April 23, 2019

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A Deep Talent Pool Should Keep the Dodgers Afloat

A Deep Talent Pool Should Keep the Dodgers Afloat
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The final out of the last World Series exemplified the Los Angeles Dodgers’ resourcefulness and torment. The year before, they had lost the World Series to the Houston Astros when their star shortstop, Corey Seager, grounded out to end Game 7. Last fall, long after Seager had been lost for the season to injury, his replacement, Manny Machado, struck out to clinch the title for the Boston Red Sox.

The Dodgers simply excel at talent acquisition, loading their roster with more solid players — and the occasional superstar — than any other team in the majors. Yet they’ve suffered the indignity of losing the last two World Series on their home field.

Those defeats may obscure just how good the Dodgers really are. They have a strong chance to become the first team since the 1923 Yankees to lose two World Series in a row and return for a third try.

“Last year was probably the most talented team I’ve ever been around, but it didn’t necessarily perform like that on a nightly basis,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president for baseball operations. “We led the N.L. in runs scored, we led the N.L. in fewest runs allowed, but it was just kind of the choppiness of it. For us, a lot of it is how to be as consistent as we can be, bring our talent to the forefront as many nights as we possibly can.”

Talent was everywhere on the roster last season, and this one should be no different. By Baseball Prospectus’s calculations, the Dodgers had 18 players with at least two wins above replacement for them last season. No other team had more than 13 such players, and the average team had seven.

That depth allows Manager Dave Roberts to aggressively exploit matchup advantages on offense, and to use his starting pitchers with extreme caution. The Dodgers are the only team that has not used a pitcher for 180 innings in any of the last three seasons.

They will be tempted this season to unleash Walker Buehler, who sparkled last fall in a one-game playoff with Colorado for the National League West title; in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series clincher in Milwaukee; and in the Dodgers’ only victory in the World Series, when he shut out the Red Sox for seven innings.

Buehler, 24, is not the only young homegrown starter who could make a major impact this season. The left-hander Julio Urias, 22, showed in October that he was past the shoulder trouble that cost him nearly two seasons.

“There’s really no pitch limit for Walker, but we’re going to see how his body’s reacting, how he feels and have that open line of communication,” Roberts said. “With Julio, it’s been abbreviated for him the last couple of years, so to say he has a clear runway I don’t think is fair to him. But I do know that he’s going to impact us this year.”

Buehler and the veteran Clayton Kershaw have taken it slowly in spring training, but with the Dodgers, it is hard to tell the difference between hurt and injured. They play the long game in Los Angeles, where arriving at full strength in October is all that matters.

The Dodgers lost a few contributors from last year’s team, but added center fielder A.J. Pollock, who was a force for Arizona when healthy; reliever Joe Kelly, whom they plan to use in an expanded setup role that could stretch him to 90 innings; and the grizzled catcher Russell Martin, who had a .338 on-base percentage for Toronto last year. Martin’s .194 batting average did not bother the Dodgers, Friedman said, because he consistently made hard contact.

Martin, 36, has played in five league championship series without ever advancing to the World Series. This could be the year he gets there — and, with any luck, he just might leap into the arms of closer Kenley Jansen after the final out.

Then again, the Colorado Rockies are conceding nothing in pursuit of their first division title. They signed Daniel Murphy to play first base and gave third baseman Nolan Arenado an eight-year, $260 million contract extension last month. The entire team surprised Arenado by attending the news conference announcing the deal.

“I love playing with this group,” said Arenado, who fought back tears for a moment. “I really believe we can win. I wouldn’t make this decision if I didn’t believe that.”

The Rockies’ pitching carried them last season, setting club records for most strikeouts, lowest WHIP (walks-plus-hits per inning pitched) and fewest hits allowed in a nonstrike season. Kyle Freeland and German Marquez were rotation stalwarts, and Scott Oberg and Wade Davis (who allowed one run in the regular season after Aug. 9) stabilized a bullpen that will count on a full season from Seunghwan Oh to offset the loss of Adam Ottavino to the Yankees.

