Dodgers must get creative to stabilize 'pen

Besides solid setup men, LA looking for back-end starter, shortstop

Dodgers must get creative to stabilize 'pen

LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers already have nearly $190 million committed in a 2015 payroll they would like to reduce from this year's $240 million.

They need to figure out who starts at shortstop, who can provide stability in the bullpen and who'll be the fifth starter. And there's no assurance the Minor League system can address any of those needs. So, the good news for the general manager is that the problem areas are limited. The bad news is that the solutions appear limited, too.

Manager Don Mattingly has received more criticism for postseason game management than credit for guiding a repeat division winner overflowing with complicated egos.

"Where we're at is where we're at," Mattingly said. "I'm prepared to win with the guys you have."

Mattingly also has said he recognizes that the abundance of well-paid, proven veterans also means the roster is aging and is in need of youthful athleticism. The 53-year-old is doing his part to promote a youth movement, as he's about to become a father again. The skipper said he's "really looking forward to it. My best year [as a player] was when we had a baby."

Mattingly is luckier than most managers in that the bulk of a stellar rotation will return, as will his closer and at least six of his starting position players.

But the challenges for 2015 are substantial. The Dodgers have never made the postseason in three consecutive seasons in franchise history. The Boys of Summer made the World Series four of five years from 1952-56.

Arbitration-eligible: INF Darwin Barney, OF Roger Bernadina, C Drew Butera, C A.J. Ellis, 2B Dee Gordon, RHP Kenley Jansen, INF Justin Turner.

Free agents: RHP Josh Beckett (retired), RHP Chad Billingsley, RHP Kevin Correia, RHP Roberto Hernandez, LHP Paul Maholm, RHP Chris Perez, SS Hanley Ramirez, RHP Jamey Wright.

Rotation: With Dan Haren officially exercising his $10 million contract option, the Dodgers will return 80 percent of a solid rotation, also including Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, all four having ended the season healthy. Beckett's retirement, the uncertainty of Billingsley's future after two elbow operations and nobody ready on the farm almost assuredly means the club will be looking for a free-agent journeyman or trade acquisition as a fifth starter, while hoping that somebody from the Minor Leagues rises up as a better alternative. But the club was disappointed in Zach Lee's regression and Julio Urias is only 18, so there isn't a logical candidate down there unless Matt Magill makes great strides in the Arizona Fall League.

Bullpen: The relief corps played a major role in the Dodgers' quick playoff exit, and while it obviously needs to be addressed, there isn't a lot of flexibility. Jansen is the reliable closer, but Brian Wilson, J.P. Howell and Brandon League all have guaranteed contracts. Howell was solid for five months, and maybe the use took a toll. League had a solid season, but nothing he does seems to be appreciated, because he has a closer contract. Wilson wasn't able to retain his role as a dominant setup man, and by the time the playoffs rolled around, his role was to pitch in games in which the team trailed. So, finding a setup man is imperative. Pedro Baez has the stuff, but showed he wasn't quite ready yet. A comeback by second lefty Paco Rodriguez would be welcome.

Catcher: In defense of Ellis, his .191 batting average didn't stop the Dodgers from winning the division by six games and his .538 average didn't carry the club past the first round of the playoffs. In other words, his primary role isn't offense, but to run the game for the pitchers, and he does it exactly the way the coaching staff wants. Kershaw has been outspoken in the need to keep him. That said, it figures the Dodgers could non-tender Ellis to rein in his salary. The club will probably want to bring someone to compete with him. Management has always wanted Tim Federowicz to win the job, but so far he hasn't done enough in his limited chances. Butera is a serviceable backup, but he's out of options.

First base: Nothing to do here. Adrian Gonzalez is the MLB RBI champ. He shows up every day, is the steadiest run producer in a lineup of stars, still possesses plenty of power and even if he isn't a Gold Glove on defense anymore, he's much more good than bad. Scott Van Slyke can handle the position and give the lineup an added right-handed bat when necessary.

Second base: A year ago, the Dodgers thought Cuban signing Alex Guerrero would be their starting second baseman and Gordon might make the club. Gordon turned into an All-Star by resurrecting his career at second base and as a leadoff catalyst. Whatever Gordon lacks in the subtle instincts normally associated at the position, he makes up for it with athleticism and hustle. The club believes he tired at the end of the season, but second base is the least of the Dodgers' concerns.

Shortstop: Management made a qualifying offer to Ramirez, and it better be ready for him to accept it and return for another unhappy season at shortstop. It's hard to let Ramirez's talented bat walk, but that's the more likely option, because the team doesn't believe he's a shortstop anymore. If he leaves, the Dodgers can deal or sign somebody else's starter, or devise a rotation out of Barney, Miguel Rojas and Erisbel Arruebarrena.

Third base: The Dodgers gave Juan Uribe another multiyear contract and crossed their fingers that they wouldn't regret it, and they haven't. Uribe came up with the highest batting average of his career, played his customary airtight defense and was healthy for most of the season. Now it's another walk year, and he should be motivated to keep it up. And Turner remains under control, so he returns as the primary bench player whose best position appeared to be the hot corner.

Outfield: Offensively and defensively, the club jelled when Matt Kemp was moved to right field, Yasiel Puig became the starting center fielder, Carl Crawford and Van Slyke platooned in left and Andre Ethier was sent to the bench. That makes Ethier the most logical trade piece, with Joc Pederson knocking on the door as a younger version. Long term, the Dodgers hope Pederson eventually emerges as the center fielder, because for all of Puig's highlight-film exploits, he doesn't focus out there and still misses the cutoff man. Puig also hasn't shown the ability to prevent slumps from extending for months, a common hole when young players are rushed through the Minor Leagues and don't learn how to overcome hard times.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.