Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be previewing each team by eavesdropping on an extended conversation about them. For the full archive of each 2018 team preview, click here.
Los Angeles Dodgers PECOTA Projections:
Runs Scored: 793
Runs Allowed: 640
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .248/.323/.424 (.264)
Total WARP: 40.8 (15.8 pitching, 25.0 non-pitching)
Jarrett Seidler: There are obvious reasons why—PECOTA projects the Dodgers for 97 wins and they needed to pull a fast one with the Matt Kemp/Adrian Gonzalez deal just to get under the luxury tax—but boy, was this ever a quiet offseason considering what the Dodgers have done since Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi took over. In a lot of ways, this is the same basic team they had before renting Yu Darvish at the deadline last year, except that key prospects like Walker Buehler and Alex Verdugo are now clearly the depth guys on a team that loves to use its depth and entire 40-man roster. Which I suppose is some inherent built-in upside.
Also, they’ve still got Clayton Kershaw surrounded by a bunch of above-average-to-star regulars. So there’s that.
Wilson Karaman: Right, what’s fascinating to me about this Dodgers core is that, for all the standard discussion about their monster payroll—which is wholly warranted for a team still on the hook for three more years of Hector Olivera salary—the overhaul of the player development program and scouting departments has arguably had a more out-sized impact on this team’s construction. They’ve developed back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners with, as you note, two more prime candidates for early odds-makers this year waiting in the wings. Austin Barnes is right there in that mix. And they’ve done magical things with reclamation projects and other assorted pro-scout hits; Justin Turner and Chris Taylor are obviously the prime examples, but others like Andrew Toles and Tony Cingrani also come to mind.
One thing that does jump out as a byproduct of the winter’s calm is that their rotation depth is much, well, less deep than at any point in the Friedman/Zaidi administration. Obviously Darvish walking is the headliner there, but given they’ve made a very conscious habit of stockpiling veteran arms like Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, Scott Kazmir, and others each winter, it feels like a bit of a strategic break to see basically Buehler and Brock Stewart as the viable high-minors options to back things up, especially when they’re counting on dudes like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Alex Wood, and Rich Hill to fill rotation spots. There’s a wave of prospect talent down at Double-A, but it does feel like a bit of a transitional phase starting pitching-wise.
Speaking of Buehler, actually, PECOTA’s got him logging 90 big-league innings and pitching … OK. Where are you on what to expect impact-wise this year and beyond?
Seidler: I like Buehler a lot. I also think Buehler has a higher-than-normal probability for his prospect rank and level to end up in the bullpen, which really tells you just how good an arm it is. I feel like if he’s in the mix enough to be getting close to 100 innings, he’s probably going to be better than a low-4.00s ERA dude, and he’s going to have to be healthy and up pretty quickly. He hasn’t hit 100 innings since his sophomore season at Vanderbilt in 2014, which is why we’re all a little concerned he might be destined for the bullpen sooner or later anyway.
The most interesting spot on this team, for me, is catcher. You’ve got the inherent contradiction of treating Yasmani Grandal as a catcher on the back, fading side of his prime and Barnes as a rising top prospect when Grandal is less than 14 months older than Barnes. Their skills actually match up together for a really nice platoon situation—Grandal can’t hit lefties or throw—but straight lefty/righty platoons with catchers can be tough on both a pitching staff and tough to pull off easily depending on off days. Plus, Grandal is probably too good to be losing nearly half his playing time to begin with. Yet, they played Barnes more often than not in the playoffs last year and kept both.
This is the most obvious spot on the roster for this question, but it’s not the only spot (and it’s just shifted elsewhere if Barnes ends up playing some second base and Grandal ends up playing some first base): is there enough playing time to go around?
Karaman: The short answer is yes, I think. They had 12 guys log 250-plus plate appearances last year without much in the way of issue, and between injuries (both real and shall we say “manufactured”) and the flow of performance, LA’s versatility and depth positionally stands out as an enormous advantage. That depth will obviously be tested right out of the gate with Turner’s unfortunate run-in with that fastball, but it does seem that the catching and outfield rotations will be the trickiest dynamics for Dave Roberts to manage. Then again, coming off a year in which they managed to bank over nine WARP combined from their backstops, I don’t see it as the most unsolvable problem, even acknowledging your important point about the singular difficulties of managing a catcher platoon by handedness. It is also worth noting that Grandal hasn’t always been trash against lefties, either.
Speaking of good problems to have, what on earth are we supposed to make of Kemp‘s spring rejuvenation? His random effectiveness appears to be on the verge of pushing Toles back to Triple-A and keeping Joc Pederson‘s mercurial development a work in progress. And then there’s Enrique Hernandez to fit into the mix against lefties. Verdugo is ready, too. So, Kemp: legitimate works gummer-upper? PECOTA remains highly bearish, refusing to budge off its 146 plate appearance projection. How do you see this situation shaking out?
