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Dodgers look to widen division lead in second half

Eyes will be on Los Angeles management as Trade Deadline approaches

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LOS ANGELES -- Through sheer talent -- especially on the mound -- the Dodgers have overcome disabling injuries to Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Josh Beckett, Brian Wilson, Juan Uribe, Carl Crawford, A.J. Ellis and more, to wipe out a 9 1/2-game deficit and sit in first place at the end of the first half. But offensive production has been spotty and the Dodgers' schedule gets tough immediately following the All-Star break. The Dodgers again look like a playoff team, but can they raise their level of play enough to finally reach the World Series?

Five key developments in the first half

1. Starting rotation
The rotation has pretty much lived up to its demanding expectations, with All-Stars at the top in Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and quality depth right through the back end in Ryu, Beckett and Dan Haren. Beckett's hip injury and Haren's inconsistency, though, are now looming red flags for Los Angeles after the break.

2. Dee Gordon
Squeezed out at shortstop, Gordon resurrected his career by learning to play a flashy second base and emerging as the game-changing catalyst that management had given up hope he'd become.

First-half awards
MVP: Dee Gordon
A deserving All-Star after reinventing himself as a second baseman, Gordon has always had game-changing speed. But his bat has matured while he's handled the defense more comfortably than he ever was at shortstop.
Top starter (in the world): Clayton Kershaw
Now we see why Joe Torre compared Kershaw to Sandy Koufax before Kershaw ever pitched in the Major Leagues.
Top rookie: Miguel Rojas
Rojas spent a 10-year Minor League internship before a club so desperate for a dependable glove finally appreciated his defensive skills.
Top reliever: Kenley Jansen /J.P. Howell
Jansen is one of the best closers in the league. But don't underestimate the importance of Howell, who gets outs. Howell is overshadowed in a bullpen of characters, but if you were in a foxhole -- or an eighth-inning jam -- he's the one you'd call.

3. Don Mattingly sounds off
As he did a year ago, the Dodgers manager stepped out of character and criticized his club's selfish play publicly.The team again responded by taking over first place in the NL West.

4. Outfield
Same-old story for Dodgers outfielders. There are too many spots when their bodies are healthy, but they can't stay healthy, so management can't move anyone. Matt Kemp is a better fit in left after his injuries, but Crawford's return is bound to raise tensions again.

5. A better presentation
Fundamentals aren't sexy or profitable, but the Dodgers learned early on that they can't win without them. Los Angeles' big-name and big-salary roster upped its game with better defense and execution and, coincidentally, started winning.

Five storylines to watch for in the second half

1. OF/Trades
Neither Crawford, Andre Ethier nor Kemp are anywhere near the players they were when they received the huge contracts that now make them virtually untradeable. Unless management is suddenly willing to move any of the organization's three top prospects (Joc Pederson, Corey Seager or Julio Urias), the club almost certainly will have to eat and/or take someone else's bad contract to make an impact deal.

2. Josh Beckett/Dan Haren
The fourth and fifth starters have given the club better quality outings than management expected, but how long can that last? Beckett has a left hip condition that appears to be deteriorating, even though he's become a master at pitching through it. Haren overcame a stiff back early, but has been in and out lately and, unlike Beckett, lacks the velocity to get away with mistakes. David Price is a pipedream because the system hasn't produced a surplus of tempting prospects for currency.

Players to watch in second half
Hanley Ramirez  
It is salary-drive time for the pending free agent. Ramirez just had a second injection in his arthritic right shoulder, but don't write him off. His game-changing bat was critical to last year's amazing comeback, he just didn't get deserved credit because Yasiel Puig stole the show. Ramirez is the bat that opponents fear.
Brian Wilson
The Dodgers gave Wilson $10 million to be the lights-out setup man of last September. It hasn't happened. Chris Perez was for a month, but that didn't last. Chris Withrow was until Tommy John surgery. Either Wilson bounces back or the team needs to find someone to share the load with Brandon League and Howell.
Matt Kemp/Carl Crawford
In their prime, they received contracts worth a combined quarter of a billion dollars. But neither player has demonstrated the health nor the skills that earned those contracts. Same goes for Andre Ethier, for that matter. Two of them need to produce, one of them needs to be traded.

3. Hanley Ramirez /Shortstop
Ramirez expected a rich contract extension, but the spigot of wealthy deals was shut off by a management team suddenly concerned about the risks Ramirez presented in declining health and shortstop skills. He hasn't been placed on the disabled list, but Ramirez has missed nearly 20 starts. With that said, Ramirez has still been a threatening, productive bat, and he has millions of reasons to unleash a monster second half if he stays healthy enough. The unexpected arrival of veteran Minor Leaguer Miguel Rojas has stabilized the defense when Ramirez hasn't played.

4. Joc Pederson
He's been waiting in the wings for a while now, needing management to deal one of the big-name, big-contract outfielders that blocks his path. But so far, the front office can't, or won't, make that deal. There doesn't seem to be any disagreement that Pederson has earned a promotion and is ready to succeed at the highest level. He's also the best center-field option in the organization.

5. Yasiel Puig Power
Puig's an All-Star, a suddenly patient hitter who will take a walk and less often helps opposing pitchers by swinging wildly. But, by the way, he's hit no more home runs in the last six weeks than Gordon. Is Puig really an All-Star outfielder if he has the power of a second baseman? Where did the power go? The plate patience? Nagging injuries? Something else? And will he ever learn the nuances of the game to maximize his immense raw talent? The Dodgers continue to take the bad with the very good.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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