Dodgers need young core to rebound

Will what is left of the Los Angeles Dodgers' core of young talent -- Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and James Loney -- be able to bounce back from a collectively disappointing 2010?

Russell Martin was non-tendered after failing to agree on a new contract and wound up with the New York Yankees. But the other three, well, they simply have to produce in order for the Dodgers to be competitive. That alone might not be enough to get L.A. back to the playoffs, but it would be a good start.

Begin with Loney.

The lefty-hitting first baseman has never hit more than 15 home runs in a season and hit only 10 of them in 2010, but he had a career-high 41 doubles and drove in 88 runs, his third season in a row with at least that many RBIs. Still, general manager Ned Colletti and manager Don Mattingly continue to insist that Loney is a potential power hitter, and they remain determined to get him to reach that potential.

But Loney has now spent five seasons in the majors, enough to make an outsider wonder if this is simply who Loney is: a gap-to-gap, line-drive, doubles hitter who manages to drive in a lot of runs and still be reasonably productive without going deep very often.

More alarming for Loney than his lack of power, though, was the dramatic drop-off in his numbers after last year's All-Star break. He hit .309 with a .361 on-base percentage and 63 RBIs during the first half, but just .211, .331 and 25 thereafter. From the break through the end of August, he hit .202.

"James went through probably the toughest six weeks of his big league career in the second half," Colletti said during a brief conversation with reporters during baseball's quarterly owners meetings a couple of weeks ago. "He has spent time with [hitting coach Jeff] Pentland this winter working on developing more pull-side power."

Just as important to the Dodgers' hopes, though, are Kemp and Ethier.

If Loney endured a maddening six weeks, Kemp endured a baffling season, one in which he seemed at times to be his own worst enemy. At various times last season, the promising center fielder drew criticism from the coaching staff, the front office and the media -- all of which probably wouldn't have been such a big deal if he hadn't lost 48 points off his batting average from the previous season, along with 42 points off his OBP, and if his stolen-base percentage hadn't fallen from a solid 81 percent in his breakout 2009 season to a putrid 55.9 percent in 2010.

Kemp did appear in all 162 of the Dodgers' games last season, which is one reason he hit a career-high 28 home runs. And he appears to have a good relationship with Mattingly, who has worked closely with Kemp over the past 2½ seasons in his previous role as the Dodgers' hitting coach.

So circumstances appear to be aligned for Kemp to get back on track this season. If he does, and if he can cut way down on his strikeouts, he will again be one of the league's most feared hitters.

Which brings us to Ethier, whose disastrous second half last year seemed to obliterate all memory of his early season performance. Before he broke a bone in his right pinkie taking batting practice in San Diego on May 15, Ethier looked like a most valuable player in the making. His season was off to a sizzling start, as he was hitting .392 at the time, with a .457 OBP. He had 11 home runs and 11 doubles in 140 plate appearances, meaning he was averaging an extra-base hit every 6.4 times he stepped into the box.

But while that fast start earned him his first National League All-Star selection, he was never quite the same after he came back May 31. He hit .260 the rest of the season with a .335 OBP. He played at least part of that time with a flexible but rather cumbersome splint on his still-healing finger, which could have played a role. Or, perhaps it was just that he was in such a zone mentally before he got hurt that he spent the rest of the season trying to get that feeling back.

Whatever it was, you can probably chalk up Ethier's season to that broken finger. And that finger shouldn't be a factor in 2011.

The trio of Loney, Kemp and Ethier will make up much of the heart of the Dodgers' batting order, with Ethier almost certain to return to his familiar third spot and Kemp the most likely candidate to bat cleanup. Loney could hit fifth or sixth, but the Dodgers need strong performances from all three.

If Loney, Kemp and Ethier combine for, say, 75 home runs and about 250 RBIs, the Dodgers will score enough runs to at least stay in contention to the end. If all three do what they did last year, well, the Dodgers could be in deep trouble.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.