Once again, Opening Day is upon us. Once again, two thirds of Los Angeles will not get to listen to Vin Scully and company broadcasting most of the games on television. In a certain way, the ill-advised Time Warner cable deal has become a microcosm (or macrocosm?) of the Guggenheim-Era Dodgers so far as a whole- promising, expensive, yet ultimately misguided. The channel as a whole is often terrific, but when the majority of fans can’t experience it for themselves, the quality of the channel takes a back seat to the quantity of people that can enjoy it.
On the field, the Dodgers have earned a similar reputation. A team that has fielded such talent has such little to show for it. That really was reflected by the mood in the stands in 2015, as Bill Plaschke correctly labeled it as “joyless”. There are a few reasons to believe 2016 will be better, but more than a few to believe it will be worse.
The Good News
Justin Turner has quietly become one of the best hitters in baseball, and if not for injuries that dramatically slowed down his production at the end of 2015, he may have even gotten some MVP points in the voting. (He did have a torrid NLDS, which was sadly forgotten after Daniel Murphy almost singlehandedly prevented the Dodgers from moving to the next round.) It was a huge relief when the front office (finally!) realized that Turner was the 3rd baseman of future right now for the Dodgers. Hopefully, that will continue to be the case for several years, so long as he stays healthy.
The brightest non-Kershaw spotlight will be shined on this guy (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)
To the right of the Turner (as well as this paragraph) is one of the few pieces of great news for the team’s future- Corey Seager. Too many times we’ve touted some hotshot kid as “The Next So-And-So”, but after watching Corey Seager for a month last season, one suspects that the phrase “The Next Corey Seager” might truly become part of the baseball lexicon one day. Unlike Joc Pederson, Seager instantly showed the kind of maturity at the plate that indicates pitchers will not be able to adjust to him, as much as he will adjust to them. His fielding could use some work, but he’s young enough that one can expect this to happen.
The best news of all for the Dodgers is that Clayton Kershaw will be starting one out of every five games, meaning that they will be favored to win, at least one out of every five games. It’s the other four out of five games that we need to worry about. And with that, we bring you…
The Bad News
Every day that Clayton Kershaw doesn’t pitch will be a question mark, though in fairness, Kenta Maeda pitched far better than many expected in spring training. If he can continue that into the regular season while staying healthy, this could be one of the few moves by Andrew Friedman that can be applauded by people outside of Friedman’s unofficial fan club. But even if that is the case, spots 3, 4 and 5 look very troubling. Scott Kazmir and Alex Wood, who have had success at times in their careers, had disastrous spring trainings. It’s tough to even contemplate the #5 spot, when the #3 and #4 are such question marks, at best.
Meanwhile in the bullpen, the situation is the same as it ever was, only now with a possibly disgruntled Kenley Jansen. After the Dodger front office was shamed into revoking what looked like an outstanding trade for Aroldis Chapman, the team never found a backup plan. (The Yankees ultimately acquired Chapman with little backlash, while the public outrage almost completely dissipated.)
The Los Angeles Dodgers have traditionally been built on pitching, while this year there isn’t much of a foundation. With so many unanswered questions on Opening Day, the team will likely not get very far, until they have more answers.
Beyond the team’s troubling pitching situation, there are some other questions marks that have a little bit more hope.
The right side of the infield to start the season is Adrian Gonzalez and Chase Utley. In 2009, this would have arguably been the best right side in baseball. In 2016? It really depends on how much of their “old selves” they still have in there. Gonzalez, while being more streaky than most analysts realize (or own up to), is still young enough to put up good numbers, perhaps even enough for another All Star appearance. He has been great at the start of each season for the Dodgers, and with torrid hitting this spring, 2016 shouldn’t be an exception.
Chase Utley might be a different story, as he hasn’t looked good in several years, although he did have a very good spring- by contrast to Enrique Hernandez, a surprising star of 2015, who had an atrocious spring. Howie Kendrick should be the starting second baseman once healthy, but the vastly underrated former Angel has been less dependable in recent years. Jose Peraza looked pretty good, but he was shipped off to another team for other moving parts, as is done with regularity these days on the Dodgers.
