Coming into 2017, the Dodgers have a nice mix of seasoned veterans and young talent, and we all know the names that will undoubtedly play big roles in how the Dodgers fare next year. Guys like Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, and Adrián González will need to bring their usual game and continue to perform at a high level. Young players like Corey Seager, Julio Urias, and Joc Pederson must continue developing and improving as they learn from their experience.
But there will be other players who will play a significant role in the Dodgers success or failure in 2017, so called “under the radar” type guys whose performance next season may be more essential then some realize.
Toles came out of nowhere last year and produced very well down the stretch for the Dodgers. He slashed .314/.365/.505 in 115 PA and swatted 3 homeruns. Coming into next year, it’s not entirely clear how the Dodgers will utilize Toles, but his production should definitely give Dave Roberts incentive to give him an extended look.
Toles should have a legitimate shot to earn the starting job in left field this year. On the other hand, the Dodgers could be content with platooning him against right-handed pitching, as was the case last season. With only 13 ABs against LHP in 2016, Toles didn’t exactly get an extended opportunity to prove that he can hit them and the assumption that he can’t would seem a little premature. But will Roberts give him that opportunity this year?
He’ll have plenty of completion in a crowded Dodgers outfield, with the return of Andre Ethier, Trayce Thompson, and Scott Van Slyke from injury. Yasiel Puig is still a Dodger for now, and if it stays that way, it’s hard to imagine him not holding down the right field duties. That would give the Dodgers plenty of options in left, but Toles may have the inside track given his strong 2016 showcase.
In addition to his offense, Toles also has a cannon for an arm, which he displayed multiple times last year as he had 3 outfield assists in only 204 innings. And Toles has speed, an attribute that has been missing from the Dodgers lineup ever since Dee Gordon was traded. Some believe Toles has all the tools to be an effective leadoff hitter, although he may need to work on his patience at the plate a bit more.
Either way, at the very least, expect Toles to be a key piece for the Dodgers in 2017, similarly to last year. At the most, he may be a significant everyday contributor with room for growth.
As mentioned, Thompson will be returning from a back injury that sidelined him for over half the season last year. After starting the year off hot, Thompson began to slump mightily before being placed on the DL, but his decline may be directly attributed to his injury. Assuming he’s fully healthy in 2017, Thompson could be an interesting player to watch this upcoming season.
In his first 200 ABs, Thompson clubbed 12 homeruns and was among the team’s leaders in that category up until his injury. Average that ratio out through an entire season (appox. 500 ABs) and he’d be a 30 homerun guy. Of course, that’s assuming he’d keep that pace, which may not be sustainable. But still, the offensive potential seems to be there for Thompson, and the Dodgers could use a big right-handed bat in the lineup, as rumor has it they struggled just a tad against LHP last year.
To prove that the beginning of 2016 wasn’t a fluke, Thompson will need to make the necessary adjustments as the season goes on, and entering only his 3rd year in the Majors, he still has plenty of room to improve. He showed the ability to play all three outfield positions, although he didn’t look nearly as comfortable in center. He’s a great athlete, and like Toles, has a good arm and above average speed.
Also similarly to Toles, there’s no guarantee on how the Dodgers plan to use Thompson. In the aforementioned crowded outfield, it currently has all the looks of a possible platoon situation, which could still figure to give Thompson plenty of ABs. But if he can somehow replicate, or even improve on his early success from last year, Thompson could force the Dodgers hand for more playing time, and perhaps make others, like Yasiel Puig, seem more expendable.
One of the most intriguing players coming into the 2017 season, Alex Wood has no defined role with the Dodgers just yet. It’s hard to imagine, however, that the team won’t have some sort of plan for Wood this upcoming year.
“Coming off of injury last year” seems like a phrase that you can apply to many Dodgers players this season, and Wood is no different. In late May, he went down with an elbow injury, and eventually had a procedure in July that caused him to miss the majority of the season. He returned for a few relief appearances at the end of September, and should be fine for spring training.
Wood has put up decent numbers since coming over to the Dodgers at the 2015 trading deadline, however, he’s yet to duplicate the success he had in 2014, when he posted a 2.78 ERA and 1.142 WHIP for Atlanta. When he’s on, he can be pretty nasty, and at 25 years old, there still seems to be some upside with Wood. The question for the Dodgers is where exactly he fits on the team going into 2017.
With Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, and Julio Urias presumably a lock for the first four spots, Wood is just one of many options the Dodgers have to fill out their starting rotation. Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, and Hyun-Jin Ryu will be vying for that spot as well. Young guys like Jose De Leon, Brock Stewart and Ross Stripling all filled in admirably last year and may also get a look. And even if some trades are made before the season starts that clear some of these guys out, the 5th spot in the rotation is no guarantee for anyone.
But even if Wood doesn’t end up starting, some have suggested a role in the bullpen may be the better fit anyway. The Dodgers have a left-handed heavy starting rotation already, and they may prefer to have another lefty reliever. Moreover, with the importance of a team’s bullpen becoming more and more apparent, and with so many other options to fill out the rotation, perhaps Wood could be of more service as a middle reliever. It may give him another tick or two on his fastball, and with his deceptive delivery, Wood could be a real asset out of the pen.
Whatever his role, expect Wood to be a significant piece for the Dodgers next season.
The return of Kenley Jansen solidified the back end of the bullpen but the Dodgers are still piecing together the rest of their reliever core for next season. One guy that will certainly be in the mix is Adam Liberatore, who showed some great promise last year.
It was really the tale of two halves for Liberatore in 2016. Through the first half of the year, he was as dominating as ever, posting a 0.61 ERA, with opposing hitters only batting .153 against him. He developed into a common go-to guy for Dave Roberts, and along with Joe Blanton, was one of the primary setup men in the late innings. He even set the Dodgers franchise record for most consecutive scoreless appearances (24) back in early July.
But things began to unravel for Liberatore, and he was just as bad in the second half of the year, as he was great in the first. His ERA skyrocketed to 9.45 in the second half, and by the end of the year, he had lost his role as the primary lefty reliever to Grant Dayton. He was eventually shut down altogether, and had to have a procedure on his elbow back in October.
Whether it was an injury, fatigue, or a combination of both, Liberatore sure didn’t appear to be the same pitcher at the end of the year. But if he can bounce back in 2017, and return to his first half form, it could be a big boost for the Dodgers bullpen. When he’s at his best, he can be extremely tough on lefties, who hit only .200 against him for his career.
It’ll be hard to tell how much Dave Roberts will trust Liberatore to start the year, but it’s certainly conceivable that he could regain his 7th/8th inning setup role sometime during the season. The Dodgers will need to find a way to bridge the gap to Jansen, and for half a year, no one was better at that than Adam Liberatore.
The definition of a “hot & cold” player, Grandal was both frustrating and thrilling to watch last year. At times, he seemed locked in, like in the month of July where he hit .324/.439/.691 with 8 homeruns. Other times, he looked lost at the plate, like in May when his line was .114/.192/.271 with 3 homers.
Although a little more consistency would be nice, the Dodgers would probably still take the same exact Grandal they’ve had the previous two years. He may have his downfalls, like a low BA (.228 in 2016 and .238 for his career) and high strikeout rate (over 25%) but he also has some positive attributes. He gets on base at a decent rate, hits for power and is considered by many to be one of the best pitch-framing catchers in the game.
Another aspect that many fail to realize, is that a good offensive catcher is usually a bonus. It’s a demanding position and most teams would be content with a good defending catcher who calls a good game, has chemistry with their pitching staff and someone they can throw in the 8th spot in the lineup. Grandal offers more than that. His 27 homeruns were 2nd among all ML catchers last year, his 122 wRC was good for 3rd highest at his position, and only four catchers had a higher WAR than Grandal’s 2.9.
But again, at times, Grandal really struggled. In his prolonged slumps, it seemed like he couldn’t hit a beach ball if it were thrown to him. And if that beach ball was a curve thrown in the dirt, he’d definitely swing and miss.
Austin Barnes will likely be serving as the primary backup to Grandal this season. The Dodgers would like to see what they have with Barnes, and he may make it easier to provide Grandal with more rest days throughout the season. He also provides more of a threat than A.J Ellis or Carlos Ruiz to Grandal’s playing time if he struggles.
If Grandal can make even some minor improvements to his game and find a bit of consistency, he could make the Dodgers offense that much more threatening. He’s already a key asset, both offensively and defensively, but any improvements could really boost the club’s chances in 2017.