09/29/11 10:00 AM ET
LA's second half, youth provide building blocks
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
That they possessed the combined talents of rising All-Stars Clayton Kershaw (More | ) and Matt Kemp (More | ) this year and still strained to play .500 ball illustrates what a disappointment the 2011 season became.
With complicated ownership issues preventing the acquisition of a needed big bat, the Dodgers knew coming in that things had to go just right. Instead, first-half injuries decimated the roster, held down a marginal offense and required a rebuilding of the bullpen on the fly.
Meanwhile, as the All-Star break approached, the club plunged in the standings and a cash crunch forced ownership to seek federal bankruptcy protection.
Don Mattingly knew there would be challenges for a first-year manager, but through it all, he never whined and his players never quit. In fact, with an injection of youthful energy and the veteran bat of Juan Rivera, the Dodgers turned into one of the winningest second-half teams in the league when they could have packed it in.
"Once we put Juan in the lineup," said Mattingly, "it totally changed us." Better late than never.
Mattingly also credits the "character" of the group for the turnaround.
"I feel I meshed well with the players, but more than that it's the mix of veterans and younger guys who have been around, like Clayton and Matt and James Loney," said Mattingly. "We never had to stay on anyone. There weren't a lot of issues. My main goal was if my club went out and played hard every day, I kind of did my thing. I feel they have. They never stopped playing. And my staff gets a lot of credit.
"The only thing that's really bothered me is not winning. Going into the season we felt we had a better club than this. Being realistic, the injuries kept us from being consistent offensively."
After spending only four days alone in first place in 2010, the Dodgers were in first only three days in 2011 and never after April 4. They fell below .500 on April 29 and didn't break through that benchmark again until Sept. 20, when Kershaw won his 20th, and weren't as high as second place after early May.
Heading into the offseason, the Dodgers have 10 potential free agents -- pitchers Hiroki Kuroda, Jonathan Broxton, Mike MacDougal, Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla; catcher Rod Barajas; infielders Casey Blake, Jamey Carroll and Aaron Miles; and outfielder Juan Rivera.
Record: 82-79, third place in NL West
Defining moment: On June 27, with the ballclub already 9 1/2 games out of first place, the franchise filed for bankruptcy protection.
What went right: Kershaw and Kemp gave the Dodgers their best Cy Young/MVP tandem since Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson swept the awards in 1988. (More | )
Legendary broadcaster Vin Scully announced he would return for 2012 (More | ).
The injuries forced the promotions from the Minor Leagues of closer Javy Guerra, shortstop Dee Gordon, reliever Josh Lindblom, starter Nathan Eovaldi, infielder Justin Sellers, outfielder Jerry Sands and catcher A.J. Ellis. Each used the opportunity to audition impressively for 2012 roles. Rivera, cast off by the Blue Jays, stepped into the middle of the batting order and became the run producer that was sorely missing. Kenley Jansen turned into a record-breaking strikeout machine. Loney jump-started his flagging career with a second-half offensive revival. Kuroda pitched much better than his 16 losses indicated. Veterans Barajas, Carroll, MacDougal, Miles and Tony Gwynn had solid seasons. Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly and Matt Guerrier ate innings. Mattingly puzzled some players with shuffling lineups and double-switches galore, but they never quit on him and he gets big credit for that.
What went wrong: Where to start? How about Juan Uribe, Casey Blake and Rafael Furcal? That's three-quarters of the starting infield accounting for eight stints on the disabled list, two season-ending operations and a trade. Their injuries, and the resulting lack of production, mirrored what happened throughout the roster, resulting in more than 1,000 games missed by injury. Closer Broxton didn't pitch after May 4 because of a bruised elbow, but it wasn't until mid-September that surgery was performed to fix it. By the All-Star break, the Dodgers had abandoned both halves of their left-field platoon of Marcus Thames and Jay Gibbons, and catcher Dioner Navarro wasn't far behind. Hong-Chih Kuo, an All-Star a year earlier, suffered anxiety disorder, while Jansen had an irregular heartbeat. Andre Ethier tried to play through a knee injury, but he wasn't the same hitter and eventually had it fixed. Even Rubby De La Rosa, who stepped into the rotation after Garland went down with season-ending shoulder surgery, blew out his elbow after showing flashes of brilliance and is out for a year with Tommy John surgery. Padilla also was lost for most of the year with arm and neck surgeries.
Biggest surprise: Guerra took over for Broxton, leading a pack of four pitchers promoted from Double-A Chattanooga that turned out to be Major League ready. The others were De La Rosa, Lindblom and Eovaldi.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.