AnalysisNL West

2021 Los Angeles Dodgers Season Preview

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Arrick Joel takes a look at the Los Angeles Dodgers!

Following their title run in 2020, the Los Angeles Dodgers are poised to be repeat champions in 2021. While L.A. lost a few players through free agency, the team made moves to maintain their status as the best team in baseball, including a splash for the offseason’s biggest free agent, Trevor Bauer.

However, as the Dodgers have tooled up to make another run at winning it all, so have other teams in the National League. The San Diego Padres made several notable additions to their starting rotation, the New York Mets have been big players in the market for trades and free agent signings, and the St. Louis Cardinals added the NL’s best third baseman to their roster.


2020 Season-In-Review

2020 Record: 43-17 (.717), 1st Place in NL West

Team MVP: Mookie Betts

Team Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw

The Dodgers were MLB’s best team in 2020, winning the single-highest percentage of games since the 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners. With the acquisition of Mookie Betts and David Price from the Boston Red Sox last February, the Dodgers positioned themselves perfectly to end the franchise’s 32-year World Series championship drought, which they did against the Tampa Bay Rays in six games.

Offseason Review

Key Losses from 2020: Pedro Báez (HOU), Kiké Hernández (BOS), Jake McGee (SF), Joc Pederson (CHC), Alex Wood (SF)

Notable Additions via Free Agency: Trevor Bauer (CIN), Tommy Kahnle (NYY), Brandon Morrow (CHC)

Notable Additions via Trade: Corey Knebel (MIL), Sheldon Neuse (OAK), Alex Vesia (MIA)

Since Yu Darvish’s free agency following the 2017 season, the Dodgers and Andrew Friedman, the team’s President of Baseball Operations, have been notably hesitant to give free agents lengthy contracts. During Bryce Harper’s time at the negotiation table, Friedman and the team were standing still on their philosophy of lowering risk through offering shorter contracts with high average annual values. While this tactic didn’t work for Darvish in 2017, Harper in 2018, or Anthony Rendon in 2019, the Dodgers finally found their suitor with Trevor Bauer in 2020’s free agent market.

As for other free agent acquisitions, the Dodgers acquired former Yankees relief pitcher Tommy Kahnle. The deal is for two years, the first of which Kahnle will spend rehabbing from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in August. Kahnle will earn $750K in 2021 and $3.45M in 2022.

The Dodgers also reunited with 36-year-old relief pitcher Brandon Morrow. The deal is a minor league deal that includes him on the team’s non-roster invitee list for Spring Training. Morrow pitched in 14 games during the Dodgers’ 2017 postseason run, including all seven games of the World Series.

At the non-tender deadline, the Dodgers completed a trade with the Brewers for Corey Knebel in exchange for a player to be named later, which ended up being Leo Crawford on the trade’s completion. Knebel strengthens the Dodgers bullpen after the team lost Pedro Báez, Jake McGee, and Alex Wood in free agency this offseason.

Lastly, the Dodgers made a pair of trades in mid-February with the Athletics and Marlins. From Oakland, the Dodgers acquired infielder Sheldon Neuse and pitching prospect Gus Varland in exchange for relief pitcher Adam Kolarek and outfield prospect Cody Thomas. From Miami, the Dodgers acquired pitchers Alex Vesia and Kyle Hurt in exchange for Dylan Floro. Vesia and Neuse are at the point in their minor league progression that they have the opportunity to break camp with the Major League team.


2021 Season Preview

Projected 26-man Roster

Projected Lineup:

  1. Mookie Betts (RF)
  2. Corey Seager (SS)
  3. Justin Turner (3B)
  4. Cody Bellinger (CF)
  5. Max Muncy (1B)
  6. Will Smith (C)
  7. A.J. Pollock (LF)
  8. Chris Taylor (2B)
  9. PITCHER’S SPOT (SP)

Projected Bench:

  • Austin Barnes (C)
  • Gavin Lux (INF)
  • Matt Beaty (INF/OF)
  • Edwin Rios (INF)

Projected Starting Rotation:

  1. Clayton Kershaw (LHP)
  2. Walker Buehler (RHP)
  3. Trevor Bauer (RHP)
  4. Julio Urías (LHP)
  5. David Price (LHP)

Projected Bullpen:

  • Kenley Jansen (RHP)
  • Blake Treinen (RHP)
  • Brusdar Graterol (RHP)
  • Joe Kelly (RHP)
  • Corey Knebel (RHP)
  • Victor Gonzalez (LHP)
  • Scott Alexander (LHP)
  • Tony Gonsolin (RHP)
  • Dustin May (RHP)

Hitters

Despite losing a few hitters who played key roles in the team’s championship run in 2020, the Dodgers are still set to trot out what is almost certainly the league’s most talented lineup. L.A.’s potent offensive attack includes a pair of league MVPs, six All-Stars, and three Silver Slugger Award winners.

