Kemp, Kershaw save Dodgers from NL West abyss By Tim Brown, Yahoo! Sports 1 hour, 21 minutes ago Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Los Angeles Dodgers. 2011 record: 82-79 Finish: Third, NL West 2011 final payroll: $119.8 million Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $90 million Yahoo! Sports’ offseason rank: 19th Matt Kemp hit .324 with 39 home runs for the Dodgers in 2011. (Getty Images) Well, see, the storied franchise in the nation’s second-largest market finds itself in a place where 82 wins actually looked pretty good, and in a place where a Cy Young winner and a legit MVP candidate dragged it all the way into mediocrity, and in a place from where those Wilpons seem like damned fine owners. The team’s money ran out, followed quickly by the town’s patience. Frank McCourt went from defiant to bankrupt to surrender over little more than a summer, but not soon enough to save the Dodgers from his many problems. That’s how a team that couldn’t score runs, couldn’t protect Matt Kemp in its batting order, and couldn’t get much of anything out of its first baseman was never a player for Albert Pujols, the game’s greatest offensive force for a decade. And that’s why Prince Fielder never was an option. Or, for that matter, Carlos Beltran. About the best you could say for the Dodgers is they signed Kemp to an eight-year, $160 million extension, though only after McCourt became convinced it would play well to prospective buyers. The rest – as GM Ned Colletti adhered to a $90 million payroll – was bottom-feeding at its most Pittsburgh-ian; from early November to mid-December the Dodgers signed Juan Rivera, Mark Ellis, Matt Treanor, Adam Kennedy, Chris Capuano, Jerry Hairston Jr., Wil Ledezma, Aaron Harang and Josh Bard. Though Ellis is a reasonable enough guy at second base and Harang seems capable of pitching in the NL West, any exciting news would have to wait until April, when the new owner was due to be installed. The Dodgers may indeed occupy a very different place a year from now, when the next owner is walking the aisles and hoping to buy back the fans who couldn’t bear the sight of their team in its previous condition. Meantime, they’re a long way from that. Reality check Clayton Kershaw You’ve come to the right place for reality. Big, nasty, sobering, wind-blown, raining-sideways chunks of it. In the two seasons since the Dodgers maneuvered and played themselves to consecutive National League Championship Series, they’re a game over .500. Since coming up a pitcher or two short in two Octobers, they’ve finished fourth in the NL West, then third. Know why? They drafted Kemp, developed him, rode out the rough patches with him, watched him become the best player in the National League, and then – over an entire season – batted him directly in front of (deep breath) James Loney, Marcus Thames, Juan Uribe, Jerry Sands, Jay Gibbons, Rod Barajas, Casey Blake, Aaron Miles, Juan Rivera and/or Andre Ethier. They drafted Clayton Kershaw, developed him, showed him the strike zone, watched him become the best pitcher in the National League, and then had the ballclub fall apart around him, because there would be no more fluke trades like Manny Ramirez, and there would be no more signings of high-end free agents, and there would be plenty of teammates who were simply too old or too young or too incapable. As a result, the Dodgers have let a soft division get away. That’s the bad news. Part of it, anyway. The good news, it’s still a soft division, and Kemp and Kershaw aren’t going anywhere for a while, and Frank McCourt is going away soon. The Dodgers did play hard for first-year manager Don Mattingly, who is growing into his new job. And they played until the end, winning 34 games in August and September, when, of course, it no longer mattered. So, they probably won’t be terrible, all things considered. But they won’t be good, either. Not yet. Savior Andre Ethier So, what, exactly do the Dodgers have in Andre Ethier? And what can they expect from him post-knee surgery, in his walk year, in a lineup that’s going to include the Ellises (Mark, A.J.), a powerless Loney, second-year shortstop Dee Gordon, an expanding Uribe and the so-so Rivera? Just two years ago, Ethier was sixth in the MVP voting, four spots ahead of Kemp. Other than some bouts of utter helplessness against left-handed pitching, he was steady, remarkably clutch, and at times spectacular. He still has those moments. He had that 30-game hitting streak early in 2011. He gets after right-handed pitching. He’s won a Gold Glove. He’s capable of 30 home runs, even in a pitchers’ park. If the Dodgers are to be anything in 2012, at least enough to convince the new owner to bring in a little something at the trading deadline, Ethier will have to return to that ’09 hitter. Otherwise, it might be Ethier who goes.