Bradley’s Buzz: The downsized Dodgers are still pretty good

This was supposed to be the year the Dodgers throttled down. Trea Turner and Justin Turner signed elsewhere. Cody Bellinger, once an MVP, was non-tendered. Walker Buehler is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Payroll dipped from $270 million to $226M. It’s no longer the fattest in baseball – or even the National League West.

These weren’t the Dodgers of 2020 (World Series champs), or 2021 (106 wins) or last year (111 wins). They were ousted by San Diego in the division series last season, and the Padres – not for the first time – were declared the new power in the NL West. By lofty L.A. standards, this seemed its least imposing roster in five seasons if not 10.

Funny thing, though. This lessened bunch will begin a three-game series at Truist Park as the NL’s second-best team, trailing only the Braves.

For the first time in ages, the Dodgers have holes, plural. The great outfielder Mookie Betts has been pressed into service at shortstop and second base; only two years ago, L.A. had so many shortstops that the All-Star Turner played second out of deference to the All-Star Corey Seager. The latter is now a Ranger; the former works in Philly.

Gavin Lux, expected to be the next big-time Dodger infielder, tore his ACL in spring straining. Shortstop Miguel Rojas, acquired from the Marlins over the winter, missed time with a hamstring strain. A rotation without Buehler saw Julio Urias and Dustin May land on the injured list last week.

This is no longer the world’s deepest team, which isn’t to say it’s not a good team. Monday’s starter is scheduled to be hot prospect Gavin Stone. Tuesday’s starter will be hot prospect Bobby Miller. Rookie James Outman has started in every outfield spot.

Freddie Freeman has the fourth-highest offensive WAR among major leaguers. (Ronald Acuna has the highest.) Catcher Will Smith, who hit the home run off the Braves’ Will Smith that changed the 2020 NLCS, has an OPS of .975. Max Muncy, now a third baseman, is hitting .213 with an OPS of .906, which is why nobody worries about batting average anymore. Jason Heyward, Freeman’s former minor-league roommate, has become L.A.’s fourth outfielder.

The Dodgers lead the NL in runs. It’s the pitching that has been un-Dodger-like. Their bullpen ERA is the league’s second-worst. Their staff ERA is 4.29; over 162 games last season, it was a big-league best 2.80. Clayton Kershaw, who had a splendid April, has had a tougher May. The Dodgers just lost three of four in St. Louis, being outscored 32-23.

And yet: That was L.A.’s first series loss in a month. It took five of six over consecutive weekends versus the Padres, which is that vaunted club occupies fourth place in the West. The Dodgers took two of three from the Brewers, who lead the NL Central, and two of three from the Twins, who lead the AL Central. Dodger Blue is seldom seen as a scrappy overachiever, but this team might qualify.

At full capacity, the 2023 Braves look like a Dodger team of the past decade, which is the highest of compliments. The Braves have stars at most every position. For a couple of weeks, they had a fully functioning rotation. Then Max Fried and Kyle Wright landed on the IL.

The two years Alex Anthopoulos spent as assistant general manager in L.A. after he left Toronto in 2015 reset his approach to roster-building. The Dodgers landed Hernandez, who’d done next to nothing in the majors, in a six-player deal in 2014. They acquired Taylor from Seattle for Zach Lee, a pitcher who worked four big-league games. Muncy was cut by the A’s in 2017. Tony Gonsolin, who went 16-1 last season, was a ninth-round pick.

The Dodgers can pay any price for a free agent – we’re familiar with the Freeman saga – but the Andrew Friedman approach also includes scrounging. The invaluable reliever Brusdar Graterol came in a 2020 trade with Minnesota for starter Kenta Maeda, whom the Dodgers paid $3M to go away. They got Heyward, who signed with the Cubs in 2015 for $184M, on a minor-league deal.

MLB Pipeline rates Stone as its No. 44 prospect; Miller is No. 19. The Dodgers’ farm system is ranked baseball’s second-best. It’s not easy to make the playoffs 10 years running and still produce minor leaguers of consequence, but the Dodgers manage. On a streak of five consecutive division titles under Anthopoulos, the Braves just saw Michael Harris and Spencer Strider finish 1-2 in 2022 rookie of the year voting.

These are the National League’s two best teams. They’re also the two best organizations. They met in the postseasons of 2018, 2020 and 2021. They’ll probably see one another in October.

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