there’s hardly any room in the Dodgers’ plans for Volquez, who can probably be assured of more money and more starts elsewhere.

11. Mark Ellis

Ellis, 36, batted .270 with six home runs and 48 RBIs last season, and was a finalist for a National League Gold Glove Award at second base. Ellis had a reasonable $5.75 million option in his contract for 2014 — reasonable for a light-hitting starter.

When the Dodgers declined that option Thursday, it was a strong signal that Ellis wasn’t going to find work as a starter in Los Angeles. He should be able to find it somewhere else, and will be missed.

10. Chris Capuano

The Dodgers’ crowded rotation situation weighs equally on Volquez and Capuano, who went 4-7 with a 4.26 ERA in 24 games. His 20 starts ranked fourth on the team. That durability at age 34/35, and flexibility in pitching as both a starter and reliever, were commendable. The Dodgers already exercised the $1 million buyout in his contract Thursday.

The Dodgers could try to re-sign Capuano to a minor-league deal. That’s a plausible strategy, but it depends on the demand for a 35-year-old left-hander who can capably make 20 starts in a pitcher-friendly National League park. Remember, right-hander Joe Blanton fell into a similar category a year ago, and he got a two-year contract from the Angels.

So there should be some demand for Capuano outside Los Angeles, and that should be enough to end his days as a Dodger. Something interesting to consider: As of last December, FanGraphs counted four mutual options that were fully renewed (and many more that weren’t).

9. Jerry Hairston Jr.

If a broadcasting career isn’t right around the corner, it’s certainly on the horizon for Hairston, whose production tailed off dramatically in the final year of his two-year contract with the Dodgers (.141/.204/.386 slash line after July 7). There’s simply no room for a declining 37-year-old utility player on the major-league roster of a team expected to get younger, especially after Hairston was left off the Dodgers’ playoff roster.

Like Capuano, a minor-league contract with a spring training invitation seems the most likely way that Hairston comes back — as a player. There’s also an opening for an analyst in the broadcast booth. At this point, Hairston might be better suited for the latter job.

8. Skip Schumaker

Maybe Ned Colletti is right. Maybe there is room for both Ellis and Alexander Guerrero on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster next year. But Guerrero, Ellis and Schumaker? Doubt it. In Guerrero, the Dodgers potentially have a starting second baseman at most, a backup middle infielder at least. With Dee Gordon playing some center field in the Dominican Winter League — maybe some second base, too — Schumaker’s primary positions are accounted for with two younger players who are in the Dodgers’ plans for 2014.

All of this leaves re-signing Schumaker low on the Dodgers’ list of priorities. He should have some value on the open market, coming off a .263/.332/.332 season at 33. The guess is he finds a better opportunity elsewhere next spring.

7. Brian Wilson

Wilson jumped through a few hoops to pitch in his adopted home town. He pitched in some Single-A games, some Triple-A games, then some major-league games in fairly inconsequential situations. By the time the Dodgers advanced to the NLCS, the right-hander was the primary set-up man to Kenley Jansen. Funny how a little patience can go a long way.

Will The Beard be so patient if the Dodgers don’t strike quickly with a splashy contract offer? The consensus among most observers is that Wilson has pitched himself into a possible closer’s role in 2014. The Dodgers have that kind of money to spend, even if Jansen is closing, and Wilson never complained about pitching high-leverage situations in the eighth inning. (Or low-leverage situations in the seventh inning, for that matter.) Really, it’s a question of how badly the Dodgers view the need for a set-up man to Jansen. Brandon League (under contract through 2015) and Ronald Belisario (arbitration eligible) are coming back, but their inconsistency in 2013 leaves questions about how they fit into the Dodgers’ 2014 bullpen plans.

To highlight the importance of set-up men in today’s game, look no further than the two World Series finalists, who were rock-solid from the seventh inning on. So it’s reasonable to expect the Dodgers will enter the bidding for Wilson. Just don’t be surprised if a team desperate for a closer (Detroit? Cleveland? Arizona?) guarantees more money and more years to a pitcher who’s saved one game the past two seasons.

6. Michael Young

It’s tempting to judge Young on his 1-for-10 postseason performance, lowlighted by an 0-for-2 effort in Game 1 of the NLCS in relief of Adrian Gonzalez. That shouldn’t obscure what was a perfectly fine season for a 36-year-old at the plate. His 1.5 offensive WAR, per baseball-reference.com, combined with subpar defense at first and third base, makes him a viable candidate to play a utility role in 2014 — preferably in the American League, where he can DH.

That doesn’t mean the Dodgers can’t find room in their budget for Young, whose five-year, $80 million deal signed in 2009 just came off the books. Someone has to back up Adrian Gonzalez at first base and Juan Uribe/Hanley Ramirez/someone else at third next season. Notably, Young seemed to relish playing close to his home town of Covina.

