This is just too easy. Can of corn. It’s like, some of this stuff, I can just pluck right out of last year’s column.

Here are some of the things that are almost certain to happen in the year 2013. Probably.

Major League Baseball standings will be listed alphabetically through April 1 at the latest.

American League Cy Young Award goes to David Price.

With the lifetime home run record now clearly out of reach, Alex Rodriguez gets two steps closer to retirement. A-Rod’s numbers: .260, 10 homers, 35 RBIs, in not an inning more than 50 games played.

As usual, the World Series will be a better, truer, more spontaneous event  than the Super Bowl, with actual crowd shots of real fans, but the commercials won’t be nearly as good.

The debate over whether Joba Chamberlain should be a starter or reliever is forgotten, and replaced with a debate over whether Aroldis Chapman should be a starter or reliever.

Derek Jeter will appear on “Saturday Night Live” with Donald Trump (or  Darrell Hammond).

The New York Yankees miss the postseason, at least one Steinbrenner goes berserk, with Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman exiting by mid-October.

Larry Lucchino will become part owner of a team working on a new stadium deal.

The Toronto Blue Jays improve by leaps and bounds, but with Jose Reyes injured at least once, settle for second place.

The American League East will finish this way: Rays, Blue Jays (Wild Card), Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees.

Detroit’s Tigers are baseball’s first team to clinch.

As the AL’s third or fourth best starting pitcher at the time, Justin Verlander doesn’t start the All-Star Game, and his team benefits, regaining home field advantage in the World Series.

AL team pegged most likely to improve greatly that doesn’t – Kansas City Royals.

A Gold Glove Award winner will lead his position in errors.

Several prominent major leaguers will miss action, delayed by visa problems.

AL Central: Tigers, White Sox, Indians, Royals, Twins.

Non-teammates Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are mentioned in the same breath more times than Henry Aaron and Willie Mays. Baseball savvy fans are reminded of Ben Grieve and Alvin Davis.

“Five-tool player” regains its rightful position as the most overused phrase in baseball, leaving “we all have to be on the same page” in the dust. “Flu-like symptoms,” “strained oblique,”  “anything can happen in a short series,” “back in the day,” ”intestinal fortitude,” “chain of custody,” “there’s no crying in  baseball” and “it’s only May” round out the top ten.

Countless players, play-by-play guys and color commentators will refer to a just completed contest using the word “tonight,” even though it was a day game.

Sinkerballer Derek Lowe leads baseball in comebackers not fielded.

Top-five MVP finisher Adrian Beltre, plus another Gold Glove.

Motivated in its first season as an AL club, Houston’s Astros surprise with a 68-94 record.

Astros are no-hit at least once before the All-Star break.

The Angels look outside the organization for an outfielder as Trout returns to center by June 1.

Angels fans concern about years seven, eight and nine of Albert Pujols’ contract is replaced with worries about years four, five and six.

AL MVP: Trout.

AL West: Angels, Athletics, Rangers, Mariners, Astros.

Debate over Mike Rizzo’s 2012 innings limit for Stephen Strasburg continues, with neither supporters nor detractors being placated. Strasburg just goes out and pitches his way to a top three Cy Young finish.

Atlanta’s Braves get what they bargained for with Justin Upton, and then some. With brother B.J., not so much.

The Philadelphia Phillies are as old and broken down as the preseason consensus, but still manage to contend before finishing third, with 85 wins.

Baseball’s first manager to be fired will be Terry Collins. Additional managers cut loose include Ron Gardenhire, Girardi, Clint Hurdle, Charlie Manuel, Eric Wedge and whoever follows Collins.

NL East: Nationals, Braves, Phillies, Mets, Marlins.

A prominent player will test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. He’ll  deny deny deny, come up with the most fantastic excuse known to man, and lose the obligatory appeal. America will celebrate.

These players will miss significant chunks of playing time due to injury:  Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Josh Hamilton, Rich Harden, Roy Halladay, Josh Johnson, Reyes, Pablo Sandoval, Huston Street, Troy Tulowitzski, Chase Utley, Jayson Werth and David Wright.

These men will play through an array of injuries and ailments to appear in 155-plus games. Billy Butler, Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Starlin Castro, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Andrew McCutchen, Hunter Pence, Alexei Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki, Dan Uggla and Ben Zobrist.

NL Central: Cardinals, Reds (Wild Card), Pirates, Brewers, Cubs.

