With the excitement of the Mookie Betts arrival and the start of spring training (baseball, finally, after more than four months!) all in the past, the focus for the Los Angeles Dodgers now lies on the season ahead.
With an improved roster, two MVP candidates in the outfield and no trash cans allowed, Camelback Ranch oozes a sense of optimism. Unlike other World Series candidates who have seen some of their star players fall victim to injuries already (looking at you Astros, Yankees and Braves), the Dodgers are enjoying a stress-free month of March. Nevertheless, there are questions that have still not been answered regarding the club entering Opening Day, some of which you can find below.
1. Will Gavin Lux start the season in Triple-A?
Despite not setting the world alight during his MLB debut last September, throughout the winter Lux has been touted as the main candidate to be the Dodgers’ starting second baseman on Opening Day. That was until Dave Roberts came out a couple of weeks ago to cast doubt over this notion, telling the media that the club’s top prospect was definitely in the conversation for the spot, but it was by no means his.
They say spring training is nothing to go by, but other candidates for the spot, Chris Taylor and Kiké Hernández (and even Max Muncy) have been hitting for fun so far. Taylor’s OPS is over 1.000 with Lux closer to the .600 mark.
Then, there’s the issue of service-time manipulation. If Lux starts the season in the minors and isn’t called up until after 8 May, the Dodgers will gain an extra year of control over him.
Another reason to think he might not start the season in the majors is his struggle to hit lefties in his short stint in the team in 2019 (1-for-12). He never struggled as much in the minors against left-handed pitching, but his numbers against them weren’t close to those he had against righties. It would seem like a waste to platoon one of the top prospects in baseball if he hasn’t got a regular spot in the lineup. Food for thought.
2. Can Julio Urías keep his rotation spot all season?
Is 2020 the year that we finally see Urías in the rotation permanently? Having had his innings limited due to injury or his role in the team since he made that tricky debut at Citi Field in Queens in 2016, the Mexican lefty will be looking to justify the hype that has always surrounded him, but he has never quite been able to fulfil. With Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and David Price nailed on as the trio at the top of the rotation, starters four and five are seemingly up for grabs, but Urías and fellow lefty Alex Wood, seem to be the prime candidates for those spots to start the season. The Culiacán native posted some excellent numbers in 2019, including a 2.49 ERA with a 9.6 K/9 and a 26.1 K% in 79⅔ innings pitched, albeit mostly as a reliever. It’s important not to forget that this will be his age-23 season, so Urías still has time on his side, but he’s not had a better chance than now to establish himself as a regular starting pitcher. What remains to be seen is whether his arm has the stamina needed to sustain the workload required of a starter to pitch a full season, as 2017 and 2018 were almost a write-off due to a shoulder injury, and he’s never pitched more than 80 innings in the majors in a single season (his innings ceiling in the minors was 87⅔ for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in 2014). One thing we have seen this spring is that he seems to have lost quite a bit of weight, so he looks better prepared than ever before.
3. Will Kershaw bounce back after the worst season of his career?
The Dodgers’ ace posted career-lows in pretty much all relevant pitching stats in 2019. With his average fastball velocity down to just over 90 mph, he was no longer able to bully hitters by throwing hard and inside, and combining the fastballs with what used to be a deadly put-out slider. Kershaw posted career-high home runs allowed (28) and HR/9 (1.4) in 2019, and it was those long balls that resulted in that image of desolation we saw so often in social media in October, first squatting on the mound and then alone in the Dodgers dugout after allowing back-to-back home runs by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in Game Five of the NLDS. Nevertheless, the Texas-born ace is poised for a turnaround this season. His fastball velocity seems to have risen from what we’ve seen in spring training so far, regularly clocking 91-92 mph and even reaching 93 mph. He’s also been named Opening Day starter for the ninth time in 10 years (he missed last season with a shoulder injury – Hyun-Jin Ryu took over), which shows that in the eyes of everyone, and despite Buehler’s emergence, he’s still the ace at Chavez Ravine. We’ll see if this remains the same come the end of October.
4. What shape is the bullpen in?
Despite what some may have the impression of, the Dodgers’ bullpen was pretty good last season. In fact, it was the tied fifth-best in MLB and tied first in the National League (with the San Francisco Giants) in ERA according to Fangraphs, posting a 3.85 mark. With the exceptions of Yimi Garcia and Casey Sadler, the relief corps will be back intact for this season albeit with the addition of Blake Treinen, who will be looking to recover his 2018 form when he posted an ERA of 0.78 with the Oakland Athletics. Joe Kelly will have a chance at redemption after a poor 2019, and Pedro Baez will want to continue his good form before he hits free agency at the end of the season, on the back of winning his arbitration case against the Dodgers this winter. When you add to the mix hybrid starter/relievers such as Ross Stripling, Tony Gonsolin and potentially even Dustin May, you can see that there is depth and quality. The main question, though, is which Kenley Jansen we will see this year and whether his performance last year was mostly due to a lack of confidence and the so-called “juiced” ball?
5. Which players are set to make the jump from Triple-A this season?
The best thing about spring training (probably) is that we get to see a bunch of prospects getting a lot of at-bats and we get to know them a bit better. It seems that Matt Beaty will get the nod ahead of Edwin Rios to start the season in the majors, but there’s little doubt we’ll see the corner infielder/left fielder come up at some point like he did last season. Dustin May will also probably start at Triple-A Oklahoma as the Dodgers seem to want him as a starting pitcher only this season and there’s nowhere for him in the rotation or bullpen. Two names (or one if you want to be petty) we’ll have to keep our eye on, who have impressed so far this spring training have been infielder Zach McKinstry (24), who’s hit .407/.448/.778 and two home runs in 27 at-bats; and outfielder Zach Reks (26), who slashed a no-less-impressive .368/.538/.684 in 19 at-bats. Reks probably has a better chance up getting a call-up sooner due to playing in the outfield but no reason why McKinstry can’t play there either. Depth is the Dodgers’ middle name.
* All stats retrieved from Baseball Reference unless referenced otherwise.
Aleix Gwilliam is covering the Los Angeles Dodgers during 2020 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @AleixGwilliam
Make sure you subscribe to the Bat Flips and Nerds podcasts and follow us on Twitter @BatFlips_Nerds. News, views and interviews, all with a British twist.