Pressing Questions: The Los Angeles Dodgers

Roto Arcade

A season ago, the Dodgers were a franchise in financial upheaval. The messy McCourt divorce tarnished the image of the iconic brand. MLB seized control. Bankruptcy was filed. Fan cries escalated. Despite having arguably the game's best all-around hitter and most-dominating starting pitcher, distractions off the field negatively impacted production on it. The Dodgers, hanging around the NL West basement over much of the season's first half, were 10 games below .500 at the break heading nowhere.

But the season's second act ushered in brighter days. Thanks to the muscle of Matt Kemp, golden arm of Clayton Kershaw and surprising bullpen, the Dodgers seared down the stretch, eventually finishing the season with a laudable 82-79 record.

LA's strong finish combined with new ownership — the team is slated for auction in late January — has momentum moving in a positive direction entering 2012. Come April, the fresh start could storm the Dodgers out of the gate. At Chavez Ravine, renewed hope is definitely in the air.

Obviously, Kemp and Kershaw are the franchise's shining fantasy stars, but they aren't the only ones who could contribute useful numbers this year. Others, meanwhile, may be more useless. To help decipher the meaningful from the meaningless, here are five pressing questions about the Boys in Blue heading into spring training:

MVP runner-up, Kemp, flirted with triple-crown immortality a year ago. Should he be taken No. 1 overall in standard mixers? What about Kershaw? Is he the indisputable top dog among pitchers this season?

Kemp is positively dreamy, a true statistical god amongst mortals. Last year he was only a homer shy of joining the Juicy Three (Canseco, Bonds and A-Rod), along with Alfonso Soriano, in the ultra-prestigious 40-40 club. As a result, he was rewarded in November with an eight-year deal worth $160 million, or roughly two Rhiannas.

His 2.19 value according to Baseball Monster bested No. 2 overall Justin Verlander by 0.24 points. That may seem like a negligible margin but consider this: It was the highest net worth by a player since A-Rod's 2.33 in 2007 and second-best since 2002. Though Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are also in the discussion, Kemp deserves to be the top dog. Remember, he's only 27. His best season is likely still on the horizon.

The same could be said for the new Kid K. The reigning Cy Young winner, at a mere 23, channeled his inner Koufax in 2011. After years of questionable BB/9s, he finally seized control going 21-5 with a 2.28 ERA and tidy 0.98 WHIP. He also struck out 248 and walked a lowly 54 batters (2.08 BB/9) over 233.1 innings. Only Verlander was better in terms of overall value among pitchers.

He will be hard-pressed to top such a masterful season. But given his youth, ideal pitching environment and respectable run support, he could duplicate or eclipse the banner year. Currently the third starter off the board behind Verlander (8.81 ADP) and Roy Halladay (14.47) in mixed drafts, Kershaw (14.51) is the reason why wait-on-pitching theorists are misguided. The sky remains the limit.

Will Andre Ethier swing a hot stick or a toothpick?

Go ahead and pierce an olive at the end of Ethier's bat. The former 31-HR bomber will likely again swing skinny lumber.

Coming off the worst OPS of his career (.789), the outfielder has quickly become the Left Coast's version of Nick Markakis. Myriad injuries (knee, ankle, toe and elbow) are likely to blame for the power outage, but several disturbing trends also emerged. His ISO declined dramatically for the second year in a row ('09: .237, '10: .201, '11: .129). Meanwhile, his contact rate dropped off for the fourth-straight season. Overall, his .292-11-67-62 line finished 49th among OFers and 214th among hitters according to Baseball Monster. To say it was a disappointing campaign would be a gross understatement.

Owners who banked on a rebound were seduced by a career year. Prior to his breakout season in 2009, Ethier was never considered a masher. His previous career benchmark in HRs was 18, a mark he achieved with Double-A Midland in '05. Simply put, his long-ball output from three years ago was an anomaly. Any prospective buyer with inflated expectations deserved what they got.

Still, all hope isn't lost for the lefty. In the midst of most player's statistical prime, he should deliver quality OF3 numbers in standard mixers. Money for the free-agent-to-be will definitely be a motivating factor. However, if his ISO sits under .200 and his GB/FB ratio again marches northward, 20 homers will be farfetched. Dodgers Stadium's suppressing air will do him no favors. If deciding between him and Logan Morrison in the middle rounds (Ethier ADP: 132.2, Morrison: 152.8), the latter, five years Ethier's junior, is the more attractive option.

The door of opportunity is wide open for ballyhooed prospects Dee Gordon and Jerry Sands. Will they sprint through it?

