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The Dodger who can have the greatest effect on the 2012 season

February 3, 2012 |  1:33 pm

  

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He is the key to the Dodgers’ 2012 season, the one player in a position to most affect whether the team is again mediocre, or poised to make a postseason run.

Andre Ethier, a dismayed Dodgers nation turns its eyes to you.

The Dodgers went into the off-season talking about how they would make a run at a big bat. As you just might possibly have noticed, it never arrived.

Now even if you’re doing the massive assuming the Dodgers are for 2012 -– Matt Kemp will approach the same numbers, Juan Rivera will still drive in runs, Juan Uribe can’t possibly be as awful as he was in 2011, Dee Gordon will hold up over the course of the season, James Loney will more closely resemble his second-half self -– that still doesn’t figure to be enough to lift the team into the playoffs.

The one player who has the potential to have a massively better year in 2012 is Ethier.

The extremely talented, emotional, hard-working, inconsistent, prideful, exasperating All-Star right fielder.

After the 2009 season, Ethier was on the verge of superstardom. He hit 31 home runs, had 106 RBI and completed his second consecutive season with a slugging percentage north of .500. He started 2011 like he might make a run at the triple crown. Then came a broken pinkie from which he never seemed to fully recover.

Last year there was an early 30-game hitting streak in an otherwise disappointing season. Finally there was that odd, they’re-making-me-play-hurt rant, followed by denial, followed by season-ending knee surgery.

His final 2011 numbers: .292 batting average, 11 homers, 62 RBI, 67 runs and a career-low .421 slugging percentage.

There is plenty of room for improvement there, and if Ethier can do it, he can provide that big bat that was sorely missing last year. He is the one player who can make a dramatic difference in the Dodgers' lineup.

Which doesn’t mean it will happen, though I suspect it will. Still, prophesying Ethier’s future performance is like trying to predict the next Alec Baldwin remark. Could be really good, could be what the hell?

Now there are a couple of very good reasons to anticipate Ethier will bounce back with a huge season. Presumably he is healthy, his knee surgery was not major and that pinkie certainly should have healed by now. And he is in his contract year. He signed a one-year, $10.95-million deal this winter and can become a free agent for the first time at the end of the coming season.

General Manager Ned Colletti said the Dodgers were interested in signing Ethier to a long-term deal, which so far hasn’t happened. Ethier took notice of Chad Billingsley getting a three-year deal last spring, and that was long before Kemp signed his $160-million deal this off-season.

Ethier may determine he'll be in a better negotiating position after putting in a full, healthy season, whether re-signing with the Dodgers or hitting the open market. Or maybe he would prefer the security of a big contract right now. It’s Ethier, so it’s a guessing game.

Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said Ethier gave away 100 at-bats last season by letting his emotions get the best of him. That was almost 20% of his season. For a guy who bats in the middle of the order.

Ethier turns 30 in April, so you would like to think he’s maturing enough to stay focused and not allow setbacks to send him gyrating off course. He is an intelligent and, when he wants to be, highly charming (as demonstrated in the following MLB.com video) player. He and Kemp could own this town.

And if the Dodgers are going to contend, he’ll need to.

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If Stan Kroenke gets the Dodgers, doesn't L.A. get the Rams?

-- Steve Dilbeck

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