Happy Opening Day Eve, everyone. It’s been a long winter, but it’s finally almost time for Dodger baseball!
The True Blue LA staff has examined each National League West team this the week, and we are finishing up with a preview of the boys in blue.
Look back at 2018
The team suffered significant losses during the season due to injuries. Justin Turner started the first six weeks of the season on the injured list, Corey Seager’s year ended in May to get surgery on his elbow and hip, and Hyun-Jin Ryu spent three months on the injured list after experiencing a severe left groin strain.
Despite these injuries, 2018 was also the season the Dodgers claimed their sixth-straight division title - but it didn’t come easily. It took 163 games for the NL West to be won - seeing the Dodgers and Rockies battle it out until the very end.
They finished the regular season with a record of 92-71, leading the division by as much as 25 1⁄2 games over the San Diego Padres.
Additions and subtractions
It was a quietly active offseason for the Dodgers. They made a handful of moves, with almost each one receiving a high amount of criticism.
The first (and arguably biggest) move came on Dec. 21. LA agreed to trade outfielders Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig, along with starter Alex Wood and bench piece Kyle Farmer to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Homer Bailey, Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray.
For LA, it was basically a salary dump, getting rid of Kemp’s hefty contract and parting ways with Puig and Wood before they hit the free-agent market next offseason. The Dodgers got back two solid prospects in the deal, but immediately released Bailey, which was a condition of his accepting the trade, a right he held as a “10-and-5” player, someone with over 10 years of service time with the last five or more with the current team.
With a spot open in the outfield, the Dodgers signed center fielder A.J. Pollock to a five-year deal. Pollock tormented LA last season, hitting .301 and mashing nine homers in only 19 games against them last season.
On top of losing two starting outfielders, the Dodgers also lost their starting catcher. After declining the qualifying offer, Yasmani Grandal became a free-agent and signed with the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Dodgers also acquired Russell Martin from the Toronto Blue Jays. Martin, a familiar face, spent the first five seasons of his career in Los Angeles.
LA’s bullpen will remain mostly the same, with the exception of Joe Kelly. The Dodgers inked the right-handed reliever to a three-year deal. Dodgers fans remember Kelly far too well, as he was practically unhittable in the World Series for the Red Sox. In six innings, Kelly struck out 10 and only allowed four hits.
Other notable names lost: Manny Machado, Brian Dozier, Ryan Madson, Chase Utley and Pat Venditte.
Right now, the pitching for the Dodgers is all over the place. Injuries to some players have complicated things for Dave Roberts and everyone else.
As it stands right now, the starting rotation consists of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ross Stripling, Kenta Maeda, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias. Both Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill will be beginning the season on the injured list.
Though he appeared in only 15 games last season, Ryu put together his most productive season as a member of the Dodgers. He finished the year 7-2, posting an ERA of 1.97 and a WHIP of 1.008 - both career-highs. His strikeouts per nine innings ratio was a career high (9.7), as well was his strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.93). He’ll be the first starter not named Clayton Kershaw to start Opening Day since Vicente Padilla in 2010.
Projected to be a reliever in 2019, Stripling finds himself back in the starting rotation, a job that helped lead him to an All-Star appearance last season. Through the end of June last year, Stripling was one of the biggest surprises in baseball. He had an ERA of 1.98, and had a record of 6-2. He struggled in the second half, finding himself demoted to the bullpen as he dealt with injuries. Over his final 11 appearances, his ERA was just under five at 4.84, and he allowed 10 home runs.
On the flip side, the Dodgers’ defense is set to go.
In an interview with MLB Network’s Brian Kenny in early March, Cody Bellinger revealed he would be the everyday right fielder. He was in the conversation to become the center fielder, but his right-field role was decided with the addition of Gold Glove winner, A.J. Pollock.
Pollock will likely lead the outfield this season, bringing seven years of experience and top-notch defense. In 2018, Pollock had a .996 fielding percentage, only committing 3 errors in 109 games.
Finishing off the outfield in the 7 spot will be Joc Pederson.
