Dodger Kids Showed Promise in 2011

In Ned Colletti's six years as the Dodgers' general manager, the organization has avoided the biggest free agent names, not even bothering to negotiate with players who signed massive long-term contracts. Instead, the Dodgers focused on one- to three-year contracts to stay with the salary restraints imposed by ownership.

They didn't pursue Cliff Lee or CC Sabathia to give the rotation a proven ace. They didn't go after Carl Crawford or Adam Dunn to shore up the lineup.

When they did spend money, it was two years for Andruw Jones, three years for Jason Schmidt, two years for Manny Ramirez, three years for Juan Uribe. All of those contracts proved a disaster, but at least they were relatively short. The reviews are mixed, but mostly negative, on the five-year contract they awarded Juan Pierre.

Adding a lot of medium-priced parts to the roster hasn't worked, especially the last two years, so the focus appears to be shifting this offseason.

In prior years, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp had to wait their turn as veterans Jose Cruz Jr., Luis Gonzalez, Kenny Lofton, Jones and Pierre received more playing time in the outfield.

This year, injuries and poor performance forced the Dodgers to trust their youth.

Power-hitting prospect Jerry Sands was called up in late April, far earlier than expected, and it was probably too soon. The Dodgers trusted speed demon Dee Gordon enough to bring him to the majors in June, also earlier than planned, then traded Rafael Furcal in late July to make permanent room for Gordon at shortstop.

When the bullpen was devastated by injuries to Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo and Vicente Padilla, the Dodgers were forced to go young on the roster.

They could have used Rubby De La Rosa, Javy Guerra, Josh Lindblom, Kenley Jansen and Scott Elbert in the early part of games while giving save chances to Matt Guerrier and Mike MacDougal.

Instead, De La Rosa saved games before moving to the rotation, Guerra became the closer, Jansen evolved into a lights-out setup man, and Elbert was used late in games to retire the toughest opposing lefties.

It didn't always work. There certainly were learning curves and struggles for the kids, especially early. But by the end of the year, there were supporting pieces around MVP candidate Kemp and Cy Young front-runner Clayton Kershaw, and the Dodgers improved dramatically to finish 82-79 and in third place in the NL West.

Now the offseason arrives, and around $45 million is coming off the payroll from free agents currently on the roster and disabled list, or already traded away. Additional "dead" money from the Pierre and Schmidt contracts finally comes off the books.

Even more money can be saved if reliever Kuo is non-tendered, or if James Loney is traded.

Many raises are coming, though. Kemp and Kershaw will get massive pay hikes. Ethier will get a healthy raise, and so will Loney if he stays. Other players on multiyear contracts -- such as Uribe, Guerrier and Ted Lilly -- took less money in the first year to balance the 2011 budget, so they'll be making more in 2012.

Colletti was told by owner Frank McCourt what his budget range will be, and it includes enough to re-sign the team's stars and to compete with other teams for a star on the free agent market. Colletti intimated during the season's final week that he'd like to pursue a big-time run producer for the lineup.

If Colletti gets his wish, the Dodgers will spend big -- maybe even nine figures big -- on a big bopper this offseason.

That cost would force him to go young and cheap on other parts of the roster.

But if the second half of this season is any indication, that's not a bad thing.

Mattingly proud of second-half comeback
The Dodgers' lowest point of the season was a 37-51 record on July 6. Plenty of teams with playoff aspirations continue on their downward trend when faced with a record like that.

But the Dodgers didn't give up, and they turned their season around. They have won 25 of 36 since Aug. 22 and will finish with a record above .500 this year.

TEAM         W    L   PCT   GB
Diamondbacks 94   68  .580   -
Giants       86   76  .531   8.0
Dodgers      82   79  .509  11.5
Rockies      73   89  .451  21.0
Padres       71   91  .438  23.0

Best Records since Aug. 22
Tigers         27- 9
Dodgers        25- 10
Diamondbacks   25- 10
Rangers        23-11
Cardinals      23-12
"I have a real sense of pride about that," manager Don Mattingly said. "At one point, we were 14 games under. Now three above, that's saying a lot about the guys in the room. They continued playing and gave their best effort and I'm proud of that. On the back end of that, we're not in the playoffs. In the end, it's not good enough."

