20 Days of Thinking Blue: What makes this team different than last year’s National League runner-up?

The countdown has begun, kids. Actually, it’s a little bit past. The opening series (well, the American version) is here, as the Dodgers take on the Padres down in San Diego. To prepare you for the regular season, MAMBINO will tackle 20 of the most important–and some not so important–questions that will get you set up for a year of almost unparalleled expectations. Let’s get it going:
What’s different about this year’s Dodgers and last year’s Dodgers? In other words, what’s changed to win them six more games in the postseason?
As I wrote yesterday, I’m not sure the Dodgers could have done much more towards the end of last season other than “be more healthy”. But that’s not necessarily something you say to a guy with a sprained ankle and another with cracked ribs from a stray fastball, is it?
The Dodgers were two victories away from a World Series and six from a championship. As the old adage goes, as long as a team makes the postseason, they have as good a shot as anyone to win the World Series. The journey to the chip is a combination of luck and momentum, with an emphasis on the latter. The Dodgers had the momentum last season, but couldn’t overcome a few unlucky injuries to key players and of course, one flukishly bad performance from ace Clayton Kershaw.
But the point is to remove as many variables as possible and leave as little room for luck to derail your team. Did the Dodgers do enough of that to make them a true World Series contender this offseason? Theoretically, yes.

Towards the end of the playoffs, Don Mattingly was running out of relievers he could trust. Paco Rodriguez was left off the NLCS roster after he completely hit a wall his rookie season. The erratic Ronald Belasario found a new level of inconsistency, one that was rewarded with an offseason non-tender. While Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen were the rocks of the bullpen, rookie Chris Withrow and Carlos Marmol couldn’t really be trusted.

GM Ned Colletti could have left the fortunes on his relievers depending soley on his young pitchers and no one could have blamed him. Instead, he did everything he could to grab veteran relievers for Donnie to trust late in games during the postseason, including re-signing Wilson and lefty J.P. Howell and former Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez to handle 7th inning duties. In addition to the hopeful growth of Withrow and Rodriguez, as well as young fireballer Jose Dominguez, Colletti reloaded the ‘pen with plenty of options for Mattingly to choose from come the fall.

Other than the bullpen and one other key factor, I’m not sure that this team is any more or less equipped to win the World Series this season than last. The Dodgers have Dan Haren instead of Ricky Nolasco, and either Josh Beckett, Paul Maholm or Chad Billingsley as alternate fourth starters rather than Chris Capuano. Justin Turner and Dee Gordon will be playing second rather than Mark Ellis, which may be a net loss on both defense and offense. They still have an offense that can be extremely vulnerable to great postseason pitching, but alternately could be very destructive when centered around Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig.

But that one key factor? That’s Matt Kemp.

The 2010 NL MVP runner-up has been a physical wasteland for the past two season, derailed with shoulder and ankle injuries that have made him a shell of the player he was. He’s barely been able to take the field without being hampered with injury, both of which he seems to have shaken following two offseason surgeries. If he’s able to come back to the player he was once–which I’m extremely dubious of–then he presents a gigantic difference between last year’s playoff team and this year’s.

Combined with a deeper, more powerful bullpen and perhaps the re-emergence of Matt Kemp, this year’s Dodgers team looks like they could have even better chances in October. In the end, it’s all about how well you team is standing at the end of 162 games and if the squad can catch fire at the right time. But if everything breaks right, this team is better than last year’s. That may spell a World Series title.


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