MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Dodgers still waiting on key pieces as season nears

High-priced talent yet to take field together due to health issues, Classic duties

Dodgers still waiting on key pieces as season nears

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Zack Greinke is as iffy for the Dodgers' Opening Day roster as Carl Crawford, which is to say he is quite iffy, indeed. Hanley Ramirez has been absent for weeks, playing for a Dominican Republic club that keeps chugging along in the World Baseball Classic and, therefore, doing little to answer the questions about whether he can settle in at shortstop. Matt Kemp is still building up his at-bats after shoulder surgery. And nobody is really sure if a trade will be made from the stash of starters in the back end of the rotation.

All of which leads us to the obvious conclusion that, for a team with a $200 million-plus payroll, the Dodgers sure do have a lot of unsettled business at this late stage of the spring.

And while nobody doubts this team has the talent level to be the best in the National League West this season, it would certainly help matters if all that talent could, you know, be on the field at the same time.

Greinke's shaky status is the most pressing issue at hand here. That no structural damage was found in his $147 million arm was cause for hallelujahs at Camelback Ranch, but there's no telling how his inflamed elbow will respond to a platelet-rich plasma injection or if this setback is a precursor to more daunting damage later.

For now, Greinke has been playing catch the last couple of days and will throw a bullpen session Sunday. He could be able to get into a Cactus League game this coming week, but there might not be enough time to get him stretched out for the first week of the regular season.

"We'll see where it goes, see how he feels," manager Don Mattingly said. "We're not going to force anything."

Good thing, then, that the Dodgers have a stable of roster-worthy starters waiting in the wings. But let's not mistake the surplus of bodies for an overwhelming array of upside.

Beyond Clayton Kershaw, the questions outweigh the answers, especially given that Chad Billingsley is pitching on borrowed time with a UCL tear in his elbow, Josh Beckett has a lengthy injury history and has had a decrease in velocity over the years, Hyun-Jin Ryu is an unknown, Ted Lilly is coming off shoulder surgery, and Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano are both in their mid-30s.

"Right now," said Mattingly, "we're just trying to find out how to use them all."

Maybe they'll use Harang or Capuano as trade bait before all is said and done, but the returns aren't likely to be overwhelming. No, for the Dodgers to be the elite team they've doled out the dollars to be this season, they'll need a stable lineup and top-end rotation, and that's why the Greinke, Crawford, Ramirez and Kemp situations are monitored so closely.

Crawford, seven months removed from Tommy John elbow surgery, is now facing live pitching and could DH in a game as soon as Sunday, and Kemp is to the point where he's focused on finding his timing and not anxious about the state of his shoulder. These are positive developments for what could be an elite outfield, even if Crawford has to miss the first week or so of the season.

Ramirez, though, is a wild card at this point. He played in just 92 games in 2011 because of back and shoulder injuries and never got back into peak form in '12. Over the winter, he suffered a minor shoulder injury that prevented him from playing shortstop as much as the Dodgers would have liked. And though he committed himself to putting in the work on the back fields early in spring camp, he's been out of sight -- but not out of mind -- ever since he left for the Classic, where he's once again accommodating Jose Reyes and playing third base.

"We were really confident in the work he put in up to that point," Mattingly said. "We talked with Hanley as he left to tell him that he still has responsibilities to us as far as continuing to work, continuing to get his ground balls. From there, he's a man."

If the Dodgers eventually decide that Luis Cruz is not an everyday player and need to shift Ramirez back to the hot corner, there's no telling how such a move would go over. What we know, for now, is that Ramirez is missing valuable innings and valuable on-field interaction.

Such interactions are the soul of Spring Training, and they are especially vital for this Dodgers team that has been totally reinvented over the last year.

"You look at Adrian [Gonzalez] at first," Harang said. "He's got to come in and learn Kershaw's timing on pickoffs and the pitchers' ranges defensively. That's the little stuff that people don't think about. But when you come to Spring Training, all you do is work on that stuff, just to get a feel for one another."

People harped on clubhouse camaraderie when the Dodgers fizzled down the stretch after the mountain of midseason acquisitions ("We got so tired of hearing about that last year," second baseman Mark Ellis said), but the chemistry component is much more of a factor on the field.

"We had a better feel for each other that last week and a half or two weeks, but it was a week too late," Harang said. "If that trade had happened two weeks before, the postseason could have been totally different. That's why we find that Spring Training is so important in helping the team jell."

The guys taking the field right now are making the most of this opportunity to jell. Still, with a little more than two weeks remaining until Opening Day, there are several prominent situations unsettled.

It's not ideal. But hey, $200 million can't buy you everything.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.