The Dodgers were baseball’s best team in the regular season, winning a franchise-record 111 games. They cleared the next-closest team, the Astros, by five games and finished ten clear of anyone else in the National League.
That didn’t translate to postseason success, however, as Los Angeles dropped three of four to the division-rival Padres in their Divisional Series. As they enter the offseason earlier than hoped, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Brandon Gomes met with reporters this afternoon (links via Jack Harris of the L.A. Times and Fabian Ardaya of the Athletic).
The executives predictably expressed their disappointment with the early postseason exit, with Friedman suggesting it was the most painful series loss of his tenure atop baseball operations. Yet he quickly downplayed the need for sweeping organizational changes, pointing to the volatility inherent in a short playoff series. While Friedman credited the Padres for outplaying the Dodgers during the Division Series, he noted the lack of situational hitting which plagued L.A. in the postseason is the sort of thing that tends to ebb and flow throughout a year.
To that point about the team not requiring any kind of drastic overhaul, Friedman confirmed previous reports manager Dave Roberts would be back for an eighth season. “I feel like Dave and his coaching staff did an incredible job during the regular season to lead this team to 111 wins,” Friedman said, noting that the skipper would “100%” return to the role in 2023. “I don’t feel like it’s a switch that was then turned off or the players needed a different voice in those (playoff) games. That’s my personal belief.”
Friedman added he doesn’t expect there to be any changes to Roberts’ coaching staff, implying that everyone will be offered a chance to return. Each offseason, teams run the risk of seeing a coach depart to take on a more impactful role with another club. Bench coach Bob Geren and first base coach Clayton McCullough each got some managerial attention last winter, for instance, and it’s possible their names are floated again in searches this offseason.
Turning to the playing personnel, Friedman and Gomes touched on a few key decisions they’ll need to make early in the offseason. Los Angeles will see franchise icon Clayton Kershaw hit free agency for the second straight winter. Last offseason, the Dodgers surprisingly elected not to make Kershaw a qualifying offer. Friedman later explained the Dodgers didn’t want to pressure the future Hall of Famer into making a decision whether to return within the 10-day window allotted to qualified free agents. Kershaw didn’t make a decision until after the lockout, and he eventually re-signed on a one-year, $17MM guarantee in Spring Training.
Because Kershaw didn’t receive a qualifying offer last winter, he’s eligible for one again. Friedman didn’t explicitly rule out the QO this time around but strongly hinted they’d again opt against it. “Like I said last year, I think for him to take the time and put his head together with (his wife) Ellen and figure out what makes the most sense for their family is what we’re going to give him time to do,” the Dodger president said. Friedman called it his “strong hope” that Kershaw elects to return for a 16th season in L.A.
This year’s qualifying offer has been set at $19.65MM. That’s a perfectly reasonable price to pay for the three-time Cy Young winner, who remains among the best starters in the game on a rate basis. Kershaw pitched to a sterling 2.28 ERA across 126 1/3 innings this past season, striking out an above-average 27.8% of opponents against an elite 4.7% walk rate. He lost roughly a month apiece to hip and back injuries, but he didn’t seem to feel any ill effects of the forearm discomfort that cut his 2021 season short.
Kershaw has stated a few times in recent weeks that he’s presently leaning towards continuing his career. Immediately after the series loss, he told reporters that “as of right now, I’d say I’ll play again.” He added that spending time with his family early in the offseason had the potential to change his mind, however, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kershaw take his free agency process slower than most players do. Last winter’s decision seemed to come down to a return to L.A., joining his hometown Rangers, or retiring. It figures to be a similar story this winter, with both the Dodgers and Rangers sure to have significant interest in signing him. (Other teams would obviously call if Kershaw broadened his geographic range, but that’d be quite surprising).
While the ball is primarily in Kershaw’s court as to whether he returns to Dodger Stadium, the onus falls on the team to decide how to proceed with 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger. Bellinger is arbitration-eligible for a final time this winter, and MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects him to receive an $18.1MM salary if tendered a contract. Only Juan Soto has a higher arbitration projection, a testament to Bellinger’s early-career accomplishments. Those earned lofty salaries early in his career, and the arbitration system is designed so that salaries almost always escalate year-over-year.
However, Bellinger’s offensive production has evaporated over the past few seasons. He followed up his 47-homer MVP campaign with a slightly above-average showing (.239/.333/.455) in 2020. While that looked like a potential blip in an anomalous season, he’s seen a continued sharp drop-off at the plate. Bellinger hit .165/.240/.302 over 350 trips to the plate last year. He rebounded slightly this past season, but his .210/.265/.389 line across 550 plate appearances was still markedly worse than average.
Among 172 hitters with 800+ plate appearances over the past two seasons, Bellinger ranked dead last with a .256 on-base percentage. His .355 slugging mark is in the bottom ten. Bellinger’s 7.7% walk rate and 27.1% strikeout percentage are each worse than average, and his hard contact rate is down notably from its 2019 peak. Those extended struggles would seem to point towards Bellinger being non-tendered in lieu of such a large salary, but he’s been a strong plus outside the batter’s box. He swiped 14 bases in 17 attempts this past season and rated as an above-average baserunner overall. More importantly, he’s checked in as a plus defensive center fielder throughout his career, including a +5 runs above average from Statcast this season.
Neither Friedman nor Gomes made a definitive statement on the possibility of a non-tender, but Gomes generally praised Bellinger’s overall value. “Belli has had spurts of being really successful throughout the season,” the GM said. “I think elite defense has continued to be there, and we still think there’s (offensive) upside. So those are discussions we’re going to have moving forward as we look into what 2023 looks like.”
Friedman offered a similar sentiment when asked about the club’s $16MM option on third baseman Justin Turner. Friedman called Turner “a huge part of our success” but noted the front office needed more time to think through key roster decisions. Turner looked to be trending towards a $2MM buyout with a .256/.330/.403 showing in the first half of the season, but he made that a tough call for the front office by posting an excellent .319/.386/.503 line coming out of the All-Star Break.