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Dodgers camp report: Misfits, or a talented team ready to win it all?

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- From the outside, the Dodgers can look like an expensive group of misfits.

It can seem that manager Don Mattingly has the toughest job in the game, dealing with all these personalities, and also with expectations that are as big as the Dodgers' $200 million-plus payroll, or the team's $2 billion-plus purchase price. It can seem that Mattingly doesn't stand a chance, and also that Giants first baseman Brandon Belt was right when he dismissed the Dodgers by saying, "You can't buy chemistry."

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Plenty of people around the game have been thinking the same thing.

Skip Schumaker understands. He might have been one of those people, too. He might have been thinking those things about the Dodgers, at least until he became one.

It didn't take many days of spring training for him to decide he (and all those other people) were wrong.

"There's a lot more leadership than I thought from the outside looking in," said Schumaker, who came to the Dodgers in a December trade with the Cardinals. "[The image of the Dodgers as misfits] couldn't be further from the truth.

"I think there are really good things going on in this clubhouse."

We'll see.

The Dodgers are an interesting bunch, not only the most expensive team in baseball, but possibly the most fascinating as well. They're a talented group (with this payroll, they'd have to be, right?), but they're a group that arrived in Arizona with almost as many questions as big-league starting pitchers (and they've got more of those than anyone else does, too).

They don't run from the expectations. Mattingly, general manager Ned Colletti and right fielder Andre Ethier said in separate interviews that this is the most talented team of the current Dodger era, an era that includes the ugly final years of the Frank McCourt ownership and also teams that went to the National League Championship Series in back-to-back years, in 2008 and 2009.

"I think so, because everyone we have now is right in their prime," Ethier said. "It's not like we have guys who are real young, or who are already on the way down."

Assuming that Zack Greinke's spring elbow issue is as minor as the Dodgers seem to think, they'll have two aces at the top of the rotation, with Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. They have two guys who have finished second in an MVP race, in Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez, plus Adrian Gonzalez (who once finished fourth in MVP voting) and Ethier (who spent the first two months of 2010 looking like an MVP himself).

But it's not hard to find someone associated with the Marlins (player, coach, executive) who will insist that Ramirez will become a problem with the Dodgers just as he did in Florida. It's not hard to find people with the Red Sox to say that Gonzalez and Carl Crawford aren't as good for a team as they can sometimes be painted.

It's not hard to find people, even people connected to the Dodgers, to look at this mix and say Mattingly won't survive the season. The team fed that perception by not extending his contract past the end of this year, even though people around the Dodgers insist now that the manager's status is not (and won't become) an issue.

The players definitely seem to believe in Mattingly, and he believes in them. He admits he had heard all the talk about Ramirez before the Dodgers acquired him last July, but he says he has had "zero problems" with him since then.

He believes the environment around the Dodgers will actually be a positive, and he relates it to a story from his own background.

"I was a kid who was in trouble a lot," Mattingly said. "When I went to high school, I changed. I got a new start."

As hard as it is now to imagine the always-pleasant Mattingly as a troubled kid, he insists it was true.

"I was just full of myself," he said. "I would fight a lot."

Some people questioned the Dodgers for naming Mattingly as Joe Torre's successor, and some still question his game management (and others aren't too impressed with his bench coach, Trey Hillman). But Mattingly was widely praised for keeping the clubhouse from falling apart during the McCourt mess, and for holding things together last year when a team that admittedly wasn't deep enough suffered some big early injuries.

With all the distractions, the last few years weren't an easy time to be the Dodgers manager.

"Now we've created a whole bunch of new distractions, because of the talent," Ethier said.

The new owners made the situation better by spending money, but they haven't made things easier with their proclamations that it's World Series-or-bust, and that everyone in the organization will be held "accountable," to use club president Stan Kasten's favorite word.

Magic Johnson, to some extent the face of the ownership group, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times last month as saying, "If we don't [go to the World Series], it is not a good season for us. Guys should be saying that. As an ownership group, that's what we are saying."

Those are big words from a franchise that hasn't been to the World Series since 1988. Twenty-two of the other 29 franchises have been to the World Series more recently than the Dodgers, a group that includes all four of the Dodgers' National League West rivals.

No team is a bigger rival than the Giants, and it certainly doesn't go unnoticed around here that the Giants have won the World Series two of the past three years. When Dodger people say this is a more talented team than the ones that twice went to the NLCS, they also remind you that the first of those teams took the West with just 84 wins.

That, they assure you, won't happen this year.

They strongly believe this group can win. They strongly believe that Mattingly can be the one to them to a title ("I think he's grown into being one of the best managers going," Colletti said).

And they strongly believe that the potentially troubled clubhouse people imagine from the outside simply doesn't reflect reality.

They think this is going to be great.

"I think it's definitely fun, because everyone knows what the possibilities are," Ethier said. "For me and Matt [Kemp], it's like a way to start over. And for the guys we traded for, it's a way for them to start over, too."

And if it doesn't work, the Dodgers have plenty of money to go and start over again.

 
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