1. Matt Kemp might be the best athlete in the majors
It didn't take long for Dodgers first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz to become a believer. A non-roster invitee last spring, Mientkiewicz admits that he'd first arrived in the clubhouse "on the fence" about Kemp, who was then all of 24. To Mientkiewicz, the precocious center fielder could seem "a little arrogant" from afar. But after about 15 minutes with him, Mientkiewicz says, "I became a big-time Matt Kemp fan." And while clutch-hitting right fielder Andre Ethier may have been the team's MVP last year, teammates see Kemp -- who won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger and notched 26 homers, 34 steals and 101 RBI -- as the squad's "igniter." Explains Mientkiewicz: "Matty can beat you with a stolen base. Matty can beat you with his glove. He can beat you with a homer. He can beat you with an infield single."
He can and does. As another veteran teammate, catcher Brad Ausmus, sees it, "Other than [Mets center fielder] Carlos Beltran, Matt may have the best tools of any player I've ever seen in my entire career." But his breakout last year came because he learned to rely on more than that athleticism. Opposing pitching coaches testify that Kemp, already an exceptional low-ball hitter, can no longer be overpowered with breaking balls. And while TMZ has lately been staking out the player's vacations -- Kemp unsubtly dates the singerRihanna -- he also spent his off-season training with a personal hero, Twins center fielder and defensive whiz Torii Hunter. "I don't know if anybody could have pictured all this, especially so early," Kemp says. "But I'm living a dream."
2. The rotation needs a lot more than Clayton Kershaw
Though the Dodgers led the league in team ERA last year (3.41), this season figures to be a different story. With the team's financial status in flux due to the divorce proceedings of owner Frank McCourt, Los Angeles enters the season with a starting rotation that is arguably the thinnest in the division. While the Dodgers declined to re-sign left-hander Randy Wolf (3.23 ERA, 1.10 WHIP in 214.1 IP) -- their most consistent starter -- the others in the division bulked up, either returning injured horses (e.g. Jeff Francis in Colorado, Chris Young in San Diego, Brandon Webb in Arizona) or adding them (e.g. Arizona shrewdly nabbed the rejuvenated erstwhile Dodgers prospect Edwin Jackson). When you add in the unsettling second-half breakdown of 25-year-old righty Chad Billingsley -- who went all the way from All-Star ace to limited bullpen duty in the playoffs -- suddenly young Clayton Kershaw (2.79 ERA and 185 Ks in 171.0 IP), the new new ace, has as much pressure on him to succeed as any 21-year-old in baseball.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Kershaw looks like he has the right stuff. "Clayton's learning curve has been extremely fast," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt says, and worth pointing out, given Billingsley's troubles, is that Kershaw has already overcome a (shorter) rough stretch of his own. "It was miserable...and a very dramatic turnaround," Honeycutt says, referring to a period from April 21 to May 12 when Kershaw had a 6.92 ERA. But while the youngster now has a chance to solidify his place in the Dodgers' lineage of star lefties, it's no secret that you need three very good-to-great pitchers to win a World Series -- even the 2001 Diamondbacks that were led by Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson got a breakout year from Miguel Batista. It remains to be seen if Los Angeles even has two.
3. This lineup is still the most potent in the National League
It starts with that autochthonous foursome of Kemp, Ethier, first baseman James Loney and catcher Russell Martin (who's currently nursing a strained adductor muscle in his right groin, for which he's expected to be out four to six weeks). Since their collective promotion in 2006 -- and the expectations immediately heaped upon them -- it's been nice to see an all-too-rare case of hype fulfilled. But they're not the only weapons. Let's not forget about...
Now that talk of steroids and fertility has wended its way out of the current conversation, Manny kicked off the spring by immediately predicting that this was his last year in L.A. (which he later retracted). Which is all to say that there have always been two constants with Ramírez: that he will do or say vaguely insane things and that he will kill the baseball. I won't bet against him.
Ask Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki about the pitching in this division and he'll spotlight the Dodgers bullpen, specifically citing two men: closer Jonathan Broxton and nasty righty-hander Ronald Belisario, who emerged as lights-out in his rookie campaign (2.04 ERA, 64 strikeouts in 70.2 IP). Add in George Sherrill, who was terrific after being acquired from the Orioles at midseason, posting a 0.65 ERA with Los Angeles, and the Dodgers have a distinct advantage over most teams in the late innings.
There are some big dudes in the NL West, including Padres outfielder Kyle Blanks (6-6, now 273 pounds), for example, and starting pitcher -- and former Princeton center -- Chris Young (6-10, 278). But trust me: as sheer bigness goes, no one is as visually arresting up-close as Broxton (6-4, 290), who's exactly as his last name sounds. ... I had the pleasure of attending DonMattingly's first-ever managerial press conference, held around a golf cart the morning Joe Torre left for the team's trip to Taiwan. The affable Mattingly, who said he was a career 1-1 in games wherein he took over for an ejected Torre, revealed that he was close to taking the Washington Nationals' managerial job before the Dodgers sat him down for an encouraging talk about his future in L.A. And then Donnie Baseball, well-versed in the art of press relations, ended the chat by asking, "So: was I boring enough for you?" ... The Dodgers' brand-new facility at Camelback Ranch in Glendale is by far the nicest digs in the division, a base befitting the strongest brand in the National League. Come for the baseball, stay for the orange grove -- and, if you're lucky, special instructor Manny Mota will even let you put a baseball in the basket of his blue tricycle and bring the item back to you autographed by a player.