Four Questions Facing Dodgers After World Series Loss

For the second straight year, the Dodgers’ season has ended in a World Series appearance but not a World Series victory. While the Red Sox’ four-games-to-one win might show up in history as something of a blowout, the Dodgers were one key hit away from victory in Game One. If they’d also held onto a fifth-inning lead in Game Two and an eighth-inning lead in Game Four, we’d be talking about a great Dodgers team finally winning it all.

It didn’t happen that way, though — and it wasn’t because the Red Sox wanted it more or because the Dodgers’ analytics failed them. Sometimes baseball happens. It happened to the Dodgers, and in the end, the more deserving team won.

Win or lose, the Dodgers were going to face a lot of questions this offseason. Here are the four most-pressing questions in need of an answer.

Bring Back Clayton Kershaw?

Clayton Kershaw could make the decision easy for everyone by not opting out of the two years and $65 million he has left on his contract. There are plenty of concerns with Kershaw: his velocity has declined and he’s relying on his slider more than ever. The future Hall of Famer will begin next season at 31 years old, hardly an elder, but certainly past his prime. Despite those concerns, Kershaw started 31 games in 2018 and pitched 191.1 innings, including the postseason. His ERA and FIP, including the playoffs, were 2.96, and 3.31, respectively. Those are both very good numbers along with his 3.6 WAR from the regular season. Among pending free-agent pitchers, only Patrick Corbin had a better season — and Kershaw showed he could still get outs at a high rate with declining velocity.

The Dodgers rotation figures to include emerging star Walker Buehler, a 39-year-old Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, and maybe some combination of reliever/starters Ross Stripling, Julio Urias, and Alex Wood. Hyun-Jin Ryu is also a free agent, leaving the Dodgers with a huge innings gap to make up. Bringing back Kershaw by adding a couple years to his current deal, maybe at a lower average annual value, would seem to make sense for a Hall of Fame-level pitcher who still provides a good amount of value, playing for the only team by which he’s been employed since becoming a pro.

Change Course in the Bullpen?

The Dodgers entered the 2017 season with Kenley Jansen and a bunch of question marks. The bullpen held up okay during the season, but midseason acquisitions Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson — along with a great season from non-roster free agent Brandon Morrow and converted starter Kenta Maeda — led to a great playoff run with a sub-three ERA. The Dodgers opted for the same course this season, but there was no Brandon Morrow in the group. Tom Koehler was hurt. Scott Alexander had a decent season, but wasn’t trusted come playoff time. Ross Stripling faded at the end of the year. Ryan Madson pitched well down the stretch, but didn’t get the job done in the World Series. Dylan Floro was solid and Pedro Baez had a good season, but in the playoffs it looked more like the Mattingly-led version of the Dodgers that depended on Kenley Jansen and little else.

The cost of a decent reliever in free agency is high, and those relievers don’t provide much more guarantee of success than what the Dodgers have received from lower-profile options in recent years.. The smart play is to keep doing the same thing, but there is going to be pressure to commit some of that gigantic payroll to the perception of security.

Go After Bryce Harper or Manny Machado?

Even with Clayton Kershaw on the books and all the arbitration raises, the Dodgers payroll is something close to $180 million right now. Including competitive-balance tax payments, the Dodgers averaged $306 million per year from 2014 through the 2017 season. Going under the competitive-balance tax threshold this season reset the team’s tax figure, lowering the potential taxes they’d face in 2019 if they once again crossed the threshold. If the team added another $100 million in 2019 salaries during free agency, they would still end up close to what they paid in the four years prior to this one. The team could bring back Kershaw, choose between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, and still go get more help without breaking the bank.

The Dodgers figure to get Corey Seager back at full strength next season, but the club could move Seager to second base after his elbow surgery and keep Machado at shortstop. The team has a ton of options in the outfield between Cody Bellinger, Enrique Hernandez, Matt Kemp, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, and Chris Taylor, as well as prospect Alex Verdugo. That said, none of those options are immovable or appear to be future stars. Hernandez and Taylor can play multiple positions, Bellinger is still probably a better fit at first base, and Puig (and Kemp) will be free agents after next season. There is a spot for Bryce Harper, or maybe for A.J. Pollock at a considerably reduced rate.

What to Do at Catcher?

Over the last four seasons, Yasmani Grandal ranks third among MLB catchers with 11.2 WAR, trailing only Buster Posey and J.T. Realmuto. With another October from Hell, Grandal again saw himself lose his starting job in the playoffs. Despite those struggles, Grandal’s performance in the regular season should net him a healthy multi-year deal. He will also net the Dodgers a draft pick at the end of the second round if he signs elsewhere. (The Dodgers would forfeit their second-round pick for signing a free agent with the qualifying offer attached.) The Dodgers have two of the best catching prospects in baseball sitting in the minors in Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith, as well as Austin Barnes.

Bringing back Grandal seems unlikely, but so does turning the catching duties over to Ruiz or Smith, even if Barnes does provide some cover. In addition to Grandal, Wilson Ramos will also likely receive a multi-year deal. That leaves potential one-year options like Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado, Brian McCann, and Kurt Suzuki. None are great, though McCann is a left-handed to potentially balance Barnes’ righty bat. It looks to be a transition year for the Dodgers at catcher, which might provide them with an incentive to seek more certainty elsewhere.

The Dodgers just finished a really good season, even if they fell short of their ultimate goal. They have the players and resources to reach the playoffs again next season, but they do have to answer a few questions about the direction of their team.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

Can’t the Dodgers flip one of either Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith (with something else thrown in ) for Realmuto?

5 years ago

Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball, and it’s not really close at all.

So, no, they won’t be able to acquire baseball’s best catcher (with 2 years of control still) for that cheap.

5 years ago
Reply to  thestatbook

Oh I agree, it’ll take a lot greater package than my shorthand statement. The Marlins are the worst org in MLB, I’m pretty sure JT wants out, and I think the Dodgers have the pieces to make this trade.

5 years ago

1 of them would have to be included in a deal but neither is a headliner. As a 2nd best piece sure.

5 years ago

The Marlins turned down a deal that was headlined by Victor Robles during the season. They’re looking for something similar to the haul they got for Yelich.

My prediction: They’ll place a truly unattainable price on Realmuto until he goes through an extended slump, at which point they’ll panic and sell on him when he’s at his lowest in value.

I’m not sure the Dodgers are willing to wait for that to happen, and something tells me that if they spend a lot for a catcher they’ll want one who frames better than Realmuto anyway.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

They could have Cervelli for one of Ruiz or Smith straight up, fwiw.

5 years ago
Reply to  BillClinton

I’m sure they could, but that is definitely not happening.