|On the good side: Don Mattingly gains experience and Andre Ethier has something to play for. (Getty Images)|
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- What I like, and don't like, about the Dodgers:
• The Dodgers have perhaps the best young hitter-pitcher combo in outfielder Matt Kemp and left-handed starter Clayton Kershaw. Two such great stars can make an enormous difference, as they showed last year when they helped pull a season out of the dregs en route to a second-place finish in MVP voting (Kemp would have won if the Dodgers were contenders) and a Cy Young win for Kershaw. Kemp is a terrific combination of power and speed while Kershaw might simply be the most valuable asset in baseball.
• Kenley Jansen is one of the best bullpen weapons in baseball, as evidenced by his outrageous 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings last year. A lot of folks figure he should be the closer, but yet another young reliever, Javy Guerra, did a solid job last year in saving 21 games. Mike MacDougal, Todd Coffey, Matt Guerrier, Blake Hawksworth and Scott Elbert round out a solid bullpen.
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• Manager Don Mattingly started last season without any managing experience, and while it showed early, he appears to be developing into one of the best new managers in the game. He kept the team together even when it was far out of the race and the Dodgers had the fourth-best record in baseball over the final two-plus months despite having perhaps its most difficult late schedule, with games against the Cardinals, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Braves and Brewers.
• Andre Ethier should have tremendous incentive to put together a big bounce-back year, as he is eligible for free agency after the season. The team's financial woes seem to have hit him harder than some others, and people close to him suggest he wouldn't terribly mind a new home, with the Red Sox said to be on his list of potential targeted teams. Ethier is tremendously talented, as evidenced by the 30-game hitting streak to start last season, but he has been hampered by bumps and bruises, and last year left-handed pitching became a question for him.
• You have to wonder how much offense they're going to get out of the infield and catcher. Folks have been critical of James Loney's lack of power, but he looks like the most solid bet to provide production among the group. New shortstop Dee Gordon gave the Dodgers reason for hope by hitting .304 in a late-season cameo, but the 23-year-old spent more time as a basketball player in his youth and lacks experience. Beyond that, Juan Uribe had his worst year by hitting .204 his first season in Los Angeles, new second baseman Mark Ellis posted the lowest OPS of his career (.674) and new catcher A.J. Ellis is a career minor-leaguer who will turn 31 the first week of the season. He hit .271 in his brief stint in L.A. last year, providing hope. Jerry Hairston is a useful utility player who provides depth at a couple infield positions and the outfield and may see decent playing time.
• The starting pitching depth, beyond the top five, has to be a question. The rotation, even beyond ace Kershaw, looks pretty solid with Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano filling it out. But with some past arm trouble among the group, especially in the case of Capouano, you would like to see some solid depth behind them. Right-handed prospect Nate Eovaldi is the clear No. 6 pitcher, and he has potential if not much experience (only 34 2/3 innings at the big-league level). However, there are no veteran starters in reserve and most of the Dodgers' better pitching prospects are at least a year away.
• There is no great lineup protection for Kemp, though it didn't seem to bother him last year when he was intentionally walked 24 times. Loney is the top candidate but he is seen as more of a singles hitter, not a major power threat. Among players currently on the roster, Loney's 12 home runs in 2011 were second best to Kemp's 39. GM Ned Colletti made a spirited run for Prince Fielder, offering at least $160 million over seven years with opt-out clauses in the deal, who would have given Kemp serious help. But the injury to Victor Martinez led to the Tigers coming in to win Fielder for $214 million over nine years, leaving Kemp almost alone.
• While the 'pen looks decent, it isn't especially strong from the left side. Youngster Elbert and veteran non-roster invite John Grabow are the best hopes from the left side -- though to be fair, this is a minor weakness that afflicts the vast majority of teams.