2019 Season Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

Los Angeles Dodgers
By Max Baer

2018 record: 92-71 (1st in NL West)

2018 payroll (via Spotrac.com): $199,592,045 (3rd)

Projected Lineup for 2019 (via rotochamp.com):

All 2019 player projections from Steamer

  1. A.J. Pollock, RF, R/R, .252 AVG/.316 OBP/.433 SLG, 2.6 fWAR
  2. Corey Seager, SS, L/R, .284 AVG/.359 OBP/.478 SLG, 5.6 fWAR
  3. Justin Turner, 3B, R/R, .286 AVG/.370 OBP/.476 SLG, 4.6 fWAR
  4. Cody Bellinger, 1B, L/L, .257 AVG/.343 OBP/.493 SLG, 3.7 fWAR
  5. Max Muncy, 2B, L/R, .236 AVG/.342 OBP/.431 SLB, 1.8 fWAR
  6. Chris Taylor, LF, L/R, .248 AVG/.321 OBP/.401 SLG, 2.4 fWAR
  7. Joc Pederson, CF, L/L, .250 AVG/.348 OBP/.495 SLG, 2.6 fWAR
  8. Russell Martin, C, R/R, .219 AVG/.325 OBP/.375 SLG, 0.9 fWAR

Projected Rotation for 2019 (via rotochamp.com):

  1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, 185.0 IP/3.23 ERA/1.12 WHIP, 3.7 fWAR
  2. Rich Hill LHP, 159.0 IP/3.61 ERA/1.18 WHIP, 2.8 fWAR
  3. Walker Buehler, RHP, 163.0 IP/3.27 ERA/1.18 WHIP, 3.2 fWAR
  4. Kenta Maeda, RHP, 125.0 IP/3.87 ERA/1.20 WHIP, 1.6 fWAR
  5. Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP, 126.0 IP/3.66 ERA/1.21 WHIP, 1.8 fWAR
  6. Julio Urias, LHP, 81.0 IP/3.70 ERA/1.30 WHIP, 1.2 fWAR

2018-19 Offseason Recap:

With deep-pocket owners and two superstar caliber free agents on the market, the Dodgers were certain to compete for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, each seeking contracts in excess of $300 MM. Even though the Dodgers were able to sport a large payroll, they were right up against the 2018 luxury tax threshold, and a main goal of the Dodgers’ front office was not to go too far over that threshold while still competing for the services of Machado and Harper.

The first order of business was to ship out some superfluous salary. A December trade was struck with the Cincinnati Reds that saw declining former All-Star Matt Kemp, who is due $19.5 MM ($3.5 MM will be retained by the Dodgers) in the final year of his 8-year/$160 MM contract, enigmatic outfielder Yasiel Puig (due $9.7 MM in 2019), and reliable southpaw Alex Wood (due $9.65 MM in 2019) shipped out to Ohio for prospects Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray. Homer Bailey was also sent to the Dodgers to offset some of the salary the Reds were taking on. Bailey—due $23 MM in 2019—was promptly cut by the Dodgers after a season in which he put up -1.5 bWAR. In the end, the Reds acquired some reasonably priced experience and talent to expedite their rebuild and become more competitive in the rough-and-tumble NL Central, and the Dodgers saved about $9 MM this season while acquiring decent prospects to add to their already deep farm system.

The Dodgers then used this newly-created wiggle room to go after their top prized targets. It was reported that the Dodgers  offered Harper a 4 year deal worth $180 MM. This would have been good for an average annual value (AAV) of $45 MM, blowing away every other contract in the history of American professional sports in terms of highest salary per season. Still, it wasn’t good enough. Harper ultimately took the long term approach with the Phillies. The Dodgers were also in the running on re-signing Manny Machado until the end, but Machado ultimately signed on with NL West rival Padres.

Even though the Dodgers couldn’t add a superstar to their roster this offseason, they were able to hold on to star pitcher Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw made the widely expected move to opt out of the 7-year/$215 MM signed in 2014 and canvas the market. Fortunately, he quickly signed back with the Dodgers in November on a 3-year/$93 MM deal, a slight improvement on the AAV of his previous deal.