It's a remarkable turnaround, and a lot of credit goes to Mattingly and his coaching staff.

General manager Ned Colletti took notice of that, plus a lot more, and plans to bring back all members of this year's coaching staff: pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, bullpen coach Ken Howell, hitting coach Dave Hansen, first-base coach Davey Lopes, third-base coach Tim Wallach and bench coach Trey Hillman.

"I like our entire staff," Colletti told reporters in Arizona, before the Dodgers blew a 6-1 10th-inning lead in a 7-6 loss to the Diamondbacks. "I think they work well together, and I think they give Donnie a lot of support. I think they have learned a lot this season."

A couple of contracts still need to be finalized, and that should be done by the time the season ends Wednesday night.

Hansen began the year as the de facto "assistant" hitting coach, working with Jeff Pentland. On July 20, Pentland was fired and Hansen took over as the interim hitting coach. Pentland was previously the "assistant" hitting coach to Mattingly.

Some players thought there were too many voices in the batting cage, while others like the different viewpoints available. There were three hitting coaches to start the year: Pentland, Hansen, and Manny Mota, who works mostly with the Latin players.

Next year, it will be just Hansen and Mota.

The best news for Dodgers fans is that means Lopes is returning as the baserunning guru and outfielder coach.

The Dodgers were successful on 125 of 164 stolen base attempts, and that 76.2 percentage was consistently one of the best in the majors all year. Also, Jerry Sands racked up the team's 36th outfield assist Tuesday. Most Valuable Player candidate Matt Kemp leads the way with 11.

Lopes' relationship with Kemp was one of the early factors in a change of attitude for the talented center fielder, after Kemp clashed with coaches Larry Bowa and Bob Schaefer the year before.

--CF Matt Kemp made it interesting in his pursuit of the 40-40 club. He needed two home runs going into the final game. He was hit by a pitch, flied out to left and grounded to short. Then he hit a two-run homer in the seventh inning, his 39th of the year, and got one more chance in the ninth. However, he struck out on three pitches. He still ends the year the NL home run champion and RBI champion (126). Kemp tied for second in the league with 40 stolen bases.

The National League Player of the Week for the period of September 19-25, 2011,  Kemp hit .423 (11-for-26) with a Major League-best nine runs scored while his .923 slugging percentage and 24 total bases were tops among National Leaguers. The Oklahoma native's three home runs, 11 hits and four doubles were tied for first in the league and his seven RBI were tied for second.

He became the first Dodger to lead the league in home runs and RBI since Dolph Camilli did so in 1941, 60 years ago. After that '41 season, Camilli, who hit .285 with 34 homers and 120 RBI, won the NL MVP, receiving 19 of the 23 first-place votes. Kemp leads the National League with 115 runs scored and became the first Dodger in franchise history to lead the league in homers, RBI and runs scored. Kemp's 59 runs scored since the All-Star break lead the Major Leagues and his 349 total bases on the year lead the NL. He extended his hitting streak to 12 games last night and hit .431 (22-for-51) with 15 runs, six doubles, six homers and 16 RBI during the run, which began on Sept. 16. Of the 91 NL MVPs handed out, 30 have gone to players that played on a winning team without going to the postseason, including three of the last 10. 

Most RBI in a Season – L.A. Dodger History
Tommy Davis, 1962     153
Shawn Green, 2001     125
Matt Kemp, 2011       124
Mike Piazza, 1997     124
Adrian Beltré, 2004   121
--LHP Ted Lilly had fun in his final start. He singled home a run in the fourth inning. He tried to bunt his way on base, but it went foul. He tried to steal second base, and he was thrown out. And he pitched seven scoreless innings to end his season with an ERA under 4.00 (3.97 to be exact) and a 12-14 record.

--LHP Clayton Kershaw wasn't officially told that he's starting on Opening Day 2012, but manager Don Mattingly figures his ace just assumes it. Last year, on the final day of the season, Mattingly told Kershaw that he was starting the following Opening Day.

