The 2012 Los Angeles Dodgers season was one of immense change for the organization and left behind a sense of unfinished business. Though the results on the field weren't ultimately successful in the short term as the team missed the playoffs for the third straight year, the foundation has been laid for a team that, on paper, should contend in the foreseeable future.
Then again, manager Don Mattingly thought the club he had in spring training was good enough to contend, too. For more than two months he looked like a prophet as the Dodgers stormed to a 30-13 start and held the best record in baseball as late as June 20.
"The club that we had when we left spring training, I expected them to make the playoffs. I know not many people believed that, but I believed we would make the playoffs with the club we left with," Mattingly said. "We didn't end up with that club. It's a totally different look, and many people would say a better look, and I don't disagree."
That different look came in the form of five trades from July 25 to Aug. 25. The Dodgers added eight new players to their active roster and absorbed more than $300 million in salary commitments, highlighted by shortstop Hanley Ramirez and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who became fixtures in the middle of the Dodgers' batting order.
Guggenheim Baseball Partners, headed by chairman Mark Walter and CEO Stan Kasten and highlighted by partner Magic Johnson, bought the Dodgers from Frank McCourt on May 1 for a mind-boggling $2.15 billion, more than double the previous record for an MLB franchise. The new owners vowed to spend money on the team, and they backed up their words with actions.
Two-time All-Star outfielder Andre Ethier, who would have been eligible for free agency at season's end, signed an $85 million, five-year extension in May that will keep him a Dodger through 2017 with an option for 2018. The club signed 21-year old Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig, who hadn't played organized baseball in more than a year, to a seven-year, $42 million deal. Those two join Matt Kemp (signed through 2019), Gonzalez (2018), Carl Crawford (2017), and Ramirez (2014) in a lineup that has the potential to be prolific.
But that's not what happened in 2012, at least at first. The Dodgers trailed the Giants by three games in the National League West and trailed the Cardinals by 1 1/2 games for the second NL wild card spot on the morning of Aug. 25, when they acquired Gonzalez, Crawford, starting pitcher Josh Beckett, and utility man Nick Punto in a blockbuster nine-player trade with the Red Sox.
The seemingly formidable lineup did not produce -- the Dodgers averaged just 3.0 runs per game in the first 28 games after the trade, going 11-17 during that span. The lineup did eventually average 5.6 runs per game over a 7-1 stretch to end the season, but it was too late as the club finished two games behind St. Louis for the final wild-card spot.
"The biggest disappointment of the whole season is that section of time, that it took us this long to get it going," Mattingly said. "For whatever reason, it didn't get going. Then all of a sudden we started clicking. I never thought it would have taken this long."
Starting pitching was a strength of the 2012 Dodgers, but it is also arguably the team's biggest need heading into the offseason despite having six starters signed for 2013: Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Beckett, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly.
Billingsley has tried to avoid surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow, and it could take a month into the offseason to determine whether his alternative treatment worked or if he'll be out for 2013. Lilly is coming off surgery but is expected to be back in time for spring training. Kershaw battled a right hip impingement in September, though it wasn't evident in his performance as he allowed four runs in his final five starts.
Kemp, who missed 51 games because of two left hamstring strains earlier in the season, is expected to be ready for spring training after offseason shoulder surgery. Crawford, who had Tommy John surgery earlier in the season while with the Red Sox, is expected back in May.
Health permitting, the Dodgers have a strong core of players that, on paper, should enabled them to contend in the National League West in 2013. But as the Dodgers saw firsthand this year, games aren't played on paper.