With a major league-best 104-58 record, a National League-high plus-190 run differential and their first pennant since 1988, the Dodgers were a juggernaut in 2017. Because most of that great roster returned this year, expectations were that the Dodgers would once again rank among the majors’ so-called super teams. Instead, as the season nears the quarter pole, Los Angeles’ record places it in company with the dregs of the league.
LA dropped to a stunningly poor 16-23 on Saturday when it lost its third straight game to lowly Cincinnati, which at 13-27 is one of just three NL teams with a worse mark. The Dodgers will have to fight Sunday to stave off an embarrassing four-game home sweep and perhaps an even larger deficit in the NL West, a division they already trail by eight games. Not only have the rival Diamondbacks gotten off to the NL’s best start (24-15), but they’ve manhandled the Dodgers in the process, winning eight of 12 matchups. The two teams won’t see each other again until the end of August, and if they maintain something resembling their current pace, the Dodgers will be out of both the division and wild-card races by then.
Given the talent on the Dodgers’ roster, it stands to reason they’ll at least push for a wild card, though they’re already 6.5 games back in a crowded race. Ten of the league’s 15 teams are over .500, and eight of those clubs have posted positive run differentials. LA is among those clubs, having scored one more run than it has allowed (168 to 167) en route to an above-.500 Pythagorean record (20-19). It seems the Dodgers have been the victims of bad luck in the win-loss department, then, and they’ve definitely had poor fortune on the injury front.
LA’s laundry list of ailments began in earnest late in spring training when elite third baseman Justin Turner suffered a broken left wrist and hasn’t subsided since then. Along with Turner – who hasn’t yet debuted in 2018 – Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Rich Hill, Logan Forsythe, Tony Cingrani and Tom Koehler are among key Dodgers who have spent time on the DL this year. Kershaw has been out for a week with a biceps issue, and it’s unclear when he’ll return. Meanwhile, the groin strain Ryu suffered earlier this month will keep him out until after the All-Star break.
The injuries to Kershaw and Ryu, not to mention the 2017 shoulder surgery young lefty Julio Urias is working back from, have dented an LA rotation that isn’t blessed with as much depth as it had during the team’s NL-winning showing last year. To their credit, Dodgers starters still rank toward the top of the majors in ERA (ninth) and fWAR (sixth), thanks in part to the much-needed emergence of rookie Walker Buehler.
The team’s relief corps has been ineffective, on the other hand, owing to closer Kenley Jansen’s shockingly rough start, a lack of help from offseason acquisitions Koehler (who hasn’t pitched) and Scott Alexander, and the loss of now-Cub Brandon Morrow in free agency. Only nine bullpens have posted a worse ERA than the Dodgers’ 4.49, while just two are short of the unit’s minus-0.1 fWAR. No Dodgers reliever has been a greater source of concern than the 30-year-old Jansen, who was utterly dominant from 2010-17 but has seen his velocity drop this year en route to career-worst numbers in the run prevention, swinging-strike, strikeout, walk and home run categories.
A revival from Jansen would obviously help key a Dodgers turnaround, as would a healthier squad. Fortunately for LA, Turner and Forsythe could return during the upcoming week to bolster a position player group that has actually managed respectable numbers thus far. The Dodgers rank middle of the pack or better in runs (14th), wRC+ (13th) and fWAR (ninth) despite having gone completely without Turner and largely without the excellent Seager, who racked up 115 plate appearances before undergoing season-ending Tommy John surgery in late April.
The loss of Seager was and still is a devastating blow to the Dodgers, who could attempt to fill his shoes via trade (there has been Manny Machado speculation, for instance) if they’re in position to make a splash around the July non-waiver deadline. Any move(s) the Dodgers make may be partially geared toward keeping them under the $197MM competitive-balance tax threshold, which they seemingly worked to avoid during the offseason.. Thanks in part to a low-key winter in which Koehler, Alexander and a seemingly reborn Matt Kemp were their only noteworthy major league acquisitions, the Dodgers sit an estimated $10MM-plus under the CBT after blowing past it in previous seasons.
For its part, Dodgers management insists staying below the CBT isn’t a must, though that’ll be worth monitoring as the season progresses. Of course, the $197MM figure may not matter for the team come late July if it doesn’t do a 180 over the next two-plus months. There’s plenty of work ahead for the Dodgers to get back to .500, let alone firmly in playoff position, but it’s possible we’ll end up looking back on their first-quarter woes as a blip. Last year’s version did lose 16 of 17 games from late August to mid-September, after all, though they’d already banked an incredible 91-36 record prior to that slump. The current Dodgers would need to go 75-13 over their next 88 to match that pace. Not happening. But will the team rebound to earn its sixth straight playoff berth?
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