The Dodgers are World Series favorites once again, but they must close out the deal this year
In the first inning of their first exhibition game this summer, the Los Angeles Dodgers provided a glimpse of what awaits clubs on the West Coast this season.
After Mookie Betts and Max Muncy each drew a walk, Justin Turner singled to load the bases for reigning National League MVP Cody Bellinger. Bellinger then pulled off something he did 47 times last season, hitting a ball deep into the twilight sky at Chavez Ravine for a grand slam against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Dodgers lineup, boasting not only Bellinger, Turner, and Muncy but also Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, and Kike Hernandez, was already formidable. They’ve won the NL West division title seven years straight, the second-longest streak in the NL since the division era began in 1969. Then they added Betts in an offseason trade with the Boston Red Sox.
The addition of Betts to play alongside Bellinger and Clayton Kershaw makes the Dodgers the first team since the 1996 Red Sox to have three former MVP’s on their Opening Day roster. In the last 30 years, only the 2008 Phillies and 2002 Giants boasted MVP’s from the previous two seasons in their lineup; the Phillies won the World Series, while the Giants lost in Game 7 to the Angels.
Betts and Bellinger will play alongside each other in the Dodgers outfield. They both rank in the top-10 among outfielders in WAR and OPS since the start of the 2017 season, joined only by the Yankees’ Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton among teammates in those categories. Betts, with a .924 OPS, ranks ninth in the league, Bellinger (.928) seventh. Both have a 140 wRC+, tied for seventh among outfielders over the last three seasons.
They’re the cornerstones of the Dodgers lineup. Turner, meanwhile, is often overlooked among his more-heralded teammates but is a threat in his own right. Since joining the Dodgers in 2014, Turner ranks 20th in the league with a .887 OPS, just behind Betts. He’s batting .307 since 2017, tied for sixth, and has a higher offensive WAR than Bryce Harper and Stanton.
But it’s in the postseason where the 2017 NLCS MVP has proven himself a dependable contributor. He’s hit nine postseason home runs since 2016, fourth behind Astros’ George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman, and is batting .291, second to Altuve among batters with at least 100 plate appearances.
The Dodgers still have plenty of talent elsewhere. Muncy went from an Oakland Athletics castoff to a first baseman who’s hit 70 home runs over the last two seasons. Seager was an MVP candidate at age 22 in 2016; after missing all but 26 games in 2018 following Tommy John surgery, he returned to lead the NL in doubles last season with 44, the most by an NL shortstop since 2009. And with a universal DH being implemented in the NL this season, the Dodgers will be able to play both A.J. Pollock and Pederson on a regular basis.
All-time great leads Dodgers pitching staff
Three-time Cy Young Award winner Kershaw anchors a pitching staff that led the league in ERA last season. Since 2010, Kershaw leads all pitchers with a 2.31 ERA, more than 30 points lower than any other pitcher with at least 100 starts. He and teammate Walker Buehler are the only starters with a WHIP below one. Kershaw had a disappointing year in 2019 by his own lofty standards; while he still won 16 games, his ERA climbed above 3.00 for the first time since his rookie season in 2008 and his WHIP was his highest since 2010.
Kershaw has been dominant throughout his career in Dodger blue, at least in the regular season. It’s in the postseason where the sight of him with his head hanging in disappointment has become all too familiar to Dodgers fans. Kershaw has a 6.04 ERA over the Dodgers’ last three postseason series. In Game 5 of the NLDS last season against the Nationals, Kershaw came in out of the bullpen to protect a 3-1 lead but gave up back-to-back homers to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto.
He’ll start Opening Day on Thursday for the ninth time in the last 10 years. But the hard-throwing Buehler is waiting in the wings to take over as the Dodgers ace. Buehler’s four-seam fastball, a pitch he threw more than 53 percent of the time in 2019, averaged 96.6 mph, fifth among starting pitchers. Opposing batters hit just .205 against the pitch last season.
Buehler is entering just his third full season in the Dodgers rotation but has already etched his name in franchise lore. His 2.85 ERA over his first 53 starts is the seventh-lowest in the division era. Over the last 100 years, only Fernando Valenzuela had a lower ERA in a Dodgers uniform over his first three seasons in the big leagues.
The Dodgers won’t have David Price, who opted-out of this season, but will have Ross Stripling, Julio Urias, and the returning Alex Wood to round out their rotation. In the bullpen, Kenley Jansen, who leads all closers in saves since 2014, is backed up by right-handed sinker-ball specialist Blake Treinen. Two seasons ago, Treinen had the lowest ERA in MLB history (0.78) among pitchers with at least 80 innings. In 2019, though, his 4.91 ERA ranked 130th out of 149 relievers with 50 innings. His percentage of hard-hit balls went up seven points (29.2 percent to 36.7 percent), while his groundball rate, critical to his success, fell by nine points (51.9 to 42.6). If Treinen returns to his 2018 level, the Dodgers will have one of the most formidable back-ends of the bullpen in the league.
All of these pieces are crucial to the Dodgers finally capturing the one thing that’s eluded them over their seven years of dominance: a World Series title. They came the closest in 2017, falling in seven games to the Astros. They lost to the Red Sox in 2018 before a disappointing NLDS exit last season despite a franchise-record 106 wins in the regular season.
The Dodgers traded two of their top prospects in Jeter Downs and Alex Verdugo to acquire Betts and Price knowing they could be the pieces to the puzzle that’s been missing all these years. The 12-year contract extension they’re preparing to give Betts ensures the lineup will remain intact for years to come.
But Dodgers fans have been waiting for next year since 1988. They have a lineup without any glaring weaknesses: a formidable and powerful batting order, the best starting pitcher of this generation and the best up-and-coming starter, and a solid bullpen, As deep and talented as any team in baseball, the Dodgers have no excuse if they’re not competing for a title in October. The 2020 season will be the most unique in baseball history, but one thing will almost surely remain constant: the Dodgers atop the NL West. But that’s no longer enough for this franchise.