NL team predicted most likely to contend that doesn’t – Arizona Diamondbacks.

Whenever and wherever Arizona sweeps a series, a newspaper in the losing team’s city will run the following headline: “Fill-in-the-blank Snake-bit by Diamondbacks.”

Buster Posey proves to be as close to contract-worthy as is humanly possible, and is a top five finisher in the NL MVP race. .315/.390, 25 and 100.

A ballpark in China Basin will be renamed for a telecommunications company.

Brian Wilson will spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to look clever…and fail.

Asdrubal Cabrera to Los Angeles.

To their detriment, critics will harp on Zack Greinke’s years-old anxiety disorder issues, but he will be just fine. Better than fine. 16-10, with a 3.25 ERA and 200 Ks in 200 innings.

Chad Billingsley succumbs to the inevitable and undergoes Tommy John surgery.

Benefitting from those extra three days off he’s afforded, A.J. Ellis proves to be anything but a flash in the pan. His numbers: .275/.395, 15 and 65.

Carl Crawford earns Comeback Player of the Year consideration with his 285/.350, 100 runs, 60 RBIs and 40 steals. L.A’s best leadoff man since Brett Butler.

Ending speculation about his being platooned for the time being, Andre Ethier hits .260 against left-handers, and .300 overall.

Millions hold their breath every time Matt Kemp chases a teammate after a game-winning hit.

NL MVP: Adrian Gonzalez.

Clayton Kershaw’s earned run average balloons to 2.65 as he wins his second Cy Young Award in three seasons. Leads NL pitchers in sacrifices; wins a Gold Glove too. Kershaw’s greatest mark is made in the postseason, however, as all comparisons to Sandy Koufax are deemed not just on the table, but welcome, fair and very much appropriate.

NL West: Dodgers, Giants, Dbacks, Padres, Rockies.

NL Pennant: Dodgers.

AL Pennant: Rays.

World Champion: Dodgers.

Remember, glove conquers all….

Please follow me on Twitter @Howard_Cole

It’s the 4th Annual Dennis Gilbert Spring Baseball Classic, it’s going on now through March 30 at the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy in Compton, and you should support it if you possibly can.

The MLBYA is an MLB-run community space, with three main goals: to give kids a place to go – a good place to go – to stress academics, and to teach baseball. Additional academies have been built in Puerto Rico, Houston and New Orleans, with Cincinnati, Philadelphia and South Florida in the works.

Students from the following Los Angeles high schools are participating in the round-robin tournament: Dorsey, Eagle Rock, Fremont, Fulton Prep, Gardena, Hamilton, Hollywood, Jefferson, King-Drew, Maywood, Monroe, Roybal, Sotomayor, SOCES, South East, South Gate, Sylmar, University, Venice and Wilson. Wood bats are used.

You probably know Dennis Gilbert as baseball’s first “super-agent,” former Dodgers owner hopeful, and the guy who sits directly behind home plate at Dodger Stadium pretty much every night during the season. Here’s a bit more from the event press release:

“Gilbert played baseball at Gardena High School, Los Angeles City College and for four years in the minor leagues before launching a highly-successful career in the insurance business and as a sports agent. He is chairman and founder of the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation, which provides financial assistance to former baseball scouts in need. Gilbert also personally funded the baseball diamond at Los Angeles Southwest Community College, which has been used by the local program of Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI). He serves on Major League Baseball’s Salary Arbitration and Player Development committees, is special assistant to Chicago White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, and is an active board member and supporter of the MLB Urban Youth Academy.”

The tournament began Thursday, and my apologies for getting this to you late. The remaining schedule is below.

Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy, El Camino College, Compton Center (west of football field) 901 East Artesia Blvd. Compton, Calif. 90221, 310-763-3479.

Saturday, March 23

Hamilton vs. Sotomayor at Hamilton, 3 p.m.

University vs. Dorsey at Roybal, TBD

Venice vs. Roybal at Roybal, 3 p.m.

Monroe vs. Jefferson at UYA#1, 9 a.m.

South East vs. King-Drew at UYA#1, 11:45 a.m.

Maywood vs. Eagle Rock at UYA#1, 3:15 p.m.

Fremont vs. Fulton Prep at UYA#2, 12:15 p.m.

Wilson vs. University at UYA#2, 3:30

Monday, March 25

Hamilton vs. Jefferson at Hamilton, Noon

Eagle Rock vs. Fulton Prep at Hamilton, 3 p.m.

