The Dodgers have been Clayton Kershaw’s team for so long it’s hard to imagine a different player in such a role. (Matt Kemp? Manny Ramirez for a minute?) Kershaw’s claim is hard to argue; three Cy Young awards and a more than Hall of Fame worthy peak will do that for you. He’s probably the defining pitcher of the last 10 years. How many of us pitching nerds on the East Coast stayed up late to watch the lefty spin curveballs?
But his time as the most important Dodger is nearing an end. Time is undefeated, and it appears to be doing its unholy work on Kershaw’s left arm. That sucks not only for the Dodgers and their fans but for baseball overall. For all we know, Kershaw will be back in the regular season, back to his old tricks. But … there are reasons to be worried. Real worried. He’ll be getting an Ode to a Pitcher eventually, I promise.
However, a new face has emerged over the last few seasons, even if last year was unfortunate.
Corey Seager truly broke into the Major Leagues in 2016 and established himself as a star right away at the young age of 22, hitting to the tune of a 134 OPS+ and handling shortstop. There has been some concern whether Seager is too big for the position, and while he might eventually have to move, he’s been fine thus far in his young career.
Seager’s emergence came as no surprise, mind you — for example, he was MLB.com’s second-best prospect going into the 2015 season. That Dodger team went on to lose the curse-lifting Chicago Cubs.
Seager’s 2017 was roughly as good; 126 OPS+ and better defense if DRS is to be trusted. That Dodger team — led by Seager, Justin Turner and more — pushed all the way to the World Series but lost to the Houston Astros.
Going into 2018, Seager had established himself as one of the game’s premier shortstops, along with Francisco Lindor, Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts and a maybe a couple others, and had I written a Bill Simmons-esque “Trade Value” column a year ago, Seager could have cracked the top-10. Young shortstops with his kind of offensive capability are worth a lot. (Ask Manny Machado.)
He still would — even after a 2018 season marred by injuries, most notably Tommy John surgery and arthroscopic surgery on his left hip. Neither should inhibit him going forward, but the Dodgers are wisely being careful with him. He hasn’t appeared in a Spring Training game yet, in part due to an illness that has kept him away from camp.
The Dodgers are optimistic their young middle infielder will be ready for Opening Day. I’m not as concerned about that — if it’s a week later, whatever — but I am concerned about how good Seager can be in 2019. The Dodgers can absorb injuries to just about anyone — their flexibility, powered in part by Kiké Hernandez, is world-class. But a healthy Seager playing back at form reunites a strong left-side of the Dodger infield (with third baseman Turner) and gives them a strong offense, especially if Max Muncy mashes again. Plus, AJ Pollack and Cody Bellinger will provide power.
They’ll need to. If my fears come true and Kershaw misses extended time, the Dodger offense will need to carry the day. I like the Dodger pitching beyond their erstwhile ace — Walker Buehler could blossom into a top starter, Hyun-jin Ryu is underrated if fragile and Kenta Maeda could shine if placed in the rotation and left alone. But no one shrugs the off the loss of a future Hall of Famer near his peak. The Dodger offense will need to be good.
Fortunately, they certainly can be that — the 2018 offense was tied for the best in the sport along with the New York Yankees, boasting a 111 wRC+. They can score runs. They might need to score even more in 2019.
Dan Szymborski’s wonderful ZiPS projections for the Dodgers is optimistic about Seager: 4.6 wins above replacement, 116 OPS+. No, that offensive output wouldn’t be quite as good as what he did before, but there aren’t a lot of 4+-win shortstops in the league either. My concern is whether the hip injury will sap him of some power in the upcoming season. The elbow doesn’t worry me — but the lower-body injury does, and while power hasn’t been critical to Seager’s value, it all counts.
The Dodgers should be back in October, even if Kershaw and Seager both have rough seasons. The NL West is bad, and while the San Diego Padres might be frisky eventually, I doubt that starts this summer. But for the Dodgers, merely winning the NL West isn’t enough. Heck, reaching the World Series isn’t enough. For the Kershaw-era Dodger teams, the sand in the hourglass is running out.