First place. Despite 18 disabled list injuries that claimed six of the first seven hitters in the batting order and four relievers. Despite losing 15 of the final 20 games before the break, including the last three. Despite a roster that was built on the cheap to begin with. The Dodgers exploited a soft early schedule and a weak division to build a 7 1/2-game lead by late May, although nearly all of it is gone.
"I don't like how it's ended, but we've put ourselves in a good position," manager Don Mattingly said. "We'll see if we are good enough in the second half."
The first wave of reinforcements is expected to literally hit when play resumes Friday, as Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are apparently healed and ready to be activated from the disabled list.
Meanwhile, new ownership has quickly backed up promises to keep its stars and return to international prominence by spending $127 million on contracts for Ethier and Cuban defector Yasiel Puig, while primed to spend plenty more by the non-waiver Trade Deadline at the end of the month.
"Ned [Colletti, general manager] has been encouraged to be as aggressive as he can be," said club president Stan Kasten. "But it does take two to make a deal work. If it was just about the money ... but it's not. It's also about prospects.
"We have to weigh carefully if we give away what we have. It will be interesting as we get to the Deadline. I'm not comfortable just waiting for the Minor Leaguers to grow into Major Leaguers. I want us to do all we can to take advantage of the position we're now in."
That comment supports speculation that the new owners have instructed the baseball operations department to do whatever it takes to win this year. There's nothing like a World Series title to help sell tickets and negotiate TV contracts.
|MVP: A.J. Ellis He's exceeded expectations and stayed healthy, something no other Dodgers position starter can say.|
|Cy Young: Chris Capuano An All-Star snub, he's given the rotation a second ace with Clayton Kershaw.|
|Rookie: Elian Herrera Why did it take nine years for him to get a chance?|
|Top reliever: Kenley Jansen He's been reliable since replacing Javy Guerra as closer.|
But deep-pocketed owners can't solve every problem by throwing money at it. Players still get injured. The farm system is still thin in top-shelf prospects, and money alone can't change that, certainly not overnight. A lack of prospects makes Deadline trades more difficult.
From all indications, Milwaukee's Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Dempster of the Cubs top the wish list to bolster the lineup and the starting rotation. It will take a prospect the likes of pitcher Zach Lee to get Dempster, but the key to getting Ramirez will be the willingness to assume the $31 million he's owed through 2014.
As one of the biggest surprises in baseball this year, the Dodgers have done it mostly with pitching, Mattingly said. Even with Ted Lilly injured and Chad Billingsley having one of his worst first halves, Chris Capuano stepped up with an All-Star-worthy first half and Aaron Harang has been solid. The bullpen has been shuffled, with Kenley Jansen replacing Javy Guerra as closer and Ronald Belisario a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year as the new/old setup man.
Belisario and Josh Lindblom have handled the innings that were expected to be pitched by Matt Guerrier, Todd Coffey and Blake Hawksworth.
Hawksworth hasn't pitched this year, Coffey won't pitch again this year and Guerrier has been out since April 19.
The offense has been Mattingly's biggest disappointment, most notably from corner infielders James Loney and Juan Uribe.
"We were counting on Matt and Andre and knew we needed some wing guys for them, and we thought it would be those guys, but to this point, it's not been those guys," said Mattingly.
Players to watch in second half
|Matt Kemp It's all about his health.|
|James Loney Does he have another second half in him like last year's?|
|Chad Billingsley The staff enigma with All-Star stuff but regressive results.|
That's why the Dodgers are focused on acquiring a third baseman like Ramirez or San Diego's Chase Headley, or a first baseman like Milwaukee's Corey Hart.
Mattingly ticks off the surprising performances, from Capuano and Belisario and catcher A.J. Ellis, to injury fill-in rookies Elian Herrera and Luis Cruz. But the biggest surprise, Mattingly said, has been his club's ability to grind through each day in spite of the obstacles.
"Just being able to sustain while we haven't had Matt for over half the games and to hold on," he said. "The first 15 games without him were really good and then after a month or so, the guys, knowing it was going to be long term, hit a tough patch. But we kept battling."
Regardless of any Deadline acquisitions, the Dodgers will face a tougher schedule in the second half than the first. Mattingly said the formula for success, however, really hasn't changed from the first half.
"We need Matt to be himself, we need 'Dre to be himself," he said. "I think Clayton Kershaw has been himself. He just hasn't gotten the wins. I said before the season, he could pitch just as well as last year and win 12, 14 games instead of 21. Some things are out of his control, like defense and scoring runs. But we've gotten consistency from the starting staff. We still need a group effort."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.