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Dodgers unfazed by heavy expectations

Reuters

(Reuters) - The weight of expectation sits easily with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Although they have not won the World Series since 1988, the Dodgers are comfortable with being regarded as one of this season's favorite teams.

With their deep pockets and a roster packed with All-Stars, the Dodgers have reason to feel confident about their prospects for the 2014 Major League Baseball season.

"Expectations are good because it means you are good," Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez told mlb.com during spring training.

"We understand that, and we have our own expectations for ourselves. We expect to do good because we are good."

The Dodgers were also among the favorites last year but got off to a slow start after a series of injuries to key players.

Almost halfway through the 162-game regular season, the Dodgers were in last place in the National League West division before things suddenly turned around.

They won 62 of their last 90 games to win the division and qualify for the playoffs. The beat the Atlanta Braves in the Divisional Series before losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.

With the new season about to start and most of their key players all fit, the Dodgers are brimming with confidence.

During the offseason, they re-signed left-handed ace Clayton Kershaw to a 7-year, $215 million deal, the richest contract ever offered to a pitcher.

Kershaw's lucrative deal was a reward for an outstanding performance in 2013. He had an MLB-best 1.83 earned run average and threw 232 strikeouts to win the NL's Cy Young Award for the second time in three years.

Kershaw struggled in spring training, going 0-3 in four starts and allowing 20 hits, but said he was unfazed by his performances in the warm-up games.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was also unconcerned, picking Kershaw to start in this weekend's season opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Sydney, Australia.

"It's time to go," Kershaw said. "It's good to have games that count. We've practiced a lot, but haven't played a ton of actual games."

"Physically, I feel 100 percent. It's time to start performing."

The Dodgers' rotation was already strong with Zack Greinke and South Korean Ryu Hyun-jin but after adding Dan Haren from the Washington Nationals during the offseason they boast one of the deepest starting groups in baseball.

Their offense is just as intimidating. Gonzalez blasted 22 home runs and had 100 RBI while shortstop Hanley Ramirez struck 20 homers and batted .345 after being restricted to 86 games because of injuries.

Cuban defector Yasiel Puig was just as impressive in his debut season, hitting 19 home runs and 122 hits from 104 games to finish runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

Like Kershaw, Puig also struggled in spring training, smashing a bat against a dugout rail in frustration, but Mattingly said he would quickly regain his confidence.

"He's just got to be patient, get good pitches to hit. You are what you eat," Mattingly explained. "It's a matter of him getting pitches in the strike zone."

The Dodgers also signed Cuban second baseman Alexander Guerrero to bolster their ranks in case outfielders Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp succumb to injuries again.

The Dodgers boast one of the highest payrolls in MLB, something that is likely to irk their opponents, but Gonzalez said that would not worry any of the players.

"You can't control what other people feel," he said.

"What we can control is how we feel about ourselves and how we approach the game. We have guys who are going to do all they can do to bring a championship to Los Angeles."

(Reporting by Julian Linden in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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