Dodgers’ Matt Kemp: ‘I’m not in a rush to get back.’

Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp vowed that 2014 will be different.

After missing 87 regular-season games and all of October because of a strained hamstring, a sprained ankle, and a surgically repaired shoulder that was never 100 percent, Kemp said he won’t rush back from any injuries this season.

That might mean missing Opening Day in Australia on March 22. Kemp is at peace with that.

“I’m not in a rush to get back,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure I’m healthy and everything is good.”

Considering that Kemp hasn’t begun running yet, playing in a regular-season game in seven weeks seems unrealistic. Kemp said Saturday at the Dodgers’ FanFest that running is the only thing he can’t do. He’s been able to do normal upper-body workouts — something he couldn’t do all of last year.

But he’s not in the best shape of his life. Hasn’t been for two years. At least now, Kemp seems realistic about this.

“I would love to play in those games” in Australia, Kemp said. “I just want to be 100 percent the whole year.”

The Dodgers can bring 30 players when they depart to Australia, but only 25 can be active in each game.

Daily Distractions: Cut fastball could fast-track Ross Stripling to Los Angeles.

Ross Stripling

Dodgers pitching prospect Ross Stripling didn’t throw a cut fastball in college at Texas A&M, but it led to plenty of success at Double-A Chattanooga. (Texas A&M photo)

If Ross Stripling appears in a major-league game with the Dodgers this season, the 25-year-old will inevitably draw comparisons to all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera.

But hey, the kid started it when he began describing how he embraced the cut fastball, the pitch that defined Rivera’s 19-year career.

“I throw from such a high arm slot, and these balls have such smaller laces than college balls, they’ll just move on their own,” Stripling said earlier this month at the Dodgers’ winter development camp.

“If I just switch the ball a little bit in my fingers” — he turned the ball 30 degrees from a two-seam fastball grip — “it would cut on its own. I struggled to not cut the ball. I wanted to throw the ball where I wanted. They were like, ‘Maybe you should go with it.’ Then you hear the story that Mariano Rivera learned his cutter that way — not that I’m trying to compare myself to Mariano Rivera — but similar fashion. It was natural, then I just tried to fine-tune.”

Stripling posted a 2.78 earned-run average following his promotion to Double-A Chattanooga. Even more impressive was Stripling’s 4.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 94 Double-A innings. Continuing the theme of unfair comparisons, not even Clayton Kershaw‘s K:BB ratio was that high at Double-A.

The 25-year-old’s talent is still raw. He still isn’t on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster, though a roster spot is rarely given to second-year professionals in the off-season since there is no risk of losing them through the Rule 5 draft. Stripling never called his own pitches, and never watched video of his performance, before 2013. He’s also got a four-pitch repertoire that he’s still mastering; he added the cutter last year to a fastball, changeup and curveball that served him well in college.

Stripling was a fifth-round draft pick by the Dodgers out of Texas A&M in 2012. In college, Stripling was teammates with Michael Wacha, the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who was named MVP of the National League Championship Series after beating the Dodgers twice in the Cardinals’ six-game series victory.

Like Stripling, Wacha had all his pitches called for him from the dugout in college. That didn’t stop him from reaching the majors after only 26 minor-league appearances.

“His fastball is so strong, so demanding, that he can just throw that when he wants,” Stripling said of Wacha. “His changeup is kind of the same way,” Stripling said.

Much of the inertia pushing the Dodgers toward signing Masahiro Tanaka is money. That is to say: They have the money, so why not make a run? A lesser factor, not to be discounted, is the fact that Stephen Fife and Matt Magill were starting games by the end of April.

If the Dodgers don’t land Tanaka, it means that Stripling — along with Fife, Magill, Zach Lee and maybe swingman Seth Rosin — all move up the organizational depth chart. And we might get to see that cutter sooner rather than later.

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Daily Distractions: How Dodger Stadium will turn into a hockey venue.

Dodger Stadium hockey game

Dodger Stadium’s transformation into a hockey venue began Monday. (Instagram)

Dodger Stadium opened its outfield gate Monday, and the transformation began.

