Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier (16) hits a double in the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium.-Rick Scuteri-US PRESSWIRE

Five Keys to Winning the West

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The N.L. West figures to be a tough division in 2012. The defending champion Arizona Diamondbacks strengthened their rotation by acquiring Trevor Cahill. The San Francisco Giants sacrificed a pretty solid young southpaw in Jonathan Sanchez, but made additions to an offense that was in dire need of some pop. Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw should keep the Dodgers in the hunt, and the Colorado Rockies were the big movers of the winter, adding Michael Cuddyer and Jeremy Guthrie, among many others.

I believe all four teams will be in the hunt down the stretch, but I expect the Rockies to fade eventually. Of course, I’ve said that before, only to watch them make the playoffs. And while the team to beat is certainly the D’Backs right now, who knows if 2011 was just a flash in the pan?

Our Dodgers certainly have question marks in the rotation after losing Hiroki Kuroda to free agency, and in the lineup due to Andre Ethier’s injury history. But, boasting the reigning Cy Young winner and a snubbed MVP will at least give L.A. a shot this season. So, what has to go right for the Dodgers to restore their rightful place as NL West champs?

Here are my five keys for the Dodgers to win the West:

1. Matt Kemp’s Run at 50/50

I don’t know how realistic Kemp’s pursuit of the first ever 50/50 season will be, but I’m not going to put it past the guy. He’s a legit threat to swipe 50 bags, and could push his power total over last year’s 39 with adequate protection in the lineup. I’m not saying he needs to reach that plateau for the Dodgers to win the division, but if he produces like 2011, we should be in good shape.

2. Andre Ethier’s Health

That being said, Kemp can’t be expected to carry this offense all season long again. This key isn’t a question of Ethier’s production – we know he’s one of the best hitters in the league when healthy. It’s simply a matter of him staying healthy all season. Various ailments have slowed him down in the last couple years, but when he’s on, he’s REALLY on. If Ethier can put up a 25/100 season hitting back-to-back with Kemp, the Dodgers have one of the meanest hearts of any order in baseball.

3. Production from the J’s

I know, it’s a stupid moniker. But if the Dodgers get consistent numbers from James Loney and Juan Rivera, we are talking about one of the most dangerous lineups in the entire league. I don’t expect much out of Juan Uribe, but if he can have an average season and cut down on strikeouts, I’ll be floored. Rivera ignited this lineup after coming over mid-season last year, and anything short of a 20-homer, 80-RBI campaign would disappoint me.

And the knock on Loney has always been his consistency – he’ll be the best RBI man in the league for a week, and then swing and miss at everything within a ten-mile radius the next week. Let’s throw one more “J” in there for good measure: Jerry Sands will rotate at the corner outfield spots and first base whenever necessary. If he carries over the success he had late last season, the Dodgers are boasting a ridiculous 3, 4, 5, 6 in the order for any given game.

4. How ‘Bout a Little Swag?

I’ve been spending way too much time on Twitter, because I’m now referring to Dee Gordon by his handle (@skinnyswag9). Call me crazy, but he may even be more important to this offense than Kemp or Ethier. When Gordon came up at the end of last season, the Dodgers started hitting like nobody’s business. And it’s no coincidence. Having a spark plug at the top of the lineup who can put the ball in play, get on base and use his speed to disrupt a game is unbelievably underrated. Gordon needs to avoid a sophomore slump, because he’s our only legitimate leadoff option right now. And the more this speedster is on base, the more RBI opportunities the big boys have, the more runs the Dodgers score, the more games we win!

5. The Rotation After Kershaw

It may seem funny that four of my five keys involve the offense, when the rotation is clearly the biggest question mark heading into the 2012 season. But it’s only because I can lump that question mark into one category. Here are the basics: I’m not worried about Clayton Kershaw. He’s going to do his thing again in 2012. He’s proven that none of his success is a fluke. So every five games, the Dodgers are pretty much guaranteed to have a good shot at winning. Unfortunately, they play 162 games and Kershaw can not start every one of them.

So, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano and any youngster that gets a spot start are going to need to step up BIG if the Dodgers want to contend for the division. Billingsley has become a guy you count on for a .500 record and a 4.00 ERA – numbers that won’t cut it for a number two. Lilly is getting on in age and it’s showing. He gets more and more hittable every year. Harang and Capuano are the new guys, and the Dodgers hope they can at least combine to replace Hiroki Kuroda, who now dons the pinstripes.

All I’m asking for is a slight improvement from Billingsley and Lilly (12 or 13 wins from each would do wonders), and decent production from Harang and Capuano. You have to figure Kershaw will be good for 18-20 wins, so if the other four can combine for 45-50, we may be spraying champagne after Game 162. Given their individual successes in the past, I believe these four can pull that number off, but only time will tell.

Recap:

he Dodgers should have a pretty potent lineup, regardless of health and consistency. But if the “J’s” can give us a decent return, Ethier stays healthy, and Gordon continues to be a dependable leadoff hitter, we are going to score a LOT of runs. But as we’ve seen over the years, a strong offense rarely wins you championships. So, the Dodgers’ rotation behind Kershaw is going to have step up big and lock down some key wins for us in 2012.

If the Dodgers follow these five steps, our boys may just be celebrating come October. Fingers crossed that all goes according to planned. I can’t wait to see what unfolds at Chavez Ravine in 2012!

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @Jambliman

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