The Dodgers also added outfielder A.J. Pollock from divisional rival Arizona. Pollock, who garnered MVP votes in a breakout 2015 season, lost almost the entire 2016 season to injury. Pollock has been a more stable contributor for the past two seasons, though, playing in 112 and 113 games in 2017 and 2018 respectively and turning in 5.5 bWAR over that period. Pollock is known as a 5-tool player who regularly turns in positive oWAR and dWAR numbers. With a 4-year/$60 MM pact, Pollock was brought in to push an outfield stable that already includes Joc Pederson, Kiké Hernandez, Chris Taylor, Andrew Toles, Cody Bellinger, and prospect Alex Verdugo.  

The Dodgers also added Joe Kelly to strengthen their bullpen. Kelly, who signed a 3-year deal worth $25 MM, was a large part of a Boston Red Sox bullpen credited with a major role in the 2018 world series victory over the Dodgers. Acquired by Boston in a 2014 trade with the Cardinals, Kelly is a fiery and passionate right-hander who can run his fastball up to 101 mph and also features a sharply-breaking curveball. Originally a starter, he was converted to the bullpen in a part-time role in 2016 before becoming a full-time fixture in 2017. The move saw Kelly’s FIP plummet from 4.18 in a 2015 where he made 25 starts for the Red Sox to 3.49 in 54 appearances in 2017 and finally, 3.57 in 73 appearances in 2018. Kelly figures to slot into a bullpen role behind Pedro Baez and entrenched closer Kenley Jansen.

But with these additions to the roster, another subtraction was the departure of free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal. Grandal took his .782 career OPS to Milwaukee on a 1-year deal, despite the Dodgers extending him the qualifying offer and the New York Mets offering him a longer 4-year/$60MM contract. Filling this hole, the Dodgers reunited with former All-star and Gold Glove winner Russell Martin. Prospects Ronny Brito and Andrew Sopko were sent to Toronto for the 36 year old backstop, who is having $16.4 MM of his $20 MM contract being paid by the Blue Jays, which could make him a solid 1-year rental for the Dodgers.  

2019 Season Preview:

The 2018 Dodgers were one of the best teams in baseball, beginning with a stellar pitching staff headlined by one of the game’s top starters in Clayton Kershaw and one of the game’s top closers in Kenley Jansen. The bookends both return, this time with Kershaw on a new contract, to lead a completely healthy pitching staff into the new season.

Aside from their two superstar headliners, the pitching staff as a whole was one of the top stables of arms in baseball in 2018. A team ERA of 3.40 was good enough for 2nd in all of baseball. They allowed opponent hitters to hit .230 against them, tied for 3rd in the league with Tampa Bay and behind fellow 90-game winners Houston and Atlanta.

The rest of the Dodgers rotation is projected to be veteran lefty Rich Hill, hard-throwing sophomore righty Walker Buehler, right-hander Kenta Maeda, who cut his teeth in Japan as a young pitcher before making the jump to the majors in 2016, and in the final spot, 6 season veteran Hyun-Jin Ryu and the promising former top prospect Julio Urias sharing the duty. Another factor is right-hander Ross Stripling, who threw his hat into the ring last season due to a number of injuries early in the season finding his way into the vaunted Dodgers rotation.

As a whole, the group performed incredibly well last season. The magnitude of their brilliance really comes into focus upon examination of the individual player stats. The highest FIP of the group belonged to Rich Hill at 3.97, and it was still below the MLB average of 4.16. Though he finished short of qualifying, he would have been 30th best in the league. The highest WHIP of the group belonged to Kenta Maeda at 1.261, much better than the league average of 1.311, and in league with Cole Hamels, who posted a 1.264 mark in his bounceback season. The Dodgers’ starting pitchers have proved to be one of the most formidable groups in the league which leaves them in a very difficult spot. It will be very difficult for them to duplicate this success in 2019, but after watching this group mow down NL hitters in 2018, a season of domination is entirely possible.

