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Dodger Insider Magazine

Team on a Mission

Tantalizingly close to tasting the World Series last year, the Dodgers want the whole meal in 2014

By Jon Weisman


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They pressed on, despite the season-ending injury to Matt Kemp, despite Andre Ethier's iffy left leg. On through the pitch that peppered Hanley Ramirez's rib and through an untimely slump that left them scoreless for 22 innings early in the National League Championship Series.

The Dodgers took the three losses in the first four games of the NLCS and basically said, 'So what?' They bulldozed their way to a 6-4 victory in the fading Los Angeles sunlight of Game 5 and headed for St. Louis, with the unparalleled Clayton Kershaw set for Game 6 and Hyun-Jin Ryu, whose shutout in Game 3 first reversed their losing momentum, primed for Game 7.

Pushing and pushing that wall...and finally the wall stood its ground. A slow-bleed, four-run, 48-pitch third inning against Kershaw, with no rescue party from the offense or defense awaiting him, and the season was done. The Dodgers were grounded, as close to the promised land of the World Series as they had been in any season since 1988.

As the 2014 season beckons, the Dodgers haven't forgotten. They aren't wallowing in defeat, but they aren't writing it off, either. They know how brutally hard it had been to get so far last fall, how hard it will be to repeat the feat and then go even further, as everyone expects them to, wants them to, needs them to.

They mean to do so.

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Processing...and moving forward

"It was disappointing in some ways, because you play to get to the last game of the season," Dodger general manager Ned Colletti reflected on a quiet day in January. "But when you step back from that and you realize where we've been, where we came from and how we went through our year, you're proud of the effort...I think they can take a lot of experience out of it, and that sometimes your best lessons are in defeat."

It's easy to forget how recently the Dodgers' chances of coming together as a team were derided, and significant how distant those fears now seem. The rapid-fire revamp of the squad in mid-2012 brought several different players into the fold - along with an unmistakable uncertainty - in a short time. The team entered 2013 with no shortage of skeptics.

"We felt like we had a bit of unfinished business," said Dodger manager Don Mattingly. "A lot of people said they didn't think our locker room could get along - you can't throw players together and have a team. They felt that was part of the problem of 2012. We've proven you can become a team."

The comeback from a 30-42, last-place start in the NL West, the historic 42-8 run that was the best in Major League Baseball over 50 games since 1942, the runaway division title and the efficient dispatch of Atlanta in the National League Division almost seems too much to allow for any disappointment. Almost.

"It's tough to be satisfied when you think you have a chance to win, and I think we were within a very small margin of beating St. Louis," Colletti said. "But I look back at where we were - all the trials that we had early in the year and the expectations we were trying to live up to. By and large, I thought it was a great year.

"But still, you look to get to that tournament."

It starts with pitching

That ache of falling short forestalls any hint of complacency within the Dodgers. And the injuries that come with the territory would keep any team humble.

"Depth is huge," Colletti said. "You can watch all the baseball shows every night, and practically it seems every day of the season, somebody of prominence someplace is going on the disabled list."

At the same time, you'd have to be Eeyore not to take some joy from the pitching staff that will launch the Dodgers into 2014.

"I think it's really easy to like our pitching," Mattingly said.

Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu return from strong seasons. Dan Haren, signed as a free agent from Washington, slides easily into the rotation, as might last-minute signee Paul Maholm. And though nearly forgotten, Josh Beckett - who had a 2.93 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 43 innings with the Dodgers in 2012 but was sidelined most of 2013 - has had a healthy offseason and comes back as a potential above-average fifth starter.

Waiting in the wings are such arms as Stephen Fife, Matt Magill and Chad Billingsley (3.51 ERA in 27 starts since 2012), whose recovery from Tommy John surgery in April 2013 should be complete by the All-Star Break if not sooner.

"If Josh can bounce back and Chad bounces back and our three guys up top were what they were last year," said Mattingly, "all of a sudden you put the rotation together and every time you go out there, you've got a chance to win."

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The bridge

Behind the front five is a developing youth corps that includes Double-A hurlers Ross Stripling (2.78 ERA last year), Zach Lee (3.22) and Chris Reed (3.86), as well as Single-A arms Chris Anderson (1.96) and Tom Windle (2.68). Further down the road: 17-year-old Single-A sensation Julio Urias (2.48).

Buying time for the up-and-comers is what concerns Colletti.

"We're going to need good help out of the rotation while we continue to grow Zach, Stripling, Urias, Chris Reed, Anderson and Windle," Colletti said. "I think we're going to see most if not all of them, certainly Stripling and probably Zach, maybe Reed this year...But in a perfect situation, we give them enough time so they'll enough experience and calmness to them."

There's certainly something calming about the NL Cy Young winner at the head of the rotation. Kershaw - who himself only turns 26 in March - had the lowest ERA of any starting pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2000, the lowest by a lefty since Ron Guidry in 1978.

"He's set a very high standard," said Colletti. "All I ever ask of any player is that the effort is pure and full. And he could have a 2.30 ERA and people could say, 'What happened to him?' But the effort I'm pretty sure is going to be pure and full."

