GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Dodgers bring back the nucleus of a National League pennant-winning club, having already reaped the rewards of a youth movement from back-to-back NL Rookies of the Year Award winners. With a healthy Clayton Kershaw and the return of a rejuvenated Matt Kemp, spring optimism is at
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Dodgers bring back the nucleus of a National League pennant-winning club, having already reaped the rewards of a youth movement from back-to-back NL Rookies of the Year Award winners. With a healthy Clayton Kershaw and the return of a rejuvenated Matt Kemp, spring optimism is at a high.
What's the goal?
One more win. You can't get much closer and not win the World Series than the Dodgers last year. Manager Dave Roberts has focused on threading the needle in camp, urging players to remember how close they came without obsessing over how close they came. He has essentially the same roster that took the franchise to the cusp of a ring, because there was no need for major changes. The Dodgers have won a dynasty-like five consecutive division titles and don't expect to be dethroned. But to a generation of Dodgers fans that never watched Kirk Gibson wear the uniform, division titles and pennants aren't enough.
What's the plan?
Win, but not at all costs. Although the Dodgers appear so close, and despite an opt-out clause that could shorten the Kershaw window to only one more season, the Dodgers are trying to win it all while tightening the belt and slashing the payroll below the competitive balance tax threshold of $197 million. It will be a neat trick if they pull it off. And, they would argue, a team one win shy of a World Series title doesn't need a lot of retooling.
Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger represent a seamless talent infusion from the Minor League system, while the front office's progressive approach to changes in the game are evident in offensive launch angles and pitching bullpenning. The starting rotation appears deep and set, and any bullpen with Kenley Jansen in it is formidable. A motivated Kemp only lengthens an already productive lineup.
What could go wrong?
An injury to Seager's right elbow. Every team's best-laid plans can be torpedoed by unforeseen injuries, but everybody already knows the Dodgers' talented shortstop is hurt. Nobody knows if he can put off Tommy John surgery forever, or until the first throw from the hole. The answer will have a lot to say about the club's fortunes, because you just don't replace a superstar. Speaking of superstars, can Bellinger avoid the sophomore jinx? He's bulked up, if that matters.
Then there's the starting rotation. All five pitchers were on the disabled list last year, and this year's "depth" is young and less plentiful. Walker Buehler is waiting in the wings if the club can keep him healthier than it did Julio Urias, who might contribute after left shoulder surgery. In the bullpen, there will be the annual search for somebody to set up Jansen's saves.
Then there's Justin Turner's spring injury, which the club hopes won't keep him out too long. Still, wrist injuries can be problematic, and it's worth wondering how strong Turner will be when he returns.
Who might surprise?
Kemp? Really? Okay, maybe he gets traded, which was the original plan when management took him back in a salary swap. The funny thing is, even with declining defensive metrics, 20-plus home runs are probably more than the Dodgers will receive from any of his competitors in left field. Kemp is in the best shape that he's been in in years, although left ankle and hip health remain a concern. He seems happy, determined and has been welcomed back in the clubhouse. Sure, that can change on a dime, but we are talking about one of the more talented Dodgers of the last few decades.
Kemp's might be just the best right-handed bat to protect Bellinger in the batting order. So, maybe Buehler pulls off a Bellinger and shows up sooner than expected or maybe Urias shakes off shoulder surgery faster than projected, but a Kemp rebound might be the greatest surprise of them all.
Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers for MLB.com since 2001. Listen to his podcast.