The Dodgers have won the National League West for a franchise-record four consecutive years, and they managed to retain all three of their big free agents in Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner and Rich Hill this offseason. Toss in the fact that they can expect a lot more out of talented
The Dodgers have won the National League West for a franchise-record four consecutive years, and they managed to retain all three of their big free agents in Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner and Rich Hill this offseason. Toss in the fact that they can expect a lot more out of talented lefties Clayton Kershaw, Hill and Julio Urias, who combined to make just 42 starts for Los Angeles in 2016, and it shouldn't be all that surprising that they're favored to win the division for a fifth straight year in 2017.
But what if that's not all? Could they be positioned to be the best regular-season team in the Majors in 2017? No, we can't see the future. And no, we didn't forget the Cubs exist. But if you look at the current projections, which are a combination of Steamer data and playing time expectations, you'll see something fascinating at the top: Dodgers, 95 wins. Cubs, 94 wins. Red Sox, 93 wins. You can probably ignore the one-win difference, which isn't exact, and just say "the Dodgers may be as good," not necessarily better. Even that statement ought to open some eyes.
A word on projections: They aren't predictions. Injuries will happen, unexpected breakouts will occur and luck will play a role. You'll probably like them if they say good things about your favorite team, and you won't if they don't. "But we had 103 wins, beat L.A. in the NLCS and have a ring," Cubs fans are already protesting, and they're justified in doing so.
So what we're doing here is less about saying that the Dodgers will be better than the Cubs, and explaining why the projections suggest they could be better.
Let's see where each team is favored. (As you read this, keep in mind that two wins above replacement is league average, four is All-Star, and six-plus is elite star. FanGraphs' version of WAR is used in this article.)
Los Angeles looks to have pretty clear edges at three positions, though it's important to remember that entire starting rotations are worth far more than any individual on-field position.
Shortstop (Dodgers 5.2 WAR, Cubs 3.6 WAR)
This is no slight towards the slick-fielding Addison Russell, projected for another above-average season of more than three wins, but Corey Seager (projected five wins due to lack of track record, even though he put up 7.5 WAR in 2016) was the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year Award winner and finished third in the NL MVP Award voting. He's probably the best all-around shortstop in the game, and he's not even 23 yet.
Center field (Dodgers, 3.9, Cubs 1.2)
This would have looked a lot different with William Fowler still in Chicago, because even though Jonathan Jay and Albert Almora Jr. each have their merits, it's difficult to see them combining to provide the value Fowler did. This is probably the weakest part of a very good Cubs team, and the one-win projection here falls short compared to the four wins Joc Pederson and friends project for.
Starting pitchers (Dodgers 21.3, Cubs 17.4)
This might easily be the most controversial edge, as the Dodgers (21 WAR) push ahead of the Cubs (17 WAR). This basically comes down to two things, the first being that Kershaw (nearly eight wins) is easily the best starter in the Majors, and the second being that while the Cubs have four starters projected at three wins or higher, the Dodgers have five at two or higher.
First base (Cubs 4.9, Dodgers 1.5)
This is an easy and non-controversial edge, because Anthony Rizzo (projected for nearly five wins) is by far expected to do better than the declining Adrian Gonzalez, entering his age-35 season coming off a career-low .435 slugging percentage.
Second base, for now (Cubs 3.1, Dodgers 1.7)
File this under "most likely to change," because while Benjamin Zobrist, Baez and Thomas La Stella are projected to be twice as valuable as Enrique Hernandez and Chris Taylor, the odds that the Dodgers actually enter 2017 without upgrading at the keystone are low. Adding James Dozier remains the most obvious move, and if that happens, the Dodgers would at the least make this a tie -- and might push ahead here.
Third base (Cubs 5.7, Dodgers 3.9)
Kristopher Bryant collected 29 of 30 first-place votes while winning the NL MVP Award and is one of the brightest young stars in baseball, so the fact that the Cubs' third basemen outproject the Dodgers' third basemen six wins to four makes sense enough. But the gap here isn't as large as you'd think, simply because Turner (.283/.352/.492 over the past two years) is a star as well, one who's been nearly as productive as Bryant (.284/.377/.522) in 2015-16.
Left field (Cubs 3.0, Dodgers 1.6)
Left is easily the most difficult position to project, just because each team has so much uncertainty. The Cubs have a three-win projection as compared to the win-and-a-half the Dodgers get, because the projections do believe in Kyle Schwarber's bat a lot more than they believe in Alvin Toles or Andre Ethier being productive. But will Schwarber's knee and defense allow him to play enough to get 500 plate appearances?
The projections see the two clubs as being being relatively even at three positions. (Keep in mind that tenths of points of WAR aren't very significant.)
Catcher (Dodgers 3.6, Cubs 3.1)
Dodgers catchers (primarily Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes) are projected to collect 3.6 WAR, which is just about the same as the 3.1 WAR Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero (plus a very small amount of Schwarber) the Cubs are expected to get. These numbers don't include framing skill, but Grandal, Montero and Contreras have all shown themselves to be good at it, especially Grandal.
Right field (Cubs 3.5, Dodgers 3.2)
It's actually extremely satisfying that both teams look similar here, because both are currently relying on talented players coming off extremely disappointing seasons. Both Jason Heyward (projected for a .269/.348/.416 line) and Yasiel Puig (.284/.351/.481) would need to rebound to get to the roughly three-win projections put upon them; both teams have plenty of depth to support them if they don't.
Relief pitchers (Dodgers 6.0, Cubs 5.5)
Los Angeles' bullpen was quietly very good last year, and it outperformed the Cubs in both ERA and FIP, and of course Chicago no longer has Albertin Chapman. Wade Davis is a more than able replacement, obviously, though he comes with some questions about the health of his arm. Mostly, this is about the fact that Jansen (2.4 WAR) is easily the highest-projected reliever of either group, which makes sense, and that the projections love Grant Dayton, who whiffed 39 in his first 26 1/3 Major League innings.
So are the Dodgers better than the Cubs? No, not until they prove it on the field. But as you can see here, there is plenty of reason to believe that can do just that.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com.