The 2018 Dodgers entered the season with expectations through the roof. They had won the NL West five straight years and were coming off a 104-win season in which they won their first NL pennant since 1988 but also lost Game 7 of the World Series and had to watch the Astros celebrate on their home turf. For six weeks, the 2018 season was a total disaster. Justin Turner was hurt, Corey Seager had been lost for the season, Kenley Jansen got off to a terrible start and the team was a woeful 16-26 through May 16.
Things would turn, obviously. They went 76-45 the rest of the way, won their sixth straight NL West title and second straight NL pennant. They would lose the World Series, though, which means there is still unfinished business in 2019.
- A.J. Pollock, CF
- Corey Seager, SS
- Justin Turner, 3B
- Cody Bellinger, RF
- Max Muncy, 1B
- Chris Taylor, 2B
- Joc Pederson, LF
- Austin Barnes, C
Trying to make a set lineup for the Dodgers is an unenviable task. Their most common order(s) last season were used twice. Seriously. No lineup was even used three times in the regular season by Dave Roberts (and that’s even with a generic “pitcher” entry instead of a specific hurler). We’ll discuss all the options later.
Kershaw’s looking increasingly likely to begin the season on the injured list, formerly known as the disabled list, which would slide Ross Stripling into the rotation. Yes, the Dodgers are so deep an All-Star is their sixth starter. Lefty Julio Urias could also figure prominently here, too.
Championship or bust pressure
It might feel like I’m hammering the point home too much, but it’s a big deal. Six straight years of playoffs and two straight in the World Series without a ring means the team has to enter the season with just one goal. That’s it. Anything less and the season is a failure. The cognitive dissonance between this and the Rays fans seemingly throwing a parade for a 90-win team that missed the playoffs exudes a certain “victim of our own success” from the Dodgers’ point of view, but that’s the reality. The bar has been raised to the point that losing in the World Series is a bad season for the Dodgers.
We’ve heard John Smoltz during World Series broadcasts discuss how much pressure the World Series feels like and it’s not just the games themselves. He’s talked about how players will think about how long a road it was to get there and how long and hard a road it would be to get back. They start preparing for this in mid-February and it culminates in late October or even early November and there are games almost every day.
Computer projection systems might treat the baseball season as a computer project, but the players are human beings and this is real pressure. The talent will win out here in the regular season. The Dodgers are going to win the NL West. Come playoff time, though, the NL is likely to be a tough road and there are AL powerhouses. And yet, if the Dodgers aren’t hoisting the trophy at the end of the season, it’s a failure. That’s tough, maybe even unfair, but — as they say — life ain’t fair.
The offseason was interesting. They retained Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-jin Ryu, let Manny Machado and Yasmani Grandal walk, traded away Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp and signed Joe Kelly and A.J. Pollock. They did not, however, sign Bryce Harper (or Machado, who would’ve been a weird fit).
After everything we just discussed, the Dodgers should have been in “(screw) you” mode this offseason, right? Instead, they did a bunch of furniture re-arranging and their big signing played 12 games in 2016, 112 in 2017 and 113 in 2018. In those three seasons, Pollock has hit .261/.323/.473 (102 OPS+). He’ll help defensively in center and I suppose that was the rationale. Catcher seems like a weak spot and they better be sure about Verdugo.
Remember on Breaking Bad when Mike sat down with Walt and Jesse and explained how half-measures don’t work and why he doesn’t even attempt them anymore? This offseason for the Dodgers just felt like a half-measure.
Incredible roster depth
Let’s drop the negative and get positive now. Remember up in the lineup part when I talked about how few identical lineups Roberts runs out there? It’s because he can. Aside from catcher, look at all the legitimate starting options at each position:
1B: Muncy, Bellinger, Freese, Turner
2B: Taylor, Muncy, Hernandez
SS: Seager, Taylor
3B: Turner, Muncy, Freese
LF: Pederson, Verdugo, Taylor, Hernandez, Bellinger
CF: Pollock, Bellinger, Taylor, Hernandez, Pederson
RF: Bellinger, Verdugo, Hernandez, Pederson, Taylor
On any given day, there are three guys on the bench who could start for probably at least half the other teams in the league and there is so much versatility.
The pitching staff has it, too. Take note of what I said above, that Stripling was an All-Star last year and he’s the sixth starter. Many teams would be dreaming on Urias as their third or fourth starter and hoping he makes the proverbial leap this season. Instead, he’s the seventh option.
We’ll see it with the bullpen, too. The Dodgers will use the injured list all season to manipulate the roster and keep the arms as fresh as possible.
Plenty of talent, too
With Kershaw past his prime (still very good, obviously) and Seager coming off Tommy John surgery, it’s fair to say the Dodgers don’t have any current superstars.
What if we lower the admittedly subjective bar here to simply “star?” Kershaw, Jansen, Seager, Turner and Bellinger are stars. Buehler will firmly establish himself as one this year. Pollock could be a star.
Then we’re onto the likes of Ryu, Stripling, Muncy and Taylor, who are outstanding players when viewed through the lens of them being part of the supporting cast on this ballclub.
The Dodgers are the deepest team in baseball and few can match their level of talent. That’s quite a combo, no?
Is the rotation sturdy, though?
Thanks to back injuries, Kershaw has averaged 25 starts each of the last three seasons. Last year he went from elite ace to “just” a very good starter. He’s now 31 years old with over 2,000 regular-season innings and 150-plus in the playoffs. He’s dealing with a sore left shoulder this spring.
Hill will be 39 this year and has a history of blisters.
Ryu hasn’t made 30 starts in a season since 2013.
Maeda has shown himself basically a league-average starter.
Stripling had a 6.41 ERA in his last eight regular-season outings in 2018.
There are certainly question marks. The upside rests on the shoulders of Buehler, who has just 23 MLB starts, and Urias, who is coming off major surgery.
I often say when a team has lots of question marks that not every question can be answered in the positive, but it swings both ways. While the Dodgers’ rotation might seem flimsy, not even question will be asked in the negative and there’s good depth here. They’ll deal with injuries, but they will be able to handle them, too.
Best in the NL
SportsLine has the Dodgers winning 100 games, which takes the West by 20 and would be the best NL record by seven games. It has them with a 33.5 percent chance to win the NL and 17.8 percent chance to win it all.
Subjectively with the eye test, I agree that the Dodgers are the best team in the NL. It’s clear cut, but that doesn’t mean they can skate to the World Series without a challenge. There will be a challenge and the best team on paper in the spring doesn’t always win. Another truth: Being the best team is pretty good, too. The Dodgers are the best team in the NL.
Now it’s time for them to go out and get a ring.