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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

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Astros 4, Indians 2: Dallas Keuchel does it again. This time he tosses a complete game, allowing only two solo homers. He’s 4-0 on the season with a 1.22 ERA, keeping everything low and forcing opposing hitters to beat the ball into the ground for the most part. It’s like 2015 all over again. Scary moment, though, when Jose Altuve and Teoscar Hernandez collided while chasing a pop fly. Each left the game, but Altuve could theoretically play today. Hernandez is likely to miss some time with a leg contusion.

Cubs 1, Pirates 0: Kyle Hendricks shut out the Pirates for six innings on four hits and three relievers finished the job, allowing only one hit more. Gerrit Cole shut down the Cubs for seven innings and allowed only two hits, but a throwing error by second baseman Alen Hanson allowed the game’s lone run to score. Tough break for Cole. The Pirates have allowed more unearned runs (15) and have committed more errors (20) than any team in baseball this year.

Rays 2, Orioles 0: Erasmo Ramirez was supposed to start for the Rays, but because of the cold, rainy conditions that seemed like would lead to rain delays, manager Kevin Cash instead made it a bullpen game, running five relievers out there. Austin Pruitt started and went three innings and Chase Whitley chipped in three later in the game and was adjudged the winner by the official scorer. The results: great for Tampa Bay, as the five men combined on a two-hit shutout. This is the kind of game I fear will set a bad precedent, however. Might we one day have a dreadful future when this dynamic, combined with some new roster rules, leads to a couple of games a week when clubs consist of, essentially, 14-man pitching staffs and bullpen games become common occurrences? (shudder)

Tigers 19, Mariners 9: Or maybe I shouldn’t fear bullpen games that much? Here Felix Hernandez was chased after two innings in which he allowed four runs on six hits — the team would later say he’s suffering from dead arm — turning this into a defacto bullpen game. The bullpen . . . was lacking. Detroit beat the tar out of ’em, piling up 24 hits, despite Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Jose Iglesias‘s absences. The Tigers bullpen wasn’t great, even with a commanding lead, yielding four runs in three innings of work. In all the teams combined for 40 hits and 14 walks in a nine inning game that went three hours and forty-three minutes. Ugly.

Brewers 9, Reds 1: Eric Thames homered again — his 11th of the year, eight of which have come against the Reds — but the game was well out of hand by then. Zach Davies tossed five shutout innings. Hernan Perez hit two RBI triples and a homer while Jonathan Villar hit two two-run singles.

Twins 8, Rangers 1: A seven run fifth inning made this one a laugher. Ervin Santana, Major League Baseball’s current ERA leader, allowed one run, four hits and one walk while striking out six in seven innings. Miguel Sano hit a 424-foot homer in the fifth and, later that same inning, singled in another run.

White Sox 10, Royals 5: The Chisox post double digits on the Royals for the second straight night. Todd Frazier had two doubles and drove in three. Leury Garcia and Omar Narvaez each knocked in a couple. Kansas City has dropped six straight and are off to their worst start since 2012. I guess the Royals Renaissance is no more.

Blue Jays 6, Cardinals 5: We talked about this at length already, but boy howdy, do we need to see it again:

That’s the sort of thing a guy writing a baseball movie would put in the script only to have it cut out later by the director because it’s too unrealistic.

Just as impressive, even if it wasn’t as visually spectacular, was Marcus Stroman, who wasn’t even supposed to be working yesterday, pinch-hitting in the 11th inning, knocking a double for his first big league hit, and coming around to score the go-ahead and, ultimately, winning run.

Nationals 15, Rockies 12: Trea Turner hit for the cycle, knocking a single in the first, a two-run double in the second, a two-run homer in the sixth and a bases-loaded triple in the seventh, driving in seven runs in all. But it wasn’t just him, as Coors Field featured Pitchers Need Not Apply Night. These two combined for 27 runs on 29 hits and eight walks, given up by a combined 11 pitchers. All on a cold night, too.

Diamondbacks 9, Padres 3: Paul Goldschmidt had four hits, a dinger included, and drove in three. He’s driven in at least two runs in four straight games. Chris Owings drove in three and Daniel Descalso hit a solo homer. The Dbacks are 14-8, with a 10-2 record at Chase Field.

Angels 2, Athletics 1: Traffic can be rough in Orange County, but you could’ve showed up over two hours late for this one and not missed any scoring, as it was tied at zero for nine innings. Josh Phegley hit a pinch-hit homer for Oakland in the top of the 10th, Mike Trout countered with a solo shot of his own in the bottom half and then Kole Calhoun walked ’em off with an RBI single in the bottom of the 11th off of Ryan Madson. Lost in all of this were excellent performances from the A’s Jesse Hahn, who allowed only one hit over eight shutout innings, and the Angels JC Ramirez, who allowed only two hits over seven. So, no, you maybe didn’t want to miss the first couple hours of this one. Pitching rules.

Dodgers 2, Giants 1: Clayton Kershaw certainly rules. The ace of aces allowed one run while scattering six hits over seven innings while striking out seven. All this on a night when he didn’t have his best stuff and had a wrapped up leg after being hit by a pitch early in the game. The Dodgers snapped a six-game losing streak in AT&T Park.

Marlins vs. Phillies; Yankees vs. Red Sox; Braves vs. Mets — POSTPONED:

Last time I was here, it was rainin’
It ain’t raining anymore
The streets were drowned, and the water’s waning
All the runes washed to shore
Now I’m here lookin’ through the rubble
Tryin’ to find out who we were
Last time I was here, it was rainin’
Ain’t rainin’ anymore

Felix Hernandez dealing with “dead arm”

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Mariners starter Felix Hernandez is dealing with “dead arm” and will head back to Seattle to have his shoulder examined, Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times reports. Hernandez was reportedly visibly upset and left the clubhouse quickly, declining to speak to the media, Divish adds.

Hernandez wasn’t long for Tuesday’s game against the Tigers, as he lasted just two innings, yielding four runs on six hits and two walks with two strikeouts. The Mariners went on to lose 19-9. Hernandez is now carrying a 4.73 ERA over his first five starts.

Not much else can go wrong for the Mariners, who are now 8-13 in last place in the AL West. Mitch Haniger also suffered an oblique injury on Tuesday, joining what is becoming a lengthy list of dinged-up Mariners.