Los Angeles Dodgers: Complete 2017 Season Preview, Predictions
The Los Angeles Dodgers have won four straight NL West titles and, presumably, would be all too happy to make it five in a row in 2017.
But the real prize remains the World Series title that's eluded them for 29 years.
It's no secret how hell-bent the Dodgers are on winning it all. They've spent over $1 billion on their payrolls since 2013 and are going to have an expensive roster once again in 2017. At first glance, it's a roster fully capable of taking the organization to where it wants to be.
But, hey, who's happy with just a first glance? With Opening Day upon us, it's high time for a deeper dive into how the Dodgers are shaping up for 2017 and also how far their season will go.
Projected Starting Lineup (w/2016 Stats)
This is how the Dodgers should line up against right-handers anyway. And it's a good look.
The best of the bunch is Corey Seager, whose .877 OPS and 26 home runs made him an MVP contender last season—not to mention the runaway choice for Rookie of the Year. At just 22, he's one of baseball's best young players.
Justin Turner, Joc Pederson and Yasmani Grandal pack a punch as well. Adrian Gonzalez is past his prime but still has a nose for the RBI.
The big new addition is Logan Forsythe, who arrived in a January trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. He figures to be an offensive upgrade over Chase Utley, who had just a .716 OPS last year. Forsythe has averaged a .791 OPS over the past two seasons.
The wild cards are Andrew Toles and Yasiel Puig. Toles will help if he recaptures the magic of his surprising 2016 breakthrough. Puig will help if he turns the clock back to 2013 or 2014. Place your bets.
Not to be lost in this discussion is how this lineup will prevent runs. It's mostly the same defense that tied for fourth in efficiency in 2016. Grandal's strike-framing talent should also help keep runs off the board.
Projected Bench (w/2016 Stats)
|Scott Van Slyke||OF/INF||R||.225||.292||.314||-0.2|
Following the latest round of cuts, the Dodgers' bench is all set.
Austin Barnes will back up Grandal. Utley will share time with Forsythe. Enrique Hernandez will play all over the outfield and the infield.
Franklin Gutierrez and Scott Van Slyke, meanwhile, will be needed against left-handed pitching. Hitting lefties is their specialty on offense, a skill that is very much of use to the Dodgers—more on that later.
Starting Rotation Preview
Projected Rotation (w/2016 Stats)
Clayton Kershaw will go first. He's the best pitcher in baseball, so things are already off to a good start.
Rich Hill is a darn good No. 2 starter. Although the 37-year-old will fall short of being a 200-inning workhorse, he's dominated with a 2.00 ERA in 24 starts since reappearing in the majors in 2015.
After him comes Kenta Maeda, who was a pleasant surprise in his transition from Japanese baseball to MLB in 2016. He only logged 175.2 innings in 32 starts. His smoke-and-mirrors act held hitters to a .229 average and .649 OPS.
The last two spots aren't as solid. Hyun-Jin Ryu was good in 2013 and 2014 but missed 2015 with a shoulder injury and returned to make only one start in 2016. Tommy John surgery and other injuries have limited Brandon McCarthy to 14 appearances since 2015.
However, those two won't make or break the back end of the rotation.
Left-handers Alex Wood and Julio Urias, formerly a top prospect, are there to step in if and when the Dodgers need them to. If fellow lefty Scott Kazmir gets his health in order, he'll be there as well.
There should be enough here for the Dodgers' rotation to rank among the best in ERA again.
Projected Bullpen (w/2016 Stats)
Los Angeles' bullpen led baseball with a 3.35 ERA last season. This year's pen has a different look to it, but it's not as bad as it could have been.
Although it cost the Dodgers $80 million to re-sign Kenley Jansen, they couldn't afford to lose him. For his career, he's put up a 2.20 ERA and held hitters to a .509 OPS. There aren't many closers like that.
Grant Dayton is the other guy worth getting excited about. He came out of nowhere to strike out 39 batters in 26.1 innings last season. He'll be the primary lefty setup man while Sergio Romo, a veteran with a 2.58 career ERA, serves as the primary right-handed setup man.
Fellow right-hander Pedro Baez will be along once he gets over a nagging thumb injury. With a 3.08 ERA to his name, he's generally a solid reliever when he's not taking forever to throw the ball.
Otherwise, the bullpen the Dodgers are taking into the season is there largely by circumstance.
Chris Hatcher and Luis Avilan are out of options. Wood got bumped to the pen when McCarthy was chosen for the final rotation spot. Ross Stripling has appeared to be headed in the same direction for a while.
Keys for a Successful Season
Corey Seager's Encore
Seager doesn't necessarily need to be better for the Dodgers to go places in 2017. But since they were still only seventh in the NL in runs last season despite his brilliance, getting more out of him wouldn't hurt.
