Philadelphia, PA – Despite the ongoing saga leading up to the ballclub's sale, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly kept it simple: Avoid distractions and come together on the field.
It's not beyond reality to think that former owner Frank McCourt's troubles had a lasting impact on the club's character. Mattingly advised his team to ignore the ownership uncertainty and focus on becoming more of a family and using the last three months of last season as a stepping stone for 2012. The Dodgers got their act together in early July before breezing through August and September until missing out on a chance for a wild card spot.
"In the second half, we had a lineup where everybody did his part," Mattingly said on the club's official website. "Matt [Kemp] has to do his thing, but we have to give him help. I like my guys. I'm not going to sit here and say we should win by 20 games or anything silly. If we play the way we're capable of, we'll be there at the end of the year."
It was a classic case of too little, too late for Los Angeles, which was finally sold to a bidding group that includes NBA Hall-of-Famer Magic Johnson for $2 billion. The financial strife that embroiled one of the storied franchises in baseball didn't keep the Dodgers from extending the contract of Kemp back in November, however, as they rewarded the All-Star outfielder with an eight-year extension. The $160 million deal is the largest contract in team history, trumping the $105 million pact the team gave to Kevin Brown back in 1998.
"I have truly been embraced by the L.A. fans," Kemp said at the time. "They've made Los Angeles home for me. It's a great feeling to know I'm going to be here for the next eight years, but my goal is to be a Dodger for life -- this is where I aim to be until I retire."
All eyes will be on Kemp for the 2012 campaign to make sure the Dodgers didn't get it wrong by dishing out an absurd amount of cash for his continued services. But Kemp is not the only one Los Angeles is hoping to lead the team back into the playoffs after a two-year hiatus. National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and oft-injured outfielder Andre Ethier will join Kemp in the hunt to bring the Dodgers back to prominence. Ethier, of course, underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right kneecap in September and shook off some back stiffness during Spring Training. The Dodgers are hoping he can revert to his 2009 and 2010 days when he hit 31 and 23 homers, respectively.
Los Angeles didn't bring in any high-priced free agents in the offseason, but added some resourceful players to bolster the team's chances, including starting pitchers Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano, and infielders Adam Kennedy and Mark Ellis. The Dodgers still have the majority of last season's club intact and that's what is keeping the likes of Mattingly and others inspired.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Dodgers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (82-79) - Third Place (NL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SP Aaron Harang, 2B/1B Adam Kennedy, SP Chris Capuano, 3B/CF Jerry Hairston Jr., C Josh Bard, C Matt Treanor, 2B Mark Ellis
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: SP Dana Eveland, C Rod Barajas, 3B Casey Blake, RP Jonathan Broxton, 2B Jamey Carroll, SP Hiroki Kuroda, SP Vicente Padilla
PROJECTED LINEUP: SS Dee Gordon, 1B James Loney, CF Matt Kemp, RF Andre Ethier, LF Juan Rivera, 3B Juan Uribe, 2B Mark Ellis, C A.J. Ellis
PROJECTED ROTATION: LHP Clayton Kershaw, RHP Chad Billingsley, LHP Ted Lilly, LHP Chris Capuano, RHP Aaron Harang
PROJECTED CLOSER: RHP Javy Guerra
MANAGER: Don Mattingly
WILL THE USUAL SUSPECTS THRIVE AT THE PLATE?
You can guarantee Kemp will make sure his contract extension was worth every penny, otherwise both he and the Dodgers will never hear the end of it. But how badly could Kemp's numbers drop in 2012 after a career year? Kemp nearly pulled off a Triple Crown despite little or no protection in the middle of a Dodgers lineup that produced just 82 wins. Kemp hit .324 (third in the NL) with 39 home runs and 126 RBI, leading the NL in home runs, RBI, runs scored (115) and total bases (353). He also finished among the league leaders in multi-hit games (57, tied for first), hits (195, second), slugging percentage (.586, second), extra-base hits (76, second), stolen bases (40, tied for second) and on-base percentage (.399, fourth). Kemp will need some help in the lineup from Ethier, who was limited to 135 games and saw his numbers plummet from years past. He slugged just .421 a year after slugging .493, and recorded 11 homers with 62 RBI. He drove in a career-best 106 runs in 2009 and 82 the following year. First baseman James Loney will be counted on to drive in more runs after he finished 2011 with 65 RBI -- the lowest since 67 in 2007. Loney has been able to stay healthy, which is why many are left to wonder what the deal is with his low power numbers. Loney hasn't batted .300 since a .331 clip back in 2007. Third baseman Juan Uribe did not enjoy a solid first season with LA last year and appeared in just 77 games, batting .204 with a career-low four homers and 28 RBI. There's no doubt Uribe will be on a short leash this season unless he reverts back to his productive San Francisco days. Others who will contribute are Dee Gordon, Juan Rivera and A.J. Ellis.
