National League West
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Los Angeles Dodgers
Last year’s record: 106-56
Some years ago, ESPN — I’m pretty sure this was right around the launch of the ESPN Classic network — coined a phrase that should not make any sense at all. Well, technically, they didn’t coin the phrase; people had used it before in reviews and advertisements. But ESPN made it its own.
The words clash. They don’t belong together. Instant means immediate, sudden, something that happens incredibly fast and usually with little effort, like instant coffee or instant results. And a classic, while not the precise opposite of instant, is supposed to be something that can only develop over a long period of time, like a rock formation or the $25 savings bond your grandmother gave you when you were 3. The very essence of a classic is that it has stood up over many years.
But when you’re a network dedicated to the classics — rather than, say, Harvard — you don’t have time to wait for things to gestate. This is also true if you have a classic rock radio station — you can only play so many Led Zeppelin and Credence songs before you figure you better add in some Foo Fighters, Green Day and The Killers to freshen things up.*
*This is how The Offspring’s “Come Out and Play” becomes a classic.
This Los Angeles Dodgers lineup is an instant classic. It’s being called one of the greatest lineups — maybe even THE greatest lineup — in baseball history before the Dodgers even play a game. We are in such a rush in 2022.
It’s one helluva of a lineup, no question about it. I mean, here’s just one layout:
Mookie Betts, RF
Trea Turner, SS
Freddie Freeman, 1B
Max Muncy, DH
Will Smith, C
Justin Turner, 3B
Cody Bellinger, CF
Chris Taylor, LF
Gavin Lux, 2B
This is obviously a flexible lineup, Bellinger can move up or down, Taylor can move up or down, Freeman could hit second and Trea Turner third to keep the righty-lefty-righty-lefty thing going. It’s fun to move the players around.
But in the end: What do you have there? Three MVPs plus a batting champion plus four All-Stars plus perhaps the best catcher in the game, plus a second baseman who just two years ago was considered by many the best prospect in the game.
Yes, it looks pretty amazing right now. But we don’t know because they haven’t played yet. This group absolutely might score 1,000 runs and win four or five Gold Gloves and put itself in the stratosphere with the 1975 Reds and the Murderers Row Yankees and the Cleveland lineup of the 1990s and so on.
Or, it might not. That’s not a knock. That’s reality. The last time I remember this much hype about a team unit was the 2011 Phillies, when they went into the season with a pitching staff of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt. That staff was so promising, so loaded with potential — two Cy Young winners, a World Series MVP and a perennial All-Star — that the best sportswriter in America, my hero and friend Gary Smith, decided to spend the entire year following them and chronicling their greatness for the historical record.
They were terrific as a group in 2011 — Halladay, Lee and Hamels all finished Top 5 in the Cy Young voting behind a young Clayton Kershaw — but soon after Halladay got hurt, Oswalt left, Hamels and Lee were good but not earth-shatteringly so, and the Phillies went into a 10-season cycle of mediocrity that they’re still trying to break free from.
No, I’m not predicting that for the Dodgers, not at all. I think they’re far and away the best team in baseball. But even the way I described that lineup in the short paragraph above is misleading. Yes, they have three MVPs, but one of them is Cody Bellinger, who has hit .195 in 151-injury plagued games since winning that MVP award. Can he return to form? You hope so, but it’s far from a certainty.
I mentioned four All-Stars, but this includes 37-year-old Turner, who suffered a nasty hamstring injury in the playoffs, and this includes Chris Taylor, who made his first All-Star Game last year and is an absolutely wonderful player but in large part because of his versatility. He’s never really played one position before.
And we don’t really know how good Gavin Lux is. In the first iteration of this Dodgers’ essay, he wasn’t even starting — it was going to be A.J. Pollock in left and Taylor at second and Lux on the bench. After Pollock was traded for Craig Kimbrel, Lux was slotted in … and we just don’t know how all that will play out.
But what tends to happen in sports fandom is that we lose the gray. It’s all black and white, greatness and incompetence, heroes and goats. This Dodgers’ lineup overflows with possibility, and when talking about what’s possible, we tend to gloss over what’s mundane but likely, such as injuries and slumps and players aging faster than we might have hoped. These Dodgers have put themselves in position as the favorites to win it all. But now, they actually have to go out and do it.
Would it really matter if Clayton Kershaw ended his career playing for some other team? I suppose in the long run, in the grand scheme of things, it would not. Billy Williams finished his career in Oakland, Harmon Killebrew finished his in Kansas City, Yogi Berra played four games with the Mets, John Smoltz had that odd final year where he pitched for Boston and St. Louis. It happens.
