Midway through the 2013 season, the Dodgers were just a .500 team. There were big expectations after the Magic Johnson-led billion dollar buyout from Frank McCourt but the organization was wallowing in mediocrity. As rumors swirled of manager Don Mattingly’s last days, Yasiel Puig was called from the minors and the Dodgers went on a tear, finishing with the best record after the All-Star break, winning the division and getting to the NLCS. Boasting the largest payroll, the Dodgers have the best team on paper but will unravel under Mattingly’s lack of leadership.
Leading the league with a 1.83 ERA, Clayton Kershaw became the first athlete to sign a $30 million annual contract in the offseason. At 26, he has yet to reach the prime of his career and is already the game’s best pitcher. His 7.9 WAR and 0.92 WHIP ranked tops for pitchers. He has averaged over a strikeout per inning for his career and won two of the past three Cy Young awards (he placed second in 2011). Kershaw has avoided injury that has plagued other young pitchers. If he stays healthy, he will likely add to his Cooperstown-bound résumé. Former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke enters his second season with the Dodgers as the ace behind the ace. Greinke was electric posting a 2.63 ERA while holding opponents to a .234 batting average. He will continue to dominate hitters and challenge Kershaw as the league’s best pitcher. On any other team, Hyun-jin Ryu would be the Opening Day starter. With the Dodgers, the pressure is less as the organization made it a point to transition Ryu well in his first MLB season. He won 14 games, a playoff game, and had a 3.00 ERA. Ryu set a high standard in his rookie year so he should improve in all categories. Newly signed Dan Haren and former Red Sox catalyst Josh Beckett round out the rotation. Haren stumbled the past two years in Washington but rejuvenated motivation and change of scenery should bode well as he has had success as one of the game’s elite pitchers. Beckett has battled injuries since his trade across the country but even he has a chip on his shoulder, trying to prove to fans that he is still amongst the top players.
About the only unknown hitter on the team is second baseman Dee Gordon. From top down, Dodgers have a lineup reminiscent of the All-Star Yankee rosters from the late 90s. Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Juan Uribe, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Puig all make up a crowded batting order. Kemp has already stated he is not a fourth outfielder, however, his play has yet to prove otherwise. When Jacoby Ellsbury defected to the Yankees, the Red Sox explored trades for Kemp but nothing materialized. Recall Kemp once said he would be the first 50-50 player but Rihanna’s former darling remains on the DL and until he regains form that made him NL MVP runner-up in 2011, he has to earn starting role from incumbent Crawford. Ethier is the team’s biggest trade asset. If he gets off to a sluggish start, the Dodgers will look to make bullpen improvement as they push towards the division title. Ramirez missed time last year after injuring his hand during the WBC. With the Marlins, he was the game’s best shortstop. He hit for power, average, and was a menace on the base paths. If healthy, Ramirez will be the team’s best hitter and could put up historic numbers in the powerful lineup. Gonzalez’s natural pull-stroke is meant for Dodger Stadium. His slugging percentage has had a steady decline over the past five years but he is a magnet for 150 games, 20 homers and 100 RBIs. In his first full season, Puig could be the NL MVP. He did not have Mike Trout-type numbers and his immaturity needs severe improvement but the intangible he brings to the team is priceless. He plays stellar defense and has one of the best arms, ever. His intensity is that of a natural leader as his arrival brought a winning atmosphere and even saved Mattingly’s job. Whether he hits 40 homers or drives in 130 runs is unforeseen but if the team keeps their winning ways, a lot of it will be attributed simply to Puig’s clubhouse presence.
The Dodgers will have a great year. The starting rotation and batting ranks tops in the game and fans will turn Los Angeles blue as the wins amount. However, the team will stumble when it reaches the playoffs. At best, they are pretenders because Mattingly does not command the respect in the clubhouse to control egos of the many star players. Joe Torre and Terry Francona each earned reverence from guys like Derek Jeter, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz. Mattingly is filled with a talented group who will produce extraordinary well over the course of the regular season. But when it comes to big games, they will falter as the players are more concerned with the after-party than winning. With no discipline, Mattingly will be made the scapegoat in what should be his final year wearing blue.
All stats are courtesy of http://www.baseball-reference.com/.