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New FSM Essential Preview – The 2021 Los Angeles Dodgers

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2021 Los Angeles Dodgers Season Preview

 

The defending World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers have one objective in 2021, it’s partly the same one as 2020, to win the World Series. But this year they look to become the first team since the 1999 New York Yankees to repeat as World Series champions.

 

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Photo Credit: LA Times

Given how the Dodgers dominated baseball last season and that they’ve added the best starting pitcher available to an already deep and talented pitching staff, they may get the job done once again in 2021.

First things first, Los Angeles will be trying to win the NL West division title for a ninth straight season. To do that, though, they’ll have to fend off a highly weaponized San Diego Padres team that may be the second-best team in all of baseball, at least on paper.

The Dodgers lineup is no slouch in their own right. Sporting arguably Major League Baseball’s best player, Mookie Betts, the Dodgers line-up could once again be record-breaking at the top of the order. The Dodgers last season led the majors in runs scored and ranked second in OPS, and they did so despite playing their home games in a pitchers’ ballpark. They should once again be a powerhouse with the sticks. One player who could be an X-factor is second baseman Gavin Lux, who the Dodgers hope is ready to play every day.

 

The strength of the Dodgers will once again be the outfield. The Dodgers outfield of Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, and a platoon in left field, give them an advantage over most teams. Bellinger and Betts can cover tremendous ground and seemingly unlimited range, which helps the pitching staff.

 

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The Dodgers will boast of one of the league’s top outfield groups, both offensively and defensively. Betts is coming off of an impressive debut with Los Angeles and should be an MVP favorite once again in 2021. Cody Bellinger, meanwhile, had a down season by his standards. Even so, he managed to hit 12 home runs and drive in 30 runs, but with just a .239 average. Bellinger is not too far removed from his own MVP season in 2019 and has notoriously been an elite odd-year hitter (2017, 2019), so the fans and Dodgers hope is that he will be able to bounce back once again.

One thing to watch with Bellinger will be his recovery from shoulder surgery. We all know he injured his right shoulder celebrating the go-ahead home run that sent L.A. to the World Series. While the center fielder had yet to begin taking full swings ahead of spring training, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and the training staff feel he is progressing well and should be ready for opening day. Still, this will be a story to watch as team workouts get underway.

As for left fielder A.J. Pollock, the old man of the group had himself a sneaky good season in 2020. His 16 home runs were tied for most on the team with Betts, and he was also third in RBI with 34. Pollock’s production came in stretches, but he seemed to have found a routine that worked for him. He should have the first crack at playing in left field every day with Chris Taylor giving him a day off every now and then.

The good news is that the Dodgers don’t need Pollock to be great. As long as he can contribute, they should have plenty of offense from their outfield group. Should he show traces of 2020, however, this team will be even more fun to watch for Dodgers faithful. Taylor may not have a regular position in 2021, but he could be one of the Dodgers’ most important players. He can play all over the field, including all three outfield spots, making him the perfect guy to give others a day off now and then.

Finally, Mookie Betts‘ first season with the Dodgers occasioned a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and a second-place finish in the NL MVP balloting. But what Betts brought to the Dodgers could not be understated or quantified by numbers. Betts‘ “balls to the wall” brand of playing baseball, his clutch play (with the bat, his legs, and glove), and his leadership help propel the Dodgers to their first World Series title since 1988. At age 28, Betts should provide more of the same in 2021 and well beyond.

 

Familiar faces return to the Dodgers infield, but there are questions at second and third base and beyond this season.

 

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The return of Justin Turner to the Dodgers was welcomed and received well by all. Turner fills a need with his powerful right-handed bat that helps balance out the Dodgers’ potent lineup. His declining defense at third base shouldn’t be overlooked, nor should it overshadow his productivity at the plate or vaunted clubhouse leadership. Turner slashed .307/.400/.460 in 2020 and is still one of the best contact hitters in the game.

Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager enters the 2021 season, fresh off winning the NLCS and World Series MVP awards. If Seager can stay healthy, there’s no reason he can’t turn that into a huge payday (in L.A. or elsewhere). The advanced defensive stats aren’t pretty, but Seager might be the best hitting shortstop in the game. In a contract year, fresh off a historical postseason, Seager has control, and the Dodgers don’t want to lose him.

First base will belong solely to Max Muncy this season. Muncy struggled mightily in 2020 but seemed to start to hit his stride in the postseason. Muncy’s batting average dropped to a ridiculously low .192 last year, and there were two culprits. The first is that his line drive rate plummeted from 23.5% to just 13.8%, leading to far more ground balls. The second was that he didn’t hit the ball as hard. Muncy also dealt with finger and elbow injuries, so those may account for his poor season, but even then, he was on pace to reach the 30-homer plateau for a third straight year.

