By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It was a case of so near and yet so far for the Los Angeles Dodgers after they fell just one step shy of the World Series this season, though they will certainly approach their 2014 campaign brimful of confidence.
Most of their big names will be back, and Dodgers fans can only hope that injuries will not be such a limiting factor next year when their team aims to win a first National League (NL) pennant and World Series crown since 1988.
Over the coming months, general manager Ned Colletti and the Dodgers owners will have to beef up the bullpen and bench while also addressing contract negotiations for manager Don Mattingly, his coaching staff and 12 free agents.
Mattingly is widely expected to return after compiling a 260-225 record over three seasons and the Dodgers will certainly be one of the NL's top teams with a strong roster highlighted by brilliant pitching and reliable batting depth.
Against the odds, the Dodgers rebounded from an injury-plagued start to the 2013 season, having languished 9-1/2 games out of first place in the NL West on June 22 after starting their campaign amid high expectations.
The men in blue halted that slide in stunning fashion and reversed direction by winning 42 of their next 50 games, sparked by the arrival of talented young Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig, and went on to win their division with ease.
The biggest trump card was their pitching with opposing teams having to contend with the potent one-two of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, whose earned run averages ranked among the tops in the majors during the regular season.
Though painfully dejected after being eliminated from the playoffs by the Cardinals in Game Six of the National League Championship Series in St. Louis on Friday, the Dodgers have much to reflect upon with pride.
"It's tough to capsule a season but it was exciting," Colletti told reporters after his team was thumped 9-0 by St. Louis to lose the best-of-seven series 4-2. "Sports are supposed to be entertaining. This group was very entertaining in a lot of ways.
"We won a lot of games, we stuck together in tough times. I'll miss this group. Even if everybody returns, it's never the same group. The dynamics change. That's why I hate to see this season end. It's a special collection of people."
The Dodgers have enjoyed some heady days after falling into bankruptcy in 2011 as owner Frank McCourt and his wife battled in divorce court before a comeback was sparked when Guggenheim Baseball Management, a group of investors including basketball great Magic Johnson acquired the team in early May last year.
The new owners spent heavily to sign free agents like Greinke, trade for players such as Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and former National League batting champion Hanley Ramirez and add emerging talent in the shape of South Korean star pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin.
"We made great strides, but unless you finish with a parade, you're not satisfied," Colletti said of a team with a $230 million player payroll. "I'm always sorry to see a baseball season end, and this one I really hate to see end because of the guys in the room.
"(There are) a lot of good things to take from this. Where the organization was a year ago, 16 to 17 months ago, a lot has transpired in a good way."
Mattingly, who was the team's hitting coach for three seasons before taking over as manager in 2011, was fulsome in his praise for the Dodgers during 2013.
"I'm really proud of my club," he said. "I felt like these guys hung in all year long. They were a great group to be around.
"I felt like these guys have a lot of fun. ... They do get down to business, sometimes a little unconventional. But they do love to play, and I think they represent the Dodger organization well."
There are several key contract extensions which the Dodgers need to lock up before next season, notably longer term deals for Cy Young winner Kershaw and the injury-prone Ramirez.
Puig, Greinke, Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford all have multiple years left on their existing contracts.
Among the likely holes to fill are second baseman Mark Ellis, whose contract includes a $5.75 million option for next season, and free agents Juan Uribe (starting third baseman), Ricky Nolasco (starting pitcher) and Brian Wilson (setup man).
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry)