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Dodgers camp report: Kershaw-Kemp duo, fast finish fuel optimism

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Clayton Kershaw won the 2011 NL Cy Young; Matt Kemp finished second in a close MVP vote. (Getty Images)  
Clayton Kershaw won the 2011 NL Cy Young; Matt Kemp finished second in a close MVP vote. (Getty Images)  

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The bidding to become the next owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers is getting a little crazy. Billionaires from all over want to wrap themselves up in Dodger blue. The numbers are getting downright nutty, a record price assured and $2 billion possible.

It's a storied franchise in an idyllic setting and a major market, of course. But unspoken may be two more reasons the ultra-rich are knocking each other down to get the Dodgers: the rare presence of not one but two 20-something superstars, Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. They may comprise the best young hitter-pitcher combo currently going in Major League Baseball.

Kershaw is ultra-competitive ("the most competitive person I ever met," teammate Matt Treanor said), Kemp ultra-cool, the fire and ice of a team that can't possibly fall too low no matter what else has to be filled in around them in what are undeniably the toughest financial times for baseball's most revered left coast franchise.

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Outgoing owner Frank McCourt, who baseball powers accused of looting the team for his personal gain, has lowered the payroll of the big-market, high-revenue team by 10 percent each of the past two years, to where it now actually sits below that of the Tigers, the Twins, and yes, even the Mets.

But thanks to Kemp, Kershaw and marquee manager Don Mattingly, who kept them all together when the team was down and the owner starting to show he was on the way out last summer, the Dodgers played 17 games over .500 the last two-plus months of the season despite a late schedule heavy on the Cardinals, Phillies, Braves, Brewers and Diamondbacks. A fantastic finish overshadowed by the individual exploits of Kemp and Kershaw, who were in the hunt for the MVP, Triple Crown and Cy Young between them, has at the very least provided a nice springboard for this season.

There surely is great hope for the distant future since by April 30 the team will finally be owned by an actual rich person. But in the meantime, their two incredible stars should at least keep things interesting.

Kershaw, who turned 24 the other day, will aim to repeat his Cy Young season at a time when Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Josh Johnson populate the National League, while Kemp will hope to repeat his MVP-worthy season (though, as we all know by now, he lost out to Ryan Braun, and to Kemp's credit, he didn't complain about that). Whatever any of their teammates does around them may look like gravy.

General manager Ned Colletti's charge this winter was to drop the payroll another $10 million to an inexcusably low $90 million while adding two starting pitchers, some right-handed hitting prowess (Andre Ethier and James Loney ranked near the bottom of the NL in OPS vs. left-handed pitchers) and stronger defense at second base. Thus, the entrance of dependable mid-rung starters Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano, righty hitters Juan Rivera (he was actually brought back) and Jerry Hairston plus sure-handed second baseman Mark Ellis.

The Dodgers might seem like only Kemp and Kershaw at times, as they are surrounded mostly by complementary helpers. But there are a few more interesting talents. The team drafted as well as anyone for a few years, and there are some more potential stars on the roster. Big reliever Kenley Jansen whiffed nearly two an inning last year (16.1 per nine) and he'll set up young closer Javy Guerra. Tiny shortstop Dee Gordon (he's a bit more than his listed 150 pounds, Colletti insisted), the son of longtime reliever Tom Gordon, hit .304 in a late-season cameo, and righty-swinging outfielder Jerry Sands might become a star after getting a taste last year.

Of course, Loney and Ethier, despite a limp final few months, also carry the potential to do better. They had nearly identical statistical seasons in 2011 (12 home runs, 65 RBI and .288 average for Loney; 11, 62, .292 for Ethier), and no one is satisfied with that, least of all them. Ethier was supposed to be part of a dynamic one-two punch with Kemp but turned in a wholly disappointing season amid rumors he might prefer to leave behind all the ownership troubles and play somewhere else.

Fantasy Writer
Injury-risk sleeper ... Andre Ethier, OF: The last two seasons have not been kind to Andre Ethier, as he was derailed by a broken pinkie in 2010 and by a right knee injury last year, on which he wound up having surgery last September. Entering 2012 with his health woes behind him, Ethier may be able to pick up where he left off three years ago when he hit 31 home runs and drove in 106 runs. Even through his injuries, Ethier has shown good gap power and strike zone judgment, but his home run production has suffered. As last season wore on and Ethier's knee injury worsened, he hit a progressively higher proportion of ground balls each month. With better health, there is little reason to think he can't hit at least 25 homers. While owners may still be reluctant to trust him, Ethier should still provide a good return on a mid-round pick in standard mixed leagues.
Head-to-Head hero ... James Loney, 1B: Fantasy owners who found Loney enigmatic a year ago must have found his 2011 season mind-blowing. Loney came out of the gates ice-cold, hitting .210 in April, and he didn't start hitting for power until the middle of August, whereupon he smashed four homers in an eight-game span. Loney's power binge was too short-lived to take seriously, but he showed real improvement in a different way over the latter three-fifths of the season. He cranked up his line drive rate, which enabled him to bat .322 with 24 doubles from June 10 forward. Loney has always been a decent gap hitter with strong contact skills, but his growing penchant for hitting doubles gives him some extra caché in Head-to-Head leagues. In those formats, Loney is worthy of a mid-to-late round pick, whereas it may be a stretch to target him as a late-round flier in standard mixed Rotisserie leagues.-- Al Melchior
Depth Chart | Dodgers outlook | 2012 Draft Prep

There definitely has been some serious cost cutting, no surprise since the team has been in bankruptcy, and they are going to need a few things to fall right. Journeyman catcher A.J. Ellis finally gets a chance to start as he approaches age 31, Juan Uribe needs a bounce-back year, Capuano has had injury questions in the past and Harang may have been aided by pitching in the Padres' Petco Park.

With Hiroki Kuroda seeking $14 million way before he signed with the Yankees for $10 million, the Dodgers needed to take the $10 million they allocated for starters to fill two spots, and Colletti fit Harang and Capuano nicely into that payroll space.

But the bigger deals were the two-year, $19 million extension for Kershaw, which helped allay any hard feelings from McCourt paying him only $500,000 during a Cy Young season (Kershaw won't cop to any now but others say he was less than thrilled), and especially the eight-year, $160 million deal for Kemp. That one was possibly the best financial move anyone made this winter, not to mention absolutely necessary. Kershaw rebuffed the Dodgers' attempt at a four-year deal but he's still tied to the team for three. Kemp, 27, will stay through all his prime years after a neat negotiation that began at the end of the season and was completed only six weeks later.

"The combination of tools, the speed, the power, where he plays on the field and that he's 27 years old, if you're going to make a long-term commitment to somebody, that's a pretty good criteria set," Colletti said.

It isn't a small amount of money, Colletti conceded. No, but no one -- not the teammates, the competitors nor certainly the prospective Dodgers owners -- believes this was money poorly spent.

Kemp might seem a little goofy at times. For instance, he has a silly routine where he spits out his gum on the same spot of the on-deck circle before every at-bat. But with the way he hits, neither the cleanup crew nor next batter is known to complain. Two years ago, people around the team said he seemed to be distracted by his relationship with the singing star Rihanna, sometimes talking to her on the phone just before game time. But no one doubts his commitment to his craft. He is a guy who insists on playing every day, and has the longest active consecutive games streak in the league.

The new deal could only have enhanced the Dodgers' standing with ownership hopefuls, but Kemp said the new riches won't change him.

"I'm the same person. I did the same amount of work before the contract, and I'll do whatever I can to live up to it now," Kemp said. "I'll help the team win as many games as I can."

With Kemp and Kershaw, almost anything may be possible. Ex-Dodgers manager Joe Torre wasn't afraid to invoke the name of Dave Winfield as a comparison for Kemp even before Kemp became a megastar, and Torre didn't shy away from the Sandy Koufax talk about the lefty Kershaw, who has the stuff to match his competitiveness. As far as whether he can duplicate his 20111 season, Kershaw said, "I'm not worried about it. I'm not trying to replicate the stats. I don't care about stats. I couldn't care less. I'm just trying to win."

Kershaw, 21-5 with a 2.28 ERA in 2011, mentioned how since he starts 34 games he'll try to win 30, and seemed confused when the questioner wondered how that's possible. "What do you mean?" he said.

Well, yes, theoretically, it is possible.

If it were all up to him, 30 wins might be possible. Kershaw borders on crazy competitive. Through scores of clubhouse ping pong games, he has lost only once, to journeyman infielder Jeff Baisley, and you can imagine him dominating about any sport he tries. Kemp got frustrated after falling 11-1 to Kershaw and walked away; it is much the same feeling you can imagine opposing pitchers have against Kemp.

Kemp threatened to become the first Triple Crown winner in more than 40 years last season but settled for a .324 batting average, 39 home runs and 126 RBI. He initially boasted about the possibility of a possible 50-50 season but certainly doesn't discount at least a repeat.

"Anything's possible," he said.

With these two stars, that may be true.

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