Through June 21 last year, the Dodgers were 30-42 and Don Mattingly was rumored to be on the outs in Los Angeles. By time the All-Star break hit, they rallied to 47-47, ripping off 17 wins in 22 games to get right back in the thick of the AL West race. They lost just eight more times before the calendar turned to September, riding huge seasons from Clayton Kershaw and Hanley Ramirez and the breakout of Yasiel Puig to the division championship and a 92-win season.
This year's version could be even better. The pitching rotation is as strong as can be from one through five. If Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp stay healthy, the offense could be one of the best in the NL, as well.
As you'd expect from a team projected by PECOTA to win 98 games, the Dodgers have plenty to offer fantasy owners. Kershaw and Ramirez are both off the board by the 15th pick in an average draft, and Puig is inside the top 30. Kemp has one of the highest ceilings of a player coming being selected in the middle rounds, and Adrian Gonzalez could easily drive in 100-plus runs in the middle of this offense. Zack Greinke projects as a top-15 starting pitcher while Hyun-jin Ryu has top-30 upside.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Yasiel Puig, RF
2. Carl Crawford, LF
3. Hanley Ramirez, SS
4. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
5. Matt Kemp, CF
6. Juan Uribe, 3B
7. A.J. Ellis, C
8. Alex Guerrero, 2B
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Zack Greinke
3. Hyun-jin Ryu
4. Dan Haren
5. Josh Beckett
Bullpen: Kenley Jansen (closer), Chris Withrow, Brian Wilson, Jose Dominguez, Paco Rodriguez, J.P. Howell, Chris Perez, Brandon League
What will happen with the crowded outfield? The only thing that is certain in the Dodgers' jumbled outfield is that Yasiel Puig will be out there every single day. Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford would fill in the other two spots on most days if both are healthy, and that makes Andre Ethier the world's most expensive fourth outfielder. Of course, the situation is far from settled. Kemp is progressing well in his return from ankle surgery, but he has still yet to appear in a game this spring. The outfield depth proved to be a blessing last year when Kemp couldn't stay off the DL. They could conceivably need it again this year.
If all four are healthy, though, it would make little sense to have so many resources tied up in the outfield. Kemp and Puig would figure to be two of the best players in the lineup, and Don Mattingly would certainly want both of them in there on an everyday basis. The problem with Crawford/Ethier in left is that they cannot form a platoon as both are absolutely terrible against lefties. Crawford hit .206/.261/.290 against southpaws last year, and Ethier didn't fare much better, slashing .221/.275/.338. Unless the Dodgers were willing eat a ton of salary, which they might be, a trade does not appear to be an option, either. Ethier is in just the second year of a five-year deal that pays him $15.5 million this year, $18 million in 2015 and 2016, and $17.5 million in 2017. Crawford is in the middle of the crazy seven-year, $142 million he signed with the Red Sox. His yearly salary escalates each year, topping out at $21 million in 2017. No team is going to want to assume those obligations.
With all the uncertainty, it's hard to put too much faith in Crawford or Ethier this year. I wouldn't draft either as top-50 outfielders. As for Puig and Kemp -- well, they deserve their own question.
Is there a pair of teammates with a wider floor-to-ceiling gap than Puig and Kemp? If all breaks right for the Dodgers this year, Puig and Kemp will be hugging each other in the outfield in late October after combining to play 320 games and being key players in one of the best offenses in the league. On the other side of the spectrum, Kemp will be held down by injuries again and Puig will suffer through a sophomore slump as the team falls short of its huge expectations. Both of those scenarios are well within the realm of possibility, making this potentially dynamic duo one of the most confounding for fantasy owners.
Puig was one of the most exciting players in the league last year. His promotion to the majors coincided with the Dodgers surge to the top of the National League (and, just for the record, Hanley Ramirez's return to health). He spent just more than half the season with the big league club, but made real play for the NL Rookie of the Year by hitting .319/.391/.534 with 19 homers, 42 RBI and 11 steals. On top of that, he was one of the most fun players in the league to watch; it's that personality that is convincing many in the industry to ignore the obvious red flags in his performance last year.
It all starts with Puig's .383 BABIP that just isn't supported by his batted-ball stats. His line-drive rate was 19.1 percent and his popup rate was 10.3 percent. He does have great speed and hit more than 50 percent of his balls in play on the ground, but his xBABIP was a robust, yet much lower, .341. He had a strikeout rate of 22.5 percent, and while patience can be one of the last things for a young player to develop, a swinging-strike rate of 16.9 percent is just more evidence to suggest his averages will come down significantly this year.
