Unpredictable Dodgers set to open season with these questions unanswered
For other teams, opening day is the most exciting time of the year.
For the 2023 Dodgers, it might be among the most anxious.
Despite an underwhelming offseason and unmistakable loss of talent from last season’s 111-win club, the Dodgers enter the new season confident they can remain a World Series contender, and continue their decade of dominance in the National League West.
But this year, perhaps more than any in recent memory, they can’t be certain of it either.
As they get ready for their opener Thursday night at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks, major unknowns remain about the upcoming campaign, from their lineup depth to pitching health to farm system reliance.
Before the season gets underway, a look at six of the biggest questions.
1. Will biggest stars shine?
For all the questions the Dodgers are facing, most would be nullified by typical dominant seasons from Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Will Smith and Max Muncy.
Those four should be in the lineup almost every day. And when they’re at their best, they still give the Dodgers one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball.
It’s not a group without uncertainty. Betts and Muncy experienced extreme highs and lows last season. Smith is still working toward true superstar status. And even if Freeman posts another MVP-caliber campaign, as he’s done in just about each of the last seven seasons, the loss of Trea Turner (not to mention Gavin Lux) doesn’t seem to have been fully compensated for.
Most likely, it’ll be a dominant quartet at the top of the order. But anything less than that could have cascading effects on the Dodgers’ offensive ceiling this year.
2. Can bottom of the lineup produce?
Another reason the top of the lineup is so key: The bottom half has serious question marks in almost every spot.
Will J.D. Martinez have a bounce back year as DH, or continue a recent statistical decline entering his age-35 season?
Will Miguel Rojas stick as the everyday shortstop after taking over in the wake of Lux’s season-ending injury?
Will Miguel Vargas and James Outman produce in their first extended big-league action, or struggle to adapt to MLB pitching?
And will platoons in left and center field help the Dodgers get by, or will the individual deficiencies of Chris Taylor (who has struggled with strikeouts), Trayce Thompson (who had a cold spring), David Peralta (who went quiet down the stretch last season) and Jason Heyward (who rebuilt his swing this winter) be too much to overcome?
All are looming uncertainties. And after five straight seasons of the Dodgers leading the National League in scoring, the team’s depth at the plate is potentially in doubt.
3. Will the rotation stay healthy?
The Dodgers rotation could be one of the best in baseball. Julio Urías and Clayton Kershaw are capable of Cy Young seasons. Dustin May looked impressive during spring. Tony Gonsolin is coming off his first All-Star selection. And Noah Syndergaard offers upside from the No. 5 spot.
However, most of them enter the year with injury concerns. Kershaw hasn’t made more than 22 starts since 2019. Gonsolin already is set to miss the opening month with a sprained ankle. Syndergaard and May are only a couple of years removed from Tommy John procedures. And Urías is in a contract year, when players are sometimes extra cautious with even minor ailments.
The Dodgers have had pitcher injury problems before. And if it happens again this year, it threatens to turn perhaps their biggest strength into a possible weakness.
4. Are young pitchers ready?
In the event the Dodgers do suffer losses in their rotation, they will be banking on a group of young arms to pick up the slack.
Ryan Pepiot is already on the opening day roster as Gonsolin’s replacement. Fellow top prospects Michael Grove and Gavin Stone are headlining the organization’s triple-A rotation. And former first-round pick Bobby Miller could be on track for a MLB debut this season as well.
It’s something of a gamble, the club entrusting unproven — albeit highly touted — young pitchers to comprise almost all of their rotation depth.
But it’s a choice the team hopes will pay dividends, not only this year but for the long-term future as well.
5. Is a closer necessary for the bullpen?
The one thing the Dodgers haven’t picked yet: a closer.
Manager Dave Roberts said he was comfortable entering the season without a designated ninth-inning guy. President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman had echoed the same.
The Dodgers aren’t short on candidates. Evan Phillips emerged as one of the majors’ better relievers last year. Alex Vesia, Brusdar Graterol and (when he’s healthy) Daniel Hudson are logical candidates as well.
For now, though, the Dodgers will implement closer by committee. It could be Evan Phillips on nights a more important moment fails to arise earlier. It could be Vesia or Graterol if a string of left- or right-handed hitters, respectively, are due up at the end of a game.
Eventually, Roberts has indicated, the Dodgers might become open to picking one man for save situations. In the meantime, though, the team will mix and match its relief depth to end games early in the season.
6. Is a big trade coming?
Going into opening day, it’s difficult to feel as though the Dodgers aren’t a piece or two short of being a true contender — especially after the major offseason upgrades fellow title contenders such as the San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets made this winter.
The team could use a high-end shortstop or a more dynamic bat in the outfield or another frontline starter to protect against injuries or underperformance.
And even at this point, it’s easy to see trade targets for all those holes emerging before the midseason trade deadline.
Maybe the Milwaukee Brewers will drop out of contention and try to flip Corbin Burnes and/or Willy Adames. Perhaps the Pittsburgh Pirates will finally give in to Bryan Reynolds’ trade request. It’s possible another unforeseen name emerges over the coming months, the kind of impact addition that could alter the fabric of the Dodgers’ season.
Friedman hasn’t been afraid to take such swings before, particularly in seasons (i.e. 2018 and 2021) the Dodgers weren’t running away with an NL West title.
It’s easy to envision the team being back in that position this season — off to a good start, but lacking the firepower of an obvious title favorite.
If they are, and the right trade targets emerge, the Dodgers might have to decide whether it’s time to leverage their highly ranked farm system again for a blockbuster deal.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
Source: Yahoo Sports