- In locking up three key free agents—Rich Hill, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner—and adding other impactful players to the roster, Los Angeles should remain a true World Series contender.
Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Los Angeles Dodgers.
91–71 (.562), first place in National League West; lost NLCS to Cubs
LHP Brett Anderson, RHP Joe Blanton*, RHP Jesse Chavez, RHP Jose De Leon, LHP J.P. Howell, 2B/OF Howie Kendrick, OF Josh Reddick, C Carlos Ruiz, 2B Chase Utley*
OF Brett Eibner, 2B Logan Forsythe, RHP Brandon Morrow, LHP Vidal Nuño, 1B Darin Ruf, RHP Sergio Romo, IF/OF Darnell Sweeney
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
It's been yet another busy winter for the Dodgers. On the heels of their fourth straight division title and their first trip to the NLCS since 2013, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi have worked hard to maintain a nucleus that they feel can challenge for a championship. Even in the face of steeper luxury tax penalties via the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, they committed $192 million to retaining free agents Rich Hill, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner—moves far more impactful than any of the roster's other comings and goings.
Acquired at the Aug. 1 trade deadline along with now-departed outfielder Josh Reddick in exchange for three pitching prospects, Hill was arguably the top free-agent starting pitcher in a historically weak class (albeit a high-risk, high-reward type given his injury history). Blister problems limited him to 20 regular-season starts, including just six after the Dodgers acquired him, but his 2.12 ERA, 2.39 FIP and 10.5 strikeouts per nine illustrated that his 2015 return to the majors as a starter was no fluke. Los Angeles retained the 37-year-old southpaw via a three-year, $48 million deal, the same commitment they made last winter to Scott Kazmir, albeit without the opt-out after year one. If Hill stays healthy—and that's a sizable "if" given his injury history—he should continue to be a much-needed front-of-the-rotation complement to Clayton Kershaw, as he was last September and October.
Turner, whom the Dodgers pulled off the scrapheap three winters ago and have watched blossom into a potent middle-of-the-order hitter, set career highs in WAR (4.9), homers (27) and plate appearances (622) and hit .275/.339/.493 for a 124 OPS+; he re-signed with a four-year, $64 million deal. That actually looks like a bargain for the 31-year-old masher, though not quite as much as it would be if the team with the payroll north of $230 million weren't also paying at least $30 million in taxes this year, with more coming down the road. Given the weak free-agent market, Turner's retention should also be weighed against the considerable cost of giving up prospects in trade for a replacement such as the White Sox' Todd Frazier.
Where L.A. really broke the bank, though, was in retaining Jansen on a five-year, $80 million deal that would have been a record for a closer if not for Aroldis Chapman’s five-year, $85 million pact with the Yankees, signed a few days earlier. Jansen, 29, boosted his stock with a dominant regular season in which he set career highs in saves (47, second in the league), ERA (1.83), FIP (1.44) and strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio (11.6), with his best strikeout rate (41.4%) since 2011 as well. He furthered that with a sparkling postseason during which he had five scoreless appearances of at least four outs and three of at least seven outs. His deal is an overpay, but his elite performance should continue to help offset a lot of other bullpen headaches.
As for new faces, the major newcomer is 30-year-old second baseman Logan Forsythe, whom the team acquired from Friedman's old club, the Rays, in exchange for 24-year-old righty pitching prospect Jose De Leon. Talks to acquire the Twins' Brian Dozier hit a snag when Minnesota insisted upon additional prospects alongside De Leon, so the Dodgers went in a different direction. Forsythe hit .264/.333/.444 with a career high 20 homers, a 113 OPS+ and 3.4 WAR last year—that after a 5.0 WAR, 124 OPS+ season in 2015. He's an above-average defender at second base (+9 Defensive Runs Saved over the past two years) with the ability to spot at first, third or even the outfield corners, and he's inexpensive, signed for $5.75 million in 2017 with an $8.5 million option for '18. Forsythe isn't Dozier, who bashed 42 homers last year, but it's not as though the latter isn't at risk for a significant dropoff. The larger point is that Los Angeles has gotten younger by moving on from 38-year-old Chase Utley (.252/.319/.396, 2.0 WAR), who's still a free agent, and 33-year-old Howie Kendrick (.255/.326/.366, 0.5 WAR), who was traded to the Phillies after spending most of last year in leftfield.
