The 2018 Dodgers will look a lot like the 2017 Dodgers, after one of the most bizarrely quiet offseasons in years.
Asking or expecting a team to win 104 games again is unrealistic. After all, even the Cubs looked vulnerable last year following their World Series triumph, unable to repeat the 103-win juggernaut magic from 2016. But the Cubs eventually rose to the top in their division last year, as the Dodgers will likely do again in 2018, which would be for a franchise-record sixth consecutive National League West title.
Los Angeles will see some adversity right out of the gate with third baseman Justin Turner suffering a broken left wrist. Initial reports say surgery isn’t needed but he will still open the season on the disabled list and it sure sounds like his season debut won’t come until at least May.
“It’s not ideal, but there are a lot of good ballplayers in here. I don’t think anyone is going to feel sorry for us,” Turner said. “We’ve still got to go out and play. It’s an opportunity for someone to step up.”
This is the sixth full season under the Guggenheim Baseball Partners ownership group, and after five years of leading MLB in payroll and paying $150 million in competitive balance tax penalties, this year the Dodgers have chosen a relatively austere route with an eye toward the future. The club will attempt to stay under the $197 million threshold in 2018 to reset their tax penalties, mindful of the upcoming free agent bonanza that will include Bryce Harper, Manny Machado but perhaps more importantly Clayton Kershaw.
The Dodgers’ ace is technically under contract through 2020 but he can opt out after the 2018 season. Having the best pitcher in baseball hit the open market is something the Dodgers would like to avoid, and general manager Farhan Zaidi said the club has an “open dialogue” with Kershaw.
“We just talk,” Kershaw said. “Farhan, Andrew [Friedman} and I have good communication, and we are all on the same page as far as everything is going.”
The Dodgers committed a grand total of $4 million in guaranteed money in free agent contracts this offseason to two players. Half of that money went to pitcher Tom Koehler, a former starter whose breaking ball became his calling card as a reliever. But his 2018 was thrown a curve almost before it began, sidelined for an undetermined amount of time with an anterior capsule strain of his right shoulder.
The other $2 million went to second baseman Chase Utley, the beloved clubhouse icon who even at 39 years old signed a two-year deal that represented the Dodgers’ longest commitment of the winter. Like I said, it was a weird offseason.
The biggest move of the winter was the return of Matt Kemp, a move that was more financially motivated than anything. Kemp was acquired from the Braves in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Charlie Culberson, a trade that spread out a bunch of salaries over two years instead of one. The Dodgers lopping roughly $28 million off their competitive balance tax payroll for 2018 accelerated their desire to get under the threshold.
The Kemp deal was surprising in two ways — one that it happened in the first place, and the other in that the outfielder is still around. The Dodgers were unable to find a taker for Kemp’s $43 million remaining salary, and for now will try to make the best of it. Kemp is a diminished version of his former near-MVP self, and part of a crowded outfield mix that will make playing time hard to come by.
Yasiel Puig is a fixture in right field and though Chris Taylor can play all over the infield and outfield the club would prefer he remain mostly in center field on a regular basis. That leaves a battle for left field reps between Kiké Hernandez, Andrew Toles, Joc Pederson and Kemp.
“With the outfield depth that we have, there are a lot of good players out there,” manager Dave Roberts said. “We have to try and see how it shakes out, but all guys are going to get opportunities.”
Even though the offseason was quiet the Dodgers still have 10 of their top 11 players in plate appearances returning, and nine of their top 10 pitchers. For the most part, the band is back together.
The starting rotation is strong, with Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda and Hyun-jin Ryu backing Kershaw, but not as deep as in recent seasons, a byproduct of the aforementioned desire to stay under that CBT threshold in 2018.
“We feel very confident with the five guys we do have but we don’t have the depth we had in the last couple years,” Roberts said.
Ross Stripling and Brock Stewart are relatively high on the rotation depth chart, but the one to watch will be Walker Buehler, the club’s top prospect.
Buehler was drafted in the first round in 2015 out of Vanderbilt, but Tommy John surgery wiped out nearly all of his 2016 campaign. He showed flashes of brilliance in 2017 as he made his way up the minor league ranks, and got his first taste of big league action out of the bullpen last September.
But Buehler’s future, and present, is as a starting pitcher. With just 98 innings on his odometer from last year, the right-hander’s 2018 will probably be capped at 140-150 innings. It’s just a matter of where and when those innings will be deployed.
“We know he’s going to pitch meaningful innings for us at the major league level,” Roberts said. “We don’t know when.”
After three straight seasons of producing a rookie All-Star position player — Pederson in 2015, Corey Seager in 2016 and Cody Bellinger in 2017 — including the last two NL Rookies of the Year, Buehler is the Dodgers rookie most likely to make the largest impact this season.
“You look on the position player side and the young players we’ve broken in over the last three or four years, we need to start doing that with our starting pitchers, and get to a point where one or two spots are taken down by our good young pitching and letting them have a runway to develop,” Friedman said. “I do think this year will provide some of that.”
Kenley Jansen leads a strong and deep Dodgers relief corps, with the biggest offseason addition likely Scott Alexander, an extreme ground ball left-hander who gives the bullpen a different look.
With mostly the same group of players, the Dodgers will again be a force in the National League. They should win their division again but after falling in Game 7 of the World Series last year their 2018 goals are higher than that.
“With the depth that we have, I’ll take us against anyone,” Roberts said.