With one of the richest, deepest, most efficient organizations in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers appeared to be impervious to the yin and yang of baseball cycles. Yet in the wake of Corey Seager’s season-ending arm injury, this team has all the earmarks of a club that might go off the rails.
Seager’s injury could hardly be more ill-timed, for so many reasons. As it was, the Dodgers led the majors in one obscure metric: projected WAR currently on the disabled list. Justin Turner, Rich Hill, Tom Koehler, Yasiel Puig, Julio Urias and Logan Forsythe comprised a group that hardly had room for a player of Seager’s stature.
The news also comes one day after Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers’ rookie of the year first baseman, was pulled from a game by manager Dave Roberts for not hustling on a ball hit into Triples Alley at AT&T Park in San Francisco, though Roberts said his decision had to do with more than that one play. Even before Seager’s injury, frustration verged on boiling over in L.A.
Because of the injuries and the generally uninspired play, the Dodgers have been arguably the most disappointing team in baseball during the early going. The Dodgers had lost three straight to fall to three games under .500 going into Monday night’s game in Arizona against a Diamondbacks squad that already has built a seven-game bulge over the Dodgers in the National League West. With another Arizona win, Los Angeles would finish April seven or more games out of first place for the first time of the divisional era (since 1969), per ESPN Stats & Information data.
Yet, you figured that they had plenty of time to right the ship. Considering their play into November last fall, a slow start this season perhaps wasn’t surprising. But this is the deepest team. The smartest team. The most unassailable team. Well, they were those things until Monday evening, when the Dodgers’ press release announcing that Seager would be undergoing Tommy John surgery dropped into email in-boxes.
Seager’s elbow has been an issue since late last season, and there had been some talk last fall that he would undergo surgery to repair the problem. You can’t help but think that would have been the prudent course, though that’s easy to say in hindsight and through the prism of Monday’s news.
The Dodgers’ release flatly states that Seager is out for the season, so that’s that. As a position player, the recovery timeline for Seager should be shorter than it tends to be for pitchers who undergo Tommy John, though of course you can’t take that for granted either.
Seager might be just as irreplaceable for the Dodgers’ position-player group as the loss of Clayton Kershaw would be to the pitching staff. Seager's 12 WAR since coming into the majors ranks fourth among baseball’s group of historically good young shortstops. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, with Seager in the lineup during that span, the Dodgers have a .604 winning percentage and have averaged 4.7 runs per game. In 43 games without Seager, L.A.’s winning percentage sinks to .488 and the runs average to 4.1.
In the short term, the Dodgers will have to shuffle their position-player deck to cover for Seager’s absence. Center fielder Chris Taylor and utility player Enrique Hernandez figure to split time at short. Doing so has a cascading effect on Roberts’ lineups, with Taylor having become entrenched in the outfield. Joc Pederson could play more in center, and prospect Alex Verdugo, recently called up because of Puig’s ankle injury, could remain on the big league roster to play on the outfield corners.
Of course, none of it will matter if the Dodgers don’t start to play better. Among core position players, a group that includes Taylor, Forsythe, Puig, Turner (who has yet to play because of a hand injury) and Pederson, they have combined to produce 0.1 WAR so far this season. None of this even gets into the struggles of L.A.’s Kenley Jansen-led bullpen.
To put some numbers to the reconfigured, Seager-less depth chart, I zeroed him out of my system (MLBPET) and redistributed his playing time to Hernandez and Taylor, while reconfiguring the other positions as needed. Then I ran a fresh set of simulations. Consider that the first 27 games, with only 12 wins, already are in the books.
As of Monday morning, the Dodgers’ average win total in the simulations was 87.8, and their odds of making the postseason were at 52.5 percent -- down from 76 percent on Opening Day. Those updated forecasts? Los Angeles now is all the way down to an average of 85.1 wins in the simulations, with a 46.5 percent chance of making the playoffs. Egad.
As for the NL West race, things just get that much rosier for Arizona. The Diamondbacks currently have a 48 percent chance of winning the division. The Dodgers are at 29.2 percent.
That might be more pessimistic than other forecasts, but nevertheless, all of this will lead many to ponder outside options for the Dodgers. On top of that list has to be the Baltimore Orioles' Manny Machado, who could well be an L.A. target in the free-agent market after the season anyway.
L.A.’s prospect depth is very good, and if the Orioles recognize the need to reset that so many outside of Baltimore already do, it’s easy to see a trade matchup from a sheer talent-for-talent standpoint. But the Dodgers of recent vintage have been reluctant to dig too deeply into their prospect inventory.
The complicating factor in all of this is the Dodgers' desire to remain under the luxury tax threshold of $197 million in order to reset their overage taxes during the offseason and max out their chances of making a splash in the free-agent market. And of course, that biggest splash could well be the attempt to keep Kershaw in Dodger blue, with the ace lefty being able to opt out after the season.
According to Cots Contracts, the Dodgers have about $15.5 million under the threshold with which to work. Machado’s full-season salary is $16 million. The problem wouldn’t be making that number work; it would be to further augment the rotation and the bullpen later in the season, which the existing buffer under the threshold would allow them to do. So if someone the level of Machado is pursued, then the Dodgers would likely have to really sweeten the prospect payout in order to attach another contract in a prospective trade to free up some money.
The only other option, and it could be the one the Dodgers choose, would be to fill the Seager-size hole with internal options and perhaps the kind of canny, under-the-radar acquisition of another organization’s outcast that they’ve pulled off successfully in recent years. (See: Taylor.)
Still, none of this is how the 2018 Dodgers were designed, not for a campaign that could be Kershaw’s last with the franchise. The Dodgers were built to withstand anything -- except the loss of Kershaw and except the loss of Corey Seager. You can’t plan your way around a loss like this.
L.A. isn’t done, but the Dodgers suddenly find themselves in a role no one could have foreseen: underdogs.