The Los Angeles Dodgers' owners were so delighted with their 94-win team from 2014, they escorted their general manager off to a ceremonial advisory role, hired a radical-thinking new front office and then watched as that group tore down and remodeled an incredibly expensive roster.
As everyone figured, just qualifying for the playoffs is no longer acceptable to the people who make the calls at Chavez Ravine.
What's 2015 shaping up like? Depends how you feel about president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and his main deputies, Farhan Zaidi and Josh Byrnes, because this is now their team, win or lose. The trio was so intent on addressing the Dodgers' biggest worries -- an aging core and a stack of bad contracts, iffy depth, shaky defense and questionable clubhouse culture -- they weren't going to let traditional thinking or the fans' attachments stand in their way.
So, no matter what happens this season, Friedman and his group will be answering for it.
The computer projection system PECOTA absolutely loves the Dodgers, projecting them to win 97 games, the most in baseball. Then again, PECOTA liked the Dodgers last year, too, picking them to win 98 games, a guess that turned out to be close to the mark.
The computer isn't the only one with reason to be bullish on this team. The Dodgers might have less power than they did in 2014, but they have greater roster flexibility, younger pitching, better defense and a front office that figures to be aggressive around the trade deadline, if not before. Oh yeah, and they also still have Clayton Kershaw, which is nice.
Dodgers fans have strong feelings, good and bad, about manager Don Mattingly. At times, Mattingly has let his strong feelings about managing this team bubble up to the surface. The past two seasons were trying ones for Mattingly, who played with plenty of other star players in New York but in an era when management had ways of keeping high-maintenance players in check.
The Dodgers feel they fixed some of their cultural dysfunction by easing the outfield logjam when they traded Matt Kemp to the San Diego Padres and by allowing Hanley Ramirez, who frustrated coaches at times, to leave via free agency. They've also eased some long-term concerns by getting out from under $75 million owed to Kemp between now and 2019.
Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, 36, might not be the player he was seven years ago, but he's going to look like Ozzie Smith to Dodgers fans accustomed to seeing Ramirez at shortstop the past two seasons. He'll also have the incentive of an expiring contract and, perhaps, his last shot at winning another World Series ring. Howie Kendrick, 33, might have lost a bit of quickness, but he's a consummate professional in the field and at the plate. Rollins could certainly be an asset in the clubhouse and Kendrick comes from the blue-collar climate run by Mike Scioscia in Anaheim, which might be helpful if it rubs off.
Mattingly says he's on board with the analytics approach that seemed to work so well most of the time with Friedman and Joe Maddon in charge in Tampa Bay. He and bench coach Tim Wallach figure to work closely on a day-by-day basis with Friedman and Zaidi, and the results of those meetings could show up on the field in more radical lineups or more extreme defensive shifts. He also has parts that fit better, with more platoon opportunities, less opportunity for star players to pout and less rigidity in the bullpen.
The last front office seemed to evaluate players by the standard of what they had accomplished in the game. The new front office seems to spend its time trying to figure out what players are capable of doing in the future. Friedman's group thought there was untapped potential in players such as Yasmani Grandal and Brett Anderson. This group won't rest until it finds a market inefficiency it can exploit to gain an edge in an increasingly competitive game.
If everything goes according to plan, the Dodgers will easily make up for the loss of a couple of big bats by supporting their pitching better, grinding out at-bats with more regularity and playing with more cohesion.
The pitchers at the back of their rotation have been prone to miss large stretches of time, so what's to say they can be relied on now? Until last season, No. 4 starter Brandon McCarthy, signed to a four-year, $48 million deal this offseason, had never amassed 200 innings in a season and he has been at this for 10 years. Anderson, signed to a one-year, $10 million deal, has reached 175 innings only once in his career, when he was a rookie in 2009.
The health of McCarthy and Anderson -- and the Dodgers justified their signings based on copious research into their medical records -- could be the key to 2015. The Dodgers are a lot better off if they can squeeze 50-plus starts from those two than if they have to constantly find spot starters. Their pitching depth was even worse before the front office got to work adding guys such as Juan Nicasio, Mike Bolsinger and Joe Wieland, but it's far from enviable as is. Top pitching prospect Julio Urias is still only 18 and the team's Triple-A rotation last season was uninspiring, to put it kindly.
People have largely forgotten what Josh Beckett and Dan Haren added to the team last season, but without their contributions, the Dodgers' season could have gone off the rails when Kershaw was on the disabled list in April.
The bullpen might be better than it was last year, which was just plain bad, but it doesn't exactly look dominant. Friedman values the ability to miss bats and he loathes walks. Joel Peralta, Chris Hatcher and Nicasio have a chance to perform better than Brian Wilson, Chris Perez and Jamey Wright did, but that's not exactly the equivalent of summiting K-2. The Dodgers tried hard to trade Brandon League, another sporadically effective former closer, but his presence in the bullpen suddenly looks like an asset now that the NL West -- spurred by the Padres' additions -- has become so heavy with right-handed batters.
The Dodgers stand out in that regard, because -- without Kemp and Ramirez -- they're lacking right-handed power. Yasiel Puig will stand out in the lineup more, but it's a stretch to call him a power hitter anyway. His slugging percentage dipped in 2014, when he managed only 16 home runs in 640 plate appearances. From Opening Day until the final pitch of the regular season, Puig was the Dodgers' best hitter, but his inconsistency at times was painful, particularly in the playoffs. As usual, people will fret about whether his focus is in the right place.
The Dodgers might, at times, put too much on Kershaw's shoulders. Seasons like his 2014 campaign don't come along often. In the National League, MVP seasons by a pitcher come along about every four decades. If this team is good enough to make the playoffs, the questions about Kershaw's shaky postseason performances will push their way forward. The only way he'll ever really answer them is from the mound.