Strong finish sparks hope for Dodgers in 2012

Reporting from Phoenix — Finishing the season with a winning record might not seem significant for a franchise that has won six World Series titles and counts Sandy Koufax and Duke Snider among its former players.

But consider this: The Dodgers were a season-worst 14 games under .500 on July 6.

“I’m proud of my guys,” said Matt Kemp, a leading candidate to win the National League’s most valuable player award.

Management’s enthusiasm about the team’s turnaround was more tempered.


“All things considered, it’s a plus,” General Manager Ned Colletti said.

The Dodgers filed for bankruptcy in June. Their players spent more than 900 games on the disabled list. Five players’ seasons ended with operations, including All-Star outfielder Andre Ethier’s.

If there was a positive aspect to the countless injuries, it was that it offered the Dodgers an opportunity to learn something about the prospects in their minor league system.

Some of the young players, such as closer Javy Guerra, thrived. And with James Loney transforming from one of the worst offensive first baseman in baseball to one of the best, the Dodgers started to win.

Still, the need to improve is obvious.

“I’m not going to sit here and say .500 is good enough,” Manager Don Mattingly said.

Based on what they saw over the last two months, Colletti and Mattingly said they believe the Dodgers are only a player or two away from returning to the postseason. Colletti has intimated that player could be Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, as he said the Dodgers might consider offering a nine-figure contract to a free agent.

Reasons to be optimistic

• The Dodgers might have the best position player in the league in Kemp and the best starting pitcher in the league in Clayton Kershaw. A bona fide five-tool player, Kemp recovered from an underwhelming 2010 season to make a run at the National League triple crown. He also emerged as a clubhouse leader. Kershaw won the pitching version of the NL’s triple crown, as he was the league’s co-leader in wins and outright leader in earned-run average and strikeouts. Kemp will be with the Dodgers for at least one more season and Kershaw for at least three more. Colletti said he would work to sign both to long-term extensions.

• Jonathan Broxton last pitched in May and will be a free agent this winter, but the back end of the bullpen looks promising. Guerra, a rookie, emerged as a dependable closer. In four-plus months with the team, Guerra encountered and overcame a variety of obstacles. He pitched his way out of jams, he recovered from a blown save and he once pitched on three consecutive days. Setup man Kenley Jansen, another rookie, has turned into one of baseball’s most dominant relievers. A catcher in the Dodgers’ system as recently as 2009, Jansen averaged more than 16 strikeouts per nine innings.

• Mattingly was noticeably uncomfortable when asked if he envisioned certain players as starters next season. One such player was rookie shortstop Dee Gordon. “I hate saying yes,” Mattingly said, “but yeah.” Mattingly was encouraged by how the player the Dodgers recalled from triple A in August wasn’t the same player they had sent down a month earlier. “That tells me he’s making adjustments,” Mattingly said. The same was true of outfielder Jerry Sands, who was sent down in June and recalled this month. Sands, who had a 14-game hitting streak this month, has an outside shot at starting in left field next year.

Reasons to be pessimistic

• The Dodgers are in bankruptcy and they could remain that way for some time. Embattled owner Frank McCourt has asked the federal Bankruptcy Court to postpone a hearing on the potential sale of the team to at least December. Parties involved in the bankruptcy proceedings have said the team’s status as a bankrupt company shouldn’t prevent the club from offering big contracts this winter. But Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president for labor relations, hasn’t said whether the league might challenge a nine-figure contract, or whether he believes any of the Dodgers’ creditors might do so.

• Why were the Dodgers 14 under .500 in the first place? They had no offense. And if they fail to add Fielder or Pujols, they could have no offense again next seasonbecause the drop-off among free agents after those two will be considerable. The pitfalls of trying to build a team by shopping the second tier of the free-agent market were best exemplified by Juan Uribe, whom the Dodgers signed last winter to a three-year, $21-million deal. Uribe was on the disabled list twice and his season ended with surgery for a sports hernia. When he played, he barely contributed, batting .204 with four home runs in 77 games. His performance was so substandard that Mattingly said he isn’t guaranteed a starting position next year.

• Hiroki Kuroda will be a free agent this off-season and could return to Japan. Kuroda posted a 3.07 earned-run average and pitched 202 innings, which will be difficult to replace in this free-agent market. If Kuroda departs, the Dodgers will be left with three established starters in Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly. What was a strong point for the Dodgers could turn into a weakness.