Vegas Believes in the Dodgers and You Should Too.

As we begin 2019, the sport representing fall, shorter days and the cold makes way for the sport representing spring, sunny days and the heat. While much of Los Angeles’s sports media (rightfully) is zeroed in on the Rams bid for the Super Bowl and LeBron James’s uncharacteristic injury, baseball season is closer than we realize.

Las Vegas is well aware of this and that explains why Caesars Entertainment has already released their 2019 over/under lines for every MLB team. Despite the slow offseason that has seen talented players leave the Dodgers, Vegas has set the Dodgers projected win total at 95, leading the pack in the National League. Most Dodgers fans are feeling pessimistic right now due to the fact their favorite team has failed to add any star power. Nevertheless, Vegas believes this team is the National League’s best, so do I and so should you.

The offseason is still very much underway, however

We are sitting here, less than two weeks away from finding out who is going to hoist football’s most prestigious trophy and two of MLB’s most influential, generational, talents remain unsigned, giving the impression that the offseason is still just getting underway. The Los Angeles Dodgers and the many that are from the same school of thought are responsible for this phenomenon.

Since Andrew Friedman took over as President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers back in 2014, there have been more offseasons of conservatism and attempting to slash payroll than lavish winters of luxurious indulgence. In fact, the only offseason that included significant contractual commitments was during the winter of 2016-2017, and all significant contracts signed were just new deals for players who were already on the team. Other than that, Friedman and company have not offered any man a guaranteed contract more than four years in length.

Despite not only irritating fans through refusing star players due to the contractual obligations that come with it, the front office has let impact players such as Zack Greinke, Hanley Ramirez and Brandon Morrow walk onto the rosters of other teams. However, the Dodgers have not missed a step in the absence of stars like these players. In fact, the most success this team has seen the last 30 years has been the last two years, in spite of quiet, low key offseasons.

Take a look on Twitter, watch segments on sports networks, read articles and they will tell you that the Dodgers are moving backward. Fans and pundits, upset and surprised at the approach of the Dodgers, are ignoring the successful approach of utilizing analytics to improve on field results. The Athletics, Braves, Rays and Brewers were all in the bottom third of teams in terms of MLB payroll. Every one of those teams was a legitimate World Series contender. The Giants, Nationals, Angels, Blue Jays, Cardinals and Mets were all top ten teams in terms of payroll, none of them made it to the postseason. What am I saying? Dodgers fans, calm down. Winning the offseason does not correlate with winning in the regular season. In fact, many instances have indicated that “winning” the offseason correlates with losing for the future.

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.

Think about the priciest free agents to hit the open market in recent years. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton are the first ones that come to mind. Both signed with the Angels in consecutive years. The Angels have not won a single postseason game in nearly 10 years. Due to baseball’s nature of randomness and variability, committing such a large chunk of the payroll to one person often fails for a multitude of reasons.

It is a well known fact that around age 30, MLB players slow in production, become less efficient and ultimately become financial liabilities instead of assets. Albert Pujols was the best offensive player in baseball for 10 years, many would assume that pairing him with the best player in baseball would result in postseason appearances at the very least. The reality is that paying someone for the player they once were constrains a team not only because they are unable to pay other valuable players to better the team but the team is also paying someone far more than their actual value.

Aside from that, baseball is simply a different sport, built on a different foundation from the other major team sports worldwide. Last year, LeBron James averaged over a quarter of the Cleveland Cavaliers points per game. As a result, his departure resulted in Cleveland slipping from a championship contender to a near lock for the first pick in the NBA draft. In basketball, one player can all but carry a team on their shoulders due to the fact their is no limit on the opportunities they are allowed. In the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans went from being two of the league’s worst teams to being playoff teams. Why? Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson, the team’s respective quarterbacks, returned this season, a pair of elite quarterback talents. In football, the quarterback touches the ball on every offensive possession (unless you’re the New Orleans Saints), allowing them to have such an impact on each game, themselves.

In baseball however, it is illegal to bat out of order. A team cannot just place up to bat whoever they want, whenever they want. If the home team is down in the final inning with 7-8-9 due up, their only option is to pinch hit players who are often not any better than the starters. In baseball, the fielding team has no idea where each individual ball will be hit. A team’s best fielder may not have the ball hit his way once during a game, while the worst fielder may see much of the action. Due to this variability, it is impossible for one great player to carry much of the load and lead the team by himself. Instead of committing large portions of money toward an individual player, many teams have become wise to the reality that it is effective to possess financial flexibility and in doing so, spreading across the money to multiple moderately talented and good players will increase their chances to produce as a team, as opposed to hoping that one or two individuals will carry the team’s lineup.

Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.

Anybody who watched the Dodgers 2018 season from June until the World Series were well aware that the team’s talent was that of an elite class. The pythagorean expectation for a team’s regular season record is a statistical formula that is a staple of MLB’s modern sabermetrical evaluation of players and teams. Despite only winning 92 regular season contests, the Dodgers pythagorean expectation in 2018 was 10 games better, with a 102-61 record. The first two months of the 2018 season were quite a test for the Dodgers, as they were 10 games under .500 on May 16th. This was largely due to injuries to key figures such as Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen (who never seemed completely healthy), Clayton Kershaw and essentially everybody who was in the starting rotation. Although injuries always loom as a possibility, the Dodgers beginning the season in 2019 with the predicted roster of health will lead to them looking awfully more like the team from the summer unlike the team early in spring.

The losses to the roster do not benefit the Dodgers as of right now. Yasiel Puig is a gifted outfielder with baseball’s best arm coupled with power and speed, Manny Machado is one of baseball’s elite right handed hitters with gold glove potential, it is not simple to find catchers with as much offensive upside as Yasmani Grandal. Matt Kemp carried the Dodgers through the first half of the season and Alex Wood is another arm, as we all know in baseball, you can never have enough pitching. Despite the impact these players have, the Dodgers are still the favorites of not just their own division but the entire National League.

After being traded by the Baltimore Orioles, Manny Machado slid into the role of everyday shortstop (with occasional action at third base). It does not take a rocket scientist to see that his offensive production slipped significantly after joining the Dodgers. His .963 OPS slid to .825, which is not bad but it is far from elite. Enter Corey Seager, the sidelined shortstop whom Machado filled the shoes of. Seager’s two full years of MLB action have been nothing short of spectacular, as he carries an OPS of .866 (better than Machado’s as a Dodger) and a WAR of 13.7. Due to the fact he does not receive much media time and never finds himself at the center of controversies, Seager is often forgotten about during the discussion of MLB’s best young players, not only by fans of the game but even Dodgers fans. In his two full seasons, Seager has boasted borderline MVP level statistics. He is really good, he will be healthy come spring, the Dodgers HAVE an elite shortstop.

Yasiel Puig is a six year MLB veteran who is 28, yet we speak about him like he is a rookie. Phrases like “raw power” and “potential” are commonly used in conversations about Yasiel Puig. The reality is that after Puig’s second season, he never progressed the way he was expected to. Off the field and club house issues plagued Puig for years, prompting the team to send him to the minor leagues in 2016. Despite solid campaigns in both 2017 and 2018, Puig found himself as a platoon player much of the time due to his struggles against left handed pitching. Puig had one year left on his contract with the Dodgers and he was not going to sign a new contract with Los Angeles. As difficult as it may be for fans to understand, this was the best thing for the front office to do. In return the Dodgers acquired not only financial flexibility but also two very talented young players. Yasiel Puig was enigmatic, exciting, lovable and sometimes even clutch but he was no longer a fit with the Dodgers.

Catching has generally been accepted as the most difficult position in baseball. Luckily, the Dodgers have not one, not two but three catchers in their farm system who are projected to be stars in the MLB. Two of them, Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith, are just about ready to take the reins as MLB starters and the other, Diego Cartaya, is a 17 year old and top international prospect. Although many are baffled by Grandal’s one year contract with the Brewers, he was reported to have rejected a 4 year offer from the Mets. Even if the Dodgers were to irresponsibly offer Grandal more years than Milwaukee, there is always the possibility that Yasmani simply did not want to be in Los Angeles any longer.

As it stands right now, the Dodgers roster is roughly the same as the one in 2018. Corey Seager offsets the loss of Machado, the minor league system (which has produced nothing but quality MLB talent for quite a while now) is about to produce more Major League ready talent and the National League West has three teams in the midst of a rebuild with a fourth stuck between contention and mediocrity. The Dodgers are in position to win a lot of games in 2019, do not be fooled by the quiet offseason.