A joke for much of last season due to ownership issues and a mediocre team, the Los Angeles Dodgers have few baseball fans laughing after the team’s strong start to the 2012 season.

Behind great play from last season’s runner-up NL MVP in outfielder Matt Kemp, the Dodgers are to 9-1, off to the team’s best start to a season since their 1981 World Series champion squad. With a new ownership group headlined by Los Angeles icon Magic Johnson, the Dodgers’ recent days of ineptitude seem to be a thing of the past.

Many baseball fans will be quick to point out that the Dodgers’ 9-1 record was amassed against two miserable teams in the San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates, but winning is winning. At the very least, credit must be given to the Blue Crew for taking care of business in games they are expected to win.

This week will be a large indicator of how good the Dodgers truly are as they leave Southern California for the first time to face the Milwaukee Brewers. While Milwaukee is no title contender, it certainly will provide a tougher challenge for Los Angeles.

Performance will truly matter most when the Dodgers face fellow division rivals Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants, games that could go a long way in deciding who makes the playoffs. Fans can only hope to see the classic pitching duels of last season between Kershaw and Tim Lincecum, where Kershaw shut out “The Freak” all year, going 4-0 against him.

Kemp has been on fire to start the season, out to prove he deserved the MVP over last year’s winner Ryan Braun. The centerfielder is currently the leader in all three triple-crown categories, leading the MLB with a .487 batting average, six home runs and 16 RBI. For comparison’s sake, Kemp has as many or more home runs than six MLB teams have as a collective unit. While both Kemp’s and the Dodgers’ numbers are highly unsustainable, the start to the 2012 season represents a new era of Dodgers’ baseball. Come October, the Dodgers may very well be sitting at home while the Diamondbacks, or even worse, the Giants continue in the playoffs, but they will certainly be a much more competitive and exciting team than last season.

If anything, L.A. will at least be one of the more interesting teams to watch this season with Kemp, 2011 Cy Young Winner Clayton Kershaw and lightning quick shortstop Dee Gordon — who leads the league with seven steals — taking the field for the squad.

The resurgence of outfielder Andre Ethier and pitcher Chad Billingsley to start the season have also given the Dodgers the weapons to compete in the NL West. Ethier has already driven in 15 RBI on the season, second in the majors only to Kemp, while Billingsley is 2-0 with a 0.63 ERA, just behind Roy Halladay for second in the NL.

The bullpen seems to be an area of strength for the Dodgers as well with set-up man Kenley Jansen throwing in the high 90s, and closer Javy Guerra finishing the job off with an MLB-best five-for-five in save opportunities.

Come trade deadline time, if the Dodgers are even remotely close to being in first place in the division, expect them to make a move that will bolster their chances to advance in the playoffs. Although the new owners may not be willing to spend loads of money this upcoming season, they will at least give the Dodgers more financial freedom than what they were constrained under during Frank McCourt’s final two years as Dodgers’ owner.

Magic and the new owners give L.A. hope that the Dodgers will one day return to prominence. If the Dodgers can retain Kershaw with a long-term deal, and Kemp and Ethier can continue to provide a formidable duo in the middle of the order, the Dodgers can do some damage both now and in seasons to come.

Look out NL West — the Dodgers are coming for you.

Daily Nexus columnist Paul-Michael Ochoa is a magician in training. His first trick? Resurrecting Tupac. Wait, what — That already happened…?