Monday, October 24, 2016

Can Dodgers rebound from NLCS loss, retain 2016 positives?

Andrew Friedman was deep in the bowels of Wrigley Field late Saturday night, contemplative as he assessed a long season, when a peer approached carrying emotions on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Champagne-soaked, with a spring in his step, Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer offered his hand to recognize a well-fought National League Championship Series and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ playoff season. The Dodgers' president of baseball operations offered his congratulations.

As Hoyer continued on to visit other Dodgers acquaintances, Friedman revealed a rough outline of the organization’s plan that ultimately could let him enjoy the sticky, sweet smell of success that comes with a National League championship, like the one the Cubs earned Saturday.

“Obviously next year’s team will look a little bit different than this year, but I thought we were an incredibly talented team,” Friedman said about an hour after the 2016 season was a wrap following a 5-0 loss to the Cubs in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. “It was a really good mix of veteran players and young players and our veteran guys did a tremendous job of providing a great environment for our young players to thrive. I think it was great for our young guys to experience.”

A flood of injuries made 2016 a scramble for the Dodgers, but there were positives amid the chaos. Youngsters like Julio Urias, Andrew Toles, Grant Dayton and Jose De Leon found out they could have success at the game's highest level. None of them was expected to arrive as quickly as they did, much less deliver at the levels each showed.

In Urias, the Dodgers saw a pitcher who let them know the future is bright. But in the immediacy of Saturday night’s loss, Urias oozed anything but optimism.

As players and staff packed up the clubhouse for the long journey home, Urias was alone on the steps outside, head down, leaning heavily on the railing. He nodded to a passerby who was offering a word of encouragement, but did not speak.

Urias is only 20 and pitched just 3 ? innings in the NLCS, but he was taking the end of the season hard, not taking for granted this postseason experience, even though his high upside suggests he just might get to experience it often.

A fourth consecutive division title failed to yield a World Series berth, yet again, but in some ways the Dodgers are ahead of schedule when it comes to the future.

“Yeah, I think it was just in the number of contributions that we got from a number of different guys,” Friedman said. “And a lot of our young guys, getting this experience, I think is great and bodes well for the future, but that silver-lining type stuff right now ... we’re all going to try to focus on the good form this year and learn what we can. I think the embraces after the game among everybody kind of showed the close-knit group we developed and are continuing to foster within our organization.”

Regardless of his Game 6 struggle, the Dodgers’ motor is powered by Clayton Kershaw first and foremost. He dominated before his back injury and was determined to make it back before the season ended. And when the Dodgers did reach the postseason, four of the five games they won came when Kershaw threw a pitch.

Kershaw projects as the Opening Day starter once again, with the rotation also expected to include Kenta Maeda and Urias. Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy are also under contract for 2017. Injuries hit the starting staff hard this past season, and Kershaw was asked if it was amazing the team had as much success as it did.

“I don’t know if amazing is the right word, but the team went through a lot this year,” Kershaw said. “A lot of guys went down, a lot of guys were grinding their way through it. A lot of guys that played the whole year that were banged up. There were a lot of things that showed the team atmosphere we have. Nobody wanted to get hurt or miss a day. Everybody wanted to be in there every single day. Our position players, there weren’t that many injuries and those guys played a lot.”

Rookie Corey Seager had an injury scare in spring training when he sprained a knee, but he ended up playing 157 games while batting .308 in the process. But late in the season and on into the playoffs he did look uncomfortable at times and seemed to be wincing in pain on occasion.

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