12/26/11 10:00 AM EST
Stars, rookies emerge in trying year for Dodgers
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
They were already 9 1/2 games out of first place in late June when the papers were filed, but the distressing lead-up to the legal distraction played out in an obvious cash crunch that at times overshadowed the play of National League Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and MVP runner-up Matt Kemp.
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.
New manager Don Mattingly knew there would be challenges, 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.
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.
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. James Loney jump-started his flagging career with a second-half offensive revival.
In Juan Uribe, Casey Blake and Rafael Furcal, three-quarters of the starting infield accounted 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 Jonathan 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 had a 30-game hitting streak and an All-Star berth, but knee surgery cut short his season.
Even Rubby De La Rosa, who stepped into the rotation after Jon Garland went down with season-ending shoulder surgery, blew out his elbow after showing flashes of brilliance. Vicente Padilla also was lost for most of the year with arm and neck surgeries.
Here are the Dodgers' top five story lines of 2011:
1. Owner Frank McCourt files for bankruptcy protection.
Next year, the No. 1 story line will be the sale to a new owner, if not the complete turnaround on the field that followed. Unfortunately, the 2011 season was overshadowed by the bankruptcy filing of one of baseball's most storied franchises. With general manager Ned Colletti's payroll restricted, on the field the Dodgers finished third and had to rally just to have a winning record.
2. Kershaw wins the Cy Young Award.
Living up to comparisons with Sandy Koufax, 23-year-old Clayton Kershaw won the Dodgers' 10th Cy Young Award by capturing the pitching Triple Crown in only his third full Major League season. Among other achievements, he was the club's first 20-game winner since 1990, he went 12-2 against the NL West, 5-0 against the Giants and 4-0 against Tim Lincecum.
3. Kemp bounces back into franchise-player status.
At the end of a disappointing 2010 season, Kemp predicted he would go 40/40 in 2011 and he missed by only one home run. Kemp finished second for the MVP Award (Ryan Braun won) and nearly won the batting Triple Crown. After calling him out last year, Colletti didn't trade Kemp but motivated him and then rewarded one of the game's best young players with an eight-year, $160 million contract.
4. Mattingly survives rookie season as manager.
Following Joe Torre, one of the most accomplished managers in the history of the game, Mattingly had never managed anywhere but the Arizona Fall League until taking the helm of the Dodgers. Despite encountering all kinds of owner-caused distractions and playing with a limited hand, Mattingly kept his club afloat through a slow start, and the Dodgers rallied by going 40-24 over the final 64 games.
5. The pipeline delivers.
The player development system, which has had uneven results in recent years, promoted a handful of prospects that Colletti wouldn't trade, and they made an impact. Gordon took over shortstop and triggered the trade of Rafael Furcal. Guerra, Jansen and Lindblom made expendable an injured Broxton and erratic Kuo. De La Rosa moved into the starting rotation, and when his elbow blew out, Eovaldi stepped in to replace him.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.