MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Life is good for stacked Dodgers squad

High expectations aren't fazing Mattingly and his talented team

Life is good for stacked Dodgers squad

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The mere act of Yasiel Puig jogging out from the clubhouse to the practice fields at Camelback Ranch set off a spontaneous and prolonged ovation among Dodgers fans Sunday morning.

The cheers rolled along with Puig as he jogged and high-fived spectators along the route. The fans were packed in along the fence lining a walkway to the practice fields.

It was an impressive crowd for a morning workout. It was an impressive show of affection for a player. But it was bigger than even Puig, whose impact on the 2013 Dodgers could not be overestimated.

These are the Los Angeles Dodgers. They are star power. They lead the National League in name recognition. They are a truly big deal, and they are not positioned to suffer shrinkage any time in the foreseeable future.

When people speak of the Dodgers as "the Yankees of the West Coast," this diminishes the Dodgers. The Dodgers have put themselves in a place in which they do not require comparison to validate their status. And if their 2014 payroll crowds $230 million, that is merely a fact of life. They have a deep-pockets ownership and a highly lucrative new TV package.

And they are, after all, the LOS ANGELES Dodgers. Their home is in an immense media market. The Dodgers spending a lot of money should not be seen as an aberration. The aberration came during the declining years of the McCourt ownership, when the Dodgers spent as if they were in baseball's lower-middle class.

The Dodgers are fine with the attention and the attendant high hopes. There were high expectations last year, too, after all the talent was added. But that was before the Dodgers went on the 42-8 midseason tear and won the NL West by 11 games. Now the Dodgers are completely established. Expectations are rampant. Will they clinch by Labor Day? And if not, why not? But so what?

"Yeah, we've got expectations, we get it, we're OK with it," manager Don Mattingly said Sunday. "And we kind of like it. I kind of like it, because I know that it tells me we've got a good team, we're capable. And I'd rather have a club that's capable, than saying 'OK, we've got to play above our heads to have a shot.' So I like this.

"These guys have been around long enough to know that we've got a good club, No. 1, but we also know that you've got to play good baseball or you find yourself on the outside looking in. And we also know that our division has gotten a lot tougher."

The Dodgers have talent all over the place. Technically, they have four front-line starting outfielders, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford and Puig. But since Kemp, coming back from left ankle surgery, will likely open the season on the disabled list, this is a problem for later. It's more of a situation than a problem, anyway.

The Dodgers will open the season in Australia against the D-backs in less than two weeks. The very fact that the Dodgers are one of the teams going to Australia tells you how serious Major League Baseball is about this event.

The Dodgers have a bullpen that can be described as deep and talented, and even that risks understatement. The rotation is headed by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke and is rock solid, one through four. There could be an actual surplus of talent if both Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett return to full health and effectiveness.

Kershaw, twice an NL Cy Young Award winner by the age of 25, has become the first Major Leaguer to have a contract worth more than $30 million per year, signing a seven-year deal for $215 million this winter. He is the star of pitching stars. His numbers, both competitive and contractual, prove it.

Kershaw had given up eight earned runs over four innings in two previous exhibition starts, but Sunday against the Giants, he pitched capably, giving up two runs over five innings. He struck out only one, but walked none.

"It's a step in the right direction," Kershaw said.

Earlier in the day, the Dodgers had announced that Kershaw would pitch Opening Day in Australia.

"Any time you get to start Opening Day, no matter what continent it's on, it's pretty cool," Kershaw said with a smile.

The one place the Dodgers do not have a big name or an obvious starter is second base. Perhaps the job will be won by speedy Dee Gordon, who is making the transition from shortstop.

Mattingly said Sunday that Gordon appeared to be more comfortable at second. That was promising. The manager was then asked if he had an idea of who would be the starting second baseman.

"An idea? Yeah," Mattingly said and then paused for comic effect. Getting the laughs he expected, he concluded this discussion by saying: "That's it. That's it."

Morale is high in the Dodgers' camp. So are expectations and salaries. This is a franchise that not that long ago was in bankruptcy court. The Dodgers are at the other end of the spectrum now, the end where life is good and the future promises even more.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.