2016 Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

Associated Press
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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 2016 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Dodgers.

There are always so many expectations when it comes to the Dodgers. Expectations attributable primarily to the team’s payroll, but not solely. You could, if you really tried to, put together a bad $200 million team I suppose. The Dodgers have put together a pretty good one for a few years in a row now, and those good teams have won three straight NL West titles. There have been flaws, of course, and their continue to be flaws, but it seems like the Dodgers will continue to be relevant, if not favorites, in the West for some time.

The lineup returns fully intact from the end of last year, and there is talent there, but the Dodgers will need some underachieving players to live up to their potential and some younger players to take a step forward.

The core of veterans — Adrian Gonzalez, Howie Kendrick and Justin Turner — were solid and at times spectacular last year, but they are all getting up there in years. That means that the younger talent is more significant than ever. If Yasiel Puig isn’t healthy, productive and distraction-free, L.A. is already in a hole. If Joc Pederson doesn’t show that his miserable second half from 2015 was an anomaly there are bigger problems. The biggest change will be Corey Seager replacing Jimmy Rollins at shortstop. He is widely considered to be the top prospect in all of baseball and lived up to the hype in his September call-up last season, hitting.337/.425/.561 with four homers, 17 RBI and a pair of stolen bases in 113 plate appearances. He doesn’t need to be that good for the Dodgers to win the division, but he needs to be solid. He probably will be.

The upside of this lineup is pretty spectacular and there is a lot of depth there in the form of Carl Crawford, Scott Van Slyke, Enrique Hernandez, Chase Utley, and A.J. Ellis. It will give new manager Dave Roberts a lot fewer headaches, however, if he can count on Puig, Pederson, Seager and Gonzalez to carry the load.

Indeed, everyone in that lineup needs to be solid because there are some serious questions in the rotation right now. Best Pitcher on the Planet Clayton Kershaw is not one of them, obviously, nor is closer Kenley Jansen. Losing Zack Greinke, however, was a major blow, as was the rash of injuries suffered by other starters. Brett Anderson is gone for months. One of the guys counted on to be in the rotation, Mike Bolsinger, will start the year on the DL as well. Brandon Beachy has experienced some elbow problems and given is health history that has to be scary. Scott Kazmir was brought in to shore things up, but he was shaky in the second half last year and some have questions about his durability. At some point Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy will return, and newcomer Kenta Maeda is an intriguing addition, but in the meantime it will Kershaw and four days of — wait, it never rains in southern California.

There’s a new attitude in L.A. with Dave Roberts in camp. There is oodles of talent on this roster. But the rotation beyond Kershaw is a concern and betting on all of the Dodgers’ young players to step up while the older guys experience little if any decline is not exactly a sure thing. I think the Dodgers will be a good team this year, and for now I think they’re still the favorites in the division, but they’ll be in a battle with the Giants and the Diamondbacks all year long.

Prediction: First place N.L. West, but expect a dogfight.

Manoah, Merrifield lead Blue Jays to 3-1 win over Rays

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Alek Manoah pitched seven shutout innings, Whit Merrifield hit a three-run homer and the Toronto Blue Jays regained the top AL wild-card spot with a 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday night.

The Blue Jays lead Tampa Bay by one game. The top wild card finisher will host all games in their best-of-three opening-round series, while the other two wild cards play strictly on the road.

Manoah (15-7) scattered four hits, walked two and struck out eight while throwing a season-high 113 pitches. The righty worked out of a two-on, one-out jam in the sixth by striking out Randy Arozarena and getting a flyout from David Peralta.

Jordan Romano replaced Tim Mayza with two on and two outs in the eighth and allowed pinch-hitter Harold Ramirez‘s RBI infield single but avoided further damage by striking out Manuel Margot. Romano finished the game to get his 35th save in 41 chances.

Tampa Bay starter Drew Rasmussen (10-7) gave up one run, three hits and two walks in 6 1/3 innings. He struck out five.

The teams combined for 31 runs, with the Rays accounting for 20, in the first two games of the series that were both won by Tampa Bay.

Arozarena got the Rays’ first hit off Manoah with a two-out double in the fourth. He became the first Tampa Bay player and 20th big leaguer to have 40 doubles, 20 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season.

Teoscar Hernandez ended Rasmussen’s night with a double in the seventh. Brooks Raley entered and, after a walk to pinch-hitter Danny Jansen, Merrifield made it 3-0 on his 10th homer of the season.

Merrifield homered twice in Thursday night’s 10-5 loss to the Rays.

Alejandro Kirk opened the second with a single before Rasmussen retired 12 in a row until Merrifield’s leadoff double in the sixth.

Plate umpire Corey Blaser took a hard foul ball by Margot on the mask in the eighth but remained in the game.

HONORING KK

The Rays posted a thank you on the message board for CF Kevin Kiermaier, who is out for the season following left hip surgery. Kiermaier is in the final season of a $53.5 million, six-year contract that includes a club option for 2023 that is expected to be declined.

TEAM AWARDS

Rays ace Shane McClanahan was voted the Don Zimmer MVP award winner by members of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. CF Jose Siri was selected as the outstanding rookie. 3B Yandy Diaz received the Paul C. Smith Champions award as the player who best exemplifies the spirit of true professionalism on and off the field.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson (lat strain) allowed three runs and three hits over two-thirds of an inning for Triple-A Buffalo.

Rays: 2B Brandon Lowe (lower back) is done for the season.

UP NEXT

McClanahan (12-6), pulled from his start Tuesday in the fifth inning due to neck tightness, will face Blue Jays RHP Ross Stripling (8-4) on Sunday.