A crew of about 200 local workers spent their day trudging on and off the field, carrying the components of a giant stage deck that was laid over the infield. Then came the plywood, then the 30-foot long aluminum pans holding enough refrigerant to cool a 2-inch thick sheet of ice to 22 degrees Farenheit.

Over the next 12 days, the transformation from baseball field to hockey venue will be complete. The Kings and Ducks are scheduled to play the first outdoor hockey game in Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. as part of the NHL’s “Stadium Series,” a slate of five outdoor games this winter.

The stories of the meticulous transformation, the man behind it, and the preposterousness of playing an outdoor hockey game in Southern California, will wait for another day. NHL ice-maker Dan Craig, Kings president Luc Robitaille, and Dodgers president Stan Kasten filled in some of the smaller blanks yesterday:

• Robitaille said that 50,000 tickets have been sold, and the venue will accommodate up to 54,000 for the game. That’s 2,000 less than Dodger Stadium’s baseball capacity. So where can’t you sit? Kasten said he wasn’t aware of any sections that will be blocked off. It could be that another 2,000 seats will be added if there’s enough demand.

• There will be no seats on the field.

• In order to level the playing field (literally), Craig’s team used a laser from the bottom deck of Dodger Stadium to measure the incline of the field. The pitcher’s mound has been leveled; that’s where the penalty boxes will go. The Kings’ and Ducks’ benches will be in the shallow outfield.

• Kasten got assurance from the NHL that the rink construction won’t interfere with the ongoing renovation projects outside the bullpen areas. “We’ll just have to direct people around some of the fenced-off areas,” he said.

• Craig’s crew will not work during the day. A tarp will be covering the rink area to shield the sunshine.

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Daily Distractions: As bullpen market settles, Brian Wilson reportedly ‘close’ to settling with Dodgers.

Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson posted a 0.66 earned-run average in 13 games as a Dodger. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff photographer)

In the midst of all that pesky logic that preached pessimism, there was always this shred of hope for the Dodgers: Brian Wilson never insisted on closing in 2014.

Not publicly, at least.

Here’s what I wrote on Oct. 31:

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.

Well, Detroit appears to have entered and exited the picture. The Tigers are reportedly close to signing Joe Nathan to be their closer, in part because their Plan A didn’t work out:

And, according to multiple reports Tuesday morning, Wilson is close to rejoining the Dodgers.

After the Dodgers declined to tender an offer to Ronald Belisario before last night’s 9 p.m. deadline, the need for a set-up man to Kenley Jansen became clear. And if Brian Wilson was keen on staying close to his Southern California home, why not Brian Wilson? He had a 0.66 earned-run average in 18 games after joining the Dodgers midway through the 2013 season, with his velocity increasing as the season progressed. He also threw six shutout innings in the playoffs.

Those stats would be nearly impossible to maintain in 2014, but he doesn’t appear to be regressing after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April 2012.

The closer market is settling quickly this off-season. If Wilson and Nathan leave the board, only Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney would remain among free agents who closed full-time in 2013. Heath Bell and Jim Johnson have been traded in the last 24 hours.

I mentioned John Axford as a possible replacement for Belisario. Re-signing Wilson wouldn’t necessarily rule that out, and with this sense of humor you hope it doesn’t:

 

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Daily Distractions: How the Dodgers might apply principles of chemistry and platooning to their $58.3 million outfield.

Carl Crawford Matt Kemp

Can Carl Crawford (left) and Matt Kemp (right) be happy under a four-man outfield platoon? The Dodgers might be counting on it. (Associated Press photo)

A couple opinions floating around today about what to do with the Dodgers’ four-outfielder conundrum: 1, Trading Andre Ethier is the most likely route; 2, Keeping everyone is the safest bet.

Maybe there’s another way we can look at the Dodgers stockpiling outfielders. It’s not unlike the strategy used a year ago by Oakland A’s, who entered last season with five viable starting outfielders (Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Seth Smith, Josh Reddick and Chris Young).

Since it was the A’s, this personnel strategy was dissected under the market-efficiency microscope, then praised when Young underperformed, Cespedes and Crisp went down with injuries in April, and Reddick took his turn on the DL in late May. None of them were owed the kind of money Ethier, Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig will earn in 2014 — $58.3 million, excluding any contract bonuses — but the A’s still won 96 games, four more than the Dodgers.

