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2017 Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers flexed their payroll muscle over the winter not to bring in new talent, but to keep talent in town. The club re-signed starter Rich Hill to a three-year, $48 million deal in mid-December. It inked third baseman Justin Turner to a four-year, $64 million contract just before Christmas. Closer Kenley Jansen agreed to stay with a five-year, $80 million deal. The Dodgers also acquired infielder Logan Forsythe from the Rays in January, signed reliever Sergio Romo to a one-year, $3 million deal, signed outfielder Franklin Gutierrez at one year, $2.6 million, and brought second baseman Chase Utley back at one year, $2 million.

The Dodgers went 91-71 last year, finishing first in the NL West. They advanced past the Nationals in the NLDS into the NLCS where they were stopped in six games by the eventual champion Cubs. One can understand GM Farhan Zaidi’s reluctance to alter the roster in a significant way.

Going into 2017, the Dodgers’ success starts and ends with Clayton Kershaw. There’s not a better pitcher on the planet and his ability to make 33 starts or not will play a big role in whether or not the club makes it into the postseason. Not just because of Kershaw himself, but because the Dodgers don’t have the most reliable pitching depth health-wise. Last year, Kershaw was bothered by a back injury and made only 21 starts. But when he was on the mound, he was his usual dominating self, finishing with a 12-4 record, a 1.69 ERA, and a 172/11 K/BB ratio in 149 innings. Had Kershaw not gotten injured during the summer, he almost certainly would have won his fourth National League Cy Young Award.

Kenta Maeda slots in behind Kershaw. The right-hander had a terrific debut in Major League Baseball in 2016, winning 16 games with a 3.48 ERA and a 179/50 K/BB ratio in 175 2/3 innings. The Dodgers don’t have a lot of reliability in the rotation, but after his first season in the bigs and given everyone else’s health issues, Maeda is the most reliable starter at the moment.

Hill returns into the middle of the rotation. Due to a blister issue, Hill made only six regular season starts for the Dodgers after they acquired him from the Athletics on August 1. The lefty put up a sterling 1.83 ERA with a 39/5 K/BB ratio in 34 1/3 innings, continuing his remarkable reinvention which started in September 2015. The 37-year-old lefty was in independent baseball as recently as two years ago and now has a lucrative multi-year contract under his belt.

Scott Kazmir is tentatively in the rotation. He’s been bothered by a hip issue this spring and has had limited action as a result. He recently made a simulated start but his fastball velocity was in the low-80’s, concerning manager Dave Roberts. Kazmir will throw in a minor league game soon and the Dodgers hope he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. Obviously, it’s no guarantee. The left-hander last season finished with a disappointing 4.56 ERA with a 134/52 K/BB ratio in 136 1/3 innings.

The last spot in the rotation is up for grabs. It won’t go to Julio Urias, as he has not been stretched out this spring and will almost certainly begin the year at Triple-A Oklahoma City. Brandon McCarthy appears to be the favorite for the job but he has A) not had a great spring; B) has been injury-prone during his 11-year career; and C) has been ineffective for most of the last three years. Hyun-Jin Ryu is also under consideration after missing the entire 2015 season and making just one start last year. Brock Stewart was a candidate but he was recently shut down due to tendinitis in his right shoulder, so he won’t be ready for the start of the season. Ross Stripling will likely be used as rotation depth as he posted a 3.96 ERA over 14 starts and eight relief appearances last year.

Jansen returns to his role as the Dodgers’ closer. He’s racked up 180 saves over the last five seasons, something only two other relievers – Craig Kimbrel (209) and Aroldis Chapman (181) – have done. Despite playing in L.A., Jansen flew under the radar until last year, when he finished with a 1.83 ERA and a ridiculous 104/11 K/BB ratio in 68 2/3 innings. He made his first All-Star team last year and he’ll likely get there a second time in 2017.

Romo will set up for Jansen assuming he’s healty. Romo has been bothered by a back injury lately in spring training. The right-hander pitched nine outstanding years with the Giants, ascending to the closer’s role in 2013, but a shaky ’14 cast him out of favor, but he rebounded with a 2.98 ERA in ’15 and 2.64 last year. Romo is 34 years old and sits in the mid- to high-80’s with his fastball, but the Dodgers found quite a bargain in signing him.

Pedro Baez has been battling a thumb injury this spring but is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season. He’ll handle the seventh inning ahead of Romo and some occasional eighth innings. The right-hander posted a 3.04 ERA with an 83/22 K/BB ratio in 74 innings. Jansen-Romo-Baez makes for a scary back of the bullpen.

On offense, let’s start with Turner at the hot corner. Turner reinvented himself several years ago after floating from the Mets to the Dodgers and has become one of the best at his position despite still never having made an All-Star team. Since joining the Dodgers for the 2014 season, Turner has hit a combined .296/.364/.492 with 50 home runs and 193 RBI in 1,383 plate appearances while playing quality defense. As a result, Turner has the sixth-most Wins Above Replacement among third basemen in that period of time, according to FanGraphs. The only knock on Turner is his durability. Despite playing 151 games last year, he played in 126 in ’15 and 109 in ’14.

