Although they came up just short of a wild card berth this year, the Los Angeles Dodgers can contend for a World Series title in 2013—and field a winner—with the players and pieces they currently have in place.
Los Angeles failed to take off as expected after completing a series of in-season trades to improve the team. It’s easy to forget, however, that the Dodgers held the best record in the major leagues through mid-June, well before they started acquiring former All-Stars.
The team’s tumble down the standings directly coincided with a left hamstring injury suffered by center fielder Matt Kemp in late May. The 2011 NL MVP runner-up missed 51 games between two stints on the disabled list, derailing his shot at competing for the National League Triple Crown.
Kemp also suffered a shoulder injury on August 24 that rendered him essentially useless down the stretch. He needed offseason surgery to repair a torn Labrum in his left Rotator cuff and will be unable to swing a bat for at least three months.
For a player that hasn't played in fewer than 155 games since becoming a full-time starter in 2008, missing Kemp for 56 games was a crippling blow to the Dodgers‘ playoff chances in 2012.
Kemp’s injury-plagued season was only the most notable of a series of injuries that undid L.A.’s season.
Left-hander Ted Lilly lasted only eight starts before left shoulder inflammation ended his season on May 24th. The 36-year-old was 5-1 with a 3.14 ERA for the Dodgers before his injury. The absence of Lilly’s reliability and veteran presence was a major loss to the starting rotation.
Los Angeles was dealt an even bigger blow when right-hander Chad Billingsley’s season ended on August 24th after he experienced sharp pain in his pitching elbow. At the time of his injury, Billingsley was the Dodgers' best starter having won each of his last six starts.
Young shortstop Dee Gordon was limited to 84 games in 2012 after torn ligaments in his right thumb landed him on the 60-day DL.
Los Angeles also lost closer Kenley Jansen for a month to an irregular heartbeat caused by an arrhythmia that will require offseason surgery.
Of the five key players that missed considerable time due to injury this past season, only Billingsley’s availability for 2013 is uncertain. Kemp, Lilly, Gordon and Jansen are all expected to be 100% healthy by Opening Day.
New left fielder Carl Crawford is also expected to be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery by the start of next season.
Crawford underwent the procedure in late July, shortly before being acquired by the Dodgers in the blockbuster trade with the Boston Red Sox. His addition to the lineup will give Los Angeles one of the best offensive teams in the major leagues.
Although the Dodgers didn’t catch fire in time to make the playoffs this season, most of their new acquisitions provided hope for the future in L.A.
Hanley Ramirez rediscovered the power and run producing ability—if not the batting average—that made him the game’s premier shortstop from 2007-10. He hit .271 with 10 home runs and 44 runs batted in 64 games with the Dodgers and seemed genuinely happy to be in Los Angeles.
Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett also performed well for the team after coming over from Boston.
Gonzalez overcame an extremely slow start to hit .297 in 36 games for the Dodgers. Beckett was 2-3 with a 2.93 ERA in seven starts for Los Angeles, making a fine transition back to the National League.
The Dodgers also found a lost gem in closer Brandon League, who they acquired in a trade with the Seattle Mariners in mid-July.
He initially struggled in a setup role during his first few weeks with the team. But League kept Los Angeles in playoff contention down the stretch by filling in for Jansen during his absence. The Dodgers would greatly improve their bullpen depth by re-signing League this winter and avoid losing him to free agency.
Los Angeles will be a dramatically improved team in 2013 just by getting key players back from injury and having the likes of Crawford, Gonzalez, Beckett and League for an entire season.
The Dodgers also have a couple of players in their minor league system that will contribute to the major league club at some point next year.
Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig—who the Dodgers signed to a record seven-year, $42 million contract in June—could be ready to help the team as early as Opening Day. While it’s more likely that he’ll begin the season in the minors after finishing 2012 at the High-A level, Puig’s path to the majors will not be a long one.
The Dodgers will also call-up top pitching prospect Zach Lee sometime after the All-Star break. Lee spent the 2012 season in Double-A Chattanooga and should begin 2013 in Triple-A after a successful campaign.
Incumbent starters Lilly, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang are all entering the final year of their contracts. Los Angeles will want to give Lee some major league experience next year to determine his readiness for a full-time rotation spot in 2014.
The Dodgers would be wise not to completely rely on internal improvement and improved fortune with injuries in 2013. But in the unlikely event that general manager Ned Colletti and team president Stan Kasten decide to stand pat this offseason, Los Angeles will still field one of the NL’s best teams next season.