2011 was a topsy-turvy year for Dodgers fans. It seemed like during the season, the stories focused on the off-field exploits of vilified owner Frank McCourt. It wasn’t until the postseason awards were handed out that the players became the story.
McCourt unleashed a steady bomb assault on the franchise only to be met by fans resisting with the only weapon they had – their wallets. Tales about who wasn’t sitting in the seats took up more newspaper space than the game recaps. Season ticket sales fell to new lows (17,000 down from 27,000 before McCourt took over) and, even though the Dodgers ranked 6th in the NL in tickets sold, actual game attendance was less than 50% of stadium capacity.
Meanwhile, Clayton Kershaw won the Cy Young award, and outfielder Matt Kemp (.324, 39 HR, 126 RBI) narrowly lost out on both the Triple Crown and MVP award. Those two alone became the main reasons why anybody bothered to attend the games at all.
In spite of the turmoil, manager Don Mattingly got 82 wins from this team in 2011. In 2012, fans are ready to embrace both the team and a new owner with open arms. So what can they expect?
Best Case Scenario for 2012
A solid 2012 could be a reality if the team can continue to play the way it did in the second half of 2011. Lost in the storm surrounding the amazing run of the Cardinals and meltdown of the Red Sox was the fact the Dodgers were 41-28 after the All-Star break, including winning 25 of their last 35 games.
Naturally, the continued momentum from the final few months of 2011 rests on the four shoulders of Kershaw and Kemp. Kershaw (21-5 in 2011), and Kemp are saying all the right things entering spring training. Kemp said his goal is to become the first 50-50 player (home runs and stolen bases) in history. Kershaw is saying he owes it to Dodger legend Don Newcombe to lead this team to the post season. Of course, with the players each signing multi-million dollar deals, they’d better talk nice.
Kemp signed the biggest contract in National League history ($160 million for 8 years) and Kershaw went from a $500,000 annual salary to one that will pay him $19 million over the next three years.
An intangible this year just might be the way fans are expected to return to Chavez Ravine. After McCourt was ousted and the team signed Kemp, the phones in the ticket office were ringing off the hook.
So in 2012, the fans will be back, their two favorite stars are looking to shine even brighter, and the NL West division is shaping up to be a wide open race. 2012 might be more fun than a barrel full of McCourts.
Most Important Dodgers
Outfielder Andre Ethier (.292, 11HR), who joined Kemp and Kershaw on the 2011 All-Star roster, was hampered by a problematic knee late in the season. He was shut down in early September and underwent season-ending surgery. One doctor went on talk radio and believes Ethier has an arthritic knee and may never return at 100%. It will be interesting to see if Ethier, who the past couple of seasons has questioned whether the team is committed to him, is not only healthy but motivated by the fact he becomes a free agent after this season.
First baseman James Loney struggled early on and entered August hitting .253, 35 points below his lifetime average. Just as the annual questions about whether or not Loney was the long-term solution at first base emerged, he caught fire. He batted .354 the last two months of the season, including getting 20 hits in his final 12 games. It will be interesting to see if Loney can overcome the distractions caused by an off-season arrest stemming from a traffic accident and the revelation the Dodgers made a serious offer to Prince Fielder, now with the Tigers.
Speaking of All-Stars, the Dodgers bullpen appears to be grooming a couple of their own. Rookie Javy Guerra took over the closer spot after Jonathan Broxton went down in early May and saved 21 games in 23 chances. Second year reliever Kenley Jansen overcame early season jitters and closed out 2011 as the number one “set up” guy. He surrendered just two runs in his last 31 appearances and had 96 K’s in 53.2 innings in 2011. The bullpen will be counted on this season maybe just as much as it was when it was the most used bullpen in the league during the 2009 run to the NLCS.
Potential Break Out players
All eyes will be on last year’s rookie shortstop Dee Gordon, if you can see him. He has speed that brings up the old joke about being so fast, he might get hit in the head rounding second on his own line drive. Gordon hit .304 and stole 24 bases in his 56 game stint with the team last season. Once the Dodgers unloaded Rafael Furcal to the Cardinals, it became clear the Dodgers were handing the reigns to the 23-year old son of former major league pitcher Tom Gordon.
For the second straight year, the Dodgers enter the season without an everyday left fielder. Veterans Juan Rivera and Tony Gwynn Jr. will probably start the season playing the part. The hope is second year player Jerry Sands, 23, can find a way to exceed expectations. Sands was on the roster in April of last season but an .059 batting average in June saw him fall back to Triple A. Sands got a second chance after Ethier went down and he made the most of it by batting .342 in twenty September games.
Worst Case Scenario
Offense was the biggest problem in 2011. The Dodgers team ranked 23rd in home runs in the majors and ranked in the bottom half of most NL hitting categories. Kemp had 39 home runs by himself in 2011. The entire projected starting 2012 infield, which, in addition to Loney will consist of 2nd baseman Mark Ellis (.248 in 2011), Gordon (.304 in 56 big league games), and third baseman Juan Uribe, had a grand total of 23 last year. And if runs are scarce, pitching will have to be plentiful.
Anyone remember the Twins of the late 80’s? The joke was their rotation of Frank Viola, Frank Viola, and Frank Viola was among the best. That is how the Dodgers rotation sounds except the name is Kershaw. Projected number two starter Chad Billingsley appears to be on a steady decline. He was 44-22 as a Dodger between his 2006 debut and the 2009 All-Star break. Unfortunately, he is just 26-30 since. His strikeout numbers have fallen from a high of 201 in 2008 to 152 last year.
“Aye, Captain Kirk, we’ve got no power……..and the pitching might be shaky too.”
Biggest Areas of concern
The fight for the starting catcher spot is sort of like the world’s tallest leprechaun contest. A.J. Ellis has been a catcher in the Dodgers farm system since 2003 yet has only been able to stay in “The Show” for a total of 87 games. Tom Federowicz was acquired from the Red Sox minor league system late last season. He’s played in only 7 big league games. Veteran journeymen Matt Treanor, 35, and Josh Bard, 34, who batted .212 between them last season, were signed because they had a pulse.
If Billingsley can’t regain his form, don’t count on anyone else in the rotation to make a giant leap forward. The projected “back end” starters are getting a little long in the tooth. Ted Lilly, 36, started his Dodgers career in the middle of 2010 and won his first five starts. Since then, he is 14-18. Aaron Harang, who will turn 34, went 14-7 last season with the Padres but it was his first winning season since 2006. Chris Capuano, 33, has had only one winning season, 2007, in his seven year career. If Kershaw turns out to be an island, the Dodgers might be stranded by July.
Who needs to rebound
In addition to fans hoping Loney and Ethier come back from somewhat disappointing seasons, Uribe is under a microscope. He couldn’t stay healthy last year and batted .204 in just 77 games. Uribe is in the second year of a three year, $24 million contract and will certainly hear the boo birds if he doesn’t contribute.
One other interesting comeback story might be that of reliever Ronald Belisario. Belisario, 29, emerged as a star out of the bullpen in 2009 going 4-3 with a 2.04 ERA. Sadly, an arrest for driving under the influence in June that year brought to light a substance abuse issue that abbreviated his 2010 season and made it impossible to leave his native Venezuela in 2011. Belisario is going to be given a chance to contribute but it won’t be right away. He was suspended the first 25 games of 2012 for failing a drug test. Belisario recently admitted to cocaine use.