This might not be asking too much. Seager is the best young offensive shortstop since Rogers Hornsby, and seemingly every at-bat he has is a master class on hitting. He's likely not done exploring his upside.
The Kershaw-Hill 1-2 Punch
The top of the Dodgers' rotation looks exactly the same as the ERA leaderboard for starters with at least 100 innings since 2015: Kershaw first and Hill second.
What Kershaw can do with a baseball needs no further elaboration. Hill's recent dominance might look like a fluke, except he's truly earned it. Only Phil Hughes has been more aggressive in the strike zone, and Hill is right there with Kershaw with the late movement he gets on his pitches.
It's a heck of a one-two punch on paper. It should be in reality as well.
Julio Urias to the Rescue
The lack of solid pieces at the back of the Dodgers' rotation might as well be a wanted poster for somebody to carpe diem.
Why not Urias? He was an elite prospect before making his major league debut as a 19-year-old last season. He then dominated after a rude welcome. Although the Dodgers must be (and will be) careful not to ask too much of him in 2017, he could help them out by taking the next step with his development.
Yasiel Puig's Upside
After all he's been through on and off the field over the past four years, it sure feels like it's time for Puig to put up or shut up.
For what it's worth, he's trying. He's been working on new swing mechanics this spring. They haven't helped him much recently, but they are designed to fix what's ailed his crumbling offense. The 26-year-old may yet have some life left in him.
Cody Bellinger's ETA
The Dodgers aren't short on homegrown stars, but more of those never hurt anyone. Cody Bellinger has what it takes to be the next in line.
Bellinger entered camp as MLB.com's No. 12 overall prospect, packing more power than arguably any other prospect. Although he didn't impress in camp, the minors likely won't hold him for long. Whether he debuts as an injury replacement for Gonzalez at first base or as a corner outfielder, he has the potential to provide a serious offensive boost for the stretch run.
The Left-Handed Pitching Monster
The Dodgers didn't have any problems when they went up against right-handed pitchers last season, ranking sixth in MLB with a .772 OPS. Against left-handers, however, they had the lowest OPS of them all.
Forsythe (.818 OPS vs. LHP), Gutierrez (.846 OPS vs. LHP) and Van Slyke (.845 OPS vs. LHP) can help fix the problem, but it's going to take the whole village. If some of the incumbents—looking at you, Gonzalez and Turner—don't do better, the effort could fall short.
Clayton Kershaw's Achy-Breaky Back
Kershaw may be the best pitcher in baseball, but his reputation as one of the most durable pitchers in baseball has taken some hits. Problems with his back have held him, er, back in two of the past three seasons. Last year was particularly bad, as he could make only 21 starts.
On the bright side, back issues aren't as ominous as arm or shoulder problems. But if they do return in 2017, the Dodgers' road to the postseason will get bumpier.
Starting Rotation Instability
Beyond Kershaw's back, there's also Hill's age and fragility, Maeda's limits as an innings eater and the vast array of questions hanging over the heads of the Dodgers' other starters.
The one positive is that the Dodgers at least have many options to choose from. That proved to be useful last season. Nevertheless, hoping for more of the same in 2017 is a risky venture. The Dodgers should offer a few sacrifices to the durability gods just in case.
The Bridge to Jansen
The Dodgers are going to be in good hands whenever Jansen is on the mound, and they should have enough depth to get the ball safely to him throughout the regular season.
However, the Dodgers know all too well that a bridge to Jansen that's strong in the regular season won't necessarily stay strong in the postseason. If that could be true of a bullpen that had MLB's best ERA last season, it can be true of a bullpen with a different look this time around.
Projections and Outlook
Coming off a 91-71 season in 2016, two major projection systems forecast the Dodgers will be even better in 2017:
Be warned: The San Francisco Giants are going to put up a fight. They're bringing back most of the team that won 87 games last year, save for one major difference: new closer Mark Melancon should ensure their bullpen doesn't lead MLB in blown saves again.
But where you can look at the Giants and find serious flaws, the Dodgers only offer nits to pick. They're loaded with stars on both sides of the ball, and they have good depth in areas where they appear weak.
That's a good formula for getting through the regular season without running into catastrophe. So here's guessing the projections will prove to be on the money about the Dodgers.
The Dodgers look like a great regular-season team, but the postseason is a different beast. One of the differences is its increased emphasis on elite pitching. The Dodgers have tried and failed to answer that call by putting extra pressure on Kershaw and Jansen in past Octobers. They may have no choice but to do the same this October and will therefore be risking similar results.
Guys like Hill, Urias and Dayton could have something to say about this if the regular season doesn't wear them out. So while he's not about to change his tune, even your humble narrator can concede the Dodgers are a serious World Series threat.