What happened in 2019?
On the back of two World Series defeats, the Dodgers had their sights set on October as soon as Chris Sale struck out Manny Machado for the last out in Game Five of the 2018 World Series.
A.J. Pollock was the only big name to arrive at Chavez Ravine during the winter, penning a lucrative $60 million deal hoping to become that reliable right-handed outfield hitter that had eluded the Dodgers for the past few years.
The regular season felt like a formality, with little to no competition coming from its NL West rivals. However, there were a few records broken along the way, such as most home runs in a season for a NL team (279), franchise number of wins (106) and clinching the division the earliest they’d ever done (10 Sep). In terms of season highlights, most Dodger fans will fondly remember Max Muncy telling Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner to “go get it out of the ocean”.
2019 was the year everyone expected Walker Buehler to make a step up to becoming the team’s ace, but it was Hyun-Jin Ryu who proved to be the best pitcher in the rotation, finishing with a 2.32 ERA in 29 starts and ending up second behind Jacob deGrom for the NL Cy Young Award.
Nobody expected the Washington Nationals in the NLDS to be a walk in the park, but when the Dodgers were 3-1 up at the top of the eighth inning in Game Five with Clayton Kershaw on the mound, they looked a good bet to make it through to the NLCS. What happened next (back-to-back home runs by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, and a grand slam by Howie Kendrick in the 10th) was a shock yet a familiar one – more October heartbreak.
Calling a 106-win season a failure might be a bit over the top, but that was the general feeling among club and fans. However, there is cause for optimism for 2020 as long as the 2019 mistakes can be amended, such as Dave Roberts’ bullpen management improving, Clayton Kershaw pitching in October like he does all season, the bats not going quiet when it matters the most and Kenley Jansen’s cutter to start cutting again.
Nobody expected Gavin Lux to be a major leaguer in 2019, but incredibly strong stints in Double-A Tulsa and then Triple-A Oklahoma forced the club’s hand, getting called up in September and for the postseason roster. Lux, the Dodgers’ top prospect and No.2 in MLB entering 2020, wasn’t able to replicate his minor-league form in the majors, slashing .240/.305/.400 in 82 plate appearances during the regular season and going 2-for-9 with a home run in the NLDS. Nevertheless, big things are expected of Lux this season, and he’ll most definitely have a chance to make second base his own, despite the game of musical chairs that’s expected in the Dodgers’ infield this season.
Five reasons for optimism in 2020
(1) There’s a new right fielder in town, and he’s pretty, pretty good. Mookie Betts’ arrival from Boston has seen levels of excitement not witnessed since the arrival of Adrián González (also from Boston) in 2012. Big things are expected from Betts, most notably being the final piece needed to deliver the first World Series to Los Angeles in 32 years.
(2) Corey Seager is going to regain his 2017 form. After having Tommy John surgery in mid-2018 and hip surgery three months later, Seager struggled at times last season to replicate what’s expected of him, on top of missing a month through a hamstring injury. Coming into spring training fully healthy for the first time in three years, everyone’s expecting the star shortstop to become the hitter that he used to be and eventually go back to batting second in the lineup.
(3) The NL West is probably the weakest division in the whole of baseball, now that the AL Central has the White Sox trying to win. The Diamondbacks have made a few decent additions such as Starling Marte, Madison Bumgarner and errrr… Kole Calhoun; the Rockies risk losing the best player they’ve ever had and look far from the team that forced Game 163 in 2018; the Padres have a fantastic bullpen and some exciting young players like Fernando Tatís, but their starting rotation is still suspect and will probably be their Achilles’ heel; and then there’s the Giants, who don’t seem interested in winning just yet in their first year after Bruce Bochy’s departure.
(4) The pitching depth is as strong as it’s ever been. Yes, losing fan (and personal) favourites Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda was a big blow but the rise of Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin and the arrival of David Price, who might benefit from pitching in the NL and especially more regularly in pitcher-friendly parks like Dodger Stadium, Petco Park and Oracle Park, are good enough reasons to feel good about it. With Kenley Jansen being the latest Driveline convert, there’s hope he’ll go back to being the lights-out closer he can be.
(5) The Dodgers have what is perhaps the most formidable lineup in baseball, fantastic pitching quality and depth as explained above and, according to Baseball America, the No.3 farm system in MLB. To have a farm system consistently in the top 10 while contending every year is a feat that can go unnoticed, but that must be acknowledged when evaluating the job that Andrew Friedman is doing. Unlike many other teams, there is no window to win – the Dodgers will be contending for many years to come.
Aleix Gwilliam is part of the team covering the Los Angeles Dodgers for Bat Flips and Nerds in 2020. Follow him on Twitter @AleixGwilliam