The Dodgers have been active only around the margins this winter and probably will stay that way. Whether it is because of the McCourt divorce, the economy or the unfortunate past performance of most of their big-money acquisitions, they have been essentially spectators. They are hoping another Randy Wolf falls in their lap before Spring Training on a one-year deal to solidify the starting rotation. Fortunately, general manager Ned Colletti has seemingly dozens of assistants that have been good at uncovering bargains, like Ronald Belisario and Takashi Saito. And Colletti does a pretty good job acquiring stretch-run reinforcements. The Hot Stove league is great for fans, but Colletti has found that panicking in December (Juan Pierre, Jason Schmidt, Andruw Jones, etc.) is counterproductive.
2. What should we expect from Manny Ramirez this season?
Ramirez's legs bother him playing the outfield. A 50-game suspension early in the 2009 season didn't prevent a late-season fade. He seriously considered opting out of his contract and would have if the economic climate had an American League team willing to pay his stratospheric salary for a designated hitter. Expect Ramirez to need, and receive, more days off in '10. Otherwise, expect Ramirez to show the effects in the stretch, as he did this year.
3. Which Rafael Furcal will show up this year?
In four Dodgers seasons, Furcal has had only one healthy and productive. The other three have been clouded by injuries. As the shortstop and leadoff hitter, he can be a double threat. But injured, he can be a multiple liability. In his comeback from back surgery, he had a disappointing season but a big September, giving the Dodgers hope that he's rounding back into form rather than over the hill.
4. Is Clayton Kershaw ready to be a 22-year-old ace?
In some ways, Kershaw could be the key to the team. That's a lot of pressure, but when you're compared to Sandy Koufax, pressure is a given. The Dodgers had drafted 22 pitchers in the first round before taking Kershaw in 2006. None won 20 games in a Dodgers season (Rick Sutcliffe and Bob Welch did it elsewhere). The Dodgers haven't had a 20-game winner in 20 years (Ramon Martinez, 20, 1990). A high schooler, Kershaw was rushed through the farm system at breakneck speed and it hasn't seemed to matter. He's a pitcher who can make Dodgers fans forget about Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia and all the other aces the Dodgers have watched other teams acquire.
5. Can Chad Billingsley regain his form?
A year ago, everybody wondered if he could shake off his NL Championship Series debacle, and he produced an All-Star first half. But that has already been forgotten because he went 3-7 with a 5.20 ERA after the break. Maybe it was the nagging leg injuries or, as he said, a mechanical flaw. Regardless, he's 17 games above .500 with a 3.55 career ERA and he's only 25. There isn't a team that's had trade talks with the Dodgers that wouldn't take Billingsley. His arm is sound. If Kershaw emerges as the No. 1 starter, the Dodgers could do a lot worse than have Billingsley as the No. 2.
6. Will Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier continue to improve?
Both are in line for huge raises coming off career seasons. There's no reason to think they can't keep getting better. Kemp's already won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger at age 25. He's liable to soon be the best all-around center fielder in the game. Ethier turns 28 in April, and if he can keep those funks of his to a minimum, the Dodgers might have two All-Stars in their outfield for the first time since Dusty Baker and Pedro Guerrro in 1981.
7. Is this a make-or-break season for catcher Russell Martin?
Management hasn't given up on Martin, but it isn't ignoring his two-year regression. Don't be surprised if A.J. Ellis gets a lot of playing time in Spring Training, and don't be surprised if he makes a serious run at Martin's job. Management likes Ellis' catch-and-throw tools, and he's made serious progress the last two seasons offensively. Meanwhile, management has no answers for what's happened with Martin. His work ethic improved dramatically in '09 and his defense was better, but the offense is nowhere near the level of his Silver Slugger season in '07. With fewer times on base, there are fewer stolen bases, not that it's expected from a catcher but a unique asset he once displayed. And this being his second season of arbitration, he'll need to pick it up offensively to justify a salary headed toward $5 million.
8. Who will emerge as the starting second baseman?
Maybe nobody. A lefty/righty platoon between Blake DeWitt and Jamey Carroll wouldn't be a bad thing. DeWitt has had back-to-back strong Spring Trainings; Carroll is known to come to camp ready, too. A year ago, Orlando Hudson wasn't even on the radar, so the Dodgers at least have some options. And if DeWitt can improve enough defensively to play every day, Carroll's versatility could be utilized in the role of super-sub, as well as providing pinch-hitting support.
9. Who will be this year's Belisario?
The early darkhorse pick is Rule 5 draftee Carlos Monasterios, who is having a big Venezuela Winter League season as a starter and was taken on the advice of scout Ron Rizzi, who unearthed Belisario. Monasterios will be in the mix for a fifth-starter spot. Rizzi also recommended the other Rule 5 pick, left-handed reliever Armando Zerpa, who could squeeze his way onto the team as a third left-handed reliever behind George Sherrill and Hong-Chih Kuo.
10. Will this be Joe Torre's final season as manager?
During the postseason, Torre hinted at an extension through 2011 and it seemed headed that way in talks with Colletti. But then, the ownership dispute erupted. Don Mattingly, pursued by several clubs, stayed put. There's been no announcement of any extension. So there's speculation that Torre won't make a commitment until the ownership issue is resolved. Colletti has indicated that Mattingly could replace Torre whenever the time comes. Unless there is a confirmation of an extension for Torre, the leadership uncertainty won't be limited to the McCourts.