The Dodgers produced something of a surprise hit last season after several big-budget flops, and the sequel has blockbuster potential.
General Manager Dan Evans provided everything Manager Jim Tracy requested, signing five-time All-Star first baseman Fred McGriff as the centerpiece of a cost-conscious plan and bolstering the batting order and bench.
Then, injury-plagued starting pitchers Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort pushed the bar higher with strong spring performances, so third place isn’t good enough this time.
The Dodgers hope to reclaim their standing as a premier franchise despite uneasiness in the front office as News Corp. tries to sell the team. They believe they’re the best in the National League West and, for the first time in a long time, they might be right.
“We all have a sense of confidence and urgency about this season,” catcher Paul Lo Duca said. “Watching the Angels and Giants, our two biggest rivals, in the World Series last year really didn’t sit well with a lot of us. The Lakers won three straight championships and the Angels won the World Series, and we probably have lost some fans, to be honest about it.
“This has been building the last couple of years, to where we feel we’re one of those teams that should win. We don’t look at anything less as being acceptable with the talent and focus we have. We’d be lying if we said there wasn’t a strong feeling here about getting this club back to where it used to be in L.A. And doing it now.”
The Dodgers last won a division title in 1995 and qualified for the playoffs in ’96. They haven’t had a postseason victory since the 1988 World Series -- the longest drought in L.A. franchise history.
The club finished 92-70 and remained in playoff contention longer than most expected in 2002, but Tracy felt handcuffed with few roster options. Evans delivered, overcoming an inherited payroll mess to provide more maneuverability for the manager. And Evans did it on budget, reducing the payroll from $120 million to about $112 million -- under the $117-million luxury-tax threshold.
“You’ve got to give Danny a lot of credit for the moves he’s made,” All-Star right fielder Shawn Green said. “You look at our team now, and we’ve got so many different options and depth we didn’t really have in the past.
“When you see what we’ve added, it definitely makes you think that this is a team that should win. That’s the way we’re looking at it.”
Green has hit at least 40 home runs the last two seasons, accomplishing the feat three times in the last four years. With Dave Roberts emerging as a solid presence atop the batting order and the addition of McGriff, a consistent power hitter who needs 22 home runs to reach 500, the lineup could be formidable if sixth-spot hitter Adrian Beltre produces.
Eric Gagne had a breakthrough season as a first-year closer, establishing a club record with 52 saves, and Dodger relievers were fifth in the league with a 3.59 earned-run average. The rotation was third with a 3.74 ERA and tied for third with 66 victories -- without Dreifort, and mostly without Brown.
Even the usually cautious Tracy acknowledges the Dodgers are built to do big things in 2003.
“Are the people on this team a very special group who could accomplish some very special things in the National League West? The answer to the question is yes,” said Tracy, who has guided the Dodgers to consecutive third-places finishes. “When you talk about the Los Angeles Dodgers of the past, and the way this organization was looked at in terms of being one of the best, that’s something that we’re very, very interested in getting back to, and maintaining it for a long time.”
Brown and Dreifort are keys to that plan.
Brown, 38, reverted to form in spring after six stints on the disabled list the previous three seasons. The former staff ace, returning from back and elbow problems, says he can still be the pitcher who worked at least 230 innings from 1996 through 2000.
“No one gave me any reason why I couldn’t be even better before [spring training], and nothing has happened since to make me think anything different,” said Brown, who led the NL with a 2.58 ERA in 2000, his last full season. “The goal is to be better, and that’s the approach I’m always going to take.
“Things haven’t gone too smoothly the last couple of years to where the club knew they could count on me. We’re at the point now where all I can do is just go out there and see what happens.”
Dreifort is right with him.
He has traveled an even bumpier road, making his last regular-season appearance on June 29, 2001. Team physician Frank Jobe, who pioneered the elbow procedure Dreifort has twice undergone, said the former No. 2 overall draft pick would be the first pitcher to successfully return from multiple major elbow reconstructions.
A historic return seems possible after Dreifort’s impressive exhibition performance. He displayed the power that has tantalized the Dodgers, and an improved approach.
At 31, he hopes he has finally turned a corner physically.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming into this, and after everything that’s happened I’m not going to look ahead,” said Dreifort, who has four victories in the first two seasons of a five-year, $55-million contract. “The only thing that matters is everything is intact.”
Of course, it’s still a 162-game season, and Brown and Dreifort haven’t crossed the finish line in a while.
“But it’s not all on Brownie and Dreif,” Roberts said. “We’re all excited about what it’s going to mean to have them back, but there’s so much talent on this team that we don’t have to depend on any one guy.
“Really, when you look at it, it would be a big disappointment if we didn’t get to the playoffs and do something once we’re in. There’s no reason we shouldn’t.”