MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Dodgers embracing favorites' role for 2014 season

Healthy Hanley, Kemp will be key for last year's National League West champs

Dodgers embracing favorites' role for 2014 season

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Los Angeles Dodgers have a record-setting payroll.

Their roster is seasoned with All-Star players. And the expectations are high.

Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez wouldn't have it any other way.

"Expectations are good because it means you are good," he said. "We understand that, and we have our own expectations for ourselves. We expect to do good because we are good."

The Dodgers' roster certainly has a good feeling about it. With a season-opening series in Australia against Arizona just a week away, the two uncertainties manager Don Mattingly's club will face is who will emerge at second base and when center fielder Matt Kemp will be healthy enough to play.

Cuban defector Alex Guerrero -- signed to a four-year, $28 million deal last fall -- and shortstop convert Dee Gordon are the choices at second. Kemp is recovering from offseason ankle surgery, and he made his defensive debut of the spring on Wednesday, playing two innings in a Minor League game.

This should be a great season if the Dodgers can keep their lineup on the field and rotation on the mound.

"You have to do the job on the field," Gonzalez said. "The teams that meet expectations are the ones that are able to put their players on the field on a regular basis. Health is a determining factor."

For all the attention the new ownership has received for its willingness to pay the price to bring in players with impressive resumes, the Dodgers floundered in the first two months of last season.

Yes, they won the National League West by 11 games in 2013, but the Dodgers were 9 1/2 games out after games of June 22, but they wound up winning 62 of their final 90 games. Miami only won 62 games all season, and Houston just 51.

So what happened? The Dodgers got healthy and right-hander Zack Greinke got on track.

Greinke had the starting assignment at San Diego in that June 22 game. He allowed one run in eight innings of a 6-1 win. That was the start of a binge in which the Dodgers won 16 of Greinke's final 19 starts, while he was 12-2 with a 2.03 ERA in those 19 games.

A lift for the staff? Well, the Dodgers' rotation had a 3.60 ERA prior to Greinke's start on June 22, but a Major League-best 2.77 ERA in the final 90 games.

Hanley Ramirez battled injuries at the start of the season, and by June 18 had started only seven games and appeared in only 13. He was on the field 73 games the rest of the way, igniting the Dodgers' lineup by hitting .355 with 19 home runs, 54 RBIs and 58 runs scored in 73 games.

Big deal? Real big deal. In the 68 games before the Dodgers inserted a healthy Ramirez in the lineup, they scored 240 runs, ranking ahead of only the Miami Marlins (218 runs) in the Major Leagues. Once Ramirez returned to regular duty? The Dodgers scored 409 runs in their final 94 games, third in the NL behind only St. Louis and Washington.

"Look at the roles those guys play," Gonzalez said. "A top-quality starting pitcher and the No. 3 hitter, the guy who makes the rest of the lineup better because of how you move other people around with him playing."

The Dodgers went on to knock off the Braves in the NL Division Series, but they were eliminated in six games by the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.

"The Cardinals beat us," Gonzalez said. "Their pitchers beat our offense. That is the reason we lost. But remember, Hanley [2-for-15] was hurt in his first at-bat. Matt Kemp was on the disabled list. And Andre Ethier [3-for-20] was hurting."

And there were no reinforcements on the way to offset those three critical losses from the Dodgers' lineup.

This year, though, the expectation is for good health, and even more important, there is a confidence in the clubhouse that if possible, when help is needed, the Dodgers will get it. The new ownership group has shown that with the roster additions it has made in two years, plus the signing of staff ace Clayton Kershaw to a record-setting contract during the offseason.

"It makes it a lot easier when you know the ownership group is going to do what he has to do to have the best team on the field," Gonzalez said. "If I get hurt, for example, you know they are going to go out and get a first baseman that can fill that void."

Of course, a free-spending ownership does ruffle a few feathers among fans of other teams and among the players and execs of other teams.

Not that the Dodgers care.

"You can't control what other people feel," Gonzalez said. "What we can control is how we feel about ourselves and how we approach the game. We have guys who are going to do all they can do to bring a championship to Los Angeles."

That's the expectation the Dodgers live with.

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