The Los Angeles Dodgers have had one of the busiest offseasons in all of baseball, and if not for the wheelings and dealings of A.J. Preller in San Diego, the roster changes made by the Dodgers would likely be the story of the offseason. With Andrew Friedman now in charge of baseball operations and Farhan Zaidi as general manager, the Dodgers painted with bold strokes in the past few months, radically altering a roster that won 94 games in 2014 but ultimately still lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.
Friedman and company allowed Hanley Ramirez to walk away in free agency and traded Dee Gordon to the Miami Marlins and Matt Kemp to the San Diego Padres. The Dodgers turned Dee Gordon into Howie Kendrick (via a trade with the Angels), Austin Barnes, Enrique Hernandez and Chris Hatcher, while Kemp brought back Yasmani Grandal, Joe Wieland and Zach Eflin. The Dodgers also gave up catcher Tim Federowicz in the Kemp deal, and then flipped Eflin to the Philadelphia Phillies in order to complete the Jimmy Rollins trade. All of this was basically done within hours during the Winter Meetings, though physicals delayed the official announcements of the deals.
So the roster reshuffling is basically complete, with only a few minor moves left to attend to before the beginning of Spring Training in Arizona. The assessment of the Dodgers offseason has been incredibly varied, with some thinking that the Dodgers are taking a step back in 2015 in order to compete in the long term, while others believe that the Dodgers are again the class of the NL West. The projection systems all seem to like the Dodgers, and even PECOTA, which is notoriously conservative in terms of win totals, projects the Dodgers to win 98 games in 2015. Projection systems are not the sole reason for optimism for the 2015 Los Angeles Dodgers, and what follows are 10 reasons why the Dodgers will be hoisting a World Series trophy in 2015.
10. One of the Best Rotations in Baseball
The Dodgers return their top three starters from a year ago in Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu. That triumvirate is as good as any other team’s front three starters, and the overall rotation is likely second only to the Washington Nationals’ ridiculously stacked rotation. The Dodgers posted a 3.20 ERA with that group a year ago, good for second overall in MLB, and the team’s xFIP (expected fielding-independent pitching) was first overall at 3.16. That means that even with Josh Beckett, Dan Haren, Kevin Correia, Roberto Hernandez and Paul Maholm making a combined 72 starts, the Dodgers were still one of the elite rotations in the game. That quintet of uncertainty and mediocrity has been replaced by Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson, who, despite checkered injury histories, are significant upgrades to a rotation that was already outstanding.
9. A Renewed Commitment to Defense
Despite the team’s 94 wins, the Dodgers had a great deal of glaring weaknesses during the 2014 season, and defense was certainly among those weaknesses. Kemp gets most of the attention in this regard, as the litany of injuries he suffered since his 2011 MVP runner-up campaign robbed him of some of the athleticism that made up for his poor reads on balls hit his way. The defensive situation became so untenable that manager Don Mattingly had to move Kemp from center field to the corners in order to hide Kemp’s declining defensive abilities. Replacing Kemp in the outfield is likely to be talented rookie Joc Pederson, who is widely regarded as a superior defender and a natural center fielder.
The other defensive issue that has been rectified is at shortstop, where Hanley Ramirez was among the worst defenders in baseball a year ago. His offense often made up for the defensive woes, but it is plainly evident that Jimmy Rollins, even at age 36, is the better defender of the two by far. In letting these offensive talents go, Friedman has acknowledged that the offense may not score as many runs, but the defense will certainly prevent more runs from being scored. While the Dodgers may have one of the oldest infields in MLB with Rollins, Kendrick, Adrian Gonzalez and Juan Uribe, they may also have one of the best defensive groups in all of baseball.
8. Plenty of Platoon Options
Friedman and Zaidi both come from organizations known for financial inflexibility, so as a result each executive has had to use creative strategies in order to get the most out of the talent on their respective rosters. One of the simplest strategies used in this regard is through frequent platooning, and the Dodgers roster is set up very nicely to get exceptional production out of its platoon options.
In left field, Carl Crawford and Scott Van Slyke figure to split time, with Crawford getting starts against right-handed pitching and Van Slyke getting the call against left-handers. Though Crawford had a reverse platoon split in 2014, over the course of his career he has slashed .305/.342/.463 with a wRC+ of 114, while Van Slyke crushed left-handed pitching a year ago. Against lefties, Van Slyke slashed .315/.415/.630 for a wRC+ of 193. The offensive production the left fielders could provide the Dodgers in a platoon situation could be downright absurd in 2015.
Another interesting platoon opportunity for the Dodgers is at the catching position, where newcomer Yasmani Grandal, a switch-hitter, figures to get the majority of the playing time along with veteran A.J. Ellis. Grandal struggled against lefties in 2014, and had knee surgery in 2013, so a platoon in which Grandal takes the starts against lefties and Ellis takes on the righties would play to each player’s respective strengths. Against lefties in 2014, a season in which he struggled mightily at the plate, Ellis still managed a slash line of .215/.388/.323 and a wRC+ of 117. As for Grandal, he hit all of his 15 home runs in 2014 against right-handers, slashing .241/.329/.452 with a wRC+ of 124, setting up the Dodgers with yet another excellent platoon pairing.
7. High-Upside Talent at the Back-End of the Rotation
Among the free-agent signings made by the Dodgers this offseason include Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson, both pitchers with somewhat troubling injury histories. The talent each possesses, however, has never been in question, and if both can remain healthy throughout the season, the Dodgers may have a better rotation than even the Washington Nationals. McCarthy has said that a training change and the return of the cut-fastball to his repertoire contributed to his excellent run with the New York Yankees in which he went 7-5 with a 2.89 ERA while striking out 8.17 batters per nine innings. Anderson is the bigger question mark of the two, but the Dodgers are confident that his recent run of injuries has been nothing more than bad luck, and believe that he will have a healthy and productive season in 2015. Both McCarthy and Anderson are frontline talents, so there is the significant potential for the Dodgers to have a dominant starting pitching staff in 2015.
