The 2013 Dodgers surged back from injuries and rode their superstars to the tune of an NLDS title.
In 2013 Clayton Kershaw had another brilliant season, striking out his thousandth batter after throwing only 969 innings. His 1.83 ERA last year was the best full-season mark the game has seen since vintage Pedro Martinez. The 26 year-old southpaw has somehow still managed to seem slightly underrated while being uniformly considered among the best in the game. Behind him, Magic Johnson, the Guggenheim Group and the New Blue have paid the way to the Phillies’ road map to success, showing that if you buy a rotation full of top end starters to go with a homegrown superstar or two that you can make it all look pretty easy until the wheels fall off. And make it look easy the Dodgers did, eventually.
But before they made it look easy, the Dodgers made it look pretty hard. Hanley Ramirez was on fire in the World Baseball Classic, leading the charge on the Dominican republic team’s probably-historic run in 2013. In the championship game of the tournament he tore a ligament in his thumb while diving for a groundball, eventually requiring surgery that would cost him the seasons first two months. Free agent splash recipient Zack Greinke may or may not have intentionally plunked Carlos Quentin, and he paid the price in the ensuing brawl when his collarbone was broken, sidelining him until the middle of May. Matt Kemp succumbed to every injury we know of before inventing several new ones, and was scarcely the KEMvP of yore when he was healthy. Once Hanley came back, he played in just four games (where he hit .455/.500/.909 with a homerun and a stolen base) before pulling his hamstring and missing another month. At one point in early June, the Dodgers were being compared to the Blue Jays and the previous year’s Marlins squad as high priced teams failing to capitalize on their talent and sputtering out of the gate. On June 3rd, the day before Hanley Ramirez would return from the DL for mostly good, the Dodgers were 23-32 and called up their #4 prospect to fill the void left by the ghost of Matt Kemp, and baseball had to take notice.
Yasiel Puig would go on to have one of the best first months a rookie has ever had, smacking 44 hits in June (trailing Joe Dimaggio’s all time record by only four) and making highlight reels around the sports world. He hit 4 homeruns in his first 5 games, he made a daring, double-play outfield assist to make the final out in his first big-league game, he went on to hit .436/.467/.713 through June. Hanley was back and looking better than ever as well, with a .375/.414/.672 line through the same span, and the two of them worked in tandem to wreak havoc on the league’s pitchers and revitalize the Dodgers. If the team had problems ‘gelling’ and fitting together the moving parts acquired as parts of so many trades and signings, Puig coming up seemed to coincide with something clicking in the clubhouse and the wins started to pile up in turn. The Dodgers would go on to have a 66-38 record in games the Cuban phenom played in, while Ramirez would post 5.4 bWAR in only 86 games; a rate that would prorate out to a Troutian 10.1 over a 162 game season. With a cast filled out by a resurgent Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the fruits of LA’s blockbuster with the Red Sox in 2012, the Dodgers’ offense became a force to be reckoned with as the weather heated up. Perhaps the most surprising element of the Dodgers’ success had to be Juan Uribe‘s out-of-nowhere 5.1 fWAR performance at the hot-corner, providing great defense and a shockingly competent bat.
All the while, the Dodgers’ starting pitching often made the offensive explosions look all but unnecessary. Behind a consistently dominant Kershaw, Greinke returned to throw 166.1 innings of 2.71 ERA ball and Korean lefty import Hyun-jin Ryu impressed in his first North American season with a 3.00 mark in 192 IP, coming fourth in the Rookie of the Year vote. The team’s starters overall posted a 3.13 ERA, the best in baseball, backed up by a 3.38 FIP that trailed only the Tigers and led the National League. In the bullpen, Kenley Jansen emerged from the darkness to grasp his birthright; the brass ring of the closing gig. He struck out over 33% of the batters he faced while only walking 8.5%, finishing his 76 IP on the season with a 1.99 FIP and looking unlikely to pass the ring back to a beleaguered Brandon League (see what I did there?) anytime soon.
It was nearly a Hollywood script as the Dodgers made the NL West their playground, storming to a 92-70 record on the season that included one of the best 50 game runs of the last 50 years, going 40-10 in a period ending mid-August, but there were bumps along the way. Up until League earned his final save of the year on June 15, he accumulated a 5.54 ERA, had blown four of his 18 chances and allowed opposing batters to tee off on him for an .831 OPS while only getting a measly 13 strikeouts in over 26 innings. He should consider himself luckier than a lottery winner that he signed that ridiculous contract, as he may have trouble getting a minor league deal if he continues to put up numbers like that. The Dodgers’ bullpen overall was a bit shaky behind Jansen and rookie relief sensation Paco Rodriguez, and I suppose any team that goes out and trades for Carlos Marmol and uses him to pitch in the majors is clearly not having a great year in the ‘pen.
The team’s roster construction, while impressive on paper, is very much a “Stars n’ Scrubs” approach to team-building, and the Dodgers’ showed their inability to weather the injury storm when it came for their top contributors. Their offensive failings in Ramirez’ absence and plenty of playing time going to sub-replacement players in Jerry Hairston, Skip Schumaker and Luis Cruz necessitated the incredible performances by Puig and the unbroken Hanley. It’s unrealistic to think the Dodgers could expect to repeat last year’s performance with their current levels of depth.
In the playoffs, the Dodgers rotation shone, as they boast one of the best collections of three starters in the sport, and they beat the Pirates for an NLDS title. But again, they showed their inability to bear the weight of injuries, as Ramirez didn’t quite look right after being hit in the ribs by a Joe Kelly 95 mph fastball in the NLCS and the rest of the offense failed to compensate for his absence. The Cardinals did what the Cardinals do and hit line drives all over the yard and the Dodgers were powerless to answer; their magical season came crashing down and it was back to the drawing board.
In 2014, the Dodgers can scarcely hope to see a season that much resembles their 2013. Uribe is not a 5 WAR player, they plan to gamble at second base with another Cuban defector with loud tools in Alexander Guerrero, and Ramirez and Puig are very likely to meet the mean regression wizards. A healthy Matt Kemp and possible value coming from the recent Dan Haren signing could compensate for some of that regression, but the Dodgers will need to find some more assured answers at their weaker positions around the diamond to hope for some sustained success. It wouldn’t surprise me, in light of Guerrero’s reported hamstring injury in the Dominican Winter League, if at the Winter Meetings the Dodgers attempted to bring in a keystone player on a trade or a one-year deal, or even make a big splash like signing Omar Infante or even Robinson Cano to a multi-year pact and trading Guerrero to other teams in need of 2B help like the Blue Jays or Orioles. The Dodgers could also look to shore up their bullpen and there are no shortage of promising available arms on both the FA market and via trade. Steve Delabar and Sergio Santos could be right-handed trade targets in the hypothetical Blue Jays trade, and lefties Manny Parra and Boone Logan are both available as Free Agents. The Dodgers’ roster construction promises to give them a lot of performance variance year-to-year, so fans need to hope for another big year from it’s superstars (luckily there are so many) if they want to make another run at a championship in 2014.