Every team goes into an offseason with holes to fill, whether they be from departing free agents, gaps opened by trades or just basic upgrades made obvious from the year prior. Even the best teams have to figure out ways to improve each winter. The Dodgers are no exception.
Despite winning their fourth straight division title and falling two wins short of a World Series berth, the Dodgers faced a few hurdles in retaining the same level of talent they displayed in 2016. With closer Kenley Jansen, starter Rich Hill, second baseman Chase Utley and third baseman Justin Turner all entering free agency, re-signing that group was a priority. With uncertain health across the board, adding depth was also a necessity. Snagging a leadoff man and batters who can hit lefties was also high on the list.
So, did the Dodgers fill those holes? Did they leave anything unattended?
Let’s start with the quartet of players the Dodgers returned in free agency. After a mid-season trade that brought Hill over from Oakland, he performed very well when healthy and earned a three-year deal. Even if he’s close to what he was in 2016 for the next couple seasons, Hill will be well worth the investment for a team in dire need of reliable rotation arms after they set a record for DL days last year.
They can now pair Hill with Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urias and Kenta Maeda through at least 2018 (Kershaw can opt-out after that season). Bringing Hill back to complete that rotation took the Dodgers from “strong” to “scary,” and was exactly what they needed on the pitching front.
Speaking of pitching, the Dodgers absolutely had to bring back Jansen to close. There were a couple fringy internal options and a few good ones on the free agent market, but closers were at a premium and they knew they might as well bring back the guy they know if the price was going to be exorbitant anyway. A fair case can be made that Jansen is one of the three best closers in baseball, and now the team has an anchor for a bullpen that carried them to the postseason last year.
That said, the Dodgers did downgrade from Joe Blanton in a setup role to Sergio Romo and might face some transitional issues with young arms in the bullpen next season. They could still bring Blanton back or make a couple other minor moves to strengthen an already pretty good group, but that is one small hole they didn’t fully address this winter.
Utley and Turner were two consistent, veteran presences in the infield in 2016 and though fans expected the team to bring Turner back, the additional move of retaining Utley was a nice surprise. Though only Turner will likely get a full season of starts, both will help stabilize a clubhouse and a lineup in need of regularity given the amount the organization likes to mix and match.
Of course, Turner will be expected to be an All-Star caliber third baseman for the next few years now that he got the big free agent contract. Utley, on the other hand, has seen his best days fade away. He’s still a capable defender and a good left-handed bat off the bench, but he’s essentially been replaced by a younger, right-handed version of himself in Logan Forsythe.
The Dodgers finally pulled the trigger and dealt Jose De Leon to the Rays to acquire Forsythe, which means they’ve now given up four of their top pitching prospects for Hill and Forsythe (and two months of Josh Reddick, who signed with Houston in the winter) in the last six months. They’ve drafted well enough to absorb that blow and keep the farm system stocked with arms, but Forsythe will be worth it anyway.
Among other things, Forsythe brings a bat that can handle the leadoff spot. Utley did an admirable job in that role last year, but the Dodgers will take Forsythe’s on-base capabilities (.333 in 2016, which was a slightly down year in that respect) over Utley’s (.319 in 2016) all day. One thing the Dodgers struggled with last season was hitting lefties. For his career, Forsythe is a strong batter against southpaws, so he filled that hole and the gap at second base and the leadoff role. It’s a perfect fit, really.
In another recent move, the Dodgers took a one-year flyer on former budding superstar Franklin Gutierrez, who has seen his career derailed by injuries. Healthy for now, Gutierrez is the type of guy who can provide a ton of right-handed pop off the bench and play both corner outfield positions. That did nothing to clarify the muddied picture in the outfield for the Dodgers, where Joc Pederson in center is the only sure thing. But the team did a good job giving themselves plenty of options between Gutierrez, Yasiel Puig, Trayce Thompson, Andrew Toles, Andre Ethier and Kiké Hernandez.
So, here’s where the Dodgers stand: they are a rich, powerful team with a division title to defend and a long World Series drought to solve. But, they spent too much money in previous years and have been trying to cut costs at the big league level, remain competitive and still be a major player in free agency. They’ve tried to build up their farm system through the draft and international signings, while simultaneously being more prudent about finances.
Since last season, they’ve lost Reddick, a couple relievers and a few prospects to other teams. But they’ve also replicated last season’s very good team and added a full season (hopefully) of Kershaw, Hill, Urias, Forsythe, Ethier and Gutierrez. They have one of the best young shortstops in baseball in Corey Seager, one of the best young catchers in Yasmani Grandal, and one of the best young sluggers in Pederson.
Long story short, the Dodgers are legit. Again. They filled every major hole in a smart, savvy way and didn’t spend a ton of new money doing it. Given what they brought back, the Dodgers got pretty great deals on the free agents and should be in a good position when a couple big contracts come off the books in the next couple years. They could have added another reliever and tried to fix the logjam in the outfield, but those moves may still be coming.
And even if they aren’t, the Dodgers’ vaunted front office has done a darn good job again this winter. They ticked almost everything off the shopping list, and will go into 2017 as heavy co-favorites in the National League.