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LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Opening Day at Dodger Stadium is less than a week away, and for the 2013 season, things will have a different look. Other than the aesthetic changes, which were part of a highly-profiled renovation of the ballpark, the line-up will, in part, have a new look. Emancipated from the suffocating desecration of the previous era, the Dodgers will be fielding some of the same players on the field, fueled with new energy, coming from one of the most important positions in the ballpark – the stands.
The projected lead-off hitter is outfielder, Carl Crawford. Granted, predicting that Crawford will be healthy enough by Opening Day is like predicting the cast of the next Star Wars movie. However, since Crawford started playing in Spring Training games last week, he’s batting .348 with a home run in 23 at-bats. As difficult as it may be to analyze a player’s potential with 23 at-bats, the focus of concern when it comes to Crawford seems to be his arm strength. Crawford underwent Tommy John surgery last August, and, to say it plainly, his arm strength is not yet up to par. That being said, in 2010, he hit .307 with 19 homers and 47 stolen bases, not to mention 60 steals in 2009. As far as a lead-off hitter, Crawford possesses the tools that give the Dodgers the ability to produce runs like they did with Dee Gordon in the first month and a half of 2012. In the occasion that Crawford is not healthy, or needs more time getting in the right shape, Skip Schumaker will stand in.
Batting second behind Crawford will be second baseman, Mark Ellis. Ellis played his first season as a Dodger last year, and contributed greatly both at the plate and with the glove, until an injury in May nearly cost the 11-year veteran his leg. Ellis returned to the lineup, and finished the season with a .258 average. He won’t put up the kind of offensive numbers that some other names in the lineup will, but he has a talent for hitting in the clutch, and can move Crawford into scoring position for the bigger bats. Ellis’ real strength is his defense. In 2012, he only committed three errors and earned a .994 fielding percentage.
Batting third will be a man on a mission. Matt Kemp started the 2012 season as the greatest player in baseball. For a month and a half, the man couldn’t be stopped. Every blue heart skipped a beat towards the end of the season when Kemp ran himself into the center field wall at Coors Field in Denver, and, as was the ultimate theme of his season, he was in and out of the lineup. Kemp played in 106 games in 2012, his lowest since 2007, but he finished with a .303 batting average, 23 home runs, 69 runs batted in, and a slugging percentage of .538. The biggest statistical dip for Kemp was his speed. He went from 40 steals in 2011 to just nine in 2012. In addition to that, he was caught stealing 4 times. Kemp underwent shoulder surgery during the off-season, and has reportedly been working like a tireless mule to get back to where he needs to be. He did steal 3 bases in Spring Training, which is a good sign, considering few believed he would be allowed to attempt any at all. However, Kemp shed some weight during the off-season, and will be looking to re-establish himself as the 5-tool player that outplayed 2011 National League MVP, Ryan Braun. Kemp has a reputation for setting high goals, and if his work ethic in Arizona is any indication, he is on his way to showing us all what Beastmode really looks like. And with extra protection in the lineup, there is no reason Dodger fans shouldn’t expect a Byson Blast on any given night.
The projected clean-up hitter will be first baseman, Adrian Gonzalez. A native of Southern California, Gonzalez is an immense upgrade over last season’s Opening Day starter, James Loney. Coming over in August’s blockbuster trade with the Boston Red Sox, he reportedly feels more comfortable playing in Dodger stadium than he did at Fenway Park. Dodger fans got a glimpse at the potential impact player Gonzalez can be in his very first at bat as a Dodger. Gonzalez launched a line drive home run into right, and almost instantaneously, the Dodgers became the favorites to win the National League West. This, if painful memory serves correctly, did not happen, and Gonzalez only hit 2 more home runs in 145 total at bats. Gonzalez will be looking to establish himself as a reliable hitter than can move runners, as well as hit one out of the park now and again. With his power, there is no reason Gonzalez shouldn’t hit 25 home runs and have 90 RBI. A three-time Golden Glove winner, Gonzalez earned a .997 fielding percentage in Los Angeles, as compared to the .905% he had in Boston at the beginning of the season.