The departure of Yasmani Grandal made way for the promotion of Austin Barnes from backup catcher to starter.
Dave Roberts estimated Austin Barnes will catch 60% of the time and Russell Martin 40%. Barnes has had a nice spring after regressing in 2018.— Pedro Moura (@pedromoura) March 21, 2019
Barnes had a disappointing 2018 season, but his Spring Training performance may be a sign of future success. In 53 plate apperanes, Barnes is batting .289/.396/.489/.885, including two home runs and 12 RBIs. Though not official yet, Barnes is projected to get the start on Opening Day.
Max Muncy, Enrique Hernandez, Corey Seager and Justin Turner make up the infield.
After Muncy’s stellar 2018 season, the bar is set high for this new year. Muncy crushed 35 home runs in his first season with the Dodgers and gained votes on the 2018 National League MVP ballot.
Enrique Hernandez finally has his set role on the team, after serving as the super-utility player for three seasons. Hernandez was named the everyday second baseman, filling in the spot Chase Utley left vacant.
Third baseman Justin Turner will enter the new season on a hot streak, after having an incredible 2019 Spring Training outing. He is batting an impressive .465 with a slugging percentage of .814.
Corey Seager makes his regular season return on Opening Day after surgery cut his 2018 season short. The 2017 Silver Slugger award winner is coming back hoping to see another great season.
Multiple prospect lists including ones published on MLB Pipeline, ESPN, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, The Athletic (John Sickels) and Fangraphs identified the same five Dodger prospects as among the Top 100 this season.
Those were outfielder Alex Verdugo, catchers Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith, right-handed pitcher Dustin May and infielder Gavin Lux.
Alex Verdugo is going to be on the Opening Day roster for the first time in his career. Verdugo was drafted in the 2nd Round in 2014 and he has played in Oklahoma City for the last two seasons. The left-handed batter can play all three outfield positions and he will be biding his time on the bench looking to make his mark.
Keibert Ruiz was the prospect who was named the team’s best prospect when Verdugo was not. The best catching prospect in baseball was placed on the 40-man roster last November.
The 20-year-old switch-hitting prospect had a .728 OPS with 12 home runs in Tulsa last season. He struck out 33 times and had 26 walks in 415 plate appearances.
Ruiz had a .638 OPS against left-handed pitchers; he had a little more than 20% of his plate appearances as a right-handed batter.
Keith Law said the following about Ruiz in an interview back in February.
“You’d like to see more performance now that his age gets closer to the age of the pitchers he is facing,” Law said. “He’s got power, you want to see more of the power play, you want to see more high quality contact, he’s able to put the ball in play a lot, you want to see results on those balls that he puts in to play.”
And as for Ruiz’s defense, Law said, “with Ruiz he has tools, translating those into skills that are better and better receiving.”
The other two prospects that are on the Top 100 lists are right-handed pitcher Dustin May and infielder Gavin Lux. Dustin May made his presence known this spring.
Who stood out for you this spring? #Dodgers Dave Roberts didn't hesitate: "Dustin May. Dustin May is probably the biggest standout. Much more advanced. Then just the makeup, his presence, the feel. Everything."— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) March 23, 2019
Gavin Lux made a few errors with his arm this spring but look for him to play both second base and shortstop in the minors this season.
Lux had a .916 OPS in 400+ plate appearances at Rancho Cucamonga where he played a key role in their first half success. And then Lux was promoted to Tulsa where all he did was have a .904 OPS in 119+ plate appearances as the Drillers were able to secure a postseason spot at the end of August.
Lux then hit .424/.500/.758 in the playoffs as the Drillers would go on to win the Texas League championship.
Will Smith is probably next after Verdugo to make an impact on the major league roster. Smith has been cited as being major league ready behind the plate. It will be his skill with the bat that will determine his career path in the majors.
The Dodgers are projected to win their seventh-straight NL West division title and improve to a 93-69 record. Their starting rotation, bullpen and lineup are all strong enough to propel them back into the fall classic (and perhaps win it this time). It’s just a matter of staying healthy.