Sarah's Take: Dodgers upgrade bench
Loretta brings solid veteran presence to group of reserves
Opening Day is less than two weeks away. This spring has been uneventful for the Dodgers, and this is good. The Dodgers have had minor injuries, but nothing serious. Entering the season, the Dodgers shouldn't have any surprises.
One of the Dodgers' weaknesses was their group of reserves. During the offseason, general manager Ned Colletti quietly has strengthened the bench. Unless the Dodgers suffer unforeseen injuries or Colletti and manager Joe Torre make a highly shocking decision, they should have a veteran bench.
In baseball, most fans focus on everyday starting players, but most of us understand that our favorite teams will have difficulty winning without good reserves. Although teams should have young players, their reserves need to be older. These players usually understand the importance of their roles. They know how to prepare for their jobs without getting much coaching. Being a reserve is the most difficult job in baseball, maybe in all sports.
During the magical 1988 season, the "stunt men" played a vital role in the last Dodgers World Series championship. Led by Mickey Hatcher and Rick Dempsey, "stunt men" understood their roles and never complained about a lack of playing time. It seemed every time the Dodgers needed a reserve to fill in for a tired or injured player or to pinch-hit, a reserve delivered.
Although the Dodgers of 2008 accomplished more than any Dodgers team in 20 years, they had a poor bench. The Dodgers suffered many injuries that they had to overcome to go to the playoffs. The reserves should have played an important role, but they didn't. Every time a Dodgers player was injured, the team only endured until the regular player could come back, except when Blake DeWitt took over playing second base in late August.
Seldom in 2008 did the Dodgers receive a pinch-hit. Pinch-hitting is a difficult job, but it's necessary. Mark Sweeney has the second-most pinch-hits in baseball history, but he had an absolutely awful season. The only dependable pinch-hitter for the Dodgers in 2008 was the switch-hitting Delwyn Young, a rookie. Since Young was an inexperienced player, Torre didn't call upon him much until after the All-Star break. This lack of pinch-hitting skill on the team was manifested during the playoffs.
During this offseason, Colletti didn't address the pitching situation, but he did strengthen the bench. At the time, the signing of Mark Loretta seemed unimportant, but this Spring Training it looms large. Besides giving the Dodgers a quality infielder with Orlando Hudson and Rafael Furcal recovering from surgeries, Loretta brings the team a hitter who always has performed well in the clutch.
This Spring Training, Colletti invited Juan Castro, a slick fielding infielder, to camp. During his career, which began with the Dodgers in the 1990s, Castro has developed a reputation as a player who can field but can't hit. This spring, he has hit over .400 and displayed some power. Castro's unexpected performance probably will keep DeWitt in the Minor Leagues. If Torre follows his plan to rest Furcal a game per week, Castro will play an important role for the Dodgers.
For the first time since Russell Martin has been the Dodgers' catcher, the team has a good backup. This offseason, Martin realized he needs more rest than he has had in his first three seasons. Colletti obtained Brad Ausmus, a 15-year veteran known as a brilliant defensive catcher. The Dodgers believe they have a coach on the field when Ausmus plays. He has passed on invaluable information to Martin. Though during his career Ausmus has had difficulty hitting, this spring he has hit over .300.
With the Dodgers' current pitching situation, I don't think they will carry more than four outfielders. Juan Pierre gives them a quality outfielder who can run fast. If the Dodgers carry five outfielders, I wouldn't be surprised if Xavier Paul makes the team. Paul is one of the team leaders in hits this spring.
Doug Mientkiewicz was invited to Spring Training with a slim shot of making the team. However, he has played well, showing his versatility. I think he has a great possibility of being on the Dodgers' roster for Opening Day.
With an improved bench, Young probably won't make the Dodgers. He is a one-dimensional player, and the Dodgers want and need multidimensional players. Since Young is out of options, this spring may be his last with his hometown team. I would like to see Colletti trade Young to the American League, so he can be a designated hitter.
The improved Dodgers bench will help them to reach their ultimate goal of repeating as the National League West Division champions. Hopefully the Dodgers won't have to use their bench often, but it will play an important role this year. To me, this is the most improved area for the Dodgers.
Sarah D. Morris is the editor of Sarah's Dodger Place. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.