While most of the country has added the term "polar vortex" to its vocabulary and now wonders if spring will ever arrive, it has been a short winter in Los Angeles.
"We had a long season and a short offseason," Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said. "We played three weeks longer than almost everybody else and we'll be starting a week sooner than everybody else."
Just 16 weeks after their loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the NLCS and just 41 days before they will play the first game of the 2014 regular season in Australia against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Dodgers pitchers and catchers will report for spring training Saturday at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz. Position players will report Thursday, with the first full-squad workout scheduled for Friday.
"It felt like a quick winter," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said in agreement.
The early start will be most challenging for pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw. The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner pitched a career-high 236 innings last season with another 23 high-stress innings in four postseason starts. Kershaw is likely to start the first game in Australia on March 22 and the first stateside game March 30 in San Diego -- and would then be lined up to start the Dodgers' home opener April 4. It's a heavy workload while most of his big league peers are putting the finishing touches on their spring tans.
But Kershaw said he has no worries about the demanding turnaround. He took his usual six weeks off after the season and started his throwing program in December as always. He has already thrown off a mound and plans to have thrown a few bullpen sessions before reporting to Arizona this weekend.
"I don't feel any different and I don't expect there to be any problems with that," Kershaw said of the short winter. "Obviously, it's not the most ideal of scheduling. But you just try to make the best of it and enjoy it."
A year ago, Hyun-Jin Ryu made a poor first impression on the first day of camp, struggling to finish the conditioning run required of all pitchers. This year, Ryu traveled from Korea to California a few weeks early and began workouts at Dodger Stadium before heading to Arizona early. He was noticeably more fit during an appearance at FanFest last weekend.
"The timing of everything this year is a little different," Ryu said through his interpreter, referring to his own signing in December 2012 as well as the Dodgers' schedule this year. "Last year, I delayed my workouts because of the contract situation. I realize last year in spring training I was underprepared. I felt I needed more time to prepare this year so I've started my workouts earlier."
The need to prepare sooner was something that "we've discussed and will continue to discuss" both internally and with players, Colletti said. Mattingly said there will be "a thought process" throughout the spring, taking into account the altered schedule and how it might affect the pitching staff in particular.
But Mattingly might be even more concerned about how the Dodgers handle the six days between their two-game series in Australia and their stateside opener against the Padres.
"You're gearing your body to start -- then waiting another eight days (counting the days in Australia)," Mattingly said. "That kind of concerns me. Once you turn the switch on and guys know the stats count and the games count, it's hard to shut it back down again and then turn it back on a week later. I just worry about bad habits in that time."
Mattingly has reason to be concerned. Of the eight teams that have opened the season with multiple games played internationally -- the Padres and Colorado Rockies in 1999 (Mexico), the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs in 2000, the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays in 2004 and the Seattle Mariners and Oakland A's in 2012 (all in Japan) -- all but the 2000 Mets had losing records in at least their first 15 games (and usually longer) after returning to the United States. Three of the eight did rebound to make the playoffs, including the 2004 Yankees with Mattingly as hitting coach.
The shortened spring will give Mattingly and his staff less time to work out the answers to some pressing questions about the health status of players such as Matt Kemp and Josh Beckett -- and the mystery that is Alex Guerrero.
The Dodgers and Kemp have already made it obvious they don't expect him to be recovered from offseason shoulder and ankle surgeries in time to play in Australia. It remains to be seen how soon Kemp will be in the Dodgers' lineup.
The Dodgers have no reason to rush Beckett. The schedule offers five off days in the first 16 days after the game in San Diego. The Dodgers could use a fourth starter just once in the first two weeks after returning from Australia and won't be forced to make a decision on a fifth starter until April 19 -- almost a month after the opener in Sydney.
A decision on a second baseman will have to come much sooner. The Dodgers hope it will be Guerrero, signed for $28 million over four years after his defection from Cuba last year. They have hedged their bets, though, by signing a handful of potential fallback options in Justin Turner, Brendan Harris and Chone Figgins to go with Dee Gordon (who played second base in winter ball) and Miguel Rojas.
Sorting through those options might be the biggest question of the early spring for Mattingly.
"This guy is a good athlete. He's played in the middle of the diamond. We'll see," Mattingly said of Guerrero, primarily a shortstop in Cuba. "Our outfield is not (a big question). Our catching is not. Our pitching is not. At this point, that (second base) is probably our biggest question mark."
BY BILL PLUNKETT
The Dodgers will try to answer these before boarding a plane March 16 to open their season in Australia:
1. 2B or not 2B?
The Dodgers signed Alex Guerrero to be their primary second baseman. But the Cuban defector remains a bit of a mystery. Justin Turner, Chone Figgins, Dee Gordon, Brendan Harris and Miguel Rojas will jockey for position as possible alternatives.
2. Is Matt Kemp still a beast?
He says he is. But Kemp has a lot to prove after undergoing shoulder and ankle surgeries last fall. The former MVP runner-up is the most important piece of the 3-by-4 outfield puzzle.
3. Who takes the fifth?
The Dodgers don't have to figure out the back of their starting rotation until April. But they will be looking for signs that Josh Beckett is ready, Chad Billingsley is on the way to recovery and young guns Zach Lee, Ross Stripling and Chris Reed will be options at some point in 2014.
4. Can the Wild Horse be harnessed?
Yasiel Puig, right, was a revelation last spring, his unbridled enthusiasm and raw talent catching everyone's eye. The challenge this spring for Manager Don Mattingly and his staff is to teach Puig the finer points of the game and begin to refine that talent.
5. How will the bench be rebuilt?
Last year's veteran presence -- second baseman Mark Ellis and veteran reserves Nick Punto, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Skip Schumaker -- is gone. Rebuilding chemistry and the bench must start now.
DODGERS SPRING DATES
Saturday -- Pitchers and catchers report
Sunday -- First workout
Thursday -- Position players report
Friday -- First full-squad workout
Feb. 26 -- First exhibition vs. Arizona Diamondbacks
March 6 -- vs. Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium
March 16 -- Dodgers leave for Australia after game vs. Colorado Rockies
March 22 -- Regular-season opener vs. Diamondbacks in Sydney (7 p.m. in Sydney, 1 a.m. PT)
March 23 -- Second game vs. Diamondbacks in Sydney (1 p.m. in Sydney, 7 p.m. March 22 PT)
March 27 -- vs. Angels at Dodger Stadium, 7 p.m.
March 28 -- vs. Angels at Dodger Stadium, 7 p.m.
March 29 -- vs. Angels at Angel Stadium, 6 p.m.
March 30 -- Stateside opener at San Diego Padres, 5 p.m.
April 4 -- Home opener vs. San Francisco Giants
Because Sydney time is 19 hours ahead of Pacific time, the games actually will be played on the same day in California -- 1 a.m. and 7 p.m. PT on March 22.
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