Buster Olney: Los Angeles Dodgers

DodgersStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesHanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig serve as spark plugs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
LOS ANGELES -- Hanley Ramirez attends the meetings that the Dodgers hold for the hitters at the outset of every series to go over scouting reports, but he does this to be respectful and polite of the process and not because he actually gleans information. He does not study video, either.

“None,” he said Saturday as he waited his turn in batting practice.

He does not care to know the identity of the opponent's starting pitcher, Ramirez said, until he is preparing for his first at-bat -- and even then, as he watches the pitcher throw to the first batters of the game, what Ramirez only wants to know is how hard the pitcher is throwing, and how much his fastball moves.

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Clayton KershawAP Photo/Gregory BullClayton Kershaw is maintaining a pitching routine, but he may not be starting for a while.
SAN DIEGO -- Clayton Kershaw wants to maintain the five-day regimen that has defined his professional life, and Sunday was the day he was supposed to take the mound, stare toward home plate and cut up the strike zone with his slider and curveball and fastball.

But he can’t really throw the way he needs to, can’t really cut loose, because of a problem with the teres major muscle in his back. So Kershaw -- who was placed on the disabled list Saturday -- decided to simulate the physical exertion required in a start. Early in the afternoon, he ran sprints across left field in Petco Park, one after another, 25 in all; he held a stopwatch, to aid in the timing of his work.

But by 1 p.m. -- four hours before the scheduled first pitch -- a lot of the heavy lifting of his day was over. All he can do is work and heal and wait and root for his teammates, because he cannot pitch right now and there is much uncertainty about when he will pitch again.

"Whatever it is, we're going to take the time to get it right," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.

Andrew Cashner, who started against the Dodgers on Sunday night, suffered an injury similar to Kershaw's two years ago and missed two months. Jurickson Profar, the Rangers second baseman, also has been dealing with the same sort of problem that ails Kershaw, and he will miss a lot of the first half of this season.

Those timelines don’t necessarily apply to Kershaw, but

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What could derail the Dodgers? 

March, 30, 2014
Mar 30
A.J. Ellis, Adrian Gonzalez, Kenley Jansen, Juan UribeAP Photo/Rick RycroftEleven of ESPN's MLB experts have picked the Dodgers to win the World Series.
SAN DIEGO -- The votes are in, and the Los Angeles Dodgers were picked by more folks at ESPN than any other team to win the World Series; 38 of the 44 ESPN experts who cast ballots chose the Dodgers to win the NL West. Las Vegas is picking them as well, by a solid margin.

Those facts are understandable. When you attend a Dodgers workout, it’s like watching batting practice the day before the All-Star Game, with big names all over the place. Heck, even their coaches -- Don Mattingly, Davey Lopes, Mark McGwire, John Valentin, Tim Wallach and Rick Honeycutt -- are former stars.

The Dodgers have baseball’s highest payroll, and so for the first time in 15 years, some team other than the New York Yankees will have that title. The Yankees can testify to the Dodgers that this is the blessing and the curse of having a high payroll, and L.A.’s payroll dwarfs that of its division rivals:

Los Angeles: $235 million
San Francisco: $154 million
Arizona: $112 million
Colorado: $95 million
San Diego: $90 million

The Diamondbacks and Padres stretched their payrolls this year in their effort to break into the postseason, and yet both teams will spend less than half of what the Dodgers will spend. And presumably, the Dodgers will have more room for in-season growth in deals than any of the other NL West teams.

I voted with the majority: I picked the Dodgers to win the NL West because their talent reflects their payroll; they are absolutely stacked. Their pitching staff is the deepest in the National League, with a bunch of former closers serving as setup men for Kenley Jansen at top dollar. As soon as Matt Kemp returns, Mattingly will have to decide which of his four star outfielders he will have to bench out of Yasiel Puig, Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford.

But let’s try to imagine the plausible scenarios in which the Dodgers don't win the NL West.

1. Hanley Ramirez and/or Clayton Kershaw are greatly limited by injury

Kershaw will start the season on the disabled list, but the Dodgers don’t believe his injury is serious. Ramirez is healthy, which is a good thing, because the Dodgers are much less of a team when he’s not on the field, as we saw last season. As he’s gotten older and has missed a lot of games:

Games missed by Hanley Ramirez
2010: 20
2011: 70
2012: 5
2013: 76

The Dodgers could lose any of their four outfielders and they would probably be fine, given their depth at that position. They have good defensive catchers behind A.J. Ellis. They would miss Adrian Gonzalez, but have some alternatives.

