As we sit here at the beginning of March, still a couple weeks away from the birth of Spring, a look ahead to the World Series would be too presumptive for most teams, even for a team as talented as the Dodgers, and yet it’s hard to not be excited.
During spring training players are normally working out the cobwebs of the off-season; pitchers build up their arm strength, experiment with new pitches, and tweak their deliveries. Hitters are usually closer to regular season form, perhaps refining their batting stances, fine-tuning their conditioning programs, welcoming new faces, getting an at-bat or two in before lazily heading to the clubhouse, and yet there seems to be an electricity around camp.
Take Monday’s contest against the Cleveland Indians for example.
After a beginning of the game as slow as the hot stove season, the Dodgers came alive in the seventh and eighth innings with six extra-base hits. Matt Kemp, Alex Verdugo, and D.J. Peters homered, and Joc Pederson, Kiké Hernandez, and Jake Peter all hit doubles as the Dodgers turned a 1-1 game into an 8-1 rout.
However it’s not the number of runs that’s significant, but the number of players that are succeeding, and the manner of their success.
Joc Pederson struggled against left-handers last year, and his double against Indian’s pitcher, lefty Ryan Merritt, scored a run. Pederson fought the pitch off and laced his double to the opposite field. Jake Peter, one of the pleasant surprises in camp so far, also hit his home run off of Merritt, as he tries to make his case to reach the show for the first time in his career.
Peter’s home run is one of 26 that the Dodgers have hit this spring by 15 different players in just 13 games. The hitting surge is answering the questions entering spring training to the tune of excess. It is not a question of who can play left field for instance, but who will? The overwhelming freedom provided by this incredible surplus of talent and versatility is a blessing for manager Dave Roberts, but choices must be made.
Eight hitters are likely a given to make the opening day roster. Austin Barnes and Yasmani Grandal are set at catcher, Cody Bellinger will be manning first, Logan Forsythe starts at second, Corey Seager is solid at shortstop and Justin Turner rounds out the infield at third. Yasiel Puig anchors right, Chris Taylor patrols center, and then, of course, there’s left field.
If the Dodgers go with 13 players on the pitching staff, a likely option when considering the injury history of the starters and their collective lack of innings pitched last year, that leaves four hitters to choose from to fill left field and round out the bench.
Matt Kemp has had a strong spring so far despite the constant trade rumors surrounding him since the day the Dodgers traded for him in the offseason. Andrew Toles has shown that he hasn’t lost the hitting stroke he displayed last April before going down with a season-ending injury. He’s now hitting .412 with two home runs and seven runs batted in in Cactus League action to date. This lefty-righty combination could platoon for the Dodgers in left as the season commences.
That leaves room for two more hitters amongst some quality candidates. The Dodgers signed Chase Utley to a two-year contract and he is a presumptive lock to make the team. Even if his greater contributions are as a mentor to the younger players, he’s still a strong presence in the infield. Kiké Hernandez provides great value in his ability to play almost every position and brings a quality right-handed bat to the lineup.
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So where does that leave Kyle Farmer, Joc Pederson, and Jake Peter? Pederson could still find his way to opening day if the Dodgers trade Kemp, or if Toles regresses and/or Pederson begins to hit with authority, but barring injury or a decision to use 13 offensive players, Pederson may be back with the minor league affiliate in Oklahoma along with Farmer and Peter when the season begins. Joining them would be another lefty-righty left field duo in slugger D.J. Peters and prized phenom Alex Verdugo. Any one of them could find their way back to the big leagues if someone gets injured or if the pitching staff situation settles.
Of the 13 pitching spots available, the Dodgers starting five are led by the dominant Clayton Kershaw, followed by Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Kenta Maeda. That leaves eight arms in the bullpen. Kenly Jansen will close, and newly acquired lefty Scott Alexander will take one of the spots as well. Tony Cingrani pitched reasonably well in relief for the Dodgers after coming over in a mid-season trade, and Ross Stripling ate up innings in long relief. Pedro Baez may have lost favor with the fans during the second half, but he still has lights out potential and could replace eighth-inning specialist Brandon Morrow who was lost to the Chicago Cubs in free agency. Josh Fields is probably the last lock for the bullpen after a solid performance last year.
Who will claim the last two spots in the bullpen?
Once again, Roberts has a number of quality options to choose from. Yimi Garcia and Adam Liberatore lost almost the entirety of 2017 to injury, but are now back fighting to reclaim their positions in the bullpen, where they fared well in 2016. Brock Stewart filled in admirably last year out of the pen as well. Although a starter by trade, like Ross Stripling, he is good enough to be in the majors once more. Another starter, Wilmer Font, is now being considered for the bullpen. Font’s electric stuff allowed him to strikeout 178 batters in just over 134 innings last year in the minors, and he could become a dominant late-inning reliever.
Other options include Pat Venditte, J.T. Chargois, and until recently, Tom Koehler. Venditte is an interesting talent. He has gained notoriety for pitching equally well with his right and left hand, and could fill either of those roles thereby potentially opening a roster spot for another player, although he is not viewed as the same caliber of player as some of the other options. Chargois has only pitched one season in the majors and has been battling elbow injuries, but could earn a look. Koehler was a lock to make the bullpen until injuring his right shoulder and his return at this time is unknown.
At some point during the season expect to see young guns Walker Buehler and Julio Urias as they continue to stake their claim to the future starting rotation. The choices may be difficult for Roberts to make, but these are the types of problems you dream of having as a manager.
If you’ve ever been to a concert or sat down before an orchestra, you have seen the musicians playing scales and tuning their instruments before the curtain rises. They adjust, and test, and play with varying degrees of tempo, and the sounds jumble together as they reverberate throughout the building.
This is what spring training feels like this year. There is an almost palpable excitement in the air slowly building, and when the roster comes together and the symphony of this season unfolds, expect the experience to be akin to magic.