01/01/11 10:00 AM EST
Dodgers looking to rebound after down year
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
They enter 2011 trying to avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1986-87.
History shows the Dodgers have been pretty good at rebounding. In fact, their fourth-place finish in 2010 is a good omen. They finished fourth in '07 and first in '08. They were fourth in '05 and first (tied) in '06. They were fourth in 1993 and first in '94. They were fourth in '87 and not only finished first in '88, but won the World Series.
They've also finished first the last two times they changed managers, in 2006 with Grady Little and in '08 with Joe Torre.
Which sets the scene for Don Mattingly, their rookie skipper handed the reins by Torre in September. General manager Ned Colletti has fortified the pitching staff and added some offense by signing Juan Uribe, and now it's up to Mattingly to pull off another turnaround season, if not a miracle.
He has his work cut out. While the starting rotation is deep, there are questions about closer Jonathan Broxton after a lousy second half in 2010. Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier were off to great starts last season but each got derailed. There's no established left fielder, shortstop Rafael Furcal has turned injury prone and Russell Martin is now a Yankee.
Here are 10 of the biggest questions facing the Dodgers heading into the 2011 season.
1. Is Mattingly ready to manage?
For what it's worth, most of his players believe he is, especially young stars like Clayton Kershaw and Kemp. There's a lot more to good managing than being popular with those you manage, but it doesn't hurt. Then again, his only extended managing experience is a month in the recent Arizona Fall League. He works hard and will expect the same from his players. Hopefully, he can help turn potential into production from a club that underachieved in 2010 for Torre.
2. What happens in left field?
Manny Ramirez is available ... just kidding. It's the one hole that Colletti hasn't filled, unless he thinks Jay Gibbons or Tony Gwynn are full-time solution, and he doesn't. The plan seems to be to see what the in-house candidates can do in a platoon and, if they need to, make a trade during the season, when it's easier to deal for a hitter than it is for a pitcher. With the versatility of infielders Uribe and Jamey Carroll, it's not inconceivable that Casey Blake could see time in the outfield.
3. Is Kemp on the way up or down?
He's only 25 years old and is posting numbers similar at this point to Andre Dawson, a Hall of Famer. His key metrics dipped in 2010 pretty much across the board (except for home runs). But even Colletti, who criticized Kemp during the season, didn't try to trade him. There's a lot of talent there, and that's the rub. The expectations are off the charts, which come from winning a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger at 24. He has fundamental holes after being rushed through the system, and he seems to have a potentially distracting personal life, but a new manager and tweaked coaching staff might be the keys that unlock Kemp's potential.
4. Can Broxton still close?
Broxton's fastball in 2010 lost a few ticks on the radar gun, but management believes his second-half collapse was mostly mental. A closer with doubts is a very dicey proposition, so even though he comes to camp with the job, the assumption is that his leash will be short. With Hong-Chih Kuo and Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers have some options, although Kuo's durability will always be a question mark because of his elbow, and Jansen is so inexperienced the Dodgers aren't ready to anoint him just yet.
5. Will Martin be missed?
The Martin of 2007 and '08 was missed in '09 and '10. For whatever reason, he wasn't the same as during his two All-Star years, and that was long before he broke his hip. Coming off that injury -- as well as knee surgery -- the Dodgers wouldn't guarantee his salary. Whether they can get a full season out of Rod Barajas anything like the six weeks he gave them filling in for Martin is a big unknown. But with Dioner Navarro and A.J. Ellis, the Dodgers have depth at the position.
6. What impact will ownership uncertainty have on the field?
That's probably up to the players. They can use it as a built-in excuse for underachieving, and some believe that was the case in 2010. The club obviously doesn't have the financial resources to spend $100 million-plus for a free agent, although it wasn't spending like that even before the McCourt divorce. But with clever personnel moves, a productive farm system and a reasonable payroll, the Giants and Rangers reached the World Series this past season. The divorce is a reality and there's nothing good about it, but it doesn't automatically eliminate the Dodgers from winning.
7. Will there be enough offense?
Only if Kemp, Ethier and James Loney step up their games. It's unfair to expect Kemp to be Willie Mays or Either to win a Triple Crown or Loney to suddenly slug 30 homers. But in 2010, each virtually disappeared for extended stretches. Except for the '08 stretch run when Ramirez carried the team to the postseason, this roster needs to win as a team, execute fundamentals, play aggressively and score enough runs to utilize a deep pitching staff.
8. Can a first-base coach make a difference for an offense?
By all accounts, Davey Lopes did just that in Philadelphia, and now he returns to his original club after a 29-year exile. The unspoken assignment here is for Lopes to extract the full potential out of Kemp, especially on the bases. Understand that Lopes and Dave Stewart are solid friends. Stewart is Kemp's agent and confidant and, by virtue of that, Lopes arrives with a level of respect, even if, at age 65, he is from an entirely different generation of player.
9. Will Furcal stay healthy?
He's the best offensive catalyst they have and an All-Star when he can stay on the field, but Furcal played only 97 games in 2010 and 36 in '08. It now looks like his back/hamstring issues will require constant management. His value greatly diminishes if he's less than 100 percent and lacks the baserunning and defensive aggressiveness that makes him special. And the Catch-22 is that he plays hard, which is good, except it makes him vulnerable to injury, which is bad. Through no fault of his own, he seems to have become brittle.
10. Is there a prospect under the radar that could make a Jansen-type impact?
Rubby De La Rosa isn't under the radar, having won the organization's Pitcher of the Year award at age 21, but he is only 21. If it's not De La Rosa, a real darkhorse is Steven Ames, also a right-handed pitcher, and his relief numbers at Class A Great Lakes jump off the page -- 44 strikeouts and three walks in 28 1/3 innings, with 16 saves and no home runs allowed. Both are invites to the Dodgers' development minicamp in January.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.