But if Ramirez goes down, it’s a huge problem for the Dodgers, who are thin in middle infielders. If Kershaw goes down, well, it'd be like the 1962 to '66 Dodgers losing Sandy Koufax.

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Yasiel Puig issues are no myth 

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
Yasiel PuigBrendon Thorne/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesYasiel Puig is undeniably gifted, but the Dodgers have had internal concerns.
We aim to dispel a handful of myths today. Let's get to it.

Myth No. 1: Controversy swirls around Yasiel Puig because a stodgy media picks on him.

The reality: Controversy swirls around Puig because the media's coverage of him reflects the internal view of a whole lot of folks in the Dodgers organization, and that view is that the right fielder makes too many mistakes.

The team loves his energy, loves his talent and -- at the same time -- there is a growing exasperation among some teammates and members of the front office and staff that he makes the same mistakes over and over again, whether it be in his punctuality or with baserunning. No one is out to get him; no one is trying to repress him; no one is trying to make him look bad. They just want him to take care of business.

As Ramona Shelburne writes, Don Mattingly held a team meeting Tuesday to clear the air with Puig, to wipe the slate clean. Mattingly wouldn't do this if he only thought that a couple of sports writers were being unfair.

And while Mattingly retreated from his comments made in Australia in the past couple of days, it's worth remembering that he played his entire career in New York and dealt with the media a whole lot. He understands how to get a message across through reporters. He made his concerns known with sarcasm -- which, again, reflect the concerns of a whole lot of other folks with the Dodgers who aren't going on the record. In the past week, Mattingly has played both the good cop and bad cop roles, perhaps because some of his players (particularly those who speak only English) aren't comfortable telling Puig directly how they feel. This is what the team meeting was for -- to create an open forum. It's a great sign that Puig welcomed the feedback in the way he did.

If he makes the changes some of his teammates want him to make, they'll respect him like crazy for that. If he doesn't, the exasperation will grow.

Myth No. 2: The players' association has been forced into concessions to make the drug-testing penalties tougher.

The reality: The union

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Clayton KershawAP Photo/Paul SancyaClayton Kershaw is surprisingly down to earth considering his superstar status.
TAMPA -- A couple of leftovers from my Clayton Kershaw feature that comes out in ESPN The Magazine this week:

1. The first time I met Kershaw, a few winters ago, he had agreed to take us through his offseason workout regimen, which started early in the day at his old high school in Highland Park, Texas. He pulled up in his '07 Tahoe -- the car he still has -- and I half-expected to see some others, too. Personal trainers, perhaps, or handlers, or a fitness guru or two.

But Kershaw was alone. He didn't require aid, coaching or cajoling. He was self-reliant, and after talking with him that day, I walked away thinking that Kershaw might care less about money -- the material goods it will provide him, in other words -- than any high-end player I've been around.

In reporting the cover piece, I heard this story from Josh Meredith, who was the best man at the wedding of Clayton and Ellen Kershaw, and who is part of a core group of friends the pitcher has had since childhood:

On the day that Kershaw's $215 million deal became official, he had vetoed the idea of a celebration, and it just so happened that on the same day, the boyhood friends already had their weekly get-together planned -- at the Kershaw's, as usual.

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Dee GordonAP Photo/Paul SancyaDee Gordon, a shortstop by trade, is trying to learn the nuances of second base.

PHOENIX -- Baseball players aren't supposed to play basketball during the offseason, but a lot of them do anyway, as Aaron Boone will tell you, as an efficient way to stay in shape.

But Dee Gordon stopped playing basketball this winter to improve his baseball condition, and says he feels better than ever, as he tries to win what could be the most wide-open job competition for any would-be contender this spring -- the Dodgers' second-base job.

Mark Ellis is gone, and so is Nick Punto, and Skip Schumaker, and the early read on international signing Alexander Guerrero is that at best, he needs more time in the minors to learn about playing second base. The Dodgers have the makings of perhaps the best rotation in the majors, and one of the deepest bullpens, with a lineup of stars with star power.

But they don't have a second baseman.

So Gordon, Chone Figgins and others are here hoping to show they can give the Dodgers what they need out of the position -- steady defense, and at least some offensive contribution.

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Starlin CastroNuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty ImagesStarlin Castro and the Cubs are not getting help from their early-season schedule.

In following Tuesday's column ranking the American League's early-season schedules, Wednesday we have the National League. The teams are ranked toughest to easiest in caliber of early-season schedule.