Still, who wants to see Kershaw in anything but Dodger blue? All offseason, as Kershaw rumors fluttered about — the main one being that he would sign with his hometown Texas Rangers — it felt wrong. I didn’t fully appreciate how invested I was in Kershaw as a Dodger until it seemed like he might leave. Maybe it’s his connection to Koufax. Maybe it was hearing Vin Scully call so many of his games. Whatever, there was a real celebration here, some 2,500 miles away, when the Dodgers re-signed Kershaw to a one-year deal.
Now as for how Kershaw, at age 34, will pitch? That’s trickier for a couple of reasons. First, the obvious one, we have no idea how healthy he will be. He has not made 30 starts in a season since the Obama administration.
Second, we just don’t know how much he can do now that his fastball is no longer an elite pitch. Even in his glory days, hitters had no choice but to go after his fastball because Kershaw’s other pitches were all but untouchable. But in those days, the fastball was 95 and consistently on the black, so hitters didn’t have much success. There’s a reason Kershaw won three Cy Young awards and finished top five in the voting seven straight years.
But now the fastball barely hits 90 and it doesn’t always go where it’s supposed to go, and hitters have started to tee off on it. Kershaw knows this better than anyone and so last year, for the first time in his career, he was a slider-first pitcher, throwing it 48% of the time. That slider is still otherworldly, but it’s not enough, even for one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball history. Even the great Clayton Kershaw has to locate the fastball.
Walker Buehler, meanwhile, had far and away the best season of his young career, finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting and second in ERA. One of the keys to his step forward was the addition of a changeup that was surprisingly effective against lefties — I say “surprisingly” because it’s a 92-mph changeup, which doesn’t seem to be different enough in velocity from his 95-mph fastball or 92-mph cutter. But it offers another look and now makes Buehler a fully-operational five-pitch pitcher. The best, I’m betting, is yet to come.
Julio Urias was baseball’s only 20-game winner last year — he went 20-3 — which in another era, surely would have made him the Cy Young award winner. The writers CERTAINLY would not have voted for Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes over Urias. Burnes went 11-5 in 167 innings pitched — in those old days when won-loss record was everything, Burnes would not have gotten a single first-place Cy Young vote and maybe no down-ballot votes either. We don’t always appreciate just how much our appreciation of pitching has changed over the last 30 or so years.
That’s not to say that Urias is underappreciated by modern analysis — the spin rate on his curveball is ridiculous, and both his hard-hit percentage and chase rate are among the best in baseball, meaning batters are chasing his pitches out of the zone and making weak contact when they actually do connect. Urias no longer throws a slider; he has instead melded it with his curveball to create some sort of super pitch that batters hit just .155 against. His changeup is almost equally as devastating.
Those top three starters certainly match up with any trio in baseball.
After that, it gets a bit murkier. Andrew Heaney and Tony Gonsolin will start the year as the fourth and fifth starters. Heaney had a wild season with the Angels and Yankees last year. He struck out 150 batters in 130 innings and walked 41; that’s pretty high-end stuff, were it not for the 29 home runs he gave up, the lion’s share of them off fastball mistakes. Gonsolin made only 13 starts because of various injuries; his slider and splitter are true swing-and-miss pitches, but batters slugged .564 against his fastball.
GRADE (max 10): 6.0
I wonder how Los Angeles baseball fans will handle a season where they are not constantly fretting, agonizing, complaining and relief sighing over closer Kenley Jansen. For years, worrying that Jansen no longer has it has been as much a Los Angeles staple as lining up for an hour to get an In-N-Out burger.
Now, they’ll worry about Craig Kimbrel and Blake Treinen. I wonder if that will be as much fun. Let’s start with Treinen: He has had quite the roller-coaster career since working his way up to the Nationals’ closer spot, getting traded to Oakland, and then signing in L.A. as a free agent. This might be best seen through his WHIP — walks and hits per innings pitched.
He finished sixth in the Cy Young voting in 2018. He was barely pitchable in 2019. And last year, he was fantastic. So who is the real Blake Treinen? Well, there’s reason to believe that 2021 was a harbinger of very good things because after years of relying heavily on his upper-90s sinker, last season he fully unveiled an almost unhittable slider, and that became his go-to pitch. Batters slugged .074 against the slider and swung and missed more than 45 percent of the time. He still has the sinker, but it has become his third pitch.
Craig Kimbrel … well, I just didn’t get that deal at all. Neither did Molly Knight. Money had something to do with it, surely, but it also suggests that the Dodgers — even with all of their advanced metrics — must value the safety blanket of an old-fashioned, one-inning closer. Kimbrel in Atlanta was about as good a one-inning closer as any in the history of baseball, including Saint Mariano, but since leaving Atlanta in 2015 he’s been successively brilliant, OK, good, kind of lousy, brilliant again, kind of lousy again, etc.
