Wait ‘Til Next Year: Los Angeles Dodgers
While this series is normally devoted to teams that have been mathematically eliminated before the end of the regular season, we felt a special edition of Wait ‘Til Next Year was in order to examine the futures of some of the teams that survived the regular season gauntlet to reach October. We will also have team-by-team Hot Stove previews in early November and, later in the offseason, the Winter Report Cards.
Final Record: 92-70 (.568, first in NL West), won NL Division Series
Mathematically Eliminated: Oct. 18, Game 6 of NL Championship Series
What went right in 2013:
The Dodgers returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, winning the National League West by 11 games, the widest margin of any division winner. Doing so wasn’t nearly as easy as that margin suggested, as the team had to overcome a slew of injuries and a stretch of sub-.500 ball that lasted for more than two months during the season’s first half. L.A. went 23-38 from April 14 through June 21 to drop its record to 30-42 before reeling off 42 victories in its next 50 games, matching the 1941 Yankees and 1942 Cardinals for the best 50-game stretch of the past century. The club’s .689 winning percentage from June 22 onward was 78 points better than any other team in the majors.
The Dodgers’ biggest strength was the trio at the front of their rotation. Clayton Kershaw pitched well enough that he may win his second NL Cy Young award in three years; he led the league in ERA for the third straight year, with a 1.83 mark that was the lowest since Pedro Martinez’s 1.74 in 2000. Zack Greinke, whom they signed to a six-year, $147 million free agent deal last winter, posted a 2.63 ERA, including a 1.57 mark in his 16 starts from July 8 onward. Hyun-Jin Ryu, a Korean import whom they signed to a six-year, $36 million contract after paying $25.7 million to win his posting rights, pitched in a 3.00 ERA and a 73 percent quality start rate, eighth-best in the league.
In the bullpen, Kenley Jansen reclaimed the closer duty he lost due to illness in 2012 and put up a career-best 1.88 ERA while striking out 13.0 per nine with a 6.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Lefty Paco Rodriguez, their 2012 second-round pick, emerged as a strong setup man via a 2.32 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine himself. A 2007 first-round pick, Chris Withrow, finally reached the majors upon converting to relief, and late-season addition Brian Wilson delivered a 0.66 ERA in 13 2/3 innings, good enough to assert himself as the team’s top righty setup man heading into the postseason.
On the offensive side, Hanley Ramirez was limited to just 86 games due to thumb, hamstring and back woes but hit a searing .345/.402/.638 with 20 homers for a 190 OPS+, tops in baseball among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances. Yasiel Puig, whom the Dodgers signed to a seven-year, $42 million deal last year, arrived in early June and delivered a .319/.391/.534 line with 19 homers in 104 games, not to mention an unmatched highlight reel and a swagger that put him at the center of a tiresome culture war. The duo ranked first and second among the team’s position players in Wins Above Replacement at 5.4 and 5.0 WAR, respectively, and it was their presence that helped spark that 42-8 run.
Adrian Gonzalez hit a solid .293/.342/.461 with team highs in homers (22) and RBIs (100) as well as games played (157). Andre Ethier suffered a power outage (.272/.360/.423 with 12 homers) but made up for it with adequate play in centerfield to cover for Matt Kemp’s ongoing injury problems. Juan Uribe shook off two miserable years to hit .278/.331/.438 with 12 homers while playing stellar defense at the hot corner en route to a career-best 4.1 WAR.
What went wrong in 2013:
So many injuries. Despite opening spring training with eight starting pitchers, the Dodgers were reduced to dipping into a thin minor league system due to the infirmities of Chad Billingsley (Tommy John surgery), Ted Lilly (shoulder), Josh Beckett (nerve irritation), Chris Capuano (groin) and Greinke (brawl-induced broken collarbone); Kershaw, Ryu and Greinke were the only pitchers to make more than 20 starts. Lilly and oft-injured reliever Matt Guerrier, both relatively expensive free agents signed after the 2010 season, were eventually cut loose.
Coming off offseason surgery on his left shoulder, Kemp was limited to just 73 games and a limp .270/.328/.395 showing due to three separate trips to the DL for hamstring, shoulder and ankle injuries as well as a de facto one via a late-September shutdown that cost him a spot on the playoff roster — followed by another shoulder cleanup. Ramirez had his two trips to the DL, while starters Mark Ellis, A.J. Ellis and Carl Crawford each made one. The latter two significantly underperformed their career norms with the bat when they were in the lineup. Ethier avoided the DL but made just one plate appearance after spraining his ankle on Sept. 13 and was significantly hampered both at the plate and in the field once the playoffs rolled around.
