L.A. Dodgers: Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw and the 5 Reasons 2012 Is L.A.'s Year

Kurt Saunders@kurtsaundersCorrespondent IIIMay 29, 2012

L.A. Dodgers: Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw and the 5 Reasons 2012 Is L.A.'s Year

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    The Los Angeles Dodgers haven't been to the World Series since 1988, when they defeated the Oakland A's.  I believe that streak of 24 years without a World Series appearance ends in 2012, as the Dodgers have what it takes to not only make the Series, but possibly win it.  

    The last time the Dodgers were seen in the World Series, the iconic image of Kirk Gibson pumping his fist as he hobbled around the bases after hitting a walk-off home run was etched into the memories of Dodger fans to be remembered forever.

    But that was then and this is now.

    Now, the Dodgers are coming off one of the worst ownership eras in the history of the league.  Now, the Dodgers boast a major-league leading 32-16 record and field an extremely talented team that includes reigning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and should-have-been-MVP Matt Kemp.  

    Now, the Dodgers are the best team in baseball.   

    With that in mind, here are my five reasons why the L.A. Dodgers will make the 2012 World Series 

New Ownership

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    Earlier this month, the long-awaited sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers was finalized.  Thus ending one of the most irresponsible ownership eras in baseball history—good news for the Dodgers and Dodger fans everywhere.  

    Of the group that purchased the club, Guggenheim Baseball Management, former L.A. Laker and NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson is the eye-catching name.  So far, Johnson's role seems to be the face of Dodger brass.  He said in an interview, that while he can't talk hitting and pitching, he "can talk winning."  

    In his introductory interview, Johnson made his priorities crystal clear (via ESPN).

    "We're here to win...We're out to win and win for the fans," Johnson continued, "We want to win on the field...I just want to win.  And I want to do it the right way, with Dodger pride."

    While the previous ownership was apparently about using the team for its own financial benefits, this new group seems to be about one thing, winning!  

    You cannot overstate how vital that sort of mindset is when it comes to an organization, especially one in flux as the Dodgers are.  That "win the right way" attitude trickles down from management and makes its way into the clubhouse.  

    Furthermore, this ownership group will surely make the necessary moves to field the best possible team, as they aren't expected to be held back by shallow pockets.  This sale of the Dodgers and the subsequent devotion to winning has put a jolt into this franchise and the fanbase.

    Such excitement could help carry the team to a World Series appearance.  

Emergence of Role Players

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    We all know the Dodgers lineup is centered around Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.  And while those two have been great this year, what's truly impressed me is how the role players have been performing at the plate.  

    The most famous Dodger role-player this year has been catcher A.J. Ellis.  This guy has been tearing the cover off the ball lately.  In the month of May, he has hit four of his five home runs, knocked in 16 RBI and is hitting .333.  

    This includes a walk-off homer against Houston on Sunday.  That kind of pop coming from the seven-hole in a lineup can be scary for opposing pitchers and gives the Dodgers a weapon most teams are without. 

    Another unexpected spark has come in the form of Bobby Abreu.  Abreu was let go by the cross-town Angels before being signed by the Dodgers.  Since joining the squad, he has hit .301 with 12 RBI and has added some versatility to this lineup.  

    He and Juan Rivera are expected to platoon in left field for the Dodgers—Abreu will start against right-handed pitchers and Rivera will get the nod against southpaws. Abreu also brings an invaluable veteran presence to the Dodger clubhouse, something that shouldn't be overlooked once postseason play begins.  

    What should excite Dodger fans the most, is the fact that the team has gone 9-5 without Matt Kemp this year. That is a true testament to the players around him in the lineup.  Their ability to step up (granted, it is just May) will be huge down the stretch and into the playoffs.

The Steady Hand of Don Mattingly

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    Second-year manager Don Mattingly has done nothing short of a magnificent job throughout this short 2012 season.  He has made every right move and pushed every right button thus far.  

    Any Mattingly-doubters simply need to look to last season to be refuted.

    After a miserable start, the Dodgers won 44 of their final 71 games and were the hottest team in baseball at season's end. All of that was accomplished, mind you, in the middle of a very public divorce of the club's owners, and with all of the organization's money virtually frozen.  

    Yet, Donnie Baseball was able to keep the team focused on winning baseball games amidst public drama usually reserved for an afternoon soap.    

    For those of you who think he can't handle pressure, you must remember he played 13 seasons in New York, in perhaps the most disastrous era of the Yankee franchise, and he thrived.  He's a lifetime .300 hitter and has more than 2,000 hits and nearly 1,100 RBI.  A six-time All-Star, nine-time Gold Glove award winner and the 1985 AL MVP, Mattingly is often referred to as the best Yankee to have never played in a World Series.  

