Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Season Preview 2022: #1, Los Angeles Dodgers

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

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1. Los Angeles Dodgers (101-61, 811 RS, 601 RA, first in NL West)

A reader asked me if we would be on #117Watch again this year. I pegged the Dodgers for 113 wins last year, a figure that put the all-time record for wins within reach. Alas, the Dodgers lost a lot of one-run and Calvinball games early in the season, costing them a shot at history. They ended up tying the franchise record for wins with 106 despite a 6-13 mark in extras and being swept in their only seven-inning doubleheader of the season.

We may have seen the peak of this Dodger era. Their best team was the 2020 version, the one that only got to play 60 games (and won 72% of them) and then went on to win a neutral-site World Series. Last year’s team was a continuation of that group, and it went 106-56. The teams combined won more than 2/3 of their games over two years, a wild standard.

This year’s is a step down from that group. The core is aging out of its prime, with 32-year-old Freddie Freeman joining the team. Mookie Betts and Trea Turner are 29, Chris Taylor and Max Muncy are 32, Justin Turner is 37. The younger players are question marks, beginning with 26-year-old Cody Bellinger. This isn’t “the Dodgers are over” by any means -- they are the best team in baseball -- but it is an acknowledgement that their upside is a bit lower than it was in recent years.

Their depth has taken a bit of a hit as well. They traded Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz for two months of Max Scherzer and a year-plus of Trea Turner. Trevor Bauer has been on mock suspension for nine months and a real one is likely coming soon. Corey Seager, Enrique Hernandez, Joc Pederson, and Kenley Jansen have all left in free agency, to varying impacts. Clayton Kershaw is still effective, but basically day-to-day for 180 days.

None of this is the difference between making the playoffs and not, between winning the division and not. It’s just the difference between being the greatest team ever and not. The rotation may be shaky, especially at the back end, at least until the Dodgers are comfortable promoting Bobby Miller and Ryan Pepiot. Julio Urias’s start in Denver over the weekend was scary for his lack of velocity; we’re wired at this point to worry over that sort of thing, though it could also just be a dead arm.

I’m not at all sure adding Craig Kimbrel to the bullpen makes it better. Since winning the World Series with the Red Sox in 2018, he has a 3.67 ERA and a 3.88 FIP, well below average for a high-leverage relief pitcher. He’s walked 11% of the batters he’s faced, and his 40% strikeout rate no longer stands out the way it did when he was a Brave. Having Kimbrel around serves Dave Roberts’s desire to have a binky for the ninth inning; we’ll have to see if Roberts is willing to set aside that binky should Kimbrel continue to pitch poorly.

The Dodgers, like the Rays in the AL, have set the bar so high that criticism is almost unfair. The two teams are competing as much with themselves and their track record as they are with the Giants and Padres, with the Red Sox and Blue Jays. These last five or six grafs are grading the Dodgers on a curve they set. Relative to the other 29 teams, they’re the best.

Random Player Comment
: There’s a short list of players on whom the 2022 season will pivot. Jacob deGrom is one. Mike Trout is another. Christian Yelich and, pick one, Aaron Nola or Zack Wheeler. Jose Berrios. Cody Bellinger is part of that group. The 2019 NL MVP was one of the worst players in baseball last season before turning in a big playoff run. Still just 26, Bellinger’s inability to handle fastballs last year made him look 46. Bellinger’s good defense means the Dodgers can play him in center if he's average or even a little below average at the plate. It’s not yet clear whether he can even get back to that level.