This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 5: the Los Angeles Dodgers.
2015 Record and Finish:
92–70 (.568), first place in National League West (sixth overall); lost NL Division Series to Mets
2016 Projected Record and Finish:
93–69 (.574), first place in NL West
The Case For
The Dodgers came a one-run Game 5 loss away from beating the ace-loaded Mets and advancing to last year’s NLCS despite the fact that their lineup—the NL’s fourth-most prolific during the regular season—had by October sustained more arrow strikes than St. Sebastian. Yasmani Grandal, the catcher who batted .282 with 13 homers and 36 RBIs before the All-Star break, was virtually debilitated by a shoulder injury that ruined his second half and on which he had surgery over the winter. Howie Kendrick was enduring the lingering effects of a badly strained hamstring. Yasiel Puig, also with an injured hamstring, had one hit after Aug. 27. Even Justin Turner, the third baseman who nearly single-handedly kept the Dodgers in the series by batting .526, was playing with a bum left knee that would shortly thereafter require a microfracture procedure.
In 2016, though, Los Angeles’ offense should return mostly intact, both in health and composition; the re-signing of Kendrick to a two-year, $20 million deal means that it will feature nary a new face. It will, however, have a fresh one: 21-year-old shortstop Corey Seager, baseball’s consensus top prospect, who batted .337 with four homers, 17 RBIs and a .986 OPS after his promotion last September. Much more, too, can be expected of Puig, who batted a massively disappointing .255 with 11 homers, 38 RBIs and three steals in 79 regular-season games. Puig, though, retains all the skills that made him an immediate sensation in 2013—and perhaps, at 25, a newfound wisdom. “Supposedly he’s more mature on the field and off the field,” says a rival scout. “You would hope so. He’s a freak. He could be Yoenis Cespedes, he could be Mike Trout, he could be Bryce Harper if he could play under control [and] calm down a little bit.”
With the steady Adrian Gonzalez still cleaning up, the Dodgers’ offense should again look like the one you’d expect from baseball’s highest-paid club, though the team announced in late March that outfielder Andre Ethier will miss up to three months due to a fractured tibia. Even so, a fourth straight playoff berth—this one under new manager Dave Roberts—could be just the start.
The Case Against
Clayton Kershaw stands alone, no matter what. But on the Dodgers’ staff, at least in the early going, he’ll be out there on his own island. The loss of Zack Greinke—he of the 1.66 ERA last year—to the Diamondbacks was always going to hurt, but now, says one scout, “You got question marks in your rotation.” Brett Anderson, re-signed in free agency, had back surgery in early March that will keep him out three to five months, and Brandon McCarthy, Frankie Montas and Hyun-jin Ryu might also be out until mid-summer. Even would-be–fill-in fifth man Mike Bolsinger is likely to miss the start of the season with a strained oblique.
The Dodgers’ wealth allowed them to load up on pitching depth to try to counteract the departure of the singular Greinke, but the season-starting rotation behind Kershaw—free-agent signings Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda and underwhelming returnee Alex Wood and, for awhile, Carlos Frias or Zach Lee—isn’t at all intimidating. Neither is the bullpen behind closer Kenley Jansen, as Los Angeles added only Louis Coleman and Joe Blanton to a group that ranked 11th in the NL in ERA, at 3.91. It might turn out that even a club with a $250 million payroll can’t have enough pitching.
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X-Factor: Julio Urias, SP
If only all scouting trips were as productive as the one the Dodgers’ staff took to Mexico in June of 2012. That excursion yielded not only Puig, who held a series of showcases south of the border, but also Urias, who is now baseball’s best pitching prospect. The southpaw has mostly dominated in the minors, pitching to a 2.77 ERA with 10.7 strikeouts per nine over his three seasons, thanks to an advanced three-pitch repertoire that includes a fastball that sits at 94 mph, a sharp curveball and a precocious changeup. He is the exact type of weapon a pitching-thin, would-be contender might immediately turn to, except for a couple of things. For starters, he only turned 19 in August, and he’s yet to throw more than 87 2/3 innings in a professional season. Second, he worked only 80 1/3 frames last year, due in part to a mid-season operation on a benign mass in his left eye—a condition that has long rendered it nearly closed, though he says he can see out of it.
Mostly, though, Urias’s light workloads are due to the desire of the Dodgers' brain trust to handle its prize with white gloves. But if Los Angeles’ early-season starting pitching proves woeful, might the team prove unable to resist the temptation to call on Urias, with the idea that he could be sent back down later to curtail his workload and service time? It’s unlikely, but possible. It’s been 36 years since Fernandomania swept Southern California, and it could prove time to unleash another 19-year-old lefthanded Mexican phenom.
Number To Know: 2.11
That’s Kershaw’s ERA over the past five years, a stretch during which he’s thrown 1,128 innings. It’s the lowest over that period by a full 60 points—Johnny Cueto is second, at 2.71—meaning Kershaw has been 22% better than any other pitcher in baseball for half a decade. In other words, he was Steph Curry before Steph Curry—and the two were born in the same week in March of 1988.
Most Overrated: Joc Pederson, OF
“Just because of the strikeouts, the inconsistent play. This is a guy that plays out of control a lot. He can take erratic routes and just drive you crazy. There’s a lot of ball that you’re like, dang, that’s probably a catchable ball and a play your centerfielder should make. He strikes out at such a high, alarming rate that I don’t know if he can be a winning type of player. Two things kill me: walks when you’re a pitcher and high-strikeout guys. They just make it very hard to win. It’s tough for your everyday centerfielder to have 170 strikeouts and hit .210. He’s swinging from his ass, trying to hit it not just out but out of the world, into the next universe. He does get some walks, but .210 is .210.”
Most Underrated: Justin Turner, 3B
“Last year he really helped them when they were going good. A grinder, [he] came up with clutch hit after clutch hit. He played short for them at times, [but he's] obviously much better at third. His recovery from his knee injury is going to be huge. They need him. He’s the heart and soul of that lineup—an old-fashioned, throwback baseball player. He’s better than a journeyman now. He’s a winning-type player that can play on any team.”