LOS ANGELES -- A Delaware bankruptcy judge could have more to say about the Dodgers' offseason moves than their general manager, but Ned Colletti believes his roster can be competitive next year, federal case or not.
Second-half offensive improvement after the bargain addition of RBI machine Juan Rivera has convinced management that jumping a few slots in the standings is doable, especially after watching Arizona go from worst to first.
Of course, fans want a dramatic acquisition. With as much as $50 million potentially coming off the payroll from free agents and players that have already left, the Dodgers might even be capable of making one.
They need a bat that can drive in runs and fill empty seats, someone exactly like free agent Prince Fielder. The recruiting of Fielder from good friends Tony Gwynn and Matt Kemp is assumed to have already begun.
Colletti is wary of tampering rules, not to mention the influence that a man with a gavel can have on his pursuit of a bat.
"It has to be the right bat," Colletti said without naming names.
If not Fielder, Colletti could add a bat in left field. It could even be the re-signing of Rivera, who became an RBI machine after Colletti plucked him off Toronto's scrap heap for nothing.
Or it could be through a trade, as Colletti has conceded his forays into free agency haven't gone as planned. In fact, almost without exception, most big contracts the Dodgers have given over the years have been whopping failures. Including extensions to players already under contract, the Dodgers have spent more than $1 billion -- yes, BILLION -- over the past 13 seasons on multi-year deals without reaching the World Series.
And if they have the money for Fielder, they almost certainly need to find the money to buy Kemp out of his free agency, as well as Andre Ethier. Colletti has said getting them extended is a high priority, even if Ethier is convinced (for the second consecutive winter) that he will be traded because the club can't afford to keep him.
And while they're at it, they might want to lock up Clayton Kershaw for his three years of arbitration and beyond, even if the risk for a pitcher is great.
If Fielder joins up, will the Dodgers really try to move a resuscitated James Loney to left field (they've discussed it internally and he said he's willing), or just trade/nontender him? Speaking of nontenders, what do they do with Hong-Chih Kuo, who could cost the club north of $3 million in arbitration with no idea whether he'll be the All-Star he was in 2010 or the anxiety-stricken pitcher he was in 2011?
All that aside, Colletti will have one or two starting pitcher spots to fill. A tough call will be Hiroki Kuroda. He might return to Japan for a farewell season, or he might want another year with the Dodgers, leaving Colletti with a decision whether to spend $12 million for a middle-of-the-rotation 37-year-old to go with Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly and perhaps Nathan Eovaldi.
Free agents: Kuroda, RHP; Jonathan Broxton, RHP; Mike MacDougal, RHP; Vicente Padilla, RHP; Rod Barajas, C; Jamey Carroll, 2B; Aaron Miles, 3B; Rivera, OF.
Eligible for arbitration: Ethier, OF; Dana Eveland, LHP; Kemp, OF; Kershaw, LHP; Kuo, LHP; Loney, 1B.
Club options: Casey Blake, 3B; Jon Garland, RHP.
Nontender possibilities: Dana Eveland, LHP; Kuo, LHP; Loney, 1B.
Catchers: There has been talk about going young behind the plate with A.J. Ellis and Tim Federowicz, although the jury is out on whether Federowicz (acquired in the Trayvon Robinson trade) is ready for that. More likely the club will bring back Barajas, who put up former Dodger Russell Martin numbers at a lower salary. He worked well with pitchers, has above-average backstop skills and power, and he wants to play for the team he grew up rooting for.
First base: With first base traditionally a power position, the Dodgers have Loney, who still has never hit more than 15 homers in a season, but at least his bat returned in the second half after a mysterious year-long disappearance. If they land Fielder, Loney either would become a left fielder (he said he would and could) or he would get traded/nontendered. If they don't get Fielder, Loney probably will return for his free-agent year.
Second base: The club could go young and cheap with Justin Sellers, although he projects as more of a utility man. Carroll was as consistent as any player the past two seasons, but he'll likely command a multi-year deal on the free-agent market, and the Dodgers might not go there. They are more likely to re-sign Miles, because they like him more at third base and the switch-hitting bat.
Shortstop: Ready or not, the baton has been passed from Rafael Furcal to Dee Gordon, who already is a game changer on the bases. He doesn't walk, because pitchers throw him only strikes, and so far he's had a decent response with the bat. His ability to adjust to their adjustments next season will be a bigger test. Defensively, he has the athleticism to be spectacular, but still messes up too many routine plays, as rookies often do.
Third base: Since Adrian Beltre left, this has been a problem area and it remains so today. A year ago a bounce-back season from Casey Blake was needed and it didn't happen. Now the same story with Juan Uribe, easily the most disappointing Dodger of 2011. His bad body didn't prevent him from being a clutch star with the Giants, but as soon as he signed a multi-year contract with the Dodgers, he became Andruw Jones, with better defense. The Dodgers never expected 30 homers and 100 RBIs, but not four and 28 either. Uncertainty with him coming off sports hernia surgery likely means Miles or a suitable facsimile will return, while Russell Mitchell is a versatile corner utility man. The club won't pick up Blake's option, but he could figure for a bench job if he heals from neck surgery.
Outfield: A year later, the Dodgers are still looking for a left fielder to replace Manny Ramirez. The platoon of Marcus Thames and Jay Gibbons failed, but Rivera was salvaged and turned into an RBI machine. He'll probably cost a multi-year deal to return, while there has been talk of moving Loney to the outfield if the Dodgers get Fielder to play first base. Jerry Sands is the best hope from the Minor League system, and he showed significant improvement during his September callup. The Dodgers are counting on Kemp to keep doing what he did and Ethier to heal from knee surgery and return to the 30-homer force he's shown he can be. Gwynn will return as a reliable fourth outfielder.
Rotation: Kershaw is a good place to start, but the Dodgers are hoping for more consistency from Billingsley and Lilly. Kuroda is another year closer to returning to Japan and at $12 million he isn't cheap, but he's coming off his best Major League season. The kids started to arrive this year, first with Rubby De La Rosa until his elbow blew out, then Eovaldi, who has a rotation job to lose in Spring Training. That still leaves an open spot to be filled via trade or free agency. Eveland had a chance in September to pitch himself into the picture, but he couldn't follow up after two strong starts. Don't forget Garland, ahead of schedule in his return from shoulder surgery.
Bullpen: There were bullpen surprises good and bad. Broxton got hurt, Kuo lost his confidence and Ronald Belisario sadly lost his way, but Javy Guerra jumped up from Double-A to become the closer and Kenley Jansen turned into a strikeout machine. Scott Elbert cleared a mental hurdle and proved he can be trusted. MacDougal revived his career as a workhorse middleman while Josh Lindblom showed he's a Major Leaguer. Matt Guerrier was overused early, but continued to eat innings all year. Blake Hawksworth had better stuff than results, but the club still likes his arm.