Playing Pepper 2019: Los Angeles Dodgers

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Los Angeles Dodgers
92-71, first in NL West, lost in World Series
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

For the fact that they are in one of the biggest markets, for the fact that they are run by some of the smartest people, for the fact that they put up one of the biggest payrolls, only 10 teams in Major League Baseball have a longer World Series drought than the Dodgers.  They’ve been close the past two years, with back-to-back World Series losses, but they’ve never been able to get over the hump.  Can they this year?  That’s why we go to the experts.

Writer Site Twitter
Scott Andes LA Dodger Report LAdodgerreport
Stacie Wheeler Dodgers Digest StacieMWheeler

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason?  What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Scott: The Dodgers’ offseason was another sleeper with no splashy deals to free agents. As usual the Dodgers were rumored to be involved with every major free agent and trade candidate under the sun and again as usual the deals never got made. We once again heard a lot about the luxury tax and the Dodgers staying below the threshold. They did just that but ownership has given a mandate for the front office to not make any kind of long term financial commitments. Andrew Friedman is also way too cheap and small market minded to make any mega deals. That’s just how he operates. Expecting the Dodgers to sign anyone for over 50-60 million dollars is just not realistic. I knew right away that the Dodgers were never going to sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. It was not going to happen and never did. It was not surprising.

The Dodgers did make some moves that they hoped would shore up the bullpen and right handed hitting. The major deal of the winter was the trade of Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood and Kyle Farmer to the Reds for two minor leaguers, Homer Bailey and some cash. For the record, I think it was a terrible trade because the Dodgers did not get back adequate value for all those solid regulars. Instead what they did do was free up roster space and dump salary. A big market team like the Dodgers dumping salary with no plan in place but saving money and hope was just stupid. It’s a terrible look for one of the richest and largest market clubs in baseball. However the Dodgers did make three important signings other than the Clayton Kershaw extension. They re-signed right handed hitting David Freese to return as a bench bat and part time player. They also signed A.J. Pollock to a four-year deal to play center field. Both of those guys will give the Dodgers a much needed balance in a lefty heavy lineup. The Dodgers also locked up reliever Joe Kelly who should figure to get the lion’s share of the eighth inning duties to setup closer Kenley Jansen. Another major move was trading for veteran Russell Martin to share the catching with Austin Barnes. The latter is a terrible hitter but solid defensively. I would be shocked if either backstop hit above the Mendoza line but Martin should swat 12-15 home runs. Yasmani Grandal signed with the Brewers.

Stacie: For the third straight year, it was a relatively quiet offseason for the Dodgers. LA’s front office was cash conscious last winter with a focus on staying under the luxury tax threshold in time for this year’s free agent class. Aside from extending Clayton Kershaw’s contract and adding A.J. Pollock, Joe Kelly and Russell Martin, the Dodgers didn’t make a big push to sign any of the coveted free agents we thought they’d freed up funds for. The Phillies beat them out for Bryce Harper, the Pads got Manny Machado, and Nolan Arenado is staying in Colorado.

One would think that the Dodgers, one of the richest teams in baseball, would do whatever they could to bring back a World Series title to LA after going 30 years without and losing back-to-back Fall Classics in heartbreaking fashion. It’s especially frustrating after they took money off the books and traded away fan favorites Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp. Their four-year, $45 million dollar offer to Harper, although hefty as far as AAV, was a weak push. It was widely known that he was looking for a long-term deal, and the Dodgers didn’t even come close. I was fine with the small moves and conservative approach they made last season if it meant the Dodgers were able to lock up Kershaw and go for Harper. Only one of those happened, and it’s annoying.

The good news is that the Dodgers’ moves and non-moves this offseason still leave them with a solid team with a strong farm system. I’m just worried Machado will be the new tormentor against the Dodgers now that Paul Goldschmidt is out of the NL West.

C70: It was an excellent first full year for Max Muncy. What are the chances he can keep that going?

Scott: That’s the million dollar question that nobody can answer right now. My gut tells me that there’s going to be some regression. However I think we can still reasonably expect 20-25 home runs in 2019. I’ll take that any day from any of my hitters. Last season Muncy was the Dodgers most productive hitter. His BABIP (I normally hate to cite the luck stat) was .299 and his wOBA was .407. Does that mean he was somewhat lucky in 2018? I can’t tell you that. Muncy’s hitting shouldn’t be a huge question mark but his defense is. Muncy is not the best fielder. Finding the right position for him is key. I would expect the Dodgers to deploy Muncy at first base for the majority of his games, which pushes Cody Bellinger into a full-time outfield role. However they may also give him some time at second base. Expect a lot of power and on-base skills from him with great plate discipline. Take his defense with a grain of salt because you won’t get much there.

Stacie: It’s a totally different situation for Max Muncy this spring. Last year at this time he was relatively unknown and he was simply looking to make the team. After his breakout year in 2018 and a historic 18th inning walk-off home run against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the World Series, Muncy has become a household name among Dodger fans. He’s a virtual lock for an Opening Day roster spot.

Muncy didn’t play at all at the major-league level in 2017 then impressed with a .973 OPS in 2018 with the Dodgers. The question of whether Muncy can sustain his success at the plate is a valid one. Although most of the projections don’t have him near the 162 wRC+ he posted last year, the metrics say his skills are legitimate. Even if his power numbers dip a bit over last season (35 homers, .319 ISO, .582 SLG%), a 30-home run season is still achievable. Muncy’s patience at the plate in the minors translated well in the majors. His 16.4% walk rate was one of the best in baseball. He was right up there with Mike Trout (20.1 BB%), Bryce Harper (18.7 BB%) and Joey Votto (17.3 BB%). That’s not too shabby.

