Playing Pepper 2023: Los Angeles Dodgers

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Los Angeles Dodgers
111-51, first in the NL West, lost in the NLDS
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Tyler Anderson (4.0)
Top hitter by fWAR: Freddie Freeman (7.1)

If the World Champion was decided by regular season wins, the Dodgers would be starting to catch the Yankees for the most titles in history.  Sadly for those in the blue, you have to win your way through October.  Last year LA put up a remarkable number of wins, only to fall flat after getting a bye to the second round.  Can they get back in the winner’s circle or are they doomed to be just a regular season juggernaut?  We’ve got some Dodger faithful to get into that!

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Michael Wittman Call to the Pen Wittman7
Scott Andes LA Dodger Report LAdodgerreport
Stacie Wheeler Dodgers Digest StacieMWheeler

C70: It wasn’t the splashiest off-season for the Dodgers but it’s not like a 111 win team has a lot of holes. What’s your opinion on how Los Angeles spent its winter and how does the club look as 2023 is ready to begin?

Michael: This was a strange Dodger offseason for a myriad of reasons. For one, the Dodgers saw the Padres spent over 500 million with their additions of Bogaerts and several others while the Dodgers spent the offseason like a small market team.

Then there was the whole Bauer situation where the Dodgers potentially could have had to pay him $100 million in 2023 between salary and luxury tax if his suspension were reversed. The Dodgers also had to navigate most of the offseason without knowing how or when that situation would be cleared up.

Then there was the Dodgers desire to reset their luxury tax dollars that paying Bauer seemed to kill the hopes of. It seems like the Dodgers are taking a “step back” for a year to see how their MLB ready prospects look before making a run at Shohei Ohtani. The Dodgers should still be a playoff team in the 92-97 win range but they are not just going to coast all year like they did last year.

Scott: There weren’t many holes at this time last year, but this season is a different story. Due to free agency, the Dodgers came into 2023 with holes at multiple positions on the roster. Entering the offseason they had holes at SS, DH, 3B, 2B, LF, CF, closer, fifth starter. some of those positions were filled and others are still facing question marks.

Despite being the wealthiest team in baseball, the club did not resign franchise legend Justin Turner, former MVP Cody Bellinger, and All-Star shortstop Trea Turner. Instead they replaced them with old, busted and washed up veterans on major league contracts. As I write this, we know that Gavin Lux is out for the year after tearing his ACL while running the bases during an exhibition game. The Dodgers have a problem at shortstop. They acquired former Dodger and veteran shortstop Miguel Rojas (the guy who saved Kershaw’s no-hitter back in 2014) from the Marlins in exchange for top shortstop prospect Jacob Amaya. The move didn’t make much sense to me, since Rojas has always been a poor hitter and is more of a utility player than a regular guy you can count on to be productive in the lineup everyday. They signed other veterans like Jason Heyward, JD Martinez, David Peralta, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Dugger. They still have guys like Chris Taylor, Max Muncy, and Trayce Thompson that they can plug in at multiple positions, but it’s a huge drop off in talent. Meanwhile they have a large group of highly rated young prospects that are ready to come up and play.

For some reason (other than Miguel Vargas who is confirmed to start with the big club) they seem reluctant to call those guys up. It’s not a good look when the team with the most money in baseball refuses to shop for the best players on the open market, yet also refuses to call up their best prospects in favor of old, and injury prone expensive veterans. IMO, they should call up the kids all at once and see what they have, but for some reason they don’t want to do this. Perhaps they don’t feel the kids are ready? Whatever the case, this roster is not nearly as good as the one from 2022 that won 111 games. Right now shortstop is the biggest concern with Lux out for the year, but they have question marks all over the diamond.

Stacie: The 2023 version of the Los Angeles Dodgers looks nothing like the team that won 111 games in the NL West last season. The Dodgers lost Trea Turner, Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, Tyler Anderson, Joey Gallo, and Edwin Rios over the offseason.

The Dodgers have a really gaping hole to fill at shortstop. I’m not sure how they’ll make up for the 194 hits and 101 runs scored by Trea Turner last season. Turner’s historic showing in the World Baseball Classic really put a spotlight on what the Dodgers will be missing from their lineup without either Turner in it anymore.

The Dodgers picked up cheap veterans like David Peralta, J.D. Martinez, Jason Heyward, Noah Syndergaard, Alex Reyes and Shelby Miller this offseason. The Dodgers also traded prospect infielder Jacob Amaya to the Miami Marlins to obtain veteran right-handed hitting infielder Miguel Rojas. In hindsight of Lux’s injury, this was an important trade.

It’s unclear whether the newly acquired, and some re-acquired, veterans can make up for the big bats lost over the winter.

C70: Clayton Kershaw continues to be effective but he’s also going into his Age 35 season. What do you expect from him and do you think he’ll continue signing one-year deals for the rest of his career?

