2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers finished the 2017 season with 104 wins, one win shy of matching the club record set in 1953 by the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the year everything appeared to finally click for a team that had made the playoffs every season dating back to 2013. Alas, the year ended in more heartbreak for the fan base as the Dodgers lost the World Series in a seventh and final game to the Astros in Los Angeles.

As a unit, the 2018 squad isn’t all that different as the Dodgers had a relatively quiet offseason. One trade they made was aimed at keeping payroll below the $197 million competitive balance tax – the club sent Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Charlie Culberson, and cash to the Braves for Matt Kemp. The thought was that Kemp would be jettisoned just as quickly as he arrived, but he’s in spring camp with the Dodgers and angling for playing time. The Dodgers were also involved in a three-team trade with the White Sox and Royals, acquiring a pair of minor leaguers and reliever Scott Alexander.

As for free agents, the Dodgers signed pitcher Tom Koehler to a one-year, $2 million deal, but the right-hander was recently diagnosed with a mild anterior capsule strain in his right shoulder. The Dodgers also brought back second baseman Chase Utley on a two-year, $2 million deal. And if you’re asking, “Why sign a 39-year-old to a multi-year contract?” the answer is, “The competitive balance tax.”

FanGraphs is projecting the Dodgers as the fourth-best team in baseball with 93 wins, behind the Astros (101), Cubs (94), and Yankees (94). PECOTA, the projection system from Baseball Prospectus, pegs the Dodgers at 97 wins, the best mark in the National League and behind only the Yankees (97) and Astros (99) overall. The offense, largely unchanged, posted a .330 weighted on-base average, 10 points above the league average. The starting rotation posted the best ERA in the game at 3.39 and the bullpen posted the best ERA in the National League at 3.38.

Ace Clayton Kershaw, poised to make his eighth consecutive Opening Day start for the Blue Crew, is coming off a season in which he led the majors with 18 wins and the National League with a 2.31 ERA, a 180 adjusted ERA (a.k.a. ERA+), and a 6.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The lefty made 27 starts instead of the expected 33 due to continuing back issues, so that will be a focus of concern as he enters his age-30 season. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system, found at FanGraphs, has Kershaw in between a glob of relievers among the league’s expected ERA leaders, essentially saying that Kershaw is a prohibitive favorite in the upcoming NL Cy Young Award race. Not a bad guy to have lead a rotation.

Behind Kershaw are Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. It’s not exactly the healthiest group of pitchers. Hill has had blister issues, Wood battled a shoulder injury last year, Maeda dealt with a tight hamstring, and Ryu has had constant problems with his shoulder and elbow in recent years. The Dodgers should absolutely not count on this rotation making it through the season unscathed, which is why Ross Stripling, Brock Stewart, and prospect Walker Buehler will serve as depth throughout the year. When healthy, however, the Dodgers’ current rotation will once again be among the most formidable in the game.

In the bullpen, Kenley Jansen will reprise his role as closer. In the first year of a five-year, $80 million contract in 2017, the right-hander used his debilitating cutter to compile an NL-best 41 saves with a 1.32 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings. The performance earned him a fifth-place finish in NL Cy Young Award balloting. Now 30 years old, there’s no reason to think Jansen is going to lose his touch anytime soon.

Behind Jansen, the Dodgers have an eclectic mix of relievers, including Pedro Baez, Alexander, Tony Cingrani, Josh Fields, and Stripling. Alexander is a really interesting reliever as he quietly compiled a 2.48 ERA in 69 innings for the Royals last season, built almost entirely on his ability to induce grounders. Alexander’s 73.8 percent ground ball rate led all relievers and was a full five percent higher than Orioles hurler Richard Bleier in second place. The Dodgers have great infield defense, so Alexander could be poised for an even better season.

Offensively, the Dodgers are looking quite strong as usual. The infield in particular is quite scary with Justin Turner at third base, Corey Seager at shortstop, and Cody Bellinger at first base. Bellinger won the NL Rookie of the Year Award after blasting 39 home runs and knocking in 97 runs with a .933 OPS in 548 trips to the plate as a 21-year-old last year. Turner was one of nine players across the league to own a wOBA of .400 or better, joining the likes of Paul Goldschmidt and Jose Altuve, among a few others. Seager was the gold standard at shortstop in 2017, compiling 5.7 Wins Above Replacement, per FanGraphs, a total rivaled in the NL only by Zack Cozart, who is now a third baseman in the American League. Logan Forsythe will get the lion’s share of playing time at second base with Utley backing them up. Behind the plate, Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes will continue to share playing time behind the plate. Grandal knocked out 22 homers last year while Barnes impressed with an .895 OPS in 262 plate appearances.

In the outfield, Chris Taylor and Yasiel Puig will return to their starting jobs as expected. Puig had a career year last year, setting career-highs in home runs (28), RBI (74), and stolen bases (15). Even better, he continued to play good defense in right field thanks in part to his absolute cannon of an arm. Puig had only four outfield assists, but that’s because no one wants to test his arm anymore. He maxed out at 15 outfield assists in 2014. Taylor, meanwhile, broke out with an .850 OPS, 21 home runs, 72 RBI, 85 runs, and 17 steals across 568 trips to the dish. That came after two and a half seasons with the Mariners and a half season with the Dodgers during which he compiled a measly .598 OPS. Taylor was even more productive in the playoffs, hitting .254/.380/.508 with three homers in 15 postseason games.

The Dodgers have a glut of candidates in left field with Kemp, Enrique Hernandez, and Joc Pederson. Ideally, the club finds a taker for Kemp and his contract, allowing the other two players to share the position. The veteran Kemp is off to a good start this spring, accruing four hits – including two homers – in 13 at-bats, which is good news for the Dodgers.

Unsurprisingly, the Dodgers enter the 2018 campaign with few weaknesses. In their division the Diamondbacks replaced J.D. Martinez with Steven Souza, Jr. and otherwise didn’t alter the roster much. The same goes for the Rockies, who have a similar roster save for the addition of Wade Davis. The Giants acquired veterans Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen which will make them much more competitive, but the club still has some glaring weaknesses. And the Padres are, well, the Padres, even after adding Eric Hosmer. This looks like a division the Dodgers should once again run away with. As for what happens beyond that, the Dodgers know as well as anyone that the playoffs are hard to predict. That being said, this is absolutely a team capable of winning it all.

Prediction: 97-65, first place in NL West

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.