The Los Angeles Dodgers enter the season with one of baseball’s most talented teams on paper and have a great shot to win the World Series. Again.
It’s the same old story, isn’t it?
In 2016, the Dodgers won between 91 and 94 games and took the NL West for the fourth straight season. And for the fourth straight year, they bowed out of the playoffs before the World Series.
The Dodgers haven’t won the NL pennant since 1988. Twenty-four of the other 29 MLB teams have won a pennant since the Dodgers last did. That’s remarkable under the circumstances.
The current iteration of the Dodgers houses a huge payroll, one of the smartest front offices in baseball -- led by president Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi -- and a talented stash of prospects. This has been the case the past few years, and the best pitcher in the world is approaching 30. It’s high time to get the job done.
So how can this team finally break through, win the NL and maybe the World Series?
The Dodgers are getting the most out of young talent
It all starts here with dynamic shortstop Corey Seager, who finished third in NL MVP voting last season as a rookie. He was just 22 years old, but still hit .308/.365/.512 with 40 doubles, five triples, 26 home runs and played very good defense at a premium defensive position. The proverbial sky is the limit. He’s a legit MVP candidate for the next decade or so.
Seager is superior to any other position player, obviously, but he’s far from alone. Center fielder Joc Pederson might hit for a low average, but his .847 OPS was worth a 129 OPS+, and he cut down on his strikeout percentage slightly while having a good defensive season. Continued improvement is expected, making him a fringe All-Star candidate.
Then there’s Julio Urias. The dynamically talented lefty will still be handled with kid gloves, but by the end of the year, it’s possible he’s pitching like an ace. In his final eight regular-season appearances last season, he was 4-0 with a 1.34 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings.
The lineup is bolstered by the presence of veterans
Yes, the Dodgers have great, young talent, but they also have plenty of guys who have been around the block to help balance things out in the clubhouse.
Take Chase Utley and his seven years of postseason experience, or the venerable Adrian Gonzalez at first. They brought back Justin Turner to man third base and traded for Logan Forsythe to plug the hole at second, too. There’s young talent, but it’s not a “young” team, per se.
Three potential aces, plus a whole lot of rotation depth
There’s big upside here in addition to depth.
Clayton Kershaw is the odds-on favorite to win the NL Cy Young (it would be his fourth). We know he’s the best pitcher on Earth, even if some people want to throw on the “regular season” qualifier, but he’s putting up some ridiculous numbers that we might be taking for granted. In the past six years, Kershaw is 100-37 with a 2.06 ERA (178 ERA+, which adjusts for era). In Sandy Koufax’s final six years (his best stretch), he was 129-47 with a 2.19 ERA (156 ERA+).
So the top of the rotation is in just fine shape, especially if Urias takes a big leap in the second half.
And those pair of lefties could possibly be joined by another, serving as three aces. Yes, he’ll be 37 years old this season and was limited to 20 starts last season due to blister issues, but Rich Hill is 14-6 with a 2.00 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 165 strikeouts in 139 1/3 innings since returning to the mound as a starter in September 2015 for the Red Sox. He also threw six shutout innings against the Cubs in the NLCS. We’re talking ace upside for sure.
So the upside here is the Dodgers could have three aces at the top come playoff time. They’ll get there by way of depth, too.
Kenta Maeda was 16-11 with a 3.48 ERA in his first year in America. Given that he’s not even 30 years old, betting on an improvement in Year 2 is sound.
You could actually make two pretty good rotations here. Watch.
Team Blue: Kershaw, Maeda, Kazmir, McCarthy, Stripling
Team White: Hill, Urias, Ryu, Wood, Stewart
Some of this depth could be used to trade for bullpen help, sure, but it could also just be used to absorb injuries (there are questions around at least Hill, Kazmir, McCarthy, Ryu and Wood) and Urias’ innings limit. A few of these guys could also be used in the bullpen. Some of the best relievers were failed starters, after all.
Kenley Jansen returns as the bullpen ace
Had Jansen signed elsewhere, the Dodgers would have been left with a gaping hole at the back of the bullpen. Closer Pedro Baez? Not bad, but not ideal. Now Sergio Romo joins Baez in setting up for one of the league’s elite relievers in Jansen.
Jansen had a 1.83 ERA, 0.67 WHIP and 104 strikeouts against nine unintentional walks last season. Just a ridiculous stat line. He also showed in the playoffs that he’s capable of becoming the multi-inning beast that became a huge emphasis this past postseason.
Lost in the shuffle of the Dodgers’ NLCS loss to the Cubs was that Jansen totally dominated the champs. In three appearances, he worked 6 1/3 innings, allowing zero runs and just one hit (a single) while striking out 10 and not walking anyone. He threw three perfect innings in Game 6 as he watched his offense fail to close the gap.
Having the presence of a talent like Jansen just makes the entire bullpen better.
Finally, it should be noted that while we’re talking pitching, catcher Yasmani Grandal is one of the best at framing in the majors. Every little bit helps.
The path to the World Series goes through the champs
The Giants and maybe Rockies pose a threat in the NL West, while the Nationals and Mets look to be potential NL East contenders. Maybe the Cardinals and/or Pirates return to the playoffs, and we’re probably due a surprise surge from some other team.
The most legitimate reason, however, that the Dodgers can’t win the National League pennant is the one team that prevented them from doing so last season.
The Cubs don’t look much worse. In fact, there are reasons to believe in some areas that they’ll be even better. SportsLine simulations have the Cubs winning 103 games again and the Dodgers with 94 wins. Still, that gets both teams to the playoffs, where anything can happen.
On the flip side, some other computers either have the teams closer together or love the Dodgers. Fangraphs has the Cubs winning 95 and the Dodgers at 94. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA has the Dodgers at 99 wins compared to the Cubs at 91.
It’s hard to see the Dodgers missing the playoffs in 2017, but the story of the season will be incomplete until we see what happens in October. A fifth straight NL West title will seem rather insignificant if it’s followed by an early exit in the playoffs. If they’re to finally get over the hump, it’s likely to happen with them toppling the defending champion Cubs. They have the talent to pull it off, but they’ve had the talent to win it all the past four years.
- Logan Forsythe, 2B
- Corey Seager, SS
- Justin Turner, 3B
- Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
- Yasmani Grandal, C
- Joc Pederson, CF
- Yasiel Puig, RF
- Andrew Toles, LF
- Clayton Kershaw (L)
- Rich Hill (L)
- Kenta Maeda (R)
- Scott Kazmir (L)
- Brandon McCarthy (R)
ALT: Julio Urias (L) eventually jumps in; Hyun-Jin Ryu (L), Alex Wood (L), Brock Stewart (R), Ross Stripling (R)
As noted, Jansen is the man with Baez and Romo his primary setup guys. The lefties are Grant Dayton and Luis Avilan as things stand. That leaves two spots. Chris Hatcher likely gets one, and then we can probably look to the stash of rotation guys for long relievers (maybe McCarthy once Urias comes up?).
SportsLine Projection: 94-68, NL West champions