LOS ANGELES -- It is the greatest job in the world, or so they say. The money is good, the perks are nice. The lifestyle is hard to beat. You get to play a game for a living, the same game you played as a kid just because you loved it.
There are times, though, when being a major league ballplayer really stinks. And for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the past several weeks have been filled with those times.
The Dodgers, who made it to the National League Championship Series the past two years and appeared primed to dominate the NL West for years to come, finished fourth in the division. Their final game Sunday, a victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, left the Dodgers with a record of 80-82, their first losing season in five years. Although the Dodgers did seem to have a little more life to them in the season's final week or so, for the most part, September was a lifeless march to a dreary end.
Perhaps the worst part is, this season circled the drain with basically the same core of players that had achieved so much and gone so far over the previous two seasons.
So how did it all go so wrong? And more importantly, how long will it take to make it all right again?
Injuries: To be sure, there were key injuries. The Dodgers lost Rafael Furcal twice, for a month each. They were without Hong-Chih Kuo for two weeks at the start of the season, without Russell Martin for the final two months, without Vicente Padilla basically for 3 1/2 months and without Manny Ramirez three times, the final time lasting more than a month before they finally got rid of him. They were without Andre Ethier for only two weeks, but Ethier, who looked like he was headed for a MVP-caliber season when he broke his right pinkie May 15, was never quite the same after he came back.
But this season wasn't so much about the Dodgers' injured players is it was about their healthy ones, because for the most part, their healthy ones simply didn't perform.
Underperformers: Front and center among them were Ethier, whose power numbers plummeted from last year even as his batting average rose slightly; center fielder Matt Kemp, whose batting average and RBIs plummeted from last season even as his home-run total rose slightly; and closer Jonathan Broxton, who went from fairly dependable (at least in the regular season) to downright awful and was demoted to middle relief, where he wasn't any better.
But they weren't the only culprits.
Before going down for the season with a hip injury, Martin's offensive statistics dropped off for the third year in a row. Casey Blake's average fell more than 30 points, even as his power numbers stayed about the same. George Sherrill, an All-Star closer for the Baltimore Orioles last season before the Dodgers acquired him at the trade deadline and used him as a lights-out setup man for Broxton, lost his mechanics in spring training and never really found them until after the All-Star break.
To say this team needs fine-tuning over the winter is an understatement.
"I think we have to be open-minded about everything," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "Our starting pitching will need to be addressed. Our bullpen, which was a strength last year, has been inconsistent, so we'll need to make an addition or two there. There is a position or two on the field we'll have to address. I don't think I can sit here after the season we have had and not examine all aspects of it."
Good idea. Let's give it a shot, shall we?
The starting rotation is as good a place to start as any, especially given that three of the Dodgers' five starters -- Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly and Padilla -- are eligible for free agency, with only Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw locks to return.
Although Kuroda has said he doesn't know what he wants to do, it wouldn't be surprising if he chose to return to his native Japan. If the price is right, he might accept a one-year deal to stay with the Dodgers or some other team in the U.S., but the Dodgers have enough other needs to address that they likely aren't going to make Kuroda a priority.
Which brings us to Lilly, who figures to be the Dodgers' top priority this winter. He is coming to the end of a four-year, $40 million contract he signed with the Chicago Cubs the last time he was a free agent, and he is making $12 million this year, all but about $1.5 million of which is being picked up by the Cubs. He is 54-38 with a 3.68 ERA over the life of that contract and will command at least a three-year deal this winter.
The Dodgers also stand a decent chance of re-signing Padilla to another one-year deal, mostly because his spotty history -- including his one start over the final seven weeks of the season -- probably will mean a limited market for his services.
So, to summarize, the best guess here is that the Dodgers will open with a rotation of Kershaw, Billingsley, Lilly, Padilla and whoever wins the competition for the fifth spot in spring training, with John Ely the likely favorite going in.
All indications, including those of incoming manager Don Mattingly, are that Broxton will begin the season back in the closer's role, the one Torre removed him from on Aug. 13. Broxton blew seven save opportunities this season, and that doesn't count the non-save chance he coughed up on June 27 against the New York Yankees, who lit him up for four runs in the ninth before winning it in the 10th.
