Does Dodgers' Expensive Roster Have Enough Firepower to Take Down Cubs?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 14, 2016

Retaining Kenley Jansen helps, but how much?
Retaining Kenley Jansen helps, but how much?Harry How/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Dodgers are going to be good in 2017. For fans of the franchise, this must be at once comforting and beside the point.

The Dodgers being good has been a fact of life for the last four seasons. They've averaged 92 wins per year, captured four National League West titles and made two trips to the National League Championship Series. That's one more than the Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos have made in 48 years of existence.

The problem, of course, has been ascending from good to great.

Coming close to the World Series is nice, but you know what they say about coming close only counting in horseshoes and hand grenades. It's been 28 years since the Dodgers both went to the World Series and won it—a long streak for such a storied franchise.

Not to mention one that's been keeping its payrolls well north of $200 million since 2013. And the Dodgers recently ensured they'll be right there again in 2017.

They committed $48 million to left-handed starter Rich Hill at the winter meetings last week. On Monday, they agreed to spend another $80 million on closer Kenley Jansen and $64 million on third baseman Justin Turner. Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com calculated that Los Angeles is slated for a $230 million luxury-tax payroll in 2017. And that's with holes still remaining on its roster.

My initial take on the Dodgers filling three big holes by re-signing Hill, Jansen and Turner was that they secured a spot among the NL's elite clubs in 2017. I stopped short of putting them on the same level with the Chicago Cubs because, well, the Cubs are really good.

Photographic evidence of the Chicago Cubs' goodness.
Photographic evidence of the Chicago Cubs' goodness.Jason Miller/Getty Images

They won 103 games in 2016. They then dispatched the Dodgers in the NLCS en route to their first World Series title in 108 years. Their roster has since taken some hits—but none they can't recover from. It's that simple.

Or seemed to be, anyway. After the Jansen and Turner signings, FanGraphs' projections for MLB's top teams in 2017 looked like this:

2017 Projected Standings
RankTeam2016 W-L2017 W-LRun Differential
1Cubs103-5895-67+131
T-1Dodgers91-7195-67+131
3Red Sox93-6993-69+119
4Astros84-7890-72+92
T-4Nationals95-6790-72+89
FanGraphs

It's advised to take these figures with a grain or two of salt. But if we're going to read into them—and we are—the general idea on display isn't totally unbelievable.

The Cubs can look to Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber to replace Dexter Fowler's defense and offense in the aggregate, but his departure left them without a leadoff hitter. Wade Davis is arguably as good of a closer as Aroldis Chapman, but he's not markedly better.

Elsewhere in the bullpen, the addition of Koji Uehara may be offset by the loss of Travis Wood. The Cubs have added Brian Duensing to fill his shoes, but he likely won't match Wood's extreme lefty-slaying ability. Based on his track record, Mike Montgomery, who is stepping into Jason Hammel's rotation spot, provides no real gain and another loss for the bullpen.

While the Cubs have made seemingly no improvements, the Dodgers have made at least one big one.

Their starting rotation wasn't an abomination in 2016, but it was a source of consternation for much of the year. Kenta Maeda was the one guy who stayed healthy and consistent. Clayton Kershaw was brilliant when he pitched, but a back injury limited him to 21 starts. Hill was excellent after he came over from the Oakland A's in a deadline trade, but he made only six starts. Elsewhere, it was a revolving door of starters who had varying degrees of success.

Clayton Kershaw struck out 161 more batters than he walked in 2016.
Clayton Kershaw struck out 161 more batters than he walked in 2016.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It should be a different story in 2017. If nothing else, the Dodgers can rest easy knowing their ace is OK.

"I had an injury, and it's not injured anymore, so now you keep going," Kershaw told Ken Gurnick of MLB.com last week.

If Kershaw is his usual self and Hill makes at least 20 starts, the Dodgers will have one of the best one-two punches in the majors for most of 2017. After that, they'll have Maeda's reliability and healthy versions of Scott Kazmir, Alex Wood and Brandon McCarthy. They also have quite the wild card in Julio Urias, who quietly excelled in 2016 after taking a minute to find his footing in the majors.

As such, there could be something to the early projection that the Dodgers will have the best starting pitching in the league in 2017. The club's lineup and bullpen, meanwhile, should be no worse than they were in 2016.

The former only has a hole at second base, where Chase Utley left a relatively low bar to clear. And by retaining Jansen, Los Angeles ensured games will continue to flow to one of the sport's best relief pitchers.

The CliffsNotes version: The 2017 Dodgers will be a lot like the 2016 Dodgers, except without the starting pitching woes. That plus the non-upgrades in Chicago could close the talent gap between the two teams.

At least on paper, anyway. But while that may not mean much for the regular season, a potential postseason matchup is a different story.

Kershaw and the Dodgers know as well as anyone that the postseason is a different animal.
Kershaw and the Dodgers know as well as anyone that the postseason is a different animal.Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The power of the postseason is its ability to magnify everything, including all the little details of each team's roster. That tends to turn things that are mere nitpicks in the regular season into fatal flaws in October.

Which takes us back to the Dodgers' loss to the Cubs in the NLCS.

One of the flaws Chicago exploited was Los Angeles' lack of quality bullpen depth underneath Jansen. It had been good enough to that point, but the Cubs revealed the middle-relief parade of Joe Blanton, Pedro Baez, Ross Stripling and others to be about as unspectacular as you'd expect a parade of those names to be. They surrendered 18 runs in nine innings of work.

With only Vidal Nuno joining the mix this winter, this issue still needs solving. The free-agent market still has solid options (Greg Holland, Brad Ziegler, Sergio Romo, Joe Smith) who could help.

The bigger issue in need of attention, though, is the Dodgers' weakness against left-handed pitching.

It was punctuated by an MLB-low OPS against southpaws in the regular season, and it bit them again in the NLCS. The Dodgers offense was undone by its lack of power, and Baseball Savant shows the problem was worse against Chicago's lefties (.277 SLG%) than its righties (.320 SLG%).

The Dodgers have added Darin Ruf and his .921 career OPS against lefties, but that's only one part-time bat in a sea of mostly left-handed hitters. Their payroll may be too overextended for a run at any of the free-agent options who could help, but the trade market includes some affordable alternatives: Brian Dozier and Ryan Braun, for example.

If the Dodgers want to leave good enough alone, they'll enter 2017 with a team that should deliver another 90-plus win season and NL West title. But if the idea is to win the World Series, they need a team that can get through the Cubs.

For that, just a little bit more is required.

    

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. Salary and contract data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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