by Kevin Zeni
Yes, yes, I know we haven't even hit the 2012 All-Star break yet, but as all of you who follow sports media nowadays know, it's never too early to examine who will likely be available on the free agent market next offseason. With Andre Ethier re-upping with the Dodgers this past week, I figured it all the more fitting to examine who else the Blue Crew may be able to bring into the fold in Stan Kasten's first offseason as the Dodgers' president.
Let's start with the team's most pressing need; first base. While it's still possible that incumbent James Loney will once again have a second-half surge that saves his job, some of the other names the Dodgers may explore include Kevin Youkilis (who could also fill a void at third), Adam La Roche, Carlos Lee, Carlos Pena, and Mike Napoli. Youkilis is the most likely to become available, and may even join Los Angeles by the trade deadline if Ned Colletti can complete an agreeable deal with the Red Sox. La Roche is another interesting name out there. His average, like Pena's, leaves something to be desired, but you can count on him for above-average defense at first and around 20 homers and 80 RBIs. Napoli will likely stick with the Rangers and want to catch, while Lee and Pena fit better in the American League, where they can also serve as the DH.
The Dodgers' next biggest hole is at third base, where Youkilis, David Wright, and Scott Rolen will be available. Most experts expect Wright to sign a long-term extension with the Mets, which would take his name off the table. Youkilis, as mentioned before, makes the most sense, but another interesting scenario to consider would be a platoon involving Youkilis and Juan Rivera at first, with Rolen and Youkilis sharing time at third. All players are older, yet still productive and could benefit from a time share at the corners. Rolen would also come fairly cheap, considering he's a 38-year-old with a history of injuries.
Now onto left field, a position the Dodgers have struggled to fill over the last decade or so (excluding the limited time Manny manned that spot). While every team in baseball will be salivating over Josh Hamilton, I expect the Rangers to make sure a deal gets done before season's end to keep him there for the rest of his career. That would leave such players as Cody Ross, Ichiro Suzuki, Michael Bourn, Carlos Quentin, Torii Hunter, Shane Victorino, B.J. Upton, Melky Cabrera, Delmon Young, and Carlos Lee. Bourn and Upton will want to remain center fielders and likely won't acknowledge any offers without that assurance. Both Victorino and Ross came up through the Dodgers' minor league system and wouldn't cost a ton to bring into the fold. Quentin is the most tantalizing bat not named Hamilton, but is a defensive liability on the field, as is Lee. Suzuki and Hunter are older guys that the Dodgers likely won't give a sniff and Cabrera and Young will probably price themselves out of the range Colletti and Kasten would be willing to spend on them.
The biggest prize of free agency will be Cole Hamels, who many have linked to the Dodgers if the Phillies don't complete an extension with him by the end of the year. Hamels is a San Diego native, and with the Padres unwilling and unable to spend money, the next closest team with pitching needs would be LA. Another guy, who will likely not have his $22 million option picked up and has San Diego roots, is Jake Peavy. While, he's not the same pitcher that won the Cy Young in 2007, he's still a top of the rotation guy that would fit nicely into a rotation with Hamels, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Chris Capuano/Ted Lilly. It's also possible that Nate Eovaldi and 2011 pitching sensation Rubby De La Rosa, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, could etch out a spot in the rotation with strong play the rest of this season. Meanwhile, some of the other names that will be out there and worth a look include former Dodgers Derek Lowe and Edwin Jackson, Jake Westbrook, Joe Saunders, and my personal-favorite slow-ball pitcher, Livan Hernandez.
Finally, some bullpen and bench guys that may be given a look to help round out the team could include Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon, Cesar Izturis, Omar Vizquel, Jack Wilson, Marco Scutaro, Matt Treanor, Yorvit Torrealba, David Ross, Henry Blanco, Kelly Shoppach, Brian Schneider, Miguel Olivo, Jose Molina, Gerald Laird, Joakim Soria, J.J. Putz, Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Adams, Grant Balfour, Juan Cruz, Bobby Jenks, and Brad Lidge.
Regardless of what ultimately gets done this summer at the trade deadline and next winter, the Dodgers have a solid base in place to build around and should remain in the upper echelon of teams for years to come.