While the Dodgers enjoyed a first-round bye this week, the D-backs traveled to Milwaukee and stunned the National League Central champion Brewers in the Wild Card Series. The Brewers had an early 3-0 lead and ace Corbin Burnes on the mound in Game 1, only to have a young, feisty Arizona club roar back for a two-game sweep.
That just goes to show, anything can happen in a short postseason series. The National League Division Series is a best-of-five competition -- not best-of-three -- but the point still stands.
Arizona showed its resilience against Milwaukee this week in winning the franchise’s first playoff round -- not counting Wild Card Games -- since 2007. Now, here’s how these upstarts match up against the Dodgers, position by position.
A big question here is the status of D-backs catcher Gabriel Moreno, who exited Game 2 of the NL Wild Card Series on Wednesday night after being struck on the top of his helmet on a backswing by the Brewers’ Brice Turang. Arizona is hoping that Moreno can remain active for the NLDS, as the 23-year-old excels as a blocker and thrower from behind the plate while making enough contact to generate an above-average 104 OPS+ this season. He also smacked a huge homer in Game 1 against Milwaukee.
If Moreno can’t go, the D-backs have limited options. Backup Jose Herrera (.503 OPS in 88 MLB games) and veteran Juan Centeno (.601 OPS in 118 games) are also available, but neither would be expected to contribute much offensively. Dodgers All-Star Will Smith, in contrast, can be a force with the bat. Even if Moreno plays, Smith has the edge.
No suspense here: The pick is the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman, who just put together arguably the best season of his career at age 33. The seven-time All-Star batted .331/.410/.567 with a 161 OPS+ (his highest in a full season), an MLB-leading 59 doubles and 29 home runs. He even swiped a career-high 23 bases. Somehow, Freeman only seems to be getting better.
Arizona’s Christian Walker may not be in the same stratosphere as Freeman, but he shouldn’t be overlooked. Walker has missed just seven games over the past two seasons; in both, he bashed more than 30 homers and led Major League first basemen in outs above average defensively. And don’t forget, he’s a Clayton Kershaw nemesis (.735 SLG, 5 HR in 36 plate appearances).
If Mookie Betts were still just a right fielder for the Dodgers, then the advantage here would go to the D-backs. After all, Ketel Marte enjoyed a fantastic season for Arizona, posting nearly 5 WAR per Baseball Reference and raking from both sides of the plate (.828 OPS vs. righties, .879 vs. lefties).
But … Betts is not just a right fielder anymore. The freakishly talented NL MVP Award candidate started 62 games at second this season (plus 12 at shortstop), and that was his primary position in the second half. So while Betts might split his time over the course of the series, we’ll consider him a second baseman here -- and, obviously, a very good one. The position switch didn’t hurt his bat at all, with Betts posting a .996 OPS in his time at the keystone.
Evan Longoria was only the D-backs’ third-most used third baseman in 2023, but he started both games of the Wild Card Series and shined defensively. He looked relatively spry for a 16-year veteran who turns 38 on Saturday and has continued to handle lefties well in recent years, which couldn’t hurt against Kershaw.
Regardless of whether Longoria continues to start every day at the hot corner, the Dodgers have the edge here thanks to Max Muncy. No, the batting average isn’t pretty. But Muncy continues to grind out tough plate appearances, take his walks and punish mistakes. His 36 homers trailed only Betts among Dodgers in 2023.
Late in the season, the D-backs cut longtime shortstop Nick Ahmed and called up top prospect Jordan Lawlar. But Lawlar had a tough adjustment in limited time (4-for-31 in 14 games), and while he was on Arizona’s Wild Card Series roster, he didn’t play. Instead, Geraldo Perdomo started both games at short. A 2023 All-Star thanks to an unsustainably hot start, the 23-year-old Perdomo had just a .619 OPS in the second half, but he did rank in the 90th percentile or better this season in chase rate, whiff rate and walk rate.
The Dodgers were dealt a big blow back in Spring Training when Gavin Lux sustained a season-ending knee injury. In the aftermath, L.A. shortstops posted only a .664 OPS this season, with veteran Miguel Rojas getting most of the playing time. Given the rest of the Dodgers’ lineup, though, the club just needs Rojas to continue being a steady defender.
