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'A team that has to prove something': Five opening-day questions for the Dodgers

Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger (35) stands in the dugout.

For a team with such familiar ambitions, there were plenty of new sights sprinkled into the Dodgers' finally tune-up games against the Angels this week at Chavez Ravine.

The No. 5 jersey that used to belong to Corey Seager was donned by a different face, as Freddie Freeman was serenaded by the home crowd for the first time after joining the team on a six-year, $162-million contract last month.

“Sweet Child O’ Mine” blared from the speakers during the ninth inning, as recently acquired right-hander Craig Kimbrel officially replaced Kenley Jansen — and his “California Love” entry music — as the team’s new closer.

The holdovers from last year’s team had reset their focus on a new season, too. After winning 106 games last year, yet failing short of their main objectives, they were preparing again for the pressure of renewed World Series-or-bust expectations.

“I feel this is a team that has to prove something,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Yeah, the roster is great. But there’s a lot of great rosters that don’t hold the trophy at the end of the season.”

He added: “We’re not the National League champions. We’re not the National League West champions. We’re not defending World Series champions. So for us to think that we’re always on it, I would argue that we better flip the narrative and the script and better start being hungry.”

Ahead of the team’s season opener Friday in Denver against the Colorado Rockies, here are five things to watch for as the 2022 campaign gets underway.

1. Will the lineup meet expectations?

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts warms up during a spring training workout on March 13.

The hopes for the Dodgers' lineup this year couldn’t be much higher.

Mookie Betts, Freeman and Trea Turner give them one of the best leadoff trios in baseball.

Max Muncy, Justin Turner and Will Smith provide depth and power in the middle of the order.

Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor and a combination of Gavin Lux, Edwin Ríos and Hanser Alberto should ensure that most nights, even the bottom of the lineup can offer consistent contributions.

Despite losing Seager, who signed with the Texas Rangers this winter, these Dodgers have the potential to be perhaps the best offensive group the team has boasted in recent memory.

But to get there, they’ll need their biggest stars in Betts, Freeman and Trea Turner to deliver. They’ll need Muncy and Taylor to bounce back from a winter spent rehabilitating injuries. They’ll need Bellinger to look more like his old self, not the player who ranked as one of the worst hitters in baseball last year. And they’ll need a heavy dose of health and consistency, a combination that eluded them down the stretch last season.

2. How will the Dodgers take advantage of versatility?

Dodgers infielder Max Muncy warms up during a spring training workout.
Dodgers infielder Max Muncy warms up during a spring training workout. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

The Dodgers seemingly have primary players at each of their positions. Freeman at first. Muncy at second. Trea Turner at shortstop. Justin Turner at third. Will Smith behind the plate. Taylor, Bellinger and Betts in the outfield.

But they also have tons of versatility. Muncy can play either corner infield spot. Alberto can fill in at second, third and short. Lux and Taylor can play the infield and outfield. And anyone can shuffle through as the designated hitter, which is being introduced permanently to the National League this year.

While the core of the Dodgers lineup might look the same most games, Roberts will have the opportunity to tinker in search of the right matchups.

If he wants to go heavy on left-handed hitters, Lux could go to left field, Muncy could play second and Ríos could DH.

When more right-handed hitters are needed, Alberto can play at second, Smith could DH and Austin Barnes can slot behind the plate.

They have options for utilizing the DH spot, as well. Roberts has said they would likely shuffle many players in and out of the spot — perhaps Muncy one night, Justin Turner the next, and Ríos or Lux after them.

If one of their bench bats gets hot, it could serve as a way to redistribute playing time.

3. Who gets leverage innings in relief?

Dodgers reliever Brusdar Graterol delivers to Chicago White Sox batter Danny Mendick during a spring training game.
Dodgers reliever Brusdar Graterol delivers to Chicago White Sox batter Danny Mendick during a spring training game. (Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

Kimbrel will be the Dodgers closer, and Blake Treinen will be the de facto set-up man used in the biggest spots before the ninth.

Outside of that, however, the team will have to decide when to use the rest of their deep crop of relievers.

Brusdar Graterol and Daniel Hudson are right-handers capable of taking down key innings. Alex Vesia appears to be their most trustworthy left-hander.

The Dodgers can mix and match with their bulk relievers, too. Tyler Anderson can piggyback off short starts, capable of going around four innings. Mitch White and Evan Phillips are also capable of getting through several innings.

David Price’s role remains unclear, after he had a slow build-up this spring. The Dodgers also announced that left-hander Victor González will start the year on the injured list, creating a hole further down the pecking order their other southpaws, such as Garrett Cleavinger and Justin Bruihl, will have to help fill.

4. How long will the starters go?

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw warms up during a spring training workout.
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw warms up during a spring training workout. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

The rotation is mostly stretched out after a lockout-shortened spring training. But there is still a question about how long they will be able to pitch the first couple times through the rotation — and how much of a workload they will leave for the bullpen.

Opening day starter Walker Buehler is the lone member of the rotation who completed a normal build-up this spring, thanks in part to his work at a private training center before camp began.

The other members of the rotation — which includes Tony Gonsolin, Julio Urías, Clayton Kershaw and Andrew Heaney, with Gonsolin and Urías pitching Saturday and Sunday, respectively — seem capable of lasting at least 4-5 innings.

But to work deep into games, they will need to pitch well. That means being more consistent than they were this spring, when Roberts gave the group a C grade after everyone except Kershaw posted a Cactus League ERA over 6.00.

“I love the players,” Roberts said. “Individually, certain guys were good. Certain guys were not good. But I do believe that all of our guys are ready for April 8.”

5. How will Dodgers respond to 2021 disappointment?

Mookie Betts walks back to the dugout after striking out in Game 6 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves in October.
Mookie Betts walks back to the dugout after striking out in Game 6 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves in October. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It’s difficult to categorize a 106-win season as a failure. But after the Dodgers didn’t win their division, didn’t win a NL pennant and certainly didn’t defend their World Series title, they haven’t looked back on last year as a success either.

That’s why Roberts has preached a message of urgency this spring, emphasizing the need to reclaim the NL West, secure a bye to the NLDS, and give themselves the easiest path possible for an October run.

That work starts Friday. They saw how costly the fine margins of last season turned out to be. They don’t want to waste time in their championship pursuit this year.

“It is the same thing over and over, in the sense that our goal is to be the best team in Major League Baseball every single year,” Roberts said. “But the tricky part, the unique thing about our guys, is that it’s still fresh and guys still have that drive each and every day to be the best team at the end of the year. And I think that’s why you see teams that fall off or are inconsistent year in and year out. But if you look at our club, we understand it ain’t easy and it takes a lot of work to put ourselves in that position.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.