Wilson vs. Gardena at Roybal, 2:30 p.m.

South East vs. Roybal at Roybal, 6 p.m.

University vs. Dorsey at UYA#1, 9:30 a.m.

Maywood vs. Fremont at UYA#1, 12:15 p.m.

Venice vs. King-Drew at UYA#1, 3:30

Hollywood vs. Sylmar at Monroe, 10 a.m.

Monroe vs. Sotomayor at Monroe, 1 p.m.

Tuesday, March 26

SOCES vs. Hollywood at Hamilton, 10 a.m.

Hamilton vs. Monroe at Hamilton, 1 p.m.

Dorsey vs. Wilson at Roybal, Noon

King-Drew vs. Roybal at Roybal, 3 p.m.

Maywood vs. Fulton Prep at UYA#1, 9:30 a.m.

Gardena vs. University at UYA #1, 12:15 p.m.

Fremont vs. Eagle Rock at UYA#1, 3:30 p.m.

Jeferson vs. Sotomayor at Venice, 3 p.m.

South East vs. Venice at Venice, 6:30 p.m.

Wednesday, March 27

Quarterfinals and Consolation games

Hamilton 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Roybal, Noon and 3 p.m.

Sylmar, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

UYA#1, 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

UYA#2, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.”

Friday, March 29

Semifinals at MLB UYA#1, 10:30 a.m. and #2, 10 a.m.

Saturday, March 30

Championship game and all-star presentation at Southwest College, Dennis Gilbert Field, Noon.

 Please follow me on Twitter @Howard_Cole

 

Updated: March 21, 2013, 10:01 a.m.

Setting aside the Hanley Ramirez World Baseball Classic thumb disaster for a moment, the Dodgers rushing Carl Crawford into action is the baseball equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face. It’s cutting off your elbow to spite your season, is what it is.

Crawford had his Tommy John August 23, 2012, and if the Los Angeles braintrust has its way he’ll be celebrating the seven-month anniversary of the surgery while playing left field in a Spring Training game, Dodgers vs. White Sox, Saturday at Camelback Ranch, 7:05 p.m.

The club’s stated goal for the former All-Star? To be able to hit the cutoff man. Repeat: If Crawford can hit the cutoff man, he’s good to go. And what could possibly go wrong?

Among the many reasons for my being as pissed as I am about the Ramirez injury – and you really don’t want to get me started – is that it’s robbed me of the line about Hanley being Crawford’s cutoff man on most plays, and that God only knows if the shortstop will be anywhere near position to take the throw.

So much for that. Ramirez jammed his left thumb diving for a grounder in the WBC final last night in San Francisco, in the rain, and is out two to 10 weeks. That’s the preliminary, anyway. We’ll know more in a few hours. I’m guessing four to six weeks.

Update: Ramirez will have ligament surgery; Dodgers say he’ll miss eight weeks. Prediction: They’ll have him back in seven.

With Ramirez out, the domino effect puts Luis Cruz at shortstop to start the season (which is fine in and of itself), with some combination of Juan Uribe, Jerry Hairston, Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker and even Elian Herrera at third. Except, Hairston and Schumaker are supposed to be playing some left for Crawford if he’s not on the Opening Day roster, and even if he is, for defense in the late innings, because hitting the cutoff man isn’t going to save you a ballgame.

And Hairston’s supposed to spell Andre Ethier against the occasional left-hander. And Schumaker’s supposed to give Matt Kemp – he of the surgically-repaired left shoulder – a day off every so often. And Schumaker’s supposed to play second for Mark Ellis against the occasional right-hander,or a lot of them. And Juan Uribe shouldn’t be a Dodger in the first place. Get the idea? It’s a bleeping mess, independent of Crawford’s health, not to mention Zack Greinke’s, which we won’t, or Chad Billingsley’s, which we won’t.

Every piece of a roster puzzle affects another. That’s just baseball, and all 30 clubs face the same challenges in preparing for a new year, give or take a few rehabs. They don’t all hurry their players along, fingers crossed and eyes closed, which is no way to drive the team bus. The Dodgers do. Not always, but more than enough for my comfort, and they’re doing it now with Crawford.

Sure, maybe he’s 100% and ready to face the Giants April 1 at Dodger Stadium. Maybe. Or perhaps they DL him for 15 days – or 30 – easing up on the pedal. But this business of Crawford’s hitting the cutoff man – which he may not even be ready to do consistently in a few days, much less weeks – is complete folly.