In the relatively brief history of the D-backs' franchise, David Peralta ranks third in games played (961), behind only Luis Gonzalez and Paul Goldschmidt. Now he is a playoff foe. Peralta’s first season with the Dodgers was a bit underwhelming, though, as he hit only .259/.294/.381. The Dodgers could also go with Chris Taylor here, although they have mostly used Peralta against right-handed pitchers.
Arizona’s Lourdes Gurriel Jr. also joined a new team this season, and he was a first-time All-Star before going through a midseason swoon. However, Gurriel slashed .294/.340/.500 over his final 52 games and has been a solidly above-average hitter throughout his career.
The same cannot be said of Dodgers rookie James Outman, who put together a terrific all-around season. Outman added value at the plate, on the bases and in the field, via Statcast’s run values, and the 26-year-old showed an ability to make adjustments. After a hot start gave way to a rough May and June, Outman recovered to bat .266/.387/.465 the rest of the way.
Let’s start by acknowledging that Jason Heyward has been a terrific story for the Dodgers in 2023. Cut loose by the Cubs last year after a couple of miserable final seasons in Chicago, Heyward came to L.A. on a Minor League deal and worked his way back to being a productive player, despite turning 34 in August.
But while Heyward enjoyed a fine season and commands a ton of respect in the game, there’s no comparison to the dynamic young talent that is Corbin Carroll. The presumptive NL Rookie of the Year Award winner authored a breathtaking 2023 that included an .868 OPS, 30 doubles, 10 triples, 25 homers and 54 steals.
Carroll showed out in the Wild Card Series, too, with four hits, two extra-base hits, two walks and three runs in two games. With Betts being considered at second base, this position is Carroll’s.
Tommy Pham didn’t quite keep up his 2023 pace after going from the Mets (.820 OPS) to the D-backs (.720) at the Trade Deadline. But with Pham, you always know you’re going to get a tough at-bat, thanks to his patience and pop (89th percentile in both chase rate and hard-hit rate).
J.D. Martinez has the higher offensive ceiling, however, and it was encouraging that he slashed .333/.371/.679 with eight homers and 25 RBIs in 21 games after returning from a groin injury in early September. He finished the season with 33 big flies and comes into this series with a tremendous postseason track record (.987 OPS, nine homers, 30 RBIs in 30 games).
The D-backs did themselves a huge favor by not only winning the Wild Card Series but also sweeping the Brewers, which allowed them to line up right-hander Merrill Kelly for NLDS Game 1 instead of burning him in a winner-take-all matchup with Milwaukee Arizona also catches a break in that the NLDS has off-days after Game 1, Game 2 and Game 4. Thanks to that, Kelly and Zac Gallen -- by far the club’s two best starters -- could pitch Games 1, 2, 4 and 5 (all on full rest), if the series goes that far.
And this is the biggest edge Arizona has, because Kelly (3.29 ERA in 30 starts) and Gallen (3.47 ERA in 34 starts) are the two most reliable starters in this series. Gallen, who delivered a solid outing in Game 2 at Milwaukee, is an NL Cy Young Award contender. The Dodgers’ rotation is not without potential thanks to the elite stuff of rookie Bobby Miller (who put together an impressive rookie campaign) and the experience and guile of Kershaw.
But this is probably the least robust group L.A. has carried into any of its recent playoff runs.
If Arizona hopes to get a lot of quality innings from Kelly and Gallen, L.A. enters this series with a completely different plan. It would not be a surprise if no Dodgers starter pitches into the sixth inning in the NLDS -- and the club can succeed that way thanks to a deep bullpen. Manager Dave Roberts will have options to use for both bulk innings (say, Ryan Yarbrough or rookie Emmet Sheehan) as well as a nasty collection of short relievers. Evan Phillips, Brusdar Graterol, Ryan Brasier and Shelby Miller were all lights out for the Dodgers this year.
Few people outside D-backs territory are going to be picking them in this series, but then again, the same was probably true in their last series. Make no mistake: There is a path to Arizona advancing to the NL Championship Series. It involves Kelly and Gallen taming the Dodgers’ potent offense with help from one of MLB’s best defenses, Carroll running wild and the whole lineup continuing to pop some well-timed long balls.
With that said, the prediction here is that the Dodgers’ bats and bullpen are too much. An overachieving Arizona squad finds a way to scratch out at least one win -- but Los Angeles moves on.
Dodgers in four