2018 Season Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

As winter draws to a close, temperatures rise—Ann Arbor aside—and Spring Training gets underway it can only mean one thing: Baseball is (almost) here! Welcome back to M-SABR’s Season Preview 30 Teams in 30 Days series, where our staff writers share their insights on what to expect from your favorite team and players in 2018 and get you ready for that very first first pitch. Today Max Smith takes on the Los Angeles Dodgers. Enjoy!

Los Angeles Dodgers

2017 Record: 104-58 (1st in NL West, lost in WS)

2017 Payroll: $265,149,292 (1st in MLB)

Projected Lineup:
All player projections for 2018 from Steamer, projected lineup from Rotochamp.

  1. CF Chris Taylor, .262 AVG/.328 OBP/.408 SLG, 2.1 WAR
  2. SS Corey Seager, .289/.361/.491, 5.2 WAR
  3. 1B Cody Bellinger, .252/.339/.515, 2.6 WAR
  4. RF Yasiel Puig, .282/.360/.508, 3.2 WAR
  5. LF Matt Kemp, .265/.314/.469, 0.0 WAR
  6. C Yasmani Grandal, .234/.329/.441, 1.5 WAR
  7. 3B Logan Forsythe, .241/.332/.386, 1.2 WAR
  8. 2B Chase Utley, .243/.312/.384, 0.3 WAR

** Starting 3B Justin Turner will miss most of April for the Dodgers but is projected to be the second-best position player on the team. Steamer projects a .292/.373/.489 slash and a 4.1 WAR for the superstar infielder.

Projected Rotation:

  1. LHP Clayton Kershaw, 190.0 IP/2.74 ERA/1.21 WHIP, 5.8 WAR
  2. LHP Rich Hill, 141.0 IP/3.61 ERA/1.21 WHIP, 2.6 WAR
  3. LHP Alex Wood, 131.0 IP/3.51 ERA/1.23 WHIP, 2.5 WAR
  4. RHP Kenta Maeda, 126.0 IP/4.16 ERA/1.22 WHIP, 1.6 WAR
  5. RHP Hyun-Jin Ryu, 124.0 IP/3.95 ERA/1.28 WHIP, 1.6 WAR

Offseason Recap

There were many surprising moves this offseason, from Jake Arrieta signing with the previously rebuilding Phillies, or Yu Darvish moving from sunny LA to windy Chicago on a 6-year, $126 million deal, or the Padres spending $144 million on Eric Hosmer and the intangibles he brings to the plate. Yet nothing seems quite as shocking as the Dodgers plummeting down to 4th in the payroll standings at $182,574,878 in total payroll, after four consecutive first-place finishes with salaries of $246 million, a whopping $306 million, $279 million and $265 million from 2014 through 2017, according to Spotrac.
Their clear intentions to cut payroll and avoid any more tax penaltiespossibly in order to spend even bigger on Clayton Kershaw and other superstars such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in the winter of 2018was further reflected in their trades and free agency moves. The rightful 2011 NL MVP, Matt Kemp returned to LA through a salary dump trade that sent the no-longer-needed Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Charlie Culberson, and the perennially underrated cash considerations to the Braves. On the open market, LA’s splashiest move was resigning clubhouse leader Chase Utley to a team-friendly 2-year, $2 million contract, while another $2 million went to reliever Tom Koehler on a 1-year deal.

Luckily, the Dodgers are coming off a 104 win 2017, in which they won 43 of 50 games at one point, and established themselves as one of the more dominant teams in recent history despite an intense slump towards the end of the season. And while their postseason ended in a heartbreaking World Series Game 7 loss to Houston, the phenomenal roster they return, and their strong core of superstars, leave the Dodgers in prime position to recapture the NL West for a record sixth straight year, and push deep into Octobereven if the up-and-coming Diamondbacks and Rockies will want to have something to say about that.

Season Preview
Rebounding from their crushing loss will hinge on the performance of a stacked lineup and the health of a pitching staff that has seen Clayton Kershaw hit the disabled list in three of the past four seasons.

Beginning with the offense, all the pieces are in place for a big year. The infield alone features two MVP candidates in shortstop Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, who also happen to be the last two NL Rookies of the Year, but more on them to follow. At third base, Los Angeles will be missing Justin Turner’s bat and more importantly his glorious red beard until at least May after he broke his wrist getting hit by a pitch in Spring Training.

Luckily, the Dodgers feature more depth than just about any team in the MLB, and Steamer still projects Turner to be worth 4.1 fWAR while hitting .292/.373/.490 with 20 HR when he does return.
Their catcher duo of Austin Barnes and Yasmani Grandal is yet another strength of this team, as the two combined for 5.0 fWAR this past season, and Barnes combines a 2B/C positional flexibility that few players can offer—especially valuable if father time finally fully catches up with the seemingly eternal Chase Utley.

The outfield will mix and match throughout the season between Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Andrew Toles, Kiké Hernandez (another Utley platoon candidate), and 2017 breakout star and utility man supreme Chris Taylor. Puig bounced back with his first strong season since 2014 (.349 wOBA and 28 HR), but the real story of the outfield was Taylor.

