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4 questions as the Dodgers try to repeat as champions

Expectations are high in LA in 2021

No major league team has repeated as World Series champions in over two decades, since the New York Yankees won three straight titles from 1998-2000. The Dodgers are as well set up as any team to win again in 2021, so let’s dig into some questions about this team.

How many games will the Dodgers win?

Okay, this is cheating a little bit since we already talked about this the other day. But the point here is that projection systems, oddsmakers, and several columnists and writers see the Dodgers as a juggernaut. Intuitively it makes sense given the returning talent, and adding the reigning Cy Young winner to an already stacked rotation.

“The pedigree is, is there, the talent is there,” manager Dave Roberts said last week. “Obviously, you bring in Trevor Bauer, and you bring back David Price, and then the younger players that have got even more experience, you would think that makes them even better. I mean, there’s no telling how good this club can be.”

The Dodgers will certainly be challenged, since it sure looks like the Padres are something like either the second- or third-best team in baseball. Winning a ninth straight National League West title won’t be easy, but Los Angeles has the talent to do it, and might even benefit from getting pushed all year by an awesome San Diego team.

As wild as it is to actually predict a team to win in triple digits, we are in the golden age of extremism in MLB, with the very best teams in part propped up by the very worst, with several teams either tanking or incompetent, or both. From 2017-19 there were nine 100-win teams in MLB, and last year the Dodgers and Rays each won at over that clip in the 60-game season. Since the beginning of 2017 the Dodgers have won 63.1 percent of their games, which translates to 102 wins in 162 games.

This is team is good enough to do at least that, and probably more.

Should we be worried about Cody Bellinger’s shoulder?

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers plan to bat Cody Bellinger cleanup to open the season, which has mostly been his usual spot in the lineup for his career. But at the end of last year and for all 18 postseason games Bellinger batted sixth, after what for him was a relatively down year.

Bellinger hit .239/.333/.455, which was still an above-average 114 wRC+ with a home run total (12) that still translated to 32 over a full season. Coupled with his stellar defense in center field, Bellinger’s floor is still quite valuable, but his expectations are through the roof after winning an MVP in 2019.

He had shoulder surgery in November after dislocating it while celebrating his pennant-winning home run in Game 7 of the NLCS (that moment was pretty popular), and didn’t swing a bat until January. Bellinger didn’t get into a Cactus League game until mid-March, and as someone who vividly remembers shoulder-induced power outages from Shawn Green, Matt Kemp, and Adrian Gonzalez, it’s understandable to be skeptical of Bellinger’s power returning right away.

Bellinger hit .179/.258/.536 and struck out 35 percent of the time in the Cactus League. But he also homered on both Monday and Tuesday at Dodger Stadium, so maybe he’s getting back on track.

Spring stats mean what you want them to mean, so draw your own conclusions.

How deep is your love (of pitching)?

The Dodgers head into the regular season with eight starting pitchers on their active roster. They will only use five at a time, but one of those is the reigning Cy Young winner. And the three others will be deployed in a variety of roles, from long relief, potentially even closing out a game, or as Roberts called Jimmy Nelson, a “two-inning monster.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Los Angeles Dodgers
Trevor Bauer is one of three former Cy Young Award winners on the Dodgers pitching staff.
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

What is important is that the Dodgers are including all eight pitchers on their roster, letting the talent win out. They gain flexibility, and have uncommon depth in a season that might require it. Nobody really knows how pitchers especially will be able to go from a 60-game season to 162. I think it’s fair to assume it will be tough for anyone — perhaps in MLB — reach 200 innings this year.

Not that they have to.

Here are the Dodgers who had enough innings (one per team game) to qualify for leaderboards over the last five years:

  • 2016: Kenta Maeda
  • 2017: Clayton Kershaw
  • 2018: none
  • 2019: Hyun-jin Ryu, Walker Buehler, Kershaw
  • 2020: none

That’s only five pitching seasons over the last five years, with nobody pitching more than 182⅔ innings. The last time the Dodgers had a 200-inning season was 2015, when Zack Greinke and Kershaw finished second and third, respectively, in NL Cy Young voting.

Having Bauer going deep into games should ease some of the burden on the rest of the staff. And having three “starters” in relief give them extra flexibility. The Dodgers are attacking in both quantity and quality, and should be able to fill a lot of innings using several above-average pitchers.

Will Kenley Jansen remain the closer?

It’s become an annual tradition that Jansen comes into spring looking to bolster his hold on the ninth inning, which was followed in both 2019 and 2020 by Jansen eventually getting bypassed in key postseason situations.

For now, Jansen looks solid. He allowed only one run in eight spring appearances, and struck out nearly half (13) of his 28 batters faced. We pay attention to velocity with Jansen (and Kershaw), but his command will be the key to his season. If he can keep spotting his pitches as he did most of the spring, the Dodgers bullpen will be, as Roberts said, at its best with Jansen closing most games.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Texas Rangers Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

But Roberts has shown in each of the last two years that he will turn elsewhere as is needed. Five different pitchers recorded saves last postseason, and the Dodgers certainly have options should Jansen falter. Blake Treinen and Corey Knebel have closing experience, and the Dodgers are particularly high on Brusdar Graterol and his blazing fastball. Or they could occasionally have one of their extra starters close out a game with two or three innings.

The Dodgers would be best if Jansen is effective. It makes everything else in the bullpen flow more easily. But the Dodgers used to be overly reliant on Kershaw, too, and if he slumped that would greatly affect how the team fared. If this most recent iteration of Dodgers teams has shown anything, it’s that they are deep enough to withstand quite a lot.

Bellinger and Max Muncy have relative down years? No problem, the Dodgers still led the majors in runs scored and home runs. Kershaw scratched with back problems? No problem, we have this Dustin May character who can step in and start on opening day. So if Jansen falters, the Dodgers will probably figure out a way to compensate. But it would be best if he didn’t.

The last word

I managed to write over 1,100 words without yet mentioning Mookie Betts or Corey Seager, so I will bring up my favorite stat from 2020. Counting the postseason, when Betts and Seager batted first and second, the Dodgers were 40-13 (.755) and averaged 6.28 runs per game.

Can they do it again?

“Expectations are higher from the outside, and I think internally we expect ourselves to perform well, to make it back [to the World Series] and win it again. It gets tougher and tougher to prepare every day,” Betts said Tuesday. “But hey, that’s what we signed up for. We know what we’ve got to do. At this point, it’s just mind over matter.”

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