As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.
The honeymoon is definitely over.
When the Dodgers hired Andrew Friedman away from the Tampa Bay Rays following the 2014 season and he assembled a progressive, analytically minded front office in Los Angeles, it was hailed as a “Dream Team” of sorts. The most creative thinkers in baseball would have the most robust financial resources in the game to support them. The sky was the limit.
Then the Dodgers were eliminated in the NL Division Series again, a loss punctuated with the embarrassment of Daniel Murphy taking an uncovered third base at a critical point in the decisive game. A winter of disappointment followed. The Dodgers were outbid by division rival Arizona for Zack Greinke. The team’s fallback option, Hisashi Iwakuma, returned to Seattle after issues arose during his physical. A trade for Aroldis Chapman fell apart when his alleged involvement in a domestic dispute came to light. The winter moved on without the Dodgers as any number of free agent and trade options were gobbled up by other teams, forcing them to seek out alternatives.
At the same time, Friedman et al. have made tremendous strides in strengthening a farm system that might be one of the deepest in baseball. Starting with a refusal to sacrifice top prospects at the 2015 trade deadline, no decision has been made that might compromise the future for short-term benefits.
Admirable as that might be, it could leave the Dodgers with the highest payroll in baseball again in 2016 even as the Diamondbacks and Giants pass them in the National League West.
The past three years, the Dodgers tried to ride the best 1-2 rotation combo in baseball (Clayton Kershaw and Greinke) to the World Series. The result: Just one playoff series victory (the 2013 NLDS over the Atlanta Braves). They will have to try a different path now. Kershaw remains at the front of the rotation. At age 28, the Dodgers’ ace has established himself as the best pitcher in baseball. Over the past five seasons, he is 88–33 with a 2.11 ERA, three Cy Young Awards, a runner-up finish and a third-place finish (to Jake Arrieta and Greinke last year). With Greinke gone, the dropoff behind Kershaw will be greater; but the depth will be better with Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda added to Brett Anderson and Alex Wood. Healthy returns from Hyun-Jin Ryu (shoulder surgery) and Brandon McCarthy (Tommy John) could supplement that.
With the front of their rotation depleted, the Dodgers sought to build a formidable back end to their bullpen by adding Chapman to incumbent closer Kenley Jansen. That didn’t work out, so Jansen returns to the closer role with Chris Hatcher the primary setup man. After a rough start to the season that shook his confidence and a long stretch on the DL with an oblique injury, Hatcher finished strong in 2015. Joe Blanton returns for his second tour of duty with the Dodgers, this time in a relief role. The rest of the corps figures to be the same inconsistent group of young arms that showed promise at times in 2015 led by Pedro Baez and Yimi Garcia plus lefthanders J.P. Howell and Luis Avilan.
Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick were acquired last year as temp workers to man the middle of the infield while Corey Seager finished his development in the minors. Rollins is gone, but Kendrick re-signed with the team in January in a two-year deal. Kendrick will reclaim his spot as the primary second basemen, though there are other options — the Dodgers re-signed Chase Utley for a backup role, acquired Micah Johnson in a trade and have Enrique Hernandez on hand. Seager takes over as the Dodgers’ everyday shortstop at age 21 (he will turn 22 in April). The blue-chip prospect flashed his star potential with a .337 average and .986 OPS in 27 games last September.
Adrian Gonzalez and Justin Turner were the pillars upon which the Dodgers’ 2015 offense rested. They will be counted on to repeat their production in 2016. Though his batting average has suffered with the increased use of defensive shifts, the 33-year-old Gonzalez remains a consistent run producer. Last season was his ninth straight with at least 90 RBIs and ninth in the last 10 seasons with at least 22 home runs. Turner, meanwhile, has been a massive surprise since joining the Dodgers. Signed as a reserve, he won the third base job by hitting .314 with an .876 OPS in two seasons as a Dodger. But he is coming off knee surgery and will have to prove once again that he can continue to play at that level. Utley figures to spell him at third base.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Dodgers are overloaded in the outfield once again with some new names but mainly familiar holdovers. Center fielder Joc Pederson had a wildly up-and-down rookie year, hitting 20 home runs by July 1 and making the All-Star team — then becoming a lineup sinkhole in the second half and eventually losing playing time to Hernandez. Pederson is a prime candidate to platoon with Hernandez and/or newly acquired Trayce Thompson. The Dodgers got good results in 2015 by limiting Andre Ethier’s exposure to left-handed pitching. But the wild card is the wild horse — Yasiel Puig. Puig’s potential has been largely untapped since he made the 2014 All-Star team. Repeated hamstring injuries limited him to 79 games in 2015. The Dodgers need his performance to more closely match his potential if they are going to succeed in 2016.
Yasmani Grandal was another Dodger who experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune in 2015. For most of the season, he was one of the best combinations of defense and offense among National League catchers and made his first All-Star team as a result. He played hurt for the final two months of the season, however, and his offense disappeared. The Dodgers are confident that surgery on his left shoulder immediately following the season will address that. If so, and Grandal rebounds to his first-half performance, he and A.J. Ellis provide the Dodgers with as solid a combination behind the plate as any team in MLB.
The Dodgers’ analytically minded front office embraces the idea of maximizing production by frequent use of platoons and matchup-driven lineups. That makes a multi-position player like Hernandez, who hit .423 against left-handed pitching with a 1.215 OPS, valuable. Scott Van Slyke has also shown an ability to be productive when spotted against left-handed pitching. Utley will get playing time at first, second and third base while providing a veteran presence in the locker room.
From the moment Friedman was hired as the Dodgers’ new president of baseball operations following the 2014 season, the clock was ticking on Don Mattingly’s time as Dodgers manager. Not surprisingly, Mattingly left following another first-round playoff defeat in 2015. Dave Roberts was hired as his replacement, with only pitching coach Rick Honeycutt retained on the coaching staff. Relentlessly upbeat and enthusiastic, Roberts should play well in a clubhouse that will feature more young players in 2016.
One thing seems certain about the 2016 Dodgers — there won’t be a $300 million payroll for critics to use as a cudgel if they don’t succeed. The payroll still figures to lead the majors but will be closer to $200 million. Getting younger, cheaper (relatively so) and more reliant on homegrown talent is part of the Dodgers’ master plan for sustainability. In the immediate future, though, it might result in an expensive third-place team with the Diamondbacks and Giants seemingly passing the Dodgers in talent this season.
Prediction: 3rd NL West
SS Corey Seager (L)
2B Howie Kendrick (R)
1B Adrian Gonzalez (L)
3B Justin Turner (R)
LF Andre Ethier (L)
RF Yasiel Puig (R)
C Yasmani Grandal (S)
CF Joc Pederson (L)
INF Chase Utley (L)
C A.J. Ellis (R)
OF Scott Van Slyke (R)
2B Micah Johnson (L)
UTL Enrique Hernandez (R)
LHP Clayton Kershaw
LHP Scott Kazmir
RHP Kenta Maeda
LHP Brett Anderson
LHP Alex Wood
RHP Kenley Jansen (Closer)
RHP Chris Hatcher
LHP J.P. Howell
LHP Luis Avilan
RHP Pedro Baez
RHP Joe Blanton