But the Dodgers’ getting-younger mantra doesn’t help his cause. It’s easier to see an American League team showing Young a more lucrative one- or two-year deal than the Dodgers bringing him back with fewer guaranteed dollars, years or at-bats.

5. Carlos Marmol

Like Wilson, Marmol is a 31-year-old right hander with four seasons’ worth of experience as a major-league closer. But while Wilson’s 2013 season leaves him poised to cash in as a free agent, Marmol’s value seems extremely hard to pin down. On the one hand, he walked 19 batters in 21 ⅓ innings as a Dodger. On the other hand, he allowed one of eight inherited runners to score in 21 appearances and seemed to improve with time.

Right-handed pitchers with closing experience are becoming a dime a dozen. This year alone, teams have their choice of Wilson, Marmol, David Aardsma, Brett Myers, Jose Valverde, Brandon Lyon and Kyle Farnsworth. I’m not sure where Marmol ranks in terms of serviceability next to those names, but he could be viewed as a more affordable option to the Dodgers if Wilson walks. His value ultimately depends on the Dodgers’ internal evaluations of Belisario, League, Chris Withrow, Jose Dominguez, Javy Guerra, and the other right-handed middle relievers on the market.

4. Nick Punto

The limitations of a crowded infield and a team intent on getting younger apply to Punto. But unlike Young, Punto’s lack of power makes him less attractive to American League teams looking for a pure DH. His age (36 in November) makes him less attractive than Schumaker to NL teams looking for a pinch-hitter/utility player.

Why could there be a fit with the 2014 Dodgers?

Punto’s small-ball game plays well in the National League, particularly under manager Don Mattingly. His .255/.328/.327 slash line was commensurate with expectations and his leadership skills were often praised by teammates. Punto’s resume is solid, but not the kind that teams line up for in November; odds are he’ll still be in play by December. If Ellis leaves as a free agent, Guerrero becomes the second baseman, and the Dodgers still need a veteran backup at shortstop and second base, Punto stands a halfway decent chance of re-signing.

3. Ricky Nolasco

Nolasco’s value to the Dodgers became crystal clear in the playoffs, when he was passed over for Clayton Kershaw in the clinching Game 4 of the National League Division Series: He’s a fourth starter, nothing more, albeit a really good one.

Maybe the question we should be asking is this: If the Dodgers lose out on the bidding for Tanaka, will Nolasco still be available? Without knowing exactly how close Tanaka is to signing a major-league contract, the educated guess here is no.

It’s believed the Dodgers wouldn’t mind having Nolasco back and that Nolasco would like to return. But a seemingly clear-cut situation can always be clouded by dollars and cents. Nolasco is a free agent for the first time, and could be in line for a long, lucrative deal from a team seeking a number-two or -three starter. The Yankees, for one, have a need, and that’s one bidding war the Dodgers are likely to lose. This might come down to how badly Nolasco wants to stay and whether the Dodgers can sign Tanaka.

2. Juan Uribe

Uribe was a Gold Glove finalist and a surprisingly clutch hitter in 2013, salvaging the final year of his albatross $21 million contract — and possibly his career — in the process. The Dodgers would take another year of .271/.338/.438 with 12 home runs if Uribe’s range at third base doesn’t nosedive in 2014, when he’ll turn 35.

Two things to consider here: It’s been suggested by baseball evaluators, though not confirmed by team executives, that the Dodgers consider Hanley Ramirez their third baseman of the future. Ramirez’s diminishing range at shortstop might soon leave the team with little choice. If the Dodgers plan on making that switch in 2014, Uribe will be looking for work elsewhere.

Second, Uribe lives in Miami and spends his off-season there. Though he was beloved by teammates in Los Angeles and praised throughout the organization for his upbeat attitude during his two-year-long slump, remember that Uribe has played for four teams in 13 years. At this stage of his career, there’s no reason to believe he would stay loyal to a team that could promise nothing more than a utility/backup role in 2014.

That’s a lot of hypotheticals to consider. Other than Ramirez, who might remain at shortstop next year, the Dodgers have no third baseman in the organization to replace Uribe on an everyday basis. Given his value in the clubhouse, particuarly as a mentor to Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers could be more sold on re-signing Uribe than anyone realizes. He could be the one aging position player the team is determined to keep. We’ll find out soon enough.

1. J.P. Howell

Howell is from California. So is his wife. They like it here, and the Dodgers paid him a cool $2.85 million last season — a nice paycheck for a middle reliever. Considering the Dodgers’ uncertain options for the middle-relief innings, along with Howell’s durability (67 appearances) and mastery of both left-handed (.164 opponents’ batting average) and right-handed (.222) hitters, the level of mutual interest here has to be through the roof. Shouldn’t be too much debate on this one.

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