Playing Pepper 2016: Los Angeles Dodgers

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Los Angeles Dodgers
92-70, first in the NL West, lost in the NLDS
Last year’s Pepper

The Cardinals and Dodgers have obviously had their moments over the decades.  St. Louis holds at 974-942 edge all time on the Brooklyn/Los Angeles crew, but before what we’d consider this new Golden Era of Cardinal Baseball (1996-present) it was just 887-876.  We all know about the recent matchups in the playoffs, though sometimes we forget “Go Crazy” came at expense of the boys in blue as well.

The Dodgers don’t have to deal with the Cards that regularly, though, so how are they going to deal with the NL West this season?  We’ve got three solid LA bloggers to fill us in.  First up is Ernest Reyes, a three-time veteran of Pepper, from Blue Heaven.  He’s over on Twitter @ernestreyes.  Following Mr. Reyes is a Pepper rookie, Alex Campos from Dodgers Way.  You can follow him on Twitter @ac3581.  Finally, we have our good friend Scott Andes, who now is writing at LA Dodger Report.  Scott’s Playing Pepper for his fifth straight year and he’s using @LAdodgerreport has his Twitter handle.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

BH: Although some might see the clubs inability to keep their high-end starting staff intact (i.e. signing Zack Greinke) as a huge negative, I can’t help but be pleased with what they did. Having lost the services of Greinke to the overpaying Diamondbacks, the Dodgers added the kind of depth most teams can only dream of. They signed the ace of the Japanese Nippon Baseball League Kenta Maeda and a solid mid-rotation arm in Scott Kazmir. They also have plenty of young arms waiting for their chance to shine; including Alex Wood, Mike Bolsinger, and top prospects Jose De Leon, Frankie Montas and Zack Lee. Other positions also saw plenty of depth-building; including the re-signing of Howie Kendrick at second base.

DW: It was definitely a strange offseason. Losing Zack Greinke was obviously the headliner, and I can’t really say it was a good thing to lose one of the best pitchers in baseball, especially to a division rival. It got weirder with the failed Aroldis Chapman trade and failed Hisashi Iwakuma signing. It’s not the first trade to blow up or the first signing to not become finalized due to an injury, but the way they both went down seemed very strange.
Given all that, they made some very smart, cost-efficient moves. I wrote a dream offseason post, and not to toot my own horn, but I nailed the Scott Kazmir signing with the exact dollar amount. Ignore all my other predictions.

Kazmir and Kenta Maeda are two very good pitchers. Kazmir has a reputation for being frail, but he’s pitched over 150 innings in each of his last four seasons (not including 2011 or 2012 when he was all but out of baseball). Maeda’s contract is so beautiful. $3 million guaranteed a year is next to nothing, so if his physical gives him any trouble, he won’t cost the Dodgers much at all. He’s thrown at least 170 innings in seven of his eight seasons in Japan and over 200 four times, including last season.

I also really liked the three-team trade the Dodgers pulled off with Cincinnati and Chicago (AL). They moved prospects, the best of whom being Jose Peraza, for slightly better prospects. Peraza is better than Micah Johnson, but they upgraded from Scott Schebler to Trayce Thompson and added another top pitching prospect in Frankie Montas. Lots of fans were wondering why the Dodgers didn’t take Todd Frazier in that trade, but I much prefer the package they got.

The offseason felt incomplete and still a bit questionable, but re-signing Howie Kendrick was a huge confidence boost for everyone. He’s such a painfully consistent player, so having him provide some stability around guys like Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Yasmani Grandal is huge. All of whom are incredibly talented, but all of whom struggled hard at times last year.

LADR: I’m not sure if they did what they needed to do. To tell you the truth, they didn’t do a whole lot. After the third consecutive soul-crushing postseason defeat (which I predicted back in spring training) the club was rumored to be in cutting payroll mode. Which is something absurd for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The huge part of the offseason that should have been addressed first was the re-signing of co-ace Zack Greinke. We all knew he would opt out but we had no idea it would end in such an incredibly frustrating and demoralizing way. It was reported or rumored that he was deciding between an offer from the Dodgers and arch rival Giants. We gagged and vomited at the thought of Greinke pitching for the Giants. I pondered myself that if that were to happen then the Giants would more than likely win yet another world championship. Needless to say I had to take an anti-nausea medication after that horrific thought.