He’s got to be able to throw from the left field corner to second base on the fly. He’s got to throw from deep left center to third base to prevent the stretching of a double. He has to keep a runner from tagging up at second and going to third on a routine fly ball, and he’s got to throw a man out at the plate on a first inning single.

You can’t blame Crawford for doing his best to get out there asap, and if anything he’s to be praised for trying. But it doesn’t matter what the ballplayer says or wants. That’s what doctors are for. A trainer shouldn’t be making the call – not really – and to a lesser extent neither should a general manager trying to please all parties, nor should a skipper with six months to go on his contract. A physician – an objective conservative doctor – or better yet, doctors plural; should.

Here’s to hoping cooler heads prevail re Carl Crawford. Cooler, smartest-person-in-the-room, eight-years-of-medical-school-slash-specialty-training, no-agenda cooler heads. And the Dodgers will be better for it in the long run. In the short run too.

Please follow me on Twitter @Howard_Cole

Updated: March 22, 10:48 p.m. In the immortal words of Roseanne Roseannadanna: “Never mind.”

Complain if you want to, but Ben Howland has earned another season. I won’t lose a ton of sleep if the UCLA coach is fired in a week or two, but given the turnaround from the last two campaigns, he’s done enough for a return engagement.

Following the Bruins’ disastrous 14-18 season of 2010-2011 with a 19-14, controversy-filled 2011-2012, Howland was in-and-out-heartbreak close to dismissal and being run out of town on a rail a year ago at this time. Instead, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero laid down the law, gave his man a year to redeem himself, demanding changes in almost every department, and for the most part got them.

Yes, Howland’s clubs still manage to either lose to or almost lose to inferior clubs early and often, in at times excruciating fashion. Yes, his players jumped ship again; and while Tyler Lamb was no star and Josh Smith a mass of frustration (emphasis on the mass part), a team simply cannot lose scholarship players mid-stream without it affecting the unit as a whole, let alone have enough bodies to participate properly.

I often wonder, when these kids come to his office prepared to bail, if Howland ever tries to smooth things over and actually asks them to reconsider. Ever. Like say, “we can work it out, please stay.”

But even with the early-season awful loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the near-loss to Irvine, even with the transfers – not to mention Shabazz Muhammad’s missing his team’s first three games due to suspension – even with all that and the struggles in various aspects of play, UCLA managed a season-changing 10-game winning streak from December 8 to January 16 and had a shot at a Pac-12 title despite losing three of its next four games.

And win in the conference they did. Say what you will about the Pac-12; RPI ratings or whatever; it’s always a goal to win the conference and it’s no small thing that UCLA got there. The Bruins won seven of nine to finish the regular season, beat Arizona a third time in the conference tournament, Howland had his team peaking at the exact right time, and let’s be honest, they were going to beat Oregon last night and head into the NCAAs on an almost unimaginable high.

If not for one misstep by Jordan Adams, which you can’t blame on Howland. You just can’t.

Look, this is no perfect coach we’re talking about here. Issues remain. I don’t know why Howland’s guys don’t use the glass like UCLA teams have for decades, I don’t understand the consistent ineffectiveness out of timeouts and not a one among us gets the timeout strategy generally.

Obviously there’s no excuse for Howland’s hurling his jacket into the stands last night, the technical which had to follow, and the two free points for the opponent, but at least there was some crispness on that one pass.

All that said, with Adams available UCLA was headed exactly in the right direction. After the last two seasons you couldn’t have asked for more. Not reasonably anyway. They’d have beaten the Ducks to finish 26-8, gotten a good seed to open March Madness at Salt Lake City, and quite possibly played their way to a Sweet 16. Or better.

You can’t fire the coach after 28 or 30 wins in a comeback season. You just can’t. Let’s see what happens with the crappier seed and draw. Maybe UCLA surprises with a win or two or three. Either way, Howland deserves one more year.

Please follow me on Twitter @Howard_Cole

Dodger fans fretting over Matt Kemp can stop waiting for the other cleat to drop. He’s going to be absolutely fine. Panicking about Carl Crawford wouldn’t be a waste of your time, on the other hand, so if you’re a worrier, knock yourself out. Crawford’s your man.

But before we start throwing out the Grady Sizemore references, let’s give Crawford a break. The future Los Angeles left fielder had Tommy John surgery in late-August of last year, and while the comeback is easier for a position player, it’s no piece of cake for anyone.

