Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 14 years. He answers questions weekly here:
Q. The free-agent pool of pitchers promises to be huge this winter, and the Dodgers have a good 1-2 in Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley, followed by three aging veterans who have contracts for 2013. How far will the new owners go to improve their starting pitchers?
- Alex Gonzales, Serra Mesa, Calif.
A. The Dodgers' payroll of $105 million actually is down from 2011, when it peaked at just under $120 million. So there is room for it to grow. I wouldn't be shocked to see their payroll climb to the $130-140-million range within two years.
Matt Kemp's salary will double to $20 million next season, and remain in the $21 million range through 2019, so a good portion of any potential payroll increase will be going to him - and rightfully so.
Matt Cain recently signed a huge deal with the Giants, so he's not going anywhere.
And with a rash of long-term contracts being agreed to lately, it's too early to be speculating about potential destination points for players who still could re-sign with their current teams and never hit the free-agent market.
That said, Cole Hamels and the Phillies have had discussions about an extension, and although things are quiet on that front, the club will make its best pitch to keep Hamels out of free agency.
That could leave Zach Greinke as potentially the top available starting pitcher on the market come November, followed by less attractive Colby Lewis, Anibal Sanchez and Shawn Marcum.
As you mention, Ted Lilly is locked in at $12 million in 2013, when he actually will make more than Kershaw and Billingsley ($11 million each). Aaron Harang ($7 million in 2013) and Chris Capuano ($6 million in 2013) can't be considered locks to retain their rotation spots next season, and either or both could pitch out of the bullpen or be traded, so if the Dodgers want to make a rotation upgrade, that's a viable option for them.
As far as their position players go, Andre Ethier ($10.95 million in 2012) needs to be re-signed to be kept out of free agency, and his fast start could propel that process. James Loney, on the other hand, if off to a terrible start, and looks at this point to be a non-tender candidate unless he turns things around. Needs also exist at catcher, second base, third base and left field.
Many of the best potential free agents this winter are either catchers or outfielders: Mike Napoli, Miguel Montero, Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, Torii Hunter and Ichiro Suzuki, although the latter two obviously in the latter stages of their careers.
Q. It happens every year - a couple of bad teams start hot, a couple of good teams start badly, and elation and panic show up where they don't belong. What is a good stretch of games played before any team can be accurately assessed?
- Fred Tooze, Allied Gardens, Calif.
A. The adage used to be that it takes until Memorial Day - or the one-third point of the season - to know what you have. I agree, and I'll give a recent example of why - last year's Arizona Diamondbacks.
As late as May 13, they were 15-22 and appeared set for another long season as they adjusted to manager Kirk Gibson's ways and tried to settle playing time among positions players as well as bullpen roles.
But, suddenly, positive developments fell into place - led by J.J. Putz and David Hernandez emerging as a shutdown 8th-9th inning tandem - and the D-backs went on a 15-3 run to finish the month 30-25.
You know the rest: An unexpected 31-game improvement from a last-place finish in 2010, and a NL West title before losing to Milwaukee in extra innings of Game 5 of the NLDS.
The D-backs had the luxury of being patient, since nobody outside of their organization expected them to contend. But teams that are supposed to contend sometimes are forced to make roster tweaks by late April or early May if things aren't going well.
But organizations don't panic. Fans do.
Q. I see Pudge Rodriguez as a great fit for Philly, to help rest Carlos Ruiz, who tends to tire as the season progresses. Is Rodriguez looking for too much money?
- Brian Humble, Millsboro, Del.
Perhaps Rodriguez wants one more chance at a World Series, and in that case, the Phillies would make some sense for him - if they have any interest.
But I think they're satisfied with Brian Schneider, who doesn't hit much anymore but works well with Phillies pitchers, particularly Vance Worley. Schneider also is a left-handed hitter, which works well as the backup to right-handed-hitting Ruiz.
For Rodriguez, what it's probably going to take is for a contender to suffer a catching injury severe enough that it would need him. But at age 40, he has slipped considerably from his Hall of Fame-level peak.
He might be best-served to just walk away - although he wants a shot at getting the 156 hits he needs to reach 3,000.