“We’re a better ballclub than we were last year,” Roberts asserts.
History is not on the Dodgers’ side. They are vying to become the first National League club to advance to the World Series three straight seasons since the St. Louis Cardinals accomplished the feat in 1942, 1943 and 1944. And they are attempting to become the first team to win a World Series after consecutive defeats since the New York Yankees captured the 1923 championship after falling twice.
They’ll strive to make history in an improved NL, where competition has stiffened in the East and Central divisions but the West remains theirs to lose. It was theirs to lose last season too, and the Dodgers almost lost it, needing a 163rd game to swat away the Colorado Rockies and claim their sixth consecutive division title after a miserable start.
The Dodgers did not sign a premium free agent this winter or acquire a star via trade. They decided the prices weren’t worth paying, and humans and computers agree they remain the favorite in the NL West anyway.
Roberts believes his bullpen — anchored by a healthy Kenley Jansen, an improved Pedro Baez and Joe Kelly’s acquisition — is upgraded. But questions linger. Can Baez continue where he left off in 2018, when he finished as one of baseball’s best relievers? Will Kelly avoid the nauseating month-to-month peaks and valleys he endured with the Boston Red Sox last season? Most importantly, can Jansen, slimmed down after undergoing surgery to remedy his heart condition, recapture his pre-2018 form?
“I think for Kenley to get the heart issue, the health issue behind him, he’s in as good of shape as I’ve ever seen,” Roberts said. “He’s very motivated this year. He’s in a way better place than he was last year. Obviously, there was some injuries going into last year, so he is right on track to come out of the gates well.”
Kershaw will start the season on the injured list after shoulder inflammation interrupted his spring training, but the Dodgers will take their time with him. The left-hander, who won’t start opening day for the first time since 2010, will likely miss at least two turns in the rotation. Ross Stripling, an all-star as a starter last season, will fill in until Kershaw is deemed ready. Buehler, meanwhile, didn’t pitch in a Cactus League game until Tuesday. He, however, will be in the rotation to start the season.
Urias could end the season in the rotation, but he will begin it in the bullpen, where the Dodgers can better manage his workload, after an impressive spring. The Dodgers insist there isn’t a firm innings limit on the electric left-hander after he logged 10 1/3 innings last season as a reliever between the regular season and playoffs in his first action since undergoing major shoulder surgery. However, Urias will be tracked closely.
“It’s just about monitoring how he’s maintaining his stuff, how he’s bouncing back outing to outing,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “Just coming off the surgery that he had and the more abbreviated 2018, it’s not going to be a situation where he can take the ball every fifth day and throw 100 pitches throughout the season and be strong into October. We’re just not to that point yet. So this year is still a little bit of a foundational year in terms of getting more reps and putting more workload on his body.”
Yes, the offense lost some firepower — the departed Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Yasmani Grandal combined to hit 68 home runs last season — but Roberts and Friedman envision more constant production under the tutelage of hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc and hitting strategist Brant Brown. They are confident there will be fewer wasted at-bats and more runs produced in other ways.
Last season, the Dodgers scored the most runs in the NL. They also scored three or fewer runs in 71 games. It was a perplexing fusion that became more one-sided against elite pitching in the postseason. The goal is to shrink the number of low-scoring outputs.
“What we’re hoping to accomplish is more consistency and have our talent level play out more consistently on a nightly basis,” Friedman said.
The lineup will feature shortstop Corey Seager again after he underwent elbow-ligament replacement surgery in May and arthroscopic surgery on his left hip in August. He returned in time to appear in Cactus League games in the team’s final week in Arizona and homered in his second at-bat. The Dodgers will ease him in, carefully managing his workload in the first month, but won’t throw him into a straight platoon. He’ll play regularly from the jump.
Enrique Hernandez and Chris Taylor, the team’s utility men, will split time at second base and fill in at other spots. Max Muncy and David Freese will platoon at first base. Justin Turner will be a constant at third base. Roberts said Austin Barnes will start about 60 percent of the games behind the plate and Russell Martin will assume the rest.
A.J. Pollock, the team’s most expensive free-agent signing this offseason, will start in center field. Cody Bellinger will play every day in right field after shifting between first base and center field last season — and sitting against left-handers over the final two months. Joc Pederson will play left field against right-handed pitchers. Alex Verdugo will cycle through the three outfield positions after spending the last two seasons pounding on the big league door in Class AAA.
It is, on paper, a deep roster favored to claim another title in a weak division. But as the Dodgers realized last season, what’s expected isn’t given.
“You have to play the season out,” Roberts said, “to prove it.”