It's only fitting the offspring of "Flash" would be lightning quick.

Gordon is a fairly rare breed in fantasy baseball, a super-fast, high-contact commodity eligible at the virtual game's thinnest position (SS). If his stupendous September (.306-0-6-21-12) is a harbinger of things to come, overpaying for his services is completely justified.

Without much competition and presumably entrenched atop a reasonably robust order, Gordon should deliver fruitful returns in three-categories, particularly in steals. On the farm from 2009-2010, he swiped 126 bases in 172 attempts. The base burglar, now more efficient on the basepaths (77.4 SB% last year), needs to coax more free passes. But even if he doesn't, it's not out of the realm of possibility he could flirt with Jose Reyes' century-high single-season SB mark from 2007 (78). Approximately 60-65 steals are more realistic, but it would be a shock if he didn't top the category by year's end. Throw in a .280-.290 BA and 85-plus runs, and Gordon is a strong candidate to finish well-inside the SS top-10. He's an incredible bargain at his current 147.6 ADP in mixers.

The path to success is cloudier for Sands. Back in October Dodgers GM Ned Colletti supported the idea of giving the youngster a shot as the primary left-fielder. However, the addition of veteran Juan Rivera in November complicated matters. It still appears Sands is in the catbird seat, but he needs a strong exhibition season to secure regular at-bats. If that happens, he's a dark-horse for 20-25 homers and 75-85 RBIs. He needs to get a little more air under the ball (1.18 GB/FB in '11), but based on his minor-league track-record (29 HRs in just 370 AAA at-bats in '10) and sturdy frame (6-foot-4, 225-pounds), he is definitely capable of producing a spark offensively. Watch him closely.

Javy Guerra was brilliant in relief down the homestretch last season. Meanwhile, Kenley Jansen routinely embarrassed hitters. Who gets the ball in the ninth?

Of undecided bullpen situations, the Dodgers' is worth keeping the closest tabs on.

Last year, after Jonathan Broxton, Vicente Padilla and Hong-Chih Kuo suffered through injuries and ineptitude, Guerra was pressed into ninth-inning duties by necessity. The unheralded righty emerged a pleasant surprise. He converted 21-of-23 save opportunities notching a sparkling 2.31 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. With a plus mid-90s fastball and effective slider, he certainly has the stuff, and experience, to maintain the end-game gig. However, his suspect walks yield (3.47 BB/9) and subsequent unsettling strand rate (83.3%) foreshadow darker days (4.07 xFIP in '11). Still, he probably has the upper-hand heading into camp.

Jansen, meanwhile, is arguably the game's brightest young reliever. His early season missteps (11.45 April ERA) were quickly forgotten post-break. In total, the righty punched out 96 batters in 53.2 innings, setting an MLB record for highest K/9 (16.10) for a pitcher with at least 50 innings. Blessed with a mystifying mid-90s fastball, one of baseball's best offerings, and quality slider, he is a mouthwatering stopper with top-5 potential. That's high praise for a guy who was catching full-time just three years ago. If he overtakes the closer's role this spring … Oh baby!

At this point, Jansen is the more desirable of the two. But, after the K-machine went 12 rounds ahead of Guerra in the FSTA draft in Las Vegas two weeks ago (Guerra Round 26, Jansen Round 14), it's clear buyers will need to sacrifice a testicle to acquire the reliever's services. If Mattingly officially anoints Kenley closer by late-March, he will become quite the luxury item in deeper leagues, possibly garnering a $15-plus bid in auctions.

What current farmhands could rake at the next level if given a chance?

Former Cardinals prospect Alex Castellanos, who was acquired in the Rafael Furcal trade, might be the spiciest meatball in the Dodgers minor league system. Over 475 Double-A at bats last season the outfielder collected a .320/.386/.573 line, smacking 23 homers while swiping 14 bases. LA is thinking about converting the 25-year-old to second base full-time in order expedite his path to the big leagues. Smart move. At 35, Mark Ellis is hardly an everyday player. A Saturday night trip to the Home Depot offers more excitement. If the experiment works, it won't be long for Castellanos to make his MLB debut. … Top arms Zach Lee, Allen Webster and Garrett Gould need more seasoning, making them more 2013/2014 appealing. However, 22-year-old starter Chris Withrow is worth watching. Command is still a work in progress, but his strikeouts upside is noteworthy. A year ago he whiffed just over a batter per inning at Chattanooga (Double-A). If he can harness his control at Albuquerque, he could make a splash with the senior club after the break.

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