The Los Angeles Dodgers are well aware that reaching the playoffs is no longer good enough for their fan base, their ownership group or their new front office. The bar is raised to an entirely new level when the payroll soars north of $300 million and you have been to the postseason the previous two seasons and fallen short.
Since spring training, this season has been all about taking the next two steps and reaching their first World Series since 1988. Step 1 begins Friday night at Dodger Stadium with the start of the National League Division Series against a young, hungry New York Mets team.
Here are five reasons the Dodgers will advance far into the postseason and five more why it'll be an early exit.
Five reasons the Dodgers can go all the way
1. A left and a right. The clearest blueprint for the Dodgers to barge their way to that title is to follow the Arizona Diamondbacks' formula from 2001: sick their mirror-image aces on the rest of the league. Clayton Kershaw had his highest ERA in three years and this may have been his most dominant season yet. He struck out 301 batters, becoming the first major league pitcher to get to that milestone in 13 seasons. People bemoan Kershaw's postseason track record (5.12 ERA), but he got a season of big games off to a good start by pitching a one-hitter (with 13 strikeouts) the night the Dodgers clinched the NL West in San Francisco. Zack Greinke led the major leagues with a 1.66 ERA and 0.84 WHIP. You don't have to say much more about that. With Kershaw playing the role of Randy Johnson and Greinke that of Curt Schilling, the Dodgers are hoping their lefty-righty duo can take them a long way.
2. Young talent. For all their spending, the Dodgers didn’t have a position player bat .300, hit 30 home runs or reach 100 RBIs. They don't have a superstar-laden lineup. Rather, they score based on depth and balance. You could argue that two of their more dynamic players are rookies. Shortstop Corey Seager was electric after a Sept. 3 call-up, wresting the starting shortstop job from veteran Jimmy Rollins, and Joc Pederson was among the most powerful and patient hitters in the game until the plug got pulled on his production after the All-Star break. The most underrated player in this series might be Dodgers' super-utility guy, Enrique Hernandez, who figures to start over Pederson in center field. The Dodgers' three rookies have shown an ability to thrive in spotlight games, and they'll be looking for them to continue that.
3. Catching savvy. Yasmani Grandal is a Dodger in large part because he is one of the best pitch-framers in the game. The Dodgers front office loves his ability to get strikes called strikes and, occasionally, balls called strikes. A.J. Ellis has been described as the best pitch caller in the major leagues. He is adept at reading swings and helping pitchers think their way through games. Grandal is historically the better hitter, but his bat disappeared after a left shoulder injury after the All-Star break and Ellis revived his career some time in June. The Dodgers feel like they can't go wrong with either of their two catchers, and they figure to split time.
4. Depth. Rollins and Chase Utley are two of the least popular players among Mets fans because, as Philadelphia Phillies, they had a history of torching the team from Queens. They both figure to be on the bench most of this series and they both know what it takes to succeed in October. If Hernandez starts in center, the Dodgers will have Pederson to use for left-handed pop off the bench. Yasiel Puig might have been slowed by injuries and nowhere near as productive in 2015, but he still can be one of the more electric talents in the game. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly will have plenty of options for this series.
5. Information overload. The Dodgers have an enormous information-gathering capacity in their front office, and they have been digging into the Mets (and other potential postseason opponents) on the granular level for weeks now. It's rare that a postseason schedule is as clearly laid out as the National League has been since early September and Andrew Friedman's group has been busy scouting and dissecting each of their opponents' strengths and weaknesses. Generally, this is the time when a front office can't do a lot to affect the outcomes, but the Dodgers' group will be heavily involved in game planning.
Five reasons the Dodgers won't go all the way
1. The seventh inning and beyond. It has become the nightmare inning for Dodgers fans. The seventh inning is about the time Kershaw starts to get tired in the postseason, particularly if he is on short rest, and it's about the time Mattingly has to start thinking about using relievers to match up with an opposing lineup. The Dodgers feel like they're in great shape with their starters and with their closer, but the bridge innings are frightening. The two relievers with experience, J.P. Howell and Joel Peralta, have marginal stuff and the high-velocity pitchers, such as Juan Nicasio and Chris Hatcher, have never shown pinpoint command. The bullpen remains a concern.
2. The small stuff. The Dodgers thought they would be fielding a more professional, more fundamentally sound team when they made all those moves in the offseason. But up until the All-Star break, they were the worst baserunning team in the league by most measures and, at times, their offense has been scarily dependent on hitting home runs. Will they be able to compete against great pitching and execute at the key moments of games? They feel like they have the capability to do that, but the coming weeks will tell the tale.
3. Questions about Kershaw. If the Dodgers' most dominant pitcher really does have some kind of psychological hangup about pitching in the postseason, the Dodgers probably won't go far. He has been intent on proving himself on this stage since the offseason and hasn't shrunk from his past failures. Twice, though, the Dodgers have seen shocking meltdowns by Kershaw in postseason games. They think that has as much to do with the opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals, as anything else, but there's a chance Kershaw will run into those guys at some point this October.
4. Slumping players. Two of the Dodgers' All-Stars have been in free falls since they got back from the Midsummer Classic in Cincinnati. Grandal had a .927 OPS before the break and .498 OPS since. Pederson had an .851 OPS before the break and.617 OPS since. Without Grandal and Pederson producing, the Dodgers' only left-handed punch comes from Adrian Gonzalez, and that is a serious problem with the quality of the Mets' right-handed pitching.
5. Quality opponents. The Dodgers went 11-22 against teams that made the postseason, including 3-4 against the Mets. The only team they had a winning record against was the Cubs, who they beat four out of seven tries. None of those records necessarily mean anything, because the playoffs become a game-by-game crawl, but it doesn't speak well to the Dodgers' ability to beat good pitching and execute in tight, low-scoring games. In order to get to their goal, they'll have to turn those numbers on their head.