The Dodgers are a well run, expensive team led by a lethal pair of starting pitchers, one of whom the Pirates will face on Friday.
POSITION PLAYERS: .254/.329/.425. 20.3 fWAR, second in the National League. This is a strong, balanced group. Adrian Gonzalez and Joc Pederson have both captured attention at various points this season, but factoring in defense and full-year performance, the Dodgers' lineup hasn't featured any MVP-type seasons.
Instead, they've gotten good years from several players, including some unexpected ones. Yasmani Grandal (pictured), who arrived in the Matt Kemp trade last offseason, has long been an underrated catcher thanks to his pitch framing, but this year he's been revelatory. Justin Turner is in the midst of a second straight great season as the Dodgers' third baseman, although the Pirates will miss him this series due to an infected pimple. (Yes, really.) And Andre Ethier has had a very good bounce-back year. There hasn't been much deadweight on the Dodgers' roster, either. Veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins has come close to that fate, but lately he's recovered somewhat, with solid hitting in July and August.
PITCHING: 3.34 ERA, 3.29 FIP, 3.26 xFIP. 15.8 fWAR, second in the National League. The Dodgers also rank second in the majors in ground ball percentage, behind only the Pirates. Despite some amply publicized issues with injuries, the Dodgers' pitching staff is as tough as anyone's. It starts, of course, with Zack Greinke (who the Pirates fortunately will miss) and Friday's starter, Clayton Kershaw, whose matchup with Gerrit Cole on Friday will be must-see TV.
With apologies to Greinke and Max Scherzer, Kershaw remains the best pitcher in baseball. Remember in late May, Kershaw had a 4.32 ERA and looked like he might actually be human? As it turned out, his line to that point was largely the result of a very high BABIP and HR/FB%. His periperhal numbers were fine -- he'd recorded at least eight strikeouts in six of his nine starts to that point. Some of the problem was what Kershaw called "pitch execution" -- basically, occasionally serving up meatballs. Since then, he's made adjustments and gotten back in luck's good graces, and he has a 1.10 ERA and 119 strikeouts over his last 12 starts.
Saturday and Sunday's matchups aren't as tough, but they aren't by any means easy. Saturday starter Mat Latos got off to a slow start this season and has a pedestrian 4.29 ERA overall, but his peripheral numbers are better than that. He's also thrown harder and performed much better since missing a few weeks in May and June with a knee injury. And Alex Wood (who came to Los Angeles in the same massive 13-player trade that brought Latos) has been a steady performer all season and shut down the Pirates for 7.1 innings back on June 28, when he was with the Braves.
Closer Kenley Jansen remains one of baseball's best relievers. His 2.93 ERA, while fine, is nothing to write home about, but his 16.3 K/9 is off the charts, and his numbers are skewed by the five home runs he's allowed. Pedro Baez, J.P. Howell and Juan Nicasio form a good supporting cast (although Nicasio struggles with walks), and the bullpen also includes Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan, who arrived in the same trade that brought Latos and Wood. 39-year-old Joel Peralta, whose numbers are way off compared to his last three years with the Rays, is the bullpen's weak link.
OUTLOOK: This team is good. The Dodgers are rich and they're intelligently constructed, and they're deep and flexible. Under Andrew Friedman and GM Farhan Zaidi, the Dodgers have spent, but they haven't used their money like many rich teams do.
For example, another big-market team, the Red Sox, signed Pablo Sandoval and former Dodger Hanley Ramirez last offseason. Both ranked in the top five in the last update of the 2014-15 Free Agent Power Rankings. That's prototypical big-market behavior -- you have money, so you go get the best players, or whoever the best players are supposed to be. Of course, having Sandoval and Ramirez on the same team doesn't really make sense, and you're just begging for trouble defensively when you acquire them both. Both those players have been well below replacement value this year, and the Red Sox are suffering through a mediocre season.
Not only did the Dodgers not re-sign Ramirez, they didn't sign anyone else in MLBTR's top 10, and they also traded a big-name player, Matt Kemp, to the Padres. Kemp, like Ramirez, was a square-peg type of player and a weak defender whose reputation far outstripped his actual production. The Padres, like the Red Sox, spent their offseason acquiring just those sorts of players, and also like the Red Sox, they're paying the price.
The Dodgers didn't do that, and so their roster heading into the 2015 season was a bit more anonymous than usual, featuring Grandal, Rollins, Howie Kendrick, Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy and Brandon Beachy as key offseason acquisitions. The Dodgers were previously a money-driven organization, but they were becoming an analytically driven organization that happened to have money. Predictably, that transformation, and some of Friedman and Zaidi's moves, led to consternation from some of the more clueless members of the L.A. media. And, to be fair, not all those moves worked. In retrospect, effectively trading Dee Gordon for Enrique Hernandez and one year of Kendrick might not have been the best idea, as helpful as Hernandez and Kendrick have been this year.
But a lot of those moves did work. Friedman and Zaidi were building an actual organization rather than just acquiring guys who Yahoo! will pick in the third round if you let it autodraft your fantasy team. Grandal, for example, was a highly underrated player in San Diego who has blossomed into something much more than that. And Anderson was never a star, but the ground balls he induced in between injuries showed that he could be a real impact if he could just stay healthy. This year, he has. Of course it helps that Friedman inherited talents like Kershaw, Greinke, Jansen, Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig, but the Dodgers are building a sleek collection of complementary players now too, and they're acquiring them without regard for whether the local columnists are going to like them.
At the same time, the Dodgers haven't been cheap. They signed Hector Olivera (who has since been traded) for $62.5 million in May, they signed McCarthy to a four-year deal, and they've happily eaten salary to facilitate trades. The Dodgers' philosophy hasn't been about cutting budgets. It's been about assembling the best team possible.
For a baseball team, money can be a double-edged sword. You're happy to have it, but once you have a lot, it's hard to spend efficiently. Each additional dollar you have is tougher to spend well than the last. Many of baseball's best players are young and cheap; many seven-figure contracts start to look bad almost immediately after they're signed. And the most expensive, or most obvious, solution to a problem frequently isn't the best one.
Obviously, it's better to have a big budget than a small one. But big budgets create obvious pitfalls. The Dodgers aren't baseball's best team, and it's way too early to say they're baseball's best run team, but there aren't many big-budget teams currently doing better jobs avoiding those pitfalls.