Crawford is less than seven months out, has experienced some discomfort in the elbow, been shut down, and has resumed activity with hitting in recent days. Swinging a lot in batting practice first, with “live pitching” (which is a great term) as the next hurdle, and he’s scheduled to DH in a minor league game today.

If all goes well, Crawford can then begin to throw. Which means any talk of his making the Opening Day roster is beyond optimistic. There’s absolutely no way. May 1st is a good target date, but don’t be surprised if it’s June 1st. If all goes well.

Zack Greinke is doubtful for the opener too, so again, if you want to worry, please do. Worry hard, actually. L.A.’s number two starter hasn’t had surgery ala Crawford – and his MRI showed no structural damage – but he has had a PRP injection, been given anti-inflammatory medication and will need to start over with his spring program, almost from square one.

Missing a start with the flu earlier, Greinke has pitched all of five innings of exhibition ball, and playing catch is his next assignment. That’s right; playing catch. The Dodgers haven’t ruled him out to follow Clayton Kershaw versus the Giants to begin the season, but I certainly have. Count on Greinke staying behind for “extended Spring Training” in Arizona, with a mid-April or early-May debut in Dodger Blue.

Oh, and re Crawford, prepare for the proverbial “the-pain-isn’t-in-the-area-of-the-surgery” phrase to be uttered at some point. Then look at your elbow – in fact, do it now – look at your elbow. It’s not that big; if there’s pain in the elbow, there’s pain in the area that was cut on.

But Matt Kemp is going to be fine. And dandy. An “abundance of caution,” as someone called Kemp’s approach to his March work, is a good thing. The smart and responsible way to go, and if the Dodgers best player carries that attitude into the season, more power to him.

Perhaps a second’s hesitation and Kemp plays a ball off the wall instead of crashing into it, when there is little chance of making the catch in the first place. And he stays in the lineup because of it. Or a feet-first slide into a bag instead of exposing that surgically-repaired left shoulder to God-knows-what. The right way to go for sure.

A thesaurus is a handy thing. A Microsoft Office search of the word “careful” brings up hesitant, watchful, thoughtful, guarded, wary, restrained, circumspect and prudent, all of which are wonderful as applied to the L.A. center fielder. The antonym reckless is telling too.

So Kemp takes his game a tad slower for the time being. It’s absolutely a good thing. Perhaps he struggles at the plate for the first week. BFD. Maybe he struggles for a couple weeks or a month even.

Whatever the stats early, it doesn’t matter. Worry all you like about Crawford. And the team is going to lose some games they wouldn’t with Greinke on the mound, so worry about him. But Matt Kemp is going to be fine. Cautious, yes. Hesitant, yes. But absolutely fine.

Please follow me on Twitter @Howard_Cole

 

Alternate title considered – “Carl Crawford throws monkey wrench into Dodgers bench plans” – scrapped for grammatical reasons, and because the man can’t throw a household tool across a workbench, much less a baseball from left field to second base.

It doesn’t matter what the former All-Star wants or says; Crawford is unlikely to be 100% by Opening Day, which causes a domino effect across the roster, but for the sake of discussion for a moment, let’s assume he is.

The Dodgers carry 12 pitchers most of the time, and with the traditional off-days on the April schedule, are sure to start the season as such. So with the eight lineup regulars that leaves five spots for the bench. One is always reserved for a backup catcher, and barring injury (the phrase “barring injury” applies to everything you read here generally, by the way) the job goes to Tim Federowicz. And he’ll be fine.

Newcomer Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston are locks and I love them both. Schumaker – bats left, throws right – was signed to back up Matt Kemp in center, for one, and will be especially handy spelling Mark Ellis at second base with a right-hander on the mound. He can play left, right and third base, he’ll pinch hit, pinch run, lay down a bunt and draw you a clutch walk. Whatever you need; a younger version of Jamey Carroll.

Hairston bats right-handed and does a lot of the same. He’s an excellent second baseman, is capable at third and plays a good outfield, although not center for more than a game here and there. Hits in the clutch, runs well, and is just an all-around good guy to have on a club.