6. A Vastly Improved Bullpen
Entering the 2014 season, the Dodgers figured that their bullpen would be a strength, particularly with the additions of a host of former closers in setup roles. It didn’t exactly go as planned for Dodgers relievers, and the bullpen was an unmitigated disaster throughout the season. It got so bad that Don Mattingly completely lost faith in his bullpen options in the playoffs, turning instead to a reliever in Scott Elbert who had only pitched 4.1 innings during the regular season. The Dodgers ultimately designated Brian Wilson for assignment and granted him his release, effectively eating the roughly $10 million he is owed in 2015. Chris Perez is also gone, and the Dodgers have brought in a variety of intriguing options to join the bullpen for 2015.
The Dodgers traded for Joel Peralta, one of the more reliable American League relievers over the past few years, and also acquired Chris Hatcher as a part of the Dee Gordon trade. The team also brought in Juan Nicasio, who was just terrible as a starter for the Rockies last year but fairly solid after being moved to the bullpen. Paco Rodriguez will get more opportunities this year, and the bullpen overall is much more flexible than a year ago, as many of the relievers who will compete for a spot in the bullpen have options remaining. This means that if a reliever is underperforming, they can be sent down to the minors and not just be dead weight in the ‘pen as was the case in 2014. Of course, the Dodgers still have closer Kenley Jansen, who has been nothing short of dominant in his role as closer. Jansen has averaged 14.02 strikeouts per nine innings over his career and, along with J.P. Howell, was one of the only reliable options out of the bullpen in 2014, and there is no reason for him not to be dominant again in 2015.
5. The Continued Development of Yasiel Puig
It’s easy to forget that Puig is only entering his age-24 season. With the Los Angeles Dodgers, Puig has had to do a lot of his learning on the fly, and for every highlight-reel play he makes, there are still too many head-scratching mistakes. In his third season, Puig should continue to correct those mistakes while also giving the Dodgers more consistent production on offense. Over his first two seasons, Puig has slashed .305/.386/.502 while putting up a wRC+ of 152, and while it may be hard to imagine a player as productive as Puig getting even better, almost everyone in the Dodgers organization agrees there is still room for improvement and that Puig is still only scratching the surface in terms of his talent and his development.
4. Andrew Friedman Now Has Money to Work With
Friedman is coming from an organization in Tampa Bay that had some extremely tight payroll restrictions. Despite this financial inflexibility, Friedman was able to help the Rays win at least 90 games in five of the last seven seasons, securing his reputation as one of the best executives in baseball. Now that Friedman is in Los Angeles, the financial restrictions are essentially nonexistent, and it will be interesting to see what he will be able to do with such flexibility. If there is a weakness that becomes apparent before midseason or the team is beset by injuries, Friedman has the money and the prospects to make a deal to improve the ballclub for the stretch run. With the creativity and intelligence of the Dodgers front office, the team can shift on the fly if need be and make any move that will better position the club for a deep playoff run.
3. A More Balanced Lineup
Even though the Dodgers were able to score 718 runs in 2014, the team still had some major holes in the lineup, especially during the times when Ramirez was out with injury. Dee Gordon had an excellent offensive season overall, but he ran extremely hot and cold and had several extended periods in which he slumped significantly. A.J. Ellis struggled through injury, and his replacements, Drew Butera and Tim Federowicz, made the Dodgers’ catchers among the least productive groups in all of baseball. While the Dodgers lost two of their best sluggers in Ramirez and Kemp, the whole of the lineup is much stronger than it was in 2014, with a variety of platoon options and very few weaknesses from top to bottom. That balance will keep pressure on opposing pitching staffs and will ensure that the Dodgers are no longer completely reliant on their middle-of-the-order hitters.
2. Influx of Exciting Young Players on the Way
Joc Pederson is going to be the first of the young Dodgers prospects to make the big league club, and he may be a strong candidate for a breakout rookie season. At Triple-A Albuquerque in 2014, Pederson slashed .303/.435/.582 while hitting 33 homers and stealing 30 bases. He is considered a gifted defender and could very well provide the Dodgers with the same kind of spark that Puig provided when he burst onto the scene in 2013. Along with Pederson at the top of the prospect rankings are Corey Seager and Julio Urias, both of whom are expected to start 2015 at Double-A and could push for a late-season call-up if they continue to advance as rapidly as they have of late. It’s more likely that the Dodgers do not see either until 2016, but the talent in the farm system is incredibly strong and provides the Dodgers with a variety of options as they seek their first title since the magical season of 1988.
1. Kershaw Will Not Wilt in the Playoffs Again
Clayton Kershaw was the 2014 Cy Young Award winner and the MVP of the National League, yet his performance in the postseason was not exactly what one would expect out of a pitcher of Kershaw’s ability. Over his last two postseasons, Kershaw has gone 1-4 with a 4.79 ERA. There is no way that a player as competitive and as talented as Kershaw will allow that trend to continue, so it is safe to say that Kershaw’s biggest goal for 2015 is likely to shake off his reputation as someone who cannot win in the postseason. Kershaw is simply too good of a pitcher and will not allow two bad innings of work to define his postseason career. Just as Madison Bumgarner willed the San Francisco Giants to a title in 2014, expect Kershaw to put the Dodgers on his back and carry his team to the World Series in 2015.
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