Opening Day is Thursday (somehow; this winter went by pretty quickly), and the Dodgers are slated to be among the league’s best again. That’s not news. But to be among the elite teams, they’re going to need contributions from unexpected sources — perhaps some bold contributions.
This is the long way of saying I’m here to make five bold predictions about the 2019 Dodgers’ season.
I’m going to make these bold, but not crazy. They won’t be pedestrian, but they won’t be outlandish, either. I did this a couple years ago over at Dodgers Digest.
- Enrique Hernandez will hit at least 30 home runs and make the All-Star team
Not necessarily in that order, mind you. But Hernandez is a prime breakout candidate this season. He was recently named the Dodgers’ primary second baseman and should get a chance to break the 500-plate appearance threshold this season (his career-high is 462).
Hernandez hit a career-best 21 home runs in 2019. He also saw his isolated power increase for a third consecutive season. Not surprisingly, his HR/FB% and has also increased in that time. And while his average fly ball distance hasn’t increased that much over the years (318 feet last season), he raised his fly ball rate by 4 percent. More fly balls means more chances for dingers!
Hernandez is one of the most popular Dodgers. If he’s hitting at an All-Star level, it stands to reason that MLB fans would fall in love with him, maybe giving him a chance to start the game. But if he’s playing well, there’s a certain Dodgers’ manager who will be coaching the NL All-Star team who could decide to include him on the sure-the roster.
2. Clayton Kershaw will have an ERA north of 3.50
Kershaw’s career-worst in ERA is 4.26, which came in 2008 his — his rookie season. Since then, his highest ERA in any season has been 2.91 (2010). Even after struggling with back injuries over the last few years, Kershaw still hasn’t broken 3.00 in ERA. His 3.89 ERA in September 2018 and 4.20 ERA in October (i.e., the postseason) don’t exactly quell concerns about his upcoming season, especially because he has already been dinged up in Spring Training.
Kershaw had his first bout of shoulder soreness, which could or could not be related to the back injuries from years past. At 31, that’s not a great sign. Kershaw’s velocity is down and probably isn’t coming back. And if there’s any pitcher who can succeed with diminished velocity and/or stuff, it’s Kershaw. At the same time, if he doesn’t figure out a way to separate his fastball and slider, it might not matter.
Now, just because this prediction calls for a 3.50-plus ERA doesn’t mean Kershaw won’t be successful or valuable. Even at that level, he could be a 2-3 win pitcher (he was at 3.3 WAR last season). The key is for him to throw enough innings to get to that level. He’s averaged nearly 162 innings per season over the last three years.
3. Tony Gonsolin will pitch 50 or more innings in the majors in 2019
Gonsolin is one of the best pitching prospects in the farm system. And while he’s not been pitching that long (converted from infield in college), he has taken quite nicely to the mound. He’s coming off a breakout season in the minors that earned him the organization’s Branch Rickey Minor League Pitcher of the Year award.
He has advanced quickly through the system. He logged 44 1/3 innings with Double-A Tulsa last season, so he’s close to the majors. If last season is any indication, the Dodgers aren’t opposed to promoting a non-40-man roster pitcher to the majors after a short stint at Double-A. Caleb Ferguson pitching in 39 innings for Tulsa last season before a short, two-game promotion to Triple-A. After that, he was promoted to the majors. He made three starts and 26 relief appearances that totaled 49 innings. For Gonsolin to top 50 innings, he’d have to come up in a similar capacity, or start more games. With the volatility of the pitching staff, that definitely isn’t out of the question.
4. Kenta Maeda will lead the team in pitching WAR
In his first three MLB seasons, Maeda has fWAR marks of 3.0, 1.7 and 2.4. None of them have been particularly close to leading the team. That’ll happen when you have prime Kershaw and an up-and-coming kid like Walker Buehler.
Over the last three seasons, Maeda is second on the team in innings pitched (435 1⁄3 ). But this season could be different for Maeda. Kershaw and Rich Hill are already missing time to start the season and Julio Urias is on an innings limit. Buehler could blow this prediction out of the water, but the Dodgers might try to manage his innings a bit this season, too. That would leave Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ross Stripling as the biggest challengers to the team WAR lead. Ryu could very well end up being that guys, seeing as he’s pitching for a long-term deal after the season and appears to be fully recovered from the injuries that dogged him from 2015-17. Stripling could also be that guy, but if all the Dodgers’ starters are healthy at the same time, he probably gets shifted to the bullpen before Maeda or anyone else.
Speaking of Maeda and the bullpen, let’s hope this is the year the Dodgers don’t mess with him. I think it’s been admirable of Maeda to be willing to shift to the bullpen for September and October at the expense of contract incentives and he has been pretty good in the role (2017-18): 25 2⁄3 IP, 3.16 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 30.2 K-BB%. But in the 2018 postseason, Maeda wasn’t nearly as sharp (4.05 ERA) as he was in the regular season and the previous season’s playoffs (0.84 ERA). Plus, if he’s pitching well enough to be atop the team’s pitching WAR leaderboard, the Dodgers probably won’t want him to move to the bullpen anyway.
5. Kenley Jansen will return to form in 2019
Jansen is coming off the worst season of his MLB in many categories. He posted career-worsts in ERA (3.01), FIP (4.03), K% (28.4) and HR/9 (1.63) — just to name a few. Much of that could be blamed on the atrial fibrillation he suffered in August that caused him to miss two weeks of action. Prior to the episode, he was pitching well, but not up to his standards (2.15 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 28.4 K%), but after he came back, he had an ugly 5.71 ERA, 6.85 FIP and gave up seven home runs in 17 1/3 innings.
After a winter that included a procedure to correct the issue, Jansen should be back and ready to be the guy we’ve come to adore in eight of the last nine years. He will again be the lockdown closer that every team needs. He’ll be a sub-2 ERA and FIP guy, a 2-plus WAR guy and post 40-plus saves. Oh, and his strikeout rate will rebound dramatically. He may not get to 40-plus percent again, but he’ll run a rate of at least 35 percent in 2019.
He’s the most important piece of the bullpen. We saw that last season when he was out — and considering that was him not at his best, it just shows how valuable a pitcher he is for this club. He’ll anchor the bullpen again and be great.
That’s all I’ve got. Agree? Disagree? Have predictions of your own? Let us know down in the comments.