This will be a year of transition for the Dodgers, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just different. A cadre of young talent is either on the cusp of the majors or already on the team. It’s undoubtedly an investment in the future, with an eye on the present.
The year won’t be defined by how the Dodgers perform during the regular season; how they fare in October will be how they are judged. That’s nothing new from the last decade, only this year the path to get to the postseason contains more questions than they are used to.
Miguel Vargas is in the showcase spot, getting a runway right from the get-go, after thriving in the Pacific Coast League in Triple-A at age 22 last year, which earned him major league playing time down the stretch and a spot on the NLDS roster. Vargas playing a ton this year is obvious given his hitting prowess, projected as an above-average hitter by ZiPS (115 wRC+) and Steamer (111 wRC+), and slightly below average by PECOTA (94 DRC+).
The surprise is that Vargas is playing second base, after playing over three quarters of his professional innings at third base, with a smattering of first base, second base, and left field. The club is betting on the athleticism of Vargas, who worked since the offseason with coach Dino Ebel and newcomer Miguel Rojas to get acclimated defensively at second base, and with J.D. Martinez on hitting.
Adding Rojas in January was very much needed for a Dodgers position-player group that lacked experienced depth. Same for outfielder David Peralta, who was signed last week. But both signings also highlight some general red flags about the roster. Rojas had surgery in October to fix a right wrist that sapped his power after the All-Star break last year, then needed another surgery in January to remove a piece of bone from his right hand. Peralta had offseason back surgery to repair a herniated disc.
We saw the effects of 30-somethings coming off major injuries last year, with Max Muncy struggling to find his power after a dislocated elbow, then messed up his swing in that pursuit. Chris Taylor had offseason elbow surgery before 2022 that limited him in the field, then later broke his foot and hurt his neck late in the season. Both Muncy and Taylor posted their worst seasons as regulars last year.
Mookie Betts remains one of the best players in baseball, but the rest of the outfield likely to open the season are 35-year-old Peralta coming off surgery, 32-year-old Taylor looking to rebound after an injury-plagued year, 32-year-old Trayce Thompson coming off a career year in limited playing time (and who’s averaged 107 games and 389 plate appearances between the majors and minors over the last five full seasons), and 33-year-old Jason Heyward, a non-roster invitee coming off a knee injury after hitting .211/.280/.326 with a 67 wRC+ the last two seasons with the Cubs.
Some of these players will pan out this year. If they don’t, next up waiting in the wings are James Outman after his incredible four-game debut last year and Michael Busch, who has yet to play in the majors and is a bat looking for a position (likely to be second base and left field), or maybe a couple of defense-first, light-hitting non-roster outfielders (Bradley Zimmer, Steven Duggar).
There’s more competition for playing time in spring training, compared to recent years.
This is not to say the Dodgers are bereft of talent on offense. Betts, Freddie Freeman, and Will Smith is as about as good of a heart of the order as you will find in the game, and the Dodgers are betting on the designated hitter Martinez outperforming the departed Justin Turner, who is three years older. PECOTA even projects the Dodgers to score the second-most runs in MLB this year. I just think among the rest of the group, described above, there is a lot of variance in their expectations, maybe more than the Dodgers are accustomed.
On the pitching side, there are also question marks. Clayton Kershaw hasn’t pitched more than 131⅓ innings since 2019. Tony Gonsolin is coming off a forearm strain that wiped out the final month-plus of a dream season and his 131⅔ innings last year were his most since 2018. Dustin May is coming off Tommy John surgery and will likely have his innings limited. Noah Syndergaard pitched 142 innings last year in his first full season after Tommy John surgery, but spent his offseason looking for tweaks in trying to regain the velocity he had in his Mets days. If Walker Buehler pitches this year at all, it might be in September after his Tommy John surgery and flexor tendon repair last August.
But they do have Julio Urías at the top, after two straight years receiving Cy Young votes and an ERA title last year.
“He’s a guy that’s going to be our workhorse,” manager Dave Roberts said of Urías at FanFest at Dodger Stadium on February 4, in the understatement of the year. “If you look at the rotation and how it’s constructed, I would expect him to lead our staff in innings pitched.”
Starting depth is at the ready, with Ryan Pepiot and Michael Grove on the 40-man roster after each made their debuts last year, and top prospects Bobby Miller and Gavin Stone likely to see time in the majors this year. Having eight of the top nine starting pitchers on the depth chart as homegrown players is remarkable, and that doesn’t even include the injured Buehler.
The bullpen might not have a defined closer, but they do have a lot of arms. Eventually, injured relievers Alex Reyes and J.P. Feyereisen could help, too, and maybe even Blake Treinen in September.
Teams aren’t supposed to win over 100 games every year. The Dodgers in each of their last full seasons have tied or set a franchise record for wins, winning 106 games twice then 111 games last year. In between, they had a .717 winning percentage during the pandemic-truncated season that culminated in a World Series championship.
After leading their league in both runs scored and fewest runs allowed in each of the last five years, something no MLB team had ever done before, the Dodgers might have to settle for being near the top in both categories instead. That’s still a very good team, even if they (gasp) don’t win 100 games, or even if they don’t win the division.
“Just win the World Series, however you do it,” Freeman said at FanFest.
I think the Dodgers come up a little short in the division race to San Diego, but remain one of the best teams in the National League, along with the Padres, Braves, and Mets. But it’ll be how Los Angeles does in October that measures their season, like always.