The Dodgers low balled him and offered him only 155 million over 5 years. Greinke wanted 6 years and something in the 200 million range. Keeping in mind that this is one of the top 5 pitchers in all of Baseball who was coming off of a historically dominant season, it seemed like a prudent move to me. Just give the guy an extra 50 million for god’s sake. The Dodgers refused and the Dbacks swooped and made the offer. When the dust settled, Greinke was a Dback and we had yet another huge hole in our starting rotation. It was an embarrassment getting outbid by the small market Dbacks.

Of course the moneyball kids continued to praise every move that Friedman and friends make. They claimed it was a brilliant move because of his age and amount of money. And if you disagreed with any of them they would of course instantly ostracize you and ridicule you on social media.

The Dodgers had a deal in place with Hisashi Iwakuma, but that fell apart after they saw something they didn’t like on his physical. The Aroldis Chapman deal fell apart as well due to his domestic abuse incident. I thought that was a smart move staying away from Chapman, despite his obvious talent.

The Dodgers ended up signing solid mid-tier guy Scott Kazmir, and Japanese import Kenta Maeda. They’ll really need those two to be regular cogs in the rotation with question marks surrounding Korean left hander Hyun-jin Ryu’s shoulder (he won’t be ready until May at the earliest) and Brandon McCarthy is still very useless and out until at least midseason while still recovering from Tommy John surgery. Youngster Alex Wood, and left hander Brett Anderson will backend a rotation led by ace Clayton Kershaw.

The Dodgers made a few other minor moves like signing Joe Blanton, and resigning second baseman Howie Kendrick on a team friendly contract. They beefed up the farm system (trading Jose Peraza and Scott Schebler to the White Sox for three more prospects) even more than it already was. The Dodgers now have the number one ranked farm system in MLB. Maybe the biggest change was hiring first year manager Dave Roberts after exiling Don Mattingly to Miami. The rest of the coaching staff followed suit. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt will be the lone holdover on a brand new staff.

I guess you could say they plugged some holes in the rotation with moderate signings. However losing Greinke is going to hurt and they will regret it. I think hiring Roberts and a new coaching staff was a big key. New voices and approaches in the dugout were needed. I still think they didn’t address any of the problems in the bullpen, or offense.

C70: Do you feel like the pitching staff is still the major strength of this team?

BH: Yes. Even without Zach Greinke, a pitching staff that includes Clayton Kershaw will always be a strength. I think the key for the rotation going forward is depth and transition. They went ahead and added strong ancillary arms in Maeda and Kazmir in order to provide stability to a rotation that was racked with injuries last season. At the same time, they want to leave spots open should one (or more) of their top prospects force their way into the rotation. Many of the new contracts have short term commitments in order to allow an orderly transition over the ensuing several years.

DW: It depends on what you look for. Last year, the Dodgers had Clayton Kershaw, Greinke, and then a lot of question marks. Brett Anderson was fine last year, and exceptional for the number five starter that he was supposed to be. Injuries (Hyun-jin Ryu, Brandon McCarthy) pushed him up to the number three spot, which was sort of fine in the regular season but not so much in the postseason against the Mets.

As it looks this year, there’s a chance Anderson doesn’t even crack the rotation. Kershaw, Kazmir, Maeda, Ryu, Anderson, Alex Wood. Mike Bolsinger, who was phenomenal for the most part last year, probably doesn’t have a shot at starting many games barring injury. McCarthy should be back by the all-star break. The fear-inducing 1-2 punch isn’t there, but they run seven or eight deep, not even including Montas or Julio Urias/Jose De Leon, both of whom are extremely highly rated pitching prospects.

The Dodgers have always been built around pitching, and this year should be no different.

LADR: Yes and no. It will still be good, but not as good as it was with Zack Greinke on the staff. The talent is more spread out. The Dodgers have a lot of depth, but also a lot of health question marks. I think the rotation could be pretty solid if everyone stays healthy and Kazmir and Maeda perform up to expectations. Kershaw is still Kershaw so he’ll be his usual incredible self. The big question will be if Ryu’s health will allow him to contribute much if at all and weather Alex Wood can have a bounce back season. The Dodgers will need to count on Brett Anderson and Alex Wood as much as Kazmir and Maeda.

