Three weeks later and I'm still alive. Pitchers and catchers (and Andre Ethier) have reported to Spring Training and I'm not done with this preview yet. The show must go on though, especially because I have so much to say about the abortion that is left field.
But first, the rest of the infield.
There aren't any big surprises as to who will be positioned to opening day starter Clayton Kershaw's right (or, since he'll probably end up pitching out of the stretch a lot, behind him). Barring any spring training injuries, Rafael Furcal will be the shortstop and Casey Blake will man the hot corner.
Furcal enters the final year of his second 3-year deal with the Dodgers. It will be his 12th season in the bigs but, as you may remember, Furcal was a young phenom (though not nearly as young as they thought he was) with the Braves, winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2000. As we Dodgers fans are aware, the Rookie of the Year award is no real indicator that a player will be a star, but Raffi has put together a fine career that, despite some time missed due to a bad back, has been absolutely solid.
The 2010 season was Furcal's best (if you can call 97 games a full season) and a big improvement over a slightly disappointing 2009 campaign. Furcal's slugging percentage was the best of his career (aside from the 36 game tear he went on in 2008 before missing almost the entire rest of the season to injury) and his speed returned, his SB count rising from 12 to 22 and his CS count falling from 6 to 4. Despite more nagging injuries, Furcal was an All-Star in Anaheim and made an impact late in the game by doing his best first-baseman impersonation on a throw from Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd. Naturally, it bailed Jonathan Broxton out before he could cough up another 9th inning lead.
Furcal has been a delightful staple for this Dodgers team the past 5 years. His defense has always been brilliant, he has improved his ability to get on base, and he is a dynamic lead-off man capable of doing all the little things baseball purists love lead-off men to do. And since he's only 33 (ish), I can imagine that the team would love to reward him with another deal if he can prove he is resilient enough to play 140 games. Hell, if he plays like he did before getting hurt in 2008, the Dodgers might even take on the $12 million option for a 4th year on his current contract.
Unfortunately for Furcal and the Dodgers, the likelihood of that happening is doubtful (seriously - McCourt pay anyone not his lawyer or his son 12 million bucks?), but you have to hope for it because Furcal is likely the most vital cog in the machine behind Ethier and Kemp. If those three - Furcal and the two outfielders - struggle in 2011, this team is going nowhere.
Jamey Carroll is likely Furcal's main back-up, as he was last year. Carroll proved that he is a serviceable replacement who can get on base and make things happen. Because there are so many question marks in the middle of the infield, I think Ivan DeJesus Jr. has a good chance of making the team as an extra infielder. It would not be a stretch to assume that there could be a situation where the middle infield is made up of not Uribe and Furcal but rather Carroll and DeJesus.
If Furcal can't prove himself to be worthy of an extension, the Dodgers could go into 2012 with Uribe at shortstop and look for a new second basemen. Another hope would be that either DeJesus or Justin Sellers, whom we'll see in spring training, will have a solid 2011 perhaps be able to compete for the starting job. Then there's also Dee Gordon, one of the team's top 3 prospects who could possibly be ready in 2012, though he still needs some work getting some muscle on his body to be able to contend with the big boys.
Casey "Beardus Christ" Blake, when not having his shtick stolen by Brian Wilson, also enters 2011 in the final year of a 3-year deal. Unlike Furcal, I don't think there's much chance of seeing Blake in Dodger Blue after 2011. This is Blake's age 37 year. His age 36 year saw his production plummet, his OPS falling a whopping 105 points (832 to 727) from his solid 2009 to his underwhelming 2010. In 2009, Blake was one of the most valuable players on the team, a third baseman with power and a decent glove. Last year he was just another average body at the hot corner.
It's easy to blame age for his decline, but Blake had the best season of his career in 2009 at 35. Another resurgence is possible and, even though his stats were meager in comparison to what one would hope for from the hot corner, Blake was still statistically the best third baseman in the division last year.
In all likelihood though, we're watching Blake devolve from a solid big league third baseman to perhaps only a decent regular or even part-time player. Part of the argument for signing Uribe was the fact that he can easily patch up a hole if one were to appear at the hot corner. The Loney-Carroll-Furcal-Uribe infield could be popular if Blake gets hurt or struggles. Beard can also spell Loney at first base. He and Gibbons will see time as the backup.
There has also been talk of sticking Blake in left field from time to time. Since the team appears committed to having Uribe's bat in the lineup, sticking Blake in left field would allow Uribe to play the position he defends the best and gets Carroll's OBP in the batting order. There will certainly be some situations where I would much rather see Jamey Carroll in the lineup than any of the clowns in the revolving door at left field.
That I just typed the previous sentence really serves as a testament to how screwed we are.
When Colletti signed Blake a few years ago, top prospect Josh Bell became expendable. He became the Orioles' big catch in the George Sherrill trade. Baltimore just traded for former D'backs dual home run and strikeout machine Mark Reynolds, so perhaps Bell is on his way to becoming Andy La Roche version 2.0. Either way, we don't have anyone lined up to take Blake's spot in 2012 (unless, of course, we just stick Uribe there).
Our best case scenario in 2012 probably doesn't include Blake, so I hope he manages to have a decent season and ends up with a nice final deal somewhere. I think the ideal scenario in 2012 would be to have Uribe at third, Furcal at short on a two-year deal, and one of the Gordon, Sellers, DeJesus trio at second base. In all likelihood, we'll probably see Ned make a boneheaded free agent pickup (or two).
The early list of 2012 free agents up the middle include such obvious Ned signings as Jose Lopez ("we like what he could possibly do with the bat... in a vacuum"), Jack Wilson ("Who wouldn't want another Jamey Carroll?"), Adam Kennedy ("he's a grade-A gamer who once touched David Eckstein"), and Yuniesky Betancourt ("We just hate our team"). Also, does it shock anyone else that Ned has never signed Alex Gonzalez or Orlando Cabrera? Those guys are the kinds of washed up journeymen our GM salivates over.
Is it too early to look forward to 2013?
Predicted 25-Man so far:
C - Rod Barajas
1b - James Loney
2b - Juan Uribe
3b - Casey Blake
SS - Rafael Furcal
LF - Jay Gibbons
C - Dioner Navarro
IF - Ivan De Jesus
UT - Jamey Caroll
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