Hey there! Since I haven’t actually written much on the defending World Series champions this year, I thought I’d throw down some of the stuff that’s been percolating inside my head about the 2021 Dodgers ahead of Thursday’s Opening Day. Let’s start with the position players. (Note: Some of these thoughts materialized during the chats we’ve had on Clubhouse.)
- I’m all in on Corey Seager. It has all come together for him, with pitchers backpedaling to adjust, and all that stands between him and a monster year is health. And even as his value skyrockets, I see Seager as a cornerstone that the Dodgers won’t let get away when he becomes a free agent in November.
- Easiest prediction: The batting stance Cody Bellinger starts the season with will not be the batting stance he ends the season with. It’s extraordinary to think that the 2019 National League MVP might only be the fourth-best hitter in the Dodger lineup. And yet just as extraordinary that if it all comes together for him, he could wind up being the best again. Either way, the Dodgers are so deep that Bellinger can feel his way back into the groove without too much finger-pointing.
- Will Smith enters 2021 with an outrageous career .937 OPS, though there’s a sense Austin Barnes is light-years ahead of Smith defensively, including pitch framing. While Barnes has earned every bit of that confidence, I talked Tuesday night on Clubhouse how Smith’s defensive reputation took a hit in large part because of the disastrous ending to Game 4 of the World Series. Smith should be more than adequate behind the plate in 2021. At the same time, still expect Barnes to catch at least a third of the time, if for no other reason than to make sure Smith has energy in his bat come October. Remember, until last season, Dodger catchers had become hopeless at the plate in recent playoffs.
- Zack McKinstry is capable of replacing Kiké Hernández’s overrated regular season offense over the past two seasons (.707 OPS, 86 OPS+), and should do a decent job approaching Hernandez’s underrated defense. The bigger question: Will McKinstry be a threat at the plate in October?
- Matt Beaty has an outsized role on the Dodgers to start the season, sharing fourth outfielder duties with McKinstry. It was stunning to be reminded by Eric Stephen that Beaty started and batted fifth in the Dodgers’ final, do-or-die playoff game in 2019. He still has potential, but also might be the Dodger most vulnerable to demotion. With no minor-league games for another month, switch-hitting catcher Keibert Ruiz and right-handed outfielder D.J. Peters are mostly killing time.
- A.J. Pollock was the opposite of Hernández in 2020, putting together an outstanding 2020 regular season before (for the second year in a row) disappearing in the playoffs. As Pollock moves into his age-33 season, left field looks like the most vulernable position for the Dodgers, the one to have the most skepticism about. (Joc Pederson’s loss might be felt more than that of Hernández.) My small hope for the Dodgers is that Gavin Lux will hit well enough for the left fielder to bat eighth in the lineup.
- Gavin Lux will hit well enough for the left fielder to bat eighth in the lineup.
- At age 36, Justin Turner still has only three career homers before May 1 (not that 2020 helped). A lot of people might point to his weight loss if he gets off to a slow start in 2021, but Turner’s best months might be in the summer at any sveltitude.
- Last year, Edwin Ríos hit twice as many homers as Turner in half the plate appearances and could do the same in 2021. (Ríos had four walks and five singles compared with six doubles and eight homers — he was more likely to go from the batter’s box to second base than to first.) But assuming pitchers now have a book on him, how easily with Ríos counter-adjust?
- In a way, you could ask the same questions about Max Muncy. Last year, Muncy matched the highest OPS+ in NL history for a hitter with a sub-.200 batting average. There’s no doubt he’ll get his walks and homers, but will he match the productivity inside those margins in the 2021 regular season the way he did in the 2020 playoffs (.904 OPS)?
- Imagine: Chris Taylor had the same OBP as Mookie Betts last year, but he doesn’t have a regular position to start 2021. Still, as the lone right-handed batter off the bench (aside from the catchers) with the ability to play at least six positions — first base awaits — he should have no trouble finding playing time. Last year, the only Dodger to play in more games than Taylor was Muncy.
- Just stay healthy, Mookie. Just stay healthy.
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