Expectations weighing on talent-laden, big-spending Dodgers to make playoff push

As Hollywood makeovers go, the Dodgers' transformation has been a doozy. From more than $200 million spent on upgrading the roster to another $100 million invested in their aging stadium, the team has transformed itself into one of baseball's heavyweights with sky-high expectations to match.

That's uncharted territory for a storied franchise that hasn't been to the World Series since winning the title in 1988 and was in bankruptcy a year ago under former owner Frank McCourt.

"We're a great team. There's no debate about that," ace Clayton Kershaw said. "We've got all the parts now. We've got the ownership group. Now we've got to go out and win games. It's only then that we'll really know."

Led by Mark Walter and retired Lakers star Magic Johnson, the Guggenheim group that spent a record $2 billion to buy the team begins its first full season of ownership on April 1, when the Dodgers host the World Series champion San Francisco Giants on opening day.

"We've seen what the Giants have done in the last few years, winning a couple of World Series," Kershaw said. "That's the team we're trying to catch. We've got to win the West."

The flurry of moves made by the new owners — adding free agent pitching star Zack Greinke and Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu in the winter after trading for Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford in midseason — pushed the Dodgers' payroll to more than $200 million, into luxury-tax range.

"This city is about expectations," Johnson said. "I love it because it reminds me of the old Dodgers and when I was with the Lakers. Yeah, I want a successful season. I want to go all the way, but that's just me."

Big bucks don't always guarantee success, though.

"We hear the big expectations," Gonzalez said. "But you can't be big if you don't do it on the field. Simple as that."

The lineup has already taken a huge hit, with Ramirez expected to be sidelined for eight weeks after having right thumb surgery last Friday. Luis Cruz is expected to replace him at shortstop on opening day.

Matt Kemp (shoulder) and Carl Crawford (wrist and elbow) are coming off serious surgeries and the Dodgers are counting on their return to form, along with an improved season by Andre Ethier, to solidify the outfield.

Ethier spent all spring working with new hitting coach Mark McGwire on how to improve his .222 average against left-handers last season. Against right-handers, Mattingly plans to bat Ethier fifth until Ramirez is ready to play, then Ethier will move to sixth.

"The mechanics are there. It's the mental side of things. That's been my focus," Ethier said. "Mostly, it's about doing the scouting report, knowing what you can expect to face that day. They know what your strengths and weaknesses are. I've got to do that kind of homework."

Kershaw and Greinke anchor a rotation that has the depth it lacked in recent years, with Chad Billlingsley, Ryu and Beckett rounding things out.

"I don't set goals. I just try to go out and win every start," said Kershaw, who is 35-14 over the past two seasons. "It's probably not so much about adding something new (to my pitches). I just try to be more consistent."

Brandon League will open the season as the closer, and he'll be backed up by hard-throwing Kenley Jansen and Javy Guerra.

A.J. Ellis returns as catcher after hitting .270 with 13 home runs and a .374 on-base percentage.

The Dodgers spent more than $100 million renovating their 51-year-old stadium, third-oldest in the major leagues. The project included new scoreboards, a new sound system, an improved Wi-Fi and cell antenna system, wider concourses, new food stands and menus, expanded home and visitor clubhouses, a larger weight room and batting cages under the stands.

"There's a big target on us because of how we look, how our payroll looks," Ethier said. "If we succeed, it's something we're supposed to do. If we don't, then we're failures for not fulfilling those expectations. There's more pressure now, but that's the way it should be."