Seidler: I’ve always been a little higher on the Matt Kemp Decline Phase than I sabermetrically should’ve been. He’s never been worse than a league-average hitter, and I think in a more sheltered role like the Dodgers should be able to provide he can still be more than that. He’s a bad defender, sure, but there’s gotta be a spot for him somewhere, and maybe if he’s more motivated and in the right clubhouse he can give them some good run.
Since we’re talking about the Dodgers as that right clubhouse, I really think Roberts is the most underrated manager in baseball, and one of the best in general. He seems to have a great handle on that clubhouse, these guys rarely complain about their roles even when it involves aggressive use of the disabled list and minor-league options, and he makes reasonable enough tactical decisions. With the kinds of teams the Dodgers have been assembling, at least, he’s been the perfect manager.
Karaman: Pshhh, I’m a born-and-bred Red Sox fan by birth, so you don’t have to give me a reason to start talking up Dave Roberts. He was hired for a reason, and he’s shown why so far.
Seidler: I suspect you’ve watched more of him than me in both the minors and majors, so I have to ask: what do you make of Chris Taylor moving forward? Is this for real?
Karaman: Here’s the thing about Taylor: he’s always had offensive talent. Dude put up a .314/.400/.458 line across nearly 2,000 minor-league plate appearances, with consistently excellent whiff and walk rates to boot. The baseline’s always been there, and last year he found himself a key to that next level with a couple adjustments. Maybe he doesn’t hit 20 dingers again, but the approach and gap power both seem wholly legit to me. The defensive numbers in center field were almost more surprising last year, and I’ll be curious what the year-to-year numbers look like out there. But he’s a guy with a bunch of paths to five-WARP value, and I buy his ability to trod down one of ‘em again this year.
LA really did manage to distinguish itself with his kind of acquire-and-improve scenario last season, particularly with their in-season bullpen additions. Cingrani and Tony Watson—two dudes who’d similarly shown plenty of promise but never really quite found their keys—both came over, changed their sequencing and location patterns, and took off. Watson and Brandon Morrow both migrated with significant deals in their pockets this winter, and Tom Koehler—one of the guys they brought in with an eye clearly tuned to more key discovery—already has a bum shoulder. By pretty much all of the metrics Blue’s bullpen was a top-tier unit last year, and one of the driving forces of the team’s success. You reckon there’s an encore in the offing?
Seidler: I don’t know if they can be that good again, but I do think they’ve got more interesting pieces. In terms of young touted guys there’s every likelihood Buehler sees significant time in the MLB pen, of course, but Julio Urias could be back as a bullpen option sometime this summer, and Yaisel Sierra has shown signs of life. Yimi Garcia was 2016’s revelation and he’ll be back from Tommy John surgery pretty soon. Perhaps they see something in Pat Venditte or J.T. Chargois or even Wilmer Font. Hell, it’s probably about time someone tried out Henry Owens as a LOOGY, right?
PECOTA buys in wholesale; it has the Dodgers giving up the fewest runs in baseball, and that’s with Kershaw providing 2016-2017 value instead of going back to being Clayton Freakin’ Kershaw. Do you see a return to the days of 225 or 230 god-tier innings from Kershaw, or is he always going to be a little bit less than what he was because of his injuries?
Karaman: Out of context, man is it absurd we’re talking about a pitcher who posted 10 WARP over his last two seasons in regression terms, and yet it’s appropriate for you to raise his production in those terms. Last year was Kersh’s first since 2010 with a DRA north of 3.00, and the home run issues have obviously been chronicled to death. It’s an interesting little … crossroads might be too heavy-handed, but it does feel like a big year for him personally. He’s 30, he’s got an opt-out there for the triggerin’ after the season, and he coughed up another lead in a pivotal postseason game the last time he toed a rubber.
It sure has the feel anecdotally and thematically of one of those seasons where an all-time great type tends to rise up and explode in an obscene declaration of supremacy. Then again, this is real, unscripted life, and chronic back injuries suck. If I were a betting man I’d throw down on him staying healthy and dominating in classic fashion—nothing in the pitch data suggests that shouldn’t be the if-healthy assumption—but I’ll also allow that this prediction is a product of desire on my part more than most anything else.
So bottom line, PECOTA’s got the Dodgers for 97 wins to again pace the Senior Circuit. You buy the total package as the best in the NL again?
Seidler: Definitely. Other than the Cubs, I don’t know that there’s an easily identifiable other contender for that crown, and so much of this conversation has boiled down to “the Dodgers might have too many good players!” which is rarely a bad thing. What say you?
Karaman: I think I’m in the same boat here. There certainly seems to be a bit more variance in the ol’ predictive algorithm this year: a couple rotation injuries, Turner’s injury lingers/he comes back diminished, maybe Cody Bellinger regresses in Year 2, and Corey Seager’s elbow is a thing … some stuff could go wrong in combination, here! But there’s plenty of depth already, plenty of prospects to bolster that depth via trade if needed, and plenty of cash to throw at anyone they need to throw it at along the way. Awfully tough to figure on anything other than a sixth straight NL West title and another odds-on crack at ending the drought.