This is not the greatest song in the world, no
This is just a tribute

– “Tribute,” Tenacious D

 

The 2015 Los Angeles Dodgers were expected to be a powerhouse. A world beater. A champion in the making. But the team that represented the National League in the World Series was the New York Mets. And the team picked by those with money on it to win this year is the Chicago Cubs. The Dodgers’ farm system is top notch: Corey Seager is hyped and ascending to the starting shortstop job, pitcher Julio Urias is on the horizon and was in consideration for a rotation spot  Clayton Kershaw is the greatest pitcher alive, and the front office is loaded. And these are the underdogs.  

 


Over at FanGraphs, Dave Cameron says no and for the right reasons. Since Kershaw started pitching full seasons the Dodgers have won 95, 80, 82, 86, 92, 94, and 92 games. In the three full years since Guggenheim bought the club away from the clutches of Frank McCourt they’ve won no fewer than 92 games per season. Kershaw himself has been the most valuable member of the Dodgers according to Baseball Reference WAR four times since 2009. Interestingly this distinction has gone to a hitter just twice – both times Matt Kemp – since the start of the 2006 season

In an offseason where Zack Greinke was allowed to leave as a free agent, and offensive players like Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Yoenis Cespedes were available to add star power to a lineup that didn’t really have one despite the payroll, the Dodgers looked at what they had and made relatively smaller moves. The philosophy with the Dodgers has not been one of squandered resources but prosperity, striking a natural balance between present talent and future wins.

LAD Record wRC+ SP ERA- RP ERA- DRS UZR BsR Pay – $M
2013 .568 (7) 103 (8) 88 (2) 97 (22) 43 (4) 23 (9) -6 (20) 240 (2)
2014 .580 (4) 111 (2) 91 (4) 109 (25) 25 (9) -8 (23) -1 (18) 246 (1)
2015 .568 (6) 106 (3) 86 (3) 104 (25) -2 (17) 1 (17) -15 (26) 302 (1)

 

An American Tale: Friedman Goes West

The Dodgers front office has been transformed under the leadership of Andrew Friedman. Since the end of the ship burning days of Ned Colletti, a steady stream of talent has flowed into management: Farhan Zaidi, Josh Byrnes, Gary Hunsicker, and Alex Anthopoulos. Greg Maddux and Raul Ibanez are there as advisors. From ex-GMs to Hall of Famers, Friedman is collecting just as much talent in the offices as he is on the farm. As he did during his Tampa Bay Rays days, Friedman is making moves not just of quality but quantity.

Rather than telling his men to fight harder because they have no escape, he’s saying that Dodgers have Helen of Troy as an advanced scout and a thousand ships are being launched to continue bringing reinforcements. Is that the best plan? Can depth act as a healing salve to any number of problems? Why not just sign Greinke? Well, sometimes a boat’s a boat, but the mystery box (prospects, upside signings) can be anything, even a boat!

How the Dodgers react during the season will be the next test. A farm system brimming with talent can allow for any number of trade possibilities while the presumably still great financial capability could let the team pick up a player as it did with the Nick Punto trade.

The Manager

Dave Roberts is the latest in a string of managers to ascend to the top without much experience. It might still be too early to judge the successes and failures of Robin Ventura, Mike Matheny, Brad Ausmus, and Matt Williams, but Roberts, a former Dodger, is at the helm for 2016 regardless.

When Joe Maddon opted out of his deal with the Rays following the departure of then-GM Andrew Friedman, it made all the sense in the world for him to follow Friedman to the Dodgers and be the guide the club needed to take the next leap. But he ended up in Chicago to guide the Cubs’ young players through the development process. And the Dodgers still had Don Mattingly in the fold. Parting ways with the sideburn-challenged manager this winter, and considering Gabe Kapler among others, the club settled on Roberts.

His lack of experience could be a positive: Roberts may be eager to learn and be more open to new ideas as time goes on. With six former GMs in upper management, it’s a safe bet that the club will be working on strategies and plans than can help build the team and inform play on the field. He could also be overwhelmed and with a a few hundred million dollars of talent under his command, potential could be squandered. But Opening Day is a time to be hopeful.  And Roberts has a knack for thriving under pressure.

The Roster

Injuries are a part of baseball. The Dodgers know that as well as any team, which was why depth was part of the plan from day one. However, teams don’t usually have to prepare for depth to supplement the Opening Day roster.

Lineup

Adrian Gonzalez is the Dodgers’ rock. Although his batting average has fallen from the high .290s to the mid .270s over the past two years, the soon-to-be 34-year-old is good for 20 homers, 30 doubles, good defense, and more than 150 games.

The Dodgers made the interesting decision to bring back Chase Utley, and then, when his market failed to materialize, Howie Kendrick as well. Utley had a miserable 2015. Hitting .212/.286/.343 in 107 games he looked rough all year. This isn’t the guy who was an MVP candidate with the Phillies. But at least he’s healthy right now. Kendrick is battling a calf injury and starting the season on the DL is a real possibility. Which is a shame because Kendrick, like Gonzalez, is a machine: .290s batting average, gets on base at a decent clip, has double-digit power, and maybe a little speed left too.

Shortstop Corey Seager is hurt too – although he’s expected to be ready for Opening Day. The favorite to win NL Rookie of the Year heading into April, Seager impressed in a 27-game cup of coffee by hitting .337 with an OPS approaching 1.000.  That’s probably ambitious, but he can regress to more human expectations and still be great.

