Are the Dodgers Any Better Today Than On Opening Day, 2014?

The answer is, most likely, no. but it is not a simple question to answer.

First and foremost, the Dodgers are significantly better defensively. With Jimmy Rollins the new shortstop replacing Hanley Ramirez, the infield defense is vastly improved. Howie Kendrick is also an improvement, though not nearly as much so, at second base. Justin Turner and Juan Uribe splitting time at third, and Adrian Gonzalez at first can be expected to provide the same consistently good defense as they have in the past. Behind the plate, newcomer Yasmani Grandal is said to be an improvement over A.J. Ellis, but Ellis did a fine job defensively over the past four seasons, despite this new garbage stat of “pitch-framing” that is totally meaningless in evaluating the overall performance of a catcher, and what he can mean to an individual pitcher, such as Clayton Kershaw.

In the outfield, Carl Crawford figures to still get playing time in left, whenever he is healthy, and he will continue to cover a lot of ground, catch whatever batted balls he gets to, and to still have the worst throwing arm of any major league outfielder. Scott Van Slyke and newcomer Chris Heisey are average defensive players who will see time in left, how much depending on Crawford's injury status. In right, Yasiel Puig returns to his best position, and he can be counted on to make
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great catches, spectacular throws, and mess up the occasional routine play. Rookie Joc Pederson will be in center, and he brings the best defense in center that the team will have seen in years. Should he fail to hit well enough to keep the starting job, however, none of the other outfielders on the roster, and as of today that still includes Andre Ethier, are acceptable, everyday center fielders defensively.

Offensively, the Dodgers could just as good as last year, but more likely, not as good. Rollins has power, but does not figure to hit as many home runs as Ramirez, and he certainly will not hit for as high an average. At second base, Kendrick is a solid hitter, will hit as high or higher than Gordon, with more power and run production, but the team will miss the speed that Gordon provided. Behind the plate, Ellis had a very poor 2014, but he hit well over the preceding three seasons, and Grandal doe not figure to be any offensive improvement. Two-thirds of the outfield, Puig and Crawford, plus his caddies who play most of the games when he is injured, are basically the same as last season, but the third

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spot is the difference. After a slow start, Matt Kemp had a monster second half, and while Pederson has been a great minor league hitter, he has yet to show he can hit major league pitching. Even a good rookie season from Pederson is unlikely to come close to equaling the numbers put up by Kemp, though Pederson's speed, assuming he does get on
base enough, can make up for some of the loss of speed and stolen bases with the departure of Gordon.

The bottom line on whether or not the Dodgers overall have improved is dependent on the pitching. For the starters, Kershaw, Zach Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu remain at the top of the rotation, and the team’s success first and foremost depends on the three of them, along with closer Kenley Jansen, all staying healthy for the full season. But, the rest of the rotation now has two new names, two pitchers who have seldom been able to avoid serious injuries, and long-term absences from their teams’ rotations. Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson are talented, but that does no good if they cannot pitch. The primary holders of the number four and five spots in the Dodgers’ rotation last season, Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, and Paul Maholm, combined to win 20 games in 60 total starts last season. McCarthy and Anderson have never come close to combining to win that many games in any one season. They won 11 total last season, in a combined 40 starts. Haren, Beckett,and Maholm are all gone, as are the two other spot starters, Roberto Hernandez and Kevin Correia, and another newcomer, Juan Nicasio, possessor of a 5.03 lifetime ERA over four seasons, and whose best season saw him win nine times in 31 starts with a 5.14 ERA and 1.47 WHIP, would be first in line to take over for either of the other two new guys. It sure looks from here that the starting staff is less solid, less experienced, and even more injury prone than was last year’s group.

But like always, the key is the bullpen, and that has not been well addressed, though with Brian Wilson gone, the relief corp begins with a significant lift upwards. Also, the addition of Chris Hatcher and the potential of Joe Wieland do provide some hope. But, as to experienced, reliable, veteran pitchers who can come in and hold the opposition in the seventh and eighth innings, which was so sorely missing last season, there is absolutely no improvement. Joel Peralta
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and possibly Nicasio, are not answers to this problem, and as I wrote several days ago, Chris Withrow is unlikely to return to action before the All-Star break. So, as of now, the group of “veterans” for that important duty still includes the likes of Brandon League, J.P. Howell, Carlos Frias, Pedro Baez, and Paco Rodriguez. This remains unacceptable, and scary. Maybe Hatcher or Wieland, or even Peralta can do the job, but the Dodgers and new head guy Andrew Friedman seems to have glossed over one of the team’s most glaring weaknesses, one that cried out for significant help.

So, overall, it’s not an easy assessment, but as of now, it is hard to conclude that the Dodgers are, overall, improved from the team that crashed and burned in last season’s post season. And I did not even mention the fact the the Dodgers are still without a major league caliber manager, but are instead still under the incapable thumb of the empty uniform non-manager, Don Mattingly.

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