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Los Angeles Dodgers 2015 Preview and Prediction

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw

The Dodgers are hoping to find out what happens when ‘Moneyball’ gets big money.

Two years of record payrolls and high-profile acquisitions did just what they were supposed to do — regain credibility for the franchise after the dark days of the McCourt era and garner a massive new TV rights deal. It did not, however, produce postseason success or a return to the World Series for the first time since 1988.

So Phase 2 of the Guggenheim ownership group’s master plan kicked in when the Dodgers stole Andrew Friedman from the Tampa Bay Rays to be the new president of baseball operations. A new decision-making hierarchy of Friedman, GM Farhan Zaidi (from Oakland) and senior vice president of baseball operations Josh Byrnes (Arizona, San Diego) brings small-market discipline and sophisticated analytical techniques to the big-market Dodgers.

The result was unprecedented roster churn for a two-time division champion and 94-win team — and hopefully a more sustainable model for long-term success.

Rotation

A disappointing playoff performance against the Cardinals was the only blemish on one of the greatest seasons any pitcher has had in recent years. Clayton Kershaw became the first National League pitcher since Bob Gibson in 1968 to win both the Cy Young and MVP awards. Kershaw spotted the rest of the league a five-week head start (spending time on the DL for the first time in his career) and still led the majors with 21 wins. He also led MLB in ERA (1.77) — for an unprecedented fourth consecutive season — winning percentage (.875), complete games (six) and WHIP (0.86) and led the NL in strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.71). Zack Greinke returns as possibly the best No. 2 starter in baseball. But the Dodgers are crossing their fingers on the rest of the rotation. Nagging injuries limited Hyun-Jin Ryu to 152 innings — 40 fewer than in 2013, his first season with the team. Brandon McCarthy was signed to a four-year, $48 million contract as a free agent despite a history of shoulder problems. And Brett Anderson was also signed despite a litany of injury problems that limited him to barely 200 innings over the past four years. There is not much depth beyond that group, but the potential upside is strong if the Dodgers’ trainers can hold them together. Former Atlanta righty Brandon Beachy in February, but he’s recovering from a second Tommy John surgery and won’t be ready to return to the mound until around the All-Star break at the earliest.

Bullpen

Former GM Ned Colletti spent big in assembling the Dodgers’ 2014 bullpen. That’s the main reason he is a former GM. The relief corps was supposed to be a strength of the Dodgers last season, but it underperformed thoroughly and instead became an Achilles heel —particularly in the Division Series loss to the Cardinals. So Friedman tore it apart and rebuilt it in the winter. Closer Kenley Jansen and lefthander J.P. Howell survived the purge. Joel Peralta, Chris Hatcher and Juan Nicasio were all acquired in trades and will pitch key innings in 2015 (though Nicasio is also a candidate to flesh out the rotation if needed). The reconfigured bullpen will be tested early, as Jansen could miss as many as the first five weeks of the season after undergoing foot surgery in the middle of February. Peralta or Howell figure to see the save chances while Jansen is sidelined.

Middle Infield

The middle of the diamond was Ground Zero for the offseason makeover. Oft-injured shortstop Hanley Ramirez had become a moody annoyance in the clubhouse and a defensive liability on the field. He was allowed to leave as a free agent. Second baseman Dee Gordon had been an All-Star in his first season at a new position but was coveted by the Marlins and dealt in an seven-player trade. In their place, the Dodgers acquired Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick. Even at age 36, Rollins is a huge upgrade defensively over Ramirez. Under contract for just one more year, Rollins is keeping the position warm for top prospect Corey Seager. Kendrick will be counted on to replace some of the right-handed offensive production lost when Matt Kemp was traded away. But primarily, Rollins and Kendrick will improve the infield defense behind a ground ball-oriented pitching staff.

Corners

Adrian Gonzalez and Juan Uribe survived the winter makeover and will anchor the infield. Both fit the new profile of a lineup more balanced towards defense. Gonzalez led the majors in RBIs (116), won his fourth Gold Glove and second Silver Slugger Award in 2014. He figures to be an even more critical piece of the Dodgers’ foundation with the departures of Ramirez and Kemp. Uribe, meanwhile, continued his late-career renaissance, providing above-average defense at third base and a revitalized bat (he hit a career-high .311 last year). But don’t get used to this infield. The four starters average nearly 34 years old, and only Gonzalez is signed beyond this season — setting up another busy offseason project for next winter.

Outfield

One of the first things on Friedman’s ‘to-do’ list when he took over the Dodgers was to clear out the outfield logjam that had made the team’s roster unbalanced and dysfunctional for two years. He did that in a big way — but not the expected way — by trading Matt Kemp to the Padres in a five-player deal. After two years of injuries, Kemp regained his form in the second half of the 2014 season and was one of the most productive hitters in the National League. That offensive production will be difficult to replace. But dealing Kemp cleared a path to the big leagues for blue-chip prospect Joc Pederson and allowed the Dodgers to settle into a more appropriate defensive alignment in the outfield — like Ramirez, Kemp was among the worst defenders at his position in the National League last season. Pederson will step in as the everyday center fielder. Yasiel Puig will move back to right field, and left field will be manned primarily by Carl Crawford. Scott Van Slyke is available to platoon against left-handed pitching (he had a 1.045 OPS against lefties last season).