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Bullpen rodeo

No area of the Dodgers has more apparent depth than the bullpen, where a valuable contributor such as Chris Withrow (2.60 ERA, 0.952 WHIP, 11.2 K/9 in 2013) will have to earn his way onto the team's season-opening flight to Australia.

Kenley Jansen (1.88 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 13.0 K/9) is the king, with free agent acquisition Chris Perez and reacquisitions Brian Wilson and Jamey Wright joining a crew not limited to Withrow, Paco Rodriguez, J.P. Howell, Brandon League and Jose Dominguez. As many spots as there are in the bullpen, there are even more names.

"The whole bullpen feels solid," Mattingly said, "and more guys can do more things - hopefully spread out the work. … That's what you want, honestly. I think healthy competition is good, where guys are having to fight to make the club."

Of course, no one's suggesting that an absence from the Opening Day roster means permanent banishment.

"I think we've seen enough to know that somebody's going to get hurt," said Mattingly. "The guys whom you leave Spring Training with - you know you're going to need more than that."

Said Colletti: "There's always a rush, at least at the outset, to put your team together before you get to camp, and have everything in its place. And then there's another milestone: Who's going to make the Opening Day roster? But Opening Day is one day, and then it's fluid after that. The way the game is now, it's almost always fluid."

The Four Musketeers

In their starting lineup, the Dodgers have a question mark at one position - and an exclamation point at another.

Four outfielders with All-Star pasts or futures - Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig - populate the Dodger outfield in a sport that, if you search deep enough in the official rules, allows only three to play at once. Some would call that a problem, but not Colletti.

"Just because you don't start a game doesn't mean you're not going to be in the game," Colletti said, reminding that because of injuries, "there are very few players today who play 162 games."

The surplus allows the Dodgers to be more careful from a health standpoint. After coming back too quickly (by his own admission) from his 2012 shoulder issues, Kemp got off to a rough 2013 start - but had an encouraging .400 on-base percentage and .630 slugging in the small number of games he was able to play after July 1. Crawford OPSed .828 before a June 1 hamstring injury sidelined him more than a month. Ethier was on his hottest streak of the season when his microfracture flared in early September.

"I don't think we have anybody that's over the hill," Mattingly said. "We have guys that have been around and have played a lot but also aren't really too old either. It's going to be important to keep guys fresh as much as possible and strong. … Sometimes I feel that with a few less games played, we'll probably get better production."

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2B or not 2B

The starting outfield will mix in the Dodger lineup with a now-familiar quartet around the diamond: catcher A.J. Ellis, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, shortstop Hanley Ramirez and resurgent third baseman Juan Uribe.

Second base is where the mystery remained entering Spring Training, with Cuban newcomer Alex Guerrero representing an increased investment at the position but also perhaps requiring an increased level of patience. Not even Puig started his rookie season in the majors.

"I've been able to see him on tape," Mattingly said, "his infield work and swings in batting practice. To me, it sounds like he's a hard worker. He's giving us everything he's got; it's just a matter of time. He looks good in a lot of areas."

Still, there might not be a full-time starter at the position when the season gets underway. Several players are candidates to share time with Guerrero, including speedster Dee Gordon, non-roster invitees Brendan Harris, Chone Figgins and Justin Turner and minor-league defensive whiz Miguel Rojas.

"There's great value in being able to play great defense," Colletti said, "especially with plus pitching. And I think our offense should be good enough that if you're carrying somebody at a middle-of-the-diamond position for defense, that you don't suffer. … When you look at the team and you plug everybody (else) in - they're all probably above-average offensive players and some are star offensive players.

"Defense is usually overlooked. It's not as sexy as offense or pitching but it's as important as anything, and if we can stay steady up the middle and play good defense, that's going to translate into a lot of run differential and being able to hold teams to one less run here and there."

Romance is not dead

Spring Training is an idyllic time for practically everyone, even a general manager and manager with a long, grueling quest ahead.

"It's a very refreshing time of year, because you do get back to seeing baseball every day," Colletti said. "Even though you go through a long Spring Training, and you go through six months of a regular season, plus another month of a postseason, when it's over, you miss it. I can't say I miss it the very next day, but I probably miss it within the next few days. And then you wait. And you wait and you wait, and you think and you think. When you start to see players and you start to see workouts and you start to see even exhibition games, it's a very romantic time of the year for sport."

"It's the fresh start," Mattingly said. "You're going to see all 30 teams that are excited about their chances, what-ifs, dreams - everyone dreaming to be that champion. Every year is like that, a fresh beginning, because you never know what's going to happen, right? I always tell fans, go to Spring Training - that's the best time. If you want to get closer to players, see what's really going on, go to Spring Training. They're a little more relaxed, not every game's on the line. I think just a better experience."

Don't be confused, however. Amid all that peace, the pennant chase begins. Habits are formed. The tone is set.

And memories of a near-miss from a not-so-distant October reverberate for the coming season.

"You hope so," Mattingly said. "As a coach, you're always asking guys to pay attention to all the details. Every little thing can cost you a game, as you try to get in the playoffs. And if you're in the playoffs, everything is magnified, every run is important, every extra base is important. … The teams are all really good, your margin of error so small and one game at that time of year changes everything."

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