It was in an uber on the way back to Sherman Oaks after “The Rich Hill Game” that I swore off the Dodgers – not as a team, definitely not in my heart, but from ever expecting them to actually win a World Series. I still remember the Yasiel Puig blast in the bottom of the sixth inning, a moment I was certain would take its place in the Dodgers pantheon along with Kirk Gibson‘s blast in 1988. The energy in the stadium at that moment was as frenetic as I’d felt at a sporting event, and I was nearly driven to tears with joy. The Dave Roberts/Rich Hill ‘miscommunication‘ followed, and the entire season fell apart, along with the very fabric of my Dodgers fanmanship.
The offseason was rough. To cut to the chase, I didn’t want the Dodgers to acquire Bryce Harper, even though he, along with Puig, would qualify as what passes for my ‘favorite player’ as an adult. But then the Dodgers traded Puig! I despised the move, until I realized that it could only mean one thing – the Dodgers were going to get Harper!!! Why else would they trade the beloved, albeit inconsistent, fan-favorite? It had to be the genius of Andrew Friedman’s front office because, well, Matt Kemp was jettisoned in the deal too.
They were clearing out salary. . .then the days ticked by. So did the weeks. Then they signed AJ Pollock. Okay, quick pause for my thoughts on Pollock, the former Diamondback that would wreck the Dodgers when he was healthy: oft-injured, a pesky hitter with decent pop, a scrappy fielder that could pick off a runner, and a guy that could really help your team as your second-best outfielder. But the Dodgers signed him, seemingly instead of Harper, and that pissed me off. He was going to play 100-120 games per season for the Dodgers, I thought.
Spring Training started and not only was Harper unsigned, but the Dodgers were effectively out of the running. Until they were back in it. My heart was in my throat – would they really pay the rumored $40-$50million/season he’d require for a short contract? You think Guggenheim, you think about the disastrous TV deal that benefits nobody except the coffers of the organization, and you say, “it’s not my money – let’s do it.” But the Dodgers are too smart for that. From a business perspective. But what about the fans, you ask. And what about me? I personally want the first flag in 31 years, and with this offseason, one of minimal tinkering – Pollock, Joe Kelly, Russell Martin, and that’s it? Did the team actually get better, as some say, with addition by subtraction?
I personally feel the Dodgers are a worse team in 2019 than they were in 2018. Yet they still may be positioned to achieve the ultimate goal simply because of how the team is constructed. Back-to-back World Series provide a strong proof of concept, that the depth in this organization – and its deft application by Roberts – is a winning formula for the regular season.
Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger figure to be in the lineup every day in 2019. Corey Seager returns; he’s looked slick at shortstop in the spring, and still has one of the sweetest swings in the game. Kiké is now Enrique Hernandez, and after a two-year journey under Chase Utley’s wing, seems to have finally matured – with a revamped swing – and won the starting second base job outright. Austin Barnes will land somewhere in between the energy-infusing, quick-twitch backstop he was in 2017 and the disappointment he was in 2018, and splitting the job “60/40” with Russell Martin will provide a solid catching tandem. Max Muncy is a problem at first base, both defensively and offensively – he looked, in Spring, more like the player the A’s released in 2017 than the 2018 Home Run Derby participant. I do feel that Bellinger’s outstanding glove is nullified by placing him in right field. Joc Pederson is who we think he is, a 25-30 home run bat that will hit around .229 in a full season, but he may not get the chance as this is make-or-break time for Alex Verdugo, who looks primed to win one of the starting outfield slots by early May, and has proven everything he could at the minor league level. Chris Taylor is still going to provide a ton of backward K’s to go with his near-20 home run season, and is a great super utility player. And yes, David Freese is on the club again, an underappreciated piece in this mosaic of pretty good ballplayers up and down the roster.
The pitching, as always, is the key. We knew Kershaw wasn’t ever going to make 30 starts again, but to begin Spring Training with a balky arm and start the season on the Injured List is a cruel reminder for Dodger fans. With the brittle Rich Hill also shelved with a knee sprain, the Dodgers will look to the resurgent Hyun-Jin Ryu to start Opening Day, and hopefully repeat a wildly successful 2018 campaign. Walker Buehler, the true Ace, is back in the fold, but the organization is “slow-playing” the Justin Verlander clone after extending him last year. Additionally, Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling are back, and Julio Urias is going to get his chance to stick in the rotation, unless the innings limitations are imposed upon him as well. Regardless, the depth is there but another arm – Dallas Keuchel, anybody? – would go a long ways in quieting concerns about another season of record-breaking trips to the mound by Honeycutt & Roberts.
I do like the bullpen, led by the newly-svelte Kenley Jansen, fresh off of heart surgery and full of guile, with (hopefully, the 2018 version of) Pedro Baez showing up as the set-up man. Joe Kelly is a little bit of an overrated acquisition as his career stats don’t exactly jump off the page, but he’s a veteran and as they say, his ‘presence’ should help the younger releivers, such as Caleb Ferguson and Yimi Garcia. Scott Alexander and Dylan Floro round out the pen, and yeah – if this sounds familiar, it’s because this really is nearly identical to the 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers.
That’s right, the team that went to the World Series. The Nationals have a fearsome rotation; the Cubs underperformed in 2018 and still went to the playoffs; the Phillies, as you may have heard, acquired Bryce Harper. The Mets are improved and the Rockies are still tough. But realistically, is there a National League team better positioned than the unimproved Dodgers? I really don’t think so. This organizational philosophy is clearly successful and they have laid the blueprint for regular season and (at least, National League) playoff success and they are continuing to follow the same formula.
For as much flak as Dave Roberts takes for his ‘game management,’ he’s one of the most adept clubhouse generals in all of sports and universally beloved by his players. That is not insignificant in the grind of a 162-game, nine-month season. Just make sure this year that when they’re in the World Series again, there are no more miscommunications. It would be too much for my heart to bear.
And as always, the obligatory Vin Scully reference:
It’s time for Dodger baseball. . .