DOES KERSHAW HAVE MORE TRICKS UP HIS (LEFT) SLEEVE?
There are only a select few pitchers who have captured the Cy Young Award in back-to-back seasons (Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tim Lincecum) and the Dodgers are hoping Kershaw doesn't regress and joins the group in 2012 after he dazzled his way to the top a season ago. The southpaw became the eighth different Dodgers hurler to win the award, as he tied for the league lead with 21 wins, while topping the NL with a 2.28 earned run average and 248 strikeouts. Kershaw gradually became LA's ace of the staff with his variety of pitches and is the first Dodger to win the Cy Young since closer Eric Gagne took home honors in 2003. He is clearly the No. 1 of the rotation and will compete with Lincecum, Ian Kennedy and Matt Cain as the best in the NL West this season. Kershaw's no mystery to the rest of the league and that makes him even more dangerous since opposing hitters still have trouble against him. There's not much after Kershaw, however, unless Chad Billingsley can finally gain some consistency and newcomers Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano fit in immediately. Harang was a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year with San Diego in 2011. Veteran lefty Ted Lilly completed his first full season with the Dodgers by posting a 12-14 record and a 3.97 ERA in 33 starts -- the most since making 34 starts in both 2007 and 2008 with the Cubs. Former LA starters Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla are elsewhere, while Nathan Eovaldi and Rubby De La Rosa will make a case for a rotation spot. As for the bullpen, former closer Jonathan Broxton, who battled injury for Mattingly, is gone and duties now belong to Javy Guerra. Guerra was part of a bullpen that finished with a 3.92 ERA -- third-highest in the Senior Circuit -- and converted 21-of-23 save chances.
HOW MUCH OF A DISTRACTION WILL SALE OF TEAM HAVE?
The sale of the team will have zero importance on the team's success because it already dealt with the McCourt saga last year. Now that former Lakers great Johnson is on board several players, including Kemp, are hoping a dynasty can be built out on Chavez Ravine. It won't be showtime just yet for those in Dodger Blue, but at least the anxiety on who will purchase the club has evaporated. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross approved a settlement between the Dodgers and Fox Sports back in January to set the wheels in motion for the sale of the team. The organization's issues didn't seem to bother Kemp or Kershaw in 2011, and the two will thrive once again this season. The Dodgers were going to be competitive no matter who bought the team, but reaching the heights Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar did won't happen soon.
X-FACTOR: JAVY GUERRA: Guerra held opposing hitters to a .218 batting average and allowed just two homers in 47 appearances. The young right-hander was a part of a Los Angeles bullpen that walked the fourth-highest total of batters in the National League and should be a breath of fresh air compared to former closer Jonathan Broxton. The word is already out on Guerra, so it will be interesting to see if he can hold up his end of the bargain. Guerra, who posted a 2.31 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP and 38 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings in 2011, has a chance to become one of the NL West's top closers behind Brian Wilson of San Francisco and San Diego's Huston Street. The Dodgers have a handful of decent arms to set up Guerra in Kenley Jansen, Matt Guerrier and Mike MacDougal.
The Dodgers have the majority of their roster for another run in 2012 and will compete for its third division title five years. They have missed the postseason in each of the past two seasons after making it all the way to the NLCS in consecutive years, and will need Kemp, Ethier and Loney clicking on all cylinders with a clean bill of health. Ethier has a lot to prove following his injury-plagued 2011 campaign and so does MVP candidate Kemp after signing a monster deal in the offseason. Uribe regressed significantly from his days with the rival Giants and will have a short leash if his slide continues this season. There are some young faces too that will contribute for the offense in Gordon and Ellis, while pitching shouldn't be a problem with Kershaw and Billingsley leading a pack of veteran arms. Kershaw will once again compete with Lincecum, Cain and Kennedy as the best in the division, and will be the deciding factor in the Dodgers' success this season. Expect LA to churn out around 90 to 95 wins this season and end its postseason drought.