Dodgers Tighten Grip on NL West with Howie Kendrick Signing

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Dodgers Tighten Grip on NL West with Howie Kendrick Signing
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Dodgers have won three straight National League West titles, and they really didn't need to do anything else this winter to have a good shot at making it four in a row in 2016.

But why settle for "good enough" when you can go for "even better"?

This line of reasoning would seem to be responsible for the Dodgers' latest move. As Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports was first to report, the Dodgers are bringing back veteran second baseman Howie Kendrick on a two-year deal.

According to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, Kendrick's deal guarantees him $20 million. That's only a few million more dollars than he would have gotten if he'd accepted the $15.8 million qualifying offer at the start of the winter, which would have been for only one year.

So, behold the rarest of finds on the free-agent market: a steal.

Going into the offseason, Kendrick figured to get roughly the same sort of deal as fellow second baseman Daniel Murphy. He's nearly two years older than Murphy, sure, but Kendrick has clearly had the better career.

So much for that. Murphy signed a three-year deal with the Washington Nationals that will pay him $37.5 million. No thanks to his ties to draft-pick compensation and his long wait on the open market, Kendrick is only getting a little more than half of that.

Too bad for Kendrick, but good for the Dodgers. Because lest we forget, they're getting a pretty good player in addition to a pretty good deal.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Kendrick is coming off a 2015 season that admittedly wasn't his best. Injuries limited the 32-year-old to 117 games, and, at least according to the advanced metrics, his defense took a big step back.

Kendrick remained an effective hitter, though. He hit a solid .295, making it three straight years in which he's hit better than .290. He did this the way he always does: by putting his bat on the ball and, as Brooks Baseball can show, wearing out the opposite field with line drives.

Those last two habits make Kendrick a classic No. 2 hitter, which is mainly where now-former Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly used him in 2015. In 2016, new Dodgers manager Dave Roberts figures to do the same.

“He’s a heck of a ballplayer,” Roberts said of Kendrick before the news hit the wire on Friday, via Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times. “I know that he enjoyed his time here last year. If something does work out, it makes us a better ball club.”

At the least, Kendrick certainly makes the Dodgers lineup better. Slot him into the No. 2 hole in the lineup, and you get a pretty impressive unit. Here's Dodgers Nation with a sneak peek:

Granted, there are some question marks present in the Dodgers lineup. Justin Turner and Yasmani Grandal were pretty banged up by the end of 2015. Yasiel Puig was banged up for most of 2015 and wasn't at his best when he was able to play. Joc Pederson struggled down the stretch of his rookie season, and Corey Seager has fewer than 30 major league games under his belt.

Despite these questions, though, the potential is as clear as day. By adjusted OPS, every single position player in the Dodgers' projected Opening Day lineup was an above-average hitter in 2015. And going into 2016, a few of them have the goods to be way above average.

It's no wonder that the early (well, not too early at this point) projections see good things in store for the Dodgers offense in 2016. According to FanGraphs, the Dodgers are projected to score the most runs per game of any NL West team (except the Colorado Rockies, who play half their games at elevation).

It wasn't even that close before Friday, but adding Kendrick gave them a nudge anyway. And in addition to padding the Dodgers offense, the Kendrick signing also pads their depth.

The Dodgers will now move Chase Utley to the bench, where they already had under-the-radar 2015 breakout star Enrique Hernandez. Another spot on the bench will go to whoever is not playing between Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier, and the Dodgers will also have Trayce Thompson, Scott Van Slyke and Alex Guerrero to call on.

Of course, anyone out there who's not sold on the Dodgers going into 2016 is probably looking more at their pitching.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Dodgers did lose Zack Greinke, after all, and replaced him with depth rather than another ace. Neither Scott Kazmir nor Kenta Maeda figures to be anywhere near as good. They also haven't upgraded a bullpen that has something of a soft underbelly.

However, the Dodgers' pitching projects to be a lot better than you may think.

FanGraphs' projections have Dodgers pitchers near the top of the league in wins above replacement in 2016. That doesn't mean they will be there, mind you, but it's a good reminder that the Dodgers still have the best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw. Kazmir and Maeda should at least be serviceable, as should Brett Anderson and Hyun-jin Ryu. And late in games, Kenley Jansen is basically automatic.

Which team will win the NL West title in 2016?

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None of this is to say the Dodgers aren't going to get any competition in the NL West. The Arizona Diamondbacks already had a terrific offense and defense, and now they have some pitching after stealing Greinke and trading for Shelby Miller. The San Francisco Giants, meanwhile, figure to once again be the Dodgers' primary nemesis.

The Giants didn't make the postseason in 2015, but they likely would have if they'd had some starting pitching depth to help support the excellent Madison Bumgarner and a lineup led by Buster Posey and baseball's most star-studded infield. They corrected that problem by signing Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. For good measure, they also added Denard Span to their outfield.

But though the Giants should be a dangerous team in 2016, you can still wonder if they have quite enough depth.

There's a steep drop-off in their starting rotation after Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija, and there'll be trouble in their outfield if Span, Angel Pagan and/or Hunter Pence have their 2015 injury troubles follow them into 2016. Question marks like these didn't keep yours truly from rating the Giants as a more dangerous World Series contender than the Dodgers, but they're not built as well for the 162-game grind of the regular season.

In so many words: Yeah, we can probably trust the projections on how the NL West is going to shake out in 2016. The Dodgers project to be the best team in the division by a comfortable margin.

And after basically completing the ensemble by re-signing Kendrick, they sure do look the part.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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