A week spent at Camelback Ranch with the Dodgers left me with some lingering thoughts:
1. Their bodies are ready. In the old days, spring training was where players worked off their winter bellies. Now they show up in the best shape of the year, having worked the previous weeks or months with personal trainers and state-of-the-art methods.
Believe it or not, many players put on weight over the course of the season, as the late-night meals and restaurant visits overwhelm the exercise they get playing and working out.
The Dodgers have a lot of big, athletic bodies moving around their clubhouse this spring. Cuban defector Yasiel Puig might be the most physically impressive athlete. He's 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, with the arms and shoulders of an NFL linebacker. Matt Kemp looks lean and ready, probably 10 pounds lighter than he was in September. Hanley Ramirez looks sleek. Clayton Kershaw looks a bit leaner in the face and upper body. Mark Ellis and Jerry Hairston Jr. stay in prime shape.
2. Competition is good, to a point. A lot of players in that room are working hard for talent evaluators, perfectly aware that the ones they have to impress may not work for the Dodgers. Dee Gordon is staying hungry; he has been a dynamic force in the Dodgers' last two games. Pitcher Stephen Fife, aware he figures to start at Triple-A, has pitched well nonetheless.
Veterans like Alfredo Amezaga, Kevin Gregg and Dallas McPherson are trying to draw the eyes of other teams' scouts, aware that the Dodgers have little roster room. McPherson hit an impressive home run against a lefty in a minor league game Thursday while Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and general manager Ned Colletti were watching. Those little things can prove meaningful.
3. It's too early to count on Carl Crawford. At this point, it's probably wise to rule out Opening Day, much as he wants to be in there. The last time he started throwing, he experienced irritation in a nerve near his surgically repaired left elbow.
Even if Crawford is playing by next weekend, he will likely start at designated hitter and would have only two weeks to be ready. It's probably not going to happen. It might be better to start his season on a minor league rehabilitation assignment, make sure he feels totally sound, then activate him by mid-April.
There is a real possibility that Crawford's arm will never be the same and the Dodgers have to be prepared for the fact that he could be a different player than he was in 2009. He admits he typically has some flare-ups of pain from his surgically repaired left wrist and, combined with the elbow issue, he's at risk of being a $100 million worry for months, if not years.
4. Who is Ryu? ESPN's Keith Law put a radar gun on Hyun-Jin Ryu in his last start and found that he never broke 90 mph with his fastball. His changeup was good, but his other pitches weren't particularly crisp. One scout said he thinks Ryu's lack of knowledge of the hitters and questionable conditioning will force him to nibble around the strike zone, leading to walks.
The Dodgers have had some doubts about Ryu's preparations, particularly his preference not to throw bullpen sessions between starts. They're still gathering information on him and, while he figures to start the season in their rotation, nobody really knows what they're going to get from the Korean pitcher who cost them more than $60 million.
My guess is he'll be a decent No. 5 starter type, not unlike Joe Blanton, just left-handed.
5. Beckett looks good. Moving to the National League could improve Josh Beckett drastically. He has worked hard this spring improving his changeup and results have been outstanding. His was a contract the Dodgers had to take on in August to acquire Adrian Gonzalez, but if he proves to be a solid No. 3 starter, he'll be an important acquisition in his own right.
He's also an example to the younger pitchers in the Dodgers' rotation of how to adjust as they age or deal with physical changes that affect their stuff. Pitchers who last into their late 30s reinvent themselves at Beckett's age, and it appears he may be doing just that.
6. The clubhouse is fine. Personality conflicts arise in every clubhouse in the majors, but concerns about team chemistry are probably overstated with this group. There was a light, breezy feel in the clubhouse, with players of various pay grades and nationalities mingling around the pingpong table and sharing laughs in morning meetings. As usual, minor league players generally kept to their side of the room and the veterans to theirs.
No one I talked to thinks chemistry will be an issue. Between Kemp, Ellis, Hairston, Kershaw and Gonzalez, the Dodgers should have all the leadership they need.