Batting behind Gonzalez will be Andre Ethier. After winning the hearts of Dodger fans for his clutch batting and walk-off heroics in 2009, Ethier saw a drop-off in power in 2011, with just 11 homers and 62 RBI. He rebounded in 2012, with a solid 20 home runs and 89 RBI. Ethier struggled with injuries last year, straining his oblique and fighting off pitches with blisters. Ethier left Tuesday night’s exhibition game against the Rockies with hamstring tightness after an awkward slide into third with his third triple of Spring Training. Ethier looks to be returning to form, batting .348 in Spring Training, even though his OPS against lefties was just .606 against lefties in 2012 as opposed to his .945 against right-handers. After overcoming endless numbers of off-season trade rumors, plenty of teams still recognize Ethier’s raw power and keen eye at the plate. With the amount of weapons in the Dodgers lineup this season, Ethier has the potential to hit 25 homers and 90 RBI, and can re-establish himself as the hero of 2009.
Batting sixth will be the starting shortstop, at least through mid-May, Luis Cruz. After Hanley Ramirez’s injury during the World Baseball Classic, it was announced that Luis Cruz would move from third base to short stop to soften the blow. Cruz made a name for himself last season, and quickly became a fan favorite, with his incredible work ethic and his surprising skill at the plate. Jersey-shirts even came out last season that said, “Cruuuuuuuuz” on the back; a nod to the crowd’s vocal salute to the 24-year old infielder, which many Dodger fans confused for the Boos often heard at the stadium at any given point in the prior two seasons. Cruz batted to the tune of a .297 average with 6 homers and 40 RBI in 78 games for the Dodgers in 2012. In Cactus League, he cracked 4 homers in just 50 at-bats. Many would argue that Cruz is more natural at third base than at the shortstop position. However, he had 2 errors at both positions last year, and had a .981 fielding position at shortstop, compared to a similar .984 at third. Either way, if Cruz can continue his impressive plate appearances and stay consistent in the infield, so too will he make Dodger Stadium louder than it has been in years.
Batting seventh will be catcher, A.J. Ellis. Ellis took over after the departure of Russell Martin, and proved to be a worthwhile contributor at the plate. He batted .270 with 13 homers and 52 RBI in 2012 and walked 65 times, with his strikeout to walk ratio being slightly less than 2-to-1. Ellis also calls a good game from behind the plate, throwing out 33% of would-be base stealers while earning a .996 fielding percentage. Ellis worked primarily during the off-season with adjusting him crouch behind the plate. Playing the most physically taxing position on the field, the catcher is well known to accumulate leg issues. Ellis spent days during Winter watching tape and learning to keep his feet more directly under his knees while crouching, alleviating some of that pressure and allowing him to play in more games.
Eighth in the lineup will be the predicted platoon at third base of Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto, and Juan Uribe, until Hanley Ramirez returns sometime in late May or early June. In 304 plate appearances last season, Skip Schumaker batted .276 with an OPS of .707 for St. Louis. Schumaker is not an offensive powerhouse, never having more than 8 homers or 46 RBI in a season. In addition, he has never played third base. Nick Punto is a similar player to Schumaker, and can play all over the infield. He played all of five games at third base for the Dodgers last season, but he has not committed more than one error at the position since 2006. Juan Uribe is Juan Uribe. Those who haven’t faced it yet, let’s go ahead and do that now, together. Uribe has not been the player the Dodgers expected him to be. After signing a three-year, $21 million deal with Los Angeles, Uribe introduced himself to Dodger fans with a .204 average, four home runs, and 28 RBI. With a swing that is rumored to register on the California Richter Scale, Uribe struck out 60 times with just 17 walks. Then, when things couldn’t look worse for the former San Francisco postseason standout, he batted .191 in 66 games in 2012. That being said, Uribe, who is in the final season of his contract, has hit .348 in Spring Training with an OPS of .814 in 46 plate appearances. Now, while nobody can consistently compare Spring Training statistics to regular season reality, Uribe may look to regain his name before hitting free agency after the season. Again, the essence of consistency will hopefully return with a health Hanley Ramirez.
Ultimately, with a number of familiar faces, the Dodgers have added names to do more than merely plug up the holes. They have given weapons to their warriors, and almost everywhere you look in the lineup, with a small number of exceptions, there is a potential game changer stepping up to the plate. With the resurgence of incredible energy at Dodger Stadium, and time together as a team going into a fresh season, free of the plaguing despondency and mismanagement of years past, Dodger Stadium may be the hottest ticket in L.A.