While the Dodgers were a championship-winning juggernaut in 2020, the Padres announced their presence as a viable challenger, both in the National League West and for MLB-wide supremacy. Los Angeles came out on top in the regular season and in their Division Series matchup, but San Diego showed that it’s here to stay.
And that was prior to the Padres’ splashy offseason maneuvering, which involved trading for not one but two ace-caliber starting pitchers (Yu Darvish, Blake Snell) -- plus a solid backup catcher (Victor Caratini) -- and signing an unproven (in MLB) but highly talented free agent in South Korean infielder Ha-Seong Kim.
With the Dodgers relatively quiet thus far, the gap between the two teams clearly has shrunk. In fact, by at least one notable measure, it may have disappeared entirely.
Over at FanGraphs, Dan Szymborski re-ran his ZiPS projections, taking into account those recent transactions. The result? A virtual tie atop the NL West between the Dodgers and Padres, who both are now projected to finish 98-64 -- 21 games clear of the third-place D-backs. If that seems like an usual projection, that’s because it is. According to Szymborski, ZiPS has never previously pegged the top two teams in any division for at least 196 combined victories.
Of course, the lack of daylight between the teams is subject to change, as this offseason is far from over.
While it’s never wise to count out frenetic Padres general manager A.J. Preller, any further Friars moves seem likely to be complementary in nature. As MLB.com Padres beat writer AJ Cassavell wrote, “With a fairly complete offense and rotation, Preller is almost certainly done making major splashes this winter.”
The Dodgers are a different story. The team’s most notable acquisition thus far is Corey Knebel, a high-upside reliever who nonetheless missed all of 2019 and had a 6.08 ERA in ‘20. Meanwhile, several key remembers of last year’s championship squad are free agents, including third baseman Justin Turner, outfielder Joc Pederson, utility man Enrique Hernández, and pitchers Pedro Báez, Jake McGee, Blake Treinen and Alex Wood.
The Dodgers certainly don’t have to do anything dramatic. They have a roster that remains studded with stars and a Minor League system that continues to churn out players capable of stepping in and contributing. L.A. could simply try to bring back Turner and otherwise add some pitching depth and bench help.
But with the Padres pushing them, that may not be enough to count on another division title, even if ZiPS still forecasts a 95% chance at some sort of playoff berth. To change that and regain a clear foothold atop the NL West, Andrew Friedman and company would need to do something to truly move the needle.
Here are five options, in no particular order:
1) Sign DJ LeMahieu
Re-signing Turner would be the sentimental choice, because of what he has meant to the team and the community. Plus, the guy can still play (.294/.378/.498 since 2019). But he’s also 36, with durability concerns and a glove that isn’t quite what it was. (Plus, we still don’t know if NL teams will have a DH in 2021). The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that there remains a gap between the four-year contract Turner wants and the two-year deal L.A. favors. Meanwhile, per that report, “LeMahieu sits atop the list of external options.”
It makes perfect sense. LeMahieu is somewhat similar to Turner, just four years younger. His right-handed bat would fit nicely alongside the likes of Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager and Max Muncy, his high-contact approach is a plus for any lineup, and he offers positional versatility. (LeMahieu played in 11 games at both corner-infield spots in 2020, while spending the majority of his time at second). While ZiPS conservatively projects LeMahieu for a 119 OPS+ in 2021 -- the same as Turner -- his edges in playing time and defense give him a notable advantage in WAR (4.2 to 2.7). LeMahieu would offer something like a two-win upgrade over internal third base options Edwin Ríos and Chris Taylor, with significant upside beyond that, based on his recent level of production in the Bronx.
2) Trade for a third baseman
There are some high-profile possibilities here, none more so than Nolan Arenado, the Rockies’ eight-time Gold Glove Award winner. The Dodgers have been connected to the Southern California native, with the Rockies facing a steep uphill battle toward contending in the near future. At the same time, the $199 million left on Arenado’s contract is among the complicating factors working against a deal.
Two other potential targets, according to the Times report, are Kris Bryant and Eugenio Suárez. Like Arenado, both players saw their production slide during an unusual 2020 season, but offer reasons for optimism moving forward. The Cubs, having just shipped Darvish to San Diego, may be amenable to sending Bryant out the door as well. Bryant, who turned 29 on Monday, is projected to make something in the neighborhood of $20 million this coming season, via arbitration, before reaching free agency. Suárez’s contact situation might hold more appeal, as he is owed roughly $47 million over the next four seasons. Plus, only Mike Trout has launched more homers than Suárez’s 98 since 2018.
3) Sign Liam Hendriks
It’s not easy to find weaknesses on the Dodgers’ roster, but the back of the bullpen might be one. Kenley Jansen no longer appears to be the lockdown closer he once was, it’s not clear if flamethrowing youngster Brusdar Graterol can miss enough bats to fill that role, and Knebel still has to prove he’s healthy and back to his 2017-18 form. Enter Hendriks, who is getting “strong interest” from L.A., according to FanSided’s Robert Murray. The righty has a strong case as MLB’s best reliever over the past two years, and his presence would give the Dodgers someone they can confidently deploy in the ninth inning in October, while taking some pressure off Jansen and others.
4) Sign Trevor Bauer
The Padres added two top-of-the-rotation arms. Will the Dodgers add one? Bauer is arguably the only free agent who fits that description, so landing him will not be easy. One significant issue is Bauer’s willingness to accept a short-term deal, something in which he has previously expressed interest. But that was before he entered the offseason as the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. It’s questionable whether the Dodgers would have the desire to outbid a team such as the Mets, but Bauer (projected by ZiPS at 4.2 WAR) would provide something like a 2-win gain, protecting against the uncertainty of David Price’s situation and allowing L.A. to exercise more caution with its young arms (Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin). Just imagine a top three of Bauer, Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw duking it out against Darvish, Snell and Dinelson Lamet.
5) Trade for Luis Castillo or Sonny Gray
If the Dodgers can’t sign a starter from the Reds, maybe they can trade for one. Cincinnati has moved to cut payroll so far this offseason, and both Castillo and Gray have been the subject of trade rumors. In fact, according to MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, “it seems inevitable that at least one will be moved.” While neither pitcher was quite Bauer’s caliber in 2020, their projections aren’t far off (3.9 WAR for Castillo, 3.3 for Gray). Unlike Bauer, acquiring one of this pair would require the Dodgers to part with young talent, but the financial commitment would be less extreme. Castillo is first-time arbitration eligible this winter and under control through the 2023 season, while Gray has two years and about $20.3 million left on his current deal, plus a $12 club option for ‘23. Either would provide a boost for the boys in blue.