Second baseman Gavin Lux became an MLB prospect sensation in 2019, slashing .347/.421/.607 between double and triple-A. Not only did Lux show off his plus hit tool, but he also showed off his plus power and above-average speed. Going from relatively unknown to the top of prospect ranks had many excited about Lux’s future with the Dodgers.

Unfortunately, Lux’s small MLB stints have not lived up to the hype. In 151 plate appearances of sporadic playing time in the Major League, Lux has slashed .210/.278/.377. He failed to earn a spot over Chris Taylor and Kiké Hernández in 2020, which was a slight concern for some. The opportunity is there for Lux to seize playing time in 2021 if he can put it all together; otherwise, the Dodgers will once again use second base as a platoon position.

 

The Dodgers are perhaps the only team in baseball with two catchers who could make an argument to play every day. Out of the two, however, Will Smith is the future and should see the bulk of the playing time behind the plate.

 

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It’s hard to believe that Smith has yet to play a full season in the majors, but it’s fun to look at how a full season could look based on his previous stats. Adjusting Smith’s totals over a 162-game season, he would be hitting 41 home runs with 119 RBI with only 132 strikeouts. These totals would rank first in each category among catchers that played at least 120 games in 2019.

A huge part of Smith’s offensive game is his ability to read the strike zone, which has led to an impressive 1.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his brief MLB career. At a position that usually doesn’t produce much offense, Will Smith is a luxury for a team already loaded with stars around the diamond. He could still improve defensively behind the plate in areas such as pitch framing and passed balls, but time and experience should help in both.

While Smith possesses the offensive firepower to earn the starting job, few catchers are more beloved by their pitching staff than Austin Barnes. This stems from his ability to frame pitches better than almost anyone in the game (96th percentile), as well as his ability to call a game.

Barnes spent the 2015 and 2016 seasons as the backup catcher behind A.J. Ellis, a longtime friend of Clayton Kershaw. Ellis was never an offensive threat, but he possessed many of the same skills now seen in Barnes. And just as Ellis was a mentor to Austin, Barnes can now do the same for a young Will Smith.

While Barnes is not going to light the league on fire, he did increase his batting average to a modest  .244 last season after batting .203 the year before. The 6-year veteran has a role on this team, even if it isn’t to start every game. The Dodgers rewarded Barnes with a 2-year $4.3 million contract to start perhaps once every few days at most.

Even with Smith graduating to the majors full-time last season, the Dodgers still boast two top-ten catching prospects in their farm system with Keibert Ruiz and Diego Cartaya.

 

The strength of Los Angeles in 2020 got even stronger in 2021. The Dodgers starting pitching is headlined by three Cy Young winners and three more pitchers who have the tools to win a Cy Young in the near future.

 

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Dodgers are stockpiled with tons of starting pitching depth heading into the 2021 season. From established veteran former Cy Young winners to emerging superstars to rising young players, L.A.’s surplus of arms is unparalleled in all of baseball. With seven legitimate starters to choose from, competition will likely be stiff between the young arms in Dustin May, Julio Urías, and Tony Gonsolin to crack L.A.’s starting rotation.

Clayton Kershaw will once again start opening day for the Dodgers. Kershaw finally got his World Series ring, and the pressure should be off of him. He was solid in during the Fall Classic and seemed genuinely relieved that the monkey has been removed from off of his back. There was talk that Kershaw would consider retiring after this season, but he shot those rumors down and said he still feels good and has a lot left in the tank.

The Dodgers signing of Trevor Bauer will no doubt make the Dodgers rotation better. The heart of the matter is how much better. From 2017-19, Bauer pitched to a 124 ERA+ with a K/BB ratio of 3.37. Those are very strong results, but last season, en route to winning the NL Cy Young award, Bauer got even better: 276 ERA+ with a 5.88 K/BB ratio. Underpinning those strides was a subtle change in Bauer’s pitch mix. Specifically, he mostly turfed his changeup and sinker and instead focused on a four-pitch repertoire of fastball-slider-cutter-curve.

Even if Bauer regresses substantially in 2021, which no one anticipates, he’s going to be a very good starting pitcher and a worthwhile signing by the Dodgers.

 

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Walker Buehler battled some blister problems throughout the season and into the postseason, limiting him to just eight regular-season starts. When healthy, however, perhaps no pitcher on the roster has more talent than Buehler. He finished in the 97th percentile in both fastball and curveball spin and limited opposing hitters to a .102 average against the heater.