LA is, more-or-less, home to Disney. And like Pirates of the Caribbean’s “Bootstrap” Bill Turner, Justin Turner has pulled his career up by the bootstraps since escaping the New York Mets. Now a hitter capable of a .300 batting average and a high OBP, he’s got third base covered. This is the age-31 season for the late bloomer, but unless he pulls a Pablo Sandoval, there should be good years left in front of him.

Andre Ethier was a guy the Dodgers wanted to trade last spring and he ended up turning in a nice year. Unfortunately, rather than build on his rediscovered skill with the bat, a fractured tibia landed him right on the DL for the first few months of the 2016 season.

Joc Pederson blasted his way into the All-Star Game with 20 home runs before July but hit an abysmal .178/.317/.300 in the second half. His patience remained intact but it’s always an issue for a young player to struggle, especially on a team ready to win and with the resources to replace him internally. Which brings us to Trace Thompson. One year older than Pederson, Thompson can handle center field and has enough potential with the bat to get a long look should Pederson begin 2016 as he ended 2015. Highlight reels are eagerly awaiting Statcast footage tracing the routes Trace takes to the ball

Bounce-back candidate or wild card, outfielder Yasiel Puig  (as opposed to Dodgers pitcher Yaisel Sierra, and not to be confused with former Mets infielder Rich Puig) hit the ground running and homering his way into America. But after two seasons Puig suffered hamstring injuries that cost him just over half of 2015. And when he played he just wasn’t the same. Although .255/.322/.436 with 11 homers in half a season might be preferable to Jay Bruce’s .226/.294/.434 and 26 bombs in a full one, that’s not the guy the Dodgers need in a lineup where their bets bat has been the unassuming Adrian Gonzalez..

Carl Crawford seemed like a good idea when the Red Sox signed him after the 2011 season but his decline began as the ink dried. The Dodgers saw some of what he can do in a reasonably healthy 2014 but he’s trending down across the board. Unless he knows the magical powers Andre Ethier used to have such a rebound 2015…

Catcher Yasmani Grandal has missed time this spring with a forearm strain but he’s still likely to be ready for Opening Day. His .234/.353/.403 line disguises a season split into a .282/.401/.526 first half and a .162/.280/.218 second half. More of the former and the Dodgers will be quite satisfied.

Well looks like that was settled.

Pitching

Clayton Kershaw is still on the team. He’s not injured.

Let’s get the injuries out of the way first: Brett Anderson, Hyun-jin Ryu, Mike Bolsinger, and Brandon McCarthy are all on the disabled list to begin the season. Anderson took the Dodgers’ qualifying offer and proceeded to get hurt. Ryu is trying to overcome shoulder injuries and will missed all of 2015. Bolsinger was some of the depth in case other guys went down but a strained oblique puts his first start this season into the realm of the unknown. McCarthy is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and might not make it back on the mound this season.

Just to be safe in case something like the above happened, the Dodgers signed Scott Kazmir. Even after a revival in Cleveland and Oakland, he’s not the Kazmir he looked like he might become a decade ago as a prospect. His velocity has been down this spring and he left a start early over the weekend as a precaution. Even if he’s fine, Dodgers fans are holding their breath.

The Braves traded Alex Wood in part because he might be an injury waiting to happen. In his short stint with the Dodgers after the trade, Wood wasn’t himself. His strikeouts dropped for 2015 even before the trade though, so hopefully he finds his K pitch while he awaits rotation competition from those recovering on the DL.

Kenta Maeda came over from Japan through the posting process and signed a very unusual, incentive-laden eight-year, $25 million contract. He struck out 7.4 per 9 innings and recorded 3.87 Ks for each walk he issued in Japan. He’s looked good this spring and might be able to surprise the league a little.

Julio Urias is still just 19 years old but could make his major league debut in 2016. The lefty has been dominant in the minors but his career high in innings as a professional is still just 87, making a significant contribution this year hard to imagine. 2017 though…

Ross Stripling was only slightly on the radar entering this spring, having never pitched above Double A. In 67.1 innings in Double A last year the righty struck out under eight batters per nine but was stingy with the walks as well.

Kenley Jansen is back once more to lead the bullpen after a cancelled trade for Aroldis Chapman caused a flurry of news for a few days. He’ll be a free agent at the end of the season, which could be an interesting test of organizational philosophy regarding paying for saves. After all, Friedman was known to switch it up with the Rays.

J.P. Howell is a holdover from the Rays days and continues to be death to lefties.

Yimi Garcia enjoyed a 56-inning stint with the Dodgers in 2015 and limited walks – 1.8/9 – while striking out nearly 11 men per inning.

Jose De Leon is the “old man” at 23 when compared to Urias among Dodgers pitching prospects but he cruised through Double A and like his left-handed counterpart, could be in line for major league starts this year.

The Dodgers are in many ways the overdog, but they still have a lot of unknowns. The disabled list contingent is strong and even with aggressive returns, the club still needs success from their backups to hold ground in a division where the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks could be challenges. Plus there’s that TV blackout issue  still causing trouble in the land of television production.

If the injuries don’t sink this team and Joc Pederson and Yasmani Grandal can put up full, productive seasons, the Dodgers can feast on a weak National League – including two teams in their own division – to win another division title. Pulling off a big trade to reinforce a strong collection of talent can’t be ruled out, and as the saying goes “a return from the DL is like a trade too.”

Wins predicted: 95.

As the philosopher Jack Black would agree, the 2016 Dodgers are not the greatest team in the world, they are just a tribute.

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