Kendrick brought back two depth pieces in 30-year-old first baseman Darin Ruf and 26-year-old utilityman Darnell Sweeney, both of whom put up cringeworthy numbers and are best utilized as Triple A filler. Likewise for 28-year-old Brett Eibner, an outfielder acquired from the A's in exchange for righty Carlos Frias, who made just one appearance with the Dodgers in 2016. The departures of Kendrick and Reddick (who hit just .258/.307/.335 in 167 plate appearances for L.A. but signed a four-year, $52 million deal with the Astros) leave an outfield that has no shortage of in-house options, with lefties Joc Pederson, Andrew Toles and Andre Ethier somehow fitting together with righties Enrique Hernandez, Trayce Thompson, Yasiel Puig and Scott Van Slyke.
The bullpen features one other significant newcomer: Sergio Romo, who signed a one-year, $3 million (plus incentives) deal earlier this week. The 33-year-old righty was a key part of the Giants’ three world championships in his nine seasons with them, but he was limited to 30 2/3 innings in 2016 by a flexor tendon strain. His 2.64 ERA last year conceals a worrisome home run rate (a career-worst 1.5 per nine), but that may have been a fluke tied to a small sample size. At the very least, the hope is that Romo will offset the loss of Joe Blanton, who resurrected his career with a 2.48 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 80 innings but was hit hard in the NLCS. That said, the 36-year-old righty is still looking for work, and the Dodgers have spoken to him about a return, which would push Pedro Baez back to middle relief duty.
Among the righties, also gone is Jesse Chavez, who came from the Blue Jays on August and gave the Dodgers 25 2/3 innings of 4.21 ERA ball; he signed a one-year, $5.75 million deal with the Angels, who envision him as a starter even though he didn't take a single turn in 2016. Arriving very quietly is oft-injured 32-year-old righty Brandon Morrow, who signed a non-roster minor league deal that would be worth just $1.25 million if he makes the team, which is no given. He was limited to 16 big league innings last year due to shoulder fatigue and has averaged just 34 innings over the past four years, though his career strikeout rate of 9.1 per nine will always get him looks.
As for southpaws, also new to the fold is 29-year-old Vidal Nuño, who somehow yielded 11 dingers in 58 2/3 innings (1.7 per nine) for the Mariners last year but offset that with a 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 3.53 ERA. Acquired from Seattle in exchange for August acquisition Carlos Ruiz, Nuño was hit hard by lefties last year (.293/.333/.476, albeit in just 90 plate appearances) but owns a career .224/.285/.356 line against them. Whether he can actually find a spot on the staff alongside fellow lefties Grant Dayton, Luis Avilan, Alex Wood and Adam Liberatore will depend upon who's healthy. Gone from the lefty depth chart is the reliable J.P. Howell, who averaged 66 appearances with a 2.49 ERA over his four years with the team but slumped to a 4.09 ERA in 2016. He signed a one-year, $3 million deal with Toronto.
Unfinished Business: Deal from depth
Rather than go for expensive marquee additions, the Friedman-era Dodgers have been all about amassing multiple options at several positions, using their vast financial resources to take on risks such as Hill, Kazmir, Brett Anderson (who made just four appearances totaling 11 1/3 innings due to back surgery after accepting a $15.8 million qualifying offer the previous winter and signed with the Cubs this off-season) and more. As it stands right now, behind Kershaw, Hill, Kenta Maeda and Julio Urias, candidates for the fifth rotation spot include Kazmir, Wood, Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-jin Ryu, Ross Stripling and Brock Stewart—a group that combined to make 65 starts for the team last year and will cost around $33 million this year.
Particularly given the injury risks of just about all of those pitchers (including Urias likely being on an innings limit), the Dodgers will need a lot of that depth, but between the rotation and the outfield, they have players whom they could spin into other usable parts, depending upon how their team shakes out near the end of spring training. Shoehorning a (potentially) healthy McCarthy or Wood into a relief role or stashing Ethier on the bench if Puig can rediscover his form makes less sense than trading them, particularly when Los Angeles' ability to absorb salary can improve its return.
Preliminary Grade: A-
The Dodgers have done a very good job of keeping their team in win-now mode while simultaneously maintaining an enviable stash of prospects. Perhaps they could have cleared more payroll by now or found a better righty setup man, but that's nitpicking given the moves they've made.