One of the most compelling aspects of following Major League Baseball is the length of a season. Emerging out of the dead of winter, 30 teams form in the spring and have the potential to blossom into a winning ball club with World Series aspirations. Throughout the dry or humid summer—weather depending on what part of the country your team is located—competition grows fierce and division races heat up to match the weather.
A regular season that begins at the end of March and ends at the beginning of October, full of all the randomness that Mother Nature and Father Time can conjure up, allows for exciting triumphs and deflating defeats for individual players and teams.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, winners of nine of the last 10 National League West division titles, find themselves entering the second half of the season tied for first place.
Preseason prognosticators foretold a season-long struggle for NL West supremacy between the Dodgers and their division neighbors to the south, the San Diego Padres. Although they correctly predicted that the Dodgers would be at the top of the division, the Padres’ struggles opened the door to a new competitor to slither into the competition in the form of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Diamondbacks boast a balanced and consistent lineup in addition to a productive pitching staff. They aim to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017 and win their first division title since 2011.
The quest for a World Series Championship begins by making the playoffs. If the Dodgers want to leave the DBacks in the dust and storm into the playoffs, they must answer these five questions.
When Will the Dodgers Injury Riddled Pitching Rotation Stabilize?
Throughout the 2023 season, every member of the Dodgers pitching rotation that was projected to begin the year in the rotation has spent time on the Injured List. Both Tony Gonsolin and Ryan Pepiot couldn’t break camp with the team due to ankle and oblique injuries, respectively.
Julio Urías, who finished third in NL CY Young voting last year and was easily the most effective pitcher on last year’s squad, suffered a hamstring strain in May that he just returned from on July 1.
Dustin May, who had another promising start to a season, found himself suffering a season-ending elbow injury. Although he won’t need Tommy John surgery again to repair his UCL in his throwing arm, surgery to repair the flexor tendon in his elbow will keep him out until the middle of the 2024 regular season.
Even Clayton Kershaw, despite leading the team in innings pitched in the first half, found himself on the IL in July due to shoulder soreness.
All of this instability in the rotation has led the Dodgers, a club that has led the National League in team ERA for six straight years, to fall to an uncharacteristically low team ERA of 4.50, ranking them 11th out of 15 teams.
Health is the biggest factor for this rotation’s success moving forward in the second half. Gonsolin and Urías are back and pitching consistently. Also, Pepiot is nearing a return; he made a minor league rehab start yesterday for the team’s AAA affiliate.
Even Walker Buehler, who has been out since last June recovering from Tommy John surgery, believes he is on track to return to the major leagues at the beginning of September.
With these returns and better injury luck moving forward, the Dodgers’ pitching staff is primed for a second half resurgence.
Who Emerges as a Dominant Pitcher Out of the Bullpen?
Another area of concern for the Dodgers is the effectiveness of their bullpen. The team has the fourth worst team reliever ERA in the National league. Although they are suffering from a bit of bad luck, bad defense, or both, they are still averaging a runner left on base percentage of 69.7%. That percentage at the half ranks 13th out of 15 National League teams.
For context, the Atlanta Braves, the best team in the National League, have the best reliever ERA at 3.43. That’s exactly one run per nine innings better than the Dodgers at the half. The Braves also rank fourth in left on base percentage at 74.2%, according to data from FanGraphs.
There just doesn’t seem to be many dominant options in the bullpen outside of closer Evan Phillips. Although Brusdar Graterol and Caleb Ferguson have been great since mid-June, not allowing a run scored in nine and ten appearances respectively, the team needs other guys to boost their performance. Six of the Dodgers’ last ten losses have a relief pitcher as the losing pitcher of record. They need trusted arms that can hold a lead or maintain a tie in the later stages of the game.
Major league bullpens can be so volatile every year, so finding stable arms heading into the second half is crucial. They need their bullpen pieces that had success in year’s past, like Alex Vesia, to perform better moving forward. If not, the Dodgers need to explore the trade market or the minor leagues to improve their relief situation.
Which Rookie Breaks Out?
The Dodgers have a plethora of injuries littered throughout their roster. From Gavin Lux suffering a season-ending knee injury in spring training, to all the injuries plaguing the pitching staff, the team has had 11 rookie-status players play in the major leagues this year. Some of these rookies, like Michael Grove, Miguel Vargas, and James Outman, have been thrust into starter roles.
Even top 30 prospects in the organization like Bobby Miller, Emmet Sheehan, Gavin Stone, Michael Busch, and Jonny Deluca have either been tasks with filling starter roles on the team or have been needed for depth at times.
The Dodgers need some of their rookies to step up their production in the second half. Keep an eye on how Miller, Sheehan, Vargas, and Outman perform leading up to the trade deadline. Their performances might impact how the Dodgers target trade targets.
Will the Five All-Stars Continue Their Success?
Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, J.D. Martinez, Will Smith, and Clayton Kershaw have been the main impact players for the team this year. Betts is having his best offensive year since joining the team in 2020. He has an OPS at the half of .965, good for third in all of baseball. He leads the team in WAR and he’s also on pace to break his single season high of 35 home runs.
Freeman continues to be a force at the plate for the Dodgers. He’s hitting for an average over .300 getting on base nearly 40% of the time, leading the big leagues in doubles, and in the top three in baseball in extra-base hits.
Martinez is having a resurgent year at the plate in his first season with the Dodgers. He’s third in team OPS and he’s second on the team in home runs as well as in slugging percentage. He also has an OPS+ at the half indicating that he hitting better than 34% of the league average player.
Smith is second among catchers in OPS, has the second highest on-base percentage, and is ranked third in RBIs. He has been a great offensive catcher for years and is only behind Freeman on the team in OBP.
Kershaw leads MLB in ERA, is tied for first in WHIP, and is important for the Dodgers’ pitching rotation. New reports indicate that Kershaw’s shoulder soreness will sideline him until early August. Still, Kershaw leads the Dodgers’ active starting pitchers in just about every relevant category including ERA, WHIP, innings pitched, etc.
The Dodgers’ first half success was tied to the performance of those five players. It should continue to be tied to their performances for the rest of the season.
What Moves is the Front Office Planning at the Trade Deadline?
President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and the rest of Dodgers’ front office should be buyers at the trade deadline. Needs for this team include starting and relief pitchers, as well as an impact bat. Could they be in the mix for possibly the biggest trade target ever in two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani? Will they look at rentals like starting pitcher Lucas Giolito or a relief pitcher like Jordan Hicks? Could they reunite with past Dodgers like Joe Kelly or Cody Bellinger?
Friedman is never hesitant to look for impact players at the deadline to help the Dodgers in years past. Look to trades for Manny Machado in 2018 and for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner in 2021 as recent examples. Fans can be sure that if there is a trade to be made, Friedman will make it.