Los Angeles Dodgers Preview

The Los Angeles Dodgers finally put it all together. After Magic Johnson’s ownership group dropped some serious coin on player acquisition, the Dodgers of 2013 looked on their way to underachievement and a managerial change in June. Then Yasiel Puig came up from the minors, Hanley Ramirez got healthy and Los Angeles didn’t stop until they reached the National League Championship Series. As we get set for 2014, here’s our Notebook Nine points to know about the Dodgers.

*No one is underestimating Los Angeles. The Dodgers are an 11-2 betting line favorite to win their first World Series since 1988. Keep in mind this comes with a popular public team winning last year in the Red Sox, with the New York Yankees having opened the bank vault, and with the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers still drawing a lot of respect in Las Vegas. The betting market loves their Dodgers, and the Over/Under on the win futures is set at 93.

*It all starts with Clayton Kershaw. The lefthanded ace of the rotation has two Cy Young Awards under his belt, and has established that he’s good for 15-20 wins, 200-plus innings and an ERA in the low 2s. Last year he was even better, with an ERA of a buck-83. It won him his second Cy Young Award and I felt should have won him the MVP. The fly in the ointment? He got the ball in St. Louis for Game 6 of the NLCS, appeared to get rattled and got hit hard, ending the Dodger season. If this franchise is to win three playoff rounds, they have to hope it was one bad night and not a pattern.

*The starters immediately behind Kershaw give the team a very good top three. Zack Greinke posted a 2.63 ERA as the #2 starter, his best year since winning the 2009 AL Cy Young award in Kansas City. Hyun-Jin Ru won 14 games and established himself as a solid #3. This will be Ru’s second year in the majors and if he improves on his 3.00 ERA—which is realistic—Los Angeles is going to have an ace-caliber pitcher going 60 percent of the time.

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*It’s the back end of the rotation that’s problematic, but given that’s the case most everywhere, the Dodgers have better hope than most in these spots. Dan Haren will get a chance to revive his career after a couple mediocre seasons. The same goes for Josh Beckett, now 33-years-old and who hasn’t pitched well since the first five months of 2011. Beckett would be most interesting in the postseason, where his track record with Florida in 2003 and Boston in 2007 have given him a deserved reputation as a clutch performer.

*Before we turn this post into a long celebration of the Dodger virtues, they are relying on a lot of veterans who are question marks. Catcher A.J. Ellis sharply declined last year and is 32-years-old. Juan Uribe, the 34-year-old third baseman had his best year in four seasons, but is that realistic to continue? Carl Crawford hasn’t had a good year since 2010 in left field. Matt Kemp getting hurt has to now be taken as given. The bullpen relies on Brian Wilson, Chris Perez and Brandon League. That’s all in addition to Beckett and Haren. The potential payoff if the vets perform is big, but that’s a lot of potential weak points for a World Series favorite.

*Continuing on the question mark theme, there’s the middle ground of Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier. The first baseman and outfielder are each on the wrong side of 30 now. Gonzalez hasn’t been an MVP-type player since hurting his shoulder midway through 2011. Ethier’s power is in decline. They’re both still good players, but no longer stars.

*Second base is another question mark, but I like what the Dodgers are doing here. It’s looking like they’ll give 25-year-old Dee Gordon a chance. A natural shortstop, Gordon has good speed and a good glove. If he can get his bat going, he’ll be a big addition. If nothing else, he at least ensures good defense and he can gives manager Don Mattingly some flexibility. If Uribe doesn’t pan out again, the Dodgers can shift Hanley Ramirez to third and put Gordon back at short.

*Speaking of Hanley…now we get back to the reasons this team is the World Series favorite. Injuries limited him to 304 at-bats last year, but Ramirez posted a stat line of .402 on-base percentage/.638 slugging percentage, his best performance in three years. He’s in a contract year and should be hungry. He and Puig, whose stat line was .391./.534 are the players who have to carry this offense.

*Kenley Jansen had a breakout year as the closer, nailing down 28/32 save chances with a 1.88 ERA. The fact the Dodgers have Wilson, Perez and League—all who have had successful runs as closers—does suggest a little bit of caution. Given how precarious bullpen success can be, I think that caution is appropriate. It wouldn’t shock me if Wilson—the closer for the San Francisco Giants’ 2010 championship team—ends up pitching the ninth inning before all is said and done.

I don’t buy on Los Angeles as a World Series favorite. There’s too many question marks in the everyday lineup for that. But if you want to sell me on a team that will end up with 90-96 wins, take home the NL West and enter October as one of three or four teams with a good chance to win the whole thing? Sure, I’ll buy on that. That makes the win future so interesting, as I think 93 is really a sharp betting number, likely to be close to right on. I’ll make a slight lean to picking the Over.