After a disappointing first round playoff exit this past October, just about everyone expected the Dodgers to clean up in free agency in preparation for a deeper playoff run. Instead, they were outbid by a division rival for Zack Greinke, passed on adding any of the bigger names that were available, and decided the best course of action was to acquire as much depth as possible. It’s an interesting strategy: while there’s no denying the Dodgers are a strong team, their two biggest threats in the division reloaded in big ways this past winter. Will LA’s modest offseason (by their standards) be enough to hold off the Giants and D-Backs? It’d better be, because anything less than a World Series appearance will be considered a disappointment.
Depth Chart (as of 2/25)
C: Yasmani Grandal, AJ Ellis
1B: Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Van Slyke
2B: Howie Kendrick, Chase Utley
3B: Justin Turner, Alex Guerrero
SS: Corey Seager, Enrique Hernandez
LF: Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier
CF: Joc Pederson, Enrique Hernandez
RF: Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier
SP: Clayton Kershaw
SP: Scott Kazmir
SP: Brett Anderson
SP: Kenta Maeda
SP: Hyun-Jin Ryu/Alex Wood
CP: Kenley Jansen
New Faces: Scott Kazmir, Kenta Maeda, Joe Blanton, Brandon Beachy, Yasiel Sierra, Dave Roberts (Mgr.)
Departures: Zack Greinke, Jimmy Rollins, Jim Johnson, Justin Ruggiano, Joel Peralta, Juan Nicasio
Position Battles: There really aren’t any positions up for grabs this March, though Andre Ethier could make it hard to keep him out of the lineup if he keeps hitting the way he did last year. Recent rumors have suggested the Dodgers may be willing to dump Carl Crawford and eat the rest of the $42 million he’s owed, and if that happens, Ethier would slide into left field. Aside from that bit of intrigue, the rest of the lineup appears set in stone.
The same can’t be said for the starting rotation, where the Dodgers added the most this year. After losing out on Greinke, they signed Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda to go along with Clayton Kershaw, Brett Anderson, and Alex Wood. The Dodgers also have Hyun-Jin Ryu set to return from injury by opening day, as well as Brandon McCarthy sometime near the middle of the season. They also have Mike Bolsinger and Brandon Beachy waiting in the wings, giving the Dodgers a tremendous amount of depth to lean on should something go wrong in the rotation. Who will emerge as the team’s fifth starter will likely be the biggest roster question for the Dodgers to answer this spring.
Injury Concerns: Crawford is a walking injury concern, having only played 69 games last year. Yasiel Puig missed a large amount of time as well. The Dodgers also have a number of regulars recovering from offseason surgery: Yasmani Grandal, Justin Turner, and Enrique Hernandez all went under the knife and all will carry injury concerns with them this season. Of course, the Dodgers will be extra cautious with Ryu and McCarthy as they rehab from major arm injuries. And there has to be some concern for Maeda, who many teams doubted could stand up to the rigors of pitching every fifth day.
Key Players: The Dodgers know what they’re going to get out of their offense, since it’s basically the same lineup that took the field last year. Puig may be the biggest key and this could be a make-or-break year for him. After clashing with Don Mattingly and putting up a lousy statistical year, he needs to prove he can bounce back and be the force in the middle of the order the Dodgers need him to be. He obviously has the tools to be an MVP candidate, but can he put it all together? This is the year he needs to do just that. The Dodgers also could use a step forward from Joc Pederson, who faded badly in the second half last year, and the continuing emergence of Corey Seager, who could easily take the title of best offensive shortstop in baseball this season.
Aside from those three, the team’s key players all reside in the rotation. Replacing Greinke is a tall task, and the Dodgers hope their myriad of signings will prove to be enough. But Kazmir hasn’t thrown 200 innings since 2007, Maeda is probably not going to reach that number either, and the rest of their rotation seems better suited for the back end rather than the front line. How they perform will go a long way in determining the team’s fate.
Underrated Asset: Is it possible for Adrian Gonzalez to be underrated? For all of the hype that some of his teammates get, Gonzalez has been the most consistent bat in the lineup ever since he came over from Boston in 2012. You can pencil him in for 25 homers, 30 doubles, 100 RBIs, and an OPS over .800 without even thinking. He also brings Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base. He’s one of the most feared, dangerous hitters in the National League that no one ever seems to talk about. Consistency can sometimes be taken for granted, and Gonzalez is as consistent of a hitter as they come.
Burning Question: Do they have enough pitching to win? Check that: do they have enough good pitching to win?
It’s just about impossible to replace a pitcher of Greinke’s pedigree, that’s a given. But the Dodgers didn’t chase David Price, the other elite starter on the market. They didn’t sign Jeff Samardzija, who apparently chose the Giants over them. Johnny Cueto was there for the taking, but they watched him go to the Giants, too. And they refused to part with any of their elite young talent to add a co-ace to pair with Kershaw.
So while depth is nice to have, is it enough if that depth is mostly pitchers who’d fill out the back end of a rotation? Will they get enough out of Ryu, McCarthy, Alex Wood, Brett Anderson, et. al.? Will Kazmir and Maeda combine to give the Dodgers what they would’ve gotten had they kept Greinke?
Best Case Scenario: Kazmir, Maeda, and the rest turn out solid seasons to go along with Kershaw’s brilliance, giving the Dodgers their best, deepest rotation in years. Puig has a year that firmly puts him in the elite category, and along with Seager and Gonzalez, gives the Dodgers the most dangerous middle of the order in baseball. They continue to pace the division, outlasting the Giants and Diamondbacks, and finish with the league’s best record. Finally putting their playoff demons behind them, they blow through the rest of the field and reach the World Series.
Worst Case Scenario: The rotation becomes Kershaw and the interchangeables, with no one stepping up to fill the Greinke void. The bullpen is overworked as no other starter besides Kershaw reaches 200 innings. Puig has another down year, putting his Los Angeles future in doubt. The offense is good enough to make up for the ho-hum pitching, but not good enough to propel the Dodgers to another division crown. Instead they settle for the Wild Card game, where they face… Greinke and the Diamondbacks.
Realistic Prediction: The Dodgers are good, very good, and it’s hard imagining any scenario where they miss the playoffs this year if they stay healthy. But there’s no denying their rotation looks weaker on paper, even with all of the additions they made, while the Giants and Diamondbacks look much stronger than last year. They Dodgers still have a great chance to win the division, and if they fall short of that goal they’ll likely be one of the Wild Card teams. However they manage to get there, the Dodgers are as good a bet as any to make the playoffs this season.