Don’t dismiss the integral role that club chemistry played in keeping the A’s outfielders happy with the platoon arrangement. Probably not coincidentally, Oakland recently signed former Dodgers infielder Nick Punto — a chemistry guy, a platoon guy.

With the Dodgers, the market-efficiency prism need not apply. That doesn’t mean that stockpiling outfielders (and starting pitchers, for that matter), hedging against the inevitable injuries, and counting on chemistry to abide in times of health, isn’t a wise personnel strategy worth the time of a team with a $215 million-plus budget.

The A’s walked into their situation more intentionally than the Dodgers, who probably didn’t count on the injuries that added up to 99 outfield starts for players other than their top four in 2013. Heck, general manager Ned Colletti might have traded Ethier, Kemp or Crawford by now if cost and health concerns were not enough to inhibit a rival GM from making a knock-me-down offer.

That hasn’t happened yet. It probably won’t. Whenever a reporter asks Colletti an outfield-related question that begins with “if everyone’s healthy…” his response usually begins with some variation of “do we know that everyone’s going to be healthy?”

So maybe the Dodgers backed into this desirable situation. That doesn’t make it undesirable.

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Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti talks Juan Uribe, Alexander Guerrero, outfielders.

Juan Uribe

Juan Uribe is still the Dodgers’ preference to be the everyday third baseman in 2014, according to general manager Ned Colletti. (Associated Press photo)

Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti divulged some of the Dodgers’ off-season plans Tuesday in an interview with MLB Network Radio on Sirius XM. There were no major revelations, but these were among the talking points:

1. The Dodgers would prefer to re-sign Juan Uribe to fill their starting third base job.

2. Plan B could involve moving shortstop Hanley Ramirez or second baseman Alexander Guerrero out of those positions, and/or acquiring an infielder through trade. The organization isn’t there yet. No mention of Guerrero’s recent health concerns.

3. The Dodgers aren’t shopping any of their outfielders, but that is one area in which Colletti “would like to get younger if possible.” (In other words: Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford are much more available than Yasiel Puig right now, which isn’t news.) Multiple teams are inquiring about the Dodgers’ outfielders and Colletti is listening to offers.

You can listen to the interview here:

Daily Distractions: Nick Punto signs with the Oakland A’s.

Nick Punto

Nick Punto’s new contract will nearly double his $1.5 million salary from 2013. (Getty Images)

Nick Punto did enough in his brief time as a Dodger to remind fans why he was included in the trade for Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. And that was enough.

Punto signed with the Oakland A’s on Wednesday. According to Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan, the contract pays $2.75 million in 2014 with a $2.75 million vesting option for 2015 based on time spent on the active roster, or a $250,000 buyout.

Primarily a pinch-hitter, defensive subsitute, and shortstop during Hanley Ramirez‘s multiple absences in 2013, Punto batted .255/.328/.327 as a Dodger. He appeared in six playoff games, going 2-for-6 with a double, and led the Dodgers in headfirst slides and shredded jerseys after walk-off victories. He was the team’s nominee for the annual Heart and Hustle Award.

Defensively, Punto was the Dodgers’ best shortstop, and an adequate fill-in at third base. The A’s have recently turned versatile platooners like Jed Lowrie, Eric Sogard, Brandon Moss and others into productive contributors as dictated by matchups, and are likely to do the same with Punto.

https://twitter.com/JeffPassan/status/400702602578374656

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Daily Distractions: Dodgers’ Chad Billingsley, Matt Kemp making progress in surgery rehab.

Chad Billingsley

Chad Billingsley is able to throw from 120 feet at 75 to 80 percent effort, his agent said Monday. (Associated Press photo)

The agent for Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp and pitcher Chad Billingsley said Monday that both players will be able to participate in spring training activities from the start of camp.

Dave Stewart, the former Dodgers pitcher who now represents both players, said that the road back will be slower for Billingsley, who underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in April.

“I think (the Dodgers) will be conservative,” Stewart said, “but (Billingsley) will be starting with everybody else in spring training.”