--LHP Hong-Chih Kuo will return to his native Taiwan this offseason, and he isn't sure if he will pitch again. He missed part of this season on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder, brought on by a second case of the yips. Kuo said he needs a break mentally and physically. He'll only play again if he enjoys it again.

--RHP Kenley Jansen set the record for most strikeouts per nine innings in baseball history in the final game, even though he didn't strike anybody out. Jansen induced two flyouts to end the game and get the save, after Ramon Troncoso gave up five runs earlier in the inning. Jansen finished with 96 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings, a rate of 16.01 per nine innings. That betters the record of 15.99 set by Cubs RHP Carlos Marmol last year.

--Jerry Sands extending his hitting streak to a career-long 13 games (21-for-48, .438), which tied him with Willy Aybar (2006) for eighth on the list of longest Dodger hitting streaks by a rookie before behing held hitless on Tuesday.

--UT Eugenio Velez didn't start the finale because the game mattered to the Diamondbacks for playoff seeds in the National League, so manager Don Mattingly felt the need to field his best lineup. Velez pinch-hit in the eighth inning and grounded out to second base. He ends the season 0-for-37, the most hitless at-bats by a non-pitcher in a single season in major league history. The old record, 0-for-35, was set by Pittsburgh's Hal Finney in 1936. Velez also broke the all-time record for hitless at-bats by a non-pitcher, as he is now 0-for-46 dating back to last season. Brooklyn's Bill Bergen (1909), Dave Campbell of San Diego, St. Louis and Houston (1973) and Milwaukee's Craig Counsell (earlier in 2011) had shared the mark at 0-for-45.

--RHP Hiroki Kuroda pitched six scoreless innings Tuesday in his final start of 2011 and potentially his last one in the United States. Fittingly, he left with the score 0-0, since he received so little run support this year. Kuroda has said in recent days he's "50-50" on whether he'll return to Japan or stay in America. A lot of the Japanese reporters are under the assumption he'll return home for a farewell season with the Hiroshima Carp, but Kuroda says they can't be accurate because even he hasn't decided yet.

--RHP Kenley Jansen padded his record for most strikeouts, per nine innings, in baseball history. Jansen struck out Willie Bloomquist, Miguel Montero and Chris Young in the eighth inning. Jansen probably won't pitch Wednesday, so his season will end with 96 strikeouts in 53 innings. That's a ratio of 16.30, easily surpassing the previous record of 15.99 set by Carlos Marmol last year. After coming off the disabled list in late August, Jansen struck out a staggering 35 in 16 innings.

--OF Jerry Sands' 14-game hitting streak ended. He went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and a sacrifice bunt that looked as if he was trying to bunt for a single.

--RHP Blake Hawksworth started the 10th inning, after the Dodgers' lead reached five runs, instead of closer Javy Guerra. After two quick outs, Hawksworth gave up on covering first base when he didn't think James Loney would get to a chopper down the line. That kept the game going. Then came a single, walk and error by Aaron Miles. Guerra finally entered, gave up a walk, then a grand slam walkoff by Ryan Roberts to complete the dramatic Diamondbacks comeback.

Shortly after the All-Star break, the Dodgers appeared to need a massive roster overhaul, as they were double digits under .500 and double digits out of first place. The late-season revival, led by a number of young players with cheap salaries, has GM Ned Colletti believing the Dodgers are close to the playoffs and now only need slight tinkering.

BIGGEST NEEDS: Another bat in the middle of the lineup. Free agent 1B Prince Fielder would be perfect, yet very expensive. If RHP Hiroki Kuroda returns to Japan, a No. 2 or 3 starting pitcher will be needed to replace him.

FREE AGENTS: C Rod Barajas, INF Aaron Miles, INF Jamey Carroll, 3B Casey Blake, OF Juan Rivera, RHP Hiroki Kuroda, RHP Jonathan Broxton, RHP Jon Garland, RHP Vicente Padilla.

