Dodgers’ season not over just yet

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 22: Corey Seager
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 22: Corey Seager /

With apologies to Mark Twain, talk of the Dodgers’ death has been greatly exaggerated.

The first two and a half weeks of the 2018 season have been decidedly underwhelming.  Sure, it’s early.  Sure there have been a few positives.  But it’s probably safe to say that most Dodger fans were hoping or expecting the Dodgers to start sprinting their way to the World Series so they could finish unfinished business.  A 9-10 record through the first 19 games was hardly what anyone had in mind.  How is this even possible?

Déjà Vu?

This is almost the same team as the 2017 team that led all of baseball with 104 wins and came within one Yu Darvish meltdown from winning their first World Series since 1988.  How could they go from that to a game under .500 and 4.5 games behind the first place D-backs?  Well, pretty much the same way they started the first two and a half weeks of the 2017 season at 9-10 and four games behind the first place Rockies.  So, let’s not hit the panic button just yet.

Aside from the sub-par record and place in the standings,  the similarities between the start of the 2017 season and the 2018 season are striking.  At this point in 2017, Rich Hill was heading to the disabled list with blister issues on his pitching hand.  Next came Grant Dayton, followed shortly by Logan Forsythe and Rob Segedin.  Now in 2018, Rich Hill is heading back to the DL with a cracked nail on his pitching hand.  Logan Forsythe joins him on the DL with right shoulder inflammation.  Tom Koehler, the expected replacement for Brandon Morrow, is already on the 60-day DL.

Cause for concern

The most notable difference in 2018 is the devastating broken wrist suffered by Justin Turner just days before the season began.  Turner was hitting at a torrid .404 clip with 12 extra base hits and 12 RBI for April in 2017.  Losing Turner is huge.  Not only is JT a gold-glove caliber third baseman, but he’s arguably the best/most consistent hitter on the team.  He’s also widely regarded as the heart of the team.  It will be crucial to get a healthy Turner back into the lineup and back at the hot corner.

The other significant differences from 2017 are the painfully slow starts for the top of the order hitters, Corey Seager and Chris Taylor, and struggling closer, Kenley Jansen.  They each played a critical role in 2017’s success.  Now they each must answer a critical question if the Dodgers hope to repeat in 2018.

Where’s the power?

Seager’s bat has been showing some recent signs of life.  He’s hitting close to .300 over the last week, including a 4-hit performance in the final win against the Padres.  But he still only has one home run and has been limited to only 3 extra-base hits in total. This continues last year’s second-half power outage, which saw Seager limited to 5 HRs in his final 200-plus at-bats after July (including the postseason).  Where is the power?   Seager’s drop in power seems to have coincided with his elbow inflammation.  Is this just a slow start or is last year’s mysterious elbow injury having more of an impact than they are letting on?

Will the real Chris Taylor please stand up?

Was 2017 a fluke?  Should we expect a reversion to the mean in 2018 or did a re-tooled swing really transform him from Chris Taylor, a mild-mannered utility player, into the pitcher-killing CT3?

Is this “it”?

The Jansen question is the simplest, but the scariest: Is this “it”?  It, of course, is the point at which dominant closers abruptly revert back to just plain old closers. While relief pitchers who aren’t named Mariano Rivera have historically enjoyed rather abbreviated periods of dominance,  is anyone really ready to suggest that Jansen is starting the decline phase of his career?  Let’s not forget that his late conversion to pitching means there’s still pretty low mileage on his 30-year old arm.  After heavy post-season use last year, the Dodgers used Jansen very lightly in Spring Training this year.  Look for Jansen’s velocity to tick up 2-3 mph and get that devastating late movement back as he builds up arm strength.  He should return as the strikeout machine Dodger fans have come to know and love by early May.

Signs of hope

Aside from the eerie similarities between the start of 2017 and 2018, there are plenty of other reasons to be even more optimistic about 2018.

Going into his final season before free agency, Grandal seems to have regained his stroke at the plate.  He’s been the hottest hitter on the club and is leading the team in virtually every offensive category.  What’s more, he’s not just doing it from the left side but is hitting close to .400 from the right side of the plate as well.

Meanwhile, Matt Kemp seems determined to be the living embodiment of the Prodigal Son and his bat has been giving Dodger fans every reason to welcome him back into the fold.  The

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sentimental fan-favorite sits near the top of the team leaderboard in average (.321), HRs (3) and RBIs (10).  For someone who was acquired as part of a strategic salary dump and wasn’t even expected to make it through Spring Training with the team, this has to be considered an upside surprise.

Yasiel Puig picked up right where he left off in terms of incredible defense in right field, determined to take home the gold glove he should rightfully have won last year.  And while his offensive numbers don’t reflect it yet, Puig has been hitting the ball hard and continues to show better discipline at the plate.  Puig will be a free agent at the end of the year.  How he performs in 2018 (both on and off the field) will likely determine whether the Dodgers want to attempt to bring him back next year.

At 22, Cody Bellinger looks like he’s managing to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.  On the opposite end of the age spectrum sits Chase Utley.  The 39-year old clubhouse presence has been a lot more than just a clubhouse presence.  With a .305 batting average and a .905 OPS, Utley has done an admirable job of helping to fill the holes left by the ailing Turner and Forsythe.

Next: Dodgers: Hyun Jin Ryu- A Career on the Scenic Route

So despite the less than stellar start, let’s not write off the 2018 season just yet…