Now that the Dodgers are in the NLDS, I thought I would take a look back to see how they got here. While I never gave up hope, I absolutely had my doubts. I had concerns about how the team was structured, and in game management. It became apparent that the primary focus for the front office was to get below and stay below the competitive balance tax threshold. If they could improve the team without risking going over the limit, okay. Otherwise they would play with what they had. They were not going to replace Brandon Morrow because they did not know what may be needed during the season as far as salaries go. So FAZ settles on a left-handed ground ball specialist pre-arbitration with 5 years team control; Scott Alexander. Of course, their big transaction was swapping the salaries of Adrian Gonzalez (Released twice – Braves and Mets), Scott Kazmir (Released), Brandon McCarthy (60 Day DL…again), and Charlie Culberson for Matt Kemp; AKA the Charlie Culberson trade.
I have often stated that I do not believe that FAZ really values a strong bullpen. When asked how the Dodgers could make up for the loss of Morrow and Watson, GM Farhan Zaidi stated that a combination of Alexander, Cingrani, and Yimi Garcia would replace Morrow as the 8th inning bridge to Kenley Jansen. That didn’t work out too well. No problem, they also picked up Daniel Hudson, JT Chargois, and Zach Neal off the waiver wires and journeyman minor leaguer Wilmer Font made the roster. In early May, they added yet another waiver wire transaction with Erik Goeddel. Hudson, Shaggy, and Goeddel all had good games, but overall were very average, and not high leverage relievers.
In addition to the average (at best) bullpen, the Dodger starters were dropping. First Kershaw and Ryu went on the DL in early May, and Rich Hill in mid-May. Buehler and Maeda followed them. Only the much-maligned Alex Wood stayed off the DL, even though many believe he is injured. To counter the injured starting rotation, FAZ brought up Brock Stewart, Dennis Santana, and Caleb Ferguson to be starters, and moved Ross Stripling into the rotation. Stewart and Santana both became injured and Ferguson struggled through three starts before he was sent to the bullpen where he has been solid. Stripling went on to the AS game, as Alex Wood did in 2017 from beginning the year in the bullpen. The starters all came back and restored order, and became the strength of the LAD team.
On March 19, the final Monday in Arizona, Justin Turner was hit by a pitch by RHSP for the A’s, Kendall Graveman. That HBP broke JT’s wrist and he started the season on the DL. JT would be out for the first 40 games of the season. By the time JT returned, Corey Seager had TJ surgery and was lost for the year. So the Dodgers started 2018 without their two best all-around players, JT and Corey.
To say they struggled is putting it mildly. On May 17, after a loss to the Marlins, the team dropped to 16-26, and dropped 8.5 games behind the DBacks. They were previously down by 9 games on May 8 after yet another loss to the DBacks. Two games after JT returned (May 17) the Dodgers went on a 14-4 run over the next 18 games to finally get back to .500 at 30-30 (June 5) and knocked 6.5 games off the lead.
When the Dodgers were struggling early on, in late May GM Farhan Zaidi was asked to comment on the team’s struggles. His response…“We just haven’t hit homers,” Zaidi said. “When you look at our overarching team performance, I think we still have a positive run differential. There are some positive indicators. But we have been outhomered. We’re a team that’s played a lot of close games. When you’re playing close games and you’re getting outhomered, it’s really tough to win those games.”
I might have gone with losing JT and Corey Seager, and the rash of starting pitcher injuries, but Zaidi felt it was the lack of HR’s. However, something clicked in June when the Dodgers broke the franchise record for HR’s in June with 55, eclipsing the record achieved in 2017. The Dodgers went 17-9 in June and followed that up with 16-10 record in July. The trade deadline came, and the Dodgers acquired SS Manny Machado for 5 prospects at the AS break. They also picked up Brian Dozier for Logan Forsythe and two prospects. The Dodgers also got some salary relief. They also picked RHRP John Axford for another prospect. But they did not go out and get that late inning high leverage reliever they so desperately needed (at least to some of us). And that decision turned out to be a big one as the Dodgers lost several games due to poor relief pitching, with 6 consecutive blown saves, including 5 losses.
At the AS break the Dodgers seemed to be on a roll and went into the break with a 53-43 record and came out with a new SS, Manny Machado. The entire baseball community believed the Dodgers were about to embark on one of their patented big runs. But the Dodgers did not catch fire and finished the season 39-28 for a cumulative 92-71 record.
FAZ deserves huge kudos for going out of their comfort zone and getting the big player at the trade deadline. They did their part, but the player also has to perform. Machado was good, but not elite.
The Dodgers struggled all year long with scoring WRISP. The relied heavily on the HR rather than moving the runners over, going with the pitch, choking up with 2 strikes to make contact…etc. The Dodgers led the NL in HR’s, but they seemed to be all solo shots. They would win a game 17-3 with 6 HR’s, but then not score more than 2 runs in the next 6 games.
There is no question that the strength of this team is the starting pitching. The season started with Clayton Kershaw as the Ace but ended with Walker Buehler assuming that role. In his last 12 games covering 75.1 innings, Buehler compiled a 1.55 ERA and a .158 BAA. He had 87 K’s and 23 walks. His final audition for staff ace came on game 163, when he went 6.2 innings and allowed one hit and zero runs. He went on to win the NL Division championship game against the tough hitting Colorado Rockies.
With Ryu, Kershaw, Buehler, and Hill scheduled to start the NLDS against the Braves, former starters, Maeda, Wood, Ferguson, and maybe Stripling will be taking key bullpen roles. The first three have been doing it enough lately that they now feel comfortable in that role, and all will be used in high leverage situations taking some of the sting away from not getting an experienced high leverage setup reliever. Someone like say Jose Leclerc??? Oh well, I digress.
The other Dodgers strength is their depth and versatility. With their talent, and if they do decide that sometimes less is better (as ARod said so often at the NL WC game, especially in the 13th inning for the Rox), they will be very hard to beat in the NL and should get a return ticket to the WS.
One other comment about the season, as much as many of us fans have been hard on Doc Roberts, it was a lineup switch from Chris Iannetta to Tony Wolters at catcher by Rockies manager Bud Black that may have changed the Rockies season. Wolters allowed the PB on a strike three to Max Muncy allowing Cody Bellinger to come to the plate and hit a 2 run HR in the 4th inning in Game 163. I do not think Iannetta allows that PB. Bud Black over- managing??? In the NL WC game Wolters gets the game winning hit, but also misses a pitch that almost destroyed the umpire in the bottom of the 13th. I do not see Iannetta out of too many innings against the Brewers.
Now it is on to the NLDS to face the Atlanta Braves who seemed to have arrived a year early. I do not know how Kershaw feels about it, but I like Ryu starting Game 1. More than anything, Kershaw wants to win. If this helps, he will have no problem with the switch. Besides it does set up Clayton for Game 5 (which will not be necessary). Ryu’s big game in SF against MadBum showed that he can pitch in big games. Foltynewicz will be tough, but if they can get by him, the Dodgers could (should) sweep the Braves. I like Ryu and Kershaw in LA, and Buehler anywhere.