It's still far too early in Puig's career to draw any conclusions about what sort of hitter profile he might have, but if his fly-ball rate remains around 30 percent, he will have to continue to post high HR/FB ratios to put up big home run totals. He did leave the yard once for every 20 plate appearances in his brief minor league career, so there's reason to believe in last year's power numbers, including the 21.3-percent HR/FB ratio. His 19 homers had an average true distance of 407.7 feet, which ranked 17th among hitters with at least 18 bombs. If I had to be on Puig beating his projections anywhere, I'd bet on him having more consistent power than he is credited with having. Still, there's too much risk here for me to consider Puig with a top-30 overall pick, which is likely where he will go in your draft.
Kemp is an equally challenging player to project. After transitioning from very good to very great between 2009 and 2011, Kemp has been robbed of much of the last two seasons by injury. He will not make the trip to Australia for the team's season-opening series with the Diamondbacks, but he could very well be in the lineup when the Dodgers play their first game stateside this season.
If we go back to 2012, the first year Kemp dealt with injuries, we see a star player who had started to run a bit less, but was still just as lethal with the bat. He played 106 games that year and hit .303/.367/.538 with 23 homers and 69 RBI. Injuries made him a shell of himself last year, but there is a silver lining in his batted-ball rates. Kemp managed a 25.3-percent line-drive rate, which would have registered as a career-high had he logged enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. His other rates were in line with career totals, as well. The only area in which he lagged was his HR/FB ratio, but that could owe to the injuries more than a deterioration of skills. Given that he turned 29 last September and should be in the heart of his theoretical prime, I'm willing to give him a pass on last year's substandard power numbers.
Kemp is the No. 62 overall player on FantasyPros, which would make him the second pick in the sixth round of a 12-team draft. There's a fair bit of risk in him, but I'm willing to roll the dice because the upside is tremendous. That is the case with Puig, too, but I'm a lot more amenable to taking that risk on a player with Kemp's track record who is coming off the board about 30 picks later in an average draft.
What exactly do the Dodgers have in new second baseman Alex Guerrero? The Dodgers signed Guerrero, a Cuban émigré, in October and immediately penciled him in as the 2014 Opening Day second baseman. As we've seen with other players who flee Cuba for the majors, it's hard to get our hands on any meaningful or reliable statistics for Guerrero's pre-MLB days. While we at least had a thin dossier for new White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu thanks to his participation in the World Baseball Classic, Guerrero enters the majors largely as an unknown quantity to the American audience.
At 27 years old, Guerrero is not your average rookie, and he's also facing competition with Dee Gordon and Justin Turner, who both off to solid starts in the spring. Scouts project him to have 20-homer power, but he'll have to show enough in the spring to give Mattingly confidence to put him in the starting lineup. You can get him very late in your draft, and is worth a late-round flier, especially if you are in a deep mixed league. The payoff could be big if he sticks in what looks like a strong lineup.
Alex Guerrero, 2B -- Not a surprise here. Guerrero has a serious chance to be a weapon at a shallow position if he wins the starting job for the Dodgers. If he ends up with the role, it wouldn't be crazy to see him hit 15-18 homers with 12-15 steals and decent averages.
Yasiel Puig, OF -- As we've seen with a few bust predictions on other teams, this is more of a "won't match his draft-day value" pick as opposed to a true bust pick. Puig will be a very productive player for the Dodgers and his fantasy owners, but it's a stretch to call him a top-30 overall player and top-10 outfielder.
Matt Kemp, OF -- Call it a re-breakout for the once and former star. If Kemp can stay healthy this year, and all indications are that he's on the right pace to return from his ankle surgery, he could be one of the biggest steals in drafts this year. He's right in the middle of his prime and is taking way too much flack for one injury-ravaged season.
NL-only guys to know
Dan Haren, SP -- Haren is a steady back-end rotation performer for fantasy owners who will provide neutral rates and a bump in strikeouts. His days of universal ownership in mixed leagues are gone, but he certainly provides enough value that he should be owned in all NL-only leagues and deep mixers.
A.J. Ellis, C -- Ellis had a terrible 2013, but he had 13 homers and a .373 OBP two years ago. His career walk rate of 11.5 percent makes him an asset in OBP leagues, but he's still just on the fringes of the class of starting catchers for NL-only owners. He's in the last group of potential starters that also includes Carlos Ruiz and Welington Castillo.
Josh Beckett, SP -- Beckett made just eight starts last year and had a 5.19 ERA and 4.66 FIP, but he did strike out 41 batters in 43.1 innings. If nothing else, he's worth a dart in your draft's endgame because of his strikeout upside. There won't be any harm in releasing him early in the season if he doesn't perform or loses his spot in the rotation.