Stewart said that Billingsley believes he’ll be able to pitch in games starting in April. The 29-year-old right-hander underwent the ligament replacement procedure April 24; the Dodgers didn’t announce a specific timetable for Billingsley’s recovery at the time, only that pitchers typically return to competition in 12 months.

For now, Stewart said that Billingsley is throwing from 120 feet at 75 to 80 percent, and hopes to start throwing off a mound in January.

Kemp is already at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona, recuperating from October surgeries on his left ankle and left shoulder. Kemp had arthroscopic surgery Oct. 24 to remove several spurs and a loose body, and do a microfracture on the talus bone in his left foot. He’s expected to be in a walking boot “for another couple weeks,” Stewart said.

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Daily Distractions: It’s open season on Dodger outfielder trade speculation.

Matt Kemp

Matt Kemp originally sprained his ankle on July 21. He had surgery in October but is expected to be healthy in time for Opening Day of 2014. (Associated Press photo)

If you had Nov. 8 in the pool for “which day does the internet explode with ideas for resolving the Dodgers’ four-outfielder situation with a trade” … you probably have a strange, uncontrollable gambling habit.

Also, congratulations.

In the absence of something tangible to report — which will be true for most of the 151 days between the end of the World Series and the beginning of the 2014 regular season — there is the tangible difficulty of going into a season with four outfielders who deserve to start, and no DH rule to keep the fourth one happy. That’s where the Dodgers stand now.

That wasn’t a problem in the second half of 2013. All four battled injuries of some magnitude. Matt Kemp played one game between July 5 and Sept. 16, then missed all of the playoffs with an ankle that required surgery. Carl Crawford missed 30 games at midseason. Andre Ethier missed most of September. Yasiel Puig injured his knee and hip in September, but at least avoided missing significant time.

Kemp will enter spring training in 2014 coming off shoulder and ankle procedures, so there’s some reason for the Dodgers to be cautious. He turns 30 next September. Crawford and Ethier will both be 32.

But just what if all four maintain their health next season? Don Mattingly was asked this question deep into his awkward end-of-year press conference.

“We didn’t play with four the whole year,” he said. “It would be hard talking about something that’s a possibility for next year. You’re always looking to improve. You never know what happens before the year’s over. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Number of games, how you mix and match … it’s just something you have to talk about with guys.”

That the problem is purely hypothetical hardly dismisses the fact that it would be a problem for a manager to satisfy four outfielders owed more than $61 million in combined salaries next season. Mattingly’s answer didn’t exactly downplay the potential for a problem.

To the hot stove action: It’s believed that Puig is untouchable. To trade Kemp, Ethier or Crawford, “general manager Ned Colletti will need to be creative, but it’s not as if he’s embarking upon mission impossible,” writes Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com. There’s also the opinion that maybe Puig shouldn’t be untouchable.

Writes Jesse Spector of SportingNews.com: “It’s valid for the Dodgers to shop Kemp and see what the market might hold, but he’s not a player you trade unless you’re absolutely blown away. When that doesn’t happen, because of the effect of a lost 2013 season on Kemp’s trade value, then it’s time to call around about Ethier or Crawford, and eventually make the best deal possible – most likely, that would mean dealing Ethier.”

“To do it,” writes Craig Calcaterra of NBCsports.com, “the Dodgers are going to clearly have to eat a lot of salary. But money is the least of the Dodgers’ concern.”

Buster Olney and Jim Bowden of ESPN.com weighed in on the possibility of Tampa Bay trading pitcher David Price, with the Dodgers a possible suitor. Both seem to be anticipating a winter trade rather than one next summer, and Bowden believes it would cost the Dodgers multiple prospects rather than an outfielder, which the Rays probably can’t afford. Unless that outfielder is Puig.

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Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp undergoes surgery on his left ankle.

Matt KempDodgers center fielder Matt Kemp underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle Monday, performed by Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte, North Carolina.

According to the team, the procedure involved removing several spurs, a loose body and doing a microfracture on the talus bone. Kemp will be in a splint for two weeks and a non-weight bearing boot for an additional two weeks. He is expected to be competitive in time for the regular season.
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