    The 51-year-old is known around the league as a player's coach, due to his great rapport with his team. This is perhaps the most underrated characteristic of a great manager.  Rarely does a successful team exist if the players do not like playing for their skipper—just look at the early stages of the Bobby Valentine era in Boston.  

    Mattingly knows the importance of being well-liked, and, more importantly, respected by his players.  His lack of criticism of his players is where that mutual respect stems from.  

    The fact that he was Joe Torre's hitting coach for seven seasons is nothing to dismiss.  Torre is one of the best managers in MLB history and has apparently taught Mattingly a little something when it comes to demeanor.  

    The calm, cool disposition Mattingly holds in the dugout is eerily similar to that of Torre's. However, Mattingly is a bit more fiery than Torre—especially the version Dodger fans saw—when it comes to things like arguing calls.  But that goes back to being a player's coach, as he is willing to stand up for his players when he believes they get the raw end of the deal.

    If, and when, the Dodgers make the World Series in October, Mattingly will deserve a large portion of the credit.

Stellar Pitching Staff

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    Led by reigning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers' pitching staff has been remarkable this season.  They have the second-lowest ERA in the National League, as they're giving up just about three runs per game.  

    Kershaw has been his usual dominant self, as he has an ERA below 2.00, which is good enough for second in the NL and has an NL-leading WHIP at 0.90.  He's been the ace of the Dodger staff for three years now and will continue to pave the way for the Dodgers' success.

    An area where the Dodgers are still a bit raw and could use some help is their bullpen.

    The middle-inning combination of Josh Lindblom and Ronald Belisario have been solid.  It's the late innings that have given the Dodgers trouble in 2012.  Javy Guerra started the year with five consecutive saves, but then blew three of his next six opportunities and was stripped of his closer role.

    Kenley Jansen was the man who succeeded Guerra, and the 24-year-old has been impressive, but his youth continues to shine through, despite his 4-0 record.  He has blown two of his last four save opportunities, but the big Dutchman has shown the ability to overpower hitters.    

    Another bright spot on the staff has been Chris Capuano.  The seven-year veteran is probably on his way to the best season of his career.  He leads the Dodgers with seven wins, accompanied by just one loss, and has an ERA of just 2.14.  With an average of 6.1 innings per start, Capuano has yet to give up more than six hits in one outing.  That sort of dominance from the No. 3 spot in the rotation is very hard to come by and will be instrumental in the success of the team.  

    Chad Billingsley has been a bit rocky for Los Angeles this year, but I expect him to have another double-digit win season, a feat he has accomplished the last five consecutive years.  

    Ted Lilly and Aaron Harang round out the rotation for the Dodgers.  Lilly has been a solid veteran pitcher since joining L.A. in 2010 and he's off to a great start this year at 5-1.  Harang had an impressive 14-win season last year for San Diego and despite the fact his ERA is above 4.00, I expect the veteran to be a valuable fifth starter for the Dodgers all season long.  

    That is of course, if he's even needed.  According to Yahoo! Sports' Tim Brown's twitter account, the Dodgers have made an offer to 11-year veteran pitcher Roy Oswalt.

    Oswalt went 9-10 with a 3.69 ERA last season with the Phillies, but could end up coming out of the bullpen if the Dodgers were to land him.  Having a proven veteran like Oswalt on the team would be extremely valuable, especially with so many young arms coming out of the 'pen.      

Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier

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    Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier give the Dodgers one of the most dynamic hitting duos in baseball. Certainly the second-best in the NL, just behind Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday/David Freese of the Cardinals.  

    Ethier is leading the National League in RBI with 42 and is batting .318 to boot.  May has been good to Ethier, as he's blasted four homers while hitting an impressive .353, and has done all that without Matt Kemp in the lineup for half of the month.  

    It's a contract year for the 30-year-old and if he continues to swing the way he's been this season, he'll be cashing in come winter.  Hopefully, for Dodger fans, the new ownership group acknowledges Ethier's importance to the club and pays him near top dollar.

    While Ethier has been playing extremely well this year, Matt Kemp was playing out of his mind to start the season.  In April, Kemp hit an astonishing 12 home runs, recorded 25 RBI, had a slugging percentage of .893 and a batting average of .417.

    While his numbers did tail off a bit before he went on the 15-day DL on May 15, his ridiculous start has allowed him to stay near the top in all of the triple-crown categories.  He remains third in the NL with 12 home runs, his 28 RBI are good enough for 18th and his batting average of .359 would put him at fourth.  

    Nothing new for Dodger fans, as they were witnesses to Kemp's should-have-been MVP season in 2011.  

    With these two All-Stars patrolling the middle of the lineup for L.A., opposing pitchers are going to fear the Dodger lineup throughout the year and into the postseason.  They're two of the top hitters in the league and only a handful of teams in baseball possess this kind of one-two punch.  

    As long as Kemp and Ethier continue their success into the postseason, I can't envision a scenario in which the Dodgers lineup could be shut down in a playoff series.