It’s easy to forget, but there was a lot that didn’t go right for the Dodgers in 2021.
Remember what happened to the starting rotation: Dustin May got hurt, and so did Clayton Kershaw. Cole Hamels and Danny Duffy never showed up. Remember that Cody Bellinger played through multiple injuries and hit a miserable .165, and that Corey Seager broke his hand and missed half the year, and that Mookie Betts never seemed to get fully untracked due to a hip injury, and that the once-vaunted depth was stretched so thin that Stephen Souza Jr. and Billy McKinney were taking high-leverage plate appearances at important points.
Throw in the fact that the out-of-nowhere Giants won 107 games and put up far more of a fight than anyone expected, and it wasn’t at all the perfect season that so many thought the Dodgers were capable of.
They still, it should be noted, won 106 games. Woe is them, right?
And that -- as everyone celebrates the unexpected fact that Freddie Freeman will be wearing Dodger blue in 2022 and five years beyond -- is where our heads are at. Will the 2022 Dodgers and their ludicrous lineup post all-time historic numbers? Will they challenge all-time wins records?
Sure, maybe, if everything goes right. But the point here is that for as much value as Freeman brings, he’s joining a team that just won 106 games and now is without Seager. He’s joining a team that in 2019, the last full season, also won 106 games. In that abbreviated 60-game season in between? They were on a 116-win pace and won the World Series. It’s not that Freeman can’t or won’t improve the team, though his impact is a little more like replacing Seager’s departed bat than it is adding atop him. It’s that the floor here is so, so, so high.
So high, in fact, that the Dodgers basically did what was expected of them. On April 21, 2021, we wrote that Baseball Prospectus “pegged them at 104 wins before the season, and as of Tuesday, had them up to 106 wins.” Final record, nearly six months later: 106-56.
But what about the ceiling? If a team that had a lot go wrong – and, obviously, much more go right – could win 106 games, what will it look like if this is the kind of year where things actually go right?
Let’s try to find out.
That is, seasons are simulated thousands of times. The number you see isn’t the only number of wins generated, it’s just the midpoint – the 50th percentile – of many, many possible simulated futures, some extremely good, some terribly bad. (The Cubs, for example, are projected to win 76 games, but there are some versions that end with a 59-win season and some that end with a 93-win season. They’re not impossible, just not terribly likely.)
It’s a little easier to understand in this distribution chart that FanGraphs helpfully provides, showing all those possible outcomes. As you can see, most of the likely Dodgers seasons end at around 95 to 105 wins, because that’s the expectation: Some things will go wrong, some things will go right and the level of talent is such that the end result is so, so many wins.
But we’re not looking for likely outcomes; we’re here to turn some dials. If we think that Freeman (projected for 4.7 WAR) is roughly replacing Seager (coming off 3.7 WAR, projected for 5.0 WAR), then how many extra things have to go right to have a season that burns even brighter than last year?
More Trea Turner. It’s easy to forget now, coming as it was split across two teams, but it was Turner who led the Majors in WAR, not Vladimir Guerrero Jr., not Juan Soto, not Bryce Harper, not anyone else. He played in just 52 games after the trade from Washington, and he’ll likely be the everyday shortstop in Los Angeles this year. You can expect something like 400 additional plate appearances from him, which means (somewhat indirectly) about 400 fewer from the likes of Albert Pujols, McKinney, Zack McKinstry and so on.
Better Cody Bellinger. Not 2019 MVP-caliber Bellinger, of course, though if that happens, then we’re talking the 1927 Yankees here. (Maybe literally, as one researcher showed that the ’22 Dodgers and ’27 Yankees had similar career lineup stats entering those years.)
But consider that the Dodgers did win 106 games despite giving 350 plate appearances to a hitter who posted a .165/.240/.302 line. We know that he was almost never healthy, from the offseason shoulder surgery to in-season injuries to his calf, hamstring and rib. We saw some life come back into his bat in the postseason (.907 OPS) and at just 26, it’s hard to believe he’s anywhere close to finished. But to what extent is a rebound possible?
The various projection systems think he can be a three-win player, which would be by himself about four wins better than he was, again, on a team that won 106 games. There’s clearly a chance he doesn’t do that, maybe a big one. There’s a non-zero chance the MVP version is still in there, too, and we’re trying to find 90th percentile outcomes, aren’t we?
One more pitcher import. As talented as this team is, it still feels a pitcher short. Walker Buehler, Julio Urías and Clayton Kershaw make up quite the top three, of course, but they are still without Trevor Bauer, who remains on administrative leave that dates back to last July after he was accused of sexual assault. It's unclear when he will pitch again. Andrew Heaney may or may not be a successful reclamation project. Tony Gonsolin may or may not be a full-time starting pitcher. May may or may not return at full health, David Price may or … and so on.
There are no impactful starting pitchers remaining on the free-agent market. But the A’s are clearly open for business, and Frankie Montas (projected 3.2 WAR) or Sean Manaea (3.0) would certainly provide an upgrade to the Dodgers' rotation. So, too, would Luis Castillo (projected 3.7 WAR) or Tyler Mahle (2.7) if they could be extracted from Cincinnati’s overhaul; maybe there’s a way to get John Means (2.5) out of Baltimore.
Would that cost a lot? Well, sure. Maybe Gavin Lux no longer has a spot in the lineup. Maybe, also, they can afford it. At The Athletic, Keith Law recently rated the Dodgers as having the No. 1 farm system in the Majors -- of course -- saying "the Dodgers system is just ridiculous; they are hitting on every cylinder right now."
These are certainly pie-in-the-sky dreams, but that’s also the point. If you want to get to the rarified air of 110+ wins, to improve on a team that was already wildly good, you need to dream big and have lots of things go right. After all, being the overwhelming favorites entering the season doesn’t actually guarantee you anything. Remember, if you will again, the 2021 Dodgers won 106 games. They also finished in second place.