Michael: Clayton Kershaw continues to amaze despite only throwing as hard as 90-91 miles per hour most of the time. Last year he had a 2.28 ERA and 2.57 FIP. Despite the age and lower velocity he seems to be a lock for an ERA under 3 still even if he doesn’t pitch as well as he did in 2022.

I also think the Dodgers have come to expect that Kershaw will miss time with his chronic back issues. If he can give the Dodgers 18-22 starts and be healthy for the postseason that is something the Dodgers will be happy with. The Dodgers have a ton of pitching depth so they can survive without Kershaw for a month or two’s worth of starts.

It seems Kershaw will take one year deals for the rest of his career and he has said as much himself saying he wants to take things year by year. Every offseason the rumors of him playing closer to home with the Rangers surface but Kershaw decided pretty quickly this offseason to return to LA. I don’t expect Kershaw to pitch more than another 2-3 years but I think all of us Dodger fans hope he plays as long as he can.

Scott: I think he will continue signing one-year deals, assuming this isn’t his last year. He mentioned something about wanting to remain with one
team for his entire career, so hopefully that means he retires as a Dodger. I agree that he is not just effective, but still pitching at a top level. Age and wear and tear is a concern, so we shouldn’t expect him to toss 200 innings. But he’s still a very good pitcher even at this stage of his career. Kershaw returning to the Dodgers was the best part of the winter. My hope is that he goes into the hall of fame wearing Dodger blue.

Stacie: Clayton Kershaw turned 35-years old March 19 while at spring training in Glendale, AZ. I do think Clayton Kershaw will continue to pitch year-to-year depending on his health. The Dodgers seem fine with that. Kershaw will play this season on a one-year, $20 million contract.

There were some rumblings this spring about Kershaw’s health after he withdrew from playing in the WBC for Team USA. He had to pull out of the tournament due to his inability to attain insurance for his contract due to a history of back injuries. Kersh stated that he’s healthy.

Kershaw’s still an effective and formidable pitcher. Last season the supreme southpaw was selected to the National League All-Star team for the ninth time in his career. He posted a 2.28 ERA, 2.57 FIP and 0.942 WHIP in 126 ⅓ innings in 2022. He worked to cut down his home run rate (0.7 HR/9), and continued to rack up strikeouts at a 27.8% rate.

I’d like to see Kershaw retire with the Dodgers when he’s ready. I’m optimistic that he’ll continue to pitch dominantly in typical Kershaw form this season.

C70: Julio Urias is (as I write this) scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season. What kind of year do you think he will have and how likely is it the Dodgers extend him before he reaches the market?

Michael: Julio Urias put together a great season in 2022 that likely is good enough to win the Cy Young most years. He finished with a 2.16 ERA and 3.71 FIP. He always seems to outperform his FIP but I think we’ll see his ERA jump a bit this year to the 2.70 to 2.90 range. Still very good but I think he’s more of an elite number two starter than an ace.

With Julio Urias being a Scott Boras client I think the chances he signs an extension this offseason are as close to zero as possible. The last time the Dodgers signed a Scott Boras client to a long term deal was 2012 when they signed Hyun-Jin Ryu to a six year, $36 million dollar deal.

I think most Dodger fans including myself have come resigned to the idea that this will be Urias’ last season in LA. The Dodgers will make an honest effort to keep Urias but between being a Scott Boras client and a rumored run at Ohtani, it doesn’t seem Urias will be a Dodger in 2024.

Scott: Urias should have another excellent season, he’s one of the better pitchers in baseball. Unfortunately I think it’s unlikely he stays with the Dodgers. We’ve seen over the least 8 years that Andrew Friedman (with the exception of Mookie Betts) is not willing to give mega contracts to anyone, despite the market rate. Right now this is what the free agent market is, and this is how much the top 25-50 players are earning right now. It would be a massive mistake, especially with all of the injury concerns to the Dodger’s pitching staff to not bring Urias back next season. Enjoy him while he’s still wearing Blue, Dodger fans.

Stacie: The uncertain situation of Julio Urías, as far as him walking at the end of the season, is very disconcerting. Bob Nightingale of USA Today wrote that Urías is unhappy with the pitch limits the Dodgers have imposed on him throughout his career. The Dodgers have mismanaged Urías’ development at times in my opinion. I would hate to see him leave LA because of it.

Urías finished third-place in the NL Cy Young Award voting last year, and he’s been one of the best left-handers in the NL the last three seasons. He’s pitched 360 ⅔ innings in the last two seasons for the Dodgers, and has an ERA under 3.00 in that span.

Urías was such an important part of the Dodgers’ 2020 World Series championship, and I’ve always envisioned Urías to be a part of the Dodgers’ starting rotation for a long time.

C70: There’s not a lot of space, it doesn’t seem like, but is there a rookie or someone with limited MLB experience that could make an impact for LA this season?

