GLENDALE, Ariz. -- An unexpected thing happened late in the summer of what had once seemed a nightmare 2011 for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers -- who had been undermined by the failing ownership of Frank McCourt; who had fallen to 14 games under .500, at 37-51, on July 6 -- simply did not want the season to end. They went 41-28 after the All-Star break. Each of the seven teams with better second-half records made the playoffs, and the Dodgers felt sure that they could have joined them, had only the season extended just a little bit longer.
"Ted Lilly said something to me later that made me feel really good," said manager Don Mattingly on Thursday at the Dodgers' spring training facility in Glendale, Ariz., of his veteran starter. "He came up to me and said, 'Skip, we need another month.' I said, 'I love that feeling.' Most teams that were in our situation would've packed it up. These guys kept playing hard. Wasn't like, at the end of the year, everyone couldn't wait to get out of there."
The Dodgers' unmatched pair of superstars, centerfielder Matt Kemp and starter Clayton Kershaw, were brilliant throughout, and thoroughly deserved to be named the National League's Cy Young Award winner (which Kershaw was) and MVP (which Kemp almost was, and ought to have been). But early on, Los Angeles once and for all proved that a team cannot win consistently even if it has the league's best pitcher and best offensive player, but little else.
In July, though, GM Ned Colletti picked up outfielder Juan Rivera, who was unwanted and cast off by the Blue Jays. Rivera drove in 46 runs in just 62 games for the Dodgers ("Biggest change? Juan Rivera. No question," says Mattingly). Then first baseman James Loney, now slotted into the lineup behind Rivera, started to hit (his second half OPS was .914). Then the Dodgers' bullpen coalesced behind a pair of rookies, closer Javy Guerra (2.31 ERA) and Kenley Jansen (2.85). Then the lineup was invigorated further by the promotion of 23-year-old leadoff-hitting shortstop Dee Gordon, the fantastically athletic son of Tom, who hit .372 with 12 stolen bases in September alone. While no one was watching -- and fewer than three million fans came to Dodger Stadium for the first time in a decade -- L.A. finished above .500, at 82-79.
"Those last two months, as we started to get settled and healthy and infuse healthy players -- that's what we lean on," says Colletti.
Sources say that the Dodgers, despite their uncertain financial situation due to the team's ongoing sale, made a creative effort to add a second MVP-caliber bat to their lineup in the form of free agent slugger Prince Fielder. The Dodgers were reportedly prepared to offer the former Brewer a front-loaded seven-year contract worth around $162 million that would have paid him $26 million in each of the first three seasons, and $21 million in each of the four thereafter -- but which would have allowed Fielder to opt out after the third or fourth year, potentially allowing him a second opportunity hit the open market while still in his prime.
But Fielder decided to accept the long-term security of the Tigers' nine-year, $214 million deal, leaving the Dodgers -- whose payroll, in total, projects to be approximately $90 million -- to cobble together an off-season haul comprised of less heart-quickening veterans, like second baseman Mark Ellis, starters Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang and backup catcher Matt Treanor. Even so, the Dodgers appear poised to perhaps launch a surprise bid to contend with the favorites in the NL West, the Diamondbacks and the Giants, due to the core that came together so quickly in last season's second half.
Kemp and Kershaw remain the most important pieces. Kemp has set off some commotion this spring with the revelation that his goal for 2011 is to become the first major league player to hit 50 home runs and steal 50 bases in a single season. The commotion resulting, of course, from the fact that Kemp appears as if he might be able to accomplish the feat -- he had 39 homers and 40 steals last season -- even though goals mean little this time of year, an optimistic time in which every player, even Treanor (who has exactly four career stolen bases), might dream of doing something like going 50-50.
The Dodgers' hope for Kemp and Kershaw is mainly that they will be able to do something similar to what they did last year. "There are a lot of guys that have had good seasons like that," says Mattingly, himself a former MVP winner during his playing career. "The great ones put it together like that all the time."
"That's the plan, we'll see how it goes," says the 23-year-old Kershaw, who last season led the National League in wins, ERA, strikeouts, WHIP and hits allowed per nine innings, among other things, and won not only the Cy Young award but a Gold Glove.
As it did last season, the Dodgers' fate will rest with their 23 non-superstars. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about their unexpectedly heartening 2011 was that they managed to win despite the lack of sustained contributions from the players who are arguably their third-, fourth- and fifth- most important -- in some order, Loney, rightfielder Andre Ethier and No. 2 starter Chad Billingsley. Before his second-half breakout, Loney was, through 91 games, hitting .268, with four home runs. Ethier hit just 11 home runs before being shut down in September with a knee injury. The 27-year old Billingsley, an All-Star in 2009, went 11-11, with a career-low ERA of 4.21.
"We need Chad, James and Andre to do what you would typically expect them to do," says Colletti. "Not exceed expectations. Do what even they think they are capable of."
If that happens, then it should hasten the return of a day on which the uttering of the club's name will conjure more than images of distasteful boardroom wrangling. "When people think of the Dodgers, they'll think more of the baseball team than anything else that might be circulating around it," says Colletti. "That'll be a positive."