Last season, Kimbrel was unhittable for the Cubs, truly unhittable, 0.709 WHIP, 64 strikeouts in 36 innings, 0.49 ERA, unhittable. Then he went 11 miles South to the White Sox and he was pretty atrocious, particularly in the playoffs, where in three games he had more home runs allowed than strikeouts.
Eh, who knows?
Brusdar Graterol throws a 100-mph fastball that seems to make the ball as heavy as a shotput, and his best pitch is actually his slider. I have no earthly idea how hitters ever get a hit off him.
GRADE (max 10): 6.5
There undoubtedly have been better times to be named Will Smith. And, even beyond that, it’s quite annoying that when you go to Baseball-Reference and type “Will Smith” into the search box and hit enter, the Braves reliever Will Smith comes up first. But I’m sure Smith can live with all that as a 27-year-old catcher with enormous power, a strong arm, superb athleticism and the boyish looks of a college junior who is super excited to be spending a semester abroad.
And because these are the Dodgers, their backup, Austin Barnes, is an elite pitch-framer.
GRADE (max 10): 7.5
I know it’s been almost two years now, but I’m still so confused how the Dodgers got Trea Turner. For a few days leading up to the trade deadline, there were hot rumors that L.A. was among the teams trying to trade for a few months of the Max Scherzer light show. That made sense. Scherzer was at the end of his Washington deal, the Nationals knew they weren’t going to re-sign him — they wanted to, in the words of Washington GM Mike Rizzo, “step back, refocus, reboot and start the process again.” Yes, that made sense.
But the Trea Turner thing came out of nowhere. I never heard a whisper that Washington was even considering trading him. The Nationals still had him under team control. They were barely 22 months away from having won the World Series. It just seemed such a strange thing to do. But one minute the Dodgers were trying to figure out what to do when Corey Seager left, as everyone figured he would.
And then next minute, they had a shortstop who has been markedly better than Corey Seager. And also the smoothest slider in the business.
One thing that’s baffling about Turner is that he hit into 18 double plays in 2021. That’s baffling because Turner is one of the fastest players in baseball — in fact, by Statcast™ Sprint Speed he IS the fastest player in baseball. His 4.13 time from home to first base is elite, right at the top of the game.
So why all the doubles plays? It seems to come down to this: Turner hits the ball on the ground quite a lot. And he tends to hit the ball very hard. It doesn’t matter how fast you are or if you slide like Fred Astaire, if you hit hard ground balls, you will hit into double plays.
Freddie Freeman. There are certain players in the game who put up great numbers but you know that they basically transcend those numbers by just being themselves. “As great a player as X is,” the quote goes, “X is an even better person.” Freeman has that X-factor — yes, he has essentially made himself into a rare .300/.400/.500 hitter, he’s won a Gold Glove, he’s a solid baserunner, but when you talk to his teammates you hear about his constant optimism. There’s no way (yet) to quantify what that means for a team, but it’s such a joy to be around.
He plays every single day — nobody in the National League has played more games since 2018 than Freeman — and he always has that smile on his face and now he’s back home in Southern California. Look out below.
Remember that scene in “Field of Dreams” where James Earl Jones asks Kevin Costner what the voice said to him at Fenway Park? And Costner lies and pretends the voice said: “The man’s done enough.” These are the words that come to mind about Justin Turner. He was an afterthought when the Dodgers signed him to a one-year, $1 million minor league deal back in 2014. And for eight seasons in Los Angeles, Justin Turner has hit and fielded and run and delivered in the biggest moments and played through pain. It’s no coincidence that the Dodgers made the playoffs every single year.
How much does Turner have left now at 37? Hard to say. But, honestly, the man’s done enough.
Now, it’s Gavin Lux’s time at second. With the Kimbrel trade, the Dodgers seem ready to find out what they have here. Scouts expected Lux to come in and hit right away, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. He posted an 87 OPS+ last year in 102 games. I’ve seen a few scribes write something along the lines of “It’s now or never for Lux,” which seems a bit dramatic — he’s just 24 and still has the same talent that created the hype in the first place. He will get chances. But, yes, it would probably be a good idea for him to take advantage of this moment.
GRADE (max 10): 8.0
Look, there’s no way around this — because of circumstances and injuries, Mookie Betts has just not been quite the impact player in Los Angeles that he was in Boston. Don’t get me wrong, he’s been terrific. On any given day, he will still do something at the plate, in the field or on the bases that will make your eyes pop out of your head like they do in the cartoons when a male wolf sees a female wolf or is about to get run over by a train.
