Dodgers head to winter meetings with questions to answer

LOS ANGELES -- As the Los Angeles Dodgers' front office army heads to the nation’s capital for the winter meetings, it treks across the country knowing that a closer and better health is needed for the 2017 season. And perhaps another starting pitcher too.

Yet what might actually be a bigger influence in their search for a revamped roster is a way to overcome their issues against left-handed pitching in general, and left-handed starting pitching in particular.

There is also the issue of the new collective bargaining agreement, which makes the club’s baseball-leading payroll a potential millstone around its neck. The Dodgers’ Opening Day payroll in 2016 was in the area of $250 million, a spot that would trigger an even bigger luxury tax than they had under the old CBA.

So the Dodgers appear to be intent on getting that number closer to $235 million for 2017, where the tax would be far less penalizing, and then ultimately moving it closer to $200 million in ensuing seasons.

So what kind of wiggle room does that leave them to fashion a better right-handed hitting club for 2017? Plenty, actually, since their current roster commitments for 2017 are around $150 million (not including the pending deal for free agent Rich Hill), with a touch more added once all of their arbitration cases are settled and contracts to players under control are finalized.

Outfielder Scott Van Slyke and pitcher Chris Hatcher have already agreed to one-year deals, avoiding arbitration. Players such as catcher Yasmani Grandal, infielder/outfielder Darin Ruf and pitchers Luis Avilan, Alex Wood, Josh Fields and Vidal Nuno were tendered contracts that have yet to be negotiated.

So while the Dodgers probably will not be baseball’s biggest spender this winter, they won’t be penny-pinchers either, giving them options when it comes to fixing their issues against left-handed pitchers.

Where might the Dodgers look to improve an MLB-worst.213 batting average and .622 OPS against lefties?

1. Shop for a second baseman

Free agent Chase Utley isn’t expected to return, and Howie Kendrick was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Internal options for the job include Enrique Hernandez and possibly a platoon between Micah Johnson and catcher/infielder Austin Barnes. Top prospect Willie Calhoun is not quite ready for this particular assignment.

None of the above options would seem to address the Dodgers’ major weakness from last season, which explains why they have been linked to trade options such as the Tigers’ Ian Kinsler and the Twins’ Brian Dozier. Indications are that the Dodgers are not comfortable with the price for either. Expect this area to be a hot topic at the winter meetings.

2. Is re-signing Justin Turner the answer?

Turner was that rare extremely productive right-handed hitter in the Dodgers’ lineup, although he actually had reverse splits, meaning that he hit right-handers better than left-handers. It might be argued that Turner is part of the Dodgers’ problem against lefties and not the solution. So is it best to just move on and go elsewhere at third base?

To be blunt: no way. Turner has just locked into his new high-level productivity, and more of the same figures to be coming. He has also developed into an impressive defender. On top of that, Turner has all of the attributes of an impact leader. High-level third basemen are a cherished commodity around baseball, and the Dodgers would regret letting Turner get away.

3. Could Yasiel Puig actually stay?

The Dodgers tried but could not move Puig at the trade deadline this past summer. Reports this winter have indicated that the club still would be open to moving the multi-tool outfielder. Manager Dave Roberts admitted last year that a high-maintenance Puig took more of his time than any single player. In that light, why would Puig be worth keeping? Well, last season he actually did what not many Dodgers hitters could do: get to left-handed pitching. Puig led the Dodgers with a .471 slugging percentage against lefties last season. He still could be traded this winter, but there is still some gray area when it comes to Puig's situation.

4. Option in left field

Another area where the Dodgers could address their issue against lefties is by exploring the market for a left fielder. While second base and third base have received the most attention, there is something of a left field vacancy now. Kendrick saw the most action there last year, followed by Hernandez.

One option could be to line up Trayce Thompson for the job. He was one of the rare producers on offense in the early season and has been used against left-handed pitching in his early major league career. Andre Ethier also will need an outfield spot in 2017. But as the front office looks to improve the roster, left field will be an option.

5. Are Roberts’ platoons the answer?

Under Roberts, the Dodgers are not afraid of shared time all around the field. Last year they explored it at second base and at all three outfield positions and looked to be open to doing it at catcher, until Yasmani Grandal's production skyrocketed.

The Dodgers already acquired first baseman/outfielder Darin Ruf from the Phillies in the Kendrick trade, and he looks to be a possible platoon candidate in left. If the price for a proven second baseman proves to be too high, the Dodgers might be open to acquiring a platoon-type player they can mix and match on the infield. Just don’t try to get Roberts to admit that it is a true platoon.