Given Broxton's history -- he has never been what you would call a lights-out closer -- there is plenty of reason to question whether he has the right makeup for the job. Even if Mattingly puts him back in that role to start the season, logic would suggest that if Broxton falters, Mattingly won't wait much more than a month to make a switch.
In the event that happens, the Dodgers probably will go with dual closers in Hong-Chih Kuo and Kenley Jansen. The free-agent market is basically limited to Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano, either of whom will command more than the Dodgers will have to spend, and established closers are rarely made available in trades.
As for the rest of the bullpen, the Dodgers have to decide whether to offer a contract to Sherrill, who made $4.575 million this year, posted a 6.69 ERA and is eligible for arbitration again. And there are plenty of other questions, such as whether Kuo can keep his oft-repaired left arm intact, whether Jansen can avoid the sophomore jinx and whether Ronald Belisario will even show up.
The Dodgers also have to figure out what they want to do about Martin, who made $5.05 million this year. The club will likely non-tender him rather than go through the arbitration process, which inevitably would result in Martin getting at least a nominal raise. If he then finds no takers on the free-agent market, the Dodgers could re-sign him at a reduced rate.
If Martin ends up going elsewhere, the Dodgers could re-sign Rod Barajas, a local guy and a savvy veteran who would love to remain with the club he grew up rooting for, and have Barajas and A.J. Ellis split time behind the plate next season. Their total salaries probably would come to less than half of what Martin would get through arbitration.
The Dodgers are mostly set around the horn with James Loney at first, Ryan Theriot at second, Casey Blake at third, Rafael Furcal at short and Jamey Carroll as the primary utility man. All five are either signed or under club control (Loney and Theriot are arbitration-eligible).
Blake, who is 37, likely will continue to be the Dodgers' primary, if not everyday third baseman. The club is expected to pursue another versatile utility man this winter who could play third if Mattingly opts to rest Blake, say, twice a week. Carroll has experience at third, but played just 11 games there for the Dodgers in 2010.
The Dodgers' need for a backup corner guy and a left-handed pinch hitter will likely be filled by Jay Gibbons, the veteran who hadn't played in the majors since 2007, when the Dodgers purchased his contract from Triple-A Albuquerque on Aug. 8. He'll be a free agent, but not a marquee name, and is another local product with a strong desire to remain with the Dodgers.
With Manny Ramirez long gone, the Dodgers will need a left fielder. Scott Podsednik, who didn't play after Sept. 9 because of plantar fasciitis, has a $2 million mutual option for next season. All indications are the Dodgers plan to exercise their half of the option because, from where they sit, $2 million is a bargain compared to the $45 million they paid Ramirez the past two seasons.
The rest of the outfield is set. For all the image problems center fielder Matt Kemp had this season, his final week was another example of why the Dodgers aren't going to trade him unless a team blows them away with an offer. He homered in each of the final five games to finish with a career-high 28, led the team with 89 RBIs and played in all 162 games. Likewise, Ethier's numbers before his injury -- .392 average, 11 doubles, 11 homers, 38 RBIs and a .457 on-base percentage through the first 35 games -- demonstrate exactly why he isn't going anywhere.
As for backups, Gibbons probably will be one, and the Dodgers are almost certain to make a run at re-signing Reed Johnson, who hit a respectable .262 for them while making $925,000 this season.
None of this takes into account, of course, what the Dodgers will bring in from the outside. It is going to take more than the money owner Frank McCourt put into this year's payroll to turn this thing around. There are strong indications McCourt will increase that figure, although it isn't clear by how much. There are several veterans who will be free agents this winter whom the Dodgers might make a run at, such as Pat Burrell, Adrian Beltre, Adam Dunn.
It figures to be a fascinating winter for the Dodgers. But what the Dodgers are really shooting for is a fascinating summer in 2011 -- and they have a lot of work to do to lay the groundwork for that.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.