1. Chicago Cubs

Games vs. teams with records of .500 or better in 2013: 31 of first 40.
Home/away: 18 of their first 40 are at home.
Notables: The Cubs basically get to run an NL Central gauntlet in the first quarter of the season, with 21 of their first 40 games against the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.

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A predictable bidding war 

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
Bronson ArroyoAP Photo/Jaime Henry-WhiteBronson Arroyo isn't among the game's better starters, but some covet his predictability.
Bronson Arroyo has been like baseball’s version of an old, dependable pickup truck. The odometer is well over 100,000 miles at this point, but year after year, he always starts, in all kinds of weather...

2004: 27 starts, 178.2 innings
2005: 32 starts, 205.1 innings
2006: 35 starts, 240.2 innings
2007: 34 starts, 210.2 innings
2008: 34 starts, 200 innings
2009: 33 starts, 220.1 innings
2010: 33 starts 215.2 innings
2011: 32 starts 199 innings
2012: 32 starts 202 innings
2013: 32 starts 202 innings

That's one whole decade of taking the ball on the day you’re supposed to pitch, start after start. An evaluator who works for a team currently bidding on Arroyo says that there will be days that the right-hander might give up a crooked number in the first inning, but when you look up in the fifth or sixth inning, Arroyo usually has been through the lineup twice -- and at the very least, he’s competed, kept your team within range and saved your relievers for the day.

“He’s not a bullpen-killer,” said the evaluator. “Some pitchers just kill your bullpen, but Bronson will get you into the middle of the game. He’s predictable.”

Among remaining starters on the free-agent market

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Toughest lineup quandaries in MLB 

February, 1, 2014
Feb 1
Xander BogaertsRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesBoth Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia could see time leading off for the Red Sox in 2014.
When Joe Torre managed, he jotted down lineups in his time away from the park, mulling over various possibilities, internally debating certain combinations.

In other words: He was like a lot of baseball fans and reporters, who like to think through different lineup quandaries, especially in the cold of winter.

Around baseball, there are interesting lineup quandaries.

For the defending champion Red Sox: Who hits leadoff?

Boston’s leadoff hitters ranked first in on-base percentage last season and third in runs scored, but the guy primarily responsible for that is gone. So now John Farrell has to decide who will replace Jacoby Ellsbury in the No. 1 spot in his batting order.

He’s got a few imperfect candidates such as Dustin Pedroia, who actually has done some of his worst work when he’s hit leadoff, or Jackie Bradley, who doesn’t have a lot of experience, or maybe Xander Bogaerts, who may ultimately be needed to hit in the middle of the Boston order.

But the Red Sox are likely to open the year with Bradley at or near the bottom of their lineup to help ease his transition into the big leagues.

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videoClayton Kershaw will earn about 75 cents to 80 cents per heartbeat over the next seven years, given the seven-year, $215 million contract agreement that was reported by ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne. So he is the most obvious winner in all of this.

Kershaw will earn the most significant yearly salary in U.S. sports history, $30.7 million -- and will still have the opportunity to opt out of his deal at the age of 30, if the landscape changes. He works hard, he is accountable, he is ridiculously competitive, and as I explained here the other day, he's pretty grounded. So if the Dodgers are going to invest record-setting dollars in any player, Kershaw -- with success and competitive integrity -- is a good guy to bet on.

There are other winners, and losers, as the dominoes from this deal fall.

Winner: Masahiro Tanaka

The right-hander from Japan was going to make a lot of money anyway, with some general managers estimating that he'll get more than $100 million in his deal because he's a 25-year-old, front-of-the-rotation, free-agent starter, and those don't come along very often.

But Kershaw's deal allows Tanaka to draft in his wake and provides a softer context for the Tanaka bidding; this makes it easier for teams to offer whopper contracts, so if the Yankees or the Dodgers dangle $125 million or more, it won't seem quite so crazy.

Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said Tanaka will do great things.

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Clayton KershawDenis Poroy/Getty ImagesWill left-hander Clayton Kershaw sign a long-term deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers?
It was sometime in the middle months of last season that the Los Angeles Dodgers dangled the idea of what would essentially be a lifetime deal in front of Clayton Kershaw -- a whopper contract for something in the range of $300 million. At that time, Kershaw, pitching in the middle of a season with high stakes for the Dodgers, deferred the conversation.

