Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we’ve lived. – Jean-Luc Picard

The saying goes that flags fly forever, which is a nice sentiment to live by for those who have won. But a baseball team – its players, fans, and ownership – are not forever. They are ephemeral. The spirit of the team lasts from season to season but there is no momentum from a tough loss like the Dodgers falling to the Houston Astros four games to three in the World Series to bounce them back to that spot in 2018.

Cody Bellinger’s NL Rookie of the Year award tells us that at 21 he was a star but it makes no promises that 2018 will be as bright. He might follow in the footsteps of Dustin Pedroia and turn in an MVP season for his sophomore year. Or he might not.

In an offseason that has been described as slow, stalled, and glacial, the hot stove has only reached warm on a handful of occasions and baseball’s biggest markets – Los Angeles and New York – have not been exceptions to the limited spending in free agency we’ve witnessed. The Dodgers finished at the top among 40-man Year End salaries each of the last four years (per Cot’s Baseball Contracts). But with the exception of a $291 million payroll in 2015 that really made it look like the sky could be the limit, the team has stayed within a more reasonable range of between $252 and $257 million in each of the other seasons.

The Dodgers’ biggest transaction this offseason? A swap of players from the Island of Misfit Toys with the Atlanta Braves. Sure, even just a few years ago a headline that included Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, and Charlie Culberson (and about $5 million cash) on one side and Matt Kemp on the other would have seemed outrageous. Did Kemp ascend from his 2011 MVP-caliber season to become a Trout-Kershaw two-way player? (Narrator: He didn’t.) It was instead all about the payroll flexibility it would create. For the Dodgers, as five-time offenders of the luxury tax threshold, the penalty was 50% for each dollar spent above the “cap.” Falling under for just one season will reset that to the lowest levels next time they ramp up their spending.

In a way, this trade is how all rebuilding teams should operate – take on salary while your payroll is low for something in return. The Braves didn’t exactly acquire much talent in this particular arrangement, but potentially a team like the Braves could hold out for prospects the next time a contender really wants to stop those tax penalties. But this is the Dodgers; they shouldn’t have to play financial games. Just sign people! Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are both likely to reach free agency at the end of the 2018 season and Clayton Kershaw may be looking for a new contract too.

 

Offense

It feels like we’re being pecked to death by ducks! – Kathryn Janeway

Despite making his debut in 2015 and not playing in more than 21 games at the major league level until 2017, catcher Austin Barnes is just one year younger than the veteran Yasmani Grandal who is entering his seventh season in the big leagues. While Grandal faded a bit in the second half (.267/.319/.469 vs .217/.292/.444), Barnes – in about half the playing time – was more consistent than his slash lines would indicate (.283/.397/.538 vs .295/.419/.438). As a catching tandem, the Dodgers are in good shape for 2018.

Cody Bellinger was a revelation at first base. As a rookie he led the Dodgers in home runs (39) and slugging (.581). His breakout came at exactly the right time: veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez was limited to just 71 games and had a dismal season. With the club shipping A-Gon to the Braves – who promptly released him – first base is now truly without conflict in LA. It’s Bellinger’s time to shine. Filling the role of the slugging first baseman Gonzalez never really became, he’s the quintessential “big bat” every team needs in their lineup.

As for Adrian Gonzalez, he signed on with the Mets. After a disappointing .242/.287/.355 during his brief time on the field last year he’s hoping to be healthy to contribute. Gonzalez was the keystone to the Dodgers’ legendary 2012 waiver deal with the Boston Red Sox and in a way began the current run of success. He didn’t led LA to a championship but he shepherded through the core that can go out and win.

Logan Forsythe, who came to the Dodgers from Tampa Bay last January for Jose De Leon, has replaced Chase Utley as the Dodgers second baseman. After a sputtering start to his career in San Diego, Forsythe put up two solid years for the Rays averaging .273/.347/.444 with 18 home runs. In each of the three prior seasons, Forsythe hit six homers. Then last season, while the ball was very much alive around the league, he regressed back to six home runs. His home run to fly-ball rate fell from 14.7% in 2016 to just 7.1% in 2017. Although it stood only slightly higher at 9.7% during his 17-homer 2015 campaign. 2017 also continued a three-year trend in his rising strikeout percentage: 18.0 to 22.4 to 24.8%. This mirrored a three-year decline in batting average. However, Forsythe’s OBP has fluctuated from .359 to .333 and back to .351 in the same span. With free agency approaching, can he keep his on-base skills while rediscovering his power stroke?

Chase Utley may still return to the Dodgers as a backup at first and second base and as a bat off the bench. The 39-year-old hit .236/.324/.405 last season and would be returning for a sixteenth major league season. He’s not the .900 OPS Utley or the double digit stolen base threat but he could still chip in 20 doubles and 8 to 10 home runs along with his veteran leadership in the clubhouse.

As a follow-up to his NL Rookie of the Year winning 2016, Corey Seager was once again brilliant. .295/.375/.479 with 22 homers as a 23-year-old shortstop was everything the team could hope for. A back sprain cost Seager a spot on the NLCS roster – although the Dodgers made it to the World Series anyway – and his seven World Series games, small sample of course, weren’t up to his normal standards. With an offseason to get healthy, Seager should be ready to go. This isn’t the lineup spot to worry about.