Catching

Dodgers catchers were last or next to last in nearly every offensive statistic last season, and their defensive work was fairly unimpressive as well. A.J. Ellis is back on the strength of his relationship with the Dodgers’ pitchers (particularly Kershaw) and the hope that leg injuries were at the root of his offensive failings. But he will be in a secondary role with Yasmani Grandal (acquired in the Kemp trade) the lead catcher. Grandal hit 15 home runs for the Padres last season and had an .863 OPS in 60 games as a rookie in 2012. But he comes with a red flag: Since a 50-game suspension for testosterone use in 2013, he has been a .224 hitter with a .721 OPS and a rising strikeout rate.

Bench

Van Slyke and Justin Turner were two of the most productive bench players in the NL last season. Van Slyke hammered left-handed pitching, and Turner hammered just about everyone. Turner hit a ridiculous .419 (26-for-62) with runners in scoring position, driving in 33 runs in those situations. With those two in place, the Dodgers will sort through infielders Darwin Barney and Alex Guerrero, as well as their outfield surplus, to fill out the bench.

Management

Some observers have tabbed the Dodgers’ new front office executives as a ‘Dream Team.’ They certainly hit the ground running in remaking the organization. The mandate is to win now while bringing the payroll into a more manageable range and building a prospect pipeline that will sustain the franchise. It won’t be an easy balancing act. Manager Don Mattingly has earned respect for his handling of a clubhouse loaded with big paychecks and big egos. But the decision-makers will no doubt use 2015 to evaluate whether he is their man long term.

Final Analysis

The Dodgers spent nearly a half-billion dollars in salaries over the past two seasons and couldn’t get back to the World Series for the first time since 1988. Tearing apart a 94-win roster was an unexpected turn, but the Dodgers emerged as a much better defensive team and one still built on an exceptional pitching staff that should make them the favorite in the National League West once again. Whether the new approach works any better in October remains to be seen.

2015 Prediction: 1st in NL West

Projected Lineup

SS       Jimmy Rollins (S)    One of only four players in baseball last year with at least 15 home runs and 25 stolen bases.

LF       Carl Crawford (L)     Emerged from Dodgers’ outfield time-share to hit .403 over his final 44 games last year.

RF       Yasiel Puig (R)         11 HRs in first 48 games but none in next 32 games and only five in final 100 games of season.

1B       Adrian Gonzalez (L) Only two players have had 100 RBIs in seven of the past eight seasons — Miguel Cabrera and Gonzalez.

2B       Howie Kendrick (R) Hit just seven HRs with Angels last year, but Dodgers believe his swing is suited for Dodger Stadium.

C         Yasmani Grandal (S)          Career .225 hitter as a right-handed batter, the switch-hitter figures to share catching starts with A.J. Ellis.

3B       Juan Uribe (R)         Veteran was made “manager for a day” by Don Mattingly on last day of regular season — a 10–5 win.

CF       Joc Pederson (L)     Matt Kemp trade paved way for Pederson, who had first 30-30 season in Pacific Coast League since 1934.

Bench

OF       Scott Van Slyke (R) Death to lefthanders — 1.045 OPS, 18 extra-base hits (including eight HRs) in 108 ABs against lefties in ‘14.

INF      Justin Turner (R)     His .388 average, 1.025 OPS after the All-Star break were tops in baseball (min. 70 at-bats).

C         A.J. Ellis (R)  Relationship with Dodgers pitchers (Kershaw in particular) might have saved him from roster churn.

INF      Alex Guerrero (R)     Contract says he has to be on big-league roster this year, but Dodgers have to find a position for him.

INF      Darwin Barney (R)   Last spot on the bench could be a free-for-all among Barney and the last outfiielder standing.

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Rotation

LH       Clayton Kershaw     Madison Bumgarner stole his thunder, but Kershaw has three Cy Youngs and an MVP in past four seasons.

RH      Zack Greinke            Opt-out clause in Greinke’s contract could make this his last year in Dodger blue — if he wants to leave.

LH       Hyun-Jin Ryu            Nagging injuries, including recurring sore shoulder, limited him to 40 fewer innings in second season.

RH      Brandon McCarthy   Dodgers believe he has begun a new chapter in his career thanks to stronger shoulder, increased velocity.

LH       Brett Anderson         Dodgers are taking a gamble on oft-injured lefthander who hasn’t pitched 45 innings in a season since 2011.

Bullpen

RH      Kenley Jansen (Closer)     Converted 44 of 49 saves last year to become only fourth Dodgers pitcher with a 40-save season. Will miss up to the first five weeks of the season after undergoing foot surgery in February.

RH      Joel Peralta  38-year-old was one of most reliable relievers in AL over past four years with Rays.