Michael: This year will be the first year in a while where the Dodgers are going to have a couple spots for a rookie to make a big impact. Miguel Vargas who has predominantly played third base in the minors is being prepped to start at second base this season. Members of the Dodgers’ organization and prospect experts such as Keith Law all rave about Vargas’ hit tool, the one question is where he will play whether it’s second or third base. He will begin the 2023 season as the starting second baseman.

Josh Outman is another prospect who could get a shot at ample playing time in 2023. Outman is a centerfielder who played a handful of games with the Dodgers in 2022 and with Cody Bellinger gone, Outman will get a chance to win the centerfield job in spring training. Outman plays solid defense but his strikeout rate is the main concern if he wants to start.

The Dodgers also have Michael Busch who is a second baseman and like Vargas in that he can really hit but nobody really knows where he will play in the minors. If Vargas cannot handle second base defensively then maybe Busch gets a chance.
There are also several pitching prospects such as Gavin Stone and Bobby Miller who could get their opportunity this year whenever injuries occur to the starting rotation. This is the first year in a while where the Dodgers have plenty of opportunities for young players to make their mark and in a sense they are counting on a few of them to such as Vargas and Outman.

Scott: Yes, the Dodgers have a bunch of highly rated prospects, but the question is why they won’t call them up? Miguel Vargas is one that most are familiar with, and the club is preparing to play him at second base to open the season. James Outman, and outfielder is another toolsy young player the Dodgers are looking at. Michael Busch is a power bat that can play the corner infield spots, and the club has several pitching prospects banging on the door. Bobby Miller, Ryan Pepiot, and Gavin Stone are among the most MLB ready. Ditch the washed up veterans who are unlikely to stay healthy and let the kids play.

Stacie: Unfortunately space did open up after Gavin Lux suffered a season-ending injury in the third game of spring training with the Dodgers. Lux was trying to avoid a throw while running between second and third base. He buckled his knee, and he had to be carted off the field in pain. The Dodgers later revealed Lux suffered a torn ACL and sprained LCL and would likely miss the entire 2023 season.  It was a devastating blow to the Dodgers who had Lux slated into the starting shortstop position for opening day and beyond.  It looks as though the Dodgers will go with veteran Miguel Rojas at shortstop.

I did recently write about James Outman’s shot at making the Dodgers’ opening day roster after an impressive cup of coffee last year and solid start to his spring this year. Dave Roberts announced to the media at Camelback Ranch on March 23, Outman will indeed make the opening day roster. Look for Outman to be an intriguing rookie who could make a big impact for the Dodgers this season.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Michael: The 2023 Dodgers have a lot more uncertainty than the Dodger teams of previous seasons. Not only are the Padres now a legitimate threat to win the division, but the NL has several legitimate contenders in the Cardinals, Braves, Mets, and Phillies in addition to the Padres. The Dodgers were always going to win less than 111 games in 2023 but the question is how many fewer wins do they end up with?

The best case for the 2023 team is likely around 97-98 wins maybe touching 100 if the young players really step up and the team doesn’t get hit by injuries. The worse case scenario is likely 87-89 wins if the young players don’t step up, and injuries continue to plague the Dodgers as it has this spring with Lux and Gonsolin. The Dodgers will still be a playoff team as is but there is likely a 10-game swing in potential wins as they are currently set up.

Scott: There’s no way all of the veterans will stay healthy or produce all season. Most won’t make it through the dog days. The Dodgers are going to have to call up the young kids and let them learn on the job or it’s going to be a long year. They were supposed to get younger, but instead got considerably older and the talent level is noticeably weaker than last year. hopefully, most of the veterans contribute and stay healthy, or the kids come up and get their feet wet.

Best Case: The veterans stay healthy, some of the kids come up and rake, and the Dodgers win 90 games.
Worst case: Most of the veterans get hurt, Management refuses to call up most of the young players and the Dodgers win 80 games playing guys like
Yonny Hernandez, and David Peralta.

Most likely Case: The Dodgers deal with a lot of injuries while taking a look at 2 or 3 of the prospects. Vargas and Outman have breakout years. Kershaw defies his age, Urias continues to be one of the most underrated starting pitchers in baseball, Mookie and Freddie keep being stellar, Walker Buehler rejoins the team in September, Management puts out a ton of “all lefty matchup Lineups” that do nothing but infuriate everyone and the club limps to an 87-win season. That should be good enough to win a wild card, but I don’t see them winning the division seeing how stacked the Padres are. but I suppose anything is possible.

Stacie: The best case scenario is that the Dodgers edge out the San Diego Padres to win the NL West and go on to win it all for their eighth World Championship title.

The worst case is that they once again make it to the postseason and get booted in the first round.

The most likely scenario for the Dodgers in the 2023 season is that they are beat out by a strong Padres team and finish second in the NL West, but they go on to get to the World Series after scratching their way there. After two straight early exits and 217 wins, the Dodgers have learned that you can get far in the playoffs by doing a lot less in the regular season.

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