After a tough 2015 in which he posted a whopping 23 wRC+ and astonishing -0.4 fWAR, he improved in 2016 to 62 and -0.1 respectively, but nothing about either of those seasons indicated the jump to 4.7 fWAR he made in 2017. Unsurprisingly, this meant career highs in literally every Baseball Reference Standard Batting category except Grounded into Double Plays, Sacrifice Bunts and Sacrifice Flies (where he still tied his previous career high!).

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There were few players less likely to enter mid-season MVP discussions in 2017 than Chris Taylor, yet here we are heading into 2018 with the Dodgers having yet another stud, who can play five positions, because why not? Whether Taylor and his .361 BABIP remain for real though, is yet to be seen.

The pitching staff is headed by Clayton Kershaw, so that’s nice. Even as he missed a few starts, he continued his downright ludicrous streak of lowering his career ERA every season he’s played, and it now sits at a cool 2.36. Whether he is the greatest of all time is up for debate, but whether he will have a good 2018 leading LA’s rotation? That feels like a lock.

The questions with the staff remain health and durability after 10 different pitchers started games last year and no non-Kershaw starter exceeded 152 innings. Yet the talent is there, and if Alex Wood repeats his incredible 2017 in which he put up a 2.72 ERA and struck out nearly a batter an inning, and Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu have strong (and hopefully blister-less) years, the Dodgers could very well repeat as NL leaders in fewest opponent runs per game. And if 2018 is the year of the Julio Urias breakout (still only 21!!!), the rich will only be getting richer.

Regardless, as long as this team gets to the 9th inning with some sort of lead, having closer Kenley Jansen means it’s game over. Jansen’s 2017 was simply incredible and his 3.6 fWAR put him in the top 20 of all pitchers, ahead of names such as Michael Fulmer, Carlos Martinez, and the aforementioned Alex Wood. When Kenley takes the mound, opposing teams’ hearts sink, and don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Looking at this roster as a whole is a scary sight, and another World Series run could be in the making. The emergence of the DBacks and Rocktober might knock a few wins off their 104 from last year, but the Dodgers are sitting pretty.

Predicted Record: 97-65

Player to Watch: Corey Seager

In the current golden age of shortstops, young superstars like Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Trea Turner, and now Manny Machado are redefining the value of the position. Yet entering 2018, Corey Seager has put himself on the inside track to become the best of even that illustrious group.

Since the start of his rookie season in 2016, Seager has compiled 13.1 fWAR, trailing only Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, Jose Altuve and Mookie Betts in all of Major League Baseball. And while Trea Turner cooled off to a 105 wRC+ after his blistering hot rookie year, and Machado put together a .259/.310/.471 triple slash line way below his career norms, Seager has been a model of consistency over his two seasons, following his 7.4 fWAR Rookie of the Year campaign by putting up a .295/.375/.479, 127 wRC+ 2017, which saw his walk rate rise from 7.9% to 10.9%.

Aside from the numbers, when your All-Star, $100 million contract, 26.5 fWAR older brother nicknames himself “Corey’s Brother” for Players Weekend, you know you’re pretty legit. Seager is a bona fide superstar and should be one of the favorites for the 2018 NL MVP—stay tuned for our M-SABR Awards Predictions next week.

Player to Watch: Cody Bellinger

While Aaron Judge dominated the talk in the AL, riding an incredible debut season to not only the Rookie of the Year award but nearly an MVP, his NL counterpart Cody Bellinger was hardly far behind. His 39 home runs and .581 slugging percentage led all MLB first basemen, while he posted 97 RBI and 10 steals on top of that in just 132 games.

At not even 23, Bellinger was able to generate tremendous power with his mighty left-handed uppercut swing, that translated into a 25.2% HR/FB rate and a 43.0% hard contact percentage, both top 10 in Major League Baseball. With his production, the Dodgers realized it was time to move on from Adrian Gonzalez after 6 seasons, and hand Bellinger the keys to their first base future. Seeing if that bet pays off and whether Bellinger can repeat his success will one of the key questions of the Dodgers 2018 and beyond.

Player to Watch: Joc Pederson

There was a point in time when it looked like Joc Pederson might beat Kris Bryant for Rookie of the Year. Heading into July of 2015, the then 23-year old was hitting .249/.391/.539, placing in the top 10 of the NL in on-base percentage, slugging, times on base, home runs, and walks, establishing himself as the king of the three true outcomes and one of the most exciting young center fielders in baseball.

The second half of the season was not as kind to young Joc, as he free-fell to finish 2015 at .210/.346/.417. He still put up 2.9 fWAR followed by a 3.6 fWAR and 128 wRC+ in 2016, but in 2017 his playing time was reduced to 102 games as Joc was merely a league average hitter and just barely beat the Mendoza line at .212.

While Joc has been unable to rediscover his magical Rookie first-half form, he had an excellent postseason, hitting .304 with an insane .826 slugging percentage and 3 home runs. If that was a sign of things to come, and if Pederson can even approach a .250 average for a full season, he could be the X-factor for this already stacked line-up.

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