As the calendar turns to September, the Dodgers enter the home stretch of the season with very few major concerns. Yeah, they’ve hit a bit of a snag recently, losing their last five games, but they still own a 16 game lead in the N.L West and lead the Washington Nationals by 10.5 games for the best record in the league.
The Dodgers are certainly going to win the division. Barring some sort of epic collapse, they’ll also end up with the best record in baseball, giving them home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They’ve ridden a historic run during the regular season and enter September set up pretty nice.
So, while other teams are battling tooth and nail for playoff berths and division crowns, the Dodgers can play peaceful, stress-free baseball (if there is such a thing.) They won’t necessarily be kicking up their feet and relaxing for the last month’s worth of games, but their big cushion will allow them to focus more on addressing specific issues rather than simply worrying about wins and losses.
Below are five areas the Dodgers will be monitoring closely in September, with the ultimate goal of being 100% ready for the post season.
Clayton Kershaw’s Health
Hey, remember Clayton Kershaw? Not that it would be easy to forget the best pitcher on the planet or anything, but he could have slipped some people’s mind given the fact that the Dodgers didn’t seem to miss a beat without him. Either way… yeah, that Kershaw guy is coming back.
After almost six weeks on the DL, Kershaw will make his return this Friday against the San Diego Padres. This was his 2nd time on the DL for a bad back over the last two years, and Dodgers fans may be getting a little uneasy about whether this injury could be a constant or recurring one. This time around, it didn’t appear to be as serious as last year, and the Dodgers likely erred on the side of caution with his return timetable. Still, Kershaw’s health will be a concern until he shows that he’s fully recovered from this latest injury, and he can finish the regular season strong without a setback.
It’s probably safe to assume the Dodgers will be careful with their ace going forward. With not much to play for in September, don’t expect Kershaw to be racking up high pitch counts or going deep into games during his final starts. Though the Dodgers were able to play well while he was sidelined, a 100% healthy Clayton Kershaw is an absolute priority going into October.
September Roster Additions
On September 1st, rosters will expand to 40 players. For a team like the Dodgers, who love to maximize their depth, this expansion will help in various aspects.
First and foremost, it will allow them to give players a needed rest for the stretch run. The Dodgers will likely be wrapping up the division and home field advantage sooner rather than later. Once that happens, there really won’t be much to play for going forward. The Giants aren’t even in playoff contention, so eliminating them is off the table too.
Affording their normal starters extra rest will be a benefit the Dodgers will certainly take advantage of.
Moreover, the added roster space will also give the team a chance to look closely at some players who could be battling it out for post season roster spots. Long-time Dodger Andre Ethier will be making his season debut from a season-long injury. Will he be anywhere close to the same player he was for so many years with the club? And where does he fit in on this team?
Highly-touted prospect Alex Verdugo will be called up on the 1st, and Walker Buehler might be September addition as well. Could either player flash enough potential to make the Dodgers consider using them on the post season roster?
Joc Pederson should also make a return to the Dodgers in September. How will he be used now after his struggles, and will he ever regain a starting role?
These are all questions that will be answered over the next month, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Starting Lineup Battles (Gonzalez vs. Granderson vs. Forsythe)
As stated already, with roster expansion and added rest for players, the Dodgers are probably going to have a pretty fluid lineup over the final month of the season. But make no mistake about it; come playoff time, the team will need to decide how they want to proceed with one particular starting spot, and with Cody Bellinger’s return, the three players mentioned above could be competing for it.
Whether due to injury or just age, there’s no hiding Adrian Gonzalez’s offensive decline this year. His .623 OPS is easily a career low, and being that Bellinger is a natural 1st baseman, it would make sense for him to return there and allow Gonzalez to come off the bench.
However, Bellinger can also play in the outfield. If Gonzalez ever found his previous form, the Dodgers could move Cody back to left field and sit the newly acquired Curtis Granderson. Since coming over to the Dodgers, Granderson connected on a couple of big home runs, but overall, he’s only 5-37 (.135) with 14 strikeouts. He’s slashing .219/.333/.479 on the year.
Another option would be to keep both Gonzalez and Granderson in the lineup (at least against RHP) and have some sort of platoon with Logan Forsythe, who has pronounced lefty/righty splits. However, that would require moving Chris Taylor to 2nd base and playing Granderson in center, something the Dodgers may not be keen on doing. Today was the first time the Dodgers started Granderson there, and they probably don’t consider that their best defensive alignment.
Whatever they decide, the Dodgers will have the entire month of September to figure it out.
Prioritizing the Starting Rotation
By the end of the week, Kershaw and Wood should both be back, and they’ll join Yu Darvish, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, and Hyun-Jin Ryu in the starting rotation. That will once again give the Dodgers six arms to choose from. They’ve basically rotated their pitchers on/off the DL all year, but with a month left to play in the regular season, it may be time to get their guys into a routine, which means they’ll have to make some tough decisions in the near future.
The recent success of both Ryu and Maeda has made the starting rotation an interesting competition. Ryu had a stinker against the Diamondbacks this week, but before that, he had posted a 2.12 ERA over his last nine starts (a span of 2 ½ months.) Over that same time-frame, Maeda has a 2.77 ERA. Both have pitched much better and more consistently than they did in the first half of the year.
If the playoffs started today, it still seems likely the Dodgers would go with a Kershaw-Darvish-Wood-Hill playoff rotation. A lot can change in a month though, and what the team sees in September could play a big factor in their October plans.
Finding Their Lefty Reliever(s)
This one may be a more important decision than the starting rotation, and an even more wide-open race. It appears the Dodgers will go forward with Tony Watson, Tony Cingrani, and Luis Avilan as their left-handed relief options out of the bullpen. All have had some struggles this year, but each has been effective at times as well.
Another wild card in this equation is Adam Liberatore, who is currently out on a rehab assignment and trying to work his way back from a forearm injury. If he can return healthy, he’ll give the Dodgers another option.
Matchups in a post season series can be huge. The importance of having a LH relief pitcher that you can trust in a key situation cannot be understated. One of these guys will have to be that person for the Dodgers. Surely, each player will get ample opportunities over the final month to prove himself, and whoever performs the best will probably have the inside track on a playoff roster spot.
Here’s how I would currently rank them.
Assuming Liberatore can come back healthy, I’d bump him up to #1 or #2, but that may be assuming a lot. The Dodgers will definitely keep two of these guys on their playoff roster, and possibly even three. How they’ll be utilized is the big question.
This final month of the season should be fun to watch. It may not be a heated pennant race or division title up for grabs, but the Dodgers will have plenty of interesting story lines to watch in September. You might even call it “peaceful, stress-free baseball”… or not.