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2018 preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

World Series - Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Seven

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 01: Cody Bellinger #35 and Yasiel Puig #66 of the Los Angeles Dodgers look on from the dugout during the first inning against the Houston Astros in game seven of the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers finished the 2017 season with 104 wins, one win shy of matching the club record set in 1953 by the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the year everything appeared to finally click for a team that had made the playoffs every season dating back to 2013. Alas, the year ended in more heartbreak for the fan base as the Dodgers lost the World Series in a seventh and final game to the Astros in Los Angeles.

As a unit, the 2018 squad isn’t all that different as the Dodgers had a relatively quiet offseason. One trade they made was aimed at keeping payroll below the $197 million competitive balance tax – the club sent Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Charlie Culberson, and cash to the Braves for Matt Kemp. The thought was that Kemp would be jettisoned just as quickly as he arrived, but he’s in spring camp with the Dodgers and angling for playing time. The Dodgers were also involved in a three-team trade with the White Sox and Royals, acquiring a pair of minor leaguers and reliever Scott Alexander.

As for free agents, the Dodgers signed pitcher Tom Koehler to a one-year, $2 million deal, but the right-hander was recently diagnosed with a mild anterior capsule strain in his right shoulder. The Dodgers also brought back second baseman Chase Utley on a two-year, $2 million deal. And if you’re asking, “Why sign a 39-year-old to a multi-year contract?” the answer is, “The competitive balance tax.”

FanGraphs is projecting the Dodgers as the fourth-best team in baseball with 93 wins, behind the Astros (101), Cubs (94), and Yankees (94). PECOTA, the projection system from Baseball Prospectus, pegs the Dodgers at 97 wins, the best mark in the National League and behind only the Yankees (97) and Astros (99) overall. The offense, largely unchanged, posted a .330 weighted on-base average, 10 points above the league average. The starting rotation posted the best ERA in the game at 3.39 and the bullpen posted the best ERA in the National League at 3.38.

Ace Clayton Kershaw, poised to make his eighth consecutive Opening Day start for the Blue Crew, is coming off a season in which he led the majors with 18 wins and the National League with a 2.31 ERA, a 180 adjusted ERA (a.k.a. ERA+), and a 6.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The lefty made 27 starts instead of the expected 33 due to continuing back issues, so that will be a focus of concern as he enters his age-30 season. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system, found at FanGraphs, has Kershaw in between a glob of relievers among the league’s expected ERA leaders, essentially saying that Kershaw is a prohibitive favorite in the upcoming NL Cy Young Award race. Not a bad guy to have lead a rotation.

Behind Kershaw are Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda, and Hyun-jin Ryu. It’s not exactly the healthiest group of pitchers. Hill has had blister issues, Wood battled a shoulder injury last year, Maeda dealt with a tight hamstring, and Ryu has had constant problems with his shoulder and elbow in recent years. The Dodgers should absolutely not count on this rotation making it through the season unscathed, which is why Ross Stripling, Brock Stewart, and prospect Walker Buehler will serve as depth throughout the year. When healthy, however, the Dodgers’ current rotation will once again be among the most formidable in the game.

In the bullpen, Kenley Jansen will reprise his role as closer. In the first year of a five-year, $80 million contract in 2017, the right-hander used his debilitating cutter to compile an NL-best 41 saves with a 1.32 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings. The performance earned him a fifth-place finish in NL Cy Young Award balloting. Now 30 years old, there’s no reason to think Jansen is going to lose his touch anytime soon.

Behind Jansen, the Dodgers have an eclectic mix of relievers, including Pedro Baez, Alexander, Tony Cingrani, Josh Fields, and Stripling. Alexander is a really interesting reliever as he quietly compiled a 2.48 ERA in 69 innings for the Royals last season, built almost entirely on his ability to induce grounders. Alexander’s 73.8 percent ground ball rate led all relievers and was a full five percent higher than Orioles hurler Richard Bleier in second place. The Dodgers have great infield defense, so Alexander could be poised for an even better season.

Offensively, the Dodgers are looking quite strong as usual. The infield in particular is quite scary with Justin Turner at third base, Corey Seager at shortstop, and Cody Bellinger at first base. Bellinger won the NL Rookie of the Year Award after blasting 39 home runs and knocking in 97 runs with a .933 OPS in 548 trips to the plate as a 21-year-old last year. Turner was one of nine players across the league to own a wOBA of .400 or better, joining the likes of Paul Goldschmidt and Jose Altuve, among a few others. Seager was the gold standard at shortstop in 2017, compiling 5.7 Wins Above Replacement, per FanGraphs, a total rivaled in the NL only by Zack Cozart, who is now a third baseman in the American League. Logan Forsythe will get the lion’s share of playing time at second base with Utley backing them up. Behind the plate, Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes will continue to share playing time behind the plate. Grandal knocked out 22 homers last year while Barnes impressed with an .895 OPS in 262 plate appearances.

In the outfield, Chris Taylor and Yasiel Puig will return to their starting jobs as expected. Puig had a career year last year, setting career-highs in home runs (28), RBI (74), and stolen bases (15). Even better, he continued to play good defense in right field thanks in part to his absolute cannon of an arm. Puig had only four outfield assists, but that’s because no one wants to test his arm anymore. He maxed out at 15 outfield assists in 2014. Taylor, meanwhile, broke out with an .850 OPS, 21 home runs, 72 RBI, 85 runs, and 17 steals across 568 trips to the dish. That came after two and a half seasons with the Mariners and a half season with the Dodgers during which he compiled a measly .598 OPS. Taylor was even more productive in the playoffs, hitting .254/.380/.508 with three homers in 15 postseason games.

The Dodgers have a glut of candidates in left field with Kemp, Enrique Hernandez, and Joc Pederson. Ideally, the club finds a taker for Kemp and his contract, allowing the other two players to share the position. The veteran Kemp is off to a good start this spring, accruing four hits – including two homers – in 13 at-bats, which is good news for the Dodgers.

Unsurprisingly, the Dodgers enter the 2018 campaign with few weaknesses. In their division the Diamondbacks replaced J.D. Martinez with Steven Souza, Jr. and otherwise didn’t alter the roster much. The same goes for the Rockies, who have a similar roster save for the addition of Wade Davis. The Giants acquired veterans Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen which will make them much more competitive, but the club still has some glaring weaknesses. And the Padres are, well, the Padres, even after adding Eric Hosmer. This looks like a division the Dodgers should once again run away with. As for what happens beyond that, the Dodgers know as well as anyone that the playoffs are hard to predict. That being said, this is absolutely a team capable of winning it all.

Prediction: 97-65, first place in NL West

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