Dodgers are one of baseball's best, but bullpen could prove fatal flaw
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 2: the Los Angeles Dodgers.
2014 Record and Finish: 94–68 (.580), first place in NL West (fourth overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 95–67 (.586), first place in NL West (second overall)
The Case For
This isn’t hard. The Dodgers have the game’s best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, who has won the National League Cy Young Award three times in the past four years. They have a No. 2 starter, Zack Greinke, who would be the ace of at least 20 other teams, and a very underappreciated No. 3, lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, although he'll start the season on the disabled list after experiencing discomfort in his throwing shoulder. They have a lineup—including new faces Jimmy Rollins, Yasmani Grandal and Howie Kendrick—that will undoubtedly be productive. It's also extremely well balanced—with three lefties, three righties and two switch-hitters—and has a good mix of youth (Yasiel Puig is 24, Rookie of the Year candidate Joc Pederson is 22) and experience (Rollins is 36, Juan Uribe is 35, Adrian Gonzalez is 32).
On top of all that, Los Angeles now has a front office led by two of the most brilliant minds in the game—team president Andrew Friedman (formerly of the Rays) and general manager Farhan Zaidi (formerly of the Athletics)—who now have what they didn’t in their previous stops: the financial wherewithal to bolster the team as they see fit as the season goes along. It’s not right to call the Dodgers a lock to win the NL West, not with the significantly improved Padres and the defending World Series champion Giants there, too. But if Los Angeles misses the playoffs, it would be an enormous surprise.
The Case Against
It seems as if almost every team has a solid bullpen these days, so it is strange that the club with the highest payroll (expected to surpass $260 million in 2015) is among the exceptions. Last year, the Dodgers' bullpen had 3.80 ERA, 12th-best in the National League, and many of its members (including Scott Elbert, Chris Perez, Paul Maholm, Brian Wilson and Jamey Wright) were jettisoned. This season’s group, however, appears no stronger, especially because closer Kenley Jansen will miss at least the first month of the season due to surgery to remove a growth from a bone in his left foot, and Jansen’s backup, Brandon League, is experiencing shoulder soreness this spring.
The relief candidates are a strange group of former starters and other team’s castoffs, sometimes all three. They include the likes of J.P. Howell, Joel Peralta, Chris Hatcher, Juan Nicasio, Sergio Santos, Chad Gaudin, Dustin McGowan, David Aardsma and even Chin-hui Tsao, who was kicked out of the Chinese Professional Baseball League after being accused of game-fixing. Friedman annually excelled at building strong bullpens out of scraps in Tampa Bay, but he’ll have to do so here on a much bigger stage. If he doesn’t, it could prove an all-but-certain fatal flaw.
X-Factor: Brett Anderson
There was a reason the Dodgers’ new braintrust spent $10 million on Anderson, a free agent who has pitched just one season’s worth of innings (206 1/3) over the last four years due to a remarkable cascade of injuries to his elbow, an oblique, a foot, a finger and his back. “There was a lot of action on this guy this winter,” says a scout. “Everyone was trying to sign him.” The lefty, a former member of the A’s and the Rockies, is still only 27 and has put up elite numbers during his rare healthy stretches, posting a sub-3.00 ERA in 2010, '12 and '14. If Anderson can somehow match the career-high 175 1/3 innings he worked as a 21-year-old rookie in '09, the Dodgers will have that rarest of assets: a third ace.
Number To Know: 9.72
That is Kershaw’s ERA over his three most recent postseason starts, all of them against the Cardinals (one in the 2013 NLCS, two in last year’s NLDS) and two of them series-deciding losses. Yes, he’s the best pitcher in the world, and yes, it’s a small sample size, but three is a trend. “I don’t think his playoff struggles are due to fear,” says one scout. “I’ve heard a lot of things. Some people think he tips his pitches. I’ll take my chances running him out there.” Even so, the odds are good that Kershaw will again appear this October with a series on the line, and he’ll need to pitch like himself.
Most Overrated: Carl Crawford
“He came on pretty good at the end of last year, but he’s not the player he once was, and they’re paying him as if he is. He’s not a defender. He’ll make some acrobatic looking catches, but that’s because his routes and jumps are not good. He can make the routine play look spectacular. And he doesn’t run as well as he used to. I don’t think he stands out at anything anymore. He’s not close to what he was with the Rays.”
Most Underrated: Howie Kendrick
“You know what, this guy can hit. He’s not a big name, but he gives a good effort every day. He’s a totally different type of player from Dee Gordon, who they had at second last year, but I think he’s an upgrade. He’s changing leagues, but I think you’re going to get a .290 hitter who hits you some home runs, is a good base runner and whose defense is still getting better at the age of 31.”