Dodgers have potential to be division contenders

The Dodgers in 2012 are a team that can compete for the National League West, but they need a lot of breaks to fall their way in order to contend.

The team finished the 2011 season with 25 wins in their last 35 games, and hopes to carry that momentum into this season.

The offense is pretty much the same one that last season averaged 4.41 runs per game after the All-Star break last season, coinciding with the acquisition of Juan Rivera and the second half improvement of James Loney, who hit .320 with 18 doubles and eight home runs after the midsummer classic in 2011.

Loney is one of the keys for the offense in 2012, whether he can continue his second half performance. Manager Don Mattingly thinks Loney can, thanks to finally finding a consistent swing.

“What I do see is good timing from James. In the past you’d see all kind of different triggers. He’d step back one day, then would be wide. He would try to sit (in his stance) one day then he’d be tall. His hands would be up, his hands would be down,” said Mattingly. “But now he looks the same. He looks like he’s found his rhythm.”

Andre Ethier looks healthy again, and that will be a big boost to the offense if he can return to the form that saw him hit 31 home runs in 2009.

“Right now he looks like himself, and like he did a couple of years ago,” Mattingly said of Ethier. “He’s one of the best hitters in the league when he’s going right.”

Another catalyst for the offense will be speedy shortstop Dee Gordon, slated to bat leadoff and play every day in his first full season. “I don’t think there’s going to be anything that stops Dee,” said Mattingly.

The starting pitching suffered a blow with the loss of Hiroki Kuroda, but gained two veterans to round out the rotation, as Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano were signed to two-year deals. Both have been reasonably effective during spring training, but more importantly they have remained healthy, which will be as big a determinant of their performance in 2012 than anything.

Javy Guerra and Kenley Jansen headline what looks to be a strong Dodgers bullpen, with a mix of youth and veteran arms. What to watch for in the first month or so of the season is if there is room in the bullpen for Blake Hawksworth, who will begin the year on the disabled list after recovering from a pair of offseason elbow surgeries, and Ronald Belisario, who must serve a 25-game suspension for violating MLB’s drug policy. Belisario is eligible to return on May 4, and both he and Hawksworth are out of options so the Dodgers must add them to the active roster or risk losing them to waivers.

If everything breaks right for the Dodgers and they play like they did to end last season, they can contend. But they will need more than just Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp to perform well for the team to make the postseason.

Belisario back from restricted list
   –RHP Ronald Belisario was reinstated from the restricted list on March 22. The Venezuelan reliever, who missed all of 2011 with visa problems and must serve a 25-game suspension for violating MLB’s drug policy, had to be reinstated 30 days after he reported to camp, which was Feb. 21, per Major League rule 16(b).
   –RHP Ramon Troncoso was designated for assignment on March 22 to make room on the 40-man roster to make room for Belisario. Troncoso was considered a long shot to make the Dodgers. “If he keeps the ball down he’s filthy. He hasn’t been able to keep the ball down on a consistent basis,” said manager Don Mattingly. “If he’s not going to be on our club, then hopefully someone that wants to put him in the big leagues wants to make a deal.”
   –3B Juan Uribe, who hit just .204 with four home runs in 77 games in an injury-plagued 2011, will open the season as the starting third baseman, but will be on a short leash. “Number one, Juan needs to be healthy,” Mattingly said. “If he struggles and struggles, I’m going to put a guy out there that’s going to give us a chance to win.”
   –INF Ivan DeJesus Jr. was battling to win the one open roster spot on the Dodgers bench, but that bid was derailed by an injury. DeJesus hurt his side during a swing in the bottom of the seventh inning against the San Francisco Giants and had to be removed from the game during his at-bat. An MRI revealed a torn left oblique for DeJesus, with no timetable for his return to the field.
   –IF/OF Jerry Hairston Jr. will be the primary backup at shortstop this season for Dee Gordon, who doesn’t expect to see many off days. Hairston, who has 12 errors in over 1,000 career innings at shortstop, made four throwing errors in his first two spring games at shortstop. “It’s something that we’ll pay attention to,” said Mattingly. “Jerry doesn’t really scare me. He’s one of those guys that knows where he’s at, getting himself ready to play.”
   –RHP Will Savage, RHP Ryan Tucker, LHP Matt Chico, 1B/3B Jeff Baisley, INF Lance Zawadzki, C Gorman Erickson, and C Matt Wallach was reassigned to minor league camp on March 18.
  –LHP Alberto Castillo, a non-roster invitee to camp, was released on March 18. “We didn’t see him as that guy for us and we didn’t see him being that guy in Triple A waiting around either. We felt it was fair to him to get him out on the wire, let people take a look and give him the best chance to be in the big leagues with somebody,” Mattingly said.

BY THE NUMBERS: 25 — Games Ronald Belisario will miss while serving his suspension for violating MLB’s drug policy. The first game Belisario is eligible to return is May 4 against the Chicago Cubs.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “I’ve been trying to tell you guys for about a year now that this guy can hit. He’s getting a good feel of when to take, when not to take, and when to be aggressive. He’s going to keep getting better.” — Manager Don Mattingly on shortstop Dee Gordon, slated to be the Dodgers everyday leadoff hitter in 2012.