And while not quite as accomplished as the starting rotation’s monstrous season in 2018, the Dodgers’ bullpen also was one of the league’s top units on their route to the NL pennant. Closer Kenley Jansen was steady and reliable on the back end, converting 38 of 42 save opportunities with a WHIP of 0.991, 10.3 K/9, and 2.1 BB/9. The group also saw a big year from lefty Scott Alexander and righties Josh Fields and Pedro Baez, who posted FIP’s of 3.57, 3.62, and 3.16, respectively. The acquisition of right-hander Joe Kelly gives manager Dave Roberts four stellar options to bridge the game between his starters and one of the game’s top closers.

The Dodgers also return an offense that slashed .250/.333/.442 in 2018, making it one of the top groups in the league. Of course, the big news this offseason was the Dodgers’ inability to add Manny Machado full-time or convince Bryce Harper to sign on with them. In the process, they shipped out two of their outfield pieces in Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig, losing two quality corner outfielders who turned in identical OPS+ marks of 120 in 2018. Nonetheless, the Dodgers were able to alleviate the logjam starting to build in their outfield while saving a good chunk of cash.

Joc Pederson put some of his past struggles behind him with a wRC+ of 126 and a career high hard-contact percentage of 42.0%, utility-man Enrique (Kiké) Hernandez accumulated 372.1 innings in centerfield on his way to OPS+ of 117 and a career-high bWAR of 3.2. The emergence of Max Muncy on the infield shifted Cody Bellinger to the outfield, where he proved to be an adequate defender with a UZR of 0.4 while posting an OPS+ of 120. Bellinger also impressively played in all 162 games in 2018, the youngest (22-years old) of seven players to do so. Rookie Alex Verdugo also made 86 PAs in 2018, showing more aptitude with his .706 OPS than in his brief 2017 debut of 25 PAs.

On the infield, switch-hitter Justin Turner returns for his 6th season in Dodger blue to man the hot corner. Turner seems to get better with age, posting .945 and .924 OPS’s in 2017 and 2018 respectively, making his first All-Star game in 2017 at age 32. He will reunite on the left side of the infield with young superstar Corey Seager, who missed a large part of 2018 recovering from Tommy John surgery. The 2-time Silver Slugger Seager’s return to the line-up will be greatly appreciated, although the Dodgers had utilityman Chris Taylor make 73 starts for Seager in 2018, posting an impressive 4.1 bWAR. Taylor displayed the ability to play anywhere in the Dodgers’ infield and outfield. Should another long-term injury afflict a key player this year, Dave Roberts knows he has the extremely versatile Chris Taylor on his roster to plug any hole. In the meantime, expect Taylor to start his season contributing at the relatively open second base and centerfield spots along with Kike Hernandez. And at first base, Max Muncy’s emergence as a power threat means the Dodgers have yet another offensive weapon to deploy in 2019. With the ability to slide Muncy over to second base and Bellinger at first, this gives Roberts the opportunity to deploy an infield of Turner, Seager, Muncy and Bellinger—an option that should strike fear into the hearts of even the bravest of opposing pitchers.

Completing the Dodgers’ eight fielders is the return of the former All-Star and Dodgers hero Russell Martin. Debuting full-time as a 23-year old in 2006, Martin quickly established himself as one of the league’s top backstops, becoming an All-Star in 2007 and 2008. Free-agency in 2010 saw Martin move to the Yankees, the Pirates in 2012 and then settle back in his native Canada with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2014. Martin remained a good option for the Blue Jays, but his $20 MM per year price tag was deemed too much for the non-contending Jays, who decided to pay the $16.4 MM of Martin’s last year of his deal and ship him back to the contending Dodgers. Quite impressively, Martin has always posted a bWAR above 1.0 every season dating back to his debut campaign. The 2018 season saw Martin post career lows of 1.3 bWAR and .663 OPS, but even an aging Martin can still prove to be a valuable veteran presence and contributor to the Dodgers as they push to give Martin his first championship of his now 14-year MLB career.