The bullpen will be a concern but could be much better if a few of the young guys like Yimi Garcia, Pedro Baez, and Chris Hatcher can establish consistency. Yimi is an absolute talent with some major movement on his slider/fastball. Hatcher throws some serious heat as does Baez. They just need to put it all together.

C70: Will the managerial change provide substantive results?

BH: I am a huge Dave Roberts fan. He is exactly the kind of person and personality I think Dodgers fans have been waiting for. He is unbiased, a fresh voice in an often fractious clubhouse, and an unabashed Dodgers cheerleader with an keen eye towards its history. I look forward to seeing him will the Dodgers to victory; much in the same way Tommy Lasorda did it when he managed.

DW: It seems like there’s a whole new energy around the team. Just watching Dave Roberts’ introductory press conference or seeing him take the stage at FanFest, his energy and attitude is infectious. As a player, he wasn’t the most athletically gifted or most talented player around, but he still put together a long, successful career. Dodger writers use “grit” in a tongue and cheek way since it’s so overused, but I have a feeling this will be a lot more of a “take the extra bases” “grind out at bats” team than in recent years.

LADR: Oh my goodness I hope so. Nay I pray that it will. I think the poor on-field management and coaching staff was a big problem for the Dodgers the last couple of seasons. I like Don Mattingly. He is without doubt a nice guy and I’ve met him. Unfortunately I just don’t think he has the right personality to be manager. He promotes too much of a laid back atmosphere which includes laziness and bad habits. He is incredibly lackluster with-in game strategies and is unable to motivate players. I have no idea how Roberts is going to do being a first-year manager himself, but I think a new philosophy and voice in the dugout/clubhouse will be a big plus for the Dodgers in 2016.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

BH: I have high hopes for a lot of players this coming season, but none are as high as rookie Corey Seager. I believe he’ll build upon his fantastic month in the Majors with a season worthy of end-of -the-year awards praise.

DW: I’m not sure I’d call it a huge stride, but I think we’ll see a better, healthier Yasiel Puig. He’s reportedly in at seven percent body fat, looks absolutely shredded. He never really found his rhythm last year, but I think he gets back to being a force offensively.

As for an actual stride, I’m a huge believer in Chris Hatcher. I was a huge fan of the Dee Gordon trade (still am, but a little less so now), and Hatcher was a huge part of that. He was extremely disappointing early on last season, but finished the season strong and was huge in the postseason. In the second half last season, Hatcher pitched 20 2/3 innings, allowed 13 hits, six walks, struck out 26 batters and allowed only three runs, all of which came on solo home runs. He allowed one baserunner in 3 2/3 postseason innings, and that came on a walk. If he can stay out of trouble early on, him and Kenley Jansen should be a force at the back end of the bullpen.

LADR: I am hoping that is Yasiel Puig. One of the missing ingredients for the boys in blue last season was a healthy and productive Puig in the middle of the batting order. I think he has shown that when his head is right and healthy he can be one of the most talented and exciting players in the game today. He had some trouble this winter, but showed up to camp ready to play. He’s slimmed down considerably (he was 25 pounds overweight when showing up to last year’s camp) after beefing up his offseason workout regimen and recently sat down with Roberts for a heart to heart. Roberts is giving him a clean slate and if Puig is right this year, watch out National League. It could be just what the doctor ordered for the Dodgers.

Another player to watch out for could be reliever Chris Hatcher. He finished strong at the end of last season after healing from a side muscle injury and discovering some new grip on his splitter.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

BH: The Dodgers will finish the season with a record equal to, if not slightly better than, their record in 2015 (92-70). For the most part, they still have the pieces that saw them win the division for a third straight season, and I see no reason why they shouldn’t win it for a fourth straight year.