While Colorado kept its cornerstone, the Arizona Diamondbacks shed theirs, trading first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to St. Louis. They have not done much to replace the production of Goldschmidt and Pollock, but with Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Zack Godley and Luke Weaver in the rotation, they expect to compete.

“We’re trying to make a shift here,” Manager Torey Lovullo said. “We’re going to rely on the pitching and defense and we’re going to make up for some offensive losses in other ways.”

Reverse-engineer the Diamondbacks and you’d get the San Diego Padres, who added a middle-of-the-order slugger with infielder Manny Machado but have a painfully inexperienced rotation led by Joey Lucchesi.

The Padres will soon let loose a flood of prospects, so it is hard to predict how close they really are to contending. But starter Chris Paddack and shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. offered tantalizing spring training glimpses of the kind of young, cheap talent that enabled the Padres to afford a 10-year, $300 million contract for Machado.

“You need to have quality young players that are making major-league minimums, or prearbitration salaries, to enable you to go out and sign some bigger-dollar players, especially in our market, where it’s not unlimited funds,” General Manager A.J. Preller said. “We feel that we’ve built up the talent base to enable us to get into conversations for Machado and some of the big-name free agents.”

Speaking of Machado, Preller added: “You see it in the energy here at the complex. It raises the level of competition for everybody.”

Will it raise the Padres’ place in the standings? They should at least move past the San Francisco Giants, who did not improve an offense that ranked 29th of 30 teams in runs last season, ahead of only Miami. This will be the final season for Giants Manager Bruce Bochy, who is 74 victories shy of 2,000 in his career. He will need a lot of luck to get there.

Every N.L. Central team expects to contend, which makes this the most intriguing division in the majors. The Milwaukee Brewers won it last season — in a one-game playoff over the Chicago Cubs — before their joy ride ended in that Game 7 loss to the Dodgers in the N.L.C.S. They know they might have missed their best chance to bring the World Series to Miller Park.

“It’s so difficult to put yourself in that position ever again,” outfielder Ryan Braun said. “We could have a much better team, a much better regular season, but things have to go right to get to a place where you have a Game 7 to get to the World Series — at home, with the pitcher we want on the mound, after we had just won Game 6 and felt great about our chances. I’m grateful for the opportunity, but it’s not an easy thing to get over.”

The Brewers hope to get over it by finding an ace or two from a group of rookies who pitched mostly in relief in October: Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff. They will again lean heavily on a strong bullpen and slugging lineup that includes the Most Valuable Player Award winner, Christian Yelich, and a new catcher, Yasmani Grandal, who hit 24 home runs with an .815 on-base plus slugging percentage for the Dodgers last season.

The Dodgers benched Grandal for most of the postseason after he struggled on defense in Game 1 of the N.L.C.S. in Milwaukee. That diminished Grandal’s value but gave the Brewers an opportunity: a one-year, $18.25 million contract that could be a steal.

“Look, guys go into defensive slumps,” General Manager David Stearns said. “We focused on the entirety of what we think he can contribute to our team, and we think it’s meaningful: He’s a very good receiver, he’s a good framer, he handles a pitching staff well, and he can control the running game.”

The St. Louis Cardinals went 41-28 last season for Manager Mike Shildt, who replaced the fired Mike Matheny in mid-July. It wasn’t quite enough to lift them to the playoffs, but they should return this year after a three-year absence — an interminable gap for their regal brand.

“It’s a long time, I know,” said John Mozeliak, the president for baseball operations. “We’re very aware of it.”

In Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna and Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals have three elite run producers to go with slick defenders like center fielder Harrison Bader, second baseman Kolten Wong and catcher Yadier Molina, who is 36 and just won his ninth Gold Glove. Jack Flaherty could be a breakout rotation star, and Jordan Hicks — who threw 41 pitches last season that hit 103 miles per hour or higher — will form an imposing relief duo with the newcomer Andrew Miller.

