Philadelphia, PA – (SportsNetwork.com) - It's World Series or bust for the 2014 Los Angeles Dodgers.
And how could it not be? With a payroll upwards of $200 million, expectations are through the roof for the defending National League West champions.
But the same could have been said about them at this time last year.
The Dodgers may have rolled to an National League West title in 2013, but it certainly didn't look as if this was a championship team through the first few months of the season.
Los Angeles found itself 9 1/2 games back in the division on June 22 and seemed to be close to firing manager Don Mattingly. However, thanks to the infusion of Yasiel Puig into the lineup and a healthy Hanley Ramirez, the team rattled off 42 wins in 50 games and claimed their 12th division title since 1969.
After ousting the Atlanta Braves in four games of the NLDS, the Dodgers saw their season come to an end in the NLCS, where they were beaten by the St. Louis Cardinals in six games.
There was not much that needed to be done from a roster standpoint for the Dodgers this offseason. But, they may have made the most significant move of the winter, as they signed left-handed ace Clayton Kershaw to a 7-year, $215 million deal that should keep him in the City of Angels through the 2020 season.
As much attention as Puig gets, Kershaw is still the straw that stirs the drink in L.A. He captured his second NL Cy Young honor in three years with a brilliant 2013 campaign that saw him lead the majors with a 1.83 earned run average and topped the NL with 232 strikeouts, while posting a 16-9 record over 33 starts.
You can say this about any team in the league, but with the Dodgers it really hits home. The only thing that can derail this team is injuries.
2013 FINISH (92-70) - First Place (NL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Dan Haren (RHP); Paul Maholm (LHP); Alex Guerrero (2B); Chris Perez (RHP); Jamey Wright (RHP); Justin Turner (INF); Erisbel Arruebarrena (SS)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Mark Ellis (2B); Chris Capuano (LHP); Justin Sellers (INF); Carlos Marmol (RHP); Michael Young (INF); Ronald Belisario (RHP); Jerry Hairston Jr. (OF); Ricky Nolasco (RHP); Nick Punto (SS); Skip Schumaker (OF); Edinson Volquez (RHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Yasiel Puig (RF); Carl Crawford (LF); Hanley Ramirez (SS); Adrian Gonzalez (1B); Matt Kemp (CF); Juan Uribe (3B); A.J. Ellis (C); Dee Gordon (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Clayton Kershaw (LHP); Zack Greinke (RHP); Hyun-Jin Ryu (LHP); Dan Haren (RHP); Josh Beckett (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Kenley Jansen (RHP)
MANAGER: Don Mattingly
WHAT DOES YASIEL PUIG DO FOR AN ENCORE?
Puig burst on the scene after debuting with the team on June 3, batting .436 with 44 hits and seven home runs in his first month with the team. Puig may have gotten a little too much credit for the team's turnaround, but the fact remains, in the 104 games in which he was in the lineup, the Dodgers posted a 66-38 record.
Puig's energy was the perfect remedy for a Dodgers team that was on the verge of being one of the bigger disappointments in recent memory.
Taking away nothing from Puig's arrival, but the Dodgers' turnaround was more likely due to the return of Ramirez, who despite dealing with a lower back issue, batted .345 with 20 homers and 57 RBI in 86 games.
When healthy, Ramirez is arguably the Dodgers' most consistent player.
Ramirez or not, though, Puig still emerged as one of the best young players in the game, or at least certainly one of the more entertaining ones.
But with all the good you get from Puig, you certainly got enough negative with the 23-year-old Cuban. And we are not just talking about the .214 clip he hit over the final month of the season.
Puig often drew the ire of Mattingly for just not being very smart on the field, particularly on the bases. Opponents were also not overly impressed by his over-exuberance at times. A lot of that can be traced back to his age, of course.
It will be interesting to see how much he has matured in year two.
HOW DOES THE BACKEND OF THE ROTATION SHAKE OUT?
We all know that there is probably not a better front end of the rotation than Kershaw and Zack Greinke, but how will the rest of the staff pan out?
Korean Hyun-Jin Ryu won 14 games last season and was among the best rookies in the league. He figures to get the third spot.
But after that? Well, take your pick.
Right-hander Dan Haren signed a 1-year, $10 million deal this offseason and has something to prove after losing 14 games for the Washington Nationals last season, while pitching to a 4.67 ERA.
Then there's right-hander Josh Beckett, who made only eight starts last season before surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. He'll be 34 in May and his best days are probably behind him, but you could do a lot worse for a fifth starter than Beckett, especially come playoff time.
Lefty Paul Maholm was also signed to a far less lucrative contract and could figure in the rotation mix if injuries pop up. Maholm, though, was battling an injury of his own early in spring training, as he was slowed a bit with some elbow tenderness.
One player to keep an eye on, though, will be right Chad Billingsley, who will be trying to return from Tommy John surgery. Billingsley, who is in the final year of a 3-year, $35 million deal he signed before the 2012 season, made just two starts last season before going down with the injury, but is shooting for a return sometime before the All-Star break.
WHO IS PLAYING SECOND BASE?
One of the few offseason moves the Dodgers made was bringing in Cuban second baseman Alexander Guerrero, who signed to the tune of 4 years and $28 million.
Mattingly would have loved for Guerrero to seize the second base job this spring, but that hasn't been the case. Guerrero has struggled a bit in switching from his natural shortstop position and it appears as if speedy Dee Gordon will enter the year as the team's starter.
Guerrero might actually be best served spending some time in Triple A to open the year.
Regardless, he won't be there long.
Guerrero spent seven seasons with Las Tunas. In his final season in Cuba in 2011-12, Guerrero batted .290 with 21 home runs and 51 RBI in 80 games, including a .402 on-base percentage and .576 slugging percentage. He was stellar in the field as well, committing eight errors in 350 chances at shortstop for a .977 fielding percentage.
X-FACTOR: MATT KEMP: The Dodgers already have three legitimate MVP candidates in Ramirez, Puig and Kershaw. They could have a fourth if Matt Kemp can find a way to stay on the field. The runner-up to the NL MVP in 2011 Kemp only appeared in 73 games last season and thanks to an injured ankle was essentially the Dodgers' least productive outfielder, as he hit just .270 with six home runs and 33 RBI. Kemp's breakdown has been quite remarkable considering he missed just 11 games between 2008-2011. Since then, though, he's sat out 145 of the Dodgers' 324 games and it's not a 100-percent guaranteed he'll be ready to start the season. When healthy, Kemp is a legitimate 30-homer, 100-RBI guy who may also swipe you 30 or so bases. He's one of the few 5-tool stars in the league. But, with a loaded outfield, Mattingly may be inclined to rest Kemp more to keep him healthy. The Dodgers are probably a playoff team with or without Kemp. But, they will be awful dangerous if they can find a way to keep him healthy.
The sky is the limit for this Dodgers team. They have the best team on paper and are one of a handful of teams that could win a World Series. But, you could have said the same thing about last year's squad, which got off to a horrendous start thanks to some health issues. This team is deeper, though. Even if Kemp's injury problems continue the Dodgers are more than set up in the outfield. Let's face it a lot of teams would like to have the problem of finding a spot for Andre Ethier to play. Unless the injury bug strikes Kershaw this team should roll to a National League West title, as well as an NL pennant.