In just 19 days pitchers and catchers will report to Camelback Ranch in Arizona for the beginning of spring training. Although the Dodgers didn’t seem to do much to their roster since the end of the World Series, there have been some significant changes that raise several questions to be answered in the Cactus League.
The most glaring losses to the team this far are the departure of Brandon Morrow, the right-handed setup man and bridge to Kenley Jansen, and Yu Darvish, an ace right-hander and number two man in the rotation for the second half of 2017.
With the addition of Matt Kemp, the possible rise of rookies Walker Buehler and Alex Verdugo, players returning from injuries in Andrew Toles and eventually Julio Urias, and the looming free agency possibilities of Clayton Kershaw, Logan Forsythe, Yasiel Puig, Yasmani Grandal, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, spring training begins the search for lineup and rotation choices this year and the years beyond.
Who will serve as the setup man for stud closer Kenley Jansen?
Last year, Pedro Baez’s stellar first half of the season seemed to derail at the worst possible time, plummeting manager Dave Roberts’ confidence in the right-handed reliever, ultimately forcing him to leave Baez off the roster for the World Series. With MLB and the union considering implementing changes to the pace of play, will Baez, one of the slowest between pitches in all of baseball, be able to regain his confidence and return to form in 2018 and beyond? A strong spring could be the first step in the right direction.
Can Tony Cingrani, a one-time closer for the Cincinnati Reds, fill the role? Cingrani struggled mightily for much of 2017 but seemed to find his touch again in a Dodger uniform after a mid-season acquisition, churning out a 3.50 ERA in September and October and earning Roberts’ trust. Can newly acquired Scott Alexander play the part? Alexander, a ground ball specialist, could be imperative in preventing late-inning home runs in this age of the 27-degree launch angle. Alexander’s sterling ERA of 0.93 in the 8th inning last year makes him a strong candidate for the task.
Will the Dodgers’ rotation be strong enough without Yu Darvish?
But there won’t a lead to protect if the Dodgers don’t have a solid rotation. Although Kershaw, Rich Hill, and Alex Wood are penciled in as the first three starters, each comes with risk. Kershaw has had to deal with back problems resulting from herniated disks and could see the issue flare up at any time. The same can be said about Hill’s history with blisters, already a reason for Roberts choosing to limit his innings in the past. Wood, who came out of the bullpen at the beginning of 2017, saw his ERA rise as the innings piled up last year, and the question remains if he can condition himself during spring training for a full year of starting.
Ryu is likely the fourth man in the rotation. Although he did spend limited time in the bullpen last year, he was not comfortable with it, unlike Kenta Maeda, who seemed to thrive in relief. Will Maeda open the season as the fifth starter, or will the Dodgers turn to rookie of the year candidate Walker Buehler? The Dodgers could also attempt to sign a free agent pitcher during the Spring. Ross Stripling who excelled as a long reliever in 2017, could still compete for the fifth spot as could young starter Brock Stewart, and waiting in the wings recovering from injury is the phenom, Julio Urias.
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What will the primary lineup look like for Manager Dave Roberts?
On Opening Day the Dodgers will likely be facing left-handed starter Madison Baumgarner and the Giants. The Dodgers could go with a lineup that looks something like this:
According to Baseballreference.com Forsythe did his best hitting out of the fifth and sixth spots in the lineup, and hit a full 100 points better when facing left-handed pitching. Yasiel Puig hit only two of his 28 home runs against left-handers but did perform well out of the 8th spot in the batting order, and his defensive abilities make it difficult to take him out of the lineup.
When the Dodgers face a right-hander on the mound, Roberts might fill out the lineup card this way:
Puig hit .309 out of the sixth spot last year, and Joc Pederson, who hit ten of his eleven home runs versus right-handed pitching, hit for his best average out of the 8th spot. Roberts will want to see if Pederson’s resurgence during the World Series carries over to the 2018 season and if Andrew Toles, who had 97 of his 102 plate appearances against right-handed pitching last year, has sufficiently recovered from his torn ACL.
What will the Dodgers bench look like?
Roberts will also spend much of Spring Training deciding on who will complete the bullpen and the bench, as well as who to rely on for late-inning pinch-hitting duties. Kiké Hernandez can play multiple positions and is a top candidate off the bench against left-handers, and Toles, when not starting against righties, would be the likely top hitter off the bench.
Austin Barnes took over the catcher’s position, but is also multi-positional and could spend some time at second base. If that’s the case, the Dodgers might include Kyle Farmer on the 25 man roster as a third catcher.
Will the Dodgers win their sixth straight division title and make their way back to the World Series? Will they win their seventh title in franchise history? These important questions for the fall will begin to be answered as the Boys of Summer return to Spring Training once more.