DW: I still think the West is the Dodgers’ to lose. The Giants should be improved, as should the DBacks, but they had a bit of work to do to catch up to the Dodgers. I still think it’ll be a two-team race between the Dodgers and Giants, and I still think the Dodgers have more talent than the Giants. Which Johnny Cueto will show up in SF? Will Jeff Samardzija finally pitch up to his hype? I keep hearing a lot of hype about him, but he’s been mostly average-below average as a starter. Moving to AT&T should help, but I’m still ecstatic the Dodgers passed on him. I think the gap is closer than it has been in years past, but I still think the Dodgers are and should be the favorites (if I need to be specific, Dodgers win the West by 5 games with a 93-69 record).

LADR: I still think the Dodgers are the best club in the NL West. Yes Arizona did beef up their rotation and so did the Giants. The Dodgers have something that neither of those clubs does which is amazing organizational depth. They had 7 players in the top 100 prospect list. They’ll have a full season of wonder boy and top prospect Corey Seager at shortstop. They’ll hopefully have a productive and healthy Yasiel Puig to go along with Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Gonzalez, Justin Turner, and a returning Howie Kendrick.

This is still a very talented core group of players with a now beefed up farm system. Remember the Dodgers also have talented prospects like Julio Urias, Jose De Leon and Jharel Cotton waiting in the wings to be called up. The Dodgers are a good club and they’ll win 90 games for sure. They will probably win the division for the fourth consecutive season. How far they get in the postseason depends on a lot of other factors.

The pitching staff has to remain healthy. The club will need the entire rotation including the backend to produce and give them innings so the bullpen doesn’t get blown out in June. Speaking of the bullpen, those guys need to actually come in and get outs instead of throwing gasoline on the fire. They don’t have Greinke anymore and Kershaw and Kenley can’t do it all themselves. They need some help.

The defense should be pretty good again, but I’ve always thought the moneyball approach to offense has been very shortsighted and poor. The Dodgers were basically a station-to-station base running club that relied heavily on the home run ball to score runs. That has to change in 2016. The Dodgers need to be able to manufacture runs and play some small ball in order to avoid long stretches of scoring droughts. Guys like Puig and Joc Pederson will be important to infuse some speed into the lineup.

The new coaching staff has to preach fundamentals as well. No more just waiting around for home runs, swinging for the fences and the terrible situational hitting that plagued the club last year. The Dodgers will need all of that plus heart, and chemistry if they want to break this nasty 28-year World Series drought that keeps dogging the entire franchise. With this being Vin Scully’s final year, it needs to happen.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

BH: I hate the Giants, and all good Dodgers know that no victory is sweeter than a win over those orange-colored dorks up north. Now this might sound crazy… In fact, it’s straight-up ludicrous… But I begin every season truly believing that the Dodgers will sweep the season series against the Giants. I truly believe this! Every year!… EVERY YEAR!

It’s irrational, I know. But I don’t care.

DW: It’s a little fun to beat the Padres, especially at Dodger Stadium South. It’s fun to beat the DBacks, especially with all the stories about how they make visiting fans change behind home plate. But nothing beats beating the Giants.

I went to Long Beach State (Go Dirtbags!) and there were wayyyyyyy too many Giants fans there. Some of them are the most knowledgeable baseball fans I’ve ever met. Others, not so much. Nothing beats Dodgers-Giants games. Best rivalry in baseball.

It’s tough to read 2016. Last year, they had the Dodgers’ number, but the Dodgers clinched the division up there and that was beautiful. 2016 is divisible by 2 (might need to check my math on that one), so all bets are off. I firmly believe in the even year BS and I’m just waiting for Chris Heston to win the Cy Young and for Kelby Tomlinson to triple-slash .360/.480/.590.

LADR: The Giants of course silly. Who else would we enjoy beating so much? Unfortunately we didn’t play so well against the evil ones in 2015. The Dodgers lost the season series to the Giants last year including losing their first 6 games in the lion’s den of San Francisco.

However beating the Giants is always fun and enjoyable. When the Dodgers beat the Giants it warms all Dodger fans deep inside and brings us pure unfiltered joy. I’ve always dreamt of a season in which the Giants go 0-162. Oh sure it’s just a pipe dream, but I’ll never give it up. One day it may happen, and it always brings a smile to my face. Don’t ever squash my dreams. Go Blue!

Appreciate Ernest, Alex, and Scott giving us the lowdown on the Dodgers.  Who knows, maybe we’ll have another chance to see the two teams meet up in October!

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