9/26/2013 3:05 P.M. ET
Health will be key for Dodgers to take next step
After clinching NL West, club now focused on finding success in postseason
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
SAN FRANCISCO -- Almost ignored in the aftermath of the Dodgers' division-clinching celebration was the bar-setting comment from the most famous voice of ownership.
"We only accomplished Goal #1," tweeted Magic Johnson. "Today we have to set our sights on goal #2 defeating whoever our opponent is in the playoffs!"
Dodger Nation: We only accomplished Goal #1. Today we have to set our sights on goal #2 defeating whoever our opponent is in the playoffs!- Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) September 20, 2013
While the media has been obsessed with the Chase Field pool party, the Dodgers had better turn the page to the next challenge. And to make sure of that, Johnson, who won five NBA titles, slapped them alongside the head with another smack of expectation.
It's the expectation that comes with a $2.15 billion purchase price and a $230 million player payroll, the expectation that comes with a starting rotation headed by a pair of Cy Young Award winners.
Manager Don Mattingly is in the final weeks of his contract, so he doesn't need to be reminded. When you play for billionaires and iconic champions, stratospheric expectations are along for the ride.
"You hear about being favored all winter, all Spring Training and as the season gets underway," said general manager Ned Colletti, who has the Dodgers in the postseason for the fourth time in his eight years in charge. "We still had to play the games. We had to push away all the noise. It's tough when you're expected to win."
It's tougher when the best players can't play. Health dictated the best and worst of times for the Dodgers this year, and it won't be any different in the postseason.
Will Andre Ethier's ankle allow him to play? Can Hanley Ramirez keep his back nerve from flaring? Can Matt Kemp, with three stints on the disabled list already, stay in one piece for another month? Will Yasiel Puig harness his instincts and not try to run through any walls? Can Carl Crawford play hard without breaking?
Who knows? Some are brittle, some play too hard, but whatever the reason, the Dodgers' postseason success probably depends on health more than any other factor. Crawford and Puig appear healthy now, but they've missed games in recent weeks too.
Only Crawford appears to be running hard since their injuries, and the big unknown is whether they can flip the switch to full speed when the playoffs start and, more important, what will be the after-effects when they do?
The Dodgers showed this year they could win without Kemp. But that was when they had Ethier to take over. The midseason turnaround that took them from worst to first was mostly tied to the June return from the disabled list of Ramirez and the promotion from Double-A Chattanooga of Puig.
"You can't say Puig without saying Hanley," said Mattingly. "Puig got a lot of attention. Hanley was the force."
Mattingly, though, goes a little deeper to pinpoint two key moments in the season.
"We really gained confidence on the [July 2-10] trip that we won two of three in Colorado, two of three in San Francisco, then swept the Diamondbacks," he said. "We were able to get to 2 1/2 back at the break, and at that point we knew we were in it. We knew we could have a bad series and still be OK.
"That trip was huge, and the trip out of the break was huge [three-game sweeps in Washington and Toronto]. That gave us a ton of confidence."
To Mattingly, health led to improved play, which led to confidence, which resulted in even better play. Everything that went wrong in the first half had reversed. And plenty had gone wrong.
The loss of Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett, combined with repeated injuries to Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly, left a starting rotation that once had too many to suddenly have too few. Stephen Fife and Matt Magill, not even on the radar coming out of Spring Training, moved into the rotation, but short starts taxed the bullpen.
The rotation was solidified when Colletti dealt three young pitchers to Miami for Ricky Nolasco, who didn't have the marquee value of Matt Garza on the trade market, but turned into a better acquisition. He joined Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, while A.J. Ellis further solidified his status as starting catcher with his pitch calling and control of the running game, backed up by Tim Federowicz.
As Kemp's injuries piled up, the Dodgers asked Ethier to shift over to center field. Ethier, whose intensity was called out by the manager in May, responded with surprisingly solid defense in his new position and more consistent offense. But because of his ankle, his role is now uncertain.
The Dodgers also asked a lot, and received a lot, from bench players Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston, but the acquisition of Michael Young appears to have put Hairston on the roster bubble.
Mattingly also has tough roster choices involving extra starter Edinson Volquez, relievers Brandon League, Chris Capuano and Carlos Marmol and youngsters Scott Van Slyke and Dee Gordon.
In addition to the impact of rookies Ryu and Puig, the Dodgers had a solid comeback season from Crawford and a surprising one from Juan Uribe, who won back the starting third-base job he lost last year and will be looking to duplicate his postseason stardom with the 2010 Giants.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.