Before Hyun-Jin Ryu throws the first pitch on March 28th, the Dodgers will have already clinched the NL West crown for the seventh year in a row. They won’t mathematically clinch the division until September or so, but there it’s hard to think of a plausible scenario in which this team doesn’t win the West. Even in an absolute worst-case scenario, the Dodgers will still come out on top.
Even last year when Corey Seager went out for the year with Tommy John and Clayton Kershaw battled health issues again, and Kenley Jansen looked mortal for the first time and they under-performed their Pythagorean record by 10 games, they still won the division. Yes, they needed to play a 163rd game against the Rockies, and yes, they needed the Diamondbacks to collapse, but it’s hard to imagine their luck being any worse than it was in 2018.
They have too many fail-safes. If somebody gets hurt, it just means that one of their supremely talented bench players will finally get some playing time. This is a team that even after trading Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp to the Reds, almost didn’t have room for Alex Verdugo, not to mention Andrew Toles. Ross Stripling is listed seventh on the FanGraphs rotation depth chart, and he had a 6.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year.
The Dodgers led the majors in positional fWAR and non-pitcher wRC+ at 118. That might not repeat in 2019 as they’ve arguably gotten slightly worse. The Dodgers replaced Yasmani Grandal with Russell Martin which is a clear downgrade. They’ve also switched out Kemp and Puig for AJ Pollock and Verdugo. Verdugo should be better than Kemp going forward, but replacing Puig with Pollock is a little risky since Pollock has had trouble staying healthy and he’s more expensive than Puig.
The Dodgers may have gotten a little worse on offense, but there’s still a gulf between them and their closest divisional rivals. The Rockies and Diamondbacks didn’t improve this offseason, so Los Angeles is as sure a divisional favorite as any outside of Cleveland.
Now, even if the Dodgers looking to win their seventh divisional title in a row, that doesn’t mean the season will be a success. This isn’t a team that is satisfied with making the playoffs. They’ve been to the World Series twice in a row and lost both times. The season will only be successful if they end a 30-year championship drought.
They’re not going to be like the 2010-11 Texas Rangers and lose two World Series before going into a tailspin. They could, however, become the Bills. They could keep going to the World Series and losing, year after year to the Red Sox or Astros or Yankees until Julio Urías is on his retirement tour. The good news is that it’s hard to imagine the Dodgers being noncompetitive. If they keep fielding super-teams year after year, they’re bound to get a ring.
Just because the window is wide open doesn’t mean that the Dodgers aren’t in a transitional phase. They’re just fortunate and good enough that their changing of the guard occur imperceptibly. As mentioned earlier, Ryu and not Clayton Kershaw will pitch on Opening Day. This will be the first time since 2010 that Kershaw hasn’t taken the bump to begin the season.
That’s not an indictment of his talent. Kershaw is still one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, but he’s no longer the best. That’s before getting to the question of his health. Kershaw hasn’t played a full season since 2015, and he’s already missing a start with shoulder soreness.
Even if this time he misses at the beginning of April is the only time he isn’t active this year, there’s also the concern of his declining fastball velocity. He didn’t hit mid-nineties with his fastball last year, only maxing out at 93.79 MPH. That’s three MPH slower than his 2017 max. It’s easy to see why Kershaw relied on his slider more than ever in 2018 actually throwing it more often than his four-seamer.
Kershaw may not be the same, but the Dodgers will move from his peak unharmed. Walker Buehler and Julio Urías are each worthy successors to Kershaw.
The Dodgers also lost Farhan Zaidi to the Giants. Zaidi was the General Manager of the Dodgers for the last four years. Going through a brain drain is never beneficial to a team, but losing one to a historical rival, and one that’s won three championships in the last decade is especially bad.
That’s a concern for later though. For 2019, however, the Dodgers have little reason to worry. Last season, they played about as poorly as they could, and they still won the National League pennant. There will come a year where the Dodgers don’t win the NL West, but that year is not this year.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.