This will be a season of change for the Dodgers. By the end of April, owner Frank McCourt is expected to complete his sale of the once-proud franchise that he took into bankruptcy.
However, on the field it figures to be more of the same. Although Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and most-valuable-player runner-up Matt Kemp are returning, the Dodgers did not make any significant upgrades this winter, the timing of the sale undoubtedly a key factor.
One group of role players was simply replaced with another.
As pitchers and catchers report to spring training on Tuesday, the Dodgers’ roster looks no more imposing than it did last year, when the team finished three games over .500 and third in the National League West.
Among the story lines to follow this spring:
Because of the long-lasting impact it will have, the change in ownership figures to be a bigger story than anything that happens on the field.
The sale will introduce added uncertainty to an already unstable work environment, as there is bound to be speculation about whether General Manager Ned Colletti, Manager Don Mattingly and their staffs will be retained.
If the team is sold by the end of April, the new ownership group’s first opportunity to influence the on-field product will be in the days leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. But to justify a midseason expenditure, the Dodgers probably would have to be within reach of a postseason berth.
Can Kemp and Kershaw do it again? Each had a breakthrough season last year. Kemp made a late-season run at the NL triple crown of hitting (batting average, home runs, runs batted in), and Kershaw won the triple crown of pitching (wins, earned-run average, strikeouts).
Both players were rewarded with big paydays. Kemp signed the most lucrative deal in National League history, $160 million over the next eight seasons. Kershaw, who was eligible for salary arbitration for the first time, signed a two-year, $19-million deal.
Kemp, who finished second in voting for the NL most-valuable-player award, has already predicted he will become the first player in major league history to hit 50 home runs and steal 50 bases in the same season. He finished with 39 home runs and 40 steals last season.
ON THE REBOUND
The offense was nonexistent for most of last season. For that to change, the Dodgers will have to get more out of three players: the frequently injured Andre Ethier, the enigmatic James Loney and the disappointing Juan Uribe.
A two-time All-Star and onetime Silver Slugger award winner as the top hitter at his position, right fielder Ethier could transform the lineup if he regains his form. He blamed his subpar 2011 season on an ailing knee that was surgically repaired in the fall. A healthy Ethier and Kemp could form one of the most dangerous middle-of-the-lineup tandems in baseball.
QUANTITY OVER QUALITY
Faced with a reduced budget, Colletti exchanged rotation quality for quantity, parting ways with Hiroki Kuroda and investing the money on back-end starters Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano.
Kuroda, who was the Dodgers’ second-best pitcher, signed with the New York Yankees. For 60% of what he’ll be paid this season, the Dodgers filled the final two spots in their rotation. But if Harang and Capuano can’t be more consistent than they have been in the past, a rotation that was a strength for the Dodgers last season could turn into a weakness.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Fielding a lineup made up of young players who are projected to be on the team this year, the Dodgers finished last season by winning 25 of their last 35 games. They swept the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, took four of six from the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants, two of three from the Atlanta Braves, and three of six from the NL West champion Arizona Diamondbacks.
They also play in a division that lacks a dominant team. The NL West has had different winners in the last three seasons and four winners in the last six years.
Back-end relievers Javy Guerra and Kenley Jansen look like stars in the making.
REASONS FOR SKEPTICISM
The offense figures to be weak again. Uribe brought back memories of Andruw Jones’ disastrous stint with the Dodgers. Loney has never hit for power and probably never will. Catcher A.J. Ellis and second baseman Mark Ellis will play because of their gloves, not their bats. Juan Rivera injected life into the lineup upon his midseason arrival but can’t be expected to duplicate that performance over a full season.
Dee Gordon. Deciding that Gordon was ready to become their everyday shortstop and leadoff hitter, the Dodgers parted ways with Rafael Furcal at the July 31 trade deadline last season. Gordon, 23, lacks experience and is an erratic fielder but has game-changing speed and a work ethic Mattingly admires. He stole 24 bases in 56 games, which projects to 69 over a full season. He hit .345 in 34 games in the second of his two major league call-ups last season.