While there may or may not be a super team playing in Chicago that can steamroll through the National League, local pundits say no matter, the Dodgers will reach the 2017 World Series. Maybe they can do it, but as the Dodgers’ 2017 season starts tomorrow, while improvement along with much needed experience is evident in many areas, it’s still the pitching that will matter most, and that, for LA 2017, is still full of major question marks.
Let’s start behind the plate with a position that has not improved over last season. I’ve always been a critic of Yasmani Grandal, and despite his fine power showing of 2016, I still say he is way overrated in all aspects of the game. What was real last season for the lifetime .238 hitter was his below average .228 BA, not his career high 27 home runs,
which I doubt will be duplicated, let alone exceeded, this season. Backing up Grandal, the team no longer has A.J. Ellis, a great defensive catcher, clutch hitter, and pitchers’ favorite, who spent several seasons as the teams regular before the infamous trade of Matt Kemp for Grandal two years ago. Veteran Bobby Wilson had a fine spring, but failed to make the opening day roster, in favor of popular prospect and now-27-year-old Austin Barnes, who over brief opportunities the past two years in a major league uniform has hit a robust .180 with no power, totaling one double, zero home runs, three RBI in 61 at bats. It’s not like he tore up the spring, as he hit .190 in 41 at bats. Wilson hit .275 with four home runs during the spring, and should have been awarded the back-up job.
At first base, nothing more should need be said than Adrian Gonzalez, but the fact is that Gonzales is will be 35 years old next month, and has suffered from nagging injuries over the past couple of seasons. Thus it is clear that a solid back-up, preferably a right-handed-hitting back-up will be essential to the team, and this spring it seemed pretty clear that Scott Van Slyke is again healthy after last year’s wrist surgery, and that he can be counted on for that duty, as well as being a fill in at all three outfield spots. The next great Dodgers’ hitting prospect, lefty-hitting first baseman Cody Bellinger, had an undistinguished spring at the plate, hitting just .207, but showed that he can also play the outfield if needed. If he gets off to a good start in Triple-A, he should be in LA by summer, especially if Andre Ethier fails to make a swift recovery from his latest injury.
At second base, it seems that the Dodgers’ search for a long-term regular may finally be over, with the winter deal for Logan Forsythe, who brings solid defense and power to the spot, and who is coming off an excellent spring. The 30-year-old has barely entered the prime of his career and should be one of a couple of new guys who will help fill that right-handed power void the the Dodgers have had over the recent past. Forsythe hit 37 homers over the last two years in Tampa while hitting .271. He may not have the power of Brian Dozer, who the team rightly refused to trade for given the Minnesota demands, but he’s fairly close. Re-signing Chase Utley, now 38, was another great more, giving the team a solid lefty hitting backup at not just second but also at third, and also if needed at first base.
At third base, Justin Turner just seems to be better and better as each day goes by. Turner had a phenomenal spring (5 HRs, 18 RBI, .418 BA, 1.248 OPS). Backing him up will be both Forsythe and Utley, when needed. At short, there is reigning Rookie of the Year Corey Seager, who missed almost all of spring training due to injury, coming off his great rookie season, but he is ready to go tomorrow, and while one should expect a slow start from him due to his lack of spring playing time, remember he missed most of the 2016 spring as well and it did not take him long to round into form last year.
The last infield utility spot went to Kike Hernandez who clearly was out played throughout spring by Chris Taylor, but who got that last slot due to his experience in the outfield. Taylor was given a chance to play in the outfield, but his lack of professional outfield
experience clearly showed, and thus the underperforming and light-hitting (to say the least) Hernandez was awarded that roster spot.
Two major events have been the primary forces shaping the Dodgers’ 2017 outfield. First was the signing of veteran right-handed power hitter Franklin Gutierrez, who will play in left against every lefty starter the Dodgers face, and maybe, as the season progresses and depending on the performance of others, against some righties as well. The 34-year-old 11-year American League veteran hit 39 home runs in just 564 at bats over the last three seasons with Seattle, and that is a home run every 14.5 at bats. The Dodgers who have not been able to muster any semblance of offense against left handers in years, have now hopefully rectified that with the additions of Forsythe and Gutierrez.