Right now, the guess is that veteran lefty David Price earns a spot as he returns from his 2020 opt-out decision. Price, however, has expressed a willingness to work out of the bullpen should the Dodgers determine that’s how he’s best deployed this season. Such willingness is highly laudable, particularly when it comes from a tenured vet like Price.

That possibility means that the final two spots are in play. Urias seems likely to seize one, but on some level, it’s still Urias, Price, May, and Gonsolin dueling for the fourth- and fifth starters jobs. Teams rarely make it through a season using just five starting pitchers, so all of those names will likely get a shot at some point. As almost any other team will attest, it’s a good “problem” for manager Dave Roberts to have.

 

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One of the big advantages of signing Trevor Bauer is that he usually stays pretty healthy and should be counted on for a solid six innings in every start if he makes 30 starts, that covers 180 innings. Clayton Kershaw does have periodic injuries, so based on the last three seasons, he should be counted on for around 25 starts with an average of 6 innings per start — about 150 innings. Walker Buehler should have similar numbers but has mentioned his goal of reaching the 200 inning plateau in the past. With David Price, I would count on no more than 125 innings. And Julio Urias has never started a full season, so I wouldn’t count on him for much more than 125 innings as well.

There is no reason Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin should not be good for at least 100 innings. The key is to find ways to get them some starts or lengthy appearances.

With just the seven starters we’ve spoken about, it is possible the Dodgers could get 950-1000 innings just from these pitchers. Having seven legitimate starting pitchers on the roster is a luxury in most seasons. In 2021 it will be a necessity as pitchers weren’t able to stretch out in 2020. I remain hopeful that the club holds on to all seven of their starters because pitching depth is paramount in a 162 season.

 

The Dodgers biggest question mark is who will be closing out games for them in 2021.

 

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The Dodgers don’t have many areas of concern as they get ready to begin a new season. And why would there be? They have an MVP and top-two player in baseball locked up for the next decade. The rotation has three former Cy Young winners, along with Walker Buehler. Did I mention that they finally checked the elusive World Series title off of the to-do list? Life is good if you’re the Los Angeles Dodgers. There’s no bitter feeling after coming up short the year before. No one will be asking Clayton Kershaw if he thinks this team can get him a ring before Father Time catches up to him. Overall, this should be a pretty relaxed month of preparation before the regular season begins.

One player that may not have this luxury, however, is long-time closer, Kenley Jansen. Jansen is coming off of a 2020 season that had some mixed results. It was also the first time that Dave Roberts would not commit to him as the team’s sole closer in the postseason. In what will be Jansen’s 12th season, and most likely his final one in Dodgers blue, the Dodgers will be forced to ask themselves if they can hand him the closer role or if they should look in a different direction this time around.

There are plenty of arguments that can be made for both cases. For starters, Kenley’s velocity never bounced back after dipping for the 4th year in a row. His cutter sat around 90-91 MPH, and it looked like a vulnerable pitch to throw when the stakes were so high. On the other hand, he found a feel for his slider and had a 40% whiff rate when using it on the season.

Where does this leave the Dodgers regarding finding an answer for the 9th inning this season?

 

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The Dodgers have some tremendous young talent that they can turn to in the 9th, should they so choose. From Brusdar Graterol to playoff hero Julio Urías, there will be plenty of insurance policies should Kenley not meet expectations. But until Dave Roberts announces his decision one way or another, all we can do is watch and wait.

Relievers Joe Kelly and Brusdar Graterol have still yet to toe the rubber for Los Angeles this Spring Training. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts’ provided an injury update on Kelly and Graterol. Roberts said Kelly remains “ways away,” while Brusdar Graterol “is in a pretty good spot, although he started a little bit later. The Dodgers have options to have a deep bullpen once they settle on their rotation.

The Dodgers bullpen should be as good or better than it was in 2020. One important key was how well Dave Roberts managed the bullpen in the post-season. He learned lessons from the past and the previous games as the series moved forward. His decision not to use Kenley Jansen in the last two games of the World Series was crucial. Now, he might even have more weapons available throughout the season and into the postseason.

 

Over the last two regular seasons, the Dodgers have gone 149-73, which is a winng percentage of .671. The Dodgers’ success has been earned at a very fundamental level. Take that sky-scraping baseline and add Bauer to it, and you have the makings of a potentially generational team in 2021. You’ve got perhaps three Cy Young candidates in the rotation, and you have at least as many MVP candidates in the lineup. The potential for lasting greatness is fitting in the sense that the 2020 Dodgers might be thought of as one of the best ever had they been permitted to play a full 162-game slate.

 

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Joe Arrigo – Franchise Sports Media

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