Catching is going to be a problem. AJ Ellis got a late start to his Major League career, and unfortunately, it looks like he’s close to the end of it now. Yasmani Grandal was misused last year, when it was clear to all with eyes that he was hurt. The man who proved so many naysayers wrong (myself included) now looks like damaged goods. Until he can come back and look like the guy we saw from May through July, the book has NOT been closed on the Matt Kemp trade just yet- particularly the way Kemp has been hitting this spring. While you’re at it, and while we’re on the subject of catchers, check out Tim Federowicz’s spring training numbers sometime.
Last but not least, we have the outfield, now in it’s fourth full season of flux. Truth be told, it SHOULDN’T be as much of a question as it’s been in the past, although it probably is at the moment. With Andre Ethier’s unfortunate fluke injury, Scott Van Slyke has stepped up, and shown that he DESERVES the starting spot in left field. Unfortunately, the Dodgers appear to be moored to the “platoon” philosophy, even though Carl Crawford has mostly been awful for some time. Seeing how the majority of pitchers are right-handed, Crawford will also likely get the lion’s shares of at-bats. Perhaps Van Slyke’s performance- assuming he can continue to show what we’ve seen this past March- will force the Dodgers’ hand, much like Justin Turner did at third base.
In centerfield we have Joc Pederson, who shows great instincts for running down fly balls, but so far, very little else. Yes, he hit some mammoth home runs, and drew a fair share of walks. But even with his gaudy numbers early on, it was apparent he had holes in his swing, that were eventually exploited. Has he fixed them? Early indications are that he has not. (His baserunning game needn’t be discussed, until he develops one.)
But the burden of proof on Pederson’s shoulders pales in comparison to the other young gun in the outfield, former phenom Yasiel Puig. Another offseason marred in controversy, followed by another pedestrian spring training, has the few people still paying attention to him wondering what’s to come next. It wasn’t that long ago whether pundits openly questions whether he was the next Roberto Clemente, or the next Raul Mondesi. At this point, Mondesi would be a considerable upgrade. As Mike Trout and Bryce Harper run laps around Puig, the “he’s still young” excuse won’t last much longer.
And Off The Field…
With all the controversial moves Andrew Friedman and his lieutenant Fahran Zaidi made last offseason, it seemed fair to expect that results for 2015 would fall on his/their shoulders. That didn’t happen. Don Mattingly was blamed for nearly everything that went wrong, and was even criticized at times for moves that worked out! (Anyone remember all the questions about Kershaw being taken out too early in game 4 of the NLDS, after the Dodgers WON THE GAME?!) Mattingly made his fair share of mistakes, but he also led 3 first place finishes in a row, gaining little credit while taking in nearly all of the blame.
Now, Donnie Baseball is gone. Dave Roberts is brand new, and very well-liked. (One prediction I can nearly guarantee- this season, we will be reminded by Charlie Steiner of The Stolen Base on multiple occasions.) The results of this year TRULY will fall on Friedman’s shoulders, and there will be plenty to question. One question already worth asking is what would the mainstream Dodger bloggers be saying if Ned Colletti had let Zack Greinke go to a team within the division, while spending tens of millions of dollars on Brett Anderson, Scott Kazmir, and Joe Blanton. (The favorable parsing of Blanton’s small sample size by the blogging community has been particularly amusing.) If this plan doesn’t work, no amount of sabermetric wizardry will be able to save Friedman from the media and fans.
Ending On A High Note
There is still a lot to like about this team, even with the many issues it faces. They have some young arms in the minors, who might be able to help down the road. At least half their lineup looks like a real threat, and teams have gotten by with much less offensive firepower than that. And hey- if Alex Wood and Scott Kazmir can find their better selves within, and Chris Hatcher can keep his confidence up, while Kenley Jansen puts his bitterness aside, there just might be hope yet.
And of course, we can all still appreciate Vin Scully one more season- not having Time Warner is no excuse, as the airwaves are free (for now). And with that…
It’s Time For Dodger Baseball!