The other event relating to the outfield was the injury to Andre Ethier. After a fine 2016 spring, Ethier broke his leg and missed virtually the entire season. This spring, he showed not just that he was healthy but that he we primed for an excellent season, hitting .500 with a 1.517 OPS, until a new injury, this time to his back, sidelined him for the foreseeable future. With Ethier on the DL to start the year – and for who knows how long – that means that there is no adequate platoon for one outfield spot. Before the injury, it figured that Andrew Toles would platoon with Yasiel Puig in right, while Ethier and Gutierrez manned left field. Now, Toles will be platooning in left, with Puig, at least to start the season, the full time regular in right. If he keeps his head on straight and concentrates on the game, he could regain his early promise and rise to stardom. Or, he could still be the guy in the manager’s dog house with trips to the minors instead of the All-Star game.
In center field, Joc Pederson will be the Dodgers’ everyday starter, with his speed and sterling defense saving games, and with improving contact at the plate. The power-hitting Pederson, who also gets on base far more than his batting average would indicate (as his .847 OPS in 2016 demonstrates) last year raised his average 36 points over 2015 while significantly cutting down on his strikeouts, and similar improvement this year would put him on the road to becoming one of the game’s very best all-around stars.
Backing up these guys will be Van Slyke and Hernandez, with the possibility that if needed, Rob Segedin, Brett Eibner or Trayce Thompson could be recalled from the minors. Segedin and Edner each had excellent springs and showed the possibility of major league talent, but there is no room on the roster, at least for now.
And then there is the pitching.
As to the starters, there is nothing to say about the game’s number one pitching star, Clayton Kershaw, and as the real number two, Kenta Maeda is solid. The guy in the number two spot but who is really no better than number three is Rich Hill, still in my mind someone who is vastly overpaid and unreliable. Sure, he was great over his 110.1 inning pitches last season, but his long, uneventful history says that it is the Dodgers who will be on the short end of his $48 M, three-year contract. Only once over the 37-year-old Hills’ 12 year career has he ever pitched more than that 110.1 innings in a season, and only twice has he ever started more than 16 games (32 and 20) in a season. The Dodgers need him to be solid for the entire season, but the odds are strongly against that happening.
Brandon McCarthy, now two years removed from Tommy John surgery and coming off a terrible 2016 (2-3, 4.95, 1.38 WHIP) has won the number four spot, and even that is a lot to ask for from the lifetime 57-68 injury-prone McCarthy.
The big story, however, is the healthy return of the once written-off Hyun-Jin Ryu. After two great seasons to start his career, Ryu has battled injury after injury and multiple surgeries since, and at 30 has had a brilliant spring and clearly earned a spot in the rotation. He’s got the stuff and he’s got the mentality, but the question now as always, is will he stay healthy?
Beginning the season in extended spring training in order to limit his early season innings so that he will be available for the stretch run and for the post season, is 20-year-old lefty
Julio Urias, who almost unquestionably will take over one of those starting sports around about June. And when he is ready, he will be the Dodgers’ number two starter behind only Kershaw.
As to the bullpen, this year as seemingly always, the issue is bridging the starter to closer Kenley Jansen. Sergio Romo, Grant Dayton, Chris Hatcher, Luis Avilan, Alex Wood and Ross Stripling made the roster, with last season’s primary set-up man Pedro Baez on the disabled list. Wood and Stripling are the long men, and in line to replace any of the starters if need be. Romo and Dayton are the set-up, seventh and eighth inning guys leading to Jansen, and in between we have to major question marks, Avilan and Hatcher. A second lefty short man besides Dayton is needed, and that is Avilan. Why the underachieving and inconsistent Avilan is employed over Adam Liberatore I cannot imagine. As to Hatcher, that is the worst roster move that Manager Dave Roberts has ever made. Hatcher is a one-man arson squad, now and forever, coming off a 5.25 spring ERA following his 5.53 Era and 1.50 WHIP of 2016. Lifetime those numbers are little better, at 4.73 and 1.38. Hatcher being in the major leagues on the roster of a legitimate pennant contender is a question of monumental proportions. Why? Tell me, why?
Can the Dodgers’ pitching be any where close to as good as the starting lineup? That is the question as the 2017 season begins and as the Dodgers seek yet another NL West Division Title and this year a league championship and trip to the World Series, for the first time since 1988.