A Deep Talent Pool Should Keep the Dodgers Afloat – Smart Media Magazine

A Deep Talent Pool Should Keep the Dodgers Afloat

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.

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.”

“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.

“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.

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