The Los Angeles Dodgers have pulled off an impressive balancing act over the past four years. While continuing to dominate the National League West (four consecutive division titles) and making the NL Championship Series twice, they have transitioned on the field, in the dugout and in the front office, where the Andrew Friedman-led group has pushed the envelope on sophisticated analytical approaches. The deep pockets of ownership have allowed the Dodgers to swallow millions in dead money to rid themselves of players for whom they had no use (Carl Crawford and Alex Guerrero being the latest) while spending millions more to add prospects to the farm system. That system might be the deepest in baseball, and it produced the franchise’s 17th NL Rookie of the Year in Corey Seager last season — not to mention enough talent to absorb a record 28 players going on the disabled list in 2016. The infusion of young talent is expected to continue in 2017 with precocious pitching talent Julio Urias just the most prominent name.
Most franchises would have to take a step back to pull off such a transition. The Dodgers have done it while remaining one of the reigning powers out West.
Disaster struck the Dodgers’ starting rotation last season — they lost ace Clayton Kershaw for 10 weeks due to a mildly herniated disc in his back. Kershaw returned in time to lead the Dodgers’ playoff run and assured everyone in the offseason that his back issues would not affect him in 2017. He will lead a deep rotation, with fellow lefthander Rich Hill re-signed to provide a legitimate No. 2 starter. Hill’s durability is in question, however, and health issues abound with the other veteran starters — Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Kenta Maeda and Alex Wood provide better options, and a cadre of young starting options led by Urias will push for inclusion. The Dodgers used a major-league-high 16 different starters in 2015 and 15 in 2016 — and they have the depth to do it again.
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Kenley Jansen had the best season of his career in 2016, firmly establishing himself as one of baseball’s elite closers with 47 saves, a 0.67 WHIP (lowest among any player who pitched over 60 innings) and becoming the Dodgers’ all-time franchise leader in saves. And then the Dodgers almost lost him. Jansen hit the free-agent market in the fall and received bigger offers from the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins. But Jansen didn’t want to leave L.A. His return prevented the Dodgers from sprouting a major leak in their bullpen. The relief corps around Jansen will have to be rebuilt, but the Dodgers believe they have some strong options — particularly lefthander Grant Dayton and righthanders Josh Fields and Pedro Baez.
The Dodgers had high hopes that Corey Seager would some day be their best player. That day arrived by the end of May. The National League Rookie of the Year led NL shortstops in batting average, slugging, OPS, runs, total bases and hits. He is the leading man in the Dodgers’ transition to a team built around younger talent. Veteran second baseman Chase Utley was valuable as a mentor to Seager and in changing the clubhouse culture. He was re-signed, but the Dodgers targeted second as a spot where they could upgrade their hitting against left-handed pitching (a major deficiency in 2016). In late January they made their move, trading prized pitching prospect Jose De Leon to Tampa Bay for Logan Forsythe. The 30-year-old hit a career-high 20 home runs for the Rays last season and, perhaps more importantly, batted .270 against southpaws.
The Dodgers have spent over $750 million on player salaries over the past three seasons. But one of the best investments they made during that time was the $1 million contract they gave to Justin Turner to compete for a bench role in spring 2014. Turner has emerged as one of the most productive hitters in the National League, a Gold Glove finalist at third base and, more recent, a key leadership force in the Dodgers’ clubhouse. He bounced back from knee surgery a year ago to hit .275 with career highs in home runs (27) and RBIs (90) while posting a third consecutive OPS well over .800. Across the diamond, Adrian Gonzalez remains a remarkably consistent piece of the Dodgers’ core — although at age 34 there are signs of a drop-off. His .784 OPS last year was his lowest for a full season.
The Dodgers finally ran out of patience with Yasiel Puig in 2016. They came close to trading him at the midseason deadline then demoted him to Triple-A when they didn’t. Puig returned in September apparently humbled, professing a new commitment to preparation. That new leaf will be tested in 2017 — if Puig is still in Dodger blue come Opening Day. His inability to consistently perform at the All-Star level he flashed in his first two seasons is likely to make him a role player in a deep outfield corps. The Dodgers figure to platoon heavily while choosing from a group that includes right-handed hitters Puig, Trayce Thompson, Darin Ruf, Scott Van Slyke the versatile Enrique Hernandez and lefty-swinging Andre Ethier, Joc Pederson and Andrew Toles.
Yasmani Grandal is the new-age idea of a star catcher. He led all catchers with 27 home runs, had a .827 OPS despite a .230 batting average and was among the top receivers in the emerging area of pitch framing, adding 24 runs in value by one estimate (second only to Buster Posey). Grandal has been prone to injuries, but the Dodgers’ faith in him was evident in their trade of veteran backup A.J. Ellis. Ellis’ departure clears the way for young catcher Austin Barnes to serve as Grandal’s backup. Acquired from the Marlins in December 2014, Barnes served a two-year apprenticeship at Triple-A.
The Dodgers embrace the idea of maximizing production by frequent use of platoons and matchup-driven lineups. They also prefer to shorten the bench in favor of a deeper bullpen. That makes versatility a must among role players, and the makeup of the bench is likely to change frequently over the course of the season — a backup catcher (Barnes), Utley and extra outfielders the only certainties.
Dave Roberts was a bit of a surprise as the Dodgers’ choice to succeed Don Mattingly as manager in 2016. But the choice was a winning one. Roberts guided the Dodgers through a record number of DL moves (including losing Kershaw for 10 weeks in the second half of the season), a major-league high 70 games started by rookie pitchers and an unprecedented 606 pitching changes and still won 91 games and the NL West title. Roberts’ relentless optimism and upbeat energy played well in a clubhouse.
Going into the offseason, the Dodgers’ goal was simple — keep as much of the roster intact as possible. They went 3-for-3 in the most important parts of that process, re-signing Jansen, Turner and Hill. Given the likelihood of better health this year, another year of maturity for the young players like Seager and the fruits of a loaded farm system, the Dodgers appear to be the most obvious threat to the Chicago Cubs’ reign over the National League.