Corey Seager returns to shortstop after winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2016. He hit .308/.365/.512 with 26 home runs and 72 RBI in 687 PA. He’ll turn 23 at the end of April which means we likely haven’t seen Seager’s final form yet. He was the best at his position in a field that included the likes of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Xander Bogaerts. Seager could follow Kris Bryant’s footsteps in winning the ROY one year and the MVP the next.

Forsythe will handle second base for the Dodgers as one of the few new faces in camp. Last year with the Rays, he hit .264/.333/.444 with 20 home runs, 52 RBI, and 76 runs scored in 567 PA. Veteran Chase Utley will back Forsythe up and may get the occasional start against a right-handed pitcher.

Adrian Gonzalez, of course, will handle first base for the Dodgers again. Going by adjusted OPS (OPS+), 2016 was Gonzalez’s worst offensive season since he became an everyday player in 2006. Still, he was productive, batting .285/.349/.435 with 18 homers and 90 RBI. Almost 35 years old, Gonzalez is likely hitting the decline phase of his career, but he still has plenty left in the tank. There is one issue – Gonzalez has been dealing with an elbow injury and won’t play in any spring games until at least Thursday. The Dodgers expect him to be ready for Opening Day, however.

Yasmani Grandal will catch and handle the pitching staff on a regular basis. Now 28 years old, the veteran of five seasons is coming off of a campaign during which he hit .228/.339/.477 with 27 HR and 72 RBI, setting career-bests in the latter two departments. He’s one of the best offensive catchers in the league at a position that really isn’t relied upon for offense, so that will serve as a big plus for the Dodgers again. Austin Barnes will back Grandal up behind the dish.

The Dodgers’ outfield is in a state of flux. Andre Ethier played in only 16 games last season due to a broken leg and he’s currently battling a back injury. Yasiel Puig was demoted to the minor leagues last year. Joc Pederson is completely lost against left-handed pitching, putting up a .469 OPS against them last year. Beyond Pederson starting against right-handers and Puig getting a shot to prove himself, nothing else is set in stone in the Dodgers’ outfield. Andrew Toles, who impressed with an .870 OPS in 115 PA last season, may get more time in the outfield corners. Gutierrez put up a solid .780 OPS in 98 games last year, but he has long been a health risk. Scott Van Slyke had the worst season of his career and then underwent wrist surgery last August.

Needless to say, health will be a determining factor in the Dodgers’ ability to rediscover success in 2017. At near or full health, the Dodgers are one of the best teams in the National League. Without the likes of Kershaw, Hill, and Gonzalez, they are a slightly above-average team. I’ll make a perhaps foolish bet on most of their key players missing minimal amounts of time, allowing them to stave off the Giants in the NL West.

Prediction: 93-69 record, 1st place in division

Robinson Cano hit his 300th home run last night

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Last night Robinson Cano hit a solo homer in the ninth inning of the Mariners’ loss to the Texas Rangers. It was his 22nd on the season. Though it was insignificant to the outcome of that game, it was significant to Cano: it was his 300th career homer.

While we’ve become accustomed to not caring much about home run milestones south of, say, 500, 300 homers for Cano is a big deal, as he’s only the third second baseman to cross that threshold in baseball history. The other two: Jeff Kent, at 377, and Rogers Hornsby at 301.

Cano, who turns 35 next month, has a career line of .305/.354/.495 and 1,179 RBI, 512 doubles and 33 triples to go with those bombs. He’s in his 13th big league season and still has six more years left on his deal with the Mariners. He’s averaged 24 homers a year since coming to the Mariners. While he’ll obviously trail off at some point — and while great second baseman’s have this weird habit of just suddenly falling off a cliff — it’s highly likely that he’ll finish his career as the all-time home run leader among second baseman. If he remains healthy he should also get over 3,000 hits in his career.

Cooperstown, here he comes.

Reds sign catcher Tucker Barnhart to a four-year deal

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Mark Sheldon of MLB.com reports that the Reds have signed catcher Tucker Barnhart to a four-year contract extension. The terms: $16 million total, with a $7.5 million club option for the 2022 season that has a $500,000 buyout. He also received a $1.75 million signing bonus.

The deal buys out all three of his arbitration years — he was going to be eligible for the first time this offseason — and the first year of his potential free agency. The club option buys a second. Barnhart made $575,000 this season.

Barnhart, 26, is finishing his second season as the Reds primary catcher. This year he’s hitting .272/.349/.399 with six homers and 42 RBI in 113 games. For his career he has a line of .257/.328/.366 in 330 major league games. His real value is defensive, however. He leads the National League in caught stealing percentage and number of base stealers caught (31-for-70, 44%) and leads all players at any position in the league in defensive WAR according to Baseball-Reference.com.