Mookie Betts enters the first year of his 12-year contract extension with the Dodgers in 2021 after finishing as the runner-up in MVP voting for the second time in his career last season. Betts has gone on to call his 2020 season, “serviceable” during 2021 camp, signaling that he wants to build upon the strong .292/.366/.562 line he posted in his debut season with the Dodgers.

2020 may have been the worst season of Cody Bellinger’s MLB career to date, which can be written off for a number of reasons revolving around the odd structure of the season. However, it cannot be fully ignored, meaning Bellinger will be on the radar for a bounce-back season in 2021. Adding the MVP-level production Bellinger has shown to be capable of to a team that managed to win more than 70% of their games last season without it could make L.A. that much more dangerous.

After multiple surgeries to repair his left elbow and left hip, Corey Seager played a near full season and reminded fans of the dominant force he can be at the plate. Seager’s 152 OPS+ in 2020 is the highest total he’s ever posted in a season with more than 100 ABs. His offensive resurgence carried well into the postseason, earning him MVP awards in both the NLCS and the World Series. When he’s healthy, Seager is worth mentioning among the elite hitting shortstops in MLB.

At their best, anyone in the Dodgers’ lineup could end up an All-Star in 2021. However, when players aren’t at their best or need a day off, the Dodgers have a bench with lots of potential to contribute when their number is called, including the highly-touted Gavin Lux, who will look to make the first extended Major League stint of his professional career in 2021.

Before making the leap to MLB in 2019, Lux ranked second among all prospects in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects list. So far in his MLB career, Lux has only played defense at second base with the reigning World Series MVP, Corey Seager, locking down shortstop. Throughout his time in the Minor Leagues, Lux played shortstop twice as often as second base. However, with Seager under contract with the Dodgers until at least the end of 2021, Lux will have to make due at second base for the time being. In 2019, Lux carried an OPS of 1.197 in 49 games at AAA Oklahoma City.

Pitchers

Even with Walker Buehler flourishing and the addition of Trevor Bauer this offseason, the Dodgers’ Opening Day starter is, and should be, Clayton Kershaw. In each of the past two seasons, Kershaw was scratched from his Opening Day start due to injuries. However, L.A. has scheduled Kershaw for the season opener in each of the last 10 seasons, which is a tradition that seemingly will not be changing until Kershaw calls it a career.

David Price’s return from his 2020 season opt-out gives the Dodgers yet another starting option, likely forcing young pitchers such as Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin out of the starting rotation for 2021. Instead, the Dodgers will look to utilize their skills out of the bullpen, particularly with May and the outstanding movement he has on his pitches. Gonsolin, who started game six of the World Series this past October, will likely fit into the swing-man role previously held by now-Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ross Stripling.

As for a designated closer, manager Dave Roberts said early on in camp that Kenley Jansen will begin the season as the team’s closer, which seemed to be a nod toward Roberts’ confidence in Jansen to make the necessary adjustments to become a highly effective reliever again. Since 2016 when Jansen posted a career-high 47 saves, his WHIP has increased incrementally each season, ballooning to 1.151 in 2020 for the worst WHIP of his career.

The newly-acquired Corey Knebel projects to take a significant share of the innings given to Pedro Báez a season ago. Knebel performed exceptionally well during the 2017 season, converting 48 save opportunities while posting an ERA of 1.78 over 76 innings pitched. However, a damaged ulnar collateral ligament later led Knebel to undergo Tommy John surgery, holding him out of the entire 2019 season. Although the sample is too small to judge whether or not he can make a positive impact post-surgery, Knebel held an ERA of 6.08 over 13.1 innings in 2020. There’s work to do, but if any team in baseball thrives on projects such as these, it’s the Dodgers.

Record Projections

FanGraphs Projected Record: 99.1-62.9, 1st place in NL West

PECOTA Projected Record: 104.1-57.9, 1st place in NL West

Personal Projection: 109-53, 1st place in NL West

When last season’s win percentage is extrapolated over a full 162-game schedule, the 43-17 record translates to 116-46. While this pace is incredibly unlikely to hold over a full season, the additions the Dodgers have made this offseason make sure that breaking the franchise’s single-season wins record of 106 wins is within the realm of possibility.


Final Thoughts

Throughout the Dodgers’ active streak of eight division titles, three NL pennants in the past four seasons, and now a World Series title to end what was a 32-year drought, a common question among fans has been: “Is this the greatest Dodgers team of all time?”

This team may put an end to that question in 2021.

Arrick Joel

Senior Writer for Dodgers-LowDown and Contributor for Diamond Digest.

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