Matt Kemp has heard the whispers: The Dodgers don’t have chemistry.
Kemp shook his head. “That’s what I keep hearing people say,” he acknowledged.
This view, or some variation of it, is the crux of every argument that a team other than the Dodgers will win the National League West.
A record payroll of $230 million has afforded the Dodgers a lineup with five former All-Stars, including sidelined shortstop Hanley Ramirez, and a rotation topped by two former Cy Young Award winners. But as forecasters project baseball’s division winners, the choice in the West is more often the San Francisco Giants.
The Giants have won the World Series in two of the last three years, and are viewed as a team overflowing with chemistry because they did it with a largely unremarkable lineup.
The Arizona Diamondbacks value chemistry so much that they traded one of baseball’s more talented players, Justin Upton, to the Atlanta Braves for a package of players built around workmanlike Martin Prado.
Dodgers co-owner Magic Johnson believes in the importance of cohesion, which is why he has emphasized the importance of leadership when speaking to his players.
Johnson said the Dodgers lack a clear-cut leader. Kemp, who plays with an infectious, childlike enthusiasm, is probably the closest they have to such a figure. Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier are reserved. Clayton Kershaw is a pitcher, meaning he is on the field only once every five days.
Johnson contends that leadership duties can be divided, pointing to his Lakers teams as an example. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was quiet and led by example. Michael Cooper used to scream at teammates when he felt they were making halfhearted efforts to play defense.
“There’s a mix of a lot of different cultures, different personalities, and I think that’s good,” Dodgers second baseman Mark Ellis said. “You have a big personality like Matt and you have a quieter guy like Andre. Clayton’s a young veteran. I think it’s a neat thing you’ve got. Jerry Hairston’s played forever. There’s a lot of people capable of keeping each other in check, keeping each other in line.”
With so many veterans on the team, Kershaw envisions players leading in subtle ways.
“I think it’s more personal relationships — take guys aside, more one-on-one type stuff than team-meeting-type things,” Kershaw said.
But Johnson is confident a dominant personality will emerge from this group, the way his did with the Lakers.
“It will naturally happen,” Johnson said. “You don’t come in and say, ‘This is the guy.’ This team hasn’t been together that long. One of these guys will emerge as the guy. That’s the last piece of this puzzle for us. Who’s going to be that leader?”
It could be Kemp. “He’s the guy that we all kind of lean on,” Kershaw said.
Kemp, who faces the added burden of recovering from a major shoulder operation, accepts the responsibility.
“Of course, I embrace it,” Kemp said. “I mean, I’m probably one of the Dodgers who has been here the longest, me and Dre. I just try to motivate people to be the best. If something needs to be said, I’ll say it.”
Players concede the team is not only in the process of finding its leader, but also discovering its collective identity.
“I don’t think you can define that in six weeks of spring training,” Ellis said. “The season will define our personality. I think as soon as we find our identity, we’ll be a lot better team.”
Several of the team’s high-profile players were acquired in the middle of last season, among them Gonzalez, Ramirez, starting pitcher Josh Beckett and closer Brandon League. The Dodgers finished two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the second wild-card spot, something Johnson blamed in part on how the team was hastily assembled. Johnson said the team would benefit from spending spring training together.
Told what Johnson said, Gonzalez looked as if he had been told his boss believed in the Easter Bunny.
“Did he bring it up?” Gonzalez asked. “Or was it brought up to him?”
One of the Dodgers’ more analytical players, Gonzalez said the failures last season had nothing to do with when players were added.
“There are teams in history that were brought together late and made a run,” Gonzalez said. “If you play the game right, you can win. I don’t care if you were brought in halfway through the year or you were together all year long.
“Let’s be honest. We didn’t hit. It wasn’t because we weren’t capable. We just didn’t hit.”
Gonzalez said being together for the entire season will help, but not because it will give players more time to bond.
“You can endure that two-week span that you don’t hit as a team,” he said. “Last year, when we had that, by the time we turned it around, it was too late. When we got on that hot streak, if we had an extra week, we would have been in the playoffs.”
The Dodgers won seven of their last eight games last season.
More than how well the players appeared to get along in spring training, Gonzalez is encouraged by the balance on the roster.
“When you put a team together, you have to think how a team sets up,” he said. “You can’t put nine five-hole hitters on a team. That won’t be successful. You can’t put nine leadoff hitters on a team. That’s one thing these guys have done a good job of.”
Carl Crawford, who is recovering from elbow surgery, will add speed at the top of the lineup. Kemp, Gonzalez and Ethier will be asked to provide power in the middle, which management thinks will be enough to offset the anticipated two-month absence of Ramirez.
Depth has been added to a pitching staff that finished second in the NL last year with a 3.34 earned-run average. Kershaw, the ace, will be complemented by Zack Greinke, who was signed to a six-year, $147-million contract in the off-season.
Beckett is back, and Chad Billingsley is likely to be too, though he is expected to start the season on the disabled list. Hyun-Jin Ryu remains a bit of an unknown quantity but looks capable of pitching at this level. League, Kenley Jansen and Ronald Belisario provide three power arms at the back end of the bullpen.
“We have every component a team needs,” Gonzalez said.
“That’s why I have a good feeling we’re going to be successful.”