Justin “Tormund” Turner is one year into the four-year deal he signed to stay in Dodger blue and the contract is off to a good start: .322/.415/.530 included career highs for OBP and SLG. Turner also posted his best walk (10.9) and strikeout (10.3) percentages. While his BABIP was on the high end for his career (.326), his average in the majors is .312 so it’s not outrageous. By Baseball-Reference WAR last season, Turner was worth 5.7 wins. Since coming to LA he’s been pegged at 4.3, 3.9, 5.0, and now 5.7 WAR after a previous high of 0.8 in his final season with the Mets. Winter is almost over and Turner is coming to make pitchers look bad. And play some third base.

What can you say about Chris Taylor? Acquired from the Seattle Mariners for Zach Lee in June 2016 he rose from nothing to be a sensation. A breakout .288/.354/.496 with 21 homers and 17 steals. Sure, a .361 BABIP may lead to a bit of regression for the center fielder but Joc Pederson is still around and capable of reclaiming his old spot.

Speaking of Joc, he’s still only 25 and just one year removed from back to back 25-homer seasons. The good news: Pederson cut his strikeout rate to 21.1% from three years in the upper 20s. With just a .241 BABIP after .262 and .296 he could break right back onto the power hitting outfield track.

#PuigYourFriend #PuigYourFan #PuigTheBest Yasiel Puig roared back to life in 2017. Career high 28 homers. Career high 15 steals. Watch out National League.

Andrew Toles is still in the outfield mix should his recovery from a torn ACL go well.

Matt Kemp is inexplicably a Dodger again. He hasn’t been released. He hasn’t been traded. Watch this space.

 

Pitching

There is only one thing I want from you. Find something you love, then do it the best you can. – Benjamin Sisko

Sisko could just have easily been talking about Clayton Kershaw when he spoke those words. An injury-shortened season cost Kershaw his fourth Cy Young award. A seven-inning, one-run, 11-strikeout performance against the Astros in the World Series gave us the Kershaw playoff start we always wanted. More of those, please!

Kenta Maeda threw just 134 innings during the regular season but was a weapon out of the bullpen during the playoffs. Perhaps the Dodgers can manage his workload to allow for some creativity next fall – and why not since #bullpenning is the thing?

Rich Hill is an enigma. Will he have no-hit stuff? Will he succumb to injury? Both? He is the answer to every question. The top result in every poll. He’ll turn 38 before the season begins and looked like he was done with baseball when he was 33. His WHIPs are low, his strikeout-to-walk ratio high. His best season by bWAR was 2007. 2017 was his first year with over 100 innings since…2007. We can’t get enough of Rich Hill.

Speaking of bouncing back…Alex Wood had his best season since 2014. He lowered his walk rate to 6.2% – a new best – and kept his strikeouts at just under 25%, striking out nearly four batters for each free pass. In 2017 he made his first All-Star Game and earned his first Cy Young votes, finishing in ninth. If he can stay healthy the Dodgers could be in good shape with Kershaw, Hill, and Wood as the top three lefties in the rotation.

Top three lefties. Yup. There’s another one. Hyun-Jin Ryu is still with the Dodgers. After missing all of 2015 and making just one 4.2 inning appearance in 2016 Ryu was back to make 24 starts. The soon-to-be 31-year-old only reached six innings eight times and never finished more than seven. Would it be nice to have Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir around for extra depth? Possibly.

Wunderkind Julio Urias had season-ending shoulder surgery in June. A ruptured capsule is enough to put his future in jeopardy.

The class of the bullpen – and maybe all relievers – is Kenley Jansen. With an absurd 15.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 109 Ks in just 68.1 innings, he’s unhittable.

Scott Alexander, acquired from the White Sox for a package built around Luis Avilan has been favorably compared to Zach Britton. Given his five years of team control, the southpaw ground-ball specialist should be a welcome addition to the bullpen for a long time.

Yu Darvish may be the Dodgers’ white whale this winter. He reportedly wants to be back on the team, but as other free agents have found out this year, offers just haven’t been flowing as much as in the past.

 

Manager

Genius doesn’t work on an assembly line basis. . . . You can’t simply say, “Today I will be brilliant.” – James T. Kirk

It’s hard to believe but Dave Roberts is entering the final year of his three-year contract, although there is an option for 2019. In that time he’s managed to get the Dodgers to the NLCS twice and the World Series once. Roberts picked up the Manager of the Year award for the National League in 2016 and was the runner up in 2017 to fellow NL West manager Torey Lovullo of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Roberts’ managerial abilities haven’t been universally excellent of course. But there has been plenty to like even when everything doesn’t work out. Roberts is their guy. He’s the face the team wants to run its clubhouse, write its lineups, and manager the game on the field. How much is a manager really worth? It’s hard to say, but as a number of teams found out this winter, sometimes it’s best just to rotate for a fresh start. The Red Sox unceremoniously parted ways with John Farrell after the team’s only two consecutive division crowns. The Yankees let Joe Girardi leave after what can only be called a remarkable season in what should have been a rebuilding year in the Bronx. How much success is needed to protect a manager?

If the Dodgers don’t win the World Series does it make sense to move on? Probably not. But it’s possible they’ll pick up his option well in advance to give him that peace of mind.

 

Win forecast:

98, World Series champion. I’ve been more conservative in the past on win totals and the Dodgers find a way to add more. I’m buying in on that this year. Even with developments in Arizona, Colorado, and San Francisco, the Dodgers are the class of the NL West. The Cubs and surprisingly retooled Milwaukee Brewers are a step down from LA and while the Washington Nationals are good, the rest of the NL East is not particularly fearsome. That leaves a lot of baseball for the Dodgers against opponents who are outmatched before the first pitch is even thrown. If Clayton Kershaw is healthy, the young stars surrounding him on the field will elevate him to the World Series once more and this time they will win.

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