LH       J.P. Howell    Pitched up to expectations in the first half but struggled down the stretch (11.81 ERA in September).

RH      Brandon League     Hasn’t lived up to his contract extension but was a useful piece of last year’s disappointing bullpen.

RH      Juan Nicasio            Might have found his true calling in move to bullpen with Rockies last year.

RH      Chris Hatcher           Converted catcher acquired in big trade with Marlins gives Dodgers a power arm to deploy in late innings.

LH       Adam Liberatore      Minor league success vs. lefties could give him leg up on others for a bullpen spot.

Beyond the Box Score

Quick stay The roster churn that followed Andrew Friedman’s hiring was so thorough that he acquired five players in a six-week span who weren’t around long enough to wear a Dodgers uniform. Lefthander Andrew Heaney, righthander Zach Eflin and outfielder Matt Long were acquired in trades then flipped to a third team in another trade. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway and infielder Ryan Jackson were acquired in waiver claims; Lavarnway was later designated for assignment to clear a roster spot and Jackson was traded to Kansas City for cash. Heaney made light of the tumultuous day that saw him go from the Marlins to the Dodgers to the Angels, posting on Twitter: “Well, Dodgers we had a good run! Great to be a part of such a storied franchise. #thanksforthememories

Legend Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully will return for his 66th season as the Dodgers’ play-by-play broadcaster in 2015. Scully (who turned 87 in November) has cut back his travel schedule considerably over the years (he broadcasts road games in California and Arizona only) but agreed to another one-year contract for the 2015 season. “Naturally, there will come a time when I will have to say goodbye,” Scully said in announcing his decision to return. “But I’ve soul-searched and this is not the time.”

No-no With no-hitters by Josh Beckett in May and Clayton Kershaw in June, the Dodgers ran their major league-high total of no-hitters to 22. But the Dodgers weren’t just doubling up on no-hitters at the big-league level in 2014. On Aug. 28, two of the Dodgers’ minor league affiliates threw no-hitters. Righthander Andres Santiago threw a no-hitter for Double-A Chattanooga, and four pitchers for the Dodgers’ team in the Arizona Summer League combined for a no-hitter.

Experience  With the hiring of Friedman as president of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi as GM and Josh Byrnes as senior vice president of baseball operations, the Dodgers enter 2015 with six former or current general managers in their front office — Friedman (Tampa Bay), Byrnes (San Diego and Arizona), Zaidi, senior advisor Ned Colletti (Dodgers), special advisor to the GM Gerry Hunsicker (Houston and Tampa Bay) and special advisor to the chairman Tommy Lasorda, who was the Dodgers’ interim GM in 1998.

2014 Top Draft Pick

Grant Holmes, RHP

Scouting director Logan White’s last first-round pick for the Dodgers — he took a job in the Padres’ front office this winter — fit the profile; it was the 11th time in the past 12 years the Dodgers had taken a pitcher with their first pick. White described Holmes, a big righthander from Conway, S.C., as “an advanced high school pitcher” with a good fastball and a power breaking ball rated among the best in last year’s draft class. Holmes, taken No. 22 overall, struck out five batters in two innings in his pro debut in the Arizona Summer League and was quickly moved to rookie-level Ogden. In 11 appearances at the two levels, he struck out 58 in 48.1 innings.

Top 10 Prospects

1. Corey Seager, SS (20) The Dodgers targeted 36-year-old Jimmy Rollins as Hanley Ramirez’s replacement at shortstop so that they wouldn’t block blue-chipper Seager’s imminent arrival.

2. Joc Pederson, OF (22) Got a taste of the big leagues as a September call-up last year and struggled but will get every chance to be Dodgers’ Opening Day starter in center field.

3. Julio Urias, LHP (18) The Dodgers are handling their precocious pitching prospect with kid gloves, limiting his pitch counts and innings. But he could arrive in the big leagues before age 20.

4. Grant Holmes, RHP (19) A high-90s fastball and a power breaking ball could allow Holmes to move quickly through the Dodgers’ system.

5. Joe Wieland, RHP (25) Acquired from the Padres in the Matt Kemp trade, Wieland got his feet wet in big leagues last year and could be first starter called if the Dodgers’ have health issues in their rotation.

6. Scott Schebler, OF (24) Schebler has continued to hit as he has risen through the Dodgers’ system — including a .310 average that put him on the Arizona Fall League’s Top Prospects team.

7. Chris Anderson, RHP (22) The Dodgers’ top pick in 2013 (18th overall), Anderson took his lumps in the hitter-oriented California League.

8.  Darnell Sweeney, 2B (24) Sweeney was on that Top Prospects team with Schebler after following up a .288 season in Double-A with a .316 average in the Arizona Fall League.

9. Austin Barnes, C (25) Barnes has a .298 average in the minors while moving between catcher, second and third base.

10. Zach Lee, RHP (23) Was lured away from playing QB at LSU, but his development has been slow (a 5.38 ERA at Triple-A Albuquerque last year).

— Written by Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) for Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview magazine. Plunkett covers baseball for the Orange County Register.