Dodgers: The 2018 Season is Coming to a Crossroad

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

The Dodgers are about to face a major crossroad.  In the coming weeks, they are going to have to decide whether to fold or go all in for 2018.  Usually, a team would have until the trade deadline to decide, but not this team and not this year.

Conventional baseball wisdom says you have until the trade deadline to decide whether you think you have what it takes to make a legitimate run at the postseason.  If you think you’re one or two pieces away — maybe one big bat or one dominant arm– you roll the dice and put up some young prospects and bring in the hired gun.  If it looks like you just don’t have the stuff, you regroup and focus on improving for next year.  You certainly don’t throw good money after bad by giving up top prospects for a losing cause.

Injuries and salary caps and opt-outs, oh my

Unfortunately, the Dodgers aren’t going to have the luxury of waiting until the trade deadline.  A spate of injuries, a salary cap issue and a generational pitcher with an opt-out clause are going to conspire to force their hand one way or the other.  They all play a factor, but it’s the injuries that are going to accelerate the timetable.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse for our beloved Boys in Blue, they’re hit with another huge setback. Starting pitcher, Hyun-Jin Ryu, one of the few consistent bright spots on the team this year, just made a hard landing on the disabled list with a horrific groin injury.  One of those injuries that make you wince every time you hear about it.

Returning to form

What’s worse is it seemed like Ryu was finally back on track and showing signs of being the pitcher that slotted into the #3 spot in the rotation before a series of shoulder and elbow injuries relegated him to the DL for the better part of the last two seasons.  And Ryu wasn’t just the #3 pitcher on some mediocre rotation.  He was the #3 starter on a rotation headlined by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.  The best 1-2 combo the pitching-rich Dodgers have fielded since the days of Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser.  Possibly the best 1-2 combo they’ve had since the days of the legendary Hall of Fame tandem of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

Ryu started out 3-0 with an ERA just over 2 and was averaging nearly 11 strikeouts per game.  His increased velocity and renewed command of his pitches resulting in a .876 WHIP.  Not to mention being virtually untouchable after getting 2-strikes in the count, allowing only two hitters to reach base in over 50 at-bats.  Simply stated, and with deference to Kershaw, he’s been the best pitcher on the team so far this year.

And the hits just keep on coming

Early reports indicate Ryu will likely be out until after the All-Star break.  This is a devastating loss to a Dodger team that is already reeling from injuries.   They’re already down three-quarters of their starting infield, including All-Star third baseman and team leader, Justin Turner, and phenom, Corey Seager, at short.  Then take away the services of Logan Forsythe at second and defensive stand-out Yasiel Puig in right.  And let’s not forget pitchers Rich Hill and Tom Koehler are out of commission as well.

Combine injuries with an under-performing offense and a shaky bullpen, and you have to start wondering about the Dodger’s chances at even making the postseason, let alone finally ending their World Series drought.  The Front Office is eventually going to have to decide whether they’re going to go all in or fold.  That decision is further complicated by Kershaw’s potential to opt out of his contract and into free agency next year.

The luxury tax dilemma

The Dodgers are desperate to stay under the salary cap in 2018 to reset the luxury tax for next year.  If they can stay under $197 million, their potential luxury tax rate would drop from 50% to 20% for 2019.  Most projections put the Dodger’s current payroll in the neighborhood of $180 million.  Many have speculated that the cap was the main reason Giancarlo Stanton isn’t patrolling the outfield in Chavez Ravine right now.

Resetting the luxury tax paves the way for the Dodgers to retain Kershaw.  That, of course, assumes he opts out of his current contract and tests the free agent market for the first time in his career.  It also gives them the flexibility to take a run at some of the other premium free agents that will be available in 2019.

Harper and Machado

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are the marquis names and have attracted the most chatter, but I don’t see the Dodgers as serious contenders for either.  Machado just isn’t a good long-term fit in LA.  We already have all-stars at third and short, and I don’t see the Dodgers moving either one to make room for him.  And with speculation that Harper could command baseball’s first $400 million contracts, I doubt the Front Office will go there.

The elephant in the room

At the end of the day, the top priority for the Front Office is re-signing future Hall of Famer, Clayton Kershaw.  Losing Kershaw would be an enormous blow to the team and an even bigger one to the fan base.  How often do you find a player who is considered a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame by his first year of eligibility?  Three Cy Young awards, NL MVP, Triple Crown winner.  Led the majors in ERA a record-setting four years in a row (and led a 5th time for the NL).  Oh, and led the league in ERA+ and WHIP four times and in strikeouts and shutouts three times.  All before the tender age of 30.

Players like Kershaw don’t come around that often, and when they do, you don’t let them get away.  Besides, there’s something even more special when they play their whole career with one team.  George Brett, Derek Jeter, Robin Yount, Tony Gwynn, Ted Williams, Joe Dimaggio, Mike Schmidt, Walter Johnson.  Dodger fans deserve to have that with Kershaw.

Manny Redux?

Ten years ago the Dodgers set their eyes on another Manny to make a run at the postseason.  They acquired perennial head-case and hitting savant, Manny Ramirez, at the trade deadline.  Manny proceeded to tear up the league, hitting a blistering .396/.489.743/1.232 with 17 HRs and 53 RBIs in just over 50 games.  What’s more, he continued to mash into the post season with an OPS better than 1.700 over eight games.  Sadly, he couldn’t do it all by himself, and the  Dodgers fell short of the Series yet one more time.  But it certainly wasn’t from Ramirez not doing what he was brought in to do!

So do the Dodgers go all in and go for another Manny to try to save their season?  Machado is arguably the biggest position player who’s virtually guaranteed to be on another team by the end of the season.  He’ll cost the most in prospects.  He’ll use up the majority of wiggle room the Dodgers have to stay under the cap.  If they go for Machado, they better hope they don’t need to bolster the bullpen or bring in another arm for the starting rotation.  They won’t be able to do it.  At least not with A-list names.  It’ll be bargain bin shopping for Honeycutt reclamation hopefuls.

The Dodgers have a glaring hole at shortstop, and they know it won’t be refilled anytime soon.  They didn’t just lose their everyday shortstop; they lost one of the best players in the game.  Manny Machado is one of the few players in baseball that can come close to filling that hole.

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Are the Dodgers holding a potentially winning hand?  Should they go all in on Machado?  Is he the missing piece that will put it all together for this year?  Usually, the Dodgers would have until the trade deadline to decide whether they’re going to go all in with this kind of move.  Usually, they’d want a bunch of other questions answered first.  Will the starting pitching staff get healthy?  Will Turner return to form right away or will this have a lingering impact all year?  Can Forsythe perform like the player who averaged 4.3 WAR for 2015 and 2016?  Will Taylor prove 2017 was no fluke?  There are a lot of unanswered questions, but not a lot of time to wait for answers.

The Dodgers are four games under .500 and eight games behind the first place D-Backs.  If they don’t snap out of their funk soon, this season could be over before we even get to the break.  The Dodgers don’t have time to wait for everyone to get healthy to start playing catch up.  This team should be capable of playing well enough to overcome that lead this early in the year.  They need someone to light a fire under them now.

Next: Dodgers must be patient with Kershaw

Machado’s red-hot bat (currently hitting .354/.435/.638/1.073 with 9 HRs and 27 RBIs) could be just the thing to ignite a lackluster offense.  He’s also a two-time Gold Glove third baseman.  He fills a hole in the field, and he fills a hole in the lineup.  His presence would also strengthen the outfield by allowing Chris Taylor to return to Center.  If the Dodgers allow themselves to fall too far behind waiting until the trade deadline to fill in the hole at short, there may be no point filling it in at all.