No one would call 2014 a disappointment for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not yet, anyway.
Entering play Thursday, L.A. holds a two-game lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League West. And at 78-62, it's just two games back of the Washington Nationals for the best record in the NL.
But—you could sense there was a "but" coming—all is not heavenly in the City of Angels.
How far will the Dodgers go in 2014?
See, the Dodgers aren't aiming for good. They've got their sights set on great.
This is the team that spends like Scrooge McDuck, the team that advanced to the NLCS last year but walked away heartbroken. This is the team that's trying, desperately, to win its first World Series in a quarter-century.
If the Dodgers can do it, if they can successfully run the postseason gauntlet, they'll prove themselves worthy of that MLB-pacing payroll and cement their status as perennial front-runners, the Yankees of the West.
If they can't? Well, they'll give a whole new meaning to the phrase "feeling blue."
So which will it be? That depends on a handful of pressing questions and how they're answered over the stretch run.
Who rounds out the rotation?
With the return of Hyun-Jin Ryu from the disabled list, the top of the Dodgers rotation is intact once again. Things go south faster than a Maserati on I-5, however, after the dominant triumvirate of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Ryu.
Josh Beckett is on the DL and appears unlikely to return. Dan Haren, in the midst of a mediocre campaign, just had his next start pushed to Friday, per Bill Plunkett of The Orange County Register.
Kevin Correia has put up an unsightly 6.75 ERA in three starts since being acquired from the Minnesota Twins.
Rookie right-hander Carlos Frias, who posted a 5.01 ERA in 91.2 innings with Triple-A Albuquerque, will likely get the ball Wednesday, Plunkett reports.
It's entirely possible the Dodgers can make the postseason on the strength of their Big Three. At some point, though, they'll need at least one more reliable starter to step up.
Can the bullpen hold up?
Southpaw setup man J.P. Howell has been excellent, and closer Kenley Jansen has gotten the job done, converting 39 of 43 saves entering play Thursday.
Overall, though, the Dodgers 'pen owns a pedestrian 3.66 ERA.
Jamey Wright has been a serviceable-but-unspectacular innings-eater. Others, like Brian Wilson (4.97 ERA) and Paul Maholm (4.84 ERA before a season-ending ACL injury), have been downright disappointing.
The relief corps isn't necessarily a liability. L.A. has late-inning options in Howell, Jansen and right-hander Brandon League.
But bullpens tend to be exposed in the playoffs, when the pressure is magnified and every out matters. The Dodgers would be a lot more comfortable if another relief arm (or two) emerged in the next month.
One possibility is hard-throwing rookie Pedro Baez, whom manager Don Mattingly recently compared favorably to Jansen, per JP Hoornstra of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.
“He’s got a chance to be a big part of what we do," said the Dodgers skipper.
Will Puig be Puig?
Yasiel Puig has made such an impression since arriving on American soil that it's easy to forget this is just his second year in the big leagues.
Slumps inevitably happen. And Puig's in the midst of one now. He's gone 8-for-54 in his last 13 games, and he sat Tuesday night with stud prospect Joc Pederson starting in his place.
"There's a saying, 'You can't see the forest [for] the trees,'" Mattingly told MLB.com's Michael Lananna of Puig's benching. "Sometimes you get so close to it and you're trying and trying and you're almost fighting yourself."
Puig has too much talent to stay down for long. But if the Dodgers are going to capture postseason glory, they'll need the irrepressible Cuban to be at the top of his high-energy game.
Will the injury bug quit biting?
Every team deals with injuries, and the Dodgers haven't been as stricken as some. But recent DL stints by Ryu and third baseman Juan Uribe significantly dinged L.A.'s depth.
Beckett, Maholm and reliever Paco Rodriguez (back) remain on the shelf, however. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez landed on the 15-day DL on August 10 with a right oblique injury and hobbled while rounding first in a game on August 29, per Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times.
Then there's Greinke and his cranky elbow. The right-hander recently had a start pushed back due to elbow inflammation, per Plunkett, though he's pitched well in two outings since, quieting concerns.
The Dodgers are hoping for a monastery's worth of quiet on the injury front as they near the finish line.
Can they fend off the Giants?
L.A. and San Francisco are locked in an honest-to-Lasorda division race for the first time in a decade. The Giants sprang out of the gate before hitting an extended slump, allowing L.A. to take command.
As Los Angeles has wavered, San Francisco has crept back within striking distance.
The two teams will meet six more times in September. The Dodgers own the edge thanks to their two-game cushion, but the Giants lead the season series 7-6.
The Dodgers certainly hope they can bury their hated rivals early and focus on the next hurdle. But as MLB.com's Richard Justice argues, a tight race between the clubs is good for baseball:
Baseball is better when the Dodgers and Giants are both good. They've been going at one another for around 120 years, and the games today have as much emotion and intensity as they did back in the days of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays.
One way or another, there will be emotion. For the Dodgers, the question—and it's a big, open question—is whether that emotion will be sweet joy or bitter disappointment.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.