Dodgers" title="Los Angeles Dodgers"/>
SI Prediction: 1st in NL West
Ever since Manny Ramirez declared, "I'm baaaaack," following the club's most celebrated spring holdout since Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale held out in 1966, the Dodgers haven't been able to keep Ramirez away from Camelback Ranch, the team's new spring training home in Glendale, Ariz. The superstar, who signed a two-year, $45 million deal (with an opt-out clause after this season) three weeks into camp, would arrive at the ballpark at 6:30 each morning to run with strength-and-conditioning coach Brendon Huttman before heading to the batting cage. "He's like a big kid, and he loves to play baseball," says centerfielder Matt Kemp, "and that's kind of rubbed off on [the rest of] us."
A slugging savant who won two World Series titles with the Red Sox, Ramirez is equally remembered in Boston as an erratic malcontent. But one team's cancer, it turns out, can be another's cure.
Not that Ramirez doesn't still stir up anxiety. Even unflappable manager Joe Torre was looking oddly concerned in the days before Manny re-signed. "We couldn't win without him," one Dodger said shortly after the signing. "Everyone in here knows that."
To bring Ramirez back, Dodgers G.M. Ned Colletti says he negotiated with agent Scott Boras for 141 straight days, holidays included. But now that he's got his man, the L.A. lineup is as good as any in the National League one though eight. It looks a lot like the one that reached the NLCS last season, except upbeat second baseman Orlando Hudson (maybe the steal of the winter's free-agent signings at one-year, $3.4 million guaranteed) replaces the dour Jeff Kent, who retired.
Ramirez won't duplicate the otherworldly .396 (.410 including postseason) he hit after coming over to the NL on July 31, but the Dodgers' quartet of emerging, under-27 stars -- first baseman James Loney, outfielders Andre Ethier and Kemp, and catcher Russell Martin -- should all improve with Manny anchoring the middle of the lineup. Los Angeles was 54-54 at the time of the swap, but it averaged nearly half a home run more and four tenths of a run a game more after Ramirez arrived. "I don't think we were lacking confidence, but it gives you a little extra confidence knowing you have Manny on your side," says Ethier.
Now the biggest concern for Dodgers officials is the pitching staff. It led the league in ERA last year but over the winter lost key starter Derek Lowe and much of its bullpen (Takashi Saito, Chan Ho Park, Joe Beimel and Scott Proctor). Even with the free-agent signing of serviceable, if injury-prone, veteran Randy Wolf, one L.A. official says, "We need another starter."
The continued development of 21-year-old lefthanded phenom Clayton Kershaw would help. Kershaw, who throws 95 mph with a plus breaking ball, was hit or miss in early spring, according to one Dodgers official, but he finished strong. "He looks like he's ready to take the next step," a rival G.M. says.
The bullpen has no such immediate reinforcement. Jonathan Broxton, the new full-time closer, was 14 of 17 in save opportunities after Saito went down with an elbow injury last year, but he looked better as a setup man. Replacing him in that role is lefty Hong-Chih Kuo, who has filthy stuff (96 strikeouts in 80 innings and a 2.14 ERA) but is brittle (two Tommy John surgeries already at age 27). The front office is counting on strong-armed youngsters James McDonald and Cory Wade to fill the void left by the many pen departures. "We knew we'd have to address the pitching, and we addressed it somewhat," Colletti says. "But we're a young, inexperienced staff."
The young pitchers should benefit from a tight defense that's especially strong up the middle, with returning shortstop Rafael Furcal, plus Hudson and Martin. (The athletic Kemp is still a work in progress in center.) But L.A.'s main goal is to beat up teams up with its bats, and while that's an unusual plan in a division of spacious ballparks, including Dodger Stadium, it may work. With Ramirez back to help that talented quartet of young position players, the Dodgers are the class of a division that has no lineup to match theirs.
-- Jon Heyman
Issue date: April 6, 2009