So here we are in early January, and it could be that, as with the Don Mattingly talks, Kershaw and the Dodgers will soon finish dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and close the deal they started discussing a long time ago.

But Kershaw is now just 10 months from free agency, and for many players and agents, getting this close would almost certainly mean testing the open market. If there is, in fact, an impasse in the Dodgers-Kershaw negotiations -- if, in fact, he wants to explore his options -- this will shape Los Angeles’ aggressiveness in its pursuit of Masahiro Tanaka.

By now, the ambition of the Dodgers’ ownership is apparent: They want to rule the baseball world.

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TanakaAFP/Getty ImagesIf Masahiro Tanaka signs with the Astros, he could lead one of baseball's top young rotations.
We knew that CC Sabathia's preference, when he became a free agent in the fall of 2008, was to return to his home state of California, if all things were equal. He might have loved to sign with the Dodgers, if all things were equal. But that was before the Yankees, well aware of Sabathia’s interest in playing in the Golden State, made the bidding unequal, with their offer of $161 million.

When Robinson Cano became a free agent two months ago, we knew the gap between what his side asked for and what the Yankees offered was enormous, and we knew that the tension between the two sides was building -- a clue that Cano was ready to leave for the right offer.

When Albert Pujols filed for free agency, there was clearly a breach developing between him and the Cardinals, and a year later the same was true in the talks between Josh Hamilton and the Rangers. The player’s perception of his own value was far different, in those cases, than the team he was leaving, and this is how Pujols wound up completing his deal in about 48 hours, and how Hamilton left the Rangers for a division rival.

But in the case of Masahiro Tanaka, we really don’t have clues about what he wants from his free agency.

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Top 10 teams in the majors 

December, 31, 2013
Miguel CabreraMark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWith Miguel Cabrera no longer out of position, the Tigers should be even better in 2014.
As 2013 becomes 2014, here's a look at the top 10 teams in MLB.

1. Detroit Tigers

Some of the teams that employ advanced metrics determined at the end of the last regular season that the Tigers were the best team in the American League -- by far. This, in spite of a bullpen that repeatedly went through changes at closer, and in spite of what was widely regarded as the worst defense in the majors. The Tigers won the AL Central for the third straight year, and again they couldn't win the World Series, losing to Boston in the ALCS. And since the end of the season, Detroit GM David Dombrowski has gone about the business of plugging the holes.

He allowed Jhonny Peralta to depart, cementing Jose Iglesias' spot at shortstop.

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Many teams capable of a big move 

December, 15, 2013
Shin-Soo ChooJamie Sabau/Getty ImagesShin-Soo Choo is one of the big names still available in free agency, and he has a number of potential suitors.
The Mariners have spent about $250 million this offseason, and the Yankees more than $300 million. Most of the best free agents have come off the board, and as general managers rushed out of the building with the dolphin on the top to catch flights out of Florida on Thursday, a lot of the winter work was done.

But some teams still have room for a big move before the offseason is over:

1. Texas Rangers: GM Jon Daniels says he does not expect any more major moves for the Rangers this winter. But Texas remains in an excellent position in its negotiations with Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz, because it appears the Rangers are one of the last teams -- maybe the last team -- prepared to spend big money on an outfielder.

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Dodgers open to moving Ethier, Kemp 

December, 3, 2013
EthierHoward Smith/USA TODAY SportsAndre Ethier has performed very well away from pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium.
The first part of the plan was to significantly improve the Los Angeles Dodgers immediately, to turn them into a contender immediately, to the alter perception of them immediately. Cost be damned. These were the first broad strokes, because the Dodgers' new ownership was thinking big picture, and assumed that inefficiencies along the way would be overwhelmed by the forthcoming television contract and an overwhelming response of fans.

So in the first 19 months since Frank McCourt was bought out, the Dodgers saw their attendance increase by more than 25 percent in one year, their season-ticket sales rocket upward, and they had a shot at winning their first World Series since 1988. Some of L.A.'s deal-making for expensive veteran players has confused an industry of value-counters who loathe the idea of an overpay, but the perspective of the Dodgers' ownership has been: Why worry about millions when there are billions in potential at stake?

Now the Dodgers can work in earnest on the finer points, on rebuilding their farm system, on using the massive stack of chips to create a deep, well-designed roster -- a younger roster. This is part of the reason why the Dodgers have indicated a willingness to absorb some salary in order to move Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp.

This is not about a salary dump, or about the discomfort of having four front-line outfielders -- Ethier, Kemp, Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig -- for three spots.

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