Whether the cause was a futile attempt at resetting their consecutive-years luxury tax penalty or an effort to save up in order to sign Shohei Ohtani next offseason, the Los Angeles Dodgers had a weirdly quiet winter. And the juggernaut’s absence from the hot stove headlines has put them in perhaps their most vulnerable position since they last missed the playoffs in 2012.
Los Angeles Dodgers
2022 record: 111-51 (1st, NL West; lost in NLDS)
2023 FanGraphs projection: 86-76 (2nd, NL West)
The Blue Crew’s performance in past decade has set a high bar for success — over their last 10 seasons, they’ve failed to finish atop the NL West just once, in 2021, and they still managed 106 wins that year. They also won 106 in 2019 and 111 last year, not to mention their torrid 43-17 stretch during the abbreviated 2020 season. In short, they’ve established a new standard for regular season excellency over the past four seasons. Do their offseason moves really portend a 25-win decrease heading into this season?
Well, the club has seen a mass exodus of productive players — Trea Turner, Tyler Anderson, Andrew Heaney, Justin Turner, and Cody Bellinger — whose cumulative talent really dwarfs that of the new arrivals. Through January, that meant the worst net offseason loss in terms of 2022 WAR; since then, the Dodgers’ most significant add has arguably been Miguel Rojas. I criticized the Rojas trade at the time, given that it signaled an end to any hopes that the squad would sneak in under the first competitive balance threshold. Even if they were always going to cross the threshold, why would they do it for a league-average shortstop, especially when he cost them a major-league-ready prospect?
Now, that trade looks prescient, but not in a way the Dodgers would have wanted. Former top prospect Gavin Lux, who was looking forward to a trial at his natural shortstop position, tore his ACL running the bases in spring training. Rojas will assume the majority of reps as the captain of the infield rather than serving on the short side of a platoon, the latter being a role more suitable for the 34-year-old right-hander coming off of wrist surgery.
In addition to their shortstop quagmire, the club will be uniquely impacted by the shift ban. The Dodgers led the league in shift rate each of the past four years, not once shifting in fewer than 50 percent of plate appearances. Aside from suppressing batting average on balls in play, their strategic positioning enabled them to put a less-than-rangey infielder in Max Muncy at second base; without it, they’ll be moving Muncy back to third and trying prospect Miguel Vargas at second. Though Vargas has been able to play the field some, he hasn’t swung the bat for much of the spring due to a finger fracture. I wouldn’t be shocked if he struggles to settle in at the keystone due to his unusual preseason.
As for the outfield, the team again opted for a league-average veteran, 35-year-old David Peralta, to fill their biggest hole (left field). He’ll be on the strong side of a platoon with Trayce Thompson; judging by Thompson’s 2022 and World Baseball Classic performance thus far, the Peralta signing strikes me as an unnecessary move. Further, even if the Dodgers don’t have faith in Thompson against righties, they may have been better served trying prospect James Outman, a lefty, instead of Peralta. The 25-year-old Outman homered 31 times in the minors last year and has gone 9-for-23 with a pair of longballs this spring. He could easily overtake Peralta by midseason, or even Chris Taylor, who’s coming off of his worst offensive showing in six years as a Dodger, in center field.
As for the rotation, the club opted to replace Heaney and Anderson with Noah Syndergaard. The oft-injured Syndergaard had hoped to regain some of his diminished velocity by working out at Driveline and Tread this offseason, but early returns haven’t been great in spring training. The club does have two nearly-ready prospects in Bobby Miller and Gavin Stone, but even with Tony Gonsolin injured, the Dodgers seem poised to turn to lower-upside starters in Michael Grove and Ryan Pepiot to replace him.
Although they have their share of returning studs in Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urias, Freddie Freeman, and Mookie Betts, the Dodgers seem content to not push this year. Opting for veteran placeholders over higher-upside youngsters is an indication that they aren’t willing to go all-in and risk starting the service time clock on their prospects.
Maybe the Dodgers just miscalculated on their competitive balance plan; maybe they’re waiting for Ohtani and the return of Walker Buehler to put their best foot forward; maybe they know something about Peralta and Rojas that I don’t; maybe they’re just extremely confident in the high floor established by the likes of Freeman and Betts. But on the surface, this is a substantially weaker Dodgers team than we’ve seen in recent years, and I can’t help but feel like it didn’t have to be this way.
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