Colletti would like to bring back Barajas and Rivera, but it will have to be at the right price. Miles and Carroll were quality veteran leaders who played more (and better) than expected, but only one is needed when rookie Justin Sellers can do the same. Broxton and Blake, coming off injuries, are doubtful to return. Padilla has been sidelined most of the past two years by injuries, but he's been effective when healthy and could return on the cheap.

ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: 1B James Loney, CF Matt Kemp, RF Andre Ethier, LHP Hong-Chih Kuo, LHP Clayton Kershaw.

The Dodgers would like to lock up Kemp and Ethier to long-term contracts before they become free agents after the 2012 season. Kershaw has three years left until free agency, so a long-term deal is possible, but he could go year to year. Kuo is a tough non-tender decision, and he might retire. Loney will remain unless a big-bopper free agent is signed.

IN LIMBO: 3B Casey Blake, RHP Jon Garland.

Blake and Garland have options that won't be exercised. While there's often chatter about the Dodgers trading RF Andre Ethier this winter, Colletti continues to insist he wants Ethier long-term.

--INF Juan Uribe (sports hernia surgery in September 2011) should be ready well before spring training.

--RF Andre Ethier (arthroscopic right knee surgery) in September 2011) should be ready well before spring training.

--RHP Rubby De La Rosa (Tommy John surgery in August 2011) won't return before August 2012.

--RHP Jonathan Broxton (arthroscopic right elbow surgery in September 2011) should be able to begin a throwing program in late October or November.

--Years since a Dodger has led the league in home runs and RBI. Matt Kemp is likely to do it this year. The previous Dodger to do it was Dolph Camilli, voted the Most Valuable Player in 1941. Camilli hit 34 home runs and drove in 120 runs that year. Since moving to Los Angeles, the Dodgers have had just one home run champion (Adrian Beltré with 48 in 2004) and just one RBI champ (Tommy Davis with 153 in 1962).

--Games the Dodgers' projected starting infield played together this year. It was supposed to be James Loney at first base, Juan Uribe at second base, Rafael Furcal at shortstop and Casey Blake at third base. Instead, Uribe led the team with 53 starts at third (Blake had 49 and Aaron Miles started 45). Jamey Carroll started 54 at shortstop, followed by Dee Gordon with 50 and Furcal with 36. Miles started 61 and Carroll 56 at second base. Loney started 134 games at first base.

"It initially helps, but you have to win, too. The ultimate is winning with a star attraction. We've got two (players) starting to become star attractions. If we can bring in another star, a carrier-type to help our chances to win, I think you get a double effect." -- GM Ned Colletti, on the long-held belief that "stars" are needed in Los Angeles.

Cleaning Off The Desk
Assistant general manager Logan White was in Japan earlier this week to scout Tsuyoshi Wada, a left-handed starter for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of the Pacific League, a source close to the team confirmed on Wednesday. However, the Dodgers' interest in Wada, who will be eligible for free agency this winter and thus won't require a posting fee before a major league team can sign him, is only preliminary. Wada, 30, entered this season with a 41-31 record and a 3.30 ERA in four seasons with the Hawks, during which he made 88 starts and two relief appearances. This year, he is 13-5 and ranks third in the Pacific League with a 1.70 ERA.

One concern with Wada, the source said, is whether he can adjust to pitching every fifth day, as starting pitchers in the U.S. major leagues normally do, instead of once a week as starters in the Japanese leagues do. This, however, is a common concern with most Japanese pitchers looking to jump to the U.S., and alleviating that concern is all part of the routine scouting process for such players, that process tending to be lengthy.

In Dejå Vu all over again, x-Dodger Milton Bradley was busted for felony assault -- after allegedly swinging a baseball bat at his wife yesterday. Law enforcement sources tell TMZ -- Bradley's wife called 911 yesterday around 2 p.m. from their home in Los Angeles -- and told police Milton was chasing her and swinging at her ... batting cage style. We're told police showed up and took Milton into custody -- and booked him for assault with a deadly weapon. His wife was not injured. The former outfielder was released from jail last night on $30,000 bail. 33-year-old Bradley was also arrested back in January for another domestic incident.

And in 188 days, the Dodgers will head to San Diego and open up the 2012 Major League campaign against the NL West-rival Padres.   

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