C70: What do you think will be the strongest part of this team?

Scott: That’s the starting rotation and pitching staff in general for sure. The rotation should be multi-faceted and talented. Clayton Kershaw and rookie sensation Walker Buehler will head up the Dodger’s rotation. Veteran and curveball spinner Rich Hill will hold the third spot and the rest of the rotation will be filled out by Japanese right hander Kenta Maeda and Korean southpaw Hyun-jn Ryu. The Dodgers will also have depth pieces like Ross Stripling, Young phenom Julio Urias (who is still recovering from major shoulder surgery) and young left hander Caleb Ferguson. The Dodgers also have a couple of arms in the upper minors who could be called upon because of injuries. The Dodgers would like to keep Maeda in the rotation most of the year. Expect to see Stripling bounce between the rotation (as a spot starter) and the bullpen. Kershaw is playing with bio-mechanics to try and regain his lost velocity. Ryu had a terrific season despite being injured (torn groin) for most of it and Rich Hill should provide another solid campaign. 

Stacie: Even with concern surrounding Kershaw’s status right now, the Dodgers have a strong group of starting pitchers which to draw from. Julio Urias has impressed early in camp, and “the door is open” for him to potentially break with the team in the starting rotation per Dave Roberts. There’ll still be limits on Urias’ workload this year in his first full season since his major shoulder surgery in 2017. The Dodgers also may want to save some of those Urias innings for later in the season. If so, they still have Rich Hill, Walker Buehler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling, Caleb Ferguson and Dennis Santana in their starter stockpile. They could also acquire another starter via trade or on the free agent market, namely Corey Kluber if Cleveland is still open to talk. Dallas Keuchel remains unemployed as well.

The Dodgers are a franchise that is historically built around excellent pitching and 2019 won’t be an exception. With the talented group of arms they have right now, they should once again will have one of the best starting rotations in baseball.

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Scott: The Dodgers will look different in 2019. They won’t have Puig or Kemp and Grandal is gone as well, but they still have a very versatile, experienced and talented roster. The biggest thing is the lack of competition in the NL West. Three of the five clubs in the division are rebuilding; the Dodgers’ only real competition is the Rockies and they’re not that good. I would say the Dodgers win 90-93 games and take their seventh consecutive NL West title. Getting back to a third consecutive World Series is going to be difficult. Maybe they will finally win the World Series this time? I can only pray.

Stacie: The Dodgers didn’t make splashy moves or sign any of the big name free agents this winter, but they remain one of the top teams in MLB with a solid farm system. They should win their seventh (!) consecutive NL West title with my projection of a 93-69 record. Then again, I’m not very good with predictions. They won eight games less than I forecasted last year, and they won 10 games more than I expected in 2017. 

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Scott: I think the biggest question mark for the 2019 Dodgers is the hitting and whether they can replace some of the power they lost when they dealt Puig, and Kemp and whether they can consistently make contact at the plate. Signing Pollock and a healthy return from Corey Seager will definitely help in that department. Another question is whether the Dodgers can hit with runners in scoring position? The club was one of the worst in that category in 2018. I think getting Seager back in the lineup every day is key. Justin Turner and Seager are the two guys the Dodgers absolutely can’t lose for extended amounts of time. Those two are their best all-around run producers and make the offense go. They lost both Turner and Seager last year for a long stretch and it nearly sank their season. Overall they have to make contact at a better rate, put more runners on base and hit better with runners in scoring position. The overall productivity of the lineup is what’s most in question. Will the Dodgers keep platooning everyone around the diamond? I would like to see a more set lineup every day in 2019. 

Stacie: While there are several question marks for the Dodgers going into the season. Some of those include the status of Kershaw (shoulder), the catching conundrum, second base being up in the air, and replacement of the power in the lineup from losing Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig.

The biggest query heading into Opening Day, in my opinion, is Corey Seager’s health. The Dodgers’ star shortstop missed most of the 2018 season due to Tommy John surgery and hip surgery. His young age gives him an advantage in his rehab process, but it remains to be seen if Cactus League action will be enough to get him prepared enough to start the season on time. As of March 1, Seager threw 150 feet and DH’d in a camp game, his first game action since his operations. Dave Roberts said “It’s going as well as we could have hoped.” So far so good, but it’s unclear whether or when he can return to his elite form. Seager led all shortstops in WAR during his first two full major league seasons, and the team is indisputably better with a healthy Seager.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Scott: I always find joy watching my beloved Dodgers day in and day out throughout the season. Even when they lose I still can find joy in each and every game. Of course the one thing that will bring me and all of Dodger land the most joy is a World Series championship. They’ve been so close over the last two seasons. Nothing else will suffice really. I pray to the baseball gods every day that it happens. Please baseball gods (gets down on knees) help the Dodgers win the World Series this year. Once the Dodgers do finally win the World Series, naturally you will see a much happier, healthier and harmonious planet. There will be world-wide peace. Everyone will throw down their weapons and hold hands in a moment of triumph and serenity. The air will be crisper. Your food will taste better. The world will be a better place when the Dodgers hoist the championship trophy. 

Stacie: It’ll be difficult to find something else that brings me as much joy as Puig’s cannon throws, bat licks and flips and Wild Horse antics did. One aspect of the game that always brings me joy is following the progress of the prospects and young players. I’m especially excited to see Keibert Ruiz, Will Smith, Gavin Lux, Dennis Santana and Dustin May among others this season as they continue their journey to the majors. 

It’s always good to hear from Scott and Stacie and I appreciate them telling us again about the upcoming Dodger season.  LA is going to get over the hump one of these years–we’ll find out if it is 2019!

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