That’s 23 of 25. Talk of a deal for a fourth outfielder – very much preferably a right-hand bat with some sock – abounds, with surplus starting pitcher Aaron Harang as the main bait. Baltimore and Milwaukee have shown interest publicly, but I imagine there are several clubs in the mix, and it could happen today, tomorrow, or minutes before the first pitch of 2013. Harang could just as easily be traded for some other need – minor leaguers, perhaps – and the team can afford to wait for the best offer.

Alex Castellanos, acquired from St. Louis in the 2011 Rafael Furcal trade, is an in-house option. How good a one we don’t yet know. His .238 spring average is meaningless at this point, but the two homers and .588 slugging tells us something. My guess is Castellanos can hit major league left-handers now, and is more than servicable defensively in left or right. If he can pinch hit with any success against righties, there’s your answer.

For the life of me I have no idea how Juan Uribe is still a Dodger. It’s mind boggling; stunning actually, and I say only half-kidding that perhaps he has compromising photos of a prominent L.A. executive stashed away as insurance. But look, there’s just no way Uribe takes the job of someone – almost anyone – more talented – which is almost anyone. Not this time. The countdown has begun.

Dee Gordon and Tony Gwynn are probably headed to Albuquerque, Yasiel Puig, while fun to watch and impressive as hell, is ticketed for either New Mexico or Chattanooga, and Dallas McPherson’s already been cut. And while Jeremy Moore and Brian Barden are auditioning nicely, they’re both longshots at best. Scott Van Slyke? I have no idea.

Alfredo Amezaga, Ellian Herrera and Nick Punto are competing for what is essentially the last-man-on-the-bench role. Because he can play five positions well and switch-hit, Herrera is my choice, but Punto probably gets the nod, with Amezaga and Herrera being a phone call away in AAA. We’ll see them early and often regardless.

Which brings us back to that monkey wrench. The Dodgers can talk all they want about taking the cautious approach with Crawford, and Don Mattingly has suggested April 10 as target date, but it could just as easily be May 10. Or June 10. This is a Tommy John surgery comeback we’re looking at here, and Crawford’s going to need dozens of at bats to prepare, if not a good hundred.

Perhaps Amezaga or Herrera get a job they otherwise wouldn’t or maybe just maybe Ned Colletti pulls a rabbit out of the hat with a late spring trade. Harang plus a respectable prospect could land them a solid major league piece, and maybe that right-handed extra outfielder type mentioned earlier.

Former Dodger and current Seattle Mariner Franklin Gutierrez is a good example, and getable. He’s a spectacular defensive player – better than Kemp in center, to give you an idea – and hits southpaws.

With the season opening April Fool’s Day there’s time for candidates to emerge and trades to surprise us. Probably not time for  Carl Crawford to return healthy, however, but I’m pleased with the alternatives. The state of the Dodgers bench is sound. Not to worry.

Please follow me on Twitter @Howard_Cole

Because a top 10 no longer cuts  it. I have my favorites – you know who you are, hopefully – but so as not to offend the participants, here they are alphabetically.  Please bookmark.

Please read often, follow them on Twitter and tell him I sent you. And remember, glove conquers all.

Please follow me on Twitter @Howard_Cole

February. Marking the earliest game thread in Cole On LA history.

Please follow me on Twitter @Howard_Cole

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Matt Kemp’s labrum, Carl Crawford’s elbow. Healthy and ready when the bell rings? Will they or won’t they? And what about that Luis Cruz-as-the-regular-third-baseman idea?

Oh, and can Hanley Ramirez get the ball from short to first before Pablo Sandoval, batting right-handed and slipping coming out of the box, beats the throw?

These are the questions – the only questions – of concern re the lineup the Dodgers expect to field come Opening Day, April 1, San Francisco at Los Angeles.

Upon the publication of my bullpen blog last week, I was accused by a surprisingly baseball savvy Giants fan (yes, they have them) of perhaps being a tad “overly optimistic.” He was talking about my sunny assessment of Brandon League in particular, but point taken.

My response? I’m being “intentionally optimistic,” but not overly optimistic. There’s a difference. It happens every spring, as they say, I make no apologies, and you can expect more of the same below, and in my upcoming bench post in a few days.

Carl Crawford is coming off two 2012 surgeries, a left wrist in January and left Tommy John in August. The Rays’ former All-Star left fielder says he’ll be able to hit the cutoff man by day one, which will make him more capable than an at-full-strength Juan Pierre. It also means there’s a chance of a disabled list stint to begin the season. Or the opponents take some extra bases early on. We’ll live either way.

