Clayton Kershaw, the reigning NL Cy Young, leads L.A. in its NL West title defense. (Matt King/Getty Images)
2013 Record and Finish: 92-70, first place in NL West (seventh overall); lost NLCS to St. Louis
2014 Projected Record: 99-63, first place in NL West
The Case For
The Dodgers won their division by 11 games last year, the largest margin in the majors, doing so on the strength of a 54-27 (.667) record over the season’s final three months, after which they advanced to the National League Championship Series. They did that despite significant time lost to injury by Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, and, earlier in the year, Zack Greinke. This year, they hope to get larger contributions from all four of those players plus a full season from sophomore Yasiel Puig. They’ve restored their rotation depth by signing Dan Haren and Paul Maholm, with Chad Billingsley set to return from his Tommy John rehab early in the year. They still have the best pitcher in baseball fronting their outstanding rotation in Clayton Kershaw (sore back notwithstanding). Their bullpen is as deep as their rotation, featuring three former closers working as setup men in Brian Wilson, Chris Perez and lefty J.P. Howell, and three other pitchers who struck out more than ten men per nine innings last year in closer Kenley Jansen (13.0), righty Chris Withrow (11.2), and lefty Paco Rodriguez (10.4).
The Case Against
Their lineup is old and injury-prone, and thus has a significant potential for collapse. Third baseman Juan Uribe is 34 and posted a 54 OPS+ in a mere 143 games in 2011 and 2012 combined. Catcher A.J. Ellis will be 33 in April and saw his on-base percentage fall 56 points last year. Carl Crawford is 32 and not much more than a league-average player who has averaged 92 games per season over the last three years. Andre Ethier will be 32 in May and is in desperate need of a right-handed platoon partner. Adrian Gonzalez will be 32 in May and, though still productive, is a shadow of the hitter he was up until two years ago, likely due to a weakened, surgically-repaired right shoulder. Ramirez had a huge rebirth at the plate last year, but has averaged just 112 games over the last three years and would be hard-pressed to be as valuable over 162 games this year as he was last year, when he was worth 5.4 wins above replacement despite missing roughly half the season. On top of all of that, second base is a huge question mark, with Cuban import Alexander Guerrero starting the year in Triple-A. That leaves some combination of Dee Gordon, Justin Turner, and Chone Figgins, the last of whom was out of baseball last year, to man the keystone. And that doesn’t even get into the volatility of the undeniably talented Puig.
X-Factor: Matt Kemp
Not even the Dodgers know what they have in Kemp any more. In 2011, Kemp was one of the best players in baseball, arguably deserving the league’s MVP award (he finished second in the voting), falling one home run shy of a 40/40 season, and leading the league in home runs, runs, RBI, total bases, and OPS+ as the team’s centerfielder. He was even better the following April, but has struggled to stay healthy since, missing 144 games due to a variety of injuries over the last two seasons. Kemp's medical history from those two years includes strains of both hamstrings, two surgeries on his left shoulder and, perhaps most significantly, a fracture of the talus bone in his left ankle that required microfracture surgery and may yet prove career threatening.
Kemp, who is currently on the disabled list, has been playing in minor league games and is eligible to be activated for the Dodgers’ home opener on April 4. He might be ready by then, and he might return to his MVP form, forcing his way back into the Dodgers’ crowded outfield and the heart of the lineup, giving that shaky offense a major boost. He might need to be eased back in, providing Ethier with that platoon partner in center and giving the fragile Crawford additional days off. He might get hurt again, or find that his body doesn’t respond the way it used to and that he, like Crawford and Gonzalez, is unable to produce at his customary levels. He might re-injure his ankle and never play again. There are few X-factors heading into this season as significant and mysterious as Matt Kemp.
Number To Know: 23-38
Everyone knows the Dodgers went 53-13 from June 22 to September 3 of last year, an .803 winning percentage over 66 games. That rate of success over that quantity of games has not been seen since the 1954 Indians, who finished with 111 wins. But in the 61 games leading up to that absurd run, L.A. went a mere 23-38. That translates to a .377 winning percentage, a lower mark than what the Marlins put up on the season as a whole. There’s temptation to project the Dodgers to regress a bit this season given the extreme nature of that 66-game winning streak, but they appear to have experienced that regression preemptively.
Most overrated: Alexander Guerrero
"I don’t think Alex Guerrero can play the position. He looks slow, his bat’s slow, he looks uncomfortable, he doesn’t look like a major league second baseman, and he’s already 27 years old. At $28 million, that’s looking like a bust."
Most underrated: Hyun-Jin Ryu
"He looks like a big old chubby ball of dough, but he’s very athletic, his stuff is good, and his curveball is really good. He’s a legit No. 3, and I don’t expect him to regress."
[si_video id="video_5F7C2F77-1D51-62E9-3E94-E580CA08F926" height="470"]