Thursday, May 26, 2022

Dodgers 2022 season preview: Projected lineup, rotation and three questions facing World Series favorites

It’s often cliché to write that the pennant “goes through” one city or another. Not so when it comes to the National League. The Dodgers have been such a force under Andrew Friedman’s guidance that the NL Championship Series has at least visited Los Angeles in five of the last six years (even if only in theory during the irregular 2020 playoffs). The Dodgers have won said pennant thrice in that span.

Can the Dodgers make it six of seven? On paper, they would seem to have a strong chance. This offseason was a busy one for Friedman and company, however, with several stars departing — starter Max Scherzer, shortstop Corey Seager, closer Kenley Jansen — and one notable star arriving, in first baseman Freddie Freeman.

For a feel on where the Dodgers stand, and what questions this club will have to answer, let’s get to the meat of our season preview.

Win total projection, odds

  • 2021 record: 106-56 (second in NL West; lost NLCS)
  • 2022 Sportsline projection: 110-52
  • World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook): +500

Projected lineup

  1. Mookie Betts, RF
  2. Trea Turner, SS
  3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
  4. Justin Turner, 3B
  5. Max Muncy, DH
  6. Will Smith, C
  7. Cody Bellinger, CF
  8. Chris Taylor, 2B
  9. AJ Pollock, LF

Last season’s Dodgers ranked fourth in runs scored and seventh in wRC+, a catch-all metric at FanGraphs that controls for ballpark, among other variables. This was already a good lineup, then, and Freeman’s addition means it shouldn’t suffer much if any slippage over Seager’s departure. Freeman is the only new face in the starting lineup, but it should be noted that the Dodgers bench could feature two newcomers, in platoon infielder Hanser Alberto and outfielder Kevin Pillar. (We wrote more about how good this lineup should be elsewhere.)

Projected rotation

  1. Walker Buehler, RHP
  2. Julio Urías, LHP
  3. Clayton Kershaw, LHP
  4. Andrew Heaney, LHP
  5. Tyler Anderson, LHP

The Dodgers spent most of their money on Freeman, but they spent most of their energy addressing their rotation. Trevor Bauer is expected to be suspended by the league at some point for the abuse allegations that were made against him last year, and both Dustin May and Danny Duffy continue to rehab from surgeries. That led the Dodgers to retain Kershaw as well as add middle-to-back-end options through free agency, in Heaney and Anderson. Tony Gonsolin, who started 13 games last season, can be found in the bullpen section. The Dodgers do have some young arms working their way through the system who merit watching, namely Ryan Pepiot and former first-round pick Bobby Miller.

Projected bullpen

The last time Kenley Jansen didn’t record a save for the Dodgers was the 2009 season. That’ll change this year, with Jansen having left for the Braves. Treinen, who enters the campaign with 79 career saves, figures to get the first shot at replacing Jansen. The Dodgers did add Hudson through free agency, and should be able to fold Tommy Kahnle and Jimmy Nelson into their plans after they’ve made a full recovery. (Same, likewise, for Duffy and Caleb Ferguson.) The Dodgers’ bullpen had the second-best ERA in baseball last season, so this group has large cleats to fill.

Now for three questions about the 2022 Dodgers.

1. Can Bellinger return to form?

In our estimation, the biggest question facing these Dodgers is what they get out of Cody Bellinger, the 2019 NL Most Valuable Player who was one of the worst players in the majors last season. That isn’t hyperbole, by the way: he had a 45 OPS+ in 350 trips to the plate, contributing to him being worth -1.5 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball-Reference’s calculations. Only four players finished with worse marks.

Comparatively, Bellinger did show some life in the postseason, albeit in a limited sample and not to his old standard. In 39 plate appearances, he batted .353/.436/.471 with a home run and a double. He still struck out 11 times, and it’s fair to write that the Dodgers would like more than a .118 ISO from him over the duration of a full season.

What’s most worrisome about Bellinger is that all his underlying measures went in the wrong direction, too. He didn’t hit the ball as hard or at as good an angle as frequently; he expanded the zone more often; he swung more often; he whiffed more often; both his strikeout and walk rates went the wrong way. Perhaps none of this is a surprise — you’re unlikely to be “unlucky” over that many repetitions — but we point that out just to say he’s in need of an overhaul.

Whether or not Bellinger will figure it all out and get back to making All-Star Games and challenging for offseason hardware is anyone’s guess. He’s only 26 years old, however, and it’s hard to believe that his talent simply evaporated into the night air.

What the Dodgers get from Bellinger will go a long way in determining not only their plans at the deadline, but what they intend to do heading into next offseason, at which point he’ll be about to enter his walk year.

2. What’s life after Jansen look like?

As we noted above, it’s been a long time since the Dodgers didn’t have Jansen nailing down the ninth inning. How might things differ this summer?

Our expectation is that Treinen will get the first opportunity at taking over the ninth-inning reins. He’s been in this position before, having notched 70 saves over a three-year period with the Athletics prior to joining the Dodgers. Treinen is coming off a phenomenal season, in which he posted a 1.99 ERA (206 ERA+) and a 3.40 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 72 innings, so the odds are he’ll be just fine.

Should Treinen falter, the Dodgers could turn to Hudson, a free-agent addition who has served as closer in the past, including in 2020 with the Nationals. Shy of that, Los Angeles could go to a committee approach until the trade market develops. At that point, all bets are off about who could be getting their save opportunities. 

Whatever the case, it’s possible to hold two opinions: that an elite end-game reliever, like a prime Jansen, is a valuable commodity; and that it’s not necessary in order to win a World Series. After all, the Braves just ousted the Dodgers and threw a championship parade with a closer who they’ve since usurped with Jansen. 

3. How much will Heaney, Anderson provide?

We noted in the rotation section that the uncertainty surrounding the Dodgers’ rotation meant that they had to sign Heaney and Anderson to bulk up their rotation. What, pray tell, do those two bring to the table?

Heaney, 30, had a horrible season that saw him post a 5.83 ERA (76 ERA+) in 129 innings split between the Angels and the Yankees. His main problem was home runs, as he yielded 29 in 30 appearances. He’s always been more prone to the gopher ball than the average bear, but this was beyond his normal threshold by a fair amount.

There’s ample reason to think the Dodgers should get more from Heaney than his 2021 effort, including regression to the mean and his innate attributes as a pitcher. He has a pure backspin fastball and three pitches that mirror one another’s spin; the Dodgers could well teach him a “sweeper,” or their speciality breaking ball, too, giving him more bat-missing ability.

Anderson, meanwhile, is fresh off a season in which he accumulated a 4.53 ERA (93 ERA+) in 31 starts with the Pirates and Mariners. He ranked in at least the 80th percentile or better in exit velocity against; walk rate; and chase rate. In other words, he suppressed quality of contact, threw strikes, and coerced batters to go fishing. That’s a good combination on paper.

If we had to guess, both will be league-average or thereabout starters. Scherzer they’re not, but that should be enough for the Dodgers to feel content with their rotation until they can find an upgrade, either on the free-agent market or internally, be it through May’s return to health or the further development of Pepiot or Miller.

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