Who knows about the wrist, but like I said, I’m being optimistic. Let’s recall that Jayson Werth missed a good chunk of 2005 and all of 2006 with a difficult-to-fix wrist injury, and returned a better player than he was to begin with, not that I want to dredge up the 2008-09 National League Championship Series or anything.

It may take him some time, but I’m looking for Carl Crawford to show us plenty in 2013. Say, .285, .350, 100 runs, 60 RBIs and 40 steals. And I absolutely think he can hit leadoff in Los Angeles. In fact, I can’t wait to see it.

Before we go any further, and of course, barring injury, this is how I think Don Mattingly’s first lineup of the year will shake out. And it’s a prediction; mind you, not necessarily a recommendation.

Carl Crawford – LF

Mark Ellis  – 2B

Matt Kemp – CF

Adrian Gonzalez – 1B

Hanley Ramirez – SS

Andre Ethier – RF

Luis Cruz – 3B

A.J. Ellis – C

Clayton Kershaw – P

While there’s been no discussion of Mark Ellis losing at bats against right-handers publicly, before long this might be as close as we’ve come to seeing a straight platoon out of Don Mattingly. Although he’s done better in previous seasons, Ellis hit just .228 against righties last season. He hit .321 versus left-handers. Skip Schumaker – bats left, throws right – hit .295 off righties in 2012.

Ellis is 35, has been banged up a bit in recent years and Schumaker is solid in the field, so it makes sense. Just don’t expect to see it right away.

Kemp will be the third man Matt Cain faces in 2013, and it’ll probably be 1-0 one way or another, before Adrian Gonzalez steps in. The man is a complete stud, he’s in incredible shape and the non-throwing shoulder won’t be a problem going forward. He’ll still be able to crash into the occasional fence without issue. .310, .375, 30 and 100, piece of cake.

Gonzalez is going to be the team MVP, however; and an absolute monster. He’ll play 155 games, hit .300 against southpaws and lead the team in runs batted in (and yes, RBIs still matter). They’ll be important RBIs too. And he’ll win a Gold Glove. Next.

Speaking of Gold Gloves…uh, never mind. Hanley Ramirez is a considerably-below-average shortstop, who seems like he can run the ball over to first faster than he can throw it there. Dee Gordon could surprise with a great spring, forcing a move of Ramirez to third, and the Dodgers might yet acquire someone special for the left side of the infield, but it’s too soon to count on any of that.

Do count on Hanley hitting the crap out of the ball, however, and enough to make up for the runs he allows at short. For the time being. Look for .285, .345, 25, 95 and 25 stolen bases.

Andre Ethier recorded an almost unwatchable .222 against left-handers last year, and a .220 in 2011. In 2010 and 2009 it was more of the same, with the right fielder struggling to the tune of .233 and .194 versus southpaws respectively. But he did hit .243 off them in 2008, .279 in ’07 and .351 in 77 at bats of his rookie season of 2006.

So the skill is in there someplace, and maybe new batting coach Mark McGwire can bring it out of him. I’m confident that if Ethier can eke out a .260 – or even a .250 – against left-handers, we’d all take that gladly.

I’m also confident a trade for a solid right-hand hitting fourth outfielder type is coming eventually. But in the meantime all Mattingly has to do is sit Ethier against whatever lefties give him the most trouble. Not a platoon; just spare him his worst matchups, and keep him fresh in the bargain.

Predicted numbers: .285, .350, 20 and 80 in the sixth hole, which is just fine. Ethier’s going to benefit from the move down in the lineup, along the decreased expectations.

(This just in: Ethier rakes in his first spring at bat against a lefty, tripling off White Sox reliever Leyson Septimo at Camelback. Problem solved.)

There’s not a person inside baseball who knows what to expect out of incumbent third baseman Luis Cruz. Outside of baseball either, for that matter. He could hit .350 in the spring and .150 in April, or just as easily the other way around. And they still won’t know. But L.A. can afford to give him his shot, and unless there’s a better offer coming from another club, Cruz gets the nod Opening Day.

Much to the chagrin of Dodgers bloggers everywhere, Mattingly likes A.J. Ellis and his .369 career on base percentage (.406 in the minors) batting eighth. Draw a two-out walk, get the pitcher out of the way and start the next inning with your leadoff man. He’s not going to hit higher than seventh regardless, so why not eighth if that’s what the skipper prefers?