Predicted Record: 93-69 (1st in NL West)

Player to Watch: Corey Seager

The Dodgers sorely missed Corey Seager’s 2-time Silver Slugger winning bat in 2018. The 2016 Rookie of the Year missed the large majority of the 2018 season recovering from Tommy John Surgery, and the Dodgers were without his production at the shortstop position until they acquired Manny Machado before the July trade deadline. Still only 24-years young, Seager has quickly turned into an offensive force capable of anchoring the Dodgers lineup. In his first two full seasons, the former first rounder was on a tear, posting wRC+’s of 136 and 127 in 2015 and 2016 while picking up his pair of Silver Sluggers. Not only a premier offensive talent, Seager held his own on defense as well. There was little doubt that Seager’s arm could handle the throws at the shortstop position, but there was concern as to the mobility of this 6’4”, 220 pounder to effectively cover enough ground. Through his first two years, Seager has certainly thrived at the shortstop position with UZR’s of 6.5 and 9.0. The completeness of Seager’s game put him among the most exciting to watch in baseball’s budding young crop of superstars. His 7.0 and 5.9 fWAR’s in his past two seasons has proved that he has arrived among the game’s elite. Entering 2019 healthy and “retooled”, Seager looks to lead the Dodgers as one of the front-runners in the race for the Commissioner’s Trophy.

Player to Watch: Walker Buehler

One of my favorite images from the 2018 season game comes from the Dodgers-Red Sox World Series Game 3. While that 18-inning classic set many World Series records for duration and number of players used, the game also produced a gem from the arm of Walker Buehler and one of my favorite pictures from the 2018 season and baseball in general. Buehler, Baseball America’s #13 prospect before the 2018 season, had just finished his 7th and final inning of work against a Red Sox offense which had been tops in the MLB by many measures. Buehler had seen 22 of Boston’s best hitters stride to the plate on baseball’s biggest stage, and he had retired 20 of them—7 by strikeout—over his 7 innings of work. As Buehler was walking off the mound towards the dugout, a camera caught an applauding fan in the stands showing his respect for the 24-year old rookie’s performance. That fan was Sandy Koufax, considered the best pitcher of all-time to many baseball fans. Koufax, like many other fans in attendance that day, stood to applaud the efforts of the young star.

buehler definitely didn't take that day off, that's for sure

Over the 2018 season, Walker Buehler proved that he had the talent to belong in already crowded and impressive Dodgers rotation. Over 23 games started, Buehler struck out 9.90 batters per 9 innings while only walking 2.42, better than Jose Berrios, Aaron Nola, and Jon Gray posted in 2018. His 2.62 ERA would have been top-10 in the league had he pitched enough innings to qualify. And with a FIP of 3.04, an xFIP of 3.21 and a hard contact percentage of 35.4%, Walker Buehler proved that he was an effective, if not elite pitcher, in the major leagues as he figures in to be a key figure in the Dodgers rotation in 2019 and beyond.

Player to Watch: Max Muncy

The Dodgers struck gold with Max Muncy in 2018. Appearing basically from nowhere, Muncy came on as a massive contributor at first base, turning in a 5.2 fWAR and a 162 wRC+ while clobbering 35 homers and providing a runner-up performance in the Home Run Derby. Debuting with the Athletics in 2015, Muncy did not do much in Oakland, recording dismal 2015 and 2016 seasons where he turned in wRC+’s of 80 and 62 as a part-time player for the A’s. His -0.7 fWAR failed to impress the A’s brass, and he was cut loose shortly before the 2017 season. The Dodgers signed him to a minor league deal a month later, and he played out the rest of the season in AAA, slugging his way to a .905 OPS, before getting his time to shine in the big league in 2018. Some of his batted ball stats indicate that Muncy’s production might be here to stay. Muncy has seen a big jump in his HR/FB ratio, which has gone from 7.7% in Oakland to 29.4% in Los Angeles, putting him in the same category as top offensive threats J.D. Martinez and Christian Yelich. Muncy has also made hard contact on 47.4% of balls he put into play, another big jump from his totals of 36.1% and 29.2% in his two years in Oakland. All these indicators suggest that Muncy is not just a one-season wonder for the Dodgers, but a legitimate offensive weapon that could be here to stay.

Source: Adam Schefter on facebook -> @sullikevphoto

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Categories: 2019 Season Preview

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