LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Dodgers have lived with the knowledge that they wouldn’t make the playoffs for quite some time now. Yet the final weeks of the season have been anything but the brutal slog to the finish that many predicted.
Still, the ongoing ownership battle, a bankruptcy filing and Major League Baseball’s attempt to force Frank McCourt to sell ensure that an uncertain future will hang over the once proud franchise this winter.
The Dodgers fell a season-high 14 1⁄2 games out of first place in the National League West shortly after the All-Star break, but gradually dug themselves out of last place and moved above .500 recently for the first time in nearly five months. They took an 80-78 record into the start of their season-ending series at NL West champion Arizona on Monday night.
Slugger Matt Kemp and left-hander Clayton Kershaw have been the brightest spots for a team that is missing the playoffs for the second straight year.
Kemp and Kershaw could be collecting postseason honors if voters overlook that they play on a mediocre team that never contended for a postseason berth. Kemp is a top contender for the NL MVP award, while Kershaw leads the league with a 2.28 ERA and 248 strikeouts. His 21 wins are tied for the league lead with Arizona’s Ian Kennedy.
“At the beginning of the year we weren’t quite doing what we needed to do to win ballgames. But we didn’t give up,” Kemp said. “We kept working, and this last month and a half has shown the character of our team and what it really is.”
Since falling to 37-51 on July 6, the Dodgers have gone 43-27, the fourth-best record in the NL during that time.Rookie manager Don Mattingly kept his players focused during a roller coaster season filled with injuries, the bankruptcy filing in June, and the continuing battle between McCourt and ex-wife Jamie over ownership of the team.
Pitching and defense sustained the Dodgers much of the season when they struggled to score runs, a category in which they ranked in the bottom half of the league.
“Our offense is where we probably slipped this year, especially in a handful of cases where you expect at least the performance that people are accustomed to providing. And we didn’t get that,” general manager Ned Colletti said. “In some cases we exceeded it, but in too many cases did not reach it.”
Injuries prevented the Dodgers’ projected infield of James Loney, Juan Uribe, Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake from playing all but two games together. Furcal wound up being traded and his replacement, Dee Gordon, emerged as a promising shortstop and speedy threat on the basepaths.
Finding an everyday left fielder remains an ongoing quest, although Juan Rivera arrived in July via a trade and provided some stability.
Besides Gordon, other young players who emerged to make the final two months of the season interesting included hard-throwing reliever Kenley Jansen, closer Javy Guerra, and outfielder Jerry Sands, hitting over .300 this month.
It’s up to Colletti to put the 2012 team together, although he has yet to learn from McCourt what his budget will be.
“As we get deeper into the fall, we’ll find out more about that,” he said. “We’re not behind schedule on any of our thought process or any of the things we typically do at the end of the season. As of right now, we’re doing fine.”
McCourt has said he has no intention of selling the team. He blamed Commissioner Bud Selig for refusing to approve a multibillion-dollar TV deal with Fox that McCourt was counting on to keep the troubled franchise afloat.
Next month, a Delaware bankruptcy judge will hear the Dodgers’ motion seeking approval of a TV rights auction and the league’s opposing motion seeking a sale of the team.
Regardless of the outcome, the Dodgers are free to sign players to long-term contracts, which are guaranteed by major league baseball.
Nine players become eligible for free agency after the World Series ends — pitchers Jonathan Broxton, Jon Garland, Hiroki Kuroda, Mike MacDougal and Vicente Padilla, along with catcher Rod Barajas, infielder Jamey Carroll, infielder Aaron Miles and Rivera. The Dodgers hold a team option on infielder Casey Blake.
Colletti’s biggest priority for next season is adding a big bat.
Assuming the Dodgers lack the resources to go after a big-name free agent, whatever is left might not fill their needs.
“In my mind, the free agent group is not robust,” Colletti said. “I think every year it’s a little bit thinner as players are locked up.”