Mattingly also says he’s going to rest his number one catcher more in 2013, but Joe Torre said the same thing about Russell Martin every spring, and ran him into the ground without fail anyway. If he starts 125 games behind the plate, which would be great for all concerned, Ellis will be the exact same hitter he was last season. Say, .270 and .370, with 13 homers and 60 RBIs.

Kershaw gets his first sacrifice attempt of the season down perfectly and drives in a run on Opening Day. Seven innings, four hits, one earned, one walk, 10 strikeouts and the victory. Dodgers 1-0, Giants 0-1. Magic number 161.

Optimistic, but not overly optimistic.

Next up, the Dodger bench. And remember, glove conquers all.

Please follow me on Twitter @Howard_Cole

Say what you will about Ned Colletti and the best laid plans of mice and men. The Dodgers general manager pulls off an inspired move from time to time, and his buy-low pickup of Brandon League qualifies as a good example.

The common criticism about League’s having had “only one year as an effective closer” is silly, especially since the year was 2011, and it was an All-Star, 37-save, 2.79, 1.076 season while pitching for an awful 67-95 Seattle Mariners squad. You can’t excel in a position before you’ve been given the job, and 2011 was League’s first real opportunity.

In his attempt at an encore, he saved six, while blowing a couple last April, had a horrible May, blew two games in an up and down June, and lost his closer’s role in the process. Knowing all about his 2012 struggles, Los Angeles acquired League in a deadline deal for Leon Landry and Logan Bawcom July 30 hoping to fix them. It took them all of three weeks, in which League allowed nine hits and six earned in five innings of work, for whatever Rick Honeycutt and company were preaching to kick in.

From there on out, League was a lights-out closer. He picked up six saves and two holds the rest of the way, striking out 22 in 22 innings over 22 appearances in a month and a half, with all of one run crossing home plate. But numbers don’t tell the story. You had to watch him throw –  the man was absolutely unhittable.

So $22 million for three years is a bit much. League will be 30 March 16, is accomplished enough, and at 414 career innings doesn’t have a ton of mileage on his right arm. And he wants to be a Dodger. I think you’ll be convinced as the season goes along, but Ned deserves credit for the find now.

With the ninth inning handled, Don Mattingly can run out Kenley Jansen and Ronald Belisario (despite his more-than-occasional weirdness) with confidence for the eighth and seventh respectively. And the National League will not like it. Come to think of it, with interleague play an everyday thing now, the American League won’t be pleased either.

Balking at 37-year-old Randy Choate’s contract ambitions (the Cards succumbed and are paying him $7.5 million over three years), Colletti signed 30-year-old J.P. Howell, late of the Tampa Bay Rays, to fill a lefty bullpen spot instead. $2.85 mil for 2013. Chalk up another one for Ned.

I’m not a fan of out-of-options Scott Elbert particularly, and if and when he comes back from two recent surgeries, with Paco Rodriguez in the picture, and if there’s a decent return, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the club deal him. Southpaws come and go in bullpens all the time. Elbert can go.

With four off-days scheduled the first three weeks of the season and their history generally, you’d expect the Dodgers to go with seven relievers on Opening Day, April 1, at home versus San Francisco. Depending on how the rotation holds up – and the disposition of potential surplus starters Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly – we might be looking at an eight-man bullpen for a time. Either way, the only four who would seem to be locked into their roles now are League, Jansen, Belisario and Howell.

Perhaps Capuano fills the second lefthander / long-man position, although L.A. rarely carries a long-man. Or perhaps Lilly gets that job, assuming he’s at full strength when the bell rings, which is no sure thing. Or perhaps Chad Billingsley blows out his elbow early and one of the above, or Harang, steps into the rotation. Maybe someone gets traded. Who the hell knows?

Non-roster invitees abound, and include former major leaguers Kevin Gregg, Greg Infante, Mark Lowe, Peter Moylan and Matt Palmer. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of them – probably Lowe or Moylan – make the final cut. Or not.

Also hanging around are Matt Guerrier and Javy Guerra – either of whom could be dealt during the spring (or not) – Shawn Tolleson, who I like a lot, and a number of minor leaguers you may have heard of. Or not.

The Dodgers turn over their relief corps all the time, both in the winter and during the season, and are consistently good at finding the right mix. Things may take a while to sort out, especially with those extra bodies and accompanying salaries, but the bullpen is a strong suit, and I’m not a bit concerned. In fact, I’m excited.

Please follow me on Twitter @Howard_Cole