The Chicago Cubs finally solved Miller in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series in Cleveland, when they completed a comeback and won their first championship since 1908. They have not returned to the World Series, and last season’s wild-card flameout put the clubhouse on notice: Theo Epstein, the president for baseball operations, has vowed “sweeping changes” if he does not see improvement.

Manager Joe Maddon is working in the final year of his contract, surrounded by new coaches but a roster that still includes more than half of the players who appeared for the Cubs in the World Series. The core deserves one more chance, and another title would be no surprise. But given the strength of the division, neither would third place.

The Cincinnati Reds are the only team in the majors with at least 90 losses in each of the last four seasons. That streak should end now, because the Reds can finally pair their solid offense with a respectable rotation: Luis Castillo, Anthony DeSclafani, Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood. If they were in the A.L. Central, the Reds might be the favorites. The N.L. version is much different.

“I’ll tell you right now, this is the best division in baseball,” said Reds reliever Jared Hughes, who has also played for Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. “We’re always incredibly competitive from top to bottom. The goal is to win the division, to win the World Series, and the vibe coming in is that we’re capable of doing that. But there’s no complacency in the N.L. Central.”

The Pittsburgh Pirates can also dream big because of five exceptional pitchers: starters Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer and Trevor Williams and relievers Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela. But their middling offense got few upgrades, and right fielder Gregory Polanco will spend at least the first month recovering from shoulder surgery.

Across Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Phillies were the clear winners of the off-season — a meaningless title, of course, but reason enough to consider them the East favorites, despite going 8-20 last September to spoil a promising season.

“We had a lot of holes to fill, that was the conclusion,” said John Middleton, the Phillies’ managing partner. “When you look at the rubble of the last six weeks of the ’18 season, we weren’t a player away from being a good team. We were a bunch of players away.”

General Manager Matt Klentak started by acquiring shortstop Jean Segura from Seattle as part of a deal for Carlos Santana, a masterstroke that allowed Rhys Hoskins to move back to first base from left field, where Andrew McCutchen now plays after signing as a free agent. Klentak also signed reliever David Robertson and traded for the game’s best catcher, J.T. Realmuto.

It was a good winter — and then the Phillies signed Bryce Harper, the former Nationals star, for 13 years and $330 million.

“To have him in this clubhouse is deflating for the teams in our division, so it’s a great feeling to be on this side,” starter Jake Arrieta said. “Not that the teams in our division are scared, by any means, I don’t think that’s the case. But we definitely appreciate the organization signing a guy like Harper and bringing in the pieces we have.”

The Washington Nationals should still reach the playoffs, with Patrick Corbin joining Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in an overpowering rotation. Their three best hitters — Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto and Trea Turner — have somehow never made an All-Star team, but that should change this summer.

The reigning division champions, the prospect-rich Atlanta Braves, added third baseman Josh Donaldson and catcher Brian McCann but otherwise stood pat. That may prove to be wise in time, but for now it leaves them looking vulnerable as pitchers Mike Foltynewicz, A.J. Minter and Mike Soroka start the season on the injured list.

Injuries also struck early for the Mets, who tried to build a deeper roster this winter but will open without infielders Jed Lowrie (knee) and Todd Frazier (oblique). Frazier is 33, Lowrie is 34, and second baseman Robinson Cano is 36. But the under-30 hitters look good, and with Jacob deGrom atop the rotation and Edwin Diaz as the closer, the Mets have a chance.

“I truly believe that we can and will win,” said Brodie Van Wagenen, the new general manager. He has to say that, of course, and his moves have been encouraging — but probably not enough, given the persistent injury risks on the roster, to change the Mets’ spot in the standings.

The Miami Marlins will be picked for last place in every reasonable forecast. The chief executive, Derek Jeter, got his wish and had the team’s mechanical home run sculpture moved to the outside of Marlins Park. The display was whimsical and fun, but it would not have been used much, anyway — no player on this threadbare roster hit more than 13 homers last season.



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