The Los Angeles Dodgers went into the offseason feeling good about themselves, but is their strong finish a sign of what we should expect in 2012, or was it all just an illusion?
The Dodgers did see a lot of encouraging signs, especially with some younger players who went from prospects to proven big leaguers fairly quickly. But there are holes to fill on the roster this winter, and there may be more as certain players file for free agency. Here are five of the questions the team must answer:
What will their starting rotation look like next spring?
Starting pitching wasn't the problem this year, but it could be next year, especially if Hiroki Kuroda decides to bolt for Japan. Right now, the Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw and a bunch of question marks, two of the biggest being whether Chad Billingsley can finally take it to the next level and whether Ted Lilly can keep the ball in the ballpark and control the running game a little bitter.
But the even bigger question centers on the final two spots in the rotation (one spot if the club can somehow retain Kuroda). Barring a big free-agent signing or trade, it looks for now like those spots will fall to promising rookie Nathan Eovaldi and journeyman Dana Eveland.
When last we checked, Kuroda didn't seem close to making up his mind, but the Dodgers need him to give them a decision as soon as possible so they can plan.
Which Juan Uribe will show up?
Ned Colletti and Don Mattingly have made no secret they want Uribe to play third rather than second. The main thing for Uribe, though, is to stay healthy and in the lineup; he missed the final two months of the season, plus a couple of weeks earlier than that, with a hip/abdominal injury. The second thing is, he needs to produce in the way he did during his final year with the Giants, when his 24 homers and 85 RBIs helped the Giants to a division title that led to a world championship and made him seem worth the three-year, $21 million the Dodgers gave him.
Uribe hit .204 for the Dodgers this season, with four homers and 60 strikeouts in 270 at-bats. The front office has to assume he won't be any better than that as it makes moves for next season, but if Uribe does produce, it could make a huge difference.
Who will play second base next year?
The Dodgers could continue to go with a combo pack of Jamey Carroll, Aaron Miles and Justin Sellers, but there is no guarantee Carroll and Miles, both of whom are free agents, will even be back, and Sellers is hardly an everyday option. The team really needs an everyday presence there, and there isn't anyone in the organization right now who fits the bill.
This will likely have to be filled from outside. Don't be surprised if the Dodgers trade someone you don't necessarily expect (Billingsley or Andre Ethier, perhaps?) for a package of young players that might include a regular second baseman.
Who will be the owner and general manager next spring?
A bankruptcy judge could soon make a decision that would effectively force Frank McCourt to sell the club -- or, maybe not. Even if that does happen, it's doubtful a sale would go through in the four months before spring training. It might even complicate matters if the team is put on the block because Colletti's budget, which he already has been given, might change dramatically in midstream.
Colletti figures to be a strong candidate for the GM vacancy with the Chicago Cubs -- if McCourt gives the Cubs the green light to pursue him -- and if an ownership change does take place, Colletti could suddenly find himself on the hot seat, as sitting GMs often do when a team is sold.
This is why, even with $45 million to $50 million in payroll about to be freed up by departing players and McCourt's seeming readiness to add a little more, it could all be moot if the team is put on the market.
What will happen in left field?
One thing club officials must decide, fairly quickly, is whether they think Jerry Sands is ready to be an everyday major league player. If he isn't -- and the guess here is they ultimately will decide he needs at least another half-season of development -- it is imperative the Dodgers re-sign Juan Rivera. He is a power bat in the middle of the order, and Colletti doesn't get enough credit for the impact of an almost-unnoticed trade that brought Rivera here for a song at the All-Star break.
The protection Rivera provided behind Matt Kemp was a big reason why Kemp raised his batting average 20 points in the second half.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.