Due to all of those injuries, reserves Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston were all overexposed, playing in 96 games or more while providing well below-average offense. Luis Cruz, whose 2012 breakout brought him cult status, was so impossibly awful (.127/.175/.169 in 128 PA) that he was released, while Dee Gordon’s offensive and defensive woes drained whatever value he had remaining after years as a touted prospect.
Beyond the injuries, the bullpen was a mess early in the year, as the re-signing of Brandon League to a three-year, $22.5 million deal predictably blew up in L.A.’s face. He lost his closer job to Jansen in June, finished the year with a 5.32 ERA and was so irrelevant that he didn’t make the postseason roster. Not helping matters, overworked setup man Ronald Belisario (77 games) was erratic both early and late in the season and finished with a 3.97 ERA
In the end, the Dodgers survived those calamities, but had the early-season hole they dug not been quite so deep, they might have earned homefield advantage for one if not two rounds of the playoffs, which could have been the difference between falling two wins short of their first trip to the World Series in 25 years and making it. Likewise, while manager Don Mattingly did an admirable job of preventing the club from falling apart even as his own job was in jeopardy, his tactical foibles played a significant role in the team’s ouster from the NLCS.
In their first full year under the Guggenheim Partners ownership, Los Angeles became the first non-Yankees team to cross the $200 million threshold, with an Opening Day payroll of $216.8 million. Those expenditures made the Dodgers a target both on the field and off, and while they did make the playoffs for the first time in four years, falling short likely means spending more money and taking on even more risk as they attempt to end their 25-year drought.
The team has 10 players coming off the books as free agents, but many of them (Michael Young, Edinson Volquez, Carlos Marmol, Schumaker, Punto, Hairston) are fungible at this stage. Midseason pickups Wilson and Ricky Nolasco figure to be in line for pricey multiyear deals, while L.A. has an $8 million mutual option on Capuano.
With Beckett and Billingsley both coming off season-ending surgeries, the Dodgers are likely to be in the market for one if not two starters behind Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu, and they won’t be cheap; there’s talk that they may pursue the Rays’ David Price via trade, which will cost L.A. plenty in prospects and perhaps even more via a long-term extension. Speaking of costly contracts, as Kershaw heads into his final year of arbitration eligibility, he’s likely to finalize a long-term deal with the only club he’s ever known that could reach $200 million.
In the infield, the Dodgers hold a $5.75 million club option on second baseman Mark Ellis, who delivered good value (5.5 WAR for $7.75 million from 2012-2013) but whose deficiencies were particularly on display in the NLCS finale; an upgrade at the keystone is in order, and while they’ve pledged not to chase free agent Robinson Cano due to his high price tag, the possibility that they could trade for a past-peak Brandon Phillips isn’t out of the question.
Uribe is a free agent as well. His strong season at the plate, in the field and behind the scenes (where he was hailed as a key member of the clubhouse, mentoring players as diverse as Puig and Ryu) means that general manager Ned Colletti is likely to make an effort to retain one of his favorites, at the risk that Uribe repeats his 2011-2012 disasterpieces. There’s talk that the team may explore extending Ramirez, who is happy if not healthy in his new environment, but there’s a high risk of overpaying for a player whose durability is in question and coming off a sizzling but incomplete performance.
One of the real headscratchers the Dodgers face is what to do about the outfield logjam, where Crawford, Ethier, Kemp and Puig are all signed to big money through at least 2017. The latter isn’t going anywhere, but after his wild throws in Friday night’s NLCS Game 6, it’s clear that the team needs to take his lack of discipline more seriously, and sand down some of his rough edges. As for the other three, all are at far less than peak value at the moment, and if Los Angeles unloads any of them via trade, it figures to be at a significant discount. As such, the team could head into next year with all four still around, a less-than-ideal situation almost guaranteed to turn into a distraction.
The Dodgers figure to bring back Mattingly after letting his 2014 option twist in the wind. If they don’t rework that into a long-term extension, however, he will spend another year with his status being a distraction. If they do keep him, a stronger bench coach that can protect him from his questionable lineup choices (batting the punchless Mark Ellis second), his overwhelming urge to bunt and his occasional inability to think more than one move ahead — think of the bunts that led the Cardinals to walk Ramirez in NLCS Game 1 — is in order.
In all, the Dodgers’ payroll makes it clear that they’re in championship-or-bust territory. Winning the NL West — which they’re well set up to do both talent- and resource-wise — is no longer enough. As they strive to get over the top, every shortcoming is cause for scrutiny and every time Colletti opens the checkbook is cause for concern given his past mistakes.
That’s not an easy position to be in, but at the end of the day, the team is in much better shape than during the waning days of the Frank McCourt era.