But all in all, we’re waiting for the Betts explosion. It might have happened in 2020, but COVID. He was playing great in 2021 when the injuries hit. I have to believe something’s coming, I don’t know, what it is, but it is, going to be great.*
*I shared my opinion about the new “West Side Story” on Twitter and was pretty much obliterated for it, so I’m going to keep that to myself.
Cody Bellinger very much began looking like himself during the playoffs, when he hit .352, stole five bases without getting caught, and showed some power. It was a small sample size, yes, but it made a lot more sense to see Bellinger playing like that. It made no sense whatsoever watching him hit .165/.240/.302 over 95 games.
Chris Taylor has spent a career being the under-appreciated guy who plays every position and knocks a few balls out and steals some bases … so it was fun to see him become the most famous baseball player in the country for a brief moment during last year’s playoffs, hitting the walk-off homer in a wild-card game and hitting three home runs in a Championship Series game.
GRADE (max 10): 7.5
After Moneyball came out, there was a basic question people were asking: What will happen when the rich teams have the smartest people running them? Well, what happens is you get the Dodgers, who brought in the brilliant Andrew Friedman in 2015 and have won 100-plus games three of the last five years (they certainly would have won 100 in the COVID season too). And they will probably win 100 this year. And next year. And forever.
Friedman in his tenure has somehow managed to build the best major league team AND the best minor-league system at the same time. That’s not supposed to happen.
I have a good friend who’s a Dodgers fan, and I’d say he spends roughly 80% of his time complaining about Dave Roberts. I keep telling him: “I don’t know, man. That team seems pretty well-run to me.” I mean, I don’t know if Roberts is the world’s leading strategist, but when you have a team with this many personalities and egos and the payroll is this high and the pressure to win is overwhelming and the front office has a million new ideas and every year you seem to have a new phenom to work in there, having a manager like Roberts who can keep it all together seems like gold to me.
GRADE (max 10): 7.0
The Farm Report
Somehow the Dodgers STILL have prospects coming out of their ears. How do they do it? The top prospect is probably catcher Diego Cartaya, who’s only 20, but he has long wowed scouts with his defense, and last year — admittedly in only 31 games — he absolutely crushed the ball in Class A. Right-handed pitcher Bobby Miller’s fastball tops out at 100 and he already has four above-average pitches at age 23. He could make an appearance in L.A. at some point by the end of the season. Keith Law has four more Dodgers prospects in his Top 100. Stop already.
The Final Word
They’re the best team in baseball with no end in sight. But the way this works — with expanded playoffs, especially — being the best team in baseball doesn’t guarantee anything. And nobody knows that better than Dodgers fans.
TQ: 42.5, 1st in NL West
San Diego Padres
Last year’s record: 79-83
OK, I just looked in my closet, I believe I have clothing from 26 different Major League Baseball teams. The reason this is strange is that I haven’t purposely gone out and tried to get something from each big-league team. It just happened. It’s not like I said, “Ooh, OK, I need something from the Rays.” I just ended up getting it.
I know the origin story of some of the clothes. I have a wooly A’s sweatshirt, for example, because many years ago I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt for a night game in Oakland, and as you probably know, a night game in Oakland can be colder than Nome, Alaska.
I have a Phillies sweatshirt because when they won the World Series in 2008, I had to get back to my hotel from the ballpark. I was wearing a suit, and I thought: You know, that might not be the best look as I wander into a celebrating Philadelphia. So I bought a Phillies sweatshirt, wore it over my shirt and tie, and it worked like a charm — I got a bunch of high-fives on the way back to the Marriott.
Some of the stuff I don’t remember getting — like this crumpled Mets hat, or this Rangers T-shirt, or this Brewers jersey with my name on it. Oh, wait, now that I think of it, I got the Brewers jersey for doing an event at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum with Rickie Weeks and Bill Hall. This is actually a really cool jersey.
OK, enough reminiscing. Here’s my point: No baseball thing I wear gets anywhere close to the reaction I get when I wear my San Diego Padres T-shirt.
At first, I thought it was a fluke. I wore the gray Padres shirt on a trip once and had probably 10 people stop me in the airport just to say, “Go Padres!” But it has now happened, like, a half dozen times. I can wear my Red Sox shirt or Dodgers hat or a Reds tie or Royals championship polo, and most of the time I get nothing, no reaction at all.
But the Padres shirt? There’s ALWAYS a reaction. Every single time. I will have multiple people come up to ask if I’m a Padres fan, to talk about Fernando Tatis Jr. or Tony Gwynn, to rap about the awesome experience of going to a game at Petco Park.
I’ve tried to figure it out, tried to understand why San Diego fans seem to react so much more positively to seeing someone wearing a Padres shirt … and all I have is a half-baked theory.