Dodgers mailbag: Why doesn’t Matt Kemp play every day?
The Dodgers are 10-10. That translates to an 81-win pace, which is a marked improvement over the 58-win clip they were careening toward last week. The team just completed its most successful week of the 2018 season, sweeping the hapless San Diego Padres and taking two of three from the Washington Nationals, including a victory over Stephen Strasburg on Saturday.
Even better news for the Dodgers: Derek Jeter’s Miami Marlins come to town for three games this week. Walker Buehler, L.A.’s top prospect, will make the first big-league start of his career this week. The Dodgers will face a trio of starting pitchers who, truth be told, I have never heard of (and I cover Major League Baseball for a living). Here are the matchups for this series:
MONDAY: RHP Walker Buehler (first outing in 2018) vs. LHP Jarlin Garcia (1-0, 0.86 ERA).
TUESDAY: RHP Kenta Maeda (2-1, 3.77 ERA) vs. LHP Dillion Peters (2-2, 6.98 ERA)
WEDNESDAY: LHP Clayton Kershaw (1-3, 2.45 ERA) vs. RHP Trevor Richard (0-2, 6.16 ERA).
As always, there are plenty of other things to discuss. You can send me questions on Twitter @McCulloughTimes. Let’s do this.
This is a good question. The parameters make it difficult, because I think the Dodgers’ primary worry should be the Arizona Diamondbacks, a talented, tough-minded team that seems to relish playing their National League West rivals from Los Angeles. The Diamondbacks have held sway over the Dodgers in the regular season going back to last year — although the Dodgers did sweep Arizona in the three games which mattered most last October. The Diamondbacks are a good club.
No other team from the National League has particularly impressed me, although the New York Mets have been the most surprising. The Mets boast a tremendous 1-2 combination at the top of their rotation with Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. They raced to the top of National League East. But their lineup still looks thin, their bullpen still feels unreliable and they’ve already lost their top two starting catchers to injury. I would bet against them winning the division, even after the tremendous start.
Heading into the season, I picked the Dodgers, Cubs and Nationals to win their divisions, with the Brewers and the Phillies in the wild card game. Being pessimistic about Arizona looks foolish now. Otherwise, I don’t see much reason to doubt my initial choices. The Cubs have started slow but I don’t expect Anthony Rizzo to hit .146/.281/.208 all season and I don’t expect Yu Darvish* to carry a 6.86 ERA all season (the World Series is another story, but I digress).
*As the Dodgers pursued Darvish this winter, they knew they needed to shed salary to add him to the payroll and remain beneath the luxury-tax threshold. The three most obvious candidates to move: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Logan Forsythe and Yasmani Grandal. Forsythe has been a non-factor thus far, but Ryu has been the team’s most effective starter and Grandal has been their best hitter. Funny game.
The Nationals have already been racked by injuries, with key contributors like Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon sidelined. They still feel like the favorite in the National League East, given their top-level talent, but they don’t look particularly fierce right now.
Chris Taylor has gotten off to a relatively slow start in April. He is slugging .432, with three homers, four doubles and two triples, but his on-base plus slugging percentage is only .708. His on-base percentage is down, from .354 last year to .277 thus far, because he is walking at a slightly lower clip and his batting average on balls in play has dropped from last season’s likely unsustainable rate of .361.
Taylor still profiles as a useful player, and his propensity for hard contact should keep him in the lineup. I don’t see any serious reason to move him from the leadoff spot just yet, in part because the logical candidates to replace him are either in the minors (Alex Verdugo) or injured in the minors (Andrew Toles). Verdugo has shown more power this season, with three home runs already after hitting seven total last season, but his OBP has dipped.
On the big-league roster, there aren’t many obvious replacements. Which is fine, because for now, Taylor should remain in the leadoff spot.
Matt Kemp does not play every single game because very few baseball players play every single game, and it would be bonkers to ask that of a 33-year-old with a history of hamstring issues and questionable defensive ability.
Man, this is going to sound harsh, because Kemp has been one of the Dodgers best hitters this season, but he has already shown himself to be a defensive liability. He was considered one of the worst fielders in baseball last season, according to advanced defensive metrics like UZR, and he remains a below-average fielder in 2018. He has been better as a Dodger, but scouts still look askance at his routes and speed.
It is perfectly sensible for the Dodgers to remove Kemp for a defensive replacement in late-game situations. It makes a lot less sense to do it midway through the game, as Manager Dave Roberts did last week in San Diego, but that felt like more of an aberration than anything else.
I don’t know. I’m not sure how the Dodgers can unlock Joc Pederson’s potential. The organization seems to think the best option is to keep him in the majors and use him as a part-time player. Pederson started four games in a row last week and was fairly productive, going 4 for 13 with a homer and two RBI. His birthday blast off Stephen Strasburg aided Saturday’s victory.
Andrew Toles outplayed Pederson this spring. But the organization felt Toles needed to play on a daily basis in triple-A Oklahoma City, and team officials did not worry about a demotion damaging Toles’ psyche. If Toles had stayed healthy in the minors, he likely would have been called up already. But with Toles nursing an injured hamstring, it makes the most sense to have Pederson around on the big-league roster. Alex Verdugo isn’t ready just yet, and he would not be starting, anyway. Pederson could play every day in OKC, but he still plays fairly regularly in the majors. With Yasiel Puig continuing to struggle, Pederson’s playing time might even increase.
No, the front office has not instructed their pitchers to throw the baseball more slowly. It appears the Dodgers have several players confronting the downslope of the aging curve.
I do not foresee this scenario unfolding, and these decisions are made by the front office, not the field manager.
I do think it will be interesting to see what happens if Walker Buehler looks excellent on Monday and Saturday. The Dodgers found ways to use a six-man rotation last season, with players shifting onto the disabled list and into the bullpen to make room. I wonder if the team can sustain that for five months.
To quote Kansas City Royals General Manager Dayton